The Haunted Cattle Adventure

7-13 December 2003 — Doug Nering

The Hike

Easy Going

Start from the Shuttle Bus stop at the permit window. There is another guy with a pack here and I say, "I bet we're headed the same place." It's true, we are solo hikers going to Bright Angel Camp. Pleasant to have someone to share the trail with and this is his first overnight hike into Grand Canyon, so I get to talk about things and tell stories without the possibility he might have heard something before.

Best not to hurry with this heavy winter pack, light rain below the the Tipoff, but no problem until approaching the last switchbacks to the bridge tunnel. Sit and watch the river for a short rest and then move on. Soon in camp and starting dinner but can't get pressure from my stove pump. Maybe the only time I didn't test my stove before packing, but stove tools and parts are in the gear. Clean some grit out of the pump and then it works fine. More rain the first night, so seems worth hauling my 2-person tent on this trip for security against cold weather. It's always a good feeling secure in a tent listening to rain on the tarp.

Utah Flats Bypass

Takes longer to put away a tent and beak camp on your own, so about 2 hours getting started. Go to the Silver Bridge and head downriver along the north bank. The trail here is remarkably defined and goes quick until ending ambiguously at the base of a steep ravine. Harvey B describes this route as one of the several ways to reach the Trinity area and I wanted try it as a different way to upper Phantom Creek. Going up the ravine doesn't work so I climb onto the east shoulder. This is one of those crumbly steep slopes without much traction. Soon I put down my pack to look for a better way. A little higher and I find faint sign of travel and a better way leading up from the smaller ravine to the east. Moving in these conditions is tense and tiring, every step seems doubtful and a slip would be serious. And if there were more difficulties above I might have to turn back and that would make a mess of my plans for the next 2 days, so I decide to retreat and go back to the standard Utah Flats route from BA Camp. I would scout this as as dayhike before trying it again with a pack.

Utah Flats Direct

Start up at 13:30. This route seems to be getting ripped up from traffic and it's not much like the elegant series of steps and turns that I remember from my earliest off-trail hikes. Piano Alley is fun as always. The way across the top is faint but I am hitting the marks all the way — no wasted effort. Clouds come down onto the hills and blow sleet, but easy to keep warm as long as I am moving. Descend into Phantom Creek aware that evening is coming on. Daylight turning to gray at the bottom and head up-creek to my target campsite. Darkfall at 18:00 as I move away from the creek to the overhang halfway to Haunted. Dinner and setup in the dark.

Morning shows the sole disadvantage to this spot — that my location is blocked from the morning sun by the cliff I am under, but the sun hits this area earlier than most any other place at the bottom this time of year and I just have to fix breakfast and walk out to sit on a rock to get sun.

Haunted Trek

Last time I was here with a few other hikers we didn't have time to go far into Haunted Canyon and I always wanted to see the whole thing. Could be a tough go. 10:00. Strap on a daypack and go up along Phantom Creek to the Haunted fork and push upstream. Lots of erosion here and tough to find a good way through the brush, washouts, and forced crossings. Gets really bad and the west bank looks appealing. Climb up above the bank and find a good slope with a clear track. Now I am making some time. When the slope is cut through, descend to the bed again and follow a dry bend and then hop across an ancient boulderfield. This place is icy-cold and yesterday's sleet still crusts the ground. Soon I hit the flow coming from the spring up the west side. Push through the brush and cross — interesting how warm the water seems in contrast to the air. To the north the bed is dry, open and inviting. The sun promises to give a little warmth to this almost straight northerly side-canyon. Lunch 1 stop to drink up and fill up with water here. I'm thinking it would be a good plan to be back here by 14:00.

Up the bed in the first patch of sand there is an obvious lion track going the other way. Every place there is a jump down onto sand a set of prints is always there. Bed splits at a rock tower and keeps going — narrow but no obstacles or bad jumbles. Finally, a limestone base shows through so I am getting close, but it's past my 13:00 turn-around. No way I can stop now. Climb past the limestone ledge and through the boulder pile and make the bend into the final bay. No stopping now. On through the rock and rubble, finally to stand in the basin under the last pouroff. 13:30. So many ledges and crevices above and around, cliff top only 50 feet overhead. Looks climbable, but not for me and certainly not alone. At my feet, again the familiar paw-mark in the sand headed down-canyon. Is this place good hunting? I should be worried. No, just passing through, I think. Imagination sees a lion looking over the ledge of the pouroff above. Nights above the rim are cold now and low in the canyon is the place to be for this season. A smooth hop over the edge and elastic muscles easily take up the landing strike. Ledge-to-ledge to where I am and then down through the mesquite brush and rocks on the easy trail to a winter home.

Look at everything and take in a sense of the place — time to return. Down to the the limestone slab at the bottom of the boulder jumble. Lunch 2 by a basin pool with a skin of ice on top. Down the canyon bed following lion tracks all the way. 15:00 at the spring. Back to camp at 17:00 with time for dinner in the last of daylight.

Nights are long this time of year but it doesn't seem to bother me. Sometimes resting awake with my thoughts, and other times letting sleep take over. I both hear and feel the rumble in the night — big rock coming down the slope — but nothing to be concerned about where I am. Clatter and a thump at the bottom nearby. Check the watch — 05:00. Back to sleep.

You call this a Cattle Trail?

Pack up the tent again — getting better with practice. Look for where the rock might have come down — no sign. Lion track in the sand near my tent. Looks maybe a week old so probably picking deer off from the herd that roams the plateau near Trinity by now.

