Out There Hikes:  Zane Grey Trail

Looking south past me and an Ancient Puebloan tower ruin in Sand Canyon, to 
the Sleeping Ute Mountain west of Cortez, Colorado.

On the Zane Grey Trail
north of Navajo Mountain
to the actual location of "Riders of the Purple Sage"
By Craig Watson


Practically no one today hikes the Zane Grey Trail anymore.  Way back before the Bilagaana (Navajo: White Man) was in the area, the Paiutes and Navajos who lived around Navajo Mt. used this route, the only one possible from the north, to reach the area of the Rainbow Bridge or the San Juan River in this mostly impassable landscape.

I backpacked this now obscure route in October, 1999 with Harvey who is John Wetherillís great grandson.  Harvey and I met in 1997 when we accompanied guide Fred Blackburn of Cortez, Colorado into Tsegi Canyon, near Kayenta adjacent to the Navajo National Monument, on an archaeological exploration.  Harvey has been on the Zane Grey Trail before, so he was my guide and cohort for the journey. I would never have tried to follow this route without a competent guide like Harvey or his great grandfatherís guide, Nasja Begay the Paiute.

Due to the great length and difficulty of this original trail, John Wetherill and others blasted a trail out of the east side sheer cliffs of Bald Rock Canyon in the 30s.  This shorter route enabled the Wetherill family to lead tourists to the Rainbow Bridge from the Wetherill Lodge on the south slope of Navajo Mt.  Their lodgeís foundation and other building remnants, including the laundry, still exist.  An old sign near these ruins says "NAVAHO MT.".

Day 1

Harvey and I camped in the Navajo National Monument the night before we began our hike.  Early the next morning we drove the dirt road to Shonto out of the Navajo Nat. Monumentís back door.  We circled around from Shonto on the paved road to Navajo Mt., about 2 hrs. of driving.  My Suburbanís bug screen rattled loose on the last 20 miles of dirt washboard coming into the community of Navajo Mt. We stopped at the Post Office at Navajo Mt., UT and visited with the postmaster, a friend of Harveyís.  He suggested we drop off my vehicle at a Navajo Mt. residentís home nearby.

Prior to doing that, we took a right at the 4WD road and, after about 5 miles, came to the steep drop into Paiute Canyon, a very impressive, kind of scary place.  From the top, Harvey pointed out the hogan and farm belonging to the Begayís.  It was Nasja Begay, a Paiute Indian from this very family who lives here yet, that guided John Wetherill and about 12 others to the Rainbow Bridge in 1909.

Most records show this to be the first White Men to see this largest stone bridge in the world (since then, possibly eclipsed by a larger one in China).  Some dispute exists about this though.  Byron Cummings a professional archaeologist was on the Wetherill trek too.  The Begay farm looked very small, similar to looking into the Grand Canyon.  We turned around and drove back to the 4WD road and I parked my Suburban to join Harvey for the ride to the trailhead.

Harvey drove us to the north Rainbow Trail trailhead, another 10 miles on very bad road.  We got started hiking at noon.  In and out of the first two forks of Cha Canyon where water was flowing, not a single trivial canyon exists out here.  At the second fork in the Rainbow Trail, we took the original "Zane Grey Trail" (we do not know the reason for this name) north down Cha Canyon.

Then we went up, out and across this heart of stone, west over the Glass Mts. to Bald Rock Canyon, then back up canyon, heading south again.  It was actually a lot more involved than that and we were on the trail with backpacks almost 8 hours!

In the yawning stretches along this trail, we passed through only 1 "gate" in a "stock fence".  Due to the lay of the land, certain areas have been used for grazing with only 1 exit for the livestock which can be gated or fenced, so they are fairly easily found later during roundup.

This was a long day for the first one out on our way to Surprise Valley on the Rainbow Trail, another day ahead.  I took almost no photos as most energy was spent just walking and talking.  This trail was used from 1909 until about 1930 by Anglo explorers when a trail was finally blasted out of the sheer cliff of Bald Rock Canyonís eastern escarpment.  Harvey knows this trail: heís been on different parts of it about 4 times.  It is now mostly obscured from disuse.

