Grand Canyon Exploration Log August 9 – August 15, 1869

By Walter Mow

August 9, — “And now the scenery is on a grand scale. The walls of the canyon, 2,500 feet high, are of marble, of many beautiful colors. Often polished below by the waves, and sometimes far up the sides, where showers have washed the sands over the cliffs. At one place I have a walk for more than a mile on a marble pavement, all polished and fretted with strange devices and embossed in a thousand fantastic patterns. Through a cleft in the wall the sun shines on this pavement and it gleams in iridescent beauty”.

“I pass up into the cleft. It is very narrow, with a succession of pools standing at higher levels as I go back. The water in these pools is clear and cool, coming down from the springs. Then I return to the pavement, which is but a terrace or bench, over which the river runs at its flood, but left bare at present. Along the pavement in many places are basins of clear water, in strange contrast to the red mud of the river. At length I come to the end of this marble terrace and take again to the boat”.

“Riding down a short distance, a beautiful view is presented. The river turns sharply to the east and seems inclosed by a wall set with a million brilliant gems. What can it mean? Every eye is engaged, every one wonders. On coming nearer we find fountains bursting from the rock high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall. The rocks below the fountains are covered with mosses and ferns and many beautiful flowering plants. We name it Vasey’s Paradise, in honor of the botanist who traveled with us last year”.

“We pass many side canyons to-day that are dark, gloomy passages back into the heart of rocks that form the plateau through which this canyon is cut. It rains again this afternoon. Scarcely do the first drops fall when little rills run down the walls. As the storm comes on, the little rills increase in size, until great streams are formed. Although the walls of the canyon are chiefly limestone, the adjacent country is red sandstone; and now the waters, loaded with these sands, comes down in rivers of bright red mud, leaping over the walls in innumerable cascades. It is plain now how these walls are polished in many places”.

“At last the storm ceases and we go on. We have cut through the sandstones and limestones met in the upper part of the canyon, and through one great bed of marble a thousand feet in thickness. In this, great numbers of caves are hollowed out, and carvings are seen which suggest architectural forms, though on a scale so grand that architectural terms belittle them. As this great bed forms a distinctive feature of the canyon, we call it Marble Canyon”.

“It is a peculiar feature of these walls that many projections are set out into the river, as if the wall was buttressed for support. These walls themselves are half a mile high, and these buttresses are on a corresponding scale, jutting into the river scores of feet. In the recesses between these projections there are quiet bays, except at the foot of a rapid, when there are dancing eddies or whirlpools. Sometimes these alcoves have caves at the back, giving them the appearance of great depth. Then other caves are seen above, forming vast dome-shaped chambers. The walls and buttresses and chambers are all of marble”.

The Colorado River in Marble Canyon, Arizona.

“The river is now quiet; the canyon wider. Above, when the river is at its flood, the waters gorge up, so that the difference between high and low water mark is often 50 or even 70 feet, but here high-water mark is not more than 20 feet above the present stage of the river. Sometimes there is a narrow flood plain between the water and the wall. Here we first discover mesquite shrubs, — small trees with finely divided leaves and pods, somewhat like the locust”.

August 10, — “Walls still higher, water swift again. We pass several broad, ragged canyons on our right, and up through these we catch glimpses of a forest-clad plateau, miles away to the west”.

“At two o’clock we reach the mouth of the Colorado Chiquito. (The Little Colorado) This stream enters through a canyon on a scale quite as grand as that of the Colorado itself. It is a very small river and exceedingly muddy and saline. I walk up the stream three or four miles this afternoon, crossing and recrossing where I can easily wade it.
Then I climb several hundred feet at one place, and can see for several miles up the chasm through which the river runs. On my way back I kill two rattlesnakes, and find on my arrival that another has been killed just at camp”.

August 11, — “We remain at this point to-day for the purpose of determining the latitude and longitude, measuring the height of the walls, drying our rations, and repairing our boats.”

“Captain Powell early in the morning takes a barometer and goes out to climb a point between the two rivers. I walk down the gorge to the left at the foot of the cliff, climb to a bench, and discover a trail, deeply worn in the rock. Where it crosses the side gulches in some places steps have been cut. I can see no evidence of its having been traveled for q long time. It was doubtless a path used by the people who inhabited this country anterior to the present Indian races – the people who built the communal houses of which mention has been made”.

