Grand Canyon – Buttes And Promontories

THERE are probably few, even among the doubters, who regard the buttes in the Canyon as of volcanic origin. Some of the tepee-shaped ones look not unlike volcanic cones, but there is no igneous rock or ashes in their make-up. They are all of them laid down in uniform strata and are composed of sedimentary beds—the same beds that are seen everywhere in the exposed Canyon walls. From which it may be inferred, perhaps without error, that the buttes were once part of the walls.

How did they become separated?

By one of the processes of erosion so very apparent that it seems like explaining the obvious to point it out. It has been suggested that after the Great Denudation the Plateau was canyoned by the River, that the canyon walls thus created were cut into transversely by such streams as Bright Angel and Hermit Creeks, that the streams cut back into the walls, that the walls became fluted into recesses called arenas and projected out into points called promontories. Well, the butte is the end of the promontory cut off and isolated.

What cut it off ?

Why, water from gathered rains, which, finding a depression in the promontory back from the point, began cutting a transverse stream-bed down each side of the ridge. The process of sawing off the point of a promontory with water and sand is, of course, a matter of many centuries, but Nature is never hurried in her processes. Time is not the essence of any of her doings. As yet she has sawn through none of the projecting points down to the old Archaean rock. The deepest of the cuts reach no farther than the foot of the Red Wall, with the Tonto shales for a base platform. Eventually the base-line will be down in the fire-rocks, and then perhaps the top of the buttes will have been washed away; but at present many of them still lift their heads up to the Canyon Rim.

You may see the sawing and separating process going on almost anywhere in the Canyon. The Battleship promontory, for example, lying to the left of the Bright Angel Trail, has its high points in upper decks and a turret, and between these and El Tovar Point, of which the Battleship is an ex-tension, you will notice a depression or saddle of some hundred feet or more (Plate 1). In periods of rain a stream pours down from that depression into Bright Angel Creek on the east (you can see its dry bed and fall over the Red Wall plainly enough from the hotel) and another stream pours down into Horn Creek on the west. The streams are cutting away the Battleship from its mainland and making of it a butte. It will take many years to complete the severance. While the cut has been deepening, the top has not been allowed to go scot-free. Erosion has taken off the Kaibab and Coconino strata. The red rocks of the turret belong to the Supai formation. And they, too, are crumbling —are in process of disintegration.

Just over the Battleship is the point of a promontory called Dana Butte. It is already called a butte before separation from its parent body. Water is at work at the depression behind it, though it is now merely a narrow ledge. Farther down the Can-yon there is, on the south side, a point that is cut away from the Plateau so much that no one living has ever been able to cross over to it. It is known as No Man’s Land, though on the map I believe it is put down as Drummond Plateau. Guides and explorers look at it longingly, thinking that perhaps there are Indian relics to be found on the flat top. But there is no reason to think it different from any other isolated portion of the Plateau. It is simply a butte in the making that has been cut off by a rear gorge from any human inquiry.

None of these illustrations set forth the complete butte—the mountain in the round. There is only one good example of it south of the River, and that is Mt. Huethawali. It stands on a rocky platform opposite Bass Camp and centuries ago was isolated by streams that cut it out on all sides at about the same time. It is a mountain in little, being six thousand two hundred and eighty feet above sea-level and about eight hundred feet above its immediate platform. Crumbling masses of the Coconino still form its top and the Supai makes up its body and base. It is an excellent example of butte making by stream-wear. Dry canyons and arroyos are now on every side of it, and they indicate that the erosion must have been enormous.

How does it happen that Mt. Huethawali is practically the only butte in the round on the south side of the Canyon? The “towers” and “temples and “castles” are, for the most part, on the north side of the Canyon—across the River. What brought that about? If you look at a map of the Canyon you may notice that the stream-beds on the north side cut back into the Rim three times as far as those on the south side, that the extending promontories are three times as long, the buttes ten times as many. From the River to the Rim on the north is ten or more miles; from the River to the Rim on the south is only three or four miles. What is the meaning of that?

