Grand Canyon Exploration Log August 2 – 8, 1869

by Walter Mow

August 2, — “We still keep our camp in Music Temple to-day. I wish to obtain a view of the adjacent country, if possible; so, early in the morning the men take me across the river, and I pass along by the foot on the cliff half a mile up stream and then climb, first up broken ledges, then 200 or 300 yards up a smooth, sloping rock, and then pass out on a narrow ridge. Still I find I have not attained an altitude from which I can overlook the region outside of the canyon; and so I descend into a little gulch and climb again to a higher ridge, all the way along naked sandstone, and at last I reach a point of commanding view. I can look several miles up the San Juan, and a long distance up the Colorado; and away to the northwest I can see the Henry Mountains; to the northeast, the Sierra La Sal; to the southeast, unknown mountains; and to the southwest the meandering of the canyon. Then I return to the bank of the river. We sleep again in Music Temple”.

August 3, — “Start early this morning. The features of this canyon are greatly diversified. Still vertical walls at times. These are usually found to stand above the great curves. The river, sweeping around these bends, undermines the cliffs in places. Sometimes the rocks are overhanging; in other curves, curious, narrow glens are found. Through these we climb, by a rough stairway, perhaps several hundred feet, to where a spring bursts out from an overhanging cliff, and where cottonwoods and willows stand, while along the brooklet oaks grow, and other rich vegetation is seen, in marked contrast to the general appearance of naked rock. We call these Oak Glens”.

“Other wonderful features are the many side canyons or gorges that we pass. Sometimes we stop to explore these for a short distance. In some places their walls are much nearer each other above than below, so that they look somewhat like caves or chambers in the rocks. Usually, in going up such a gorge, we find beautiful vegetation; but our way is often cut off by deep basins, or ‘potholes’, as they are called”.

“On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features – carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon”.

“Past these towering mountains, past these mounded billows of orange sandstone, past these oak set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour, stopping now and then, as our attention is arrested by some new wonder, until we reach a point which is historic”.

“In the year 1776, Father Escalante, a Spanish priest, made an expedition from Santa Fe to the northwest, crossing the Grand and the Green, and then passing down along the Wasatch Mountains and the southern plateaus until he reached the Rio Virgen. His intention was to cross to the Mission of Monterey; but, from information received from the Indians, he decided that the route was impracticable. Not wishing to return to Santa Fe over the circuitous route by which he had just traveled, he attempted to go by one more direct, which lead him across the Colorado at a point known as ‘El Vado de los Padres’. From the description which we have read, we are enabled to determine the place. A little stream comes down through a very narrow side canyon from the west. It was down this that he came, and our boats are lying at the point where the ford crosses. A well-beaten Indian trail is seen here yet. Between the cliff and the river there is a little meadow. The ashes of many camp fires are seen, and the bones of numbers of cattle are bleaching on the grass. For several years the Navajos have raided on the Mormons that dwell in the valleys to the west, and they doubtless cross frequently at this ford with their stolen cattle”.

“El Vado de los Padres”, English translation “The Crossing of the Fathers”, was one of the few fords on the Colorado River accessible to travelers at the time of Major Powell’s expedition. Two Spanish priests, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante crossed the Colorado at this ford November 7, 1776 abandoning an effort to establish a new route to the missions in California. Sadly, the site is now covered by the waters of Lake Powell.

August 4, — To-day the walls grow higher and the canyon much narrower. Monuments are still seen on either side; beautiful glens and alcoves and gorges and side canyons are yet found. After dinner we find the river making a sudden turn to the northwest and the character of the canyon changed. The walls are many hundreds of feet higher, and the rocks are chiefly variegated shales of beautiful colors – creamy orange above, then bright vermillion, and below, purple and chocolate beds, with green and yellow sands. We run four miles through this, in a direction a little to the west of north, wheel again to the west, and pass into a portion of the canyon where the characteristics are more like those above the bend. At night we stop at the mouth of a creek coming in from the right and suppose it to be the Paria, which was described to me by a Mormon missionary. Here the canyon terminates abruptly in a line of cliffs, which stretches from either side across the river”.


The party has entered present day Arizona. At the junction of the Paria and Colorado, John D. Lee would establish a ferry operation, beginning in January of 1873, although it changed hands several times, would operate until June 1928.

