Canyon Tales
The Saga of
the Yawning Throats

by Paul Fife

“The view was appalling. On every side yawning, rocky throats, bare of vegetation and probably 600 feet deep, opened up before us.”
            — C. L. Bernheimer, 1921

This was the reaction of the first white man to enter this part of Navajoland. Of course Bernheimer, a native of Manhattan, might have been equally appalled by the canyons in that city that would arise in future years.

It is true that the massive Navajo sandstone layer stretched out between the ridge that Bernheimer called the ‘Crouching Camel’ and Navajo Creek has been carved over the millennia in an incredibly intricate yet grandiose manner.

I doubt that Warren May’s reaction, when he first saw it in early March, 1995 from the same trail that Bernheimer had taken, was as much dismay as one of awe and curiosity. He ended up suggesting a trip into the innards of that contorted landscape, maybe even finding a way all the way through it.

And so around noon of March 11, 2000, six veteran hikers shouldered our packs and set off from our vehicles. We had parked on Navajo Creek near its junction with Jay–I. Warren and Bill Faris came up from Tucson. They are both hiking buddies of mine from the 80’s. Graeme Milton, Kline Barney, and I are from Salt Lake, and Geoffrey Grimmett came over from Cambridge to join us. All are mathematicians except Kline. We were to be in the backcountry five nights, mostly well into the maze of Bernheimer’s ‘rocky throats.’

The first destinations were three sites marked on the topo map by the notation ‘waterhole.’ That designation is of more than passing interest in this, and any, desert. In fact the whereabouts of water holes provided one of the main guiding principles for our movements throughout the trip. Fortunately, recent rains had left enough such holes around to more than satisfy our needs. But we saw no running water, except at the very beginning and end in Navajo and Jay–I Creeks.

The first task was a simple one—to find a way out of Jay–I onto the bench running parallel to Navajo Creek. There is a pack route of sorts to the bench and along it to a vicinity of the first designated water hole. We went there, and while Graeme and Geoffrey investigated whether the hole really existed, the rest of us lingered and actually found a good water source in the nearby wash. It is often the case that holes appear when a watercourse wears through a sandy layer and starts cutting through underlying rock. The cut may be smooth and regular, or because of inhomogeneities or possibly instabilities in the flow of runoff water, may involve basins and potholes. And so it was in this particular minor drainage.

In view of the lateness of the day, our not knowing about water ahead, and the pleasant campsite, we stayed for the night.

With a bit more confidence, we continued the next morning in the same direction, occasionally following parts of cattle/pack trails, and eventually found ourselves in another dry wash with a hogan, apparently seldom occupied. True to form the entrance faced East. This was next to a map–designated waterhole, and again there were a number of them rather than just one.

Our strategy this time was to leave our packs at the hogan and explore for possible ways into the other canyons to the northwest. Two scouting parties set out: Geoffrey and Graeme to the southwest and west, Warren, Bill, Kline and myself to the northeast and north.

We had little to go on other than a map with only hints of information. We could tell from the map that certain directions would almost surely lead to impossible obstacles, and others might not. No potential route is certain anywhere in this country. In this instance, it was clear that if we were to find a way, we would have to walk a distance either downcanyon or upcanyon from the hogan.

The Warren party walked up through the wash and onto a bench west of it. The bench was bordered on the west by cliffs rising up to higher country. We then walked along the bench examining possible routes to the high areas. I did not expect to actually find one, but we did. First there was a series of easy friction pitches up a dry watercourse, leading to a harder caprock layer, more difficult to surmount. But there was a route up through it as well. So we came out on top feeling proud of ourselves. But what to do next?

We were on one of a number of parallel northeast–southwest ridges separating valleys. The valleys are Bernheimer’s rocky throats when seen from above (to the northeast). We called the valley where the hogan is located ‘valley 1.’ The plan was to try to cross valleys 2 and 3 in the northwestward direction, and then go further north to the high country.

These parallel valleys were carved like grooves out of a thick slab of whitish/pinkish sandstone, the Navajo formation, by runoff water flowing in a southwesterly direction. This water originates from rain in a rather small watershed bordered by the south–facing slopes of a broken ridge running east to west. The ridge is a spectacular landmark. It is Bernheimer’s ‘Crouching Camel’, named for the shape of the Entrada rocks stretched along its crest. It is marked ‘Honishoosh Atiin’ on the topo map, but Warren tells us that ‘atiin’ means ‘way’ or ‘trail,’ so that designation might refer to the trail which runs along the Carmel Bench at the base of the cliffs. I looked in a dictionary and found that ‘shoosh’ means ‘to lay along side or parallel to’ and ‘honoogi’ (the only word I could find starting with ‘hon’) means ‘rough’—so maybe the whole thing means trail next to a rough place.

The trail is no doubt used to transport cattle to and from the flat areas that stretch over the vast country between here and the Colorado River.

