The Little Colorado river below Cameron, AZ!
The Little Colorado river below Cameron. The dark areas are mud! The walls are just starting to close in.

Down the Little Colorado River!

Solo from Cameron to Lipan Point

October 25/28 2001 Mike Mahanay



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Down the Little Colorado River!

Mike Quinn shuttled me out to the overweight vehicle bridge in time for an early 7 am start. There was no running water, only scatterings of big muddy pools. Mike gave me a banana, 4 slices of whole grain bread, took my photo, and sent me on my way down the Little Colorado River.
Mike at the start of the hike at the overweight truck bridge at Cameron. Mike at the start of the hike at the overweight truck bridge at Cameron. There is no flow, only standing pools of muddy water here and there. The sand was firm.

USGS LCR Streamflow Information

Ten days earlier, when Doerte and I were climbing the San Francisco Peaks, we visited Cameron and found the Little Colorado almost dry as a bone. If the weather would hold out this would be a perfect time to do this hike. The USGS web site never showed a flow up up to this time, so unless a big front came through I was in luck. The forecast was clear and sunny for the next week.

I could move fairly quick in the dry hard sand, but occasionally I had to cross muddy areas. There were many tracks of cows, and lots of birds to listen to. The sun was at my back and I made good time down to the narrows of the Coconino.

Kelsey calls Quicksand Alley a "quicksand deathtrap" and indeed it could be with any flow at all. Cows would never make it though here, and seem to know better than to even try. The Coconino rises and narrows to a width of 25’. Overhead is an old suspension bridge investigated by Harvey years ago. John Green remembers crossing it with his Dad as a small boy. It does not look to be in good condition.

The old suspension bridge over the Little Colorado River! The amazing old suspension bridge over the Little Colorado River below Cameron! Would you cross it?

At the narrowest point is a wall to wall pool of muddy water and gooey quicksand. To avoid a deep wade or swim I opted to wade a smaller pool to a bench on the wall which I could climb, do a traverse, then downclimb at the end of the pool. I donned my Tevas' and waded in. As I was stepping up to a foothold on the wall, my right foot sank into the quicksand up to my knee. I soon found I could not move. With two good handholds and my left foot on the rock, I could not get enough leverage to free my right foot! It just sank deeper and deeper into the quicksand.

Eventually, I leaned on my hiking pole enough to wiggle my foot free, and do the traverse. I had to drop my pack 15’ into the mud, then climb down. The mud is firm with no weight on it. My 25 lb. pack soon was sitting in a pool of muddy water as it began to sink into the quicksand. I quickly grabbed my pack, waded another shallow pool, and was again on my way.

Real quicksand is nothing like what you see in those old movies. It is formed when water and sand mix in a way that the water buoys up the individual grains of sand separating them by a thin film. The result is a sand soup that looks solid bit is actually liquid. Pools of quicksand are usually found where there are bowls of rock that can trap water.

I think this would be the first place for parties to encounter problems and turn around. I was at Quicksand Alley about four hours from Cameron. I doubt that it is ever completely dry even in the heat of June, prior to the monsoons.

Soon I saw a cairn marked route up to the east of the Navajo Little Colorado Viewpoint near Mile Post 286 or 287. The break was distinct and easily went all the way to the rim. It was fun to watch the tourists on the rim looking at the spectacular gorge below. I could hear them talk, but couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Probably something like, "Gosh, isn’t that the deepest gorge you have ever seen?" I wonder if they saw me far below?

I passed the gauging station, and a cable car and small shack as I continued to alternate between rock gardens, sandy flats, and mud. I started to see a solo set of bare foot prints coming up river. Now that is tough! The deer generally took the best routes so I followed their tracks. They didn’t like the mud any better than I did.

Close to the Devils Bend I made my first camp on a dry flat sandy bench with plenty of sky overhead. I gathered my water from one of the big mud pools. It seems the sediment never settles from the water. The water will eventually evaporate, leaving 2-3 inches of slippery mud on the sand. The water looked like diluted chocolate milk in my water bottles. Tasted okay. I wonder how many chemicals and other pollutants had washed down from the ranching and farming areas near Winslow and White Mountains far up stream.

