Grand Canyon - Other River Trails
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE are a dozen trails down to the River from the South Rim, but the hotel talk revolves, almost exclusively, about Bright Angel and Hermit. The mule and the guide are easily obtained for these well-worn ways, but there is little enthusiasm or eagerness about a trip down Boucher or Bass or Hance Trails. The going is not so good, they are some distance from El Tovar, and, after all, the mule has his rights, that should be respected. But mules are to be had, and guides, too, if you insist. You can also get along quite unaided of either if you are so minded.
The Bass Trail is thirty-two miles to the north-west of El Tovar and can be readily reached by wagon or automobile. It is a miner's trail and much narrower and rougher than either Bright Angel or Hermit. Occasionally it goes blind or is confused with side-windings made by wild burros. In following these faint trails one should look twenty or thirty yards ahead and get the general run or trend rather than spend time over hoof-marks or discolorations of the soil.
From the Rim in front of Bass Camp the trail descends by long zigzags. You d9 not creep down them, as a fly down a diagonal crack in a wall, but walk upright as upon any other hillside path-way. It is not at all hazardous, though it may be a trifle lonesome. A thousand feet down you cross the Darwin Plateau. Carved through this rock platform is a deep gorge that causes one to stare. It is usually dry—an empty channel cut in the rock —but with a cloudburst one can easily imagine it a roaring torrent. The huge boulders in the bed, some of them weighing twenty tons or more, give suggestion of the pushing power of water. Beyond it one reaches the foot of Mt. Huethawali—a conical butte the Supai base of which spreads out and down in taluses beautifully waved and fluted. If you follow around this butte you will find it belted by drainage streams that originally cut it away from the Rim. On the River side of it a hazy trail leads off across Spencer Terrace to Fiske Butte.
The walk of a mile or more along Spencer Terrace is over flat Supai rock, pitted with round holes, where shallow catches of rain-water stand and grow green, and where more boulders weighing tons seem to have been rolled out and abandoned by a race of giants. Here and there, from thin cracks in the rock, grow grasses, two or three varieties of the maguey, yucca palms, dwarf pinyons; but there are acres and acres of the red floor where nothing at all grows. The fall of the foot upon it, the dull iron sound of it are strangely impressive. As you travel on you appear to be drifting far away from humanity, from civilization, from the modern world. The rock under you seems very ancient and yet not old enough for a livable world. Soil has not yet been ground from it; the globe is only a ball of impure metal, and the Carboniferous age has hardly begun. In spite of geological chronology you feel as though you might, by looking about you, see some monstrous lizard a hundred feet long lying at length in the sun, or some sabre-toothed tiger creeping out of a sandstone cave. It is a lonely, silent spot where not even the Pre-Adamites seem to have place.
As you go down to the extreme point of Fiske Butte overlooking the River (an ancient Canyon-lover has named it Montevideo) the loneliness suddenly turns into frightfulness. At the left, directly under your feet, is a true-enough precipice. It drops for I know not how many hundred or thou-sand feet. The thought of it makes you uncomfortable. There is another drop, at the right—another precipice. You seem to have crept out on a spur of rock into space. Over the extreme point of the spur, looking down, is the turbulent River. The roar of it, the sway of it, the reel of the great depth itself make you giddy. You back away. The view is magnificent but too aeroplanic for pleasure.
There are terraces, similar to the Spencer, at the west; and others to the east, called Huxley Terrace and Grand Scenic Divide, that afford superb out-looks upon the Inner Canyon and the buttes across the River. A great bend in the Colorado comes in just here and the character of the Canyon scenery begins to change. West of the Divide the buttes go out, the promontories grow longer, the Canyon flattens in depth and becomes somewhat less imposing in grandeur. But you are not made very conscious of this from where you stand. All the terraces within view are much alike in their rock floors, their flat reach, their precipices, and their feeling of remoteness.
The Bass Trail continues down to the River from the head of the steep canyon between the Divide and Mt. Huethawali. The descent is rapid and somewhat more exciting than at Hermit Creek but not nerve-racking. Like every trail in the Canyon it abounds in quick turns, strange surprises, astonishing walls, superb vistas. After passing down the Tonto slopes there is another quick descent to the Colorado, where at one time a suspension ferry with a cage running on a wire carried general plunder across the River. It was a part of a mining enter-prise, and of recent years has been operated only sporadically.