It has already been stated that there was a great descent from the high Utah plateaus down to the Canyon—a downward step over cliffs and platforms in the guise of a geological stairway. The down-ward slip continues across the Canyon. The North Rim is higher by a thousand or more feet than the South Rim. A thousand feet of descent in fifteen miles is a swift pitch for running water. Whether normally draining the Kaibab Plateau with small creeks or cutting it fiercely with rain-swollen streams, the wear is very great. No wonder that these streams cut back into the north plateau, that long points or promontories extend out southward into the Canyon, and that transverse drainage streams cut out many buttes and “temples.”

Not only is the descent and the consequent water-wear greater at the North than at the South Rim, but there is more water in volume. It must not be forgotten that the rise from the Canyon to the Utah plateaus is something over four thousand feet. There is more rainfall on the Markagunt than on the Coconino Plateau, for no other reason than that it is more elevated. When there is a storm in the Canyon it clears up along the South Rim before it does along the North Rim, and if there are clouds in the Canyon they lift and drift and skulk along the northern edge last of all, be-cause of the higher altitude and colder air over there. The greater rainfall on the higher plateaus drains down the geological stairway with swiftness, and more or less of it finally comes down through the gulches of the North Rim or seeps out through the strata as springs.

Now, as you stand on the South Rim, near the hotel, you will notice that you are on a slight elevation. The land slips away from you down to the railway-tracks and back through the Tusayan (or Coconino) Forest to Williams and beyond. Your trip up from the main line of the Santa Fe was an up-grade trip. A railway-train can travel up-hill but a stream of water cannot. Hence, you find very few streams emptying into the Canyon from the south. Those that do, such as the Little Colorado, have canyons so deeply sunk that they over-come the surface grade. The drainage into the Canyon from the south extends back only a short distance. More often the waters run away to the south, sink to underground rock fissures, and then creep back to the Canyon, coming out below the Supai shales or the Red Wall as springs. The southern drainage is neither large in quantity nor swift in descent as compared with that at the north. Hence, the south-side canyons are not so much cut back, nor the promontories extended so far toward the River, nor the buttes so pronounced in their isolation, as at the north. The buttes are, to be sure, huge enough to make one stare, but on the other side they are stupendous.

Shiva is as high as the Rim and, according to Dutton, has a mountain mass as great as Mt. Washington. All of the Carboniferous strata show on its wall, and, though we cannot see its base, we know that it is down on that old Archaean rock of the Inner Gorge. A mile in height and a mile in diameter across the top ! Brahma, Deva, Zoroaster, Manu temples are about the same height, if somewhat less in bulk. How was any one persuaded to think of these enormous masses in terms of formal architecture ! There never was a temple of Shiva or Brahma that lifted five hundred feet or could hold five thousand people, but here you have the carved forms of Nature that reach up nearly seven thousand feet, and, if hollow, might hold a million souls ! In all their many centuries of existence they have never heard the footfall or the voice of priest or worshipper, or had any association with humanity. How easily, securely, undeviatingly from the perpendicular they have stood through the ages, while the Indian temples have been falling away stone by stone, crumbling under their own weight, flattening into their own dust !

The pyramid of Cheops at Gizeh was the labor of thousands of slaves over many years. When the capstone was put on the top, the height reached was four hundred and eighty-two feet. But here at the Canyon the so-called Cheops Pyramid was the labor of Nature over thousands of centuries, and today, after ages of erosion, it still lifts skyward over five thousand feet. Perhaps the first marauder who broke into the tomb in the heart of the Gizeh Pyramid was brought to a standstill by seeing in the dust of the floor a naked footprint—the foot-print of the last attendant who had gone out and sealed the door behind him five thousand years before; but here in the under-strata of the Can-yon Pyramid are the sand-ripples left by the waves of a primal sea perhaps five million years ago. You can almost see to a nicety just where the last wave broke. These are the footprints of Creation, beside which those of the human seem so small and so inconsequential. Why was association with the work of man ever invoked here at the Canyon? Nothing that he ever did looks other than foolish compared with the master-work of Nature.

