Canyon Tales
To the Pot of Gold
and Back

by Paul Fife

• Three old–timers’ circumnavigation
and ascent of the Rainbow •

This trip took place in April, 1999 with Peter Bates and my neighbor Kline Barney. It was, for me, a ‘dream’ traverse of three canyons, which I’d been thinking about for many years.

The Rainbow Plateau is a huge plate of Navajo sandstone carved into deep narrow canyons, domes, and vertical cliffs rising hundreds of feet from bottom to top. Lying on the side of the Navajo Mountain uplift, this plate has not only been carved but also tilted and warped. The stress created this way caused fractures running parallel to the contours of the mountain. They started small but by erosion through the millenia came out looking like clefts between long pieces of sandstone resembling fins, ribs, or noses. At the same time, the lifting encouraged streams to erode canyons going the other way—down from the mountain and perpendicular to the fins. What has resulted is a complicated patchwork of narrow canyons, crevices, and slots.

Dominating this area is a monolith of white Navajo and brilliant red Entrada sandstone which is usually called the ‘Rainbow.’ It is part of a high ridge embedded in the Rainbow Plateau, attached by a high saddle to the mountain itself. By the way, the reason these features bear the name ‘Rainbow’ is because Nonnezoshe, or ‘Rainbow Bridge’ is nearby. This largest and most beautiful of all natural stone spans was first seen by white men, guided by Piutes, in 1909. The path of discovery was by a route along the north of Navajo Mountain through that high saddle south of the Rainbow. The region north of the Rainbow is possibly the most impenetrable part of the network of ridges and slots forming the Rainbow Plateau.

On April 25, 1999, Kline Barney, Peter Bates and I set out to make our way by foot through this maze from one end to the other. We wanted to go from Oak Canyon on the west to Nasja Creek on the east.

As far as we know, there is only one way to do this staying north of the Rainbow, unless you have considerable technical climbing skill. Pete Cowgill, outdoors editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, had written an account of how he found the route (in the east–to–west direction) in the 1980’s on a day hike from his camp near Nasja Creek. A year later he and several others did a proper traverse with backpacks. His article was not a guide to future users of the route, of course, and lacked details. So my friend Warren May and I became very curious about the specifics.

In 1985 I went to what I thought may be the eastern end of the route, in Lehi canyon, but was in fact sceptical because any continuation of it to the west looked too difficult to be taken seriously. In 1998 Warren May and Bill Faris, again on a day hike, recovered Cowgill’s route and wrote me to confirm that indeed that discouraging crossing of Lehi was on the right ‘track.’ Moreover, Warren confirmed that the ascent through a gully out of Lehi was the worst part of the trip. He gave me a few other details and I determined on the spot to see it for myself.

Because of the notorious gully (Cowgill had originally said he would never take a pack through there), I thought the reverse direction, west to east, would be easier.

So on that April day the three of us camped where the 1909 discovery trail, now a well–established horse route, crosses Oak Creek. Our aim was to go clockwise around the Rainbow, using the Cowgill route west to east, then the standard trail back to Oak. If possible, we wanted to do some extra exploring along the way, including climbing the Rainbow itself. At ages 51, 64, and 69, we were only mentally in the prime of life.

The first day was familiar territory to me. We left Oak Canyon at a place downstream where Ken Goodearl, Graeme Milton and I had been a couple of years previously, and headed for a water hole which I remembered had the marks of permanence about it. Sure enough, it was full of water and we camped there. Decades ago, when the Navajos used the occasional blackbrush mesas in that country for sheep grazing, that location must have been a popular stopping place, because there were a lot of rusted cans nearby.

With some time on our hands, we climbed a nearby peak called Dougi Butte. We got to do a lot of sticky–shoeing on the way up. That means walking on sloped bare sandstone, relying on friction to keep you from losing your footing.