Day two. I hoped to move even faster with a lighter load, and only a liter of water, to make Blue Springs. Dave Marcus had given me the encouragement to think this possible. It was more of the same, and I soon lost all sense of direction as the gorge turned back and forth endlessly, twisting and snaking. The walls rose higher and higher.

Lighter was a joke, however. My boots had five pounds of mud on each one, my pack, shorts and legs, had another five pounds. As soon as I would get it somewhat cleaned off, I would have to cross another patch of mud, and be weighted down again.

The mud and quicksand was fun. I especially like the type that looked firm and consistent, and when I would step on it, it would be almost totally liquid! Almost like a milkshake consistency! Messy! Because my boots were so muddy, when I would cross the rock gardens I slipped many times. I was muddy from almost head to toe.

All at once the river was transformed. The pools of muddy water gave way to a slow clear stream trickling though the rocks. I was finally at the first spring! Some travertine appeared and more springs. It was a pleasure to hear the sound of running water after almost two days of silence. The springs got bigger and some travertine appeared.

By Blue Springs it was wading time again, but the mud was over! Clear, clean water! Located 42 miles from Cameron, Blue Springs was gorgeous! I set up camp on the bench just across from the main springs. There was evidence of flood even at this place 20 feet above the flowing water. It was at this place that Dove Menkes, Jim Ohlman and party had to wait out a high, muddy Little Colorado River flow before they could cross to the Blue Springs Trail.

A travertine dam on the blue green Little Colorado River! One of the travertine dams that the blue green Little Colorado River water pours over. Hikers can cautiously cross in these places.

I changed again to my sandals and practiced three crossings. The water felt great, and I was glad to wash the mud and grime off and take a refreshing swim. It was a pleasure to take the afternoon off and relax at such an amazing place. The water was a warm 65 degrees, almost the air temperature.

I had filled my water bottles at the first spring, hoping it would taste better than the Blue Springs water, but it didn’t. It all tasted about the same to me, and not too bad. I found I could drink it, and mixed with raman noodles, coffee, or Gatorade it was fine. The water leaves a filmy white powder on the banks.

The first crossing from the camp was a worry. The water was chest high, and I had to carry my pack on my shoulder. Jim Ohlman suggested floating the pack on an air mattress, but luckily I travel light. Most of the other crossings were fairly easy, but I was up to my chest three times, and once had to pick a better place because the current seemed too strong.

Wearing nothing save my sandals, I came to the most dangerous part of the trip! I had to cross over a prickly pear cactus, around an agave, and under a mesquite, all in one step! On the north side of the gorge, I changed back in to my hiking clothes and followed the trail to Big Canyon. It is about 8 miles from Blue Springs to Big Canyon. There were many beautiful travertine falls, the largest being Atomizer Falls, upstream from Big Canyon.

Mike's pack and a survey net on the LCR. One of the nets that the Arizona Fish and Game crew uses to do their fish surveys. The net makes my pack look really small! The pack is actually blue, like the top portion, but is covered in mud!

Big Canyon is the terrible place where George Mancuso and Linda Brehmer were taken in a flash flood. I climbed up canyon as far as I could and found sweet little waterfalls and beautiful clear pools amongst large boulders. A wonderful, beautiful spot, that reminded me of Elves Chasm. I am not sure I saw the pool called Emerald Pool. When the wall of water came for them, I’m sure they never expected, or saw it coming. Big Canyon drains an area that reaches all the way to Highway 89. It had an eerie feeling to it on this day. The water tasted a bit like minerals, similar to the Little Colorado water.

A liitle fall in lower Big Canyon. A little fall in lower Big Canyon. This pool is about 5' deep. The big blocks are difficult to climb around.