But Nature takes down her own structures as remorselessly as she puts them up. She is taking down the buttes, grinding them to sand, carrying them away. All of them are subject to the same wear as the walls, and water cuts them as readily as the Rim. The rounded butte is guttered, gullied, and ravined on the sides, cut back in shallow canyons that have protruding points and promontories. Here once more is the fluting process carried on by streams that run during heavy showers. It is the same process at work everywhere. Perhaps you can see it better at the base than elsewhere, for here the notches or flutings are often repeated in the pavement of Tonto shales, as has already been stated. The pattern of the base seems star-shaped, and between the promontory arms of the star are the washes or arroyos broken through the Tonto platform. Above these arroyos the amphitheatres or crescents of the Red Wall appear everywhere.

As you look out from the South Rim at the buttes across the River you perhaps notice that between any two of them there is a little canyon—a creek-bed with abrupt sides that looks small until you see it through a glass or cross over to it. These creek-beds extend back and often reach behind the buttes. They furnish the runway for the streams that cut the buttes from the main Rim and isolate them in the Canyon. They also furnish ground sands, gravel, and broken rock wherewith the cutting is done. It is all erosion—cutting out and washing down. Everything is carried back to the great sea. New beds are to-day being laid down in the Gulf of California that some time may be heaved up into canyon walls or a continent as yet undreamed of in our geography.

Many of the buttes are flat-topped and have growths of juniper and pinyon similar, if less robust, to those at the Rim. The side-walls have been recently exposed, and consequently are steep in de-scent. The Red Wall especially, for all its scoops and cirques, stands upright and is as defiant of climbers as of weather. The explorer creeps around the base with difficulty, worrying along arroyos and platforms; but he does not go over the top. So it is that the majority of the great buttes have never been scaled. They are still unknown enchanted mesas with a silence and a mystery all their own.

Notwithstanding their flat tops, all the buttes cut out in the round have a tendency to wear away at the apex and become tepee-shaped. That is not only brought about by the slashing of rains and winds around the top, but by the washing down of stones and gravels which accumulate at the bottom. The accumulation takes the form of a talus or slope which spreads out at the foot and gives the appearance of a wide base that upholds the butte. It is merely an appearance, for the walls descend perpendicularly and are not re-enforced by the talus, but the illusion of the butte being based in broad and mighty platforms is nevertheless helped on. Dutton speaks rather ponderously of the effectiveness of these “segments of hyperbolas of long curvature that concave upward.” They lend stability to the upper structure.

And also grace. Grace is something frequently found in the heaped stones and gravels of the taluses. The rounded lines of these and the flowing lines of the Tonto slopes are mighty contrasts to the up-right faces of the Red Wall, the descending steps of the Supai shales, or the ragged cliffs of the Coconino sandstone. The contrast seems to magnify the quality of each—that is, the slopes and taluses become more sweeping and rolling, the walls more elevated and positive in lift and force. As a result the buttes loom and bulk colossal (Plate 13). What enormous strength is symbolized in the outlines ! What a feeling of mass and weight in the flat face of the walls ! There is no better illustration of the sublime in landscape. Mont Blanc, Niagara, the Pacific have always been put forth as examples of sublimity, presumably because of their mass and spread; but why not Shiva here in the Canyon that to mass adds lines of grace and force, with color that is both exalting and compelling?

The buttes have the same coloring as the walls of the Canyon, only there is more of it—color on all sides instead of merely on a face-wall. And being in the round they catch more sunlight, throw off hues in more varied tones. But they have their times for splendor and are not uniformly brilliant from dawn to dusk. In fact, at noontime, with the sun overhead, they bleach out and their local hues are lost in blue-grays. Noon is the worst possible hour at the Canyon, so far as color is concerned. Only at dawn or after sunset do the walls and buttes warm up and glow with hues both local and reflected. It is one of the astonishing features here that rough-faced rocks can reflect such brilliant cloud and sky effects and that the local yellow or rose or red can shift into orange or carmine or violet so quickly and without effort.

