Grand Canyon-The Hard Way-The Hance Trail 1884

hance“Captain” John Hance was reputedly the Canyon’s first non-Native American resident.  He built a cabin east of Grandview Point at the trailhead of an ancient Native American trail he improved to allow access to his asbestos mining claim in the Canyon. He started giving tours of the canyon after his attempts at mining asbestos failed, largely due to the expense of removing the asbestos from the canyon. 

The trail, completed in 1884 and commonly called the Old Hance Trail by historians, was to become Grand Canyon’s first tourist trail, as Hance quickly realized there was money to be made guiding wide-eyed tourists into the depths of the Canyon.

 I love this. This is what makes America great. Hance abandoned mining for tourism in the mid-1880s. To me that’s just a man seeing a way to make money, supplying a product others want, a product that is born out of his life and his skill and his hard work.

 Hance delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (a dirt pile now known as the San Francisco Peaks). 

I exchanged emails with a man who works at Grand Canyon National Park and does re-enactments of John Hance’s tall tales. I asked him if any of those tales were written down and he directed me to one recording of a tale similar to one John Hance told. But Hance never told the same story, the same way, twice and he never wrote any of them down, so only oral history survives. Despite his many outrageous claims, Hance left a lasting legacy at the Grand Canyon,  passing away in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park.  Hance was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.

The trail John Hance found still exists. It’s listed as unmaintained and in poor condition. A Falcon Guidebook, Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, calls it a vigorous rim-to-rim backpack of three or more days—the South Rim’s most difficult trail. One man, an Hance Rooseveltexperience back country hiker said that even having been over the trail before, the time he took the trail with it in mind to report on it, he got lost five different times-by lost I mean he realized he’d gotten off the trail and had to backtrack to find it. There are miles with no discernable trail. I also, just because research is maddening, found this account of the Hance Trail.

The New Hance descends into Red Canyon (a side canyon of the Grand) and arrives at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River. Although the New Hance is a secondary trail, it is well marked and easy to follow. Note that this is really HusbandTree smdifferent than the other report. So what is the truth? Ah, research! Such fun.

One picture I found showed people rock climbing down a stretch of rock face, so that seems pretty challenging to me but when you think back to those days, it was probably a wonder to even find a way down. No state roads department was in there clearing it and paving it.

So, has anyone been there? Have any of you gone down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Anyone spent the night at Phantom Ranch or taken the burro ride? If so, you have my deepest respect because this is a truly rugged place.

Tell me about it if you were down there.

 Mary Connealy

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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

32 thoughts on “Grand Canyon-The Hard Way-The Hance Trail 1884”

  1. Hi Mary! I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, but we only stood on the rim. I’d love to go back and do some real exploring. What I remember most is how DEEP it is. Loved the part about Hance telling he people he dug it : )

  2. Thanks for a great blog, Mary. I didn’t know about Hance or his trail, but a few years ago I rafted from Lee’s ferry to Phantom Ranch and hiked out to the South Rim from there. The canyon was amazingly beautiful, and so much history. But the hike was just a killer. Took me about 8 hours. In September it was 108 degrees at the bottom. Higher up it was cooler but steep and exhausting. People who can’t make it can call up to the rim and get a mule ride out. I made it, but I’ve never been so tired and dirty in my life.

  3. What a great post Mary! I enjoyed reading about Hance and his trail. I never knew about that, so I learned something new about the Grand Canyon. I was at the Grand Canyon in 2001 but only stood on the rim and look down into the canyon. Wanted to do the trail ride on the mules but found out at the time you had to reserve a year in advance to do it. Hopefully I will get a chance to go back and do some exploring of the Grand Canyon.

  4. Fun post, Mary. My husband and I visited the Grand Canyon on our honeymoon and hiked a couple miles in. We didn’t go all the way to the bottom, just part of the way. This was in June and we had light showers that sprinkled us as we walked. The red dust was still everywhere, though. My husband had worn a pair of canvass tennis shoes, and they were solid red by the time we hiked out. No amount of washing could salvage them. I’d like to take the kids there one of these days. It’s truly one of God’s marvels.

  5. Good morning. That more I read about the Grand Canyon the more I wanted to go down there. I just fear it would be impossible.
    Elizabeth, you’ve helped convince me. I think I”m past the “eight mile hike in 108 degree weather” stage of my life.

    I might have been past it in my twenties.
    You know, I might have never been IN that phase.

