Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau
Introduction to the Little Colorado R. Gorge, Navajo N., Arizona
Introduction and Access
The Little Colorado River begins in east central Arizona and flows northwest until it reaches the Colorado River in the eastern part of the Grand Canyon. The lower end of the Little Colorado flows through one of the most spectacular gorges in the world. Up to the present time, this country has been almost unknown to anyone except for a few Navajo herdsmen, but now with some improved roads, the area has moderately easy access.
To get into the upper end of the gorge, you could park and walk from Cameron, but that part of the canyon isn't so interesting, and at times there is quicksand in places not far below Cameron. Perhaps it's best to proceed along State Highway 64, which runs between Cameron and Desert View, just inside the Grand Canyon. Between mile posts 285 & 286, turn north and proceed to the overlook of the upper gorge. There's a steep route down to the bottom just to the east of that viewpoint parking lot. Or to reach a good trail down to a water gauging station in the upper end of the gorge, proceed to a point halfway between mile posts 477 & 478 on Highway 89, not far north of Cameron. From there turn west onto a good dirt road which heads west along the north side of Shadow Mountain, which is an old extinct volcano. With the maps listed below, proceed west to the stock pond shown, then turn south and follow that road all the way to the gorge immediately north of the previously-mentioned viewpoint on Highway 64. From there, a good trail wig zags down to the river and an old cable car and good campsites.
To reach a couple of routes down to the bottom of the middle gorge from the west, proceed along Highway 64 to a point about halfway between the Grand Canyon entrance gate and the service station (both at Desert View), then turn east onto a good gravel road. After a short distance, the main road turns right into a TIPS facility, but you continue east on a rather rough road to the left. Continue following this same road down a steep hill to Cedar Mountain (around the north side is the better of the two routes), then downhill more, until you reach a Navajo home and corral, then turn north and proceed in the direction of Gold Hill. This road is steep in a couple of places with rough spots everywhere, but the author made it OK in his VW Rabbit Diesel with oversized tires. However, that road did test his car pretty good in a couple of places! Park somewhere east of Gold Hill, or try to make it to the point just north of Blue Spring--if you have the right vehicle. From the south side of that point is a trail leading down to Blue Spring, plus another route or two down to the bottom just to the north.
To reach the middle and lower end of the gorge from the east, one way would be to drive to a point along Highway 89 just north of the turnoff to Tuba City, Kayenta and Highway 160. Between mile posts 482 & 483, turn west onto another well-used and maintained dirt road. This road heads west, then the main branch turns northwest staying on the northeast side of Big Canyon. Further along, this main road runs north passing Big Reservoir and ends near Tooth Rock. At that point it intersects another very wide and graded road which begins at Cedar Ridge and very near mile post 505; this one runs west to Tooth Rock before veering northwest and heading for Shinumo Altar and beyond. There are many other good roads in the area, but this one seems to be the best for general access to most of the canyon, and to grazing areas for Navajos. From along this road, there are other short unmaintained roads leading to the rim of Waterhole & Big Canyons, the head of north fork of Big Canyon called Dry Wash, Salt Trail Canyon and to a rugged route down to the lower end of the Little Colorado, called by some, the Walter Powell Route. Be sure you have the two maps listed below in your hands while driving, so you can keep from being lost. The main roads to this area are not highlighted on the USES maps as they are here. Follow both maps carefully.
Maps: USGS or BLS maps Cameron and Tuba City (1:100,000). There are also maps at 1:62,500 and 1:24,000 scale, but for the purpose of access, the two above are the only practical ones to have. For hiking, see the next two hiking maps for the larger scale maps available.
Distances: The distances in this area are not what they are on the Arizona Strip, but you'll need to pay attention to your fuel tank anyway. Also, for the most part, these roads are in pretty good condition, so you're fuel consumption won't be as great as when you're on really rough, low gear-type tracks. The best places to fuel up nearby are Cameron and Tuba City. There are also pumps at Desert View and The Gap (gasoline only). Page is a larger place with all facilities, but it's quite a ways north. Always start any trip to remote areas with a full tank of fuel.
