|I had not heard very much about the Little Colorado River Gorge. I
found the US Geological Survey map of the lower portion, and the eight
indicated trails to the bottom of the gorge intrigued me. I soon learned,
however, that most of these are not trails in the usual meaning of the
word. For instance, a party of geologists carried a ladder for use on the
Blue Spring Trail. Bighorn sheep may still use the trails, but
burros could manage only two of the eight.
In April, 1956, I visited the river for the first of eleven treks deep into the gorge. I had inferred that one could reach the mouth of the Little Colorado by using the Tanner Trail, the head of which is on the south rim of the Grand Canyon just east of Lipan Point. I knew from previous experience that this trail is long, rough, and without water. Still, with food for only two days, I was able to set a fast pace. What a difference the summer heat makes, when the canyons become deep traps. Thirst and resulting madness have killed four people near this trail during the last decade. A thorough apprenticeship on the well maintained trails shows you the necessity of carrying plenty of water, but even when you observe this precaution, you are weakened by the heat.
In early April, however, conditions were perfect and I could enjoy the views, the pinnacles near the north rim, and the great buttes near the river. The Little Colorado River, in its lower course, goes west from Cameron, then turns north, and finally goes west again for the last seven miles before it joins the Colorado. The morning sun shining directly through this 3400 foot gash in the plateau illuminated Chuar Butte directly opposite the river's mouth. When I reached the foot of the Tanner Trail, I paused to note on the other side of tumultuous Tanner Rapid, the contrast of black lava and red shale in the same cliff.
Carrying only a canteen and a light camera, I moved fast enough to reach the Little Colorado River and get a few pictures, then returned to my pack with time left to follow the Colorado back to the Tanner Trail and climb back to my car the same day.
At the end of May, 1956, two months after my first sortie, I started off. Since I was not familiar with the reservation roads, I went to the mouth by the same route as before. Two months had made a great change in both rivers. The red flow from the upper Little Colorado had ceased weeks earlier, and the only water in the bed had been coming from Blue Springs and smaller sources in the lower twenty one miles of the riverbed. This mineralized water had covered the red silt with a filmy white mud as smooth as cold cream. The Colorado was pouring past in the spring flood, and the brown water held back the tributary in a deep blue lagoon. Above this long pool the bed of the Little Colorado rises an average of twenty eight feet per mile, more than four times the grade of the Colorado River. The permanent flow from the springs is more than three times the flow of Havasu Creek, and the flavor of the water is a disagreeable mixture of table salt and Epson salt. The tincture is weak, and a doctor had pronounced it safe to drink indefinitely. I have used it for up to thirty six consecutive hours, but the flavor became increasingly repugnant, and I was glad to dip my canteen again into the muddy Colorado.
The minerals in the brackish water almost make it unfit for drinking, but they make it a treat for the eye. Over the talcum powder mud, the pools are pale blue, and the cascades break into sparkling spray. The view from Cape Solitude, 3400 feet above the junction of the two rivers, shows the contrast of the pale blue of the shallow upper stream, the indigo of the deep and quiet lagoon, and the brown of the irresistible main stream.
Each bend in the canyon presents another terrific vista of upsurging walls cut by ravines into towers and ramparts. My senses could appreciate only a limited amount of this overpowering grandeur, and I began to notice the little things a deer track or a water ouzel doing its dipping curtsy between dives. I noticed a shallow cave at the base of the wall on the north side and found smoke stains on its ceiling. A few men have come and gone here, but the wilderness remains as it has been for a million years. You wonder whether this Eden is still safe or whether dam builders will harness the spring and summer floods. You hope that a careful calculation will convince them that hydroelectric development here would be a financial loss. Improvements should be made on the trails so that more people could enjoy these glistening cataracts and turquoise pools, but there the improvements should stop.