    Becky, I did the same as you. We went there, stood on the rim for a long time just staring, then left. We couldn’t stay at the lodge…reserved a year in advance.
    Same with the burro rides.
    You’ve apparently got to plan ahead big time to go down there or even stay there. Of course this was years ago. For all I know they’ve got eight hotels out there now. (No, I think that would have come up in my reading)

  6. Mary,

    I lived in Payson AZ but we never got the chance to go to the Grand Canyon. A big mistake. I plan on moving back to AZ this year and one of my stops will be at the Grand Canyon

    Thnaks for bringing this to life. It was an amazing post

    Walk in harmony,

  7. Thank you for a delightful post and a fabulous blog! I had the privelege of beginning my career in the hospitality industry at the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel in 1987. I eventually transferred to the Bright Angel Transportation Desk, where – all in the name of on-the-job training – I got to take both the now defunct Plateau Point mule ride and the overnight Phantom Ranch mule ride. I also got to experience Phantom Ranch many times as a hiker. The perspective from the bottom of the Grand Canyon is just so humbling, and was even moreso when I got to take an 8-day whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. In my present line of work, I’ve gotten to the bottom of the canyon the “easy” way by helicopter at Grand Canyon West, and by safari jeep down the Diamond Creek Road. It’s something I never get tired of.

    Keep up the good work!

    P.S. Surprised to not see any articles about Grand Canyon architect Mary Jane Colter. Drop me a line if I’m missing something…

  8. Thanks for this great post, Mary!

    The Grand Canyon is one of my favorite places on earth. I camped there many times. And I HAVE been to the bottom — hiked the Bright Angel trail, and it was gruelling. Had a loaded backpack for the overnight at the bottom. You’d think it would be easy going down — gravity and all. But keeping your “brakes” on while managing the many switchback turns isn’t easy after the miles add up, leading to blisters under the socks and strong, ankle-height hiking boots.

    It was proper protocol to step aside, pressed against the canyon wall, as the strings of mules trod past us, bearing their riders and/or supplies for the Phantom Ranch at the canyon’s base — and our destination. Quite fascinating to watch these big, magnificent, athletic animals! And no less fascinating watching the goggle-eyed expressions of their riders as they peered over the edge of the trail to an abyss below!

    At the bottom, the temperature was over a 100 degrees, considerably hotter than the canyon’s rim. But there was plenty of shade, though not much water (bring your own!) other than the river itself. Food was at a premium — can’t bring TOO much, as it was extra weight on our packs. But bringing too little can compromise your strength as you rest up and prepare for the climb back UP in the early morning. Chose wisely! And bring protein-packed, high-carb snacks for eating as you go — you’ll need the energy!

    The return hike to the top was torturous. If anybody here reads this and plans to do this arduous — but gratifying! — trail, bring hiking poles: they will be a tremendous help, even if you’re young, fit, and as healthy as the countless mules that will pass you by as you make your slow way up the trail (you WILL envy the riders!).

    Though I had a great straw sun hat, the sun beat down on my shoulders, which gave me the worst sunburn I have ever had — oozing blisters and utter misery for two days after getting to the top again. No matter how hot it is — do not bare your shoulders! And bring sunscreen! Even my knees got burned — and I’m olive complected.

    It was hard, painful, and beyond gruelling. But it is a source of great pride that I — and my then-husband — did it. We lived to tell the tale!

    If anybody here ever opts to give it a go, I recommend the Bright Angel Trail, as it does have some shady patches; the other trail to the bottom, the South Kaibab, does not. It is murderous, I have heard. And TRAIN for it! Don’t just assume you can do it without proper work outs and diet. You must train your body as any marathon-runner would. I can’t recommend this enough. Tragedy has been known to happen on the trail, with mules sent down to fetch those who suffer from injury, heat exhaustion, etc.

    Again — great post, Mary!


  9. ALLEY!!!!!!!!!!!! This is so interesting.
    I’ll look for Mary Jane Colter.
    I’m setting a book in mid-1880s so a lot of the history is very ‘word of mouth’ passed down. I do have Captain Hance make a cameo appearance in the book, just for the fun of it.

    You sound like you really know the canyon. Can you email me? mary @ I’ve got some questions.

  10. Wow, WandaSue. So interesting. Do any of you know if the Bright Angel Trail has been significantly worked on to make it passable? Hard as it is, it sounds far easier than the Hance Trail. did Hance just not find that route?

