Pilgrimage to Solitude

Note: This is a big post on a big subject, and I appreciate your taking the time to read it through. But even if you can only look through the pretty pictures for now, I hope you’ll still find an opportunity to visit SavetheConfluence.com and read about the development threatening a wild, spectacular, culturally resonant and ecologically important corner of Grand Canyon National Park. You can see details of the proposal and hear the developers’ side of the story at GrandCanyonEscalade.com.

Little Colorado Dawn

The mouth of the Little Colorado River is not an easy place to visit. Most people who ever glimpse it likely do so by helicopter, a glance down at an obscure tributary they’ve probably never heard of tucked among the massive fortifications and ramparts of the Grand Canyon. Its general area is visible from many miles away at Desert View Watchtower, lost in the haze and of little interest to a tourist who came to stare straight down into the Big Ditch. The best-informed visitors may read that its warm blue-green waters provide a last refuge for the endangered humpback chub; that somewhere hidden in those walls lies the Sipapu, the travertine formation which the Hopi people believe was their route of emergence from the underworld into our present cosmos; that the Hopi once made pilgrimages to its confluence with the main Colorado to bring home precious salt that seeps from the walls.

The only folks who see the Little Colorado confluence in decent numbers are rafters, and they require some luck. Much of the year, if even a trickle is running and gathering muddy pigments from the tributary’s massive drainage basin, the stream flows chocolate brown and boaters drift on by with a brief glance up the side canyon. Only when it runs an unsullied turquoise from the springs some twelve miles up-canyon do boaters stop to swim in the warm blue water. Their stays are brief, as the Park Service rightly prohibits camping at the mouth, but no one ever forgets the paradise of terraced pools, rapids, surreal color and sunny ledges deep in a desert canyon.

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the Little Colorado on several river trips over the years. And so, like many fans of the place, I was shocked last year to hear that the Navajo Nation and Arizona businessmen have plans for a massive development at the confluence, the centerpiece of which would be the “Grand Canyon Escalade,” a tram connecting a rim-top resort hotel with a restaurant, “riverwalk” and amphitheatre at the bottom. I don’t know when I’ll next have an opportunity to visit by river, so the chance that the project may actually happen determined me to make the journey by foot and see the Little Colorado confluence at least once more in its pristine state.

Happily, my long-time correspondent and fellow landscape photographer Greg Russell thought that my last-minute hare brained scheme actually sounded like fun, and agreed to come along. Our first plan was to hike the Tanner Trail eight miles and 4,700 feet down to the river, and then take the primitive Beamer Trail another ten miles to the confluence; three nights would be just enough if we weren’t too concerned about minor details like our joints and tendons. But perhaps it was just as well when schedule conflicts forced us to scale back to two nights and hike instead to Cape Solitude, a promontory on the rim above the confluence a comparatively mellow (we reckoned) 1,400 feet down and sixteen waterless miles distant from Desert View.

Backstage at the Grand Canyon: Greg Russell covers some miles.

Backstage at the Grand Canyon: Greg Russell covers some miles.

You don’t really know an area till you traverse it on foot, and neither do you really know a spectacular piece of scenery until you’ve seen its scruffy backside. We landscape photographers are the worst about this: we usually try to pass through the twisted foothills, gloomy forests and drab grasslands as fast as possible to find a spectacular view for sunset. But the trail to Cape Solitude might have been designed to mortify such greedy passions; it makes you work and persevere for your eventual reward. Its first mile held a couple tantalizing views of the Canyon, but these soon gave way to pinon-juniper, then cholla covered hills with a few views towards the Painted Desert through noonday glare, then at last nothing but flat arid grassland marked only by an occasional gully as the path makes its weary way across the peninsula separating the main canyon from the Little Colorado. As our hike progressed, it became increasingly clear why fewer than 40 people per year request permits to backpack in the area: you’ve really got to want to see Cape Solitude. Though our heavy packs were somewhat lightened once we dropped a water cache for our return, still our footsteps slowed and our lively talk fell silent as the miles rolled on.

Solitude Elk

Harsh land, but some creatures found it to their liking. We startled a massive herd of elk midday, two hundred animals or more, and the whole place was littered with prolific elk droppings. The ground was covered with native desert bunch grasses, and the vile invasive cheatgrass was blessedly absent, two very good ecological signs on the Colorado Plateau. Along the way we passed an old Navajo hogan, its wooden structure bone dry beneath the sun. A large section had been deliberately removed from the hogan’s west side, the Navajo tradition when someone dies indoors, the building abandoned with an exit for the passage of the angry ghost.

