A Fast Circumnavigation of Vishnu Temple

In February of 2012 I tackled a challenging circumnavigation of Vishnu Temple with Mr. William Petty. William is the man that went from the Nankoweap trailhead to the South Kaibab trailhead in less than three days! He knows this part of the Canyon as well as anyone, and directly led me through a series of routes at an impressive pace without any wandering or backtracking. It was truly a beautiful thing to steadily flow through the labyrinths of such a wonderful part of the Canyon with such ease. Everything went along smoothly, and was quite perfect on this trip – such a rare thing in itself. Here’s the basic itinerary:

Day 1 – South Rim to Vishnu Creek via the Angels/Wotans saddle
Day 2 – Vishnu Creek to Unkar Delta via the Vishnu/Freya saddle
Day 3 – Unkar Delta to Vishnu Creek via the Tabernacle and Asbestos Creek
Day 4 – Vishnu Creek to the South Rim through the mouth of Clear Creek

Many of the routes we used on this trip are covered in Grand Canyon Loop Hikes, by George Steck,

Day 1 – South Rim to Vishnu Creek via the Angels/Wotans saddle

We’d originally been planning on a 4am or 5am start to ensure that we’d get to Vishnu Creek before dark, but ultimately pushed it back to six o’clock in favor of getting a little more sleep. The early morning wasn’t too cold for this time of year (January 30th).

The South Kaibab trail had a little ice in the chimney, but nothing that required crampons. We shared the trail only with a train of pack mules. They were invisible and used no lights, so their sounds chased us like ghosts in the dark. We tried to stay ahead of them until they finally caught us beyond O’Neill Butte.

We started to encounter the post-Phantom-Ranch-breakfast-rush of hikers below the Redwall. Sunrise lit the familiar buttes and temples that flank Bright Angel Canyon as we descended below the Tipoff.

descending into the Inner Gorge at sunrise

We had some snacks and a quick break at Phantom before moving onto the Clear Creek Trail. There was a chill in the air and we were both still feeling a little rushed/nervous/excited at this time. We just wanted to get through these familiar trails quickly because we really wanted to avoid being stuck in the Redwall above Vishnu Creek in the dark. I had some thoughts at this time that maybe we should have started the day a little earlier than 6am.

The morning grew bright and warm with the sun in my face as we wound about the trail. I came to the definite conclusion that the Clear Creek Trail is slower and probably more uphill in the eastbound direction, and always much easier on the return to Phantom. It was shortly before noon when we reached the water at the creek. Our original estimate was that it would take 5 hours to reach Clear Creek and another 6 to reach Vishnu, so we were a little behind schedule. I hoped that Will’s estimate of 6 hours for the second half of the day was a little more conservative than our guess for the first.

Colorado River from the Clear Creek Trail

narrows in the upper east arm of Clear Creek

The mood changed as soon as we left the main branch of the creek, and the real journey was underway. The atmosphere instantly turned silent and tranquil in the east fork, and we truly settled in for the hike. We made steady work of the Tapeats break out of the creek, and on up through the left side of the wash that goes to the Angels Gate / Wotans Throne saddle. I admired the view of Zoroaster and Brahma from this area, and we rested before going up the Redwall.

This Redwall route had been one of my main concerns before the trip. I’d seen a picture of it that didn’t look too friendly, with some potentially sketchy climbing and a loose, agave-ridden traverse. In reality everything seemed to be quite solid, and the climb was a relative breeze. We stayed primarily to the left side. Will offered some of his favorite trail snack (Peanut M&M’s) immediately before the climb, insisting that it improves concentration for the tricky stuff, and makes it go by easier. Maybe he’s on to something.

the Redwall Route

It was a great relief and accomplishing feeling to be on that saddle! I’d looked at Angels Gate and Wotans Throne so many times from so many different angles, and now we were right there in the middle of it. Better yet, we’d made good time to this point and could afford to relax a little. The view from the saddle of these two peaks was a little disappointing, but the views as we contoured along the Redwall rim to the east more than made up for it. Angels Gate became clear, and Brahma Temple and then Deva Temple peaked through the saddle from where we came. Coronado Butte and Sinking Ship clearly showed themselves along the South Rim… their presence would become a constant through the majority of the trip.