    And, really fun fact, a friend of mine who’s been down the trail to the Supai Village, which she said is much easier, said just a few years ago someone admitted they had a ‘secret trail’ down. So she said if I want to have my own ‘secret trail’ Which I did, besides the Hance Trail, she thought I could get away with it.

    My book, which is a year from release…so forget all about it. I’ll remind you…has a treasure map and a wild rumor that one of the seven lost cities of gold is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and my hero and heroine set off to follow the map…trouble ensues. 🙂

  11. Oh, and, I think I WON’T be going on that hike, WandaSue. I got a little winded just typing this blog post.
    I’ve heard even the mule/burro rides are exhausting.

    Is it open in the winter…when it’s cooler???

    Still, not going, but I wondered.

    And Alley…you took a JEEP DOWN? Now that’s a well kept secret I’d think.

    The mail to the Supai Village is still delivered by mules.

  12. I just visited the North rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time last fall. I was amazed at how big it was and the rugged beauty of it. I hope to go back and visit the south side and maybe take a helicopter ride over it.

  13. Mary, I’ve never had the fortune to go down to the floor of the canyon. I’ve only stood on top and gazed like a fool with my mouth hanging open. Next time I go there, I’m going to get to the bottom somehow. Hope it’s not by jumping. LOL This John Hance sounds like my kind of guy. He’s very colorful to say the least.

    Hope you’re having a good time in Utah.

  14. I grew up in Arizona and have been to the Canyon many times. I went one year with a painting class from NAU to paint the many colors of the Canyon. It truly is beautiful, especially in winter.

  15. Hi Mary, what a wonderful post. Whta a character Hance was.

    I confess all I did was sit at the edge of the south rim and watch the sun set. I am not much of an adventurer, but that sunset is forever etched in my memory. We actually took the train from Williams which includes a Wild West show and outlaws. It was very fun.

    But the best was the glory of nature. I also appreciated how architects tried to “naturalize” their designs.

    Thanks again.

  16. @Mary: Actually, the Inner Canyon Jeep Tours are a fairly new activity. They began running about 3 years ago, but they’ve become quite popular, especially for folks who are afraid of heights. The tours originate in Williams and go through Seligman, which is what “Radiator Springs” (from “Cars”) was based on, stop in Peach Springs for a walking tour of the Grand Canyon Caverns, then go to the bottom of the canyon via the Diamond Creek Road on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, so technically the part of the Grand Canyon you see is outside the park, but IMO it’s just a technicality – it’s still beautiful.

  17. Wow, just the picture of the trail is enough to scare me. I guess I’m a vicarious-through-others kind of adventurer. Where did you find this wonderful information? Is there a website to visit?

  18. Awesome post, Mary! I’ve been to the Grand Canyon several times on cross-country car trips–always stayed up top. Love it. Once when my boys were young, I remember stopping at Hoover Dam and then at the Grand Canyon. My question to them at the time was: So who do you think is the Master Architect? It created a great discussion.

    Oh- Just ordered the Husband Tree. Looking forward to reading it!

  19. What a wonderful post, Mary! I’m too chicken – and sedentary – to attempt the hike, but wouldn’t I love to just see the canyon! Pictures of it are so breathtaking, and John Hance sounds like quite a character.

  20. I have been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and spent the night at Phantom Ranch. 38 years ago, a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the mules was my twelfth birthday present from my parents. We first went to the Grand Canyon when I was six, and I’d been after them ever since to make the trip. The lowest age limit for the mule trips was twelve (at that time, at least), and so I had to wait six years.

    It was July, and 123 degrees in the bottom of the canyon. My mother, who had undergone gall bladder surgery (and not the kind with the bandaid scars you get nowadays) several months before, collapsed about a mile from Phantom Ranch from the heat, but she did make it the rest of the way after a brief stop, and back out the next day as well.

    I remember the trip as an incredible journey, and I remember how wonderful soaking in Bright Angel Creek was that evening (wow, was that water cold). My mother still remembers how glad she was that the cabin’s evaporative cooler worked [g]. My father’s mule’s name was Baby Doll.

    It was one of those adventures that I dated things from for quite some time. At least until we drove the Alaska Highway (1200 miles of gravel at the time) when I was fourteen [g].

    I didn’t realize until I became an adult that not everyone got to do things like that as kids. I was one incredibly lucky child.

