The Crystal Forest Caves of Grandview

Saturday, April 26, 2003

by Dennis Foster

Crumbling structure on
Horseshoe Mesa; sepia tone.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     Off the west side of Horseshoe Mesa, about four miles down the Grandview Trail, is a well-traveled route to the "Cave of the Domes."  I don't know where this name comes from, aside from the obvious description of features in the cave that are small domed rooms.  In Harvey Butchart's trail logs, he refers to this as "White Cave."  This might also be a descriptive name, derived from the white walls in this cave.  On the old park maps, the approximate spot of this cave was marked.  But, on newer maps this notation is now missing.  So it goes!

     While this cave is no longer on park maps, it is still relatively well-known by regular canyon hikers.  But, not too far from here is a group of caves, called Crystal Forest, which are not well-known even by canyon regulars.  There are three caves here, and I don't know if each one is named, so I just refer to all three as the "Crystal Forest Caves."

     I don't know when I first learned of these caves.  In Butchart's first book, Grand Canyon Treks (available now in a combined form with his other two books), there is an index entry for "Crystal Forest Cave," but the referenced page doesn't actually mention the cave/s by name.  The description of the route to these caves (and, nothing on what is in them) is classic Harvey:

     "[There] is a cluster [of caves] near the bottom of the Redwall north around the corner from the trail down the west side of the neck.  A branch of the trail ends at the foot of a scree slope up to the caves."

     In 1992, I finally got a chance to carve out some time in a backpacking itinerary to look for these caves.  I was quite impressed with them.  Since more than ten years have passed, it was time to see them again.  So, for a day hike, Eric Dhooge and I headed down the Grandview trail to see these caves.  The weather was picture perfect, with a lot of spring flowers in bloom.  We made good time, following the trail down below the Redwall and scampering up the scree slope to the first cave.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

Spring flowers. Horseshoe mesa. Eric reaches the base of the Redwall.
The vertical-entry cave. Looking down into Cottonwood.  Spring flowers.
     The Crystal Forest Caves are at nearly the same level as the Cave of the Domes, but unlike the latter, they must be approached from below.  The climb up the scree slope is not long, but it is a workout.  The three caves are not too far from each other.  The third cave has a vertical entry that overhangs many hundreds of feet of empty space above the lower slopes.  Like my 1992 trip, all we did this time was walk up to the cave entrance and, then, turn back.  Too dangerous to get inside.  Still, if someone could get in there and anchor a rope . . .  I have not read about, nor heard, of anyone going into this cave, but I am sure some have.

     When Harvey Butchart visited these caves in 1961 (the only time, insofar as I can tell), he missed the proper ravine and went too far to the north before heading up through the Redwall.  Surprisingly, he ended up topping out on Horseshoe Mesa, and well to the north of the Cave of the Domes.  So, he backtracked until he found the right ravine.  Consequently, he and his party spent only about fifteen minutes in the first cave and "only a few minutes in the next one which is apparently interesting only to pack rats, to judge from the prevalence of droppings."  [Trail logs.]  He also noted a wooden door on this second cave, "and the 1904 sign was still tacked to the door saying that this area had been withdrawn from development by private interests."  There is still a door on the second cave, but it looks more recent and does not have any note on it.  Inside, however, we did find some old packing material from boxes marked "Safety Fuse - Keep Dry."  Certainly, something left over from the days of the mining operation.

     Unlike Harvey's visit, Eric and I spent quite a bit of time in both caves.  We signed in on the register, which still showed my 1992 visit!  Not an oft-visited site.  The first cave had some spots where we had to crawl and we could barely sit up.  Very dusty, but lots of interesting formations.  Perhaps most impressive was the big broccoli-like structure near the entrance.  Upon some inspection we were surprised to find an old autograph on a smooth spot.  See the photo below.  What is doubly odd about this is that George Wharton James, in his 1903 book, In and Around the Grand Canyon, writes:

     One other marked feature of the Grand View Trail is the recent discovery of an interesting series of caves, which I had the pleasure of exploring in company with Mr. P. D. Berry, one of the owners of the trail.  They were discovered in 1897, by Joseph Gildner, a cook employed in the mining camp of Messrs. Cameron and Berry.

     Hmm.  If Gildner discovered them in 1897, how is it that Art Beasley dated his visit as Aug. 29, 1896?  And, if he really did sign his name in 1896, why didn't James and Berry see it?  Sort of a puzzle here.  Was Beasley just a casual visitor to this area?  [See more on Beasley below.]  It would seem unlikely - my impression is that, back in that time, all visitors were invariably hooked up with someone for lodging and provisions - Hance, Bass, Berry, et al.  And, since Berry "owned" the trail, he would probably know who was hiking in and out of this part of the canyon.  I haven't seen anything else written about these caves, so who discovered them, and when, may be a mystery.

