(Editor's Note: this is the first recorded descent, though, as they make it clear in their summation and in the preamble, it certainly could have been descended previously. Elevations called out in this description are from the contemporaneous USGS map, most likely the release previous to the current (as of 2002) edition. No photos or maps were included with the copies I had, though they may be available.)
PREVIOUS EXPLORATION AROUND THE GREAT WEST CANYON
Although we have no record of previous trips through the Great West Canyon, there are many persons living who have traveled in and around Wildcat Canyon and Phantom Valley. It is only in the past several decades that the owners of what is now Sunset Canyon Ranch have ceased to hunt stray cattle on the high route between Cougar Mountain and Phantom Valley. In July and August of 1966, Ron Schofner interviewed the living past owners of the ranch and their children on the assumption that they would be the most likely to know of previous penetration into the Canyon. They all stated that to their knowledge no party had been back into the heart of the Great West Canyon.
Interviewed were Sam Wilson of Hurricane, Utah whose father bought the ranch in 1919; Yvonne (Maloney) Wilcox and Nelson Maloney of Virgin and Hurricane, Utah, whose father owned the ranch after Mr. Wilson; and Curtiss S. Scarritt, the present owner. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Maloney have been into Phantom Valley a number of times and are able to accurately describe the topography of the land around the Canyon.
Two other local residents who are familiar with the area are Walter Beatty of Toquerville (born 1892) and Blueford Beames of Virgin (born 1887). Mr. Beames did township surveying in the vicinity, including Cougar Mountain. Mr. Beatty was a guide for the surveyors of the current topographic map. Both have been into Phantom Valley and Wildcat Canyon. Both are certain that they would have heard of previous exploration through the Great West Canyon.
Arden Schifer of Springdale, a ranger in Zion Park for many years (1924 to ?) and Jerome Gifford, of Springdale, another veteran ranger, who is writing a history of Zion Park, were also interviewed. Neither had heard of exploration in the Great West Canyon.
Records at the Chief Ranger's Office indicate only an unsuccessful attempt to enter Phantom Valley from Wildcat Canyon several years ago. An exploratory trip upstream into the Canyon by Ron Schofner and Bill Fisher in 1965 probably represents the fartherest penetration prior to the trip of June 1966. These two succeeded in a hazardous ascent of Barrier Falls and continued past the Alcove, only to be stopped by the Black Pool (see map 2).
On Tuesday evening, June 28, 1966, we left the Zion Canyon campground in three cars and proceeded to Sunset Canyon Ranch, Virgin, Utah. Here, we talked with Alien P. Zender who manages the ranch for Curtiss S. Scarritt. He gave us permission to cross the ranchland and to leave a car there. Me then proceeded to the junction of the Kolob Road and the fire road (near Lava Point) where we camped for the night.
Just before dawn the next morning we put all of the packs into one car and walked the 3.5 miles to the top of Wildcat Canyon, removing large rocks from the path of the car. Russell Gulch was particularly scenic in the sunrise. At the top of Wildcat we left the car, shouldered our packs, and headed down the trail. A jeep trail brings one to a lava flow, where we boulder-hopped to the bottom of Wildcat Canyon (Photo 1).
This lava flow and the nearby stream appear to offer the only reasonable routes into the canyon; anywhere else would require difficult bushwhacking. We then followed animal trails and the streambed down the canyon until we reached the central portion, around 11:30. This was all easy going. We stopped then for lunch and because it was very hot (Photo 2). After lunch, it was still too hot so we took siestas and explored the nearby area. We ate lunch near a grove containing some aspen; this seemed peculiar in such dry country, and after a search, we found a seep of dark but good water below the grove. It was running slightly and is located in slickrock surrounded by sandstone towers about 20 feet high (Photos 3-4). The pools were full of tadpoles, water spiders, and mosquito larvae. Those of us who cooled off in the pools found that our clothing was completely dry half an hour later. After pondering on how to fix tadpoles for supper, at 4;00 p.m., we shouldered our packs and continued to the divide between Wildcat Canyon and the Great West Canyon where we camped for the night. Although we looked, we found no water there-we did find some rusty tin cans which we buried.