Angels Gate

Eventually we were facing Hall Butte and making our way down the Redwall break to Vishnu Creek. The initial Redwall descent was easy, but the hardest part of the day proved to be the last. The terrain was very steep, awkward and loose all the way through the Muav and Bright Angel shale. Each and every step was unsure, as most sent a few rocks tumbling away below us. These factors were compounded by our growing weariness and dulled state at the time. We stayed high and south for a distance before making a steady descent to the creek.

descending to Vishnu Creek

The evening light shines on Vishnu Temple.

Will led us to a good, scenic spring in a side drainage of Vishnu Creek, and then on to a wonderful campsite below a Tapeats overhang. This was right around sunset. The scene was utterly silent and secluded, and the stars shone clear and bright despite a waxing, almost-half moon. I was worn but not too exhausted after this hard first day, and ready for more.

Day 2 – Vishnu Creek to Unkar Delta via the Vishnu/Freya saddle

We’d agreed that this would be the “easy day” of the hike, and didn’t start walking until 8am. The first steps in the bed of Vishnu Creek were quite narrow and beautiful, but soon the horizons widened into the more open terrain above. It would be interesting to explore downstream in Vishnu Creek sometime – Grapevine’s more secluded neighbor to the north.

in Vishnu Creek

It was a peaceful morning’s hike as we made our way upstream toward the Vishnu Temple/Freya Castle saddle. The setting was quite mellow, and had the mood of a lazy Saturday childhood morning in the outdoors (Although I think it was Tuesday). One of the Redwall arms to the left had a particularly spiky, dramatic appearance. At one time I looked in that direction and there was Wotans Throne, right there, high and above.

Wotans Throne

Will led the way up a steep slope, to the left of the true Redwall break. I was feeling a little worn and slow from yesterday, but we went up this at an easy pace so it wasn’t difficult. Steep slopes like this are often much less daunting than they appear from below. Once at the foot of the Redwall, we contoured to the right – over to the true break. The way up the throat of the route was narrow and boulder-y for a time, but never scary, qualifying as great fun. It opened up near the saddle, and as usual, Will showed the way up the path of least resistance – up the slopes to the right. We took a pleasant rest about halfway up the Redwall, and again had a well-earned rest on the saddle.

in the Redwall

The peak of Vishnu Temple was visible from there at the saddle, but the view of it wasn’t very dramatic, as it was obscured by the lower cliffs and sun shining directly behind it. Freya Castle looked okay from this perspective too.

For a little fun and amusement, Will asked me to lead the way down the other side of the Redwall. I quickly discovered the reason for this, as the way forward appeared to be blocked by two or three pour-offs that weren’t manageable without a rappel or Spiderman-like down-climbing ability. It’s a perfect optical illusion, as the true route lies along the far wall to the right, where there appears to be no possible way at all.

When Will used the phrase “optical illusion,” I immediately thought of the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, with the invisible long, narrow bridge. Adventurous fun. Much of the beauty of this trip is that in all of this vast Canyon, much of our way relied upon these relatively microscopic routes for the whole thing to go through.

descending the optical illusion route toward Unkar Creek

Will described the descent from here to the bed of upper Unkar Creek as “intimate,” and I couldn’t say it better myself. This corner of the Canyon is truly tucked away below Cape Royal, and had the perception of the being the most distant area that we’d reach from the trailhead. We mostly stayed in the bed of the wash through here, with the exception of a bypass on creek-right around a high pour-off in the Tapeats. From this area we had our first clear views of Comanche Point and the Palisades of the Desert.

