Grand Canyon – Bright Angel And Hermit Traits

THE tourist in the valley is always plagued with a desire to climb the mountain that lifts before him, and here at the Canyon, where he is virtually on the mountain’s top, he is tormented with a wish to go down to the River five thousand feet below. Whatever our point of view, it never seems quite right. That which we have is as nothing compared with that which we have not.

It is somehow thought that one cannot see the Canyon without a trip down to the River that caused it. And then there are those who wish not so much to see the Canyon as to “do” it, and “doing” it means descending Bright Angel Trail on a barrel-bellied mule, accompanied by a guide in “chaps” and cowboy hat. No trip here is quite complete that does not include a dusty day on the trail with a river-party. And for those who cannot, or will not, see the Canyon in any other way, it perhaps has its advantages.

For the depth is worth seeing, afoot if you can, astride if you must. Bright Angel is a good foot-path, and any normally healthy person can go down and up it in a day and be not the worse for wear. It is safe enough, either by foot or by mule, notwithstanding the “dizzy precipices” and “beet-ling heights,” in the perfervid language of those who have just returned from the trip. There are no precipices or abysses on the Bright Angel. You meet with slopes and descents where you might be injured by a fall, but then you might break an arm or a leg down the hotel steps. There is nothing dangerous about the principal trails to the River, though some of the lesser known, such as the Boucher, creep around abrupt descents. Those who are anxious to go down a difficult trail should travel forty miles west to Havasu Canyon and descend to the Indian village three thousand feet below. There are four trails down Havasu, but the Wallapai on the west side will probably satisfy the most daring. In spots it is almost aerial.

Some distinct advantages follow the going down Bright Angel afoot. You are not hurried or worried by your fellow travellers and can take your time. And you can dispense with the brave guide, who is usually more or less of a superfluity. You could no more lose the trail than the Rim or the River; and there are no bewildering forests, no wild beasts to rend you. You will not be attacked by a sidewinder, or a Gila monster, and not even a hydrophobic skunk is likely to cross your path. Bright Angel is too well travelled for trouble.

It is perhaps the oldest trail at the Canyon. The bighorn and the Indian followed it many years before the coming of the white man, trappers and explorers used it before Powell, and when copper was discovered in the Canyon a mining company took it over and made it navigable for burros freighted with packs of copper. It was copper that built most of the railway up from Williams in connection with the trail, and when the mine failed it was the Santa Fe that took over the railway, completed it, built El Tovar at the end of the line, and opened the Canyon to tourists—even down to the River and beyond.

The trail starts in at the left of Bright Angel Camp. The descent is quite rapid by the zigzags, and in a few minutes one is a hundred feet or more below the Rim (Plate 15). Boulders are hanging on the slopes, and the steep wall of the Kaibab is almost within touch. This latter is a hard limestone, and on the weatherings of it, or on fallen boulders, you will notice small fan-shaped sea-shells embedded in the rock., They are curious but perhaps less interesting than the gray, mustard-yellow, and orange lichens growing on the surfaces, or the sage-green mosses, bunch-grasses, and wild flowers that root in the cracks and flourish so unconsciously and so beautifully. They are usually frail-looking flowers—trilliums, wild geraniums, sweet peas, asters, lupines, pentstemons—with a gaunt look and a bleached coloring peculiar to desert vegetation; but they bloom and bear and sway in the wind as though they had a mission to fulfil and were happy in fulfilling it.

The vegetation decreases from the Rim to the River, but just under the Rim, where there is the wash of rains in wet weather, the growths are many. Some isolated specimens of the Douglas spruce are here. They grow below but not above the Rim and seem to flourish in the cool of the shadow. The taluses and slopes of the Kaibab harbor them almost everywhere along the South Rim. Some pinyons, nut-pines (pinus edulis), cedars also appear in Bright Angel, growing along the ledges, humming slightly in strong winds, bearing and dropping their cones and berries into the Canyon hundreds of feet below. The crested jays nest in these trees, as the cliff-swallows in the wall crevices of the Kaibab, but whether they drop their young hundreds of feet over the ledges I am not able to say. Apparently, both trees and birds are out of place, but they fight on, live on, and bring forth after their kind here as elsewhere.

