Grand Canyon Exploration Log July 26 – August 1, 1869

Walter Mow

July 26, — “We run a short distance this morning and go into camp to make oars and repair boats and barometers. The walls of the canyon have been steadily increasing in altitude to this point, and now they are more than 2,000 feet high. In many places they are vertical from the water’s edge; in others this is a talus between the river and the foot of the cliff; and they are often broken down by side canyons. It is possible the river is as low now as it is ever found. High water mark can be observed 40, 50, 60, or 100 feet above its present stage. Sometimes logs and driftwood are seen lodged into crevices overhead, where floods have carried them”.

The volume of water necessary to make the river’s high water mark a hundred feet above the canyon floor would seem to me to be floods on a near biblical scale. It would take a heavy winter snow melting in a short time for this kind of flooding. If it this high in the confines of the canyon, think how far it would spread out in the valleys associated with the river system.

“About ten o’clock, Powell, Bradley, Howland, Hall and I startup a side canyon to the east. We soon come to pools of water; then to a brook, which is lost in the sands below; and passing up the brook, we see that the canyon narrows, the walls close in and are often overhanging, and at last we find ourselves in a vast amphitheater, with a pool of deep, clear , cold water on the bottom. At first our way seems cut off; but we soon discover a little shelf, along which we climb, and, passing beyond the pool, walk a hundred yards or more, turn to the right, and find ourselves in another dome-shaped amphitheater. There is a winding cleft at the top, reaching out into the country above, nearly 2,000 feet overhead. The rounded, basin-shaped bottom is filled with water to the foot of the walls. There is no shelf by which we can pass around the foot, If we swim across we meet with a face of rock hundreds of feet high, over which a little rill glides, and it will be impossible to climb. So we can go no farther up this canyon. Then we turn back and examine the walls on either side carefully, to discover, if possible, some way of climbing out. In this search every man takes his own course, and we are scattered. I almost abandon the idea of getting out and am engaged in searching for fossils, when I discover, on the north, a broken place up which it may be possible to climb. The way for a distance is up the slide of rocks; then up an irregular amphitheater, on points that form steps and give handhold; and the I reach a little shelf, along which I walk, and discover a vertical fissure parallel to the face of the wall and reaching to a higher shelf. This fissure is narrow and I try to climb up to the bench, which is about 40 feet overhead. I have a barometer on my back, which rather impedes my climbing. The walls of the fissure are smooth limestone, offering neither foothold nor handhold. So I support myself be pressing my back against one wall and my knees against the other, and in this way lift my body, in a shuffling manner, a few inches at a time, until I have made perhaps 25 feet of the distance, when the crevice widens a little and I cannot press my knees against the rock in front with sufficient power to give me support in lifting my body; so I try to go back. This I cannot do without falling. So I struggle along sidewise farther into the crevice, where it narrows. But by this time my muscles are exhausted and I cannot climb longer; so I move still farther into the crevice, where it is so narrow and wedging that I can lie in it, and there I rest. Five or ten minutes of this relief, and up once more I go, and reach the bench above. On this I can walk for a quarter of a mile, till I come to a place where the wall again is broken down, so I climb up still farther; and in an hour I reach the summit. I hang up my barometer to give it a few minutes time to settle, and occupy myself collecting resin from the pin~on pines, which are found in great abundance. One of the principal objects in making this climb was to get this resin for the purpose of smearing our boats; but I have no means of carrying it down. The day is very hot and my coat was left in camp, so I have no linings to tear out. Then it occurs to me to cut off the sleeve of my shirt and tie it up at one end, and in this little sack I collect about a gallon of pitch. After taking observations for altitude, I wander back on the rock for an hour or two, when suddenly I notice that a storm is coming from the south. I seek shelter in the rocks, but when the storm bursts, it comes down as a flood from the heavens, — not with gentle drops at first, slowly increasing in quantity, but as if suddenly poured out. I am thoroughly drenched and almost washed away. It lasts not more than half an hour, when the clouds sweep by to the north and I have sunshine again”.