09:30. The plan is to look everywhere for any possible sign of an abandoned trail from here to Bright Angel Creek. Head upstream and then up onto the Tonto. Not that smart a choice — too far west. Down through a ravine and back up. Finally, a cairn below the first saddle on the route. Scan the slope. No trail. No line of cairns. No track. Walk downslope on a possible line. Nothing. Typical rugged trackless Tonto but what a great view of the fractured Supergroup layers of Phantom Creek and the flank of Isis all the way to the pointy cap on top.

Over the saddle and on the east slope a track. This goes a little way and disappears — typical game track. Down into the big drainage west of Sturdevant and up the other side. More rugged slope with no track. Up to a saddle and a stand of mixed mesquite brush and cottonwoods. Go east. Level track in a straight line and fast going to the next ridge, good progress. Seep spring reflects the sun downslope from the cottonwoods. Easy terrain from here to the next drainage.


The slope rolls off steep into the next side-canyon approaching Johnson Point and I'm getting concerned. More and more side-canyon comes into view and it's a big one. No track, loose rock, and heavy blackbrush. Think about water: 1.5 liters. Enough for the day but not an overnight and it's looking like a long way. Steep rock ramp leads down to a solid rock bed (Bass Formation on the geo-map), as good an access as I could hope for in a place like this. Row of agave pits under the cliff on the other side. A pretty place and I wish I could appreciate it as more than a barrier to travel. Pools in the rock bed below. Water — stop and collect another 1.5 liters. Maybe I'm not going to make my target today but no worries now. East slope is really steep and rugged but keep moving. Top of next ridgeline. Great view and looks like optimal travel. Good game track goes fast and I am on the slopes above Bright Angel Creek finally but late in the day.

The Cattle Trail

Map check. One more ravine to cross to reach the descent slope. More rugged Tonto and no sign of a trail or track or good line across. Down to the Tonto rim with the expected slump bench structure visible below. This looks very promising. Find the rim break and pick up sign of a trail. Down onto an easy meadow slope.

Track faint. Stop and look. Could go down beside the cliff. Could go down the slope. Try down the slope and pick up the track again. Switchback improvements evident descending a gap between Tapeats slumps. Down onto another broad meadow where the track disappears. Across the meadow and onto a promising ridge with a possible faint line along the side. No trail. Drop pack and walk out onto the boulders for a view down. Looks like a good place but daylight is going. Follow the best line. Track comes again more definite with some switchback improvements. Rock wall below trail passing above a big slab. Across the point of the ridgeline and defined. More switchbacks and down into a dry wash. Drop pack and scout. As expected, the trail leaves the bed following a shelf in the structure of the next hill. 17:30. This is the place to stop considering the trail is too faint to follow in the dark. Camp in the sandy wash and "leave no trace."

Was that real or imaginary? Mule deer bugling in the dead of night — I have obsessive thoughts of a lion on the hunt nearby. Skies are clear at first but light clouds moving in for a possible change of weather. The trail improvements found show that this was an improved path some time in the past, but the purpose remains unclear. I really can't believe that anyone would have been able to herd stock over some of the rugged slopes I have hiked.

Exit Wilderness

Continue tracing the Cattle Trail. Trail follows the shelf and then upslope steeply. Across the brow of the hill the track is very faint and cactus growing in it. Down the other side of the hill it disappears again. The obvious place to go is across the lowest contour directly north. Follow the expected line with no sign of use. Then a track seems to follow the drainage. Then it seems to leave and go across the slope to the nose of the next ridge. Here, again, is a defined trailbed and a couple of switchbacks.

All sign of travel ends at the bottom of the ridge (Cattle Trail notes) and I go across the flat toward Bright Angel Creek and the North Kaibab Trail on the opposite side. The bank is about 15 foot of vertical here but there is a place to step halfway down and lower a pack and descend.

The final problem is the creek crossing. Flow is not very high and scanning around it looks like there is a narrow place upstream. A couple of good rocks to jump across, but this is a much heavier pack than I usually carry and there's no point risking overloading a knee on a jump and hop. Option — sling the pack across and then jump. One swing of the pack and off the rock I slip into the creek up to my hips, water pouring onto my pack where it spills over the rocks. Haul it up and push it onto the bank, grab my pole and climb out.

Wet but not chilled (yet). Change to dry clothes and hang my stuff outside my pack. Inside is dry except for a couple of damp spots. Note to self: Changing to a fresh pair of socks the morning of a stream crossing was a dumb thing. Spraying my pack with water repellant before the trip was a smart thing.

Trip Remainder

Super! What a fine trip!! — Following a really faint and obscure trail and actually staying on it all the way. Up North Kaibab to Cottonwood Camp. Another minor mystery solved on the way: Why Wall Creek? — there's a wall across it. The name is listed in River to Rim without explanation, and I've been here before of course, but an answer isn't an answer without the question.

I had hoped to spend some time in The Transept, but that's out. Rain comes on steady in late afternoon and into the evening and then turns to a light snow as the night gets colder. Packing an icy tent the next morning is an entirely new experience for me. Grand Canyon puts on a fine morning show with bright sun scorching the snow off the buttes and piling the vapor into clouds against the summits —— red, white, and blue. Stop for a visit to Ribbon Falls and Upper Ribbon Falls. Head downstream at 13:30 to Bright Angel Camp at 16:00. Out Bright Angel Trail the next day, which is almost perpetually shaded in this season, but I have a nice lunch stop in the sun at the top of the Old Devils Corkscrew. A few icy spots in the Supai, but no slips.


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