In doing that you occasionally run into some interesting small formations that had been uncovered by the eroding sandstone. Typical ones are spherical concretions of several sizes or contorted ob jects that look like crooked fat warty snakes. What got our attention this time was a regular array of about 8 black pipes protruding from the otherwise rather smooth rock. All in the same direction. It was hard to believe they were natural, but of course they were. The ‘pipe’ material was just more sandstone that had been locally hardened and colored by some kind of chemical action.

Dougi Butte affords a good view of most things of interest in the area, including the Rainbow and Lake Powell. The top of the butte is rock–strewn sand, a part of the Carmel formation atop the Navajo sandstone. We were delighted to find a lot of blue phacelias in full bloom there. They are a spring ephemeral which adds a lot of color to the desert. The other prominent flowering plant was the sand verbena—not so colorful.

Since the weather looked not too menacing, we decided that a climb of the Rainbow was in order the next day. I had been there before, so Peter and Kline went up while I gathered some information on the ground level.

Climbing the Rainbow had been another fond desire of many of us in Tucson. Again, Pete Cowgill wrote a newspaper article which appeared on Dec. 23, 1988 about his ascent with a group, and again Warren had told me about his climb in the early 1990’s. True to form, I talked Graeme and Ken into climbing it a couple of years later. The route we used turned out to be different from Cowgill’s and Warren’s up through the Navajo sandstone formation, but I did not know it until I corresponded with Warren afterwards. This time, Peter and Kline used the original route. After topping the Navajo, I think all routes have to be pretty much the same.

The wind on the Rainbow was especially fierce that day (I remember it was also pretty bad the time I went up with Graeme and Ken). One crucial step involved getting up over a ledge near the top of a long sticky–shoeing part. Peter and Kline were helped by a pile of stones put there by a kind person or two.

While they were doing their thing, I scouted out our prospective route into the Moepitz Creek drainage and selected a campsite supplied with water in several potholes. I also went to a dramatic overlook into a bay called ‘Oak Canyon’ on boaters’ maps. It is unnamed on the USGS topos, and Oak Canyon becomes the long canyon to the south. The concretions I found this time looked like a colony of clams.

Circling around, I also found the ‘Moki steps’ indicated on the boaters’ maps leading up to the foot of the Rainbow from that same Lake Powell bay. They are cairned from above and appear to me to be pretty reliable, although I didn’t follow them all the way to the bottom. Late that afternoon we moved camp to the place I suggested. We were not too tired to play a few hands of ‘Rook.’

The walk to Moepitz the next day was easy, as was our climb out of it to the east. A little compass work and a couple of trials took us to Cowgill’s route to the bottom of Anasazi Canyon. Peter found a cairn in a valley mentioned by Warren and we were on our way down a crack. The last part of the descent was a drop–off past a chockstone; I would have had problems climbing back the other way.

The bottom of Anasazi was a peaceful comforting place with pools of water and U–shaped canyon. After lunch I was awakened by claps of thunder. So we scurried away. The climb out the other side was through a slot with a lot of water stretching along the bottom. Peter and generally Kline were able to avoid the water by stemming the two walls hands–to–feet. I walked through the water. At a couple of places Kline and I passed our packs along across the water to Peter. The hardest place for me had been mentioned by both Cowgill and Warren. It was an overhanging chockstone which we climbed or stemmed over.

At several points along the slot some indistinct Moki steps were in the rock. They fired our imagination about where they (Anasazi?) were going and what they were thinking. At the chockstone the steps were vertically aligned and Peter, who is as agile as an antelope, scampered up them in no time. I had some help from Peter and Kline in pulling up over the chockstone. Also there was a redbud tree hanging down which was both a help and a hindrance.

Out of the crack, we welcomed the chance to pitch tents near a water hole (already the next morning the water had seeped away). The route from here went up over a pass, down a long nose and up the next long nose. Peter scouted out the first part that evening and we followed his guidance the next morning.