Salt Trail Canyon, aka Bekihatso Wash, is next door and has no flow. There are a few campsites in the willows and tamarisks. I continued down the trail on the North side of the River, wondering when would be the best place to cross. It seemed sooner was better than later. Eventually I picked a spot, and waded across above a travertine dam. The trail was much better on the South side and I made good time to the confluence with the Colorado River, about 13.5 miles from Blue Springs and 57 from Cameron.

1.6 miles upstream from the confluence on the North Wall is the Walter Powell Route to the Rim on the Navajo Reservation. In 1869 Walter Powell spent a day going to the rim and back along this route. Harvey says, "the last 300’ require the use of hands." It would be a fine adventure to follow Walter’s route.

The confluence has always been one of my favorite spots in Grand Canyon. It is open with wide views of the sky both upstream and downstream the Colorado River and upstream the Little Colorado. Major Powell called this the end of Marble Canyon and the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Cape Solitude, 6,146’, sits majestically high above. Chuar Butte, 6,394’, rises to the North.

Ben Beamer's Cabin, dating to the 1890’s, sits a short distance from the mouth. John Wesley Powell’s party noted in 1869 an Indian ruin that evidently Ben improved on to build his cabin. Little is known of Beamer other than he was a prospector with Seth Tanner, W.W. Bass, John Hance, and Louis Boucher as contemporaries.

The lower Little Colorado River! I loaded up with cold fresh Colorado River and went back up the Little Colorado River enough to stay legal and had a great camp. The evening was spent watching the waning moon shadows on the walls and odd shaped thin clouds race by in the starry sky.

Day four was the "easy" day. Back to the confluence to gain the Beamer Trail to Palisades Creek and on to Tanner Beach. The Beamer is well defined but at times rocky and exposed. It is 8 miles from Tanner Beach to the Confluence. Looking at the map the Beamer Trail looks like a fast , level, straight line. It’s not. It goes up and down, in and out, and winds around gullies, washes, and side canyons. When it makes it’s way back down to the River, the trail is soft, loose, sand.

I soon had my first view of the Desert View Watchtower far in the distance. It was fun walking along the side of the Tapeats on the narrow, rocky trail with the River almost straight down, 500’ below. When the Beamer crosses washes it is sometimes hard to follow and the trail becomes a cairn marked route. The views of Chuar Butte, Temple Butte, Espejo Butte, and the Palisades are amazing.

This is the area of the horrible collision of a TWA airliner and a United airliner on July 01, 1956. At the time it was the worst air disaster in aviation history. Both had left Los Angeles at about the same time and were on similar routes. Speculation was that the TWA plane flew into the path of the United plane trying to avoid a thunderstorm. Both were sightseeing.

There are nice camps at Palisades Creek. Parties often camp there, then dayhike to the Confluence. That is still a long day. It took me 3.5 hours one way from the Confluence to Palisades Creek. Charlie and Ilene Bongo were camped there one August night and heavy monsoons brought a huge flow of water down the normally dry Palisades Creek, almost washing away their tent and some of their gear.

Tanner Beach is as beautiful as ever, with a nice little rapid. It even has the added benefit of a park service toilet! From the rapid the Tanner Trail follows the wash up a bit then starts climbing for the rim. All the trails are hard hiking out. The Tanner Trail is 9 miles long and gains 4,600’ from the River to the Rim.

Walking into the sun it was hot and slow. I drank a liter of water at the beach and three more on the hike out, even on this 75 degree October day. There are many places to dry camp along the trail. Escalante Butte and Cardenas Butte make fine dayhikes from the rim. I enjoyed a spectacular sunset as I made the Rim, six hours from Tanner beach, 9.5 hours from the Confluence.

This is an extremely difficult and long hike under any circumstances and any time of year. Only extremely fit, and experienced hikers should attempt this trip. Thanks to Mike Quinn, Bob Marley, Dave Marcus, Joe Heywood, Jim Ohlman, Bill Orman, and Dove Menkes for assistance, insight, encouragement, and inspiration.


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