More directly in the taluses and among the fallen debris of the walls are the wafer and flowering ash, the bush-oaks, the syringas, hollies, hackberries, with wild currant and gooseberry—bushes and tangles that increase wherever there is a little soil and underground water to encourage them. The flowers, from the Canadian thistle to the smallest star-shaped species that lie low amidst the awns of the moss, grow wherever there is a bench of soil or a crack in the rock. The ferns, the spreading junipers that look like mosses but have a substantial tap-root, the many lichens are more tenacious. The black streaks that drip down the great walls and look like ink-stains will be found on examination to be merely flat beds of tiny black lichens, clinging in the waterway of the walls and gaining support from the occasional showers.

These strange growths, that in measure retard the processes of erosion, how they hold fast to the rocks and fight off heat and drought ! They are not, strictly speaking, desert plants, but they have the desert instinct of self-preservation. They grow here in the dry air with morning and afternoon shade to favor them, but they are hardly native to the place, and their existence is always precarious. In fact, they pass out as you descend to warmer and more arid levels and the more positive desert growths come in.

Five hundred feet of descent and you are perhaps in a position to see the face-walls of the Kaibab and the Coconino. They are not seen to the best advantage on this trail, but even here how massive they appear in their bulk and how impressive they are in their feeling of deep foundations ! And look up at their height—their lift into the blue ! Occasionally, as you are looking up at them, you may see their fairy continuation in the sky—thousands of feet of cumulus-cloud walls, piled high toward the zenith, and struck by the afternoon sun.

Here, too, is the opportunity to see the fluting of the Rim as it cuts against the sky. There is a marked regularity about it, especially as you move farther down and away from it and see it in more general outlines. You will notice also as you descend that the blue sky seems to fit in the flutings like an inlay of lapis lazuli. And, below it, as evening comes on, the rose hue of the Coconino shifts into a rose-amethyst. What wonderful colors I

After you have passed the tunnel—a few feet beyond it and at the left you can see the line of faulting in the strata that made possible the Bright Angel Trail. It was this dislocation of the rock that invited the water-wear and resulted finally in the whole lateral canyon you are descending being cut back into the Rim. Below the tunnel you come to a turn in the trail where the light Coconino can be seen meeting the dark Supai. The sharpness of the demarcation, the evenness of the joining are astonishing when you think of the centuries that have gone to the original bedding, the subsequent upheavals, the pressures, the erosions. None of these things seems to have greatly disturbed the beds.

The color change in the strata, from the pale salmon of the Coconino to the red of the Supai, can be noticed in the loose dirt of the trail as well as on the face-walls. The iron-rust in the Supai reddens everything it touches, even your shoes and clothes. The rock is a soft sandstone and shale, but only comparatively so. When you move down still lower and come to the steps or ledges of the Battleship you will perhaps think them hard enough. Those steps grow enormously in size as you approach them. And the higher slopes and terraces of the Battleship that from the Rim looked like places for a pleasant stroll, turn into tangled arroyos and washed-out canyons. Before the stroller reaches the turreted top he will have had a very rough scramble among bushes and boulders he never suspected were there. These slopes of the buttes are full of odd surprises.

Farther down on the left side of the trail and at the end of one of the zigzags you will be able to step out a few feet on a ledge overlooking a deep circus cut back into the Supai. A wall that can stand intact and support such a great weight is perhaps not so soft as we have implied. Terms at the Canyon are always comparative. This circus, for example, might be thought tremendous in size anywhere else, but here there are many that go far beyond it. Yet how imposing and how beautiful it is ! What a swing to the half-circle! What a space it encloses ! The cliff-swallows and sparrow hawks dash around it, but they are so small you do not readily see them. Occasionally a vulture sweeps through it on stiff wings and then up and out, but even he looks dwarfed. The space is really enormous. Picturesque? Yes, very; but for all its superb lines and splendid color, you would find difficulty in making a picture of it. It is too big.

The Canyon widens as you descend and the walls fall back, so that when you are on a level with the Red Wall the cliffs are quite a distance from the trail. The scoops out of the faces that, from El Tovar, look as though done by a sharp-pointed shovel working in soft clay, now appear as great amphitheatres. There are two of these at the right of the trail going down. One of them has an added recess at the back that seems almost as though de-signed for a stage. Over it is a colossal hanging roof hollowed out from beneath by rain and wind. Such a theatre might hold an army or a race. The mind refuses to think in thousands before such a stupendous enclosure.