August 5, — “With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning. We have learned to observe closely the texture of the rock. In softer strata we have a quiet river, in harder we find rapids and falls. Below us are the limestones and hard sandstones which we found in Cataract Canyon. This bodes toil and danger. Besides the texture of the rocks, there is another condition which affects the character of the channel, as we have found by experience. Where the strata are horizontal the river is often quiet, and, even though it may be very swift in places, no great obstacles are found. Where the rocks incline in the direction traveled, the river usually sweeps with great velocity, but has few rapids and falls. But where the rocks dip up stream and the river cuts obliquely across the upturned formations, harder strata above and softer below, we have rapids and falls. Into hard rocks and into dipping up stream we pass this morning and start on a long, rocky, mad rapid. On the left there is a vertical rock, and down by this cliff and around we glide, tossed just enough by the waves to appreciate the rate at which we are traveling”.

“The Canyon is narrow, with vertical walls, which gradually grow higher. More rapids and falls are found. We come to one with a drop of sixteen feet, around which we make a portage, and then stop for dinner. Then a run of two miles, and another portage, long and difficult; then we camp for the nigh on a bank of sand”.

August 6, — “Canyon walls, still higher and higher, as we go down through the strata. There is a steep talus at the foot of the cliff, and in some places the upper parts of the walls are terraced”.

Coyotte Buttes North, Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Utah-Arizona border, USA

“About ten o’clock we come to a place where the river occupies the entire channel and the walls are vertical from the water’s edge. We see a fall below and row up against the cliff. There is a little shelf, or rather a horizontal crevice, a few feet over our heads. One man stands on the deck of the boat, another climbs on his shoulders, and then into the crevice. Then we pass him a line, and two or three others, with myself, follow; then we pass along the crevice until it becomes a shelf, as the upper part, or roof, is broken off. On this we walk for a short distance, slowly climbing all the way, until we reach a point where the shelf is broken off, and we can pass no farther, So we go back to the boat, cross the stream, and get some logs that have lodged in the rocks, bring them to our side, pass them along the crevice and shelf, and bridge over the broken place. Then we go on to a point over the falls, but do not obtain a satisfactory view. So we climb out to the top of the wall and walk along to find a point below the fall from which it can be seen. From this point it seems possible to let down our boats with lines to the head of the rapids, and then make a portage; so we return, row down by the side of the cliff as far as we dare, and fasten one of the boats to a rock. Then we let down another boat to the end of its line beyond the first, and then the third boat to the end of its line below the second, which brings it to the head of the fall and under an overhanging rock. Then the upper boat, in obedience to a signal, lets go; we pull on the line and catch the nearest boat as it comes, and then the last. The portage follows”.

“We go into camp early this afternoon at a place where it seems possible to climb out, and the evening is spent in ‘making observations for time’”.

August 7, — “The almanac tells us that we are to have an eclipse of the sun to-day; so Captain Powell and myself start early, taking our instruments with us for the purpose of making observations on the eclipse to determine our longitude. Arriving at the summit, after four hours’ hard climbing to attain 2,300 feet in height, we hurriedly build a platform of rocks on which to place our instruments, and quietly wait for the eclipse; but clouds come on and rain falls, and the sun and moon are obscured”.

“Much disappointed, we start on our return to camp, but it is late and the clouds make the night very dark. We feel our way down among the rocks with great care for two or three hours, making slow progress indeed. At last we lose our way and dare proceed no farther. The rain comes down in torrents and we can find no shelter. We can neither climb up nor go down, and in the darkness dare not move about; so we sit and ‘weather out’ the night”.
August 8, — Daylight comes after a long, oh, how long! a night, and we soon reach camp. After breakfast we start again, and make two portages during the forenoon”.

“The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. Sometimes the rocks are of many colors – white, gray, pink, and purple with saffron tints. It is with very great labor that we make progress, meeting with many obstructions, running rapids, letting down our boats with lines from rock to rock, and sometimes carrying boats and cargoes around bad places. We camp at night, just after a hard portage, under an overhanging wall, glad to find shelter from the rain. We have to search for some time to find a few sticks of driftwood, just sufficient to boil a cup of coffee”.

“The water sweeps rapidly in this elbow of the river, and has cut its way under the rock, excavating a vast half-circular chamber, which, if utilized for a theater, would give seating to 50,000 people. Objection might be raised against it, however, for at high water the floor is covered with a raging flood”.