Road Conditions: The main roads mentioned above are graded occasionally and are made from the same material they run over. Close to the rim of the gorge everywhere, and in the northern part of this area, the surface material is what's been eroded from the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation. This makes for mostly-passable roads in wet weather. In the southern and eastern part, roads are formed from the clay beds of the Chenille Formation. These can be very slick in wet weather. For the most part, if you're out there and a storm comes, all you have to do is wait a while and the desert air will dry the surface enough to drive on. If it's a big storm, you may have to wait overnight, or longer, in cooler weather. There are almost no places in this region where deep sand is a problem.
Water: Good water is pretty scarce in these parts, so always carry a good supply in your car. The author always has about 8, one gallon jugs full with him at all times, plus some fruit juices and soda pop. In the gorge, brown flood waters in the Little Colorado comes mostly from lands of the Navajo Nation where grazing is practiced year-round, so you'll always have to purify it. If you arrive at the end of a dry spell, you'll only have puddles of water throughout most of the gorge, then after Blue Springs there will be a clear stream flowing to the Colorado. As for springs, Blue Spring gets the name because of its turquoise blue water. It has a minerally taste, but it's totally different from any other the author has tasted. It's barely drinkable--at least in small amounts! There's also a big spring right at the bottom end of Salt Trail Canyon.
Little Colorado River Gorge Trails, Navajo N., Arizona
Location and Access
This map covers the upper 2/3's of the gorge of the Little Colorado River, which starts just below Cameron. You could get down into the canyon right at Cameron, but there are at times some quicksand narrows at about where the gorge is first shown on this map. If you want to get into this upper end, then it's perhaps best to drive west from Cameron on Highway 64 for about 20 kms (12 miles). Between mile posts 285 & 286 turn north and drive 400 meters to the Canyon Viewpoint, where you can look straight down into the gorge. It's quite a site! Just east of that parking lot is a steep route down. This makes quick access into the gorge. Just across the canyon is a trail leading down to the river and an old cable car. Get there by driving north out of Cameron on Highway 89. About halfway between mile posts 477 & 478, turn west onto a good dirt road. Follow this route on Map 90, Area Access Map--Little Colorado River Gorge. As you near the rim of the gorge, the road gets a little rough, but any higher clearance car can make it to the trailhead.
To get into the middle of the gorge and Blue Spring, drive west from Cameron toward Desert View, the first stop in Grand Canyon N. P. Immediately after you pass through the entrance gate, turn right or east, and drive down a good dirt road for 300 meters or so, then go straight ahead instead of turning south into a NPS complex. You'll be on a rather rough road as you head down the steep grade past Cedar Mountain, then finally north toward Gold Hill. Just after you pass the house east of Gold Hill, turn northeast and drive across a valley to the rim just north and above Blue Spring. There are rough places all along this route, so only higher clearance cars can make it.
To reach the horse trail down into the gorge just northwest of Waterhole Canyon, leave Highway 89 between mile posts 482 & 483, and drive west. Follow the route on the Area Map, and the Tuba City USGS map carefully. The last part of this drive is on a little used road heading south. Look for a little side road running west to the lip of the shallow upper drainage and the trailhead at 1500 meters. Trail or Route Conditions From the Canyon Viewpoint, walk 100 meters east from the parking lot and look for a steep route down a slit in the first ravine. It's very steep, but easier than it looks. Once at the bottom just walk downcanyon, if the stream is small enough to cross safely. Check out the river first from the rim, or Cameron. From the trailhead on the opposite rim, walk down the partly-washedout trail to the river. The trail is missing in a place or two, but it's easy walking. At the bottom is an old cable car and upstream a ways a gauging station.
From the end of the road near Blue Spring, walk west along the rim. You'll pass a stone fence, then after about 100 meters, you'll climb down a near-vertical wall. This too is easier than it first looks. Just follow the stone cairns. Only people and maybe mountain goats can get down this upper part. After a ways, the slope eases up, but you still have to follow the stone cairns and an emerging trail. About 2!3's the way down you'll come to a constructed horse trail. This leads down to Blue Spring. An interesting hike might be to go down to the river, then downstream (north) in the channel or on a bench, then exit the gorge to the west via another minor canyon just to the north of Blue Spring, as shown on the map. At the head of that canyon is an exit on the north.