Water was not found in lower Bald Rock Canyon as we had anticipated.  We ended up hiking about an hour in the dark up the canyon, the bright moon and our flashlights being very helpful.  The late start today worked against us now.  During the darkness, walking in this streambed, I slipped and turned my right ankle enough to swell but not enough to cause much pain.

Finally, after I ran out of drinking water, I took a rest to break into a box of my stashed milk (6 x 1/2 pints).  We hate to run out of water in the middle of nowhere, of course.  It isnít a good idea, but we knew water was close.

While catching my breath and wetting my whistle, Harvey forged on and found water just ahead.  That was great news, of course.  We camped there, under the stars in a balmy breeze without tents, alongside a shallow pool - a lifesaver.  The sand seemed comfortable at that time, so I didnít inflate my Thermo-rest mattress.  I prepared 2 bottles of filtered water from the pool for overnight drinking.  Harvey used iodine tablets to purify his.

Not surprisingly, several hours later the sand hardened (ha ha).  I inflated my mattress, enabling deep breathing instead of deep groaning.  My streamside bedstead was comfortable thereafter.

Gazing starward, up to the glistening jewel-be-garlanded sky every time I woke up to turn over created some conflict - whether to tune in to this sky magic or to sleep.  My body had the good sense to shut down my mind and take the night off, no matter the heavenly rewards.  The Earthly rewards would suffice.

Day 2

Since we had come so far in the dark up Bald Rock Canyon, we found the main Rainbow Trail crossing it a mere 15 minutes walk upstream next morning.  Heading west out of Bald Rock Canyon is a steep, hour-long slog.  We descended into Surprise Valley for the 3-nite stay around noon and took the afternoon off for rest, eating and refreshing mind, body and clothing.

Harvey took a nap, I lounged barefoot in the sand, reading, getting some sun, snacking.  The stream here is strong running, up to 4í deep in some pools hard by the wonderful sandy campsite under big Pinyons.  Remarkably, the picnic table here (Surprise picnic table, besides the valley) was muled in 30 years ago in 3 pieces by the postmaster back in town (Navajo Mt.).  During our time here, no one else came through Surprise Valley.

Surprise Valley was immortalized in Zane Greyís famous blockbuster book Riders of the Purple Sage.  The greater part of the story takes place in Surprise Valley.  Iíd like to read it again, knowing this now.  In the old days it had only one entrance which made it romantic - like Shangri-La (Lost Horizon is available on video at the Radio Shack in Cortez, Colorado in an uncut version).  Later the Rainbow Trail was improved to become a passable route out the opposite side to walk or ride to the Rainbow Bridge.

Day 3

Nasja Creek runs northwest out of Surprise Valley into Nasja Canyon which we hiked the next day.  Neither of us had ever been far down this canyon.  We left camp around 9 am.  Along the way, the stream would sometimes disappear then reappear.  The rounded rocks and sand bars made for slow going.

I photographed Harvey by an inscription carved into the cliff face by his great grandfather in 1909.  It was very legible - even artistically pecked, with John Wetherillís name next to the date.  Harvey looks good standing there beside it.  On a little further, we searched around in a prehistoric site, a very large alcove, finding smoothing grooves where stone tools had been sharpened, and charcoal, some pottery sherds which ranged in qualities from primitive corrugated gray to the later red-on-black.  At another site Harvey had found on a former hike, he pointed out some hidden rock art.

Finally we reached Navajo Falls at 11 am.  This is a 30í drop off into a pool, and our turn-around point.  For the past 20 minutes we had been hiking in a narrowing "slot canyon", only 6í wide in some areas, with a sandy smooth floor and trickling stream, quite magical.  I could stand in the middle and touch both opposing canyon walls rising vertically, dizzyingly, smoothly above me a good 200í.
The walk back was leisurely, taking time for talk and snacking along the stream, the sun heating up slick rock which reflected the rays.  Reaching camp at 2 pm, I dedicated the afternoon to rest and enjoyment along the stream in the sun, reading a book Harvey brought along about early Grand Canyon explorers.

