Natural Bridge Discovery!


By Barry Goldwater February 1955

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It was on the morning that Rainbow Lodge burned four years ago that this bridge became such a part of my life as to be almost an obsession. Bill Wilson telephoned me before sunrise that morning and told me of our disastrous loss, and I immediately made plans to fly to Navajo Mountain to see what could be salvaged.

Charles Ray, a close friend of mine from Indiana, went along with me; and, inasmuch as Charlie had never seen the Grand Canyon, I flew over the eastern end of it, going-over the Canyon from the Indian Watch Tower, up toward Saddle Mountain at the south end of House Rock Valley.

As we cruised along, I happened to look down to my left and there was the shadow of what appeared to be a bridge. I was quite startled, because I had never heard of a bridge of this seeming magnitude being located in this particular part of the Canyon. So I circled at great length and Charlie and I both verified the fact that the sun's rays going through an opening in the cliff indicated the existence of a bridge.

We then turned the airplane to the east and landed at our strip at Navajo Mountain, went over the damage caused by the fire, and then, in late afternoon, headed back toward Phoenix. I wanted to be sure of this bridge, so we flew over the place where we had sighted it, but in the afternoon it was undistinguishable and I began to wonder whether what we had seen was really a bridge or just an optical illusion.

The next time I happened to pass over that portion of the Canyon was about a year later when another friend, Ben Holloway, and I were travelling by air to some mineral properties in Utah. We covered the same route at about the same time in the morning and again the bridge was discernible. On returning in the afternoon, however, it was lost to our view; and my curiosity was nearly at the breaking point, so certain was I that what I had seen on two occasions previously was not entirely a figment of my imagination.

In 1952, when the plaque at Marble Canyon was dedicated to Doris and Norman Nevills, I asked Ben Avery of the Arizona Republic to fly up with me, and I told him that on the way I was going to fly over what I thought was a natural bridge in order to get his opinion of what it actually was. So, when we approached the location, sure enough, there was the shadow of the bridge on the red wall of the Canyon and, as we circled it, Ben remarked that it certainly looked like a bridge to him. Naturally, this statement relieved me of the thought that maybe I had been seeing things for these several years. We landed at Marble Canyon and told an embarking Colorado River trip of the existence of this bridge and gave them what we thought were adequate instructions to find it. This party explored both Little Nankoweap and Big Nankoweap canyons for this bridge, but my instructions were apparently not sufficient, for they failed to find it.

I planned, then, to make a river trip myself in 1953, to discover and photograph this bridge, but because of the press of the Congressional Session in Washington, I was not able to make it that year. Another long session occurred in 1954, so it became necessary to give up previous arrangements for a boat trip from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch.

During the Christmas holidays in 1953, I had made adequate aerial reconnaissance of the entire area and had actually gotten a photograph of the bridge from the air, so was certain what I was looking for was not an hallucination but an actual bridge. Subsequent discussions with the Department of the Interior, with Louis Shellback, Park Naturalist of the Grand Canyon, and others interested in the geography and history of the Canyon, had led me to believe that this was an undiscovered bridge. This only added to my determination to visit this spot high up in the gorge of Nankoweap Canyon, so I decided this fall that the only chance I had of reaching it was either by walking down the old Nankoweap Trail or by landing in the bottom of Nankoweap Canyon in a helicopter. I discussed the possibility of the trail trip with the Park Rangers and with two young men who are exploring caves in Little Nankoweap Canyon for the Museum of Northern Arizona. From their description of this trail, which has long been out of use, I decided that this approach would not be practical because of the time involved in traversing this almost obsolete trail. Since the helicopter was the only means left to me, I contacted Bob Gilbreath of Arizona Heli Dusters and made arrangements with him to haul one of his helicopters to Cameron on Saturday night, the 29th of October, from which point we would depart for a trip into Nankoweap the following morning.

Bob and I had previously surveyed the route by airplane and decided that it was entirely feasible to land the helicopter in the bottom of Nankoweap, there being a difference of only 2700 feet from the East Rim to the point in the Canyon where a desirable helicopter landing area showed itself. The East Rim of the Canyon is fairly constant in its elevation and Nankoweap Canyon itself is very wide and quite long, making it possible to descend easily and, more important, making it possible for a gradual ascent to clear the east wall of the Canyon on the way out.

I flew to Cameron Saturday night from Yuma, and spent the night with my friends, the Richardsons, eagerly awaiting departure at sunrise the next morning. We were up at 6:00 and hauled the helicopter over to the landing strip on the northeast side of the Little Colorado River. There, we took it from its trailer and started it up, and it wasn't long until we were airborne in the direction of Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Canyon. This was not only an excellent landmark, but it is also the point under which the bridge is located, so we had a navigational point for flying purposes and an exploring point for the object of our trip.