In the meantime I have discovered a better way of getting down, and start for camp, making the greatest haste possible. On reaching the bottom of the side canyon, I find a thousand streams rolling down the cliffs on every side, carrying with them red sand; and these all unite in the canyon below in one great stream of red mud”.

“Traveling as fast as I can run, I soon reach the foot of the stream, for the rain did not reach the lower end of the canyon and the water is running down a dry bed of sand; and although it comes in waves several feet high and 15 or 20 feet in width, the sands soak it up and it is lost. But wave follows wave and rolls along and is swallowed up; and still the floods come on from above. I find I can travel faster than the stream; so I hasten to camp and tell the men there is a river coming down the canyon. We carry our camp equipage hastily from the bank to where we think it will be above the water. Then we stand by and see the river roll on to join the Colorado. Great quantities of gypsum are found at the bottom of the gorge; so we name it Gypsum Canyon”.

Major Powell has experienced a “cloud burst” and a “flash flood” in a dry canyon. It may not rain close by, but the canyons can be a death trap for anyone caught in the bottom when the flood waters come roaring down these dry canyons. It is foolhardy to try to out run a flash flood in either a canyon or an arroyo as they can often travel at speeds of 20 miles an hour or more.

July 27, — “We have more rapids and falls until noon; then we come to a narrow place in the canyon, with vertical walls for several hundred feet, above which are steep steps and sloping rocks back to the summits. The river is very narrow, and we make our way with great care and much anxiety, hugging the wall on the left and carefully examining the way before us”.

“Late in the afternoon we pass to the left around a sharp point, which is somewhat broken down near the foot, and discover a flock of mountain sheep on the rocks more than a hundred feet above us. We land quickly in a cove out of sight, and away go all the hunters with their guns, for the sheep have not discovered us, Soon we hear firing, and those of us who have remained in the boats climb up to see what success the hunters have had, One of the sheep has been killed, and two of the men are still pursuing them. In a few minutes we hear firing again, and the next moment down come the flock clattering over the rocks within 20yards of us. One of the hunters seizes his gun and brings down a second sheep down, and the next minute the remainder of the flock is lost behind the rocks. We all give chase; but it is impossible to follow their tracks aver the naked rock, and we see them no more. Where they went out of this rock-walled canyon is a mystery, for we can see no way of escape. Doubtless, if we could spare the time for the search, we should find a gulch up which they ran”. We lash our prizes to the deck of one of the boats and go on for a short distance; but fresh meat is too tempting for us, and we stop early to have a feast. And a feast it is! Two fine young sheep! We care not for bread or beans or dried apples to-night; coffee and mutton are all we ask”.

July 28, — “We make two portages this morning, one of them very long. During the afternoon we run a chute more than half a mile in length, narrow and rapid. This chute has a floor of marble; the rocks dip in the direction in which we are going, and the fall of the stream conforms to the inclination of the beds; so float on water that is gliding down an inclined plane. At the foot of the chute the river turns sharply to the right and the water rolls up against a rock which from above seems to stand directly athwart its course. As we approach it we pull with all our power to the right, but it seems impossible to avoid being carried headlong against the cliff; we are carried up high on the waves – but not against the rock, for the rebounding water strikes us and we are beaten back and pass on with safety, except that we got a good drenching”.

After this the walls suddenly close in, so that the canyon is narrower than we have ever known it. The water fills it from wall to wall, giving us no landing place at the foot of the cliff; the river is very swift and the canyon is very tortuous, so that we can see but a few hundred yards ahead; the walls tower over us, often overhanging so as almost to shut out the light. I stand on deck, watching with intense anxiety, lest this may lead into some danger; but we glide along, with no obstruction, no falls, no rocks, and in a mile and a half emerge from the narrow gorge into a more open and broken portion of the canyon. Now that it is past, it seems a simple thing indeed to run through such a place, but the fear of what might be ahead made a deep impression on us”.

