Deep Backcountry Explorations On The Arizona Strip
We were on the third day of our epic pavement-to-pavement expedition through the three-million-acre Arizona Strip. The Strip is the portion of Arizona that is effectively cut off from the rest of the state by the immense gash we know as the Grand Canyon. Bordered by Utah, Nevada, and the Colorado River, this vast and lightly visited land contains high wild plateaus, deeply incised and colorful canyons, spectacular vistas of the Grand Canyon from its North Rim, and miles and miles of dirt roads and two-track routes.
When we last left the band of intrepid explorers, we were pondering a severe washout on the one and only 4WD route that could take us deep into the drainage of the Grand Canyon itself. Embedded in our recent memory was the struggle experienced on the trip up the Grand Wash Cliffs just days before. Were we ready to exercise our adventuresome spirits so soon after the punishment of the road past the Savanic Mine?
We stood and contemplated the huge washout that narrowed the road down to ATV width and the hours of material moving in the heat of the late afternoon that would be required to fill it. One of us idly picked up a rock and tossed it into the hole. Further discussion of how we didn't even know if the route was passable around the next bend was accompanied by another rock picked up and casually chucked in the hole. Another rock followed, and then another one. Before we really comprehended what was happening, the four of us were engaged in frenzied activity to collect every nearby rock and toss them all into the yawning hole. Quickly exhausting the materials close at hand, we ranged farther up and down the road to find suitable rocks to lug to the washout and pitch into the shrinking hole.
Two long and very sweaty hours later, we paused, inspected our work, and declared it ready to test. I crawled into the Comanche, and utilizing absolutely every scrap of road width available, slowly and carefully inched down across the narrowed section. Success! Now we could pursue our desire to explore the depths of the canyon. The other vehicles ever so carefully followed and we dropped slowly and steeply into Trail Canyon. The road jumped back and forth across the wash in the rapidly deepening chasm and we peered with curiosity around every corner, fully expecting to see a rock fall or another washout conspiring to keep us from our goal. Each view of the next stretch of road was accompanied by a keen sense of discovery and delight when we saw that our downward progress was still unimpeded.
The road itself was incredible. Carved into the rock of the canyon by bulldozer and explosives, the "dugway" was long, steep, and winding. Even more impressive were the amazing views toward the Colorado River. The route crossed the watercourse one final time a few feet above a pour-off that was easily over a hundred feet tall. It would be a spectacular waterfall during one of the Strip's infrequent rain events!
We reached the junction with the much larger Parashant Canyon. Parashant bears the distinction of being one of the few canyons on the North Rim that can be hiked all the way down to river level. We followed the old road down the canyon but soon found ourselves in another dilemma. Our GPS units showed us as still squarely on the established route, but it just plain wasn't there anymore. The road had disappeared into the meandering and braided wash in the center of the canyon. We scouted ahead on foot.The way looked passable but slow, complicated by numerous rocky passages and very little sign of previous usage. The sun had, once again, slipped down behind the canyon walls as we contemplated our next move.
With our memories of the canyon near the Savanic Mine fresh in our minds, we picked a small shelf on the west bank of the wide wash for our campsite and pulled up for the night. Fumbling our way through the rocks and tamarisk in the dark didn't sound like fun, and it had already been a long day. We probably weren't the only humans on the Arizona Strip that night but deep in the depths of Parashant Canyon with an amazing canopy of stars overhead, we could have easily been convinced that we were the only people on the planet!
Dawn brought us yet another promise of completely clear skies. We excitedly loaded up for another day of exploration. Our intended destination was the site of the Copper Mountain Mine. Judging from the maps, the road from campsite to mine appeared to be about 14 miles in length. Our maps also showed that we were to follow the main wash for about 4 miles before climbing out to tour across the bench lands between the river and the rim high above and behind us. Dropping into the wash that morning, it looked to be a very slow 4 miles. Once again we frequently needed to "improve" our route, moving rocks, picking our way slowly over and around the miscellaneous rocks and boulders of the meandering stream bed and scaling the banks where erosion had separated the road from its original path. The first 2 miles were especially slow going. We repeatedly had to jump out of the Jeeps to scout ahead on foot for a path we could successfully navigate.
Two miles down from our campsite, longer stretches of the original route were available on the banks of the wash, first on one side, then on the other. We had to improve some of the ingress and egress points to access this road, but that was far faster than picking our way down the increasingly rough wash. After 4 miles, right on cue, the road left the wash for the final time and veered west to climb the broken bench lands. The path was certainly much easier to follow once out of the wash but was still slow going due to the rough nature of the roadbed. It was already early afternoon when we finally pulled up at the mine site.
The Copper Mountain Mine is scattered over a wide area. It appears to have been worked at least three separate times with the most recent activity taking place in the 1960s. The oldest is much, much earlier, perhaps as early as the 1870s. How anyone would have discovered this spot, let alone worked it productively way back then, is almost beyond comprehension. Most of the relics at the mine are from the latest incarnation and include a motor set, a compressor, a few abandoned vehicles, and even an airstrip. We thoroughly explored the area on foot, including a trip to the mine shafts deep in a side canyon of Parashant Canyon. We marveled at the lengths that people will go to when they think there is money to be made, even when that money has to be laboriously scratched from solid rock in a most inhospitable country.
The long trip back out wasn't much faster than the trip in, and it soon became apparent that we weren't even going to make it back to our original canyon campsite before night fell. We pulled off the trail on the banks of the wash and spent a second wonderful night deep in the canyon.
Early morning found us climbing back out on the incredible road that accesses Parashant Canyon, across the former washout, and back to the dirt two-tracks of the plateau. We now headed east toward Whitmore Wash, another major access point for the Grand Canyon. The road's end in Whitmore Wash gets much closer and lower to the river than any other place on the North Rim. A monstrous lava flow from Mount Emma has created a large ramp down the broad valley that allows vehicular access to within about 800 vertical feet of the river. A short but steep trail then drops from the end of the road to the riverbanks below. The Colorado River was running clear and cold, and the thought of a refreshing plunge pulled a couple of us all the way down to the water. The benefits of the brisk dip were somewhat lost on the hot foot-slog back up to the vehicles on the rim, but it had sure felt good!
We started the long drive back up Whitmore Wash, marveling at how much of this part of the Canyon was shaped by volcanic activity. Cinder cones and huge piles of black, razor-sharp lava serve as a reminder of the flows that tumbled down toward the river across much of the North Rim.