Not only the color undergoes change from dawn to dusk but the forms shift, appearing and seemingly disappearing with varying lights. Dutton mentions this in his monograph; and the early Spaniards—the first white people to see the Canyon—spoke of buttes that faded away at noon and came back at night. No doubt the Spaniards attributed the appearance to things supernatural, but it was then, as now, merely an illusion brought about by light. The planes of landscape are greatly flattened and often disappear under direct overhead light. Perspective is wrecked, distance is telescoped, lines are blurred, surfaces are deadened into mere tints, objects at a distance are confused with objects near at hand, and often a blue haze of atmosphere perhaps blots them out entirely.

These strange effects are not strange as soon as you discover the reason for them. They are almost always noticed from the high point of the Rim.

Now at the Rim you are looking down into a tremendous trough in the ground. It is like seeing a valley from a mountain top or the earth from an aeroplane. The first things missed are the shadows. You cannot see them, for they are underneath. You are looking into reflecting high lights. Usually in landscape we Iook not down but straight ahead, and objects are distinguished by their shadows in contrast with their lights. In other words, we recognize them by their drawing. But looking down into the Canyon the drawing is largely lost because of the absence of shadow and the presence of color in closely related tones. What wonder that perspective should often go out in a blur of blue l

And you will notice further that you are not looking at buttes or walls in silhouette against the sky, as you might see Mt. Shasta, for instance, but at buttes seen against buttes and walls against walls. Such relief as there is shows as color against color or texture against texture, and not as dark against light. That is more cause for the blurring of perspective and the telescoping of planes. As for out-lines, the sharp edge of Shiva shown against a back-ground of gray wall may go for nothing as definition. So that while this absence of shadow and blending of hue may make for tonal harmony, it also makes for lack of definition,. for flattening of planes and perspective, for dissipation of relief and drawing—in short, for the apparent disappearance of edges, walls, and buttes.

Naturally, such disappearances occur when the sun is directly overhead and shadows are least in evidence. Then it is that many small buttes and promontories are overlooked, that amphitheatres in the Tonto platforms are not seen, that washes and arroyos and side-canyons are as though they had never been. Then, too, the reds and oranges and purples of the Canyon depths get dull and mouldy-looking, the air becomes a metallic blue-silver, the light diffuses and spreads rather than concentrates. It is a disappointing time because one’s vision is confused. The Canyon appears merely as a tone effect in bleached hues.

But just as soon as the sun begins to slope to the west a change takes place. The shadows begin to lengthen behind each wall and butte and pinnacle. Straightway the huge forms come forth in their massiveness, lift up, spread out. Drawing comes back and with it perspective. The air changes to lilac or purple, the light falls in concentrated shafts, warming the colors on the slopes of the Supai, bringing out the raspberry red of the Unkar Group, and turning the chocolate of the Granite Gorge into a lively purple. The lower the sun sinks and the sharper the sun-shaft, the farther back fall the resultant shadows, the stronger the relief of scarp and dome and arena, the higher the leap of every tint and hue in the Canyon. Gray becomes golden, red turns into carmine, blue becomes gas blue, and lilac becomes bright violet. The final blare of color is likely to come after the sun has perhaps dropped below the verge and the upper sky is all aflame. Then the Canyon catches up the overhead reflections and spreads them atop of its own local color to make a color gamut the like of which is seldom seen on land or sea.

The tale is repeated at dawn. The walls warm from fawn-color to orange, grow pink, grow red, grow gray. Shadows Iengthen and define, then contract and grow vague. Buttes disengage and stand out, then dissipate and practically disappear. Never while the sun travels across the arc of the blue is there any standstill to the panorama. It is al-ways shifting and changing, but its most brilliant display is at dawn and dusk when the sun-shafts are the flattest and the shadows are the longest.