Harvey Butchart's Trail Notes
(courtesy Cline Library of Northern Arizona University)

Exploring the Gorge of the Little Colorado River
[1956 to 1964]

(b&w images from Arizona Highways Magazine, Sept 1965)

Lower Gorge of the Little Colorado
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.

Cascades and Travertines on the Little Colorado

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 afterlife.

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.

About once a year I reach another finest viewpoint in the park, but my vote for Comanche Point still holds. The nearest point on the horizon is four and one half miles away, behind Desert View. You can swing through 360 degrees of striking scenery, from the pastel colors of the Painted Desert to the needle sharp summit of Vishnu Temple.

After climbing this peak, I returned to my project of attempting to find the Blue Spring Trail. I went east into the valley which begins at the very rim of the Grand Canyon and drains into the Little Colorado north of Gold Hill, the northern most of two buttes rising above this plateau. Navaho sheep corrals and abandoned hogans are common in this area, but near the dry streambed I came upon a structure which aroused my curiosity; a straight wall built of fieldstone, about three feet high, forty feet long, and two feet thick. The absence of any other walls here made me think it may have been a hunting blind.

After reaching the end of this valley above a sheer precipice, I made camp. Among the numerous water pockets in the limestone, I found one with several inches of water beneath two inches of ice. Winter camping is rugged, but at least there are no bugs. No frost formed on my bag because I slept under a cozy ledge.

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.

Further study of the map showed me where I had missed the trail. It was in the next bay to the south. On a morning in late May, 1958, I walked from Desert View to the north of Gold Hill so early that I decided I had time to visit Cape Solitude above the junction of the rivers. Ranger Dan Davis has nominated this for the finest viewpoint, and I can see why. The sky island called Chuar Butte is just a mile to the northwest, Marble Canyon opens to the north, and to the west the pinnacles of Walhalla Plateau loom above you. The morbid note was the debris of the double plane wreck still exposed below.

The detour to Cape Solitude was longer than I had anticipated, and it was about six o'clock before I neared the head of the Blue Spring Trail. My gallon canteen was nearly empty, and I faced a situation which could become embarrassing. Where would I get water? There was a frog croaking several hundred yards away at an apparently empty stock tank. If I stopped long enough to investigate, I would lose my bare chance of reaching the river by daylight. But from what I had heard of the need for ropes and ladders, could I hope to reach the bottom that night anyhow? Brashly I started down.

There is something odd about this trail. For the first fifty yards it's a well constructed horse trail. This ends abruptly above a hand and toe scramble down rough ledges. Quite soon I came to a place which really made me wonder. Twenty feet ahead was a cairn, but to reach it I had to sidestep along a mere crack, holding to another at shoulder height. This is above a forty foot shear drop, and I was not too much surprised on a later occasion when some friends who wanted to see the Blue Springs changed their minds right here. Luck was with me that evening, and I never lost the route for more than a few yards. I reached the springs by 8:30 p.m., only twenty five minutes after dark. Incidentally, some of the arrows do not locate the trail. I think geologists used them to indicate locations of fossils.

After the difficult upper part of this trail is past, you are due for a surprise. There is a well built horse trail the rest of the way to the top of the Redwall. In 1921, surveyors were here locating dam sites. Perhaps they brought supplies down the hard part of the trail on their backs and then used horses. I wonder how they could bring horses down these cliffs, but recently found the answer. Five miles upstream, the Horse Trail comes down from the opposite rim. Don't ask me why they didn't just bring their supplies down that trail in the first place!

Since I only wanted to reach the mouth the next night, I spent my entire time reconnoitering upstream. The mud and quicksand were so bad that I carried a stick to jab down and make sure that there was a bottom. At one place a spring in the bed keeps some black sand dancing. Another spring up on the wall forms a fan of travertine covered with ferns and moss. I had hoped to reach the last of the spring water, but later learned that this is twenty one miles above the mouth, five miles farther than I had time to go on this occasion. I did go three miles upstream from Blue Springs until the Redwall Formation was out of sight below ground. These big springs at the foot of the trail issue from fissures less than a foot above pool level. To collect so much water from the desert, there must be quite a system of underground plumbing.