To reach the bottom of the gorge along the horse trail near Waterhole Canyon, walk into the shallow drainage and head downcanyon. At the big dropoff, head to the right or west side and look for a constructed horse trail. It heads downcanyon, but is visible in only a few places. On the bench rot far above the river, the trail is built-up into a mini-dugway as it goes down over a dropoff, but part of it has now collapsed and you'll have to climb down. It's easy, but livestock can't do it anymore. Below this ramp, head east on a bench for half a km, then scramble down a rockslide to the river.
For the long-hike enthusiasts, it's possible to get into the gorge in the upper end, and walk all the way to the Colorado River. Walking is fairly easy most of the way, but only if there isn't too much water in the river. It's best to do this hike when there's just a trickle of water in the upper canyon.
Elevations Trailheads: 1500 to 1550 meters; Blue Spring, about 1000 meters.
Hike Length and Time Needed: To reach the river via the upper canyon routes will take only about half an hour from either trailhead. For many people, the hike down to Blue Spring and return would be nearly all-day, maybe 7 to 9 hours, but strong hikers can do it in half a day, round-trip. Going down to the river via the horse trail near Waterhole Canyon will take most people about half a day or a little more. To hike from the Canyon Viewpoint in the upper gorge, to the Colorado River, then up the Tanner Trail to Lupan Point Oust west of Desert View), will take 8 days. Take the smallest rubber rafts to float packs in below Blue Spring, says Bob Bruington. See Maps 92 & 114.
Water: Take your own on day-hikes, and treat river water. The turquoise blue water from Blue Spring has a strange mineral taste, but it seems drinkable(?). A small amount didn't bother the author.
Maps: USGS or BLM maps Cameron & Tuba City (1:100,000); or Cameron North, Coconino Point, Hellhole Bend, Blue Spring (1:24,000).
Main Attractions: Super scenery, great gorge, interesting routes, few if any other hikers.
Ideal Time to Hike: If you're just hiking the trails down to the river, then spring or fall. If hiking up or down the river, then whenever there is little or no water in the Little Colorado--as seen from the Cameron Bridge. Fall might be good, or late winter or early spring-before spring runoff. Summer is very warm. Butchart did it once in January, but others have hiked it in June (best) and August.
Hiking Boots: Rugged hiking boots for hiking the trails down, but waders if walking the gorge.
Author's Experience: He hiked down to the river via the horse trail west of Waterhole Canyon and returned in less than 3 hours. He walked from his campsite near the house east of Gold Hill, over to and down the Blue Spring Trail, and returned, in 4 hours. From the same campsite, he also walked halfway down to the river in the canyon north of Blue Spring, then returned, in about 3 hours. He hiked down to the river along the old cable car trail, and returned in one hour. He has also been down to the river several times from the Canyon Viewpoint, each in about an hour roundtrip.
Little Colorado River Gorge Trails, Navajo N., Arizona
Location and Access
This map covers the lower part of the Little Colorado River Gorge and several of its tributaries. To start, drive along Highway 89 between Cameron and Cedar Ridge. Locate the road running west from between mile posts 482 & 483, as shown on Map 90, Area Access Map-Little Colorado River Gorge. Drive west until you're near the head of Big Canyon, then at the fork in the road, veer right or northwest. You'll pass a rounded hill, a hogan, then turn westward. At one point will be three secondary roads running south to a hogan and corral at 1540 meters. Park on the hill above the hogan. If you continue on the main road, you'll veer north, then west on a secondary road from on top of a bench heading for the upper end of Dry Wash. Park at a log hogan at 1550 meters.
From the Big Canyon area, continue on the main graded road to the north, then west. You'll soon pass Pillow Mountain, then on to Salt Trail Canyon, but for now, let's go to the other end of this main road, which will be the easiest way to the lower end of the gorge. Drive to Cedar Ridge, a small Navajo community on Highway 89. Just north of mile post 505, turn west onto a good graded dirt road. Drive this improved road due west until you reach Tooth Rock. Just before this landmark, turn left or south onto another graded road. This one runs due south past Big Reservoir. Finally, when the main road turns east, look for another secondary road continuing south. Follow this until you see a large parking place to the right, or west, just east of the upper end of Salt Trail Canyon.
