Rock Garden - Grand Canyon Routes

Horsethief Butte Fault Route Description

Initial Notes: 27 April 2007

Butte Fault 2007 Quest for Barbwire: 24 September - 02 October


If there was a trail here, it could be the Walcott Trail, or the Horsethief Trail, or simply the geologic name Butte Fault Route. Some of the old miners and wranglers on the Great Kaibab Deer Drive called it the Baumgart Trail. The historic validity of the Horsethief Trail is a subject for debate, and the exact location of the original trail is uncertain. But the basic contour of the route is not mysterious. Follow the Butte Fault crossing a series of high saddles from Nankoweap Creek to Lava Creek — for some period of time almost equal parts known and unknown, but more recently added to my collection of Old Trails.

Historic Controversy

The history of the route begins with the C.D. Walcott geologic survey of 1883 and this may have been the initial construction of the Tilted Mesa Trail and the Butte Fault Trail. However, the original historic alignment is unknown and could have taken the Marion/Seiber access. Furthermore, every reasonable passable access into Grand Canyon can be associated with pre-historic travel connecting seasonal locations and water sources. Tales of Grand Canyon history relate that horse thieves were traveling between the south and north regions and making use of this physical barrier to conceal the origin of stock they transported and sold. There is some speculation that this tale is more of a modern-day western fantasy than reality, but some reports are associated with George McCormick who developed the mines in this area. The other side of this debate is that there are many sites throughout the region with substantial physical remnants from the early modern period — mining tools and supplies, remote prospect holes, cabins, stoves, camps, marginally productive mining. This evidence shows that early modern adventurers were adapted to a difficult lifestyle that is almost beyond our understanding today. The possibility that running horses across this difficult terrain might have been easier than some other means to a life in that time is not necessarily that hard to grasp. One other historic connection to this area was an attempt to resolve the overloaded deer population with a roundup on the north and moving a herd along this old trail to the south, and this event is a known historic fact — although the actual drive across the Canyon failed before it could even begin — deer simply do not herd. Although the attempt was a failure, that it was considered to be possible, and that this possibility was put to action — this circumstance is fairly strong evidence that transport of stock across Grand Canyon along this alignment was known to be a reality to the miners, wranglers, hunters, and adventurers who were most familiar with this area by experience. That unrecorded knowledge and experience leaves modern hikers and re-discoverers like ourselves to an impoverished speculation about what might have been. We will probably never know.

Tilted Mesa or Marion/Sieber in Nankoweap: A careful reading of the Walcott record suggests that the party accessed Marion/Seiber, referring to "trail canyon" and "jacobs ladder". Trail Canyon would be the Marion/Seiber drainage and Jacobs Ladder would be the steep Redwall ravine — although the possibility to get any pack animal up this place would seem almost absurd to most of us. In contrast to this, the description of the 1924 Deer Drive by Jack Fuss recorded in Boatman's Quarterly issue 17-2 is unambiguous that the route used to reach Saddle Mountain must have followed the Supai ledges that we know today as Titled Mesa. The promoter and trailguide for this event was none other than G. McCormick, the Grand Canyon miner and one of the alleged horse thieves.

The Route

In GCT-I (p.103), Harvey B. writes "Map study hardly prepares one for the number of stiff climbs required to cross the traverse valleys." Harvey first explored this area coming from the south to Kwagunt and returning in summer heat.

Another brief description of following the fault route is recorded in GCLH-II. There is not much detail and George seems not to be recommending this way. Also, the route lines recorded on the GCLH-II maps appear to shift the route to a secondary series of saddles east of the main fault ravines which are all west of the physical fault structure. In general, it is important to rely primarily on route descriptions rather than maps.

In 1998 I planned and led a group from Bright Angel to Saddle Mountain on a successful trip (although some of the group dropped off before the trip began, others planned on doing just half the trip, and another left also, making just two of us at the end). This was the North Rim Passage and one of the more adventurous trips I have done on my own. At the time, I made a deliberate effort to find some way to get through this area without confronting the Butte Fault — it seemed like a big chunk of unknown to deal with all in one trip. But, I always knew that I wanted and needed to come back to this, not least because of my fascination with old trails.

The first question to consider is the choice whether to do this north-to-south or south-to-north. It is simpler logistics to start from Saddle Canyon trailhead or somewhere on the Walhalla rim — from the north, the route becomes serious departing from the Butte Fault spring at Kwagunt Creek. Approaching from the south, the options are to make the long trek from Bright Angel (see North Rim Passage), or cross the river (various methods) in the area of Palisades/Lava — from the south, the last reliable water is Lava Creek and the terrain really goes upward from Carbon Creek. The major factors are elevation, rough terrain, and lack of water.

The advantages of north-to-south are the transport logistics and an overall descending profile — this seems to be the most common choice. The main advantage of south-to-north is the opportunity to ascend south-facing slopes in the early part of the day and descend north-facing slopes with somewhat less sun exposure late in the day. Characteristics for terrain following will be about the same either way — there will be some part of the route descending rugged terrain with difficultly viewing the landscape to choose an optimal line of travel.