Hogan Ruin

Hard country, the American West. The long miles gave plenty of opportunity to think on what it means to call such a place home. I’m Rocky Mountain born and raised without the benefit of a trust fund, so I’m sensible to the economic realities of living surrounded by beauty but without a job to put food on the table. You can’t eat the scenery. I can see the temptation for the Navajos of a resort development out here, an economic stake in the great American icon of the Grand Canyon. They see the development of the Canyon to the west: the Hualapai tribe with their river tours and Grand Canyon Skywalk; the Havasupai with their warm blue-green stream that thousands of visitors pay good money to play in; and of course the Anglos at the North and South Rims with restaurants, hotels, mule rides to Phantom Ranch at the bottom. Meanwhile the Najavos have just the dusty, undeveloped East Rim, reachable only by primitive roads, while warm turquoise waters flow inaccessible thousands of feet below the cliffs. All this lies on the edge of a reservation long plagued by deep poverty and all its attendant unhappiness.

Still, the Grand Canyon Escalade is not the answer. The much-vaunted tourism jobs, as I know from experience, rarely provide sufficient income to procure health insurance, save for retirement, raise a family. They’re great during college summer breaks and in the vagabond years of your 20s, but they’re much less great once you begin to have worries such as children, bodily ailments and aging parents. Much of the impetus and capital for the venture is coming from non-Native developers, and it’s a common pattern in these cases to see the economic benefits flow to Anglo consultants, Anglo contractors, a few well-connected tribal players, but not to the local poor. The proliferation of casinos among the southwestern  tribes has quite failed to produce any widespread wave of Native prosperity in the reservations, and it would be unrealistic to expect that the Escalade will be any different. Certainly, the local Navajo chapters remain divided on the issue at best, and the recent narrow local vote in favor of the project was only pushed through via shady political maneuvers.

Furthermore, the Escalade’s impact on the Canyon would be unprecedented. The main rim villages of the National Park are heavily developed, to be sure, but that development is confined to the rim. To travel into the Canyon, your choices are foot or mule. Though Phantom Ranch sees some occasional helicopter traffic for maintenance, the place is still rustic, low-key and pretty difficult to visit. Rafters, even the motorized trips, pack up and leave camp each morning, are held to high standards of backcountry housekeeping, and don’t leave permanent infrastructure behind. Supai Village can be reached by foot, horse or helicopter, but to see the famous waterfalls of Havasu Canyon you still have to hike. The Hualapai development is again limited to the rim. Nowhere in the Grand Canyon is there mass motorized access to permanent developments at river level. The Escalade proponents surely see that absence as a niche needing to be filled, but all such proposals in the past have rightly been rejected as overly damaging to the Grand Canyon’s wildness and beauty.

Panorama from Cape Solitude. Please enlarge! The Escalade tramway would run from the rim down to the river in the shadowed patch just left of center.

Panorama from Cape Solitude. Please enlarge! The Escalade tramway would run from the rim down to the river in the shadowed patch just left of center.

So what might be better? What could offer the Navajos an economic stake in the Canyon without seriously damaging the main attraction of remote, rugged landscape? An obvious place to look for a model is Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which the Navajos manage in concert with the Park Service, with access to the heart of the area provided by native guides and served by rustic accommodations. One or more small-to-medium eco-lodges on the East Rim strikes me as a reasonable idea, and such lodgings could attract travelers in search of a quieter and more remote experience than the main Park facilities provide, as well as unique Canyon views. The route to the river at Eminence Break has good potential for serious hikers, and would offer a much more feasible one-day trek to the Colorado than the corridor trails at Bright Angel. Technical canyoneers are increasingly visiting East Rim tributaries and would likely be willing to pay reasonable fees for the privilege. Though there would be substantial obstacles, I could even entertain the idea of a few European-fashion Alpine-style huts in the Canyon served by via ferrata with trained Navajo guides; such an attraction would be unique not only in the Grand Canyon but in the entire U.S.A. And I would consider it a worthy long-term goal for the Park Service to facilitate a commercial river permit for the Navajo. I personally feel that the Grand Canyon is quite adequately developed as it is, but any of these ideas would be far preferable to the massive visitation, aesthetic damage and ecological impact that the Escalade would bring. The Navajo should be looking to capitalize on the East Rim’s existing virtues of quiet, remoteness and unspoiled scenery rather than trying to create another South Rim with a tramway.

Out near the Canyon rim itself, Greg and I had our eyes fixed on a cruelly teasing hint of a cliff away in front of us. It was clearly a piece of the rim, but we couldn’t tell whether it was on our side of the main Canyon or the opposite. Sometimes it seemed close enough that we must reach it any minute, other times it looked miles distant. We hurt; this was a backpack for when you’re in good shape in the summer, not fat and lazy in February. The seldom-seen landscape of the Grand Canyon’s backside had long since lost its fascination, and the afternoon shadows were lengthening. Like many pilgrims bound for difficult destinations, we might have given up if way back weren’t obviously even worse than to press forward.