  21. Very informative blog today. Other than photographs
    and brief information on the subject,I really don’t
    know a lot about the Grand Canyon. Looks like I will be heading for the Research Desk to fill that
    lack of information.

    Pat Cochran

  22. Mary, what an interesting blog. I would love to go one day to see the Grand Canyon. My husband was there as a child and has no desire to go so one of these days I’ll find a friend and go on my own.
    Loved ‘The Husband Tree’ and can hardly wait for the next book!

  23. We took our 3 children and aunt to the Grand Canyon in 1983. We had done a “drive by” once before. Pull to an overlook, jump out, “this is the Grand Canyon”, and away we go. The second time, we camped 2 nights on the South Rim. My aunt stayed in the camper and we took the kids – 4th grade & 6th grade girls and our 1 year old son – to hike down the trail. It was hot as usual and I couldn’t believe some people were hiking down in dress clothes. One woman passed us wearing a sundress and heels – go figure. We made it down about a mile before we had to go back. Our oldest daughter had an allergic reaction to some medication and wasn’t feeling well. I stayed with her for a slow hike back up. We would love to go back and do the Canyon fully, but we are both so out of shape, it wouldn’t be safe to hike it.
    Great post and comments. I’ll have to follow up and check out some of the things you mentioned.

  24. I had four books that I used constantly. I’m away from home and can’t tell you the titles, dang it. but one was Walking Through Time (I think) about the first man to hike the length of the Grand Canyon along the bottom.
    One was a … Not fodors, but some company like that, a book of trails. One was a book of photographs…and one was a book of pioneers who lived in and near the Grand Canyon.
    So I’d read Walking Through Time…or maybe The Man Who Walked Through Time…then he’d talk about this and that trail and give a sort of HUMAN, rather than scientific, view of what he saw. Then I cross reference his talk of trails with my trail book to see where exactly he was stuff…there is a long abandoned Indian village, very ancient…somewhere other than the Supai Village. And then I’d hunt through the book of photographs to check the words, to the trails, to the pictures.
    The pioneers I just read to get the old stories and to get impressions that weren’t influenced by modern thinking and scientific facts … to try and get the flavor of those days.
    The Man Who Walked Through Time was the best.
    I really wanted to do justice to the canyon and treat it with respect. And of course, it’s largely backdrop…though a very significant backdrop of course…to a romance novel and cowboys. 🙂

  25. Thanks for the blog, Mary! I have hiked the Grand Canyon twice, and was married at the Grand View overlook.

    Before I hiked, a friend told me the inner gorge was “intimate.” She was so right! You can’t see most of the rim, which looks like a distant mountain. Instead there is the dark, still, sunny canyon around you, more “quiet and pretty” than “grandeur.”

    The first time I hiked it I got a fever…I never travel without aspirin now! I put off so much heat the dew drenched my bag and left a mud puddle beneath the tent. My good friends helped carry the weight and I made it out. I hallucinated a few times on the trip up…kept seeing my dog! Wishful thinking, of course!

    I recommend top, light equipment even if you have to rent it, staying at Indian Gardens on the way up, using walking sticks to save your knees on the way down, and remember that time defeats distance. Go slow. Take pictures. Stick together. Get the free video from the Park Service and do what they say. And everyone’s first married sunrise should be over the Grand Canyon.

  26. I wonder if they had special shoes for this? I certainly wouldn’t want to go down in anything other than a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots!

    xoxo~ Renee

  27. Since I grew up in Arizona I’ve made the trip to the Grand Canyon many times but have never been to the bottom. I have a tee shirt that says on the front I’VE HIKED THE GRAND CANYON and on the back it says JUST KIDDING. That’s about as close to the bottom as I’m going to get. It’s an artist’s paradise…I love taking my watercolors there..each time yu paint it the colors seem to have changed due to the sun and or weather conditions. I love going there…it should be on everyone’s list of things to do.

  28. Mary, very nice blurb about John Hance. He’s a very interesting man, his storytelling sounds outrageous. I would love to read more of his stories if you have any copies from the man who re-enacts them. I lived in the Grand Canyon this past summer and hiked to the Colorado River numerous times. I did hike the New Hance Trail and it is as Falcon Guides describes it… probably the hardest trail I did in the canyon. It is very primitive and hard to follow, very unmaintained. I did the trip to the river in one day and struggled tremendously (and I’m a really fit 21 year old!). I would not suggest it to anyone who is not an experienced hiker. Stick to the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trail for any first timers!

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