It might also have been used as an approach route to the ‘Crossing of the Fathers’ in ancient times. For many centuries, that crossing was the only good way, along a very long segment of the river, that the native people had to cross it. It was used in 1776 by Escalante and Dominguez and their party on their return to Santa Fe from their search for a travel route to the west coast. The Honishoosh Atiin does provide a feasible route to that crossing from the East, although I think a better way would have been to head down Navajo Creek to a point opposite Kaibito Creek, where there is a trail leading out and toward the river.

Standing on the ridge between valleys 1 and 2, we gazed at what lay ahead and began to imagine routes. In fact, a large part of our time on this trip was spent in such imaginative activities. Warren was certainly the best of the lot in figuring out feasible itineraries. His typical pose was sitting on a rock with map in hand endlessly surveying the horizon. From the ridge we supposed we could find our way to the bottom of valley 2, which in fact we did. We also saw an inviting sandstone ramp up to the base of Honishoosh, but the country between here and the start of the ramp was mostly invisible and hence unknown.

The most exciting discovery, however, was Kline’s. He spotted a curious marking on one of the Navajo domes below us—like a pair of crosses with common center but with one rotated relative to the other. We almost couldn’t believe that anyone had been here before us, much less spend the time to make such a carving. We did manage to climb to the place and inspect the inscription at close quarters. I, at least, was convinced it was man–made, and remains one of the strange mysteries of the Navajo desert country. The design consisted of nine straight lines, each about a yard long, all leading from a common point, and going in different directions, roughly dividing the set of directions into nine equal parts. The weathering indicated it was not made in recent years.

It was fairly easy to walk to the bottom of valley 2 and in fact to find our way through a crack to the ridge between this and the next valley. But there was no obvious way to proceed further. Well, we could have gone northeast along the ridge, but where would that lead? It seemed almost out of the question to try to get directly from here into valley 3 or to go southwest along the ridge. So we called it a day. We retreated to the floor of valley 2 by a slightly different route and saw one of those wonderful gremlin playgrounds that exist here and there in this country. A fairly level sandstone surface endowed with a multitude of intricate figurines, typically a foot or two long. They were like contorted snakes covered with warts and spikes. At this inviting(?) spot there was also a nice water pocket.

Speaking of similes, I might mention that valley 3’s appearance on the topo map is that of a writhing centipede, many minor side canyons coming into it at right angles, and often opposite each other. It is the largest of the 3 valleys.

Back at the hogan, where we made our camp that night, we learned the Geoffrey and Graeme had also found a way into the next valley, a considerably easier route than ours. They ran across a couple of horses on the divide, apparently left there by their owner until needed, to graze on the few strands of grass to be found. (If they could digest juniper and apache plume, they would have been a lot better off.) The horses had led them to a good route into the next canyon, a mile or so downstream from where we had been. G and G had continued on in the general direction of the confluence of valley 3 and Navajo Creek. Undoubtedly there would be no good way to get down from that third valley into the creek.

Navajo Creek has the interesting feature of being almost walled in for an 18 mile stretch downstream from Jay–I Creek. At least I’ve not heard of any easy way for hikers to enter or exit that part from the side. There are a lot of minor drainages, like valleys 1–3, making their meager offerings to the mother creek, but this is apparently always done by water pouring down a cliff or through an inaccessible slot or chute. The reason is that Navajo Creek has carved its channel into the rock over the eons faster than the side canyons could keep up with. So while Navajo was digging itself deeper and deeper, the tributaries made relative little headway. The main creek drains a large area to the East and North, but the tributaries drain only the limited region southwest of Honishoosh; that affords them relatively little scouring power.

All rock–walled canyon systems in this country, even the Colorado River itself, exhibit such a phenomenon, usually to a lesser extent. As one travels down the Colorado, many potential channels are seen coming in from the side. Most end by sending their water down a steep rocky gradient toward the river. Others are well–developed washes in their own right, and come into the river at the same level as the river. At the stage in the development of the topography when the gradient is steep, the erosion process is greatly accelerated, partially making up for the small amount of water passing through, compared to the river itself. This rushing water typically will cut a steep descending slot through the rock much more rapidly than if the gradient had been small. The slot, in time, erodes its way upstream in the side channel for various distances. If there is enough water, the side channel will erode to eventually become passable for human beings; if not, we have to be content with simply admiring the sculptured slot from below or above. So there is a competition as to whether the side washes, in their erosive processes, can lower their level as rapidly as the main channel. The main channel has more water, but the side ones have faster erosion up until (and if) they drop to the level of the main channel. On Navajo Creek, apparently none have attained that latter stage on this long stretch. The upshot is that there is no good way that we have heard of, for hikers to leave Navajo Creek here and go directly to the country north or south of it.