Once in the main bed of Unkar Creek, it was a long but simple walk down to the Delta, our planned destination of the day. This walk down Unkar was truly easy and delightful. The terrain was wide and flat, and obstacles were non-existent. It was especially pretty through here in the late afternoon, and I found myself pausing often for photos. The deep-red, tilted rocks of the Supergroup made a first appearance, and the Desert View Tower, Escalante Butte, and Cardenas Butte were often in plain sight. I looked back at one time to see Vishnu Temple rise out of obscurity behind us. The outcropping of the South Rim that’s flanked by Papago and Pinal Points also appeared dramatic from this part of the Canyon.

Indian Ruins at the Unkar Delta

Near the Delta we discovered a large natural window away in the distance, in the Coconino or Kaibab of the North Rim. It took a few moments us to realize that we were looking up at Angels Window near Cape Royal on the North Rim.

We poked around the ruins at Unkar Delta for a short time before settling into a camp along the river to the west. At our camp Will discovered an old-looking inscription that read “J. HA” Naturally “Jay-Ha!” became the phrase of choice for the evening and into the next morning, though the inscription was very interesting. Our first and only thought was that it may have been John Hance… as though he were here with a companion, and his buddy was like “C’mon John, hurry up! We’ve gotta go, there’s no time for you to be carving your name everywhere!”

All day long, Will had been saying that this was one of his less-desirable campsites because of the loud, cold, windy Colorado River, but I found it to be a very pleasant evening. We arrived in camp early with plenty of time to kill before sunset, after only about an eight-and-a-half hour day of hiking. I looked across to where the Unkar Overlook should be, but couldn’t locate it with any certainty. The River glowed in brilliant shades of red and orange.

Day 3 – Unkar Delta to Vishnu Creek via the Tabernacle and Asbestos Creek

The third day began with a wake-up call amid total darkness so we could be on the move at first light. Our destination for the day was to return to Vishnu Creek.

We picked our way along the river as the initial way forward, toward a place that the river-runners call Rattlesnake Beach. At times I would look across to the opposite bank and think about how Colin Fletcher made his way through there on his Walk Through Time, when the water level was historically low.

pre-dawn hiking along the River

From the Rattlesnake Beach there was a nice trail that led up to the Tabernacle. We were treated to see the first light of sunrise shine on the Redwall. The first light also came to the east face of Coronado Butte, appearing downstream directly above the river corridor.

We made steady progress up the Tabernacle trail in the cool early air. We kept a steady pace that we could maintain without rest stops. I was feeling good after our “easy day” yesterday, and I think Will was too. The trail made for the first drawn-out ascent of the trip that could be maintained at a steady burn, following the grandiose crest of a ridge in this wide, colorful part of the Canyon. The smooth slopes were a sight to behold in the early light.

The trail picked its way through some large, tumbled Tapeats blocks. We turned off of the trail to go around the north side of The Tabernacle… and on to its summit. It was my 16th Grand Canyon peak. The view was nothing short of amazing, with a whole lot of the Canyon in sight from here. Solomon Temple was especially impressive from this vantage point. At times in the past I wondered if I’d ever be on foot in this corner of the Canyon, and this summit was very satisfying in the notion that it amplified the sensation that I was finally here.

Will ascends the Tabernacle

on the summit

We took the first steps of what would be a lot more contouring to come – around a nameless side canyon that offered a fantastic view directly across the river into Red Canyon. Then it was around Sheba Temple to be greeted by the sight of Asbestos Canyon, and a first clear, dramatic view of Vishnu Temple – right in front of us to the north. The break into Asbestos Canyon was steep and a little brushy, but straightforward with some colorful rock. There was the exception of a detour to the foot of the Tapeats along a slope to the left.

Vishnu Temple

entering Asbestos Creek

We had the most amazing lunch break! There was a cache of canned food items that Will buried here a few years ago… buried treasure! The bounty included a can of chili, a can of corned beef hash, a can of salmon, a can of pickled ham (That went well with my pretzels), and a few ounces of some mysterious clear liquid. We ate every last glorious bite directly from the cans, except for the chili, which we took the time to heat up. The corned beef hash ironically had an expiration date of January 2012(Last month). The chili expired some time in 2009… oh well, it was delicious. This break lasted for over an hour, and it was a rare and beautiful, beautiful thing to satisfy the “hiker hunger” at midday.