The next morning, unable to stand the mosquitoes any longer, we dropped into the Great West Canyon along a ridge which finally led into a narrow V-shaped canyon with pools of water in potholes (map 2 )( Photos 5 and 6). In the meantime, the cirrus clouds of the early morning had turned into darker cumulus and a few drops of rain had fallen. The potholes became deeper and bigger and the weather more threatening (Photo 7). We finally reached a point just before the first stream junction on the left where we had to get out the rope and rappel from one pothole into another and then swim across to the next drop which looked even worse. Then it began to rain harder. This was a bad position to be in so we retreated upstream slightly and then to a sloping ledge about fifty feet above the streambed. It was decided that this route was not feasible. When the rain ceased we went back upstream until we could climb up to the top of the ridge (The Shelf) to the west of the stream (see map) which we did. On top, we ate lunch and then set out in pairs to find another route. A gulley halfway along the ridge is passable down to a point 100 feet above the valley floor, where there is a 50 foot deep cleft which could be rappeled. Another pair, however, found an easier route at the end of The Shelf.
We waited out some more rain and watched The Shelf turn into an active streambed. Soon after the rain stopped, however, it was a highway again and we started down (Photos 8 and 9). The Shelf ends in a waterfall into the main streambed which we belayed down for the first 130 feet. We then traversed to the right and continued down via a series of easy ledges (Photos 10 and 11). The last of these ledges contains a stagnant pool which lies at the base of the true waterfall. From here, we descended the last twenty feet to the streambed by climbing down a fallen tree.
Camp was made on a ledge about ten feet above the stream a short distance upstream from the descent. Late in the afternoon one member of the party found a game trail up the extremely steep north side of Deer Knob (shown on the map as Hill 5585). The rounded upper meadow is topped by a lone tall tree, at the base of which is ample evidence that deer chose this spot as a sleeping place. Other game trails lead off the back side of the knob. The presence of deer indicates that some easier route into the canyon probably exists.
On the following morning, we rigged the first true obstacle, a twenty foot overhang caused by a large rock wedged between the canyon walls (Photo 12). It could probably be bypassed by going over Deer Knob, although this route was not confirmed. Soon thereafter, we reached the stream junction where the canyon turns west and the real narrows begin (Photos 13 and 14).
After a short distance we reached the Black Pool. We had no idea of its extent, and since it was too deep to wade, one member of the party floated ahead on an air mattress. The pool turned out to be 120 feet long. Packs and people were hauled across on the air mattress. The water was exceedingly cold, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (Photo 15).
After the pool the canyon widens, and there are only a few places where it is possible to touch both walls. In one place a giant boulder has fallen into the canyon, creating a twenty foot drop on the downstream side which was not easily bypassed. It is possible to traverse the canyon wall for some distance, but everywhere there was at least a ten foot drop back to the streambed. We finally used a handline for descent. The previous party, coming upstream, had been able to prop a log against the wall to get up at this point.
Soon we approached the Alcove. This is the most remarkable feature of the canyon. Here an impermeable rock layer perches the local water table in the porous sandstone. Water springs from seep line at least a quarter of a mile long. Most of the flow is from the north wall of the canyon, as a result of which the rock has been undermined to form a great overhang perhaps 400 feet high and 1,000 feet long. The top of the Alcove overhangs the base by about 100 feet. The opposite wall partly conforms to this shape, so that it is very difficult to obtain a photograph which shoes the true extent of the great ceiling, which gradually curves into a vertical wall (Photos 16 and 17). The stream falls about sixty feet into a narrow gulley along the seep line. However, the upper level continues as a broad ledge along the south wall. Photo 17 shows the innermost part of the Alcove, where the ceiling is about 100 feet above the stream.
The upper ledge, a corner of which is visible in Photo 17, is well covered by the nearly vertical portion of the ceiling, and we waited here several hours while it rained lightly outside. Protection even from heavy rainfall here 1s evidenced by a layer of fine dust on the ground similar to that found in dry caves.
It is possible 'to climb down with the stream, but not to stay dry while doing so. We chose to lower the packs by rope and rappel down a distance of about eighty feet after setting two bolts in the sandstone as an anchor.
A short distance downstream is Barrier Falls. Again two bolts were placed and we rappelled (Photo 18). The rock here is very slippery, and it was very difficult to avoid swinging into the pool below the falls. From this point the canyon opens out, and it becomes possible to climb around obstacles in the streambed (Photo 19). There are a number of very pretty waterfalls in the portion of the canyon (Photo 20.)
We camped at the first convenient place below the falls. The stream here abounds with fish, but no one thought to bring a hook! Early the next morning we set off for the car, and reached it in five hours of easy hiking.
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