We flew at about 300 feet over the terrain, crossing the tremendously deep gorge of the Little Colorado just east of the Lookout Tower. Because of its narrowness and sheer depth, this Canyon is as spectacular to me as the main Canyon, and viewed from above its depth is greatly accentuated. We flew directly over the Blue Springs in the Little Colorado, from which pour great quantities of the sky-blue waters which mark the Little Colorado during the periods of the year when the upper sources of the river are not productive.

It was a beautiful, clear morning with the sun rising slowly in the east, lighting up the North Rim of the Canyon and the long, gentle slopes of the Kaibab Plateau. Toward the north we could see the low, red range of Echo Cliffs as they turn eastward to meet the Colorado where it comes out of Glen Canyon. Then, coming down on the other side of Marble Canyon were the great Vermillion Cliffs as they stood majestically in the morning sun, turning themselves up into Utah to help form House Rock Valley which runs to the south down to Saddle Mountain, the southern end of that valley, and also the northern rim of the eastern end of the Canyon. The great height of Hayden Butte came into sight almost as soon as we gained altitude, and when we crossed the junction of the Little Colorado and the Big Colorado, many of the prominent points such as Duppa Butte, Swilling Butte, Ehrenberg Point, Nankoweap Butte, and Saddle Mountain came into view.

We flew between Nankoweap Butte and Nankoweap Mesa directly over Kwagant Canyon into the rather wide valley of Big Nankoweap. The point of landing that we had selected previously proved to be an excellent one and Bob expertly lowered the helicopter onto this little, flat spot on the south side of Nankoweap Creek.

Nankoweap is a Pah-Ute word—singing or echo canyon—because of the deep echoes in the Canyon where it joins the River. We arrived there about 8:00 o'clock, or just about a half hour after taking off from Cameron, and we immediately started a seven-mile walk from the river itself to the point where the bridge is located. From the spot where we settled our helicopter, however, I estimated it to be a three-mile walk. In Nankoweap Creek we found water, which was more than welcome since we were equipped only with small Army canteens and had depended on finding water either in the streams or in the springs.

Approximately three-quarters of a mile up the Canyon from our point of landing the Canyon forked, one branch going to the southwest toward Kibby Butte and the other continuing up the main Canyon between Bourke Point and Mount Hayden. This pinnacle is the main guidepost for those people seeking this bridge, and as one approaches this area, either as we did by helicopter or by walking up from the mouth of Nankoweap Canyon itself, one must keep this high rock in sight and keep it on the left. Bourke Point is the extension of a long, slender mesa that starts at Woosley Point and runs for approximately a mile and a half or two miles to the east from the North Rim. By climbing up the small embankment to the right of the creek (Nankoweap bears to the right), one is able to see the natural bridge in the distance in the morning light. It is important to remember this because it is the thing that had me fooled when I flew over it. The light has to be coming from the east in early morning in order that this bridge may be seen from any distance at all, and it is impossible to see it from directly overhead unless the light is from that direction. Once the sun has passed the peak of noon, the shadows completely hide the bridge and it is impossible to distinguish it from its neighboring cliffs. My photographs were made, of necessity, after noon, so they do not contain the contrast that pictures taken in the morning would have.

I had made what I thought was a thorough reconnaissance of the Canyon to determine whether or not ropes would be needed in climbing it; and, from as careful observation as is possible from the air, it appeared that there was nothing standing in our way of an easy approach to the bridge. The early part of our trek bore this out and I kept thinking that it was "too good to be true." Going over these river boulders is comparatively easy walking with just a little bit of climbing. Our good luck did not hold out, however. To the northeast of Mount Hayden—in fact, almost directly under the giant pinnacle of stone—we came to a waterfall in the canyon in which we were walking. It was impossible for us to climb up this sheer face because we did not have rope with us and I was afraid that the moss that covers the face of that fall would prove too slippery for safe ascent. I am not certain that this particular place cannot be climbed by the use of proper equipment. Consequently, while I would hesitate to try it myself, inasmuch as I am not acquainted with the procedures used in this method of climbing, I would not recommend against it by experienced people. This unforeseen obstacle necessitated our walking back approximately a half mile to one-half to three-quarters of a mile and, as tired as we were, we were able to make this distance in one hour's time.

If I do this again, I will arrange things differently in order to avoid that most difficult climb up the right side of the canyon and the hard walk over the ledge. I think that the wash that comes in from the left or south side at the waterfall could be scaled; and, upon reaching the first ledge, it would be only a matter of several hundred yards around to where, again, one could enter the bottom of the Canyon and proceed to the bridge. If that failed, I am sure that the proper use of rope and roping equipment could get one up the series of waterfalls, which are, in effect, pot holes after the first climb has been made. The reader's attention should be called to the danger of these pot holes in these canyons because it is very easy to start into them and then find it impossible to get out, either up or down, so it is best to proceed with caution even though it might entail extra hours of work. However, I am sure that subsequent parties will find an easy way to get around this fall and so make the trip to the bridge a relatively simple one.