At three o’clock we arrive at the foot of Cataract Canyon. Here a long canyon valley comes down from the east, and the river turns sharply to the west in a continuation of the line of the lateral valley. In the bend on the right vast numbers of crags and pinnacles and tower shaped rocks are seen. We call it Mille Crag Bend”.

“And now we wheel into another canyon, on swift water unobstructed by rocks. This new canyon is very narrow and very straight, with walls vertical below and terraced above. Where we enter it the brink of the cliff is 1,300 feet above the water, but the rocks dip to the west, and as the course of the canyon is in that direction the walls are seen slowly to decrease in altitude. Floating down the narrow channel and looking out through the canyon crevice away in the distance, the river is seen to turn again to the left, and beyond this point, away many miles, a great mountain is seen. Still floating down, we see other mountains, now on the right, now on the left, until a great mountain range is unfolded to view. We name this Narrow Canyon, and it terminates at the bend of the river below”.



“As we go down to this point we discover the mouth of a stream which enters from the right. Into this our little boat is turned. The water is exceedingly muddy and has an unpleasant odor. One of the men in the boat following, seeing what we have done, shouts to Dunn and asks whether it is a trout stream. Dunn replies, much disgusted, that it is ‘a dirty devil’, and by that name the river is to known hereafter”.

Some of us go out for a mile and a half and climb a butte to the north. The course of the Dirty Devil River can be traced for miles. It comes down through a very narrow canyon, and beyond it, to the southwest, there is a long line of cliffs, with a broad terrace, or bench, between it and the brink of the canyon, and beyond these cliffs is situated the range of mountains seen as we came down Narrow Canyon. Looking up the Colorado, the chasm through which it runs can be seen, but we cannot see down to its waters. The whole country is a region of naked rock of many colors, with cliffs and buttes about us and towering mountains in the distance”.

July 29, — “We enter a canyon to-day, with low, red walls. A short distance below its head we discover the ruins of an old building on the left wall. There is a narrow plain between the river and the wall just here, and on the brink of a rock 200 feet high stands this old house. Its walls are of stone, laid in mortar with much regularity. It was probably built three stories high; the lower floor is yet almost intact; the second is much broken down, and scarcely any thing is left of the third. Great quantities of flint chips are found on the rocks nearby, and many arrowheads, some perfect, others broken; and fragments of pottery are strewn about in great profusion. On the face of the cliff, under the building and along the river for 200 to 300 yards, there are many etchings. Two hours are given to the examination of these interesting ruins; then we run down fifteen miles farther, and discover another group. The principal building was situated on the summit of the hill. A part of the walls are standing, to a height of eight or ten feet, and the mortar remains in some places. The house was in the shape of an L, with five rooms on the ground floor, — one in the angle and two in each extension. In the space in the angle there is a deep excavation. From what we know of the people in the Province of Tusayan, who are, doubtless, of the same race as the former inhabitants of these ruins, we conclude that this was a kiva, or underground chamber in which their religious ceremonies were performed”.


“We leave these ruins and run down two or three miles and go into camp about mid-afternoon. And now I climb the wall and go out into the back country for a walk”.
“The sandstone through which the canyon is cut is red and homogeneous, being the same as that which Labyrinth Canyon runs. The smooth naked rock stretches out in either side of the river for many miles, but curiously carved mounds and cones are scattered everywhere and deep holes are worn out. Many of these pockets are filled with water. In one of these holes or wells, 20 feet deep, I find a tree growing. The excavation is so narrow that I can step from its brink to a limb don the tree and descend to the bottom of the well down a growing ladder. Many of these pockets are potholes, being formed in the courses of little rills or brooks that run during the rains which occasionally fall in this region; and often a few harder rocks, which evidently assisted in their excavation, can be found in their bottoms. Others, which are shallower, are not so easily explained. Perhaps where they are found softer spot existed in the sandstone, places that yielded more readily to atmospheric degradation, the loose sands being carried away by the wins”.