The long crack leading down into Lehi was full of lots of obstructions to keep things interesting. We passed our packs down separately quite a few times, and did a fair amount of sliding down walls (for the rest of the trip my backside was more ventilated than I would have wished). Despite all that, I was a little surprised at how quickly we got to the bottom. And relieved. From this point on, the route was not new to me. I already mentioned the trip of 1985.

Lehi was another pretty photogenic place with pools of water. Going out the other side involved a short walk through water (wet shoes were welcome), and climbing out one of the ubiquitous cracks with boulders set to impede progress. We ended up on the top of another flat blackbrush–covered Carmel mesa (Kline calls them soccer fields). Following a route that I knew well and that Peter and I had in fact used on a trip in about 1987, we made our way over and down to the headwaters of Lehi canyon. Again, there was a nice pothole and we made camp there. Another game of rook!

In the morning we went on a nice hike with daypacks into the only section of upper Anasazi Canyon inviting easy access. It was a place that Dave Roberts had written about in his book ‘In Search of the Old Ones.’ Armed with a lot of rope and inflatable raft, Roberts and friends continued almost all the way down the creek. We were able to walk a mile or two down the canyon to where the water pours through a narrow trough to a pool below. This easy canyon was an idyllic Shangri–La with only one access that I knew about.

Back to the camp, we shouldered our packs and set off for the next obstacle. It was a narrow place affording sinewy passage through a very thick sandstone wall. We brought out the wet shoes and waded through a couple of little pools and walked through some dry but potentially wet ones. Then up over another dome, delicately down a slope, and on to some Navajo steps. These steps leading down a wall are in pretty good condition, so they must have been made or at least altered in more modern times. By good condition, I mean that they are almost large enough, and there are enough of them so one doesn’t have to jump far. Warren spotted them on a previous trip in 1981 that we had taken in that area. At that time Warren, Hiroshi Matano and I found our way up the step and by a convoluted pathway on up to the high country. This is probably the unique nontechnical route between that upland near Lehi and upper Nasja Creek.

We lowered our packs sliding and scraping down the cliff, then came down ourselves, using the steps. A little scary, but easier than some climbing we had done before on the trip.

After this it was straightforward to walk up to Surprise Valley where the established trail north of Navajo Mountain crossed Nasja Creek. We followed it over the pass next to our good friend the Rainbow and down to camp the same place we had stayed five nights before. That completed our circumnavigation of the Rainbow. Back to Rainbow Bridge the next day, where Gil and Marva Tobler (Peter’s in–laws) kindly met us with their boat.

•  Addendum  •

Let’s go back to the trip in 1985 that I mentioned. I was poking around by myself in Lehi canyon and nearby places and found my way, by happy surprise, into upper Anasazi (Dave Roberts didn’t write about that unbelievably pleasant place until 1997). Moreover, I found a route, from Anasazi to a divide between Anasazi and Moepitz canyons, and saw what I thought was a cairn at the top of a precipitous defile leading into the latter. I was too tired to pursue that route any further.

But my curiosity was fired up again in 2001 when Warren May told me about a posting on guide Terry Gustafson’s website in which he mentioned what suspiciously seemed to be a continuation of that route down into the defile. Warren was equally enthusiastic, and, in March of that year, the two of us, plus Bill Faris, Nat Smale, and Graeme Milton, found ourselves retracing the route to the divide that I had found in 1985. Sure enough, it did lead to the bottom of Moepitz and from there through a colorful channel to the familiar country beyond.

But even more exciting was a tantalizing hint of a possible easier alternative passage, accessed from the other one, leading further along the Anasazi–Moepitz divide. This offshoot was discovered and explored a little way by Nat and Graeme. In fact they came back on a later occasion (May, 2001) and verified that it did provide a segment of what turned out to be the easiest traverse, north of the Rainbow, of the trio of canyons Lehi, Anasazi, and Moepitz. It was no doubt what Gustafson was writing about. That makes 3 nontechnical traverse routes in all. Even though they all begin and end at the same places, each has its own set of enticements.

Paul Fife

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2007 Paul Fife