To do a rugged route down to the very end of the Little Colorado, go back to Big Reservoir and look for one of two secondary roads heading southwest. Take either one, as shown on this map and the Area Access Map 90. Make your way to the rim of the canyon at about 1805 meters. All these secondary roads get a little rough, but any higher clearance car, driven with care, can make it to the trailheads. Just in case of a wash out, you've got a shovel in the trunk of your car, right?
Trail or Route Conditions: From the hogan & corral at 1540 meters, walk south beginning west of the corral. When you reach the canyon rim, walk west 600-700 meters until you come to a sheep & goat trail heading down Big Canyon. From the log hogan at 1550 meters, look for a trail going down off the little rim to the north. This trail crosses the upper end of Dry Wash, just before it drops off, then it follows the north rim to the west. After walking on the rim about one km, you'll come to where a wide constructed trail begins to zig zag down into the canyon just below a big dropoff. At the bottom, the trail vanishes. The upper end of this canyon is impressively deep.
From the parking lot at the head of Salt Trail Canyon, locate the trail which zig zags down off a minor rim to the west; then at the next level, and on the very rim of the gorge itself, look for a cairn and trail heading down. Head straight down the very steep gully, watching for stone cairns marking the route. Halfway down, you'll have to stay on the Redwall bench on the west side. As you near the main canyon, the trail drops off the Redwall and zig zags to the bottom. At the bottom will be a large spring to the right of a level place, which has been a helicopter landing site for fish researchers. To go downriver, walk right along the river bank; or look for a pretty good trail going downstream behind the tamaracks near the canyon wall. Downstream about 4 kms is what is known to the Hopi Indians as the Sipapu. This is a sacred place to the Hopi. They believe their ancestors came out of that hole when they first came to be. It's actually an old mineral hot spring, or perhaps a geyser(?). It's a large mound of deposited minerals 6 or 8 meters high, with a hole in the middle. Now however, the mineral water comes out on the river-side of the mound. Please don't desecrate this site in any way, because it could lead to the total closing of this canyon to hiking!
From the car-park at 1805 meters walk due east to find a steep ravine heading down off the rim. You'll have to route-find this one, but by using it you can reach the lower end of the Little Colorado. According to John W. Powell's book, The Colorado River and its Canyons, Walter H. Powell, John's cousin, climbed out of the canyon in this area. This may have been the route he took, thus the name.
Here's an idea for a marathon-type hike. Bob Bruington of North Ogden, Utah, and 3 friends walked from Cameron all the way through the Little Colorado River Gorge. The trip was 142 kms (88 miles) long, and took 8 days in mid-June. Their timing was right, and they had only pools of water until Blue Spring, then they used cheap one-man rafts to float part of the way to the Colorado (some pools were 2 meters deep!). From there, they walked the Beamer & Tanner Trails back to the rim at Lipan Point near Desert View. This is for experienced & tough hikers only!
Elevations Trailheads: 1540, 1550, 1700 and 1805 meters; end of Little Colorado, 850 meters.
Hike Length and Time Needed: In half an hour you can get down into the upper end of Big Canyon from the hogan at 1540 meters; and about the same time to get to the bottom of the trail in upper Dry Wash. With two cars, or one mountain bike, it's possible to make a loop-hike using these two canyons & trailheads and do it in one full day-hike. It looks like easy walking. Plan on taking all-day to walk down Salt Trail Canyon to the Sipapu and back, which is about 8 to 10 kms, one way. It isn't far, but it'll take most of a day to reach the Little Colorado and perhaps the Colorado River, and return to the rim via the Walter Powell route.
Water: Take plenty in hot weather. Also a spring at the mouth of Salt Trail C. Purify river water.
Maps: USGS or BLM map Tuba City (1:100,000); or Salt Trail Canyon & Cape Solitude (1:24,000). Main Attractions Magnificent gorge, rugged hikes, and solitude.
Hiking Boots: Rugged boots for the Salt Trail & Powell routes; any boots for the Big Canyon trails.
Author's Experience: The author found the trail and reached the bottom of Big Canyon, then returned; 2 hours. He hunted for the trail, then made it down Dry Wash about 2 kms, then returned, all in less than 2 1/2 hours. The trip down Salt Trail Canyon to the Sipapu and back, took over 7 hours on a hot spring day. He made it down the Walter Powell Route to the confluence of the Colorado & Little Colorado in 6 3/4 hours, round-trip.
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