Little Colorado Shining

Finally, the old abandoned two-track trail at last grazed the rim. The massive gulf of the Grand Canyon, which had lain all day in our minds like a half-remembered dream, spread wide before us. Another push for another tired mile, a quick break to set up camp and drink water, and we stood on the tip of Cape Solitude, looking at the stained, coffee-brown Little Colorado mingling with the emerald green water of the dam-controlled main river three thousand feet straight below.

Mingling Waters

The sun set, the sky grew dark, while deep gorges on three sides separated us from the faraway shine of the few manmade lights in view: only a sprinkling out on the Navajo Res, a single glow marking our distant start back at Desert View, and a few rafters’ headlamps far below at a river camp. Visible but inaccessible as the stars, those solitary lights only emphasized our vast isolation as night deepened in the canyons below.

Cape Solitude Melancholy

We tossed and turned in the long February night, then rose in the cold and made our way by headlamp and intuition through the pitch black in search of a view down the Little Colorado canyon to the confluence. Breaking dawn caught us about a mile short, and we speed-walked through cactus and stone till the view opened up as we hoped, just as the clouds began to glow pink and Wagnerian over Gunther Castle, Siegfried Pyre, Saddle Mountain and the North Rim. The Little Colorado twisted like a brown snake below in the brightening daylight, while we rejoiced in the sight of a Grand Canyon view that very few people have ever seen.

Solitude Morning

The modern cliché is that a pilgrimage is not about the destination, but the journey. There’s truth to the idea, but journeys need their goals, and humans need worthwhile destinations to inspire the hard work of journeying. I would hope that our nation, both Native and Anglo, will choose to preserve the Grand Canyon as a place full of opportunities for genuine pilgrimage, as many as possible, whether the effort required is by foot, boat, mule, rappel, or simply the long journey to the rim. If the Escalade happens, one of the best of these opportunities will be lost. No one will ever be moved to make the trek to Cape Solitude again; the solitude will be gone save as a name on a map. Backpackers will likely flock to the confluence via the Beamer Trail, but their aim in doing so will not be an enchanted oasis isolated deep in the Canyon, but rather an easy tram ride out to the rim. The Little Colorado will no longer be a hard-won goal; the Escalade’s crowds and amenities will instead be an unmistakable sign that the journey in the wild Canyon is over.

Little Colorado Sunrise

The sunrise glow faded and the rosy desert morning turned to daylight yellow as Greg and I packed up camp and braced ourselves for the long miles back, pausing for a last look at the wild confluence, a silent goodbye to a place to which there may be no returning.

22 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to Solitude

  1. This is a gorgeous crop of images, Jackson, and very unlike most Grand Canyon images the viewer is used to seeing. I don’t know that I have a favorite…they’re all great. The first image in the post really has a lot of “wow” factor, and the others have a lot of subtle beauty that I remember from standing there as well.

    Your description of the hike is pretty accurate…long and very tiring…and you did an excellent job of recounting it, because reading this post I can remember vividly everything you describe. I think Cape Solitude’s remoteness will help keep this from becoming another photographic icon.

    As a matter of principle, I was against Escalade before visiting, but after seeing the impact it would have on this place, I am more opposed to it. It would not be good for the ecosystem, the cultural legacy of the confluence, it would not probably bear the economic boon it is proposed to have, and honestly, it would take some of the “out there” away from out there…that would be a detriment to our sense of place if nothing else. A pretty big loss.

    Well written! Thanks for inviting me on this memorable trip!

  2. Jackson, this is a well thought out and informative write-up and excellent photos to go with. Certainly worthy of widespread magazine publication.

    I was not aware of this issue before and find it to be such a shame that it might happen. I have an open mind about infrastructure for tourism, but as you explained there are so many better ways to go about it. Better for the environment AND the experience. The canyon huts with via ferrata idea you mentioned is awesome, for example.

  3. Great phography, Jack and Greg, and impressive and thoughtful essay.

    Jackson spent a good deal of his– what, late youth?– in a town where there was a substantial Navajo component, and sees them as being as complex as any of the other New Mexican humans who share our New Mexico “querencia”.

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  5. I’ve just returned from a rafting trip through the Canyon. I felt sickened by the idea that a piece of Las Vegas could be considered necessary or has a place in the Grand Canyon.
    I hope developers take it away and have more profit than understanding in the pockets. I will be working diligently against this project. No one and nothing can improve on Nature. Nice article

  6. Nice article and photos, but very biased and written by Anglos that have no vested interest in the area other than a hiking trail and pretty views. The Navaho need this as an economic boost to their economy. Rather it be a rim side hotel or a tramway to the bottom of the canyon, it is their land and they should be able to decide and make judgement themselves. Anglos and outside entities such as the NPS and Sierra Club really should remain silent about what is developed on tribal lands. Stop interfering with progress.