Pressing on, we came finally to a full and complete view of this spectacular bridge that I had first seen from the air some four years ago. By then I was exhausted and every muscle in my body ached, but a great peace and calmness came over me as I realized that here at the end of this arduous trail was that which I had been seeking. I sat there and wondered if any other white man had ever looked upon this thing from such a close vantage point. I suspected that Indians in the past had travelled up here because we found pottery down below and because we know that Indians at one time lived at the mouth of Nankoweap. None of the usual evidence of man's visits, however—tin cans, empty cartons, and the like—disturbed the cool calmness of this bit of God's handiwork.

The bridge is in the limestone and is, I would say, 200 feet high and about the same dimension in width. Picture, if you can, a gigantic limestone stage with this bridge forming the valance or top front of the stage. Hundreds of feet above it is the start of a waterfall that must be spectacular when the winter snows are melting and water comes over the redness of that sheer rock. This water would fall behind this bridge and I imagine fill it with spray as it gushed out to fill the dry stream bed in which we were standing.

We took pictures to our hearts content and then, realizing that time was short and that we would have to get back to the helicopter in time to get out of the canyon by dark, we immediately began our backward trek. Our first glimpse of the bridge was at 1:30 and at 1:45 we started back down. We did not carry altimeters on this hike, but by a study of the contour map of the cast half of the Grand Canyon it can be ascertained that the climb from our helicopter to the bridge involved approximately 2000 vertical feet. Imperial Point, under which this bridge is located, is the highest point along both rims of the Canyon, with an elevation of 8800 feet, so the bridge is about 1800 to 2000 feet under this point.

On reaching the top of the fall on our return trip, we walked to the left or north side of the canyon and kept lower than on our hike up, maintaining a position just along the top of the first ledge. We were making excellent time and feeling quite good about it when we discovered that we had gone past the point where we had climbed to this ledge. I had been expecting to run across our trail so wasn't too much concerned about it; but, after having walked what we knew to be some distance past the spot where we came up, we reconnoitered from the edge of the cliff and found a slope that had trees from the edge to the bottom, which meant, of course, that there was a dirt slide by which we could go down. This was not the exact place where we came up, but it made an easy downhill trip, as it was at about a 45-degree angle and of soft dirt. Although we fell down three or four times, we weren't worried because there were plenty of trees and brush to prevent any descent more rapid than would be comfortable.

Once we reached the bottom of the canyon it was not difficult at all to retrace our steps to the point where we had left the helicopter. We reached it about 5:30 in the afternoon, filled it with gas from a reserve tank, and, after a short warmup, took off to climb out over the east rim of the Canyon. The helicopter performed so beautifully that it required only one 36o-degree turn to get our altitude and it was only a matter of minutes until we were directly over the Colorado, then out over the great plateau that stretches from there to Highway 89 and Echo Cliff. The sun went down, however, shortly after we climbed out and the major portion of our return trip to Cameron was made at night. Cameron, with the large neon sign on top of its hotel, was an easy landmark in the dark; and, coming up to it, I told Bob to watch for a white dirt road that turned off from the black asphalt road, and to follow that until he saw the glimmer of the tin hangar. We ended our day's journey at about 7:00, following nearly an hour's flight from the bottom of the canyon to Cameron.

The next time I take this trip, I will go by boat to the mouth of Nankoweap. I plan to do it in three days, by carrying bed rolls and supplies up to the bridge, establishing a base camp there, and then working the bridge early the next morning to get the best photographs, returning to camp that evening, and back to the river and the boats the next day. This is the most spectacular part of the Grand Canyon and I imagine that, in the future, many boat parties will visit Nankoweap Canyon and the bridge. A study of the map will show many interesting side canyons that can be visited from Nankoweap and I am sure that many delightful surprises lie undiscovered in them.

I am going to suggest to the Department of the Interior that this bridge be named Kolb after the famous Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, who have travelled over this canyon so much by foot and down its waters so successfully by boat, and who have contributed enormously to the knowledge and lore of the Grand Canyon.

Here, then, ends another interesting chapter in the many which I find in the book of my life in my native State of Arizona. It is a land of never-ending wonder and beauty—a land of both age and youth, of antiquity and newness. There must be many places here still unexplored by man, such as that cool, quiet place high up in a side canyon of Nankoweap, where Bob and I sat in peace and saw the bridge for the first time. More of us should seek the hallowed, untainted grandeur which God has tucked away beyond the sunswept highways of our bountiful State.

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