Dried lake bed and sandstone formations along the Dirty Devil River, Glen Canyon Ntl. Recreation Area, Utah

Just before sundown I attempt to climb a rounded eminence, from which I hope to `obtain a good outlook on the surrounding country. It is formed of smooth mounds. piled one above another. Up these I climb, winding here and there to find a practicable way, until near the summit they become too steep for me to proceed. I search about a few minutes for an easier way, when I am surprised at finding a stairway, evidently cut in the rock by hands. At one place, where there is a vertical wall of 10 or 12 feet, I find an old, rickety ladder. It may be that this was a watchtower of that ancient people whose homes we have found in ruins. On many of the tributaries of the Colorado, I have heretofore examined their deserted dwellings. Those that show evidences of being built during the latter part of their occupation of the country are usually placed on the most inaccessible cliffs. Sometimes the mouths of caves have been walled across, and there are many other evidences to show their anxiety to secure defensible positions. Probably the nomadic tribes sweeping down upon them and they resorted to these cliffs and canyons for safety. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this orange mound was used as a watchtower. Here I stand, where these now lost people stood centuries ago, and I look over this strange country, gazing off to great mountains in the northwest which are slowly disappearing under cover of night; and then I return to camp. It is no easy task to find my way down the wall in darkness, and I clamber about until it is nearly midnight when camp is reached”.

July 30, — “We make good progress to-day, as the water, though smooth, is swift. Sometimes the canyon walls are vertical to the top; sometimes they are vertical below and have a mound-covered slope above; in other places the slope, with its mounds, comes down to the water’s edge”.

Still proceeding on our way, we find that the orange sandstone is cut in two by a firm, calcareous strata, and the lower bed is under-laid by soft, gypsiferous shales. Sometimes the upper homogeneous bed is a smooth, vertical wall, but usually it is carved with mounds, with gently meandering valley lines. The lower bed, yielding to gravity, as the softer shales work out into the river, breaks into angular surfaces, often having a columnar appearance. One could almost imagine that the walls had been carved with a purpose, to represent giant architectural forms. In the deep recesses of the walls we find springs, with mosses and ferns on the moistened sandstone”.

July31, — “We have a cool, pleasant ride through this part of the canyon. The walls are steadily increasing in altitude, the curves are gentle, and often the river sweeps by an arc of vertical wall, smooth and unbroken; and then by a curve that is variegated by royal arches, mossy alcoves, deep, beautiful glens and painted grottoes. Soon after dinner we discover the mouth of the San Juan, here we camp. The remainder of the afternoon is given to hunting some way by which we can climb out of the canyon; but it ends in failure”.

August 1, — “We drop down two miles this morning and go into camp again. There is a low, willow covered strip of land along the walls on the east. Across this we walk, to explore an alcove which we see from the river. On entering, we find a little grove of box-elder and cottonwood trees, and turning to the right, we find ourselves in a vast chamber, carved out of the rock. At the upper end there is a clear, deep pool of water, bordered with verdure. Standing by the side of this, we can see the grove at the entrance. The chamber is more than 200 feet high, 500 feet long, and 200 feet wide. Through the ceiling, and on through the rocks for a thousand feet above, there is a narrow, winding skylight; and this is all carved out by a little stream which runs only during the few showers that fall now and then in this arid country. The waters from the bare rocks back of the canyon, gathering rapidly into a small channel have eroded a deep side canyon, through which they run until they fall into the farther end of this chamber. The rock at the ceiling is hard, the rock below, very soft and friable; and having cut through the upper and harder portion down into the lower and softer, the stream has washed out these friable sandstones; and thus the chamber has been excavated”.

“Here we bring our camp. When ‘Old Shady’ sings us a song at night, we are pleased to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds. It was doubtless made for an academy of music by its storm-born architect; so we name it ‘Music Temple’”.

Save