Entry to first Crystal Forest Cave. Broccoli-like structure. A. H. Beasley signs in - 1896.
Flowing column. Not especially inviting! Beehive-like formations.
Room enough to sit . . . barely. Pillars in Crystal Forest cave. Old crate material.
     When I first read James' book, I was under the impression that he was writing about the Cave of the Domes.  The domes have lots of names and dates written on them, including P.D. Berry, the Kolbs and Cameron.  There is at least one 1896 date inscribed, although my photo records are incomplete.  And, this is a much larger, and more extensive, cave than the Crystal Forest ones.

     But, later, I questioned that interpretation and now I am quite certain that James was referring to the Crystal Forest Caves.  Here is my evidence for this:  

James' photograph.  Shown here, James took this photo by placing candles around the cave and leaving his plate exposed by an hour, or more.  This looks a lot like my "broccoli-like formation" above.  And, I haven't seen any similar structure in the Domes cave.

James is referring to more than one cave.  He is quite clear on this score, referencing a "first cave" and a "second cave."  The Domes cave is only one cave, but the Crystal Forest complex is two caves, and maybe three if I am right about the vertical shaft actually leading into a cave. 

The cave sizes appear more consistent with Crystal Forest.  James notes that the first cave is "some three hundred feet long," and that the second cave "is of about the same length."  The Domes is made up of a series of rooms and branching arms.  My impression is that this is a longer cave, although my sense of distance is suspect inside these caves.  Anyway, if James is referring to this cave, I have no idea what "first" and "second" mean.

James' route description.  James refers to "the difficulties of the upward climb we had made" to these caves.  You cannot climb up to the Domes cave - that is reached from Horseshoe Mesa by hiking down a bit over the rim.  He further writes that, in the dark of night, he and Pete Berry, "clambered on hands and knees, slipped or slid, stumbled or fell, down to the bed of Clear Creek Canyon, a thousand feet below, from which we soon reached camp."  Today, we know this as Cottonwood Creek.  Since you can't climb down from the Domes cave, this description is only going to fit the Crystal Forest Caves.

     James notes that there was no trail here when he first visited these caves, but that later one was built, which is what Harvey found on his visit here in 1961.  On both of my visits, I have not really noticed a formal trail through here.  Eric and I spent about an hour in each cave, although the photos don't reflect this equal division of our time.

Eric at the entrance to the middle
cave of the Crystal Forest "grove."  The door on this cave is holding up well.

Knobby formations. 

An intriguing flowing formation that steps down the wall in the middle cave of the Crystal Forest complex. 

Bacon-like formation on the ceiling. 

The Arthur Beasley story.  Cara Lynn took the time to start a search on Beasley.  Great idea!  I wish I had thought to do that.  What she found was quite interesting.  Around the turn of the last century, there was a Beasley family here, including one Arthur H. Beasley.  She found this photo at the NAU Cline Library Special Collections, showing Arthur at his Fort Valley home, which is north of downtown Flagstaff.  It is dated at/about 1910.  When I did some further searching, I found that Arthur Beasley shows up numerous times in the local paper, the Arizona Champion, in 1892.  [I have references, but haven't looked them up.]   Almost certainly, this would be the same person that signed in at the Crystal Forest Caves, dated a year before they were "discovered."

A Blast from the Past - Crystal Forest Caves - 1992 

     As I noted earlier, I first visited these caves in 1992.  So, I dug up my old photos and scanned some of them.  They turned out pretty well, so I have posted them up below.  This was part of a four day backpacking trip with hiking companion Neil Jacobs.  We camped for all three nights at Cottonwood Creek and did various day hikes in the area.  We stopped at these caves, which we found pretty easily, on our first day as we were heading down to the creek.

     Back in those days of film processing fees, and relatively low income, I took pictures much more sparingly than I do now in the digital age.  No real overlaps with later shots, but the "Flowing column" photo from 2003 is partly reproduced in the photo below.  Also, I have a pretty good shot of the caves' location from down in the creek bed.

Dennis at the entrance to the first
cave of the Crystal Forest complex.  Compare this to the photo above.

Top to bottom formation.

See "Flowing column" above.

Neil investigates formation. 

Click for annotation of cave complex. 

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