Harvey trekked over to Owl Bridge about 1/2 mile across the valley, then climbed up into some unexplored territory toward Navajo Mt., looking for another purported inscription near the natural bridge made by his great-grandpa.  He did not find it and returned to camp around 5 pm.

This was our second night here.  Last night sported a cold wind making it impossible to have a campfire.  We probably went to bed about 6:30 pm, dark by then.  Tonight it got colder as the sky was crystal clear with no hint of a breeze.  Since the air was still, we made a big campfire and enjoyed its heat as we told stories.  The fire was built up against a big smooth boulder which soaked up the heat and reflected both heat and light, brightening the camp considerably.

We decided before retiring to break camp and walk over to Bald Rock Canyon for our 4th night instead of staying in Surprise Valley.  This strategy would cut the walking distance out to the car by 50% on the last day.  And we both wanted to do some poking around in upper Bald Rock Canyon.

Day 4

Monday morning, prior to departure from Surprise Valley, we explored one Anasazi ruin which has an inscription in it made by John Wetherill in the early 1900ís.  It is fairly inaccessible, up a cliff.  The Anasazi had cut foot and hand grooves in the rock but it was too dicey to try today.  Harvey had entered it in 1982, 19 years ago, but neither one of us wanted to risk injury this morning.  After that, we looked into a cliffside Anasazi granary nearby which has been significantly damaged by vandals since Harvey first saw it.

The 2-hr. walk to Bald Rock Canyon was enjoyable, the views indescribable.  We knew a beautiful restful campsite lay ahead and the air was still cool for walking.  Reaching the canyon before noon, we began setting up camp for an afternoon and evening of outdoor enjoyment along the stream.  A troop of about 15 hikers raced by us in the opposite direction: a professor and students from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.  They were on their way to camp in Surprise Valley so we were very happy to have departed it!  Perfect timing.  This was the only hiking party we encountered in our 5 days.

That afternoon, Harvey and I explored 3 high, huge caves in the canyonís eastern cliff wall, facing southwest, just downstream from our camp.  In the middle one, we found significant prehistoric evidence, along with an inscription of "1776", an archaeological site number we think from some expedition long ago.  We saw no evidence of excavation.  I photographed a "big man" pictograph there.  While making like Billy goats on these cliffs, the sun baked us sweaty and thirsty.

Descending to the creek, we stripped down and bathed in the warmed pools, the lengthening afternoon rays drying us.  The stream runs shallow over wide flat rock allowing the water to be warmed as it flows, so this was idyllic, alone with the purest of water and air and earth, and the birds - mostly crows and jays - to nag at us.

That evening, as we sat around our aromatic campfire, 2-3 large bats battered about making very strange sounds as they cavorted and swerved.  We were not aware that bats could make such loud strange noises: maybe it is their radar/sonar?  An unusual bat?

Day 5

Climbing out of Bald Rock Canyon took about 45 minutes.  At the top, we rested and I changed into lighter clothing as we were now in the sun.  The 2 & 3/4 hr. hike back to Harveyís 4Runner was uneventful: we were glad to see it waiting for us at 10:45 am.  Harvey dropped me off to retrieve my Suburban and we parted company.  I stopped briefly at Inscription House Trading Post.  The original old building has been remodeled in recent years and is open for business.  They are selling their usual striped Navajo double saddle blankets, but I didnít ask the price.

Here we see the John Wetherill petroglyph in Nasja Canyon, dated 1918, with his 
great grandson Harvey, my hiking buddy for remote treks in the Four Corners.

I'm standing at the entrance to Surprise Valley behind me.  
Navajo Mt. is on the southeastern horizon.


Out There

Copyright 2002 by Indiana Watson's Indian Weaving.  All rights reserved