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THE VALLEY OF THE COLORADO
THE Colorado River is formed by the junction of the Grand and Green. The Grand River has its source in the Rocky Mountains, five or six miles west of Long’s Peak, in latitude 40° 17’ and longitude 105° 43’ approximately. A group of little alpine lakes, that receive their waters directly from perpetual snow-banks, discharge into a common reservoir, known as Grand Lake, a beautiful sheet of water. Its quiet surface reflects towering cliffs and crags of granite on its eastern shore; and stately pines and firs stand on its western margin.
The Green River heads near Frémont’s Peak, in the Wind River Mountains, in latitude 43° 15’ and longitude 109° 45’, approximately. This river, like the last, has its sources in alpine lakes, fed by everlasting snows. Thousands of these little lakes, with deep, cold, emerald waters, are embosomed among the crags of the Rocky Mountains. These streams, born in the cold, gloomy solitudes of the upper mountain region, have a strange, eventful history as they pass down through gorges, tumbling in cascades and cataracts, until they reach the hot, arid plains of the Lower Colorado, where the waters that were so clear above empty as turbid floods into the Gulf of California.
The mouth of the Colorado is in latitude 31° 53’ and longitude 115°.
The Green River is larger than the Grand, and is the upper continuation of the Colorado. Including this river, the whole length of the stream is about two thousand miles. The region of country drained by the Colorado and its tributaries is about eight hundred miles in length, and varies from three hundred to five hundred in width, containing about three hundred thousand square miles, an area larger than all the New England and Middle States, and Maryland and Virginia added, or as large as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.
There are two distinct portions of the basin of the Colorado. The lower third is but little above the level of the sea, though here and there ranges of mountains rise to an altitude of from two to six thousand feet. This part of the valley is bounded on the north by a line of cliffs, that present a bold, often vertical step, hundreds or thousands of feet to the table-lands above.
The upper two-thirds of the basin rises from four to eight thousand feet above the level of the sea. This high region, on the east, north, and west, is set with ranges of snow-clad mountains, attaining an altitude above the sea varying from eight to fourteen thousand feet. All winter long, on its mountain-crested rim, snow falls, filling the gorges, half burying the forests, and covering the crags and peaks with a mantle woven by the winds from the waves of the sea — a mantle of snow. When the summer-sun comes, this snow melts, and tumbles down the mountain-sides in millions of cascades. Ten million cascade brooks unite to form ten thousand torrent creeks; ten thousand torrent creeks unite to form a hundred rivers beset with cataracts; a hundred roaring rivers unite to form the Colorado, which rolls, a mad, turbid stream, into the Gulf of California.
Consider the action of one of these streams: its source in the mountains, where the snows fall; its course through the arid plains. Now, if at the river’s flood storms were falling on the plains, its channel would be cut but little faster than the adjacent country would be washed, and the general level would thus be preserved; but, under the conditions here mentioned, the river deepens its bed, as there is much through corrosion and but little lateral degradation.
So all the streams cut deeper and still deeper until their banks are towering cliffs of solid rock. These deep, narrow gorges are called cañons.
For more than a thousand miles along its course, the Colorado has cut for itself such a cañon; but at some few points, where lateral streams join it, the cañon is broken, and narrow, transverse valleys divide it properly into a series of cañons.
The Virgen, Kanab, Paria, Escalante, Dirty Devil, San Rafael, Price, and Uinta on the west, the Grand, Yampa, San Juan, and Colorado Chiquito on the east, have also cut for themselves such narrow, winding gorges, or deep cañons. Every river entering these has cut another cañon; every lateral creek has cut a cañon; every brook runs in a cañon; every rill born of a shower, and born again of a shower, and living only during these showers, has cut for itself a cañon; so that the whole upper portion of the basin of the Colorado is traversed by a labyrinth of these deep gorges.
Owing to a great variety of geological conditions, these cañons differ much in general aspect. The Rio Virgen, between Long Valley and the Mormon town of Schunesburgh, runs through Pa-rú-nu-weap Cañon, often not more than twenty or thirty feet in width, and from six hundred to one thousand five hundred feet deep.
Away to the north, the Yampa empties into the Green by a cañon that I essayed to cross in the fall of 1868, and was baffled from day to day until the fourth had nearly passed before I could find my way down to the river. But thirty miles above its mouth, this cañon ends, and a narrow valley, with a flood-plain, is found. Still farther up the stream, the river comes down through another cañon, and beyond that a narrow valley is found, and its upper course is now through a cañon and now a valley.
All these cañons are alike changeable in their topographic characteristics.