From the Tonto there are dim trails leading to the east and west across the slopes and around under the Red Wall. They lead on indefinitely. In fact, the whole length of the Grand Canyon can be traversed on these Tonto slopes that flatten out under the great walls. The place is not so inaccessible as it looks at first blush. You are told of two or three trails and given to understand that beyond them there are no thoroughfares. But the under-standing is misunderstanding. There are many trails that the average person can travel on mule-back, and many others where an expert climber properly shod can go with little danger. The danger lies in wearing heavily nailed boots, pigskin puttees, fashionable khaki; and in burdening one-self with water-bottles, lunch-boxes, opera-glasses, and revolvers. They are all unnecessary on a six or eight hour trip. One should dress in cotton shirt and light trousers, wear rubber sneakers in lieu of moccasins, and carry a thin eight-foot alpenstock. You are then prepared to depart from the trail, vault crevices, travel foot-sure along the edge of precipices, or creep around narrow points and ledges. As for food and water, any athlete or Indian will tell you that you can travel better without them. They are good things at the end of the trip but not at the beginning.
The only other trail (on the map) to the west of El Tovar is the Boucher, that starts in near Dripping Springs, goes down the west side of Hermit Creek, and winds around under Yuma and Cocopah Points to the River. It is a difficult trail and one that has bad spots for both man and beast. Few people go down it, so it need not be described.
To the east of El Tovar there are at least three well-known trails. The nearest is that at Grand View. In common with the other Canyon trails this one is the result of copper having been discovered under the Supai slopes. The remnants of a copper camp are still down there, and the riprapped trail still suggests the one-time burro pack-train. It is in fair condition, though little used. There are some sharp rocky descents but they are not perilous. The trail should be taken directly in front of Grand View Point. Nearly a mile back, on the road to the point, a sign indicates that the trail starts on the right of the sign. It should be disregarded. That is the head of an old trail which is now abandoned, filled with slides of stone and crisscrossed by fallen trees. It is not possible to go down it on a mule, and even afoot there are places where it leads around the edge of precipices decidedly disconcerting to the inexperienced. After a mile or more of rough travelling this old trail comes out and joins the new trail, which leads down directly from the end of Grand View Point. There is nothing gained by taking the old trail except a possible fright from worrying around steep walls.
The new trail is steep enough—much steeper than Bright Angel or Hermit. There are several descents along the walls of the Kaibab and Coconino so abrupt that discretion may suggest getting down and out of the saddle. The trail falls rapidly, turns sharply, winds under huge cliffs. Five hundred feet down a fault between the Kaibab and the Coconino makes possible the crossing of a saddle where there are not only distant views in both directions but excellent near views of the cross-bedding in the Coconino. A thousand feet under the Rim the transition from the Coconino to the Supai is not only sudden but dramatic. The trail crosses another saddle, and a view of Grand View Basin appears framed up between towering walls. The most rugged and striking scenery of the Canyon appears here. If it were not for the coloring you might fancy yourself in some pass of the Tyrol. Farther down, the trail winds along ledges of the Supai and gradually flattens out as it descends to the Horse-shoe Mesa. From thence on you are in open country, the high walls are behind you and plat-forms and terraces are ahead of you. Before reaching the mesa you pass through the old copper camp with its deserted buildings—interesting for its wrecked hopes and general air of failure rather than for its picturesqueness.
A trail runs off from the east of the camp and leads down to the River; but there is more to be seen from the points of the Horseshoe. For there one gets a sweeping view all around the circle, no matter which point is chosen for observation. Looking backward is impressive for the magnificence of the cliffs; looking north across the River to the buttes and promontories of the North Rim is just as impressive, for now you seem to see a mountain range with foot-hills—desert mountains with their splendid warmth of color. The buttes apparently pile up at the back until the Kaibab on the North Rim seems the central ridge of the range. There is a wonder of grandeur in these stepped heights reaching up into the blue of heaven. And this is only a part of the scene.
Standing on the west point of the Horseshoe one sees the lower slopes as perhaps nowhere else in the Canyon. They seem broader, flatter, more spacious than at Hermit or Bright Angel. Their curving outlines, their waving contours, their great recesses and sweeping taluses show undulations such as one seldom sees in the earth surfaces. The southern sea sometimes heaves and rolls like that, but with less length of converging lines and less variety of color. Nothing grows on the slopes but the pseudo-sage that dots the surface and perhaps emphasizes the jade look of it; but was there ever a more wonderful piece of color I It is not high in pitch; on the contrary, it is almost monotone and yet is stimulating because of the great mass of it and the splendid sweep of it. Line and color supplement each other here.