“I return to camp about three o’clock and find that some of the men have discovered ruins and many fragments of pottery; also etchings and hieroglyphics on the rocks”.
“We find to-night on comparing the readings of the barometers, that the walls are about 3,000 feet high – more than half a mile – an altitude difficult to appreciate from a mere statement of feet. The slope by which the ascent is made is not such a slope as is usually found in climbing a mountain, but one more abrupt – often vertical for many hundreds of feet, — so that the impression is given that we are at great depths, and we look up to see but a patch of sky”.

“Between the two streams, above the Colorado Chiquito, in some places the rocks are broken and shelving for 600 or 700 feet; then there is a sloping terrace, which can be climbed only by finding some way up a gulch; then a terrace and back, still another cliff. The Summit of the cliff is 3,000 feet above the river, as our barometers attest”.

“Our camp is below the Colorado Chiquito and on the eastern side of the canyon”.

August 12, — “The rocks above camp are rust-colored sandstones and conglomerates. Some are very hard; others quite soft. They all lie nearly horizontal, and the beds of softer material have been washed out, leaving the harder forming a series of shelves. Long lines of these are seen, of varying thickness, from one or two to twenty or thirty feet, and the spaces between have the same variability. This morning I spend two or three hours in climbing among these shelves, and then I pass above them and go up a long slope to the top of the cliff and try to discover some way by which I can reach the top of the wall; but I find my progress cut off by an amphitheater. Then I wander away around to the left, up a little gulch and along benches, climbing from time to time, until I reach an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet and can get no higher. From this point I can look off to the west, up side canyons of the Colorado, and see the edge of a great plateau, from which streams run down into the Colorado, and deep gulches in the escarpment which faces us, continued by canyons, ragged and flaring and set with cliffs and towering crags, down to the river. I can see far up Marble Canyon to long lines of chocolate-colored cliffs, and above these the Vermillion Cliffs. I can see, also, up the Colorado Chiquito, through a very ragged and broken canyon, with sharp salients set out from the walls on either side, their points overlapping, so that a huge tooth of marble on one side seems to be set between two teeth on the opposite; and I can also get glimpses of walls standing away back from the river, while over my head are mural escarpments not possible to be scaled”.

“Cataract Canyon is 41 miles long. The walls are 1,300 feet high at its head, and they gradually increase in altitude to a point about halfway down, where they are 2,700 feet, and then decreases to 1/300 feet at the foot. Narrow Canyon is 9 ½ miles long, with walls 1’300 feet in height at the head and coming down to the water at the foot”.
“There is little vegetation in this canyon or in the adjacent country. Just at the junction of the Grand and the Green there are a number of hackberry trees; and along the entire length of Cataract Canyon the high-water line is marked by scattered trees of the same species. A few nut pines and cedars are found, and occasionally a redbud or Judas tree; but the general aspect of the canyons and of the adjacent country is that of naked rock”.
“The distance through Glen Canyon is 149 miles. Its walls vary in height from 200 or 300 to 1,600 feet. Marble Canyon is 65 ½ miles long. At its head it is 200 feet deep, and it steadily increases in depth to its foot, where its walls are 3,500 feet high”.

The expedition is about to enter the “Great Unknown” and have logged approximately 785 miles and have no idea how many more miles they will log before the journey ends.

August 13, — “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled; the few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun and reshrunken to their normal bulk. The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage; they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage”.


“We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders”.

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly”.

With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried along by the swift water through walls which rise from its very edge. They have the same structure that we noticed yesterday – tiers of irregular shelves below, and, above these, steep slopes to the foot of marble cliffs. We run six miles in a little more than half an hour and emerge into a more open portion of the canyon, where high hills and ledges of rock intervene between the river and the distant walls. Just at the head of this open place the river runs across a dike; that is, a fissure in the rocks, open to depths below, was filled with eruptive matter, and this on cooling was harder than the rocks through which the crevice was made, and when these were washed away the harder volcanic matter remained as a wall, and the river has cut a gateway through it several hundred feet high and as many wide. As it crosses the wall, there is a fall below and a bad rapid, filled with boulders of trap; so we stop to make a portage. Then on we go, gliding by hills and ledges, with distant walls in view; sweeping past sharp angles of rock; stopping at a few points to examine rapids, which we find can be run, until we have made another five miles, when we land for dinner”.