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 done.

A Navaho had told Womack that a waterfall would make boating through the upper gorge impossible even if the river contained enough water. I was willing to bet that I could find a way past any obstruction in the bed of such a silt choked stream. Mud would be a greater threat to steady progress than would a rockfall. During early summer, heat would be a problem. In April, July, and August; floods would present another hazard. Drinking water might be scarce in the autumn. Therefore, Christmas vacation seemed the best time to undertake the long walk.

On January 1, 1964, my wife and another faculty couple, the Gibsons, drove out with me to a point on the right rim at Mile 9. We ate our lunch and then climbed a knoll for a better view of the blue water in the Redwall trench and of Salt Trail Canyon to the north. Then we drove, after one bad guess, to a draw that led to the Horse Trail. When Ellery and I began to find signs of a trail, he turned back, wishing me success in my venture, and I was on my own for the next two and one half days. He was to park my Jeep for me at Cameron. If I couldn't get to the bottom of the gorge or if I came to an impasse in the bed, I would be in a difficult situation. I hoped that my two quart canteen would be adequate.

The Horse Trail soon reached the usual dropoff at the top of the Coconino Sandstone. After a short search, I found the bypass to the right. A ledge carries the trail to a scree filled ravine. The only other problem was the 200 foot descent to the riverbed. I wasted 15 or 20 minutes before I noticed a ledge on the other side of a dry fall. A huge slab had fallen on this shelf, but even a horse could walk through the tunnel formed by the leaning rock. On reaching the bottom, I walked downstream until I found the Redwall Formation, which proved that I had overlapped my previous trek. Ice covered the pools but the riffles were open water. The weather was relatively mild, and my down bag was warm enough.

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
[February 15, 1964 to February 16, 1964]

Bob Sehley took two high school students, Geofry Elston and Allen Sinclair in his truck and Doug Shough drove Michael Hubbard and me in his. We found a better way to approach the head of Horse Trail. About a mile northwest of the clay dam that is near the road after you pass the head of Waterhole Canyon, you turn left on an indistinct track. We parked just above the place where Horse Trail Canyon becomes steep walled. Where the bed starts its steep course, the trail stays to the left at first then crosses over. This time we found old pottery which he recognized as common in 1120. This time we got from the car to the river in one and a half hours and we were able to come up the next day in less than two. The only part of the trail which is not in evidence is along the lower part of the valley through the Supai before you come to the final drop. No one hesitated in passing the place where the trail construction has fallen.

After walking about two miles downriver, we dropped our packs and proceeded to Blue Springs. Bob had a lot of trouble with blisters, and he was glad that I had brought tape. I noted a place where there was a collection of driftwood on a terrace to the left and on the return we picked up our packs and walked back to it for camping. At Mile 14.7, we came to a series of good springs. Around the bend on the same side of the river (right), there are more small springs down to Mile 14.5. There were two sand boils which kept black sand in motion. I could poke a stick down into one of these springs for several feet without resistance. The entire area is fractured and all these springs may come from the same vein of water. I would estimate the total flow as greater than that of Bright Angel Creek. One little spring comes out of a shallow cave. Bob collected some of the crusted salt which he thought tasted very much like salt he had found in Paho Cave in Walnut Canyon, salt which had been carried here and left with the prayer sticks. For several hundred yards, the Little Colorado River passes through a narrow trench of the upper Redwall, and we were forced to wade. The water was not cold although there had been plenty of ice above these springs. Just beyond the narrows along the right bank were two deposits of travertine, one old and dry and the other wet and growing.

Map study and many systematic sorties over a period of several years had brought me to my goal, an intimate knowledge of this fascinating gorge.