Under the west side of the Horseshoe is a lime-stone cave, a hundred or more feet in length, where one may see stalactites hanging from the was and ceiling, but it hardly calls for a visit. On the east side are tunnels and shafts of the old copper-mine, but these, too, may be profitably skipped. The world in the sunlight seems more worth while than these merely curious depths in the earth. Besides, both the cave and the mine can be seen in better examples elsewhere.
Across from the points of the Horseshoe is the wall of the Inner Canyon—the old Archaean rock. It is not less grim here than at Bright Angel. The chaos of its mixture, the dead desolation of it, the poppy purple of the coloring make it uncanny; and wonder not unmixed with apprehension goes along with each new view of it. There is a feeling of fire and fusion, as though all the beds and minerals had been stirred in a huge melting-pot and finally flung up white hot and allowed to cool as slag. And through these purple walls the pour of the swift, the red, the roaring River !
The trail winds on down the Tonto slopes of the west point, down to the water. You may not be inclined to follow it to the end. The better views are from the higher platforms. Moreover, such animal and vegetable life as exists here is seen on the upper terraces. But there is little life at best. The burro and the jack-rabbit occasionally break away through the thin brush, but the lizard and the horned toad under a rock, with the side-winder under a cactus, are the real natives of the soil. One hears the jangle of the jay in the scrub-cedars or pinyons, and at night the mournful call of the poor-will—neither of them soothing sounds. Occasionally, too, the vulture—that jackal of the air—slips across the Horse-shoe, exciting wonder for his masterful sailing, and at evening bats and owls come out of the caves seeking what they may devour. But none of the crew could be accounted pleasant company. All life down here is a bit savage or gruesome. And by the same token the lower slopes are weirdly wonderful in form and color but not places for a long stay. One gets back to the Rim, where the cliff-rose is blooming, where the smell of the yellow pine is on the breeze and the note of the robin in the air, with a feeling of relief.
To the east of Grand View about two miles is the old Hance Ranche, and a mile or more farther east one strikes the Hance Trail. It goes down Red Canyon to the right of Coronado Butte, but as no one seems to have used it since the hope of mineral wealth died out in the Canyon, it is not in very good condition. The only footprints I discovered in it in the summer of 1918 were made by wild burros. Any one can go up or down it, for it is passable, but it is not more interesting than other and smoother trails.
Beyond the Hance to the east there is no open trail until Lincoln Point is reached. This is two miles to the west of Desert View, which is to say, some thirty miles or more from El Tovar. There is a good automobile road the entire distance. The trail-head is a little blind. It is about two hundred yards east of the point and is to be found by following the Rim.
This Lincoln Trail is not very broad. Perhaps originally it was a runway made by deer going down from the Rim to water. It is, if I am not mistaken, the old Tanner Trail, and was perhaps known to Major Powell when he came through the Colorado canyons. In 1918 I could find no trace of any-thing in the dust of it but the hoofs of deer and the pads of coyotes. No one had been over it for a year or more. Now that the travelling public is beginning to recognize the eastern as the most picturesque end of the Grand Canyon, this trail will no doubt come into more use. It is not a difficult descent, and has its attractions, though it is behind Grand View in walls and behind Bright Angel in general interest. The Kaibab is not so thick in strata here as farther west, the Coconino is much tilted and broken in its cross-bedding, and the Tonto flattens down into wide-rolling terraces.
Aside from the caves in the walls and some Indian pictographs on boulders in a dry bed at the right of the trail, there is little to note until one reaches a level ridge or hogback crossing a trans-verse valley some fifteen hundred feet down. The trail follows across this red ridge, which is now the divide between an eastern and western valley. This divide is being cut away, and eventually will disappear, leaving the great bench ahead separated from the main southern wall. It is another case of butte-and-promontory making in process, and how savage the process you can see by looking down at the left into the chasm which has already been cut out of the rock.