…and the mysterious clear liquid? Tequila! Good Tequila!

We descended to the bed of Asbestos Creek, and directly to John Hance’s old camp. It contained a number of interesting historic items. Will explained that the mines themselves are farther down the canyon, as well as some good construction of a trail that Hance wanted to build to join Clear Creek. We collected water from a small, skinny puddle where it reliably comes to the surface in winter.

Hance’s old stuff

The way out of Asbestos Creek was along a fault line almost directly across the canyon from where we entered it. This was an obvious route that was mostly just a steep slope of loose rock. As I was on my way up this slope I came upon a small rattlesnake! It was directly in the path where I wanted to step – curled up in a defensive position with an almost undetectable shaking of its tail. It was surprising to see one at this time of year, but Will was ahead of me, and I suppose he stirred it up from a slumber.

Up at the Tonto level, Vishnu Temple again showed clear and dramatic to the north. There were some clouds and cooler temperatures this evening, which we saw as a blessing as we contoured to the saddle north of Newberry Butte. To stand on the saddle was a rewarding position, as we looked down upon the familiar ground of Vishnu Creek, our evening’s destination. The Redwall descent of Day One clearly showed opposite the canyon, with a clear look up at Wotans Throne, as well as Newberry Butte itself directly to the south.

on the saddle

the break into Vishnu

Rather than descend immediately off the saddle, Will led the way along an easier route to the north that eventually dropped along a simple ridge to the creek. For a guy that forgot to bring a wristwatch, Will was awfully obsessed with time on this hike. “What time is it? What time is it?”

He was constantly making calculations, and asking me if I remembered what time we left such and such place. It was often not the least bit difficult for me to imagine that I was being guided by Mr. Harvey Butchart himself. The monitoring and gauging of time and distance was a necessity of such a speedily ambitious hike, and I’m glad that Will was constantly on top of the calculations.

The break into Vishnu Creek itself was brief and somewhat relaxed, and I think I remember staying toward the left. In the main bed we passed near the traditional Vishnu Camp, and proceeded almost directly cross-canyon, up the drainage that leads straight to the scenic spring. It was such a relief to arrive here much earlier than we’d expected, a few minutes before 4:30… more than an hour before sunset. We had time to kill and relax before the final big day.

up the “spring arm” of Vishnu Creek

A final night’s camp always has a celebratory quality to it. We were delighted at how well our plans had unfolded to this point – smooth and quite perfect. Will pointed out some planets, stars, and constellations. Likely the biggest day of the trip was ahead of us tomorrow, ending with a long march up the South Kaibab Trail that likely wouldn’t be over until midnight. Of course there was speculation about what time the services in Tusayan would close (McDonald’s) for a post-hike meal, as well as wondering if we’d reach Phantom Ranch at a time that we get could get some food there as well. Tonight we enjoyed a delicious final dinner of Mountain House Lasagna, with a liberal addition of olive oil.

…and then there was the Tequila! Good Tequila!

Day 4 – Vishnu Creek to the South Rim through the mouth of Clear Creek

We were packed and moving at first light (7am) on this final day, refreshed with the lighter backpacks of a dwindled food supply and the motivation of civilization. Will’s description of the contouring along the west side of Vishnu Creek hadn’t sounded too pleasant, but it went well, without the least bit of frustration before dawn. The first rays of sunrise shined magnificently on the Coconino and Kaibab of the South Rim, and on to the Redwall and Supai right in front of us. The vastness that’s Grapevine Creek to the south didn’t look so vast after all from this side, distinguishable mostly by its large sort of basin along the rim, and distinct thumb-formation above the west side of its mouth.