In the morning, Graeme and Geoffrey led us on their route into the next valley. Again, there was some water in convenient places. The next piece of the puzzle was to find a way up out of valley 2, hopefully at a location where we could descend into valley 3. The map, as usual, did not tell us anything for sure, but baited us with some indications of passages where the contour lines were rather less close together than they were at other places. Scouts were sent out again, and they came back soon with an encouraging report. We were able to climb up to an interesting high area with many sandstone domes, shoulders, ridges, and noses. We explored them a bit. Warren speculated that if we could get onto the next nose, it might lead somewhere. Geoffrey met the challenge and got to the top of that nose. Even more encouraging was a carved date (1951) with arrow. He was on his way down the nose when Warren from the distance spotted some carved steps and primitive log construction below, which Geoffrey confirmed was a route. We all followed suit.

Lunch was on a sandy flat place (the ‘meadow’) below the nose. Then a surprisingly gentle V slope led us down to a platform above the inner gorge of valley 3. This platform, although still in the Navajo formation, consisted of relatively hard sandstone which resisted erosion. We could look down past the platform wall to a shady Shangri–La—the main channel of the wash. But no access. All we could do was walk the platform to where the main watercourse descended through it. There were a few potholes in the vicinity, and since further progress would require some scouting, we decided to camp here.

We used the same strategy as on the previous day. Warren and Bill alone formed the scouting party this time, and again they headed in the direction which they deemed to be the most feasible. The result was inconclusive, although they did find a way to the high country further west. There was no water on their route, so they decided that a more extensive reconnaissance, set for the following morning, was called for.

In the meantime Geoffrey and Graeme tried unsuccessfully to get in Shangri–La, while Kline and I, joined later by Geoffrey, explored a side canyon leading into the main wash from the West, hoping it would provide access. It didn’t—it led only to a sculptured slot, but we saw some very interesting country.

The new scouting party the next morning consisted of Warren, Bill, and Geoffrey. Their objective was to find a route, if one existed, to an area near the high trail where Warren had seen water holes on his previous trip.

The rest of us, Kline, Graeme and I, spent a very pleasant morning strolling up the wash and poking around the various sub–branches to see whether there might be a route up to the high trail more directly out of that particular ‘yawning rocky throat.’ We climbed up on a succession of benches, saw some interesting formations, and Graeme saw a way to go even higher, but our findings were still inconclusive.

We arrived back at camp shortly after the others did. Their mission had been accomplished. Kline thought they would be back at 2, I said 12, and we wagered milk shakes on which was the closer to the actual arrival time. It was 12, and Kline treated Graeme, Geoffrey and me to hamburgers (at least) on the way home.

We all used the afternoon to exit by way of the discovered route. There was only one slightly difficult spot. So that night, we camped at a series of extremely fine water holes. They were located on the high trail at the place where we first joined that trail. We were also near an Entrada monolith detached from Honishoosh. This was almost the point furthest west where Warren had been before. We enjoyed a sensuous evening with great views of the sun going down, and of the prominent mesas to the West. Beginning with Cummings Mesa, which we couldn’t see from this spot, there are a series of mesas and buttes made up of the Entrada, Summerville, and Morrison formations in the country between there and Lake Powell. Cummings Mesa is the largest; each of the others, which all have Navajo names on the map, is elongated in a southeast–to–northwest direction, usually broken up into several separate buttes. They must be the most isolated mesas in the U.S., at least in the lower 48.

From here, the way was less intriguing because there was no question about where it was. But the views were great. We followed the steep trail up through the top part of the Navajo sandstone toward Honishoosh/Crouching Camel. The trail had been blasted in places—maybe the work of the CCC? We topped the Navajo and traveled on a Carmel stratum for a couple of miles. Following Bernheimer’s lead, we stopped at one place to scramble up to the saddle between the camel’s hump and head. This afforded views of Navajo Mountain, West Canyon, White Mesa to the South, and Cummings Mesa. Being in direct line to Navajo Mountain, we had good cell phone connections, and all of us used Kline’s phone. Bill, in fact, called his son in New York and girl friend in Moscow.

We had great fun trying (sometimes successfully) to spot the route we had used in traversing the chasms below us. Warren even spied what was probably the logs on that nose ‘1951’ which had been placed for the cattle’s protection.

The trail led to the east end of Honishoosh. At that point we left it and walked overland to a small pass leading into upper West Canyon drainage. In that basin there is a dependable water hole that had been utilized by Warren and Bill twice before, and by me as well on a different trip. This time, there were in fact quite a few holes with water near there. We set up camp and explored, in different parties, various places nearby, including Nashdoi ... (a water hole on the map) and an interesting slot running up one of the branches of upper West Canyon Creek. Our spirits were high that evening, despite an aggressive wind.

We made an early start on our exit day. We pulled ourselves up once again to the saddle, and then descended the full length of a wash which led from there to Jay–I Creek. Eber Glendenning, many years ago, had given it the most appropriate of all possible names: ‘Much Sand Wash.’ There wasn’t much to break the monotony until some rough country near the end—just one long dry slog. At the confluence with Jay–I we encountered, for the first time on the trip, another person. He was a Navajo boy herding a flock of sheep. Jay–I, in contrast to Much Sand, was wet all the way to its junction with Navajo Creek.

Paul Fife

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© 2007 Paul Fife