Then we let down with lines over a long rapid and start again. Once more the walls close in, and we find ourselves in a narrow gorge, the water again filling the channel and being very swift. With great care and constant watchfulness we proceed, making about four miles this afternoon, and camp in a cave”.

August 14, — “At daybreak we walk down the bank of the river, on a little sandy beach, to take a view of a new feature in the canyon. Heretofore hard rocks have given us bad river; soft rocks, smooth water; and a series of rocks harder than any we have experienced sets in. The river enters gneiss! We can see but a little way into the granite gorge, but it looks threatening”.

“After breakfast we enter on the waves. At the very introduction it inspires awe. The canyon is narrower than we have before seen it; the water is swifter; there are but few broken rocks in the channel; but the walls are set, on either side, with pinnacles and crags; and sharp, angular buttresses, bristling with wind– and wave-polished spires, extend far out into the river”.

“Ledges of rock jut into the stream, their tops sometimes just below the surface, sometimes rising a few or many feet above; and island ledges and island pinnacles and island towers break the swift course of the stream into chutes and eddies and whirlpools. We soon reach a place where a creek comes in from the left, and, just below, the channel is choked with boulders, which have washed down this lateral canyon and formed a dam. Over which there is a fall of 30 or 40 feet; but on the boulders footholds can be had, and we make a portage; at the other two are chutes through which we can run”.
“As we proceed the granite rises higher, until nearly a thousand feet of the lower part of the walls are composed of this rock”.

About eleven o’clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously. The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We can land just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make a portage. It is nearly a thousand feet to the top of the granite so it will be impossible to carry our boats around, although we can climb to the summit up a side gulch and, passing along a mile or two, descend to the river. This we find on examination; but such a portage would be impracticable for us, and we must run the rapid or abandon the river. There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off, and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave and rife to its top down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher until we strike one just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat. Still on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is caught in a whirlpool and spun around several times. At last we pull out again into the stream. And now the other boats have passed us. The open compartment of the ‘Emma Dean’ is filled with water and every breaker rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that, we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and are then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred yards through breakers – how, we scarcely know. We find the other boats have turned into an eddy at the foot of the fall and are waiting to catch us as we come, for the men have seen that our boat is swamped. They push out as we come near and pull us in against the wall. Our boat is bailed, on we go again”.

The walls now are more than a mile in height – a vertical distance difficult to appreciate. Stand on the south steps of the Treasury building in Washington and look down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol; measure this distance overhead, and imagine cliffs to extend to that altitude, and you will understand what is meant; or stand at Canal Street in New York and look up Broadway to Grace Church, and you have about the distance; or stand at Lake Street bridge in Chicago and look down to the Central Depot, and you have it again”. “A thousand feet of this is up through granite crags; then steep slopes and perpendicular cliffs rise one above another to the summit. The gorge is black and narrow below, red and gray and flaring above, with crags and angular projections on the walls, which, cut in many places by side canyons, seem to be vast wilderness of rocks. Down is these grand, gloomy depths we glide, ever listening, for the mad waters keep up their roar; ever watching, ever peering ahead, for the narrow canyon is winding and the river is closed in so that we can see but a few hundred yards, and what there may be below we know not; so we listen for falls and watch for rocks, stopping now and then in the bay of a recess to admire the gigantic scenery; and ever as we go there is some new pinnacle or tower, some crag or peak, some distant view of the upper plateau, some strangely shaped rock, or some deep, narrow side canyon”.

“Then we come to another broken fall, which appears more difficult than the one we ran this morning. A small creek comes in on the right, and the first fall of the water is over boulders, which have been carried down by this lateral stream. We land at its mouth and stop for an hour or two to examine the fall. It seems possible to let down with lines, at least a part of the way, from point to point, along the right hand wall. So we make a portage over the first rocks and find footing on some boulders below. Then we let down one of the boats to the end of her line, when she reaches a corner of the projecting rock, to which one of the men clings and steadies her while I examine an eddy below. I think we can pass the other boats down by us and catch them in the eddy. This is soon done, and the men in the boats in the eddy pull us to the side. On the shore of this little eddy there is about two feet of gravel beach above the water. Standing on this beach, some of the men take the line of the little boat and let it drift down against another projecting angle. Here is a little shelf, on which a man from my boat climbs, and a shorter line is passed to him, and he fastens the boat to the side of the cliff; then the second is let down, bringing the line of the third. When the second boat is tied up, the two men standing on the beach above spring into the last boat, which is pulled up alongside of ours; then we let down the boats for 25 or 30 yards by walking along a shelf, landing them again in the mouth of a side canyon. Just below this there is another pile of boulders, over which we make another portage. From the foot of these rocks we can climb to another shelf, 40 or 50 feet above the water”.
“On this shelf we camp for the night. It is raining hard, and we have no shelter, but find a few sticks which have lodged in the rocks, and kindle a fire and have supper. We sit on the rocks all night, wrapped in our ponchos, getting what sleep we can”.