Will led the way through a shortcut across the large side canyon that I think is referred to as Disappointment. From the bed of it there was a strikingly golden view of a face of Wotans Throne.

Reaching the far side of Disappointment meant that we had a few hours of contouring ahead of us. Around the bend below Hawkins Butte there was a clear, distant view to the west, featuring the Tower of Set and far off, unrecognizable views of the rims farther to the west. O’Neill Butte even showed itself for a brief time. I was often analyzing the features of South Rim, clearly picking out Horseshoe Mesa yesterday. It’s surprising how indistinguishable many of the familiar sights of the South Rim are from these vantage points.

Zoroaster and Brahma suddenly rose out of the near horizon as we approached a crest on the east side of 83-Mile Canyon. Shiva, Isis, and Cheops came into view as we descended toward the side-canyon. Some white puffy clouds that almost resembled the monsoons of summer began to take shape. We contoured around the east arm of 83-Mile, though Will pointed out a George Steck shortcut-route down a crazy chimney.

above 83-mile

Angels Gate suddenly showed itself right there in front of my face, clear and colorful and beautiful, as we wound around to the west arm. The sight of it brought the scope of this loop full-circle to me.

We dove down Will’s route into the west arm of Eightythree Mile, and continued downstream for a distance until there was water. After a bit of a rest there, we ascended above the creekbed to the foot of the Tapeats, and began following it to the west. When the route was first described to me, I imagined an easy contour along the base of the cliff, similar to working one’s way below Plateau Point. Instead it involved some steep side-hill-walking on a loose and perceptively precarious slope.

A condor glided before us through the Inner Gorge. Will said it’s the second time he’s seen a condor through this area. Maybe they have a nest in here somewhere. We arrived at a scenic campsite tucked away in the shelter of some large Tapeats blocks, and took a true rest. Things were going swimmingly and we were in high spirits.

a precarious slope below the Tapeats

That all changed when we rounded the corner. A storm had blown in from the north, and there was rain and/or snow falling in the upper drainages of Clear Creek. Our route ahead was to take Steck’s shortcut across the mouth of the Clear Creek, involving going through its lower narrows.

There was some brief discussion as to whether or not we should continue on this route. The other option was to be very conservative by contouring along the much longer way around Clear Creek, above the east side of the canyon. I took the position of forging ahead down into the narrows, because I doubted the likelihood of a flood in winter, especially considering the rapidly cooling temperature. I wanted to experience this route, and the delay of the much longer way around didn’t sound too desirable either. Will seemed to agree, and we did indeed forge on ahead, though there was a sudden fear and anxiety in the air.

We dropped through a ravine that goes steeply down to the beach at Clear Creek, with a hurried pace. The sun hid away behind the overcast sky, and a perpetual gloom set in. The temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and drops of rain began to fall – way down here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The fear and anxiety rose and grew heavy.

The rain was steady enough to have to put my camera away. The cold river roared beside us. We had a brief, nervous conference at the mouth of the canyon. It was decided that we would stomp up the narrows as quickly as possible, as though our lives depended on it. Stay close together. All business. We went in.

If you’ve been in the lowest part of Clear Creek, than I need not describe the gloom of a dark rain in there. The almost-black, sheer walls rise up primordially like the bowels of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. We immersed our feet in the icy water time and time again. My eyes constantly looked upstream. It was impossible not to imagine a wall of rushing-debris-sludge-death around every turn. Sometimes I’d hear a dull roar, relieved to see a small waterfall around a corner. I’d often scan for escape routes – soon their were none – complete commitment.

We reached the sideways waterfall in what must have been record time. There’s a slippery climb here that may qualify as the crux of the entire trip. It’s even slippery when dry, and now the rock was soaked. The one time I came to this spot in the past, I looked at the down-climb from above, turned around, and called it a day.

