The old Wash Henry Trail
An annotated photo journal of this historic trail.

Monday, June 8, 2020

by Dennis Foster

A portion of my Spot map - to the left is the Wash Henry. Full map.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     The forecast high for Phantom Ranch for this day was only in the upper 70s!!!  Perfect time for a day hike down to the river and back.  I was up at 3:30 a.m. and hiking down the South Kaibab at 7:30 a.m.  Over the course of the day I saw maybe fifty others on the trail.  I cached a liter of water atop the Redwall at 9 a.m.  It was very clear most of the day, with more clouds in the afternoon.  But very windy, with especially high gusts along exposed  sections of the trail.  But, nice cool temperatures.  Even down in the schist, when there wasn’t much of a breeze, it was very comfortable.  I came back up a different route and reached the junction of the Tonto Trail with the South Kaibab Trail at 3:30 p.m.  It took me an hour to get to Skeleton Point.  After a twenty minute break I took another hour to hike up to Cedar Ridge.  From here I could see that there was a fire on the north rim, with smoke shrouding the upper reaches of Bright Angel Canyon.  After a fifteen minute break here I was on my final leg of this 15 mile day.  It took me another hour to reach the rim at 7 p.m.  The switchbacks in the Kaibab limestone were absolutely chilly!  This is June?  From here I had to walk to the nearby picnic area where I parked.  Forty minutes after topping out of the canyon I was on my way back home to Flagstaff.

* * * * * *
     So reads my post in Facebook.  And, what was that "different route?"  A couple of people asked about it.  It was the old Wash Henry Trail.  Most hikers refer to it as the "Old Miner's Trail" but that is because when it was rediscovered in the 1960s apparently nobody had a clue about its origins.  As it turns out, it shows up as a trail on the first maps published by the U.S.G.S. as a result of the canyon surveys done by Francois Matthes from 1902 to 1904.  It isn't labeled, but the trail shown on the map is this exact one.  I was able to get a copy of Matthes' field journals and in them he describes going down this trail and he calls it the Wash Henry.  So, now we have a name.  Actually, there will still be some confusion on this point.  This trail was used to reach the river and then you'd need a boat to cross over to the other side.  Later, David Rust built a cable car across the river to facilitate this process.  But, this wasn't going to be easy to do where the Wash Henry was located.  Instead, Rust built his crossing where the current black bridge is, with nice solid cliffs flanking the river and suitable for anchoring the cable.  Well, a "new" trail was built down to this crossing and it has also been referred to as the Wash Henry.  So, that would make the trail I am using this day the "old" Wash Henry.  That newer trail, of course, has been supplanted by the current South Kaibab Trail.  [To add to this confusion, apparently, the trail that led out of Bright Angel Canyon and onto the North Rim was also called Wash Henry.  This all begs the question, "Who was Wash Henry?"  I don't think anyone knows!!]  The 1915 quadrangle map shown to the right has both the old trail (yellow arrows) and the newer trail to the cable crossing (blue arrows).
     I first hiked up this trail in 1981 and have now been up six times (but, never down it!) and it is mostly in really good shape.  There have been a few times when I was confounded about getting onto the trail at the bottom.  For this hike I decided to take many, many, many photos of the trail as I climbed up in order to better document its route.  Most often I would take two pictures each time I stopped - one looking down and one looking up.  Altogether I have assembled over 80 pictures.  I annotated them with arrows to show the trail and its direction from my POV.  All of the photos below are hyperlinked to larger images.  If you would like to see the larger photo without the annotation, they are linked to the time notation included in each caption.  I put those times in to get a better sense for how far apart certain locations are, but since I was often stopping to take pictures, note that my time was rather slow.
     I have also broken up the presentation into three segments - from the River Trail to the low saddle; from the low saddle to the high saddle; and from the high saddle to the Tonto Trail.  The first segment is the most problematic.  While the route is in good shape, there are a lot of loose rocks, and knocking any loose would almost certainly mean they would fall all the way down onto the River Trail where you began the assent.  So, taking care is important.  Indeed, any rocks knocked off above the low saddle and below the high saddle may have a good probability of landing/hitting the River Trail between the two bridges!

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

From the River Trail to the low saddle

The view from atop the Redwall of the exit from the Wash Henry trail onto the Tonto Plateau.  The bold yellow arrow shows where the trail starts at the river.  The yellow * shows where the Tonto cairn is.  The small yellow arrows show a faint path that leads to Tonto Trail, which is shown by the green arrows.  The green * shows where they meet.  The red arrow points to the South Kaibab Trail. The original, or old, Wash Henry Trail comes down in the major ravine west of the silver bridge.  From here, visitors back in the late 1800s and early 1900s would head for the river and use a boat to get across.  Later, when Rust built the cable crossing, a new trail had to be built down to where the black bridge is today. The River Trail makes a big detour to get across this major ravine.  It is separated from Pipe Creek, which is farther west.  Looking up from here, a trail looks to be quite impossible.  Could this be an old Indian route?  I suspect so, given their use of the Bright Angel delta, but I've not seen any definite signs along this old trail.
At the very point where the River Trail turns, you head up the ravine and look for the path as shown to the left.  I placed a small cairn at the yellow dot.  At least twice before I've headed up as shown by the red arrows which is steep and full of loose rocks, but which the deer seem to prefer.  12:41 The view looking back down after a couple of switchbacks.  The arrow on the right shows the same part of this trail as the lowest arrow on the previous photo.  The small tree (probably a catclaw) obscures the route which is why I think I missed it even on this hike.  12:54 Quite often the path is easy to follow and in good shape.  It generally stays out of the ravine and so hasn't been washed away.  12:54
12:57 12:57 12:58
12:58 1:00 1:00
1:01 1:05 1:05
1:05 1:08 1:08
1:11 1:11 1:12
From here one may be mislead into the ravine, which wouldn't be horrible.  You can climb up the rocky slope to the low saddle.  The actual trail veers to the left.  1:12 A very memorable spot where you scramble up a short rocky ramp.  If you ended up in the ravine, you wouldn't see this!  1:15 1:15
I am sure I have seen cairns along here in the past, but none today.  I added a few at some strategic spots like this one circled.  1:18 A little bit of a scramble to finally reach the low saddle.  1:19 Great views from this saddle.  1:22

At the saddle - selfie to the west.

At the saddle - selfie to the east.  Right above me is the South Kaibab Trail!

At the saddle - selfie to the north.
Excerpts from Francois Matthes' journal:

Tuesday, Aug. 5, 1902
   Wrote to Ralph Cameron about use of his boat to cross the river with.  Wrote to Wash Henry for a description of his route up Bright Angel Cr.

Wednesday, Aug. 6, 1902
   Had talk with Cameron.  Quite satisfactory.  [Presumably about using his boat to cross the river.]
   Went down the Bright Angel trail.  Slow traveling behind tourists.  Took trail to Pipe Cr. and thence the old Wash Henry trail to the river opposite the mouth of the Bright Angel Canyon.  Found trail badly out of repair, but crossing good.  Climbed out of Canyon and arrived at hotel 8 p.m.

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From the low saddle to the high saddle

1:25 Can even see the silver bridge!  1:26 1:28
1:28 Nice view of two lower segments of the trail.  1:30 Great panoramas here.  1:30
  It seems like I've only just come straight up from the river!  1:33 I can't say for sure where the trail goes, but I think it follows the question marks.  1:33 I could see this segment in the photos from 1:39, 1:43 and 1:44.   1:36
1:36 1:39 1:39
1:40 1:42 1:43
1:44 1:44 1:45
1:45 1:48 1:48
A natural cairn?  1:49 Another natural cairn?  1:51 1:51
1:52 South Kaibab Trail (*)  1:52 1:55
1:55 1:56 1:57

At the saddle - selfie to the east.

At the saddle - selfie to the north.

Nearing the high saddle.  1:57
Matthes crossed to the north side of the canyon to continue his mapping via the South and North Bass Trails.  But, when he was at the end of this portion of his survey he was above Bright Angel Canyon and learned of a trail that came out and so opted to return to the South Rim by coming down Bright Angel Creek and then crossing over the river and up the Wash Henry trail.  In 1903 he brought a steel boat, separated into two parts, to the canyon to use for this crossing.  He and his party crossed over in mid-October and returned in early November, but not without incident.

Excerpt from Matthes' journal:

Saturday, November 7, 1903
Broke camp and packed up to Pipe Cr. – Suzie falls and has to be led without pack over the worst place.  Picky falls about a hundred feet with the mess boxes.  She has one eye knocked out, and remains in dazed condition.  Philips drives her down to river.  Perky has bad fall, smashing remaining mess-box.

Sunday, November 8, 1903
Sent Johnson, Evans and Philips down to the river for rest of supplies and had camp moved to Indian Gardens in afternoon.

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From the high saddle to the Tonto Trail

Looking back on the high saddle.  2:01 The route gets easier in that the slopes are gentle.  No risk of knocking rocks down on the trail from here!  2:01 2:06
Looking back at the saddle.  2:06 2:08 2:10
First sight of the exit.  It is along that seemingly-gentle looking slope.  2:12 As high up as I've come, it seems that I'm still looking at the same view of the river!  2:12 2:17
As best I could tell, the trail stepped right across the rock that the upper arrow points to.  Was I still on the right path?  2:17 All looks pretty easy, but I found it harder to stay on the old trail through here.  2:19 2:20
Eventually, I headed up the slope to the base of some small cliffs where I found the trail again.  2:28 Between the upper arrow and lower arrows the old trail is pretty indistinct, but the hiking is easy.  2:28 At the base of the climb through the Tapeats.  The trail switchbacks to the left of the shady cliff.  2:30
A bit of trail construction?  I saw no definitive signs - no iron bars, no cribbing, no rock walls.  Just a well-worn path.  2:39 2:39 2:41
2:41 Just as you seem to be getting to the top the trail makes a turn to the left for a long switchback to a final ramp up the last of the Tapeats.  2:43 2:44
2:44 Final ramp to the top.  2:45 The trail heads back to the cliff that I had been close to coming up through the Tapeats.  The cairn is circled.  2:46
2:47 Time for a well-deserved break.  2:50 On previous trips it seemed like a slog to get to the Tonto Trail.  This time I angled up and headed for where I saw the trail.  But, a big ravine led me to just keep angling up and suddenly I was on a path!  3:23
From my path I could see where the Tonto Trail was and where we would meet up.  3:23 Surprise!  The only cairn I saw on the entire route was right here where my path met the Tonto Trail.  Rather indistinct, but if you're looking for this path ...  3:26 Looking back at where the path intersected with the trail.  I think I came in at the question marks, but I think that I've properly circled the little cairn.  3:27
     This old trail doesn't seem to have been used for many years.  The cable crossing was up in 1907 and the newer trail would have then been used.  There are numerous Indian ruins on both sides of the river in this area and this route, with no signs of formal construction, seems most logical for crossing.  But, as I noted, I have not seen any definite signs related to historic Indian use.  Considering that there are petroglyphs and pictographs along the Bright Angel Trail, their absence over the Wash Henry route is unexpected.

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