    • Utter nonsense. As long as any tribe takes the federal dollar and is a part of this nation, it sits at the table like anyone else. You can look up for yourself how many federal dollars, paid by us all, go to such entities as the Dine and other “soveriegn nations”. I don’t say they shouldn’t have a voice, but that we ALL do. There are plenty of potential ways to make a buck without desecrating a site that might be considered “sacred” to all of us.

      As far as a boon to the economy, most such projects benefit a select few and not the poor or elderly shepherd in the back country who could use it most.

  7. You refer to this area as being sacred, but only a few miles south of the sacred Sipapu, a man is attempting to do a high wire trick over this canyon on national television. A few years ago more stunts were made by skateboarder Tony Hawk and a motorcross rider as they both based jumped by ramp over the side allowing the motorcycle to visibly crash against the rocks below in your so-called “sacred” canyon. ALL approved by the Navajo Tribe.

    Please don’t preach to me how a development that will provide employment to a people in need will harm an area that has already become an international spectacle brought by the greed for the almighty dollar.

    The fight for the Confluence is a hypocritical battle. As for being a development stooge, I am not.

    • Hi: Thanks for your response.
      1. It has been shown time and again that such developments rarely bring much money or employment into the local communities. The money usually goes to the outside developers and the politicos. If it were to be done otherwise here, with the GUARANTEE of decent-paying jobs and other concrete benefits to the locals, then I would have to lessen my criticism. But I’m not holding my breath.
      2. I have hiked the Salt Trail and visited the confluence by raft many times. It is sacred to ME, which is why I care about what happens there.
      3. The tramway development would far overshadow all the past indecencies that you cite. It would be a monstrosity, placed into one of most beautiful spots in the wilderness of the Colorado River corridor … and probably for the amusement mainly of Japanese tourists.
      4. Speaking of Japanese tourists, I’ll later post a photo of what is going on at the other end of the Canyon, with the Hualapai helicopter operation.
      5. Of First World countries, the US is practically alone in not being completely over-built. We still have large pristine wild areas, which includes, of course, the wilderness of the inner canyon of the Grand Canyon. In my view, these areas are of inestimable value to the citizens of this country, and must be preserved at all costs. If you go to the Alps, on the other hand, where tramways, mountain railways, chairlifts, restaurants, huts, etc. cover the landscape like spiderwebs, you discover that you are there with everyone else. The scenery is great, but you just can’t get away from the crowds. It’s different here. Here, you can head down a remote trail in the Grand Canyon, and have an experience of the grandeur of nature with a degree of solitude that is totally unavailable elsewhere. I say that you cannot put a price on that
      6. Lastly – this is the Grand Canyon that we are talking about. It is the most unique, recognizable and esteemed landscape in the world. No one, Navajo or otherwise, has any business damaging or destroying a square inch of this place.

  8. Mike, thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. My own opinion is that the Navajo and other natives are entitled to the respect we give any citizen, and genuine respect demands that they not be exempt from the scrutiny and restrictions we would place on any property owner whose activities would massively and permanently impact a National Park. The Hopi and Navajos with different views should also have a meaningful say in the process: that’s good neighborliness and diplomacy anywhere, whether we’re talking about homeowners, civil jurisdictions or sovereign nations.

    Secondly, a couple ridiculous stunts with skateboards or motorbikes are hardly in the same league as a permanent resort, river development and tramway. The L.C. Gorge is still an empty and undeveloped place, and it’s either ignorant or highly disingenuous to claim otherwise.

    As for the economics of the situation, obviously monetary benefit versus conservation is one of the great questions of our age, and opinions certainly differ. I’ll merely note again that the supposed economic benefit to the Navajo Reservation as a whole, as opposed to some well-connected individuals and anglos from outside, is highly questionable.

    • Thanks Sinjin! I enjoyed your piece, definitely worth a read. I know there continue to be developments regarding the Escalade proposal, and sadly the issue’s still not getting the publicity it deserves. Thanks for adding your voice!

    • Thanks Jim! Yeah, leading up to these things it’s always “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and afterward it’s always why did we sell away our heritage? (And I’m not just talking about Native Americans.) Like I said in the post, I’d be a lot more sympathetic to smaller scale development on the East Rim that was locally generated, but the Escalade proposal is just outsiders looking to pillage.

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  10. Jackson, I just reread this after a few years and I have to say, this is probably my favorite of all your writings and photography. What an incredible journey, especially with Comanche Point too! I admire everything in this effort and am envious for the opportunity to have been there. I hope you are able to head down to the desert again soon. Perhaps Chalk Basin on the Owyhee? Not to far from where you are!

    • Kind words, Bubba, thank you very much! It’s kind of mindblowing to think that my son was one when I took this trip and wrote the post, and he’s nine now. I need to get him to the Grand Canyon! And to go back and hike the Beamer Trail. Hope you’re well!

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