Will began to go up first. He paused part-way, assessing the holds. He glanced upstream not once, but twice. It was strangely reassuring, to see that he was under the same nervous spell of fear as me. Close to him at the crux, he said that the following step is all arm strength up the wet slick smooth rock. Both his feet slipped. He held on with only two arms for a moment. I pointed out an invisible foothold. He made it okay. I went up okay, mimicking his technique.

Another fifty yards beyond the waterfall, and we were out of flood danger… what a relief! We took a break and had some therapeutic laughs. Will revealed that he’d always had a certain dread and apprehension of having to climb the sideways waterfall when the rock was wet. I’d never had the guts to even attempt it on a previous visit myself.

We were now sitting at the foot of a route out of the creek. The nature of the start of a break was clear above, and I followed Will up a solid rock route that goes through much of it, rather than getting in the loose brushy stuff to the left. It was steep with a little hand-and-toe work, but solid and comfortable. At the foot of some sheer cliffs at the top, he went sideways along a ridge to the right, pointing out that this is a key to the route. Once again, the intricacy of these relatively microscopic ways through the Canyon shows itself.

up out of Clear Creek

Check out the perspective on the distinct “island” above the mouth of the canyon.

The foul weather moved away to the south, and showed definite signs of clearing. It was an awesome and glorious sight, especially at this time – so close to hitting the pay dirt of real trail. Now in a high, clear area, we went to the foot of the Tapeats at the mouth of Zoroaster Canyon. The skies were a thing of beauty as the storm continued to pass away.

Zoroaster Canyon itself was pleasingly pretty. We came to water, and took a final rest break before the short route up to the home-free Clear Creek Trail. Spirits again were high, relieved, and celebratory… most likely because we now estimated that we could reach the rim at or before 10pm, with a good chance of catching a hot meal in Tusayan. I was thrilled with the photographic beauty and drama of the weather. We already looked back wistfully at the Clear Creek narrows as an exciting climax of the entire hike.

in Zoroaster Canyon

There was a small climb up the Tapeats, and then there we were on the Tonto, near a prominent rock that Will said looks like a baby elephant. In a moment we hit the trail. It was a wonderful feeling to stretch out our legs, and we took off like birds released from a cage.

I don’t think a word was spoken until we reached Sumner Wash, where it looks directly up at Zoroaster Temple above. “You know,” I said, “I have two friends that have ridden on elephants in Thailand on separate occasions.”

“Funny,” Will said, “I was just thinking about elephants too.”

A cloud had partially obscured the peak of the Temple. A moment later I saw that the moon had come up, just visible at the cusp of an edge of the cloud.

“Hey, look at the moon!”

We reached Phantom Ranch at about 5:15pm, and ended up staying there for almost an hour. We ate all the food left in our packs, and managed to buy some more provisions through the side window while they were closed for dinner service.

We were quite chilled and cold by the time we were moving again at 6:15. Anxious to start up a burn to create body heat, we passed Alan Sjors without the slightest pause for conversation. Up through the Schist and we were stripping layers, admiring the view of the Inner Gorge across the Canyon in the moonlight. The moon was so bright and wonderful, in fact, that we managed to go all the way through the Redwall and nearly to the O’Neill saddle without using our headlamps. Beautiful. Fortunately there was no wind. We came upon some fresh snow in the Supai, but it was never especially deep.

It was awfully chilly near the top, but our steady (Though weary) pace warded away the deepest cold. I paused to add a layer and inhale half of a king-sized Snickers below Cedar Ridge.

In the chimney, only minutes from the rim, I said “By the way, the heater in my car doesn’t work.”

…dramatic pause…

“Haha, just kidding, it works great!”

We were on the rim at 9:30.

McDonald’s at 9:50.

It didn’t close until eleven.


  1. David Rickly says:

    Just blown away at the commentary, the photos….thanks for sharing your eye. This sounds incredible.

  2. Hey Jamie, planning an under the rim hike from lee’s to pierce. Any chance you would get in touch about the route across disappointment, into clear and out zoroaster? It would be sweet to see some dots on a map and save a little time instead of taking the Wotan’s/Angel saddle

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