At the foot of the Red Wall the Tonto begins, not in walls but in greenish-yellow taluses and slopes. There is a breakdown of these softer rocks into graceful arroyos, rounded divides, and flat-backed platforms that dip gracefully toward the trail and toward the River. Here, too, the vegetation changes to something more desert-like in character. Mesquite grows in the dry washes, cactus and a false sage on the slopes, Spanish bayonet, yucca, and mescal along the trail. The Spanish bayonet, sometimes called soapweed, grows about two feet above the ground, has a foot of white flowers, and bears a fruit as large as a cucumber or a pear. The Indians dry it for food. The yucca grows ten feet in height and has often two or three feet of creamy bell-shaped flowers. Belonging to the same family is a still loftier growth, the shaft sometimes reaching up fourteen feet and bearing four or five feet of small yellow flowers, followed in season by yellow pears an inch or two long and round like a lead-pencil. This is locally called “mescal,” but mescal is merely the Mexican drink distilled from its root. The growth is a variety of the maguey (agave Americana). In the old days the Indians used it for food, roasting the root of it in stone pits. The remains of the pits are still found in and about the Canyon.

A spring of water now comes to life beside the trail. Almost everywhere in the Canyon the water-line seems to coincide with Indian Garden on Bright Angel. That is, water if it comes to the surface at all, is usually found coming through the shales of the Supai or under the Red Wall, though Dripping Springs in Hermit Basin comes from under the Coconino. Indian Garden is merely a small oasis brought into existence by the stream that runs through it. There is nothing remarkable in the fact that trees such as the cottonwood and the willow, with reeds, trailing grape, garden vegetables, and flowers should grow there. It would be more remarkable if they did not. Nor is there anything very romantic about the camp or its history. Undoubtedly the Indians once used the water to grow corn and melons, but of recent years the Garden has been in possession of white men, with miner’s and squatter’s claims as a basis for a prolonged quarrel among them.

At the Garden a side-trail branches off to the left on the platform overlooking the Granite Gorge, while the main trail goes on down to the River. The first-mentioned way branches again in less than a mile, one part of it leading off to the left and around under the walls to Hermit Camp. The distance to Hermit is something like twenty miles, and here the worthy mule may be resorted to without prejudice. The trip gives one an excellent idea of the face-walls and lower platforms (Plate 18). The slopes are very beautiful in both their lines and colors, the sparse vegetation is interesting in odd growths of cacti and the false sage, the latter botanically referred to as “a rosaceous shrub” (Coleogyne ramosissima) ; and the rock shelvings of the Tapeats in the lateral canyons are fantastic, novel, often impressive in scale.

The Tonto slopes are not merely interesting trailways for the human but they are the stamping-ground for many wild burros that live down there and break the midnight silence with their brayings. They are only half wild and may be roped easily enough from a fast horse, though they are not to be captured afoot. A few mountain-sheep are still in the Canyon but they keep well up on the slopes in hidden pockets where they are not easily seen. The bighorn has a yellow-gray coat, stands still against yellow-gray walls, and even if he were directly before you, you would have difficulty in seeing him. Originally he was the first breaker and maker of the trails that run along the Tonto plat-forms, but the burro has usurped his pathway. The coyote, too, is here, running the slopes at night and sleeping under the rock ledges by day; but his living is not entirely satisfactory, and his tribe is not increasing. As much might be said for the yellow lizards with black collars, the coral snakes with white stripes, the side-winders, the horned toads (gray and pink, after their kind), and all the desert crew that creep and crawl. They are here but not in large numbers.

These platforms are rather hot barren spots. They break down to the Tapeats cliffs overhanging the Granite Gorge, which are hotter and even more barren. Occasionally some cactus or juniper or flower grows out of the crevices of the Tapeats or the Archaean rock, but usually it is short-lived. The Archaean had the life burned out of it many centuries ago, and it is now only so much fused splendor of color. One gets a good idea of its grim surface and twisted strata by continuing down the last lap of the Bright Angel Trail from Indian Garden (Plate 13). For those who do not wish to go down the Devil’s Corkscrew to the River a good view of the Inner Gorge and the Archaean rock may be had from the Turtlehead or anywhere along the Tapeats cliffs.

The Hermit is the second of the important trails from the Rim to the River. It starts in at Hermit’s Rest, half a dozen miles west of El Tovar, and may be travelled either afoot or by mule. The trail is something like eight miles from top to bottom, is not at all dangerous, and quite as interesting in its way as the Bright Angel. At the start it is an open trail, with no Douglas spruces, few bushes, and comparatively barren slopes. Small gritty stones under-foot in the zigzags of the trail testify to the hardness of the Kaibab and the Coconino. When the Supai is reached the trail not only changes from gray to red but the stones disappear in favor of loose dirt.