Marble Canyon of the Colorado River. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA.

August 15, –“This morning we find we can let down for 300 or 400 yards, and it is managed in this way; we pass along the wall by climbing from projecting point to point, sometimes near the water’s edge, at other places 50 or 60 feet above, and hold the boat with a line while two men remain aboard and prevent her from being dashed against the rocks and keep the line from getting caught on the wall. In two hours we have brought them all down, as far as possible, in this way. A few yards below, the river strikes with great violence against a projecting rock and our boats are pulled up in a little bay above. We must now manage to pull out of this and clear the point below. The little boat is held by the bow obliquely up the stream. We jump in and pull out only a few strokes, and sweep clear of the dangerous rock. The other boats follow in the same manner and the rapid is passed”.

It is not easy to describe the labor of such navigation. We prevent the waves from dashing the boats against the cliffs. Sometimes, where the river is swift, we must put a bight of rope around a rock, to prevent the boat from being snatched from us by a wave; but where the plunge is too great or the chute too swift, we must let her leap and catch her below or the undertow will drag her under the falling water and sink her. Where we wish to run her out a little way from shore through a channel between rocks, we first throw sticks of driftwood and watch their course, to see where we must steer so that she will pass the channel in safety. And so we hold, and let go, and pull, and lift, and ward – among rocks, around rocks, and Over rocks”.

And now we go through this solemn, mysterious way. The river is very deep, the canyon very narrow, and still obstructed, so that there is no steady flow of the stream; but the waters reel and roll and boil, and we are scarcely able to determine where we can go. Now the boat is carried to the right, perhaps close to the wall; again, she is shot into the stream, and perhaps dragged over to the other side, where, caught in a whirlpool, she spins about. We can neither land nor run as we please. The boats are entirely unmanageable; no order in their running can be preserved; now one, now another, is ahead, each crew laboring for its own preservation. In such a place we come to another rapid. Two of the boats run it perforce. One succeeds in landing, but there is no foothold by which to make a portage and she is pushed out again into the stream. The next minute a great reflex wave fills the open compartment; she is water-logged, and drifts unmanageable. Breaker after breaker rolls over her and one capsizes her. The men are thrown out; but they cling to the boat, and she drifts down some distance alongside of us and we are able to catch her. She is soon bailed out and the men are aboard once more; but the oars are lost; and so a pair from the ‘Emma Dean’ is spared. Then for two miles we find smooth water”.

Clouds are playing in the canyon to-day. Sometimes they roll down in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hand aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down the canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters. Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds, reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in. Then the clouds drift away into the distance, and hang around crags and peaks and pinnacles and towers and walls, and cover them with a mantle that lifts from time to time and sets them all in sharp relief. Then the baby clouds creep out of side canyons, glide around points, and creep back again into more distant gorges. Then clouds arrange in strata across the canyon, with intervening vista views to cliffs and beyond. The clouds are children of the heavens, and when they play among the rocks they lift them to the region above”.
“It rains! Rapidly little rills are formed above, and these soon grow into brooks, and the brooks grow into creeks and tumble over the walls in innumerable cascades, adding their wild music to the roar of the river. When the rain ceases the rills, brooks, and creeks run dry. The waters that fall during a rain on these steep rocks are gathered at once into the river; they could scarcely be poured in more suddenly if some vast spout ran from the clouds to the stream itself. When a storm bursts over the canyon a side gulch is dangerous, for a sudden flood may come, and the inpouring waters will raise the river so as to hide the rocks”.


“Early in the afternoon we discover a stream entering from the north – a clear, beautiful creek, coming down through a gorgeous red canyon. We land and camp on a sand beach above its mouth, under a great, overspreading tree with willow shaped leaves”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *