Geology of the Grand Canyon: Chapter Vi. The Kaibab.

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


The Kaibab is the loftiest of the four plateaus through which the the Grand Caon extends. It is from 1,500 to 2,000 feet higher than the Kanab Plateau on the west, and from 2,500 to 4,000 feet higher than the Marble Caon platform on the east. Its superior altitude is due wholly to displacement and not to erosion, for the strata upon its summit are the same as those upon the surfaces of the others. The upheaval has produced a sharp fault upon the western flank and a great monoclinal flexure upon its eastern flank. Throughout its entire platform the upper Carboniferous forms the surface. The Kaibab begins at the base of the Vermilion Cliffs near the little village of Paria; its northern extremity terminating in a slender cusp. Steadily widening and increasing very slowly in altitude, it reaches southward nearly a hundred miles to the Colorado River, where it attains a breadth of about 35 miles. Its highest point is about 9,280 feet above the sea, but most of its surface is between the altitudes of 7,800 and 9,000 feet.

When viewed from a distance its summit, projected against the sky, looks remarkably smooth and level. The slow increase of altitude from north to south may be discerned, and yet, in the absence of positive knowledge, it would be doubted by the careful observer whether this might not be due to perspective, and not real. When we actually visit the plateau we find the summit, seeming so smooth when viewed from afar, to be really very rugged. It is scored with a minutely ramified system of ravines, varying much in depth, by averaging about 300 feet in the heart of the plateau, and much deeper at the flanks. The whole summit is magnificently forest-clad. In this respect it is in strong contrast to the other plateaus, excepting, however, in a much inferior way, the higher parts of the Uinkaret. The other plateaus are formidable deserts; the Kaibab is a paradise. The forests are due to the superior altitude of the plateau, for the higher the altitude the moister the climate. Through the southern portion of the Kaibab is cut the finest portion of the Grand Caon. Vast and imposing as is the scenery at the foot of the Toroweap, the scenery of the kaibab is much more impressive. I propose in the present chapter to describe in familiar language a journey from kanab to the Kaibab, and to the brink of the chasm, where we may contemplate its sublimity. Its geological significance must be discussed in a future work.

When the order is given to the party encamped at the little village of Kanab to prepare for the Kaibab, it is obeyed with more than ordinary alacrity. From the chief of the party down to the herders and cooks all look forward to delightful wanderings in a cooler atmosphere, in open forests of nobles pines and spruces, in flowery parks and windings avenues of rich verdure; to scenery the grandest of earth, and to communion with Nature in her noblest and loveliest moods. As we descend [Fig. 11.-Section across the Kaibab. The vertical scale is double the horizontal. a, West Kaibab fault. b, East Kaibab monocline. Length of section about 32 miles.] [Fig. 12.-Section across the Kaibab a a', two branches of the West Kaibab fault. b b', branches of the East Kaibab monocline. The vertical scale is double horizontal] the village street and take a well-known by-path upon its outskirts, even the poor animals know whither they are going; they have traveled this trail before and remember the long, green bunch-grass tufted ?gramma,? the lupine and wild oats. They trot along with nimble steps, requiring neither spur to urge nor rein to guide them. Before us is the Permian terrace rising by the gentlest of slopes; through it the Kanab River has cut a wide shallow gap in which stand several pretty little buttes carved sumptuously in the characteristic style of the formation. Beyond it the Carboniferous platform extends south ward without visible bound. Over the Permian terrace the Kaibab is in full view, its flat unruffled summit occupying a whole quadrant of the horizon, and its western escarpment facing towards us. The light of the declining sun[1]* is upon it, and the larger details stand forth in clear relief, displaying the openings of grand ravines and the massive faces of the intervening pediments.

In the course of an hour we pass through the Permian gap, and the boundless desert is before us with the Kaibab upon our left. Our route is not directly towards the plateau front, but obliquely towards a point in it far to the southeast. In the portion of the plateau nearest to us there is no water, either the summit or in the great ravines, and without water the journey would be indeed arduous. Moreover, it is the southern portion which commands our greatest interest, and the northern part possesses no features which are not still more advantageously presented in the southern. The southern prospect is very extended. The desert before us is really no more uneven than the rolling prairie of Iowa, but the range of vision is vast greater. The reason is soon explained. In the prairie the curvature of the earth soon carries the surface out of sight. In the Kanab Desert we are constantly looking across a very wide but shallow depression of the surface, of which the center is located where Kanab Caon begins to cut into the Carboniferous platform. In a word, the earth's surface is here slightly concave instead of convex, and the radius vector of the concavity has a length varying from fifteen to thirty miles. Anywhere within the depression, therefore, the prospect is a very wide one. The general impression conveyed is that of a gently undulating plain of immense extent.

As the sun nears the horizon the desert scenery becomes exquisitely beautiful. The deep rich hues of the Permian, the intense red of the Vermilion Cliffs, the lustrous white of the distant Jurassic headlands are greatly heightened in tone and seem self-luminous. But more than all, the flood of purple and blue which is in the very air, bathing not only the naked rock faces, but even the obscurely tinted fronts of the Kaibab and the pale brown of the desert surface clothes the landscape with its greatest charm. It is seen in is climax only in the dying hour of daylight. At length the sun disappears and the glory is extinguished.

Almost instantly the air becomes cool and refreshing, and as we ride onward through the deepening twilight it grows even chilly. It matters little how hot the days may be, the nights here are always cool and also dry. I have known the temperature of the air to be 110 at midday, talling to 54 at midnight, without any general atmosphere disturbance or change except that which is due to nocturnal radiation. Upon the open desert the air is almost always still both by day and night. Rarely do the high winds blow over it in summer, and even strong breezes are uncommon except in the vicinity of great cliffs. At night the stillness is profound, and unless there is water or green vegetation hard by even the chirping of insects is unheard. The only sound which breaks upon the ear is the howling of the wolves that prowl about the camp and follow the tracks of the animals.

The hours roll quickly past as we move onward in the darkness. At length when the stars betoken the approach of midnight we halt, strip off the packs and saddles, hobble the animals and turn them loose to browse upon the scantly herbage. As the sun rises we are once more on the road. For ten miles from Kanab the trail descends by a hardly perceptible grade. Thence it ascends gradually at a rate of about 150 feet to the mile. From the fifteenth to the twenty-third mile it lies in shallow ravines but at last emerges upon more open ground. As we look back towards the north one of the grand spectacles of the Plateau country is disclosed to us. It is a view of the great cliffs which bound the southern terraces of the High Plateaus rising one above another. Nearly 10,000 feet of strata are exposed edgewise and occupy a line of frontage from 50 to 60 miles in length. It includes the stratigraphic series from the base of the Permian to the summit of the Lower Eocene. The view of the terraces from the north, the brink of the Markgunt or Paunsgunt, is of a very different character from this. There we see only their sloping summits with now and then a fragment of a mural front swung into view obliquely by the meandering course of the line of escarpment. Here the general of frontage faces us while the terrace platforms are invisible. The view is a distant one but it requires great distance to bring into the field of vision an exposure so vast. At their nearest points the Permian is 15 miles away, the Trias 20, the Jura 35, and the Eocene more than 50. It should be observed that we are looking across the broad depression or concavity before spoken of, and that there is a gentle slope downward for 15 miles to the base of the Permian, which lies 1,900 feet below us. Notwithstanding the distance there is no difficulty is distinguishing the different formations, and there would have been none even if we had never before seen the terraces, provided we had become familiar with their several aspects elsewhere; so strongly individualized are their color and their sculptural forms. The Cretaceous alone is obscure, for in the portions of the terraces now in sight it does not form cliffs but breaks down in long slopes covered with soil and dbris. If we were a few miles further west the Cretaceous cliffs of the Paria amphitheater would be visible and be as easily determined as the others, but here the Kaibab hides them. Although nearly 10,000 feet of strata are disclosed the summit of the Eocene lies only [U. S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. KANAB CAON. ANNUAL REPORT 1881. PL. XXIX.] 5,000 to 5,500 feet above the base of the Permian, for in the interval between the two exposures the northward dip of the whole mass has carried down the Eocene about 5,000 feet.

From every elevated point on the Kanab Plateau this magnificent display is in full view. All of the broader geological facts in the stratigraphy and structure of the terraces may be distinctly seen and interpreted. The increment in thickness of the Mesozoic strata towards the west is very plain. The effect of the great Sevier fault, which comes down from the High Plateaus cutting across the terrace platforms and disappearing at the Pipe Spring promontory of the Vermilion Cliffs is now visible. By a simple reconstruction, lifting up the thrown side of this fault and gradually depressing the westward extension of the strata until the Eocene is horizontal, we can restore mentally the whole mass to the attitude it held in Eocene time, and it will require but a slight effort of the imagination to detect the original configuration which determined the present positions of the drainage basins of the Virgen, Kanab, and Paria Rivers. With a measured base-line extending east and west upon this part of the Kanab Plateau and with a fine large theodolite it would be practicable to make all the measurements necessary for determining the masses and positions of the several stratigraphic members with a degree of accuracy not materially less than could be obtained by studying them upon their own ground.

A spectacle of this kind is most impressive to the geologist. It brings into one view the cordinated results of observations made laboriously by months of travel and inspection in a very broad and rugged field. The great distances through which the eye can reach, the aspect of cliffs towering above and beyond cliffs, the great cumulative altitude thus attained, the immensity of the masses revealed, the boldness of form, the distinctness of the lines of stratification, and especially the brilliant coloring, subdued indeed, but also refined by the haze, give to the scene a grandeur which has few parallels.

But we turn our backs upon it, and pursue our way, pausing anon to look at it with a reverent enthusiasm. The daylight discloses the western Kaibab wall upon our left, only five or six miles distant, and our course changes from southeast to south parallel to its front. Already we feel the influences of its long spurs sweeping outward and dying away in the desert platform, and the trail becomes more hilly. Once or twice it takes us down into ravines which are the continuations of the great chasms which cut it to its base and recede far into its mass, winding out of sight in profound depths. Vegetation has made its appearance all around us, not abundantly, indeed, but sufficiently to contrast with the desolation behind us. Upon the crest of the plateau we can see the giant pines and spruces, and we covet their luxurious shade. Nearer, on either hand, are pions and cedars, mountain mahogany and mesquite, with many low forms of desert shrubbery. Many species of cactus are seen, the most abundant of which are the opuntias, or prickly pears. Of these are four or five very common species. A large cactus ?orchard? in blossom is a very beautiful sight, displaying flowers which, for beauty of form and richness of color, are seldom surpassed by the choicer gems of the conservatory. Nor is it less attractive when in the fruit, for it yields a multitude of purple ?pears,? which are very juicy and refreshing, and by no means contemptible in flavor. There is another form of cactus not likely to be forgotten by anybody who has once seen it, and which is very common on the Kanab desert. It is a stout bush, with many branches, growing from 3 to 6 feet high. The trunk and branches have a hard, woody core, and are thickly fringed with rows of strong, sharp spines which present a very ferocious aspect. Altogether it is the most truculent looking member of the vegetable kingdom I happen to be acquainted with. Very common, too, are the yuccas, or ?Spanish bayonets,? which resemble, on a small scale, the noted agave or century plant. Another common species, somewhat resembling the last, bears a cluster of melon-like seed cases of the size and form of cucumbers, which the Indians gather and dry for food.[2]*

At length the trail leads down into ?Stewart's Caon,? a rather broad caon valley descending towards us from the south. Just where we enter it it turns sharply to the west forming an elbow, and, sinking thence ever deeper into the earth through a course of fifteen miles, it opens at last into the heart of Kanab Caon at a depth of nearly 3,500 feet. Here at the elbow it is comparatively shallow. Before reaching the elbow it runs northward close to the base of the Kaibab wall, which rises more than 1,200 feet above its floor, while the opposite or western side is only about 400 feet high. The difference in the altitudes of the two sides is accounted for by the presence of the West Kaibab fault, which runs at the foot of the wall throwing down the western side more than 800 feet. The geological relations here are worthy of some study. The presence of the fault is detected in a moment. Upon the western side the familiar grey limestones of the Upper Aubrey series form the entire wall. Upon the eastern side the same beds are seen upon the summit more than 800 feet higher than on the western side. Beneath them is the hard crossbedded sandstone, and still lower down the brilliant red sandy shales of the Lower Aubrey. Here, too, is seen that curious phenomenon so often presented in connection with the faults of this region. As the thrown beds approach the fault-plane they are turned down.

The trail leads southward up Stewart's Caon with an ascent that is barely perceptible. We become conscious of increasing altitude indirectly by the barometer and by the change in the vegetation. The desert shrubs have mostly disappeared and given place to the scrub-oaks and weeds which are the unfailing indications of a cooler and [Fig. 13.-A fault with the beds flexed downward on the sunken side.] moister climate. But the most welcome sight is the close proximity of the yellow pine which stand upon the summit above and even upon the lower platform which looks down from the western side. As yet they do not grow in the valley bottom. We have not quite reached the Kaibab, though it is close at hand-nay, we pass right by its open gates which seem to invite us in with a welcome; for at intervals of a mile or two we perceive upon the left the openings of grand ravines leading up to its platform and the moment we enter any one of them we are within the precincts of the great plateau. Stewart's Caon is the trunk valley which receives the drainage of a considerable section of the western side of the Kaibab. The large affluents all come from the east, and none of any importance from the west.

About five miles from the point where the trail enters the valleys we reach the first water-a tiny stream coming down from one of the great ravines and sinking into the soil a few hundred yards beyond the mouth. Halting long enough to allow the animals to drink we move onward about two miles up the valley and makes camp. Here there comes out of the Kaibab wall, about 300 feet above us, a stream of water as large as a man's body, which cascades down the rocks into a pool covering half an acre. There is a phenomenon here worth noticing, for it is a prelude to some very singular facts of general prevalence throughout this wonderful plateau. Across the outlet of the pool a rude dam has been constructed of stones and mud, which may be easily torn open or replaced. When the dam is open a large stream equal to the influx pours out of it, but the whole outpour sinks within a quarter of a mile. When the dam is closed the water in the pool rise about 15 inches and there is no outflow. All the water which enters the pool then sinks along the new submerged margin. A stream of that size anywhere else in the Plateau country would ordinarily run eight or ten miles, and in a moist country would run much further. The sudden sinking of streams is by no means rare, but is generally exceptional. On the Kaibab it is the rule. Upon all its broad expanse, there is nothing which can be properly called a brook or a living stream. About a dozen springs are known, but their waters in every instance sink in the earth within a few hundred yards of their sources. And the ?Big Spring? in Stewart's Caon yields several times as much water as all others put together. With this foreknowledge the prospects of water supply upon the Kaibab might seem discourging; but we shall not suffer for the want of it.

Although the sun is still high when the Big Spring is reached nothing will be gained by prolonging the day's march, and it is well to take a look at the surroundings. In some way, without knowing exactly when and where, we seem to have gotten into the Kaibab; for around us is the sylvan scenery and a rolling country traversed by many valleys and ravines. True they are not the finest types, but when we recall the desert we have just left this place looks like a paradise. The barometer shows a considerable altitude, 7,850 feet, and the air though warm is not oppressive. As we approached the plateau from the desert and saw its battlements towering grandly in the distance and becoming hourly more grand, its level parapet retreating into indefinite distance in either direction, it never occured to us that we might be spared the arduous struggle of scaling the wall, or, as a still more arduous alternative, the forcing of a rough passage through some narrow ravine for many miles. Yet we have reached this spot by a route as easy as an old-fashioned turnpike. In truth, the configurations of the southern part of the Kaibab could not be discerned as we approached it from the north. But putting together the observations of the journey it now becomes apparent that the surface of the Kanab Plateau rise quite rapidly towards the south, while the Kaibab gains in altitude much more slowly. Opposite our last camp the difference in the altitudes of the two plateaus is about 2,300 feet. Here it has greatly diminished, and the passage from one to the other is now partly by a very gentle inclined plane and partly by a fault. Fifteen miles further south the fault vanishes or becomes insignificant, and the passages is by a long slope.[3]*

Resuming in the morning the route up Stewart's Canon, a half-hour's ride brings us to an abandoned saw-mill. Here the trail leaves the valley which we have followed for ten miles and turns up into a large ravine coming from the east or southeast. It is much narrower than Stewart's Caon, with very abrupt and almost precipitous walls about 600 feet high. The traveler in the Plateau province learns to dread the necessity which compels him to thread a deep gorge or caon unless he knows beforehand that there is a practicable and easy trail through it. If it is dry it is almost certain to be obstructed by fallen fragment and thickly set with scrub, its bottom scoured into rough gullies by the sudden floods; and half the time it will be necessary to mount the steep talus and thread it. If it carries a living stream the way is still worse, for in addition to the foregoing difficulties there are dangerous quicksands, impenetrable thickets of willows and thorny bushes, and the stream meanders from wall to wall. Unless there is a good trail the traveler will usually prefer to mount the cliff a break can be found in it and seek the mesa above, and thus by a single struggle get rid of the miseries below. Not so the ravines of the Kaibab. Like the paths trodden by the pilgrims in the Delectable Mountains, 'their ways are pleasantness and all their paths are peace.? The ravine we enter is but a fair specimen of a vast number of them which cover the whole broad surface of the plateau with an infinite network of ramifications. Its bottom is covered with a carpet of grass and flowers growing rankly in a smooth firm soil free from rocks and undergrowth. Here and there a clump of aspens or noble pines grow in the way, but offer no obstacles to progress. It is like riding through a well-kept park or na avenue shaded by ancient trees. And now the effect of the absence of streams becomes manifest. Not only are there no perennial brooks, but there are no indications that even in the time of heavy rains or of melting snow any notable amount of water ever runs in these channels. Yet the Kaibab is a moist region. In summer the rains are frequent and in winter the snow lies deep. Horses cannot winter there and the wild cattle and deer, late in October, abandon it and seek the lower regions around its flanks. In all other plateaus or mountain ranges of equal mass and altitude and with equal precipitation there are many goodly streams and even large creeks fed throughout the summer by numberless copious springs; and when the snows melt these streams become raging torrents. But so rare are the indications of running water on the Kaibab even in times of melting snow, or of vernal rains, that whenever we find a ?wash? we look at it with surprise as if it were a strange phenomenon demanding special explanation. But the very absence of these traces of running water constitutes one of the greatest charms of the kaibab, for every ravine is as smooth as a lawn and carpeted with a turf of mountain grass, richly decked with flowers of rare beauty and luxuriance.

The great trees grow chiefly upon the main platform above us. Except in the highest part of the plateau they are mostly the yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa), but large spruces are also common (Abies grandis, A. Engelmanni). Upon the flanks of the ravines they also grow, the pines upon the northern or sunny side, the spruces upon the opposite. In the valley bottom they grow scatteringly, and for the most part leave it quite open. Contrasting finely with these are the aspens (Populus tremuloides) with their white trunks and pale green foliage. Throughout the greater part of the plateau these three genera comprise all the arboreal forms that occur. But upon its borders we also find cedars, mountain mahogany, and pion (Juniperus occidentalis, Cercocarpus ledifolius, and Pinus edulis), the latter, though classed as a pine, differing greatly from the more typical forms of the genus.

The ravine, where we enter its mouth, is about 600 feet in depth. The ascent is by a very easy grade, averaging about 100 feet to the mile. As we progress it becomes shallower, but not so rapidly as the grade might indicate, for the plateau summit also rises though at a lower grade towards the east. The course is a crooked one, but none the less agreeable on that account. Every traveler on foot or horseback has probably observed how tiresome and monotonous the road becomes when he can see it stretching away before him for many miles, and how charming the diversity when it wanders hither and thither. It matters not if the successive vistas are as much alike as two turns of a kaleidoscope, there is always an impatience to see what is beyond the next turn. So it is here. The successive scenes are much alike, or change by insensible degrees, but the same general view is presented in ever varying detail, and its subject matter is always delightful.

It is difficult to say precisely wherein the charm of the sylvan scenery of the kaibab consists. We, who through successive summers have wandered through its forests and parks, have come to regard it as the most enchanting region it has ever been our privilege to visit. Surely there is no lack of beautiful or grand forest scenery in America, and it is a matter of taste what species of trees are the most pleasing. Probably few people would select the conifers and poplars as the highest types of arboreal beauty. I suspect that the charm consists in influences far more subtle than these outward forms. The delicious climate, neither cold nor hot, neither wet nor excessively dry, but always exhilarating, is a fundamental condition by virtue of which the body and mind are brought into the most susceptible mood. The ease with which we move from place to place, the absence of all anxiety or care for the three great requisites of camp life, fuel, water, and grass, are accessory conditions. The contrast of the desert with its fatigue, its numberless discomforts and privations, is still another. But the scenery is also very beautiful in itself. The trees are large and noble in aspect and stand widely apart, except in the highest parts of the plateau where the spruces predominate. Instead of dense thickets where we are shut in by impenetrable foliage, we can look far beyond and see the tree trunks vanishing away like an infinite colonnade. The ground is unobstructed and inviting. There is a constant succession of parks and glades-dreamy avenues of grass and flowers winding between sylvan walls, or spreading out in broad open meadows. From June until September there is a display of wild flowers which is quite beyond description. The valley sides and platforms above are resplendent with dense masses of scarlet, white, purple, and yellow. It is noteworthy that while the trees exhibit but few species, the humbler plants present a very great number, both of species and genera. In the upper regions of the High Plateaus, Mr. Lester F. Ward collected in a single season more than 600 species of plants, and the Kaibab, though offering much smaller range of altitude and climate, would doubtless yield as rich a flora in proportion to the diversity of its conditions.

At a distance of about eight miles from its mouth, the ravine we have chosen has become away very shallow, with gently sloping sides. At length we leave it and ascend its right bank to the upper platform. The way here is as pleasant as before, for it is beneath the pines standing at intervals varying from 50 to 100 feet, and upon a soil that is smooth, firm, and free from undergrowth. All is open, and we may look far into the depths of the forest on either hand. We now perceive that the surface of the plateau undulates with rolling hills and gently depressed vales. These valleys are the ramifications of the drainage channels. They are innumerable and cover the entire surface of the plateau. The main channels all deepen as they approach the edges of the plateau and often attain considerable depth, becoming at the same time precipitous. The deepest are those which emerge near the elbow of Stewart's Caon and north of that point. These attain depths exceeding aa thousand feet. The ravines which descend towards the eastern flank of the plateau terminate in a different manner. In the interior parts of the plateau these drainage valleys are all shallow, rarely exceeding 300 or 400 feet in depth, and seldom abrupt.

After two or three miles upon the summit, the trail descends into another valley, whose course we follow upward for about seven mile. At the distance of about twenty miles from Stewart's Caon, we find that we have gained about 1,200 feet of altitude, and that the vegetation has changed its aspect somewhat. The pines, though still abundant, are now in the minority, and the spruces and aspens greatly predominate. The spruces form dense thickets on either hand, which nothing but the direst necessity would ever induce us to enter. Of this genus there are several species, varying much in habit. The great firs (Abies grandis, A. Engelmanni) are exceedingly beautiful on account of their sumptuous foliage. But the most common species is a smaller one (A. subalpina), with a tall and straight trunk, its branches spreading only five or six feet. These trees cluster so thickly together that a passage through them is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. But we are not constrained to attempt it, for they seldom grow in the valley bottoms. Again we leave the ravine, and winding about among the hills, passing from glade to glade, we at length find ourselves upon the summit of a long slope, which descends rapidly into a great park, the largest on the Kaibab. It has received the name of

Sources +