After entering Hermit Gorge, fifteen hundred feet down, the Canyon begins to narrow and the trail grows steeper. The Gorge itself should be followed back to one of its sources by making the side-trip to Dripping Springs. The trail there leads off from the Hermit Trail, before the Gorge is reached, and carries you to the head of a steep canyon where water drips from the Coconino rock. On the way to this spring one sees the great cut in the Supai forming the head of Hermit Creek. The Gorge lower down opens out into a canyon with a line of green trees and bushes in its bed showing the continued presence of water. This canyon is an excellent illustration of the erosive power of the lateral streams.

A sign “The Red Zigzags” appears. Here there is not only a fine view of the Red Wall across the valley but also down at the right a broad view of the Tonto formation with the waving lines of its plat-forms. Notice should be taken of the reds and greens in the little butte just beneath you and the superb lines of the high buttes across the River, especially in the taluses that sweep down in long curves to the little valleys with their dry stream-beds. A thousand or more feet above Hermit Camp the trail turns east under a huge red cliff of Supai, and at the base of it is an outcrop of violet shale very beautiful in color.

At Cathedral Stairs the trail runs through a mixture of Supai and Red Wall. The latter lies straight ahead, and its staining from the Supai above it is quite apparent. Around to the left, connected by a thin ridge, is a promontory of Red Wall called Cope Butte that is fast being cut away from its parent rock. You will notice that its color is not red but mouldy salmon with something of greenish-gray in it. There is no Supai bed above it to stain it, and something of its blue-gray local color has begun to come back to it.

The trail winds on and away from the wall, out on the long platforms of the Tonto. Hermit Camp is located on one of the Tonto platforms under the lea of a high protruding promontory called The Lookout (Plate 22). The view from the camp is commanding. Across the River the buttes and the Rim rise like mountains—a little like the Dolomites. The Red Wall to the west, with the Supai, Coconino, and Kaibab strata atop of it, is magnificent; while to the east is a huge amphitheatre in the Red Wall along the roof of which runs the trail you descended, and above which rise in majestic flights the giant steps of Pima Point.

The Tonto platforms, in rolling ridges, are all about you, their wonderful yellow-green coloring showing to advantage in a steep bank directly back of the camp. Little vegetation appears on these platforms aside from cacti, the maguey, Mormon tea, the false sage. In the Hermit Creek bed to the west of the camp there is the usual tangle of ash, willow, mesquite, wild grape, tides. The creek itself is a small trout-stream but with no trout. Originally there were beaver in it (as also in the Colorado), but there are no gnawings or chip-pings of trees to indicate their presence today. It is an innocent-looking stream, but when it turns red with cloudbursts it churns and thunders like a cataract. You can follow its course to the River for a mile below the camp and all the way down, through the stiff Tapeats and the harder Archaean wall, you can see how it has ripped and torn its way, making gorges, small canyons, caves, and water-falls, apparently with no effort whatever.

The stream is widening its course below the camp, but if you follow it back in the strata for a mile you will find a narrow deep defile in the rock where water in flood boils and seethes, and rocks are rolled and battered against the walls as violently as in the Granite Gorge. In summer drought there are sections of the creek that are quite dry save for pot-holes or catch-basins in the rock that hold stagnant water. Birds come down to splash in these shallow pools, and snakes lie in wait beside them for the birds, and wild burros kick at the snakes and paw at the blue-green waters. They are not still waters beside which one wishes to camp and cook. Water, of any kind, is always more or less of an oddity in desert lands, but the caught pool soon becomes an offense.

To the east of Hermit Camp a trail runs over the ridges of the Tonto into the basin of Monument Creek and thus around to Indian Garden on the Bright Angel. The views that one gets in and about Monument Creek and its upper drainage area, called the Abyss, are well worth a day’s journey in the wilderness. The breadth of the basin, the amphitheatres, the lift and wind of the walls, the creek-bed that cuts through the Tapeats and the Archaean, are all superb.

To the west of Hermit Creek there is a continuation of the trail whereby one passes over into Boucher Creek and beyond. It is possible by following this rather blind trail to worry along the slopes of the Tonto down to Bass Ferry, or, for that matter, to indefinite distances. The slopes lend themselves readily to exploration. And they be-come more interesting as the trail fades out. The vegetation does not materially change, but the animal life increases and the primeval quality of the landscape, the remoteness and aloofness of it, grow apace with the distance removed from hotel and camp. Nature undefiled always lies rather far afield.