|Up a side ravine I saw a salt spring, and my scramble to reach it was rewarded by a fine view down the river. Around the next bend I came upon the original Sipapu. It is a chocolate colored cone about twenty five yards wide at the base and ten yards across the flat top. A pool ten feet across occupies the center, and the bilious yellow water hides the bottom. By the cupful the water is clear, and the taste is no worse than that of the mineralized river water. More gas than water is coming from the stem of this morning glory pool where, according to the Hopi, the ancestors of the human race emerged. Mr. McCormick of Flagstaff, who was here in his teens when his father and uncle were working the mines, tells how they would jump into the center of the pool. The gas would pop them to the surface for an unintended reenactment of the Hopi myth.|
|When I had picked my way through the tamarisks, over rocks, and along
gravel bars for another two miles, I came to the first side canyon. It had
to be Salt Trail Canyon, but for the first hundred yards I could
see no trail. After I had scrambled up the shale to the east, I saw a
trace of a trail on the other side. Numerous cairns guided me, but it is a
rugged route, especially through the Redwall and again in the limestone at
the top. It occurred to me that the discovery of this route must have been
a hunter in hot pursuit of a bighorn sheep. I could see why the Hopi felt
the need of supernatural help for this pilgrimage. I sampled the water
from a pothole near the top of the Redwall and was surprised to find it
just as salty as the springs below. At one or two places piles of bright
chert fragments decorate the top of flat rocks. They must have been
carried down from the rim and left as calling cards. I realized how much
more this trip would mean to a Hopi believer than to a vacationing
mathematics professor. It satisfied my craving for natural beauty and my
curiosity about a little known part of Arizona. To a Hopi it would be
linked with prosperity and status and even have a bearing on the
When I hike away from my bedroll and food supply, I usually turn back soon after noon, but this trip was an exception. It was nearly three o'clock when I passed the large cairns marking the head of the trail and continued on to the ridge where I could see the Echo Cliffs beyond Highway 89. Car tracks showed that one can drive a car to within a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. While hurrying back, I was careless at the top of the Redwall and lost twenty minutes by overshooting the right place for a safe descent. Darkness caught me more than an hour's walk from my camp, but as it was too cool to sleep without my bedroll, I stumbled on through rocks and brush until I reached it.
Less than a month after this trip up Salt Trail Canyon,
two airliners collided twenty thousand
feet above the mouth of the Little Colorado. Most of the grisly debris
fell on the west side of the river, but the park authorities closed the
area to all except investigators of the disaster.
Just after Christmas in 1957, I tried to find the Blue Spring Trail.
Leaving my car at Desert View, I followed an old wagon road north to the
vicinity of Comanche Point. This is the prominent peak along the rim four
miles north of Desert View. Acting on impulse, I detoured to climb it.
In the morning I picked the most likely looking ravine for my descent.
On the north side of the bay, the position of this agreed with my
recollection of the position of the Blue Spring Trail as shown on
the map. No car tracks were to be seen, and there was no cairn at the top,
but I started down anyhow. It was difficult enough to challenge a man
without a rope, but I finally reached the rim of the Redwall directly
above the river. Here, about ten miles up from the mouth, the vertical
walls often come right into the quiet pools. The spring water stays above
freezing, but I had no desire to go swimming. It was just as well that I
had missed the Blue Spring Trail and couldn't get down the last
cliff into the river. My return to the car that night was different in
that I improvised a more direct cross country route, but I still had to
walk two and one half hours after dark.
To find the head of the Horse Trail, I used the map of the Blue
Springs Quadrangle. After a day of scouting the reservation roads, I was
ready for another major project. I wanted to walk the rest of the bed from
Mile 16 to Cameron at Mile 57. There was no record that this had ever been
On another weekend I took some men down the Horse Trail to see Blue Springs. We returned to our car on Sunday early enough to look for the head of the Indian Maid Trail. There are no road signs, and we were lucky to hit the rim within a quarter of a mile of the right ravine. The prospect was not encouraging. Behind a promontory, where I had hoped to find the trail, there was no sign of it. We passed three cracks in the rim as we walked to the ravine where the map showed the trail. The top of this ravine was smooth walled, more obviously impossible than where Allyn and I had turned back on the previous trip. I returned to the most likely looking location of the three slots in the rim near the main ravine where I started down. Within a few yards I came to the severest test, a block wedge in the crack. I had to let myself down and feel for footing beneath. The rest of the descent was steep, but care in route selection brought me to a series of cairns. The way was clear to reach the part of the Indian Maid Trail which we had found on our earlier trip.
Horse Trail to Blue Springs and the
Indian Maid Trail