After crossing the red divide there are two or three miles of winding around the Supai slopes. Seen from the Rim the trail seems to lie flat, but the traveller down there finds that it has its decided ups and downs. It is over a desert bench or platform that grows dwarf cedars, yuccas, Spanish bayonets, cacti, sage, bunch-grass—all of them flushed in coloring from lack of soil and moisture, and from perhaps some copper in the shale. The platform seems isolated and rather devoid of animal life, though there are traces of deer and coyotes here and there, with birds such as the horned lark, the dove, the jay, the flicker. As for snakes, horned toads, and lizards, they seem much at home on the red shale and under the magenta-colored cactus.
This platform has deep canyons on its south and east which break out to the River, leaving the plat-form itself standing with perpendicular cliffs. At the edge of it looking south you are facing a portion of the Red Wall, above this the Supai shales shelve down in long slopes, and still higher the Coconino and the Kaibab—the former much cross-bedded join with some confusion. To the east Comanche Point comes out at you like the prow of a colossal battleship, and to the left of it, stretching beyond the mouth of the Little Colorado, is a parapet of cliffs known as the Palisades of the Desert. Very majestic is this parapet, with its high lift, its long sweep, its feeling of strength and endurance.
But the impressive view here, before you make the final lap of the trail, is from the cliff directly overlooking the River. You go out across rolling slopes to the edge, where you meet with a swift drop of perhaps a thousand feet. You are atop of the Red Wall and the drop is into a pot-hole made up of shelving slopes of the greenish Tonto and the raspberry-red beds of the old Unkar. The color of this basin is most astonishing ! Maroon marls, fire oxides, jade greens appear everywhere. And these are woven into and across slopes with lines dipping swiftly downward to the bottom of the basin. The look over the edge is fascinating but also somewhat fearsome. There is something about the pit that suggests fire and brimstone. The cold crater of a volcano is less indicative of Nature's internal fires than this beautiful bowl in the Canyon.
The inner walls of the Granite Gorge break down and run out just here. On the north side all the strata have a dip or inclination to the southeast, and following that dip the old Archaean walls eventually disappear. The first impression is that the River has risen, but, on the contrary, it is the strata that have fallen.
The River is finally reached by the zigzags of the trail down and over the shales of the Tonto. When you come close to it the size and movement of it give you something of a surprise. It makes sharp turnings here, is flung against perpendicular walls, is shot over huge bed boulders, and is churned into yellow foam. Farther up, looking toward the mouth of the Little Colorado, the stream runs in the open for some distance. It is a rapid stream everywhere, though there are stretches of it that lie flat and smooth, and in the late afternoon when the sun is low, these stretches are not sand-hued but show a terra-cotta or a Venetian red. Perhaps the Spaniards, seeing that flush, named the stream Colorado —that is red, or reddish.
Two miles to the east of Lincoln Trail is Desert View. A comfortable camp has recently been established there. From this camp it is possible to make excursions on the Painted Desert, along the Palisades, and (by crossing the Little Colorado) to the Marble Canyon and beyond. You will be told at the start that there is no trail and that you cannot get around to Comanche Point except by going back in the forest several miles and taking an old Mormon wagon-road. But you need not mind either the road or the information. Follow the Rim to the east and you will come out on the Comanche Point side of the Canyon in less than an hour. Before you reach it an old wagon-trail indicates that you can go over to Cedar Mountain and from there to the cliffs of the Little Colorado. The trip on foot from Desert View to Cedar Mountain is two hours and from thence to the Little Colorado two hours more; but to descend and cross the Little Colorado you must go farther to the southeast and pick up the Mormon road. That is the only accessible route to the main stretches of the Painted Desert and the Marble Canyon.
Between Desert View and Cedar Mountain there is a nebulous trail leading down into the Canyon as far as the top of the Red Wall, but whether the en-tire way to the River, I am not able to say. It is a deer-run and not the kind of trail the average visitor cares to travel. The animals living on the Coconino Plateau in the heat of summer must have water occasionally, and there being none on the plateau they go down to the River, following the dry beds of pitching streams. The result is the deer or sheep run that in time becomes a burro-trail, and in the latest stage a mule-trail for tourists.
Eventually, no doubt, the enterprising capitalist will put up a funicular or aerial railway that will drop people into the Canyon in fifteen minutes, but for the nonce the picturesque trail is the only way to the River. It is to be hoped that it will always remain to worry the indolent and make glad the heart of the wilderness-lover.