As the Grand Canyon Field Institute’s 1995 season marched along, director John Frazier suggested I accompany our late-May class on a trip to the North Rim’s Clear Creek and it’s tributary Cheyava Falls. It was an easy sell. I had been admiring the seasonal falls for months from various points along the South Rim. So with great anticipation I greeted the students with whom I would share this adventure.
A brief orientation and equipment check took place on the second floor of the newly restored Kolb Studio. This historic building, perched on the edge of the South Rim, once doubled as the home of the late Emery and Ellsworth Kolb; two prominent explorers and photographers who arrived at Grand Canyon in 1901 and 1902, respectively. Although Ellsworth eventually moved to California, Emery called the studio home until his death in 1976. It was a fitting venue from which to launch this particular class as Cheyava Falls was first visited in modern times by Ellsworth Kolb and Israel Chamberlain in 1908.
The class consisted of five students and two instructors; myself, and Stewart Aitchison, a writer and naturalist with extensive experience in Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau region. The students came from varied backgrounds: a photojournalist from Oregon; a civil engineer from Arkansas; a high school counselor from California; a German-born Floridian in the shipping industry; and an East Indian-born engineer from South Carolina. Their experience at Grand Canyon ranged from a first-time visitor to a seasoned Colorado River rafter. Most had gotten acquainted the previous evening while camping in the designated Field Institute sites at Mather Campground. After a quick primer and introduction, we set off on our adventure.
Descending the South Kaibab Trail en route to Bright Angel Campground, Stewart fielded questions about the flora and fauna we encountered along the way. The story of the formation of the Canyon was slowly revealed as we passed through ever more ancient layers of rock. Soon we had reached the final chapter at the Colorado River in the form of the 1.7-billion year-old Vishnu schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet.
We made camp alongside Bright Angel Creek and after dinner Stewart gave an informal lecture about the impact of Glen Canyon Dam on Grand Canyon beaches and other riparian ecosystems. For an encore, we trudged up to Phantom Ranch and bonded with the other hikers over iced lemonade and cold Budweiser.
Day two took us across the 9-mile Clear Creek Trail built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. There was no shortage of topics as we slowly made our way around the multiple fins that support breathtaking Zoroaster Temple. We studied lizards, cactus, century plants and many other features of our pristine desert surroundings. This time it was alongside the gushing Clear Creek that we pitched our tents. The hustle and bustle of the “corridor” was far behind us. Besides another small group of backpackers, our only companions were the rustling cottonwood trees and a nosy banded king snake. The evening’s discussion was a brief history of human occupation at Grand Canyon. From the mysterious peoples who left their split-twig figurines in isolated caves around 2000 BC, to the prospectors and entrepreneurs of modern days, we shared tales of man’s interaction with the Canyon.
Of particular interest was the story of Major John Wesley Powell’s groundbreaking expedition down the previously uncharted Colorado River in 1869. Hovering high above our campground were Howlands and Dunn buttes, their namesakes having been the three men who chose to abandon Powell’s expedition prematurely, unaware that the worst of the river was behind them. Stewart sealed the legend with a fascinating alternate theory to the widely-held belief that the trio were killed by Paiute Indians in a case of mistaken identity.
Day three found the class hugging the banks of Clear Creek as we made our way up the lush drainage. Toward the end of our five-mile day hike we passed below a number of granaries clinging to an inaccessible ledge high on the Canyon wall. The builders had vanished some 800 years earlier but the dark rectangular openings were still as mysterious as the men and women who fashioned them. Another half mile and we had reached our goal. Cheyava, a Paiute word for “intermittent water,” is the name of the highest waterfall in Grand Canyon. The 800-foot seasonal falls originate underground and blast out of a large cave like opening in the Redwall layer of the Canyon’s North Rim.
With 22 hard miles behind us, a feeling of accomplishment was contagious as we watched the wind peel off curtains of spray from the pummeling water. We scrambled up the Muav Limestone to reach a basin which captured the final 70-foot drop of the terraced falls. The brave stood below the cascading ice-cold water just long enough to have their photo taken.
On our return to camp we inspected a series of ruins at the base of the Tapeats Sandstone overlooking a grassy meadow. Among the amazingly-intact artifacts were a pair of metates (concave stones used for food preparation) which still cradled their smooth grinding stones. The Anasazi’s migration in the 12th century was made even more poignant by our own reluctant departure from this tiny paradise.
Day four was spent hiking back to Bright Angel Campground for our last night in the Canyon. As thoughts followed feet back toward civilization we inadvertently roused a sleeping rattlesnake beside the trail. His ominous rattling was a stark reminder that although our minds were straying to hot showers and room service, our boots were still in a wilderness as harsh as it is beautiful. On our final night beneath an endless canopy of stars, we retired early in anticipation of a pre-dawn rise and a grueling hike out.
Our last sunrise below the Rim found us snaking up the Bright Angel Trail. This slow exodus included a stop at Indian Garden, a postcard setting which was home to the Havasupai Indians for hundreds of years until Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919. The final treasure on our trek was a stone’s throw from the top where a well-preserved collection of pictographs awaits those with a keen eye (or a capable guide).
With our weary steps bringing us full circle, we gathered at Kolb Studio and celebrated our achievement with a round of high fives. Realizing that our journey deserved a more dignified closure, we shared a late afternoon lunch at the El Tovar while making plans to meet again.