The longest cañon through which the Colorado runs is that between the mouth of the Colorado Chiquito and the Grand Wash, a distance of two hundred and seventeen and a half miles. But this is separated from another above, sixty-five and a half miles in length, only by the narrow cañon-valley of the Colorado Chiquito.
All the scenic features of this cañon land are on a giant scale, strange and weird. The streams run at depths almost inaccessible; lashing the rocks which beset their channels; rolling in rapids, and plunging in falls, and making a wild music which but adds to the gloom of the solitude.
The little valleys nestling along the streams are diversified by bordering willows, clumps of box-elder, and small groves of cottonwood.
Low mesas, dry and treeless, stretch back from the brink of the cañon, often showing smooth surfaces of naked, solid rock. In some places, the country rock being composed of marls, the surface is a bed of loose, disintegrated material, and you walk through it as in a bed of ashes. Often these marls are richly colored and variegated. In other places, the country rock is a loose sandstone, the disintegration of which has left broad stretches of drifting sand, white, golden, and vermilion.
Where this sandstone is a conglomerate, a paving of pebbles has been left, a mosaic of many colors, polished by the drifting sands, and glistening in the sunlight.
After the cañons, the most remarkable features of the country are the long lines of cliffs. These are bold escarpments, often hundreds or thousands of feet in altitude, great geographic steps, scores or hundreds of miles in length, presenting steep faces of rock, often quite vertical.
Having climbed one of these steps, you may descend by a gentle, sometimes imperceptible, slope to the foot of another. They will thus present a series of terraces, the steps of which are well-defined escarpments of rock. The lateral extension of such a line of cliffs is usually very irregular; sharp salients are projected on the plains below, and deep recesses are cut into the terraces above.
Intermittent streams coming down the cliffs have cut many cañons or cañon valleys, by which the traveler may pass from the plain below to the terrace above. By these gigantic stairways, you may ascend to high plateaus, covered with forests of pine and fir.
The region is further diversified by short ranges of eruptive mountains. A vast system of fissures — huge cracks in the rocks to the depths below — extends across the country. From these crevices, floods of lava have poured, covering mesas and table-lands with sheets of black basalt. The expiring energies of these volcanic agencies have piled up huge cinder-cones, that stand along the fissures, red, brown, and black, naked of vegetation, and conspicuous landmarks, set, as they are, in contrast to the bright, variegated rocks of sedimentary origin.
These cañon gorges, obstructing cliffs and desert wastes, have prevented the traveler from penetrating the country, so that, until the Colorado River Exploring Expedition was organized, it was almost unknown. Yet enough had been seen to foment rumor, and many wonderful stories have been told in the hunter’s cabin and prospector’s camp. Stories were related of parties entering the gorge in boats, and being carried down with fearful velocity into whirlpools, where all were overwhelmed in the abyss of waters; others, of underground passages for the great river, into which boats had passed never to be seen again. It was currently believed that the river was lost under the rocks for several hundred miles. There were other accounts of great falls, whose roaring music could be heard on the distant mountain-summits. There were many stories current of parties wandering on the brink of the cañon, vainly endeavoring to reach the waters below, and perishing with thirst at last in sight of the river which was roaring its mockery into dying ears.
The Indians, too, have woven the mysteries of the cañons into the myths of their religion. Long ago, there was a great and wise chief, who mourned the death of his wife, and would not be comforted until Tavwoats, one of the Indian gods, came to him, and told him she was in a happier land, and offered to take him there, that he might see for himself, if, upon his return, he would cease to mourn. The great chief promised. Then Tavwoats made a trail through the mountains that intervene between that beautiful land and this, the desert home of the poor Nu’-ma.
This trail was the cañon gorge of the Colorado. Through it he led him; and, when they had returned, the deity exacted from the chief a promise that he would tell no one of the joys of that land, lest, through discontent with the circumstances of this world, they should desire to go to heaven. Then he rolled a river into the gorge, a mad, raging stream, that should engulf any that might attempt to enter thereby.
More than once have I been warned by the Indians not to enter this cañon. They considered it disobedience to the gods and contempt for their authority, and believed that it would surely bring upon me their wrath.
For two years previous to the exploration, I had been making some geological studies among the heads of the cañons leading to the Colorado, and a desire to explore the Grand Cañon itself grew upon me. Early in the spring of 1869, a small party was organized for this purpose. Boats were built in Chicago, and transported by rail to the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses the Green River. With these we were to descend the Green into the Colorado, and the Colorado down to the foot of the Grand Cañon.