Nankoweap to Saddle
Saddle to Kwagunt
Kwagunt to Saddle
Saddle to Malgosa
Malgosa to Saddle
Saddle to Awatubi
Awatubi to Saddle
Saddle to Sixtymile
Sixtymile to Saddle
Saddle to Carbon
Carbon to Lava

Nankoweap to Kwagunt

It is highly probable but uncertain that the original route/trail crossed the divide to the west of Nankoweap Butte (the high point west of Nankoweap Mesa). The gray flaky gravels of the Kwagunt Supergroup will not support much vegetation or hold the line of a trail, but travel is actually easier than on most other type of ground. From the west saddle the easiest slope would be to continue south to a gradual ridge slope down to Kwagunt Creek. Hikers can descend directly into the drainage south of the saddle, but there is a minor obstacle approaching Kwagunt this way. The drainages going south into Kwagunt from this ridgeline present the greatest variety of topography and geologic features to be found in a close space anywhere in Grand Canyon, and it is difficult terrain for a hiker. For alternate tracks see notes on Nankoweap Canyon and Kwagunt Canyon. Kwagunt Creek has excellent reliable water at the Butte Fault.

Kwagunt to Malgosa

Some interesting qualities of this region can be interpreted from viewing the slope/ravine rising south from Kwagunt and from the map contours. The central ravine and adjacent slopes are rugged and increasingly steep, with the most difficult places approaching the lowest saddle, so this is not the easiest way. The best alternate appears to be the more gradual slope to the west. A horseshoe located beside a good track that connects a grassy field on the slope with another grassy pocket on the ridgeline combine as evidence of the original Horsethief Trail.

From the ridgeline there is a possibility to contour west through the upper part of the valley, avoiding the Butte Fault alignment, gaining the next saddle (Malgosa/Awatubi) with less total elevation change. The more obvious passage is to descend and cross above the joining of the west and south arms, and ascending the main Butte Fault ravine south to the next saddle. Minor obstacles in the bed of this ravine establish that this was not the way of the horse trail through here. One advantage of the lower route is that Malgosa Canyon is accessible to the river.

Malgosa to Awatubi

Malgosa/Awatubi saddle is a broad level surface with a gradual initial descent into Awatubi Canyon. Travel on the east slope is slightly more favorable to avoid rocky unstable footing on the west ravine slope. Cross to the west as the ravine begins to open into the valley and keep an eye out for the large galvanized coffeepot along the line of optimal descent. Crossing this valley is the least elevation of the Butte Fault canyons, but the heavy growth of blackbush on the basin pan makes travel slower than it would be. There is no reasonable possibility of an access to the river here.

Awatubi to Sixtymile

Slope conditions up to Awatubi Crest are symmetrical to those on the northern ravine of Awatubi. Descend following the fault ravine but keep alert for a chance to exit over the saddle to the west before the lower ravine section crosses the faultline into the narrower Redwall gorge where the rock stands on edge. There is a pouroff into a water pocket low in the ravine that is impassable, but it is possible (but not optimal) to exit to the west. There is an access to this very large tank in the fault ravine from below, going up a friction surface to reach the catchment pool. Local rainfall would certainly be the only water source to fill this pool, but it makes a deep well and protected from the sun. Sixtymile Canyon has a possible access to the river — this looks difficult but it has been done — access to the fault break descent would be over the northern shoulder of the Butte Fault well above the bed. The main bed of Sixtymile is an enormous pouroff in the headwall of the lower canyon.

Sixtymile to Carbon

From the bed of the southern branch of Sixtymile the rise up to the saddle is steady and not difficult. Navigation is easy but it is important to start up the west of two parallel drainages along the fault line. Faint signs of trail clearing thread across the humps and slopes of the lower section. Parts of the trail may have existed on a flat west of the middle bed. Another option is to follow along the edge of the Butte Fault against the eastern slope. As things get steeper and tighter, a big shady juniper makes a nice stop about halfway up. Look for a game track leaving the bed onto the upper eastern slope and then ascending the western slope almost to the apex of the ravine. In the case of going north down into Sixtymile from the saddle, descend to the left of a jagged spire just off of the saddle and look for old switchbacks on the slope going right below a rock outcrop. Looking down, the track above the bed low on the opposite slope of the ravine is clearly visible — this is abandoned historic trailbed, modern gametrack.

The Carbon Creek descent begins on the eastern slope, and soon joins the bed near where some rock-work shows the best sign of trail improvement. The story from Harvey B. hiking notes is that posts and barbwire were once found nearby, but this landmark was not rediscovered until recently. The location of the corral is between natural rock walls at a narrow spot in the ravine bed — a fork in the bed from the west with a flat area for camp is nearby, but there are no artifacts to prove this.

The track follows the bed and then passes west to escape the boulder jumble and steeper descent (obstacle almost immediately below). The track can be lost again in a short distance across the slope on a hard surface, but the descent to rejoin the bed is not any problem. And the walk continuing from there to the head of the narrows is as easy as it gets anywhere.

Carbon to Lava

This part is a well worn trail from the head of Carbon Canyon narrows to streamside at Lava Canyon. Assuming north-to-south, the main issue will be to get to water and this could be either going down Carbon to the river (no usable water in the narrows), or the one-hour mostly easy downward hike (except one rise for a bypass) following the fault ravine. The stream here is often not very substantial and not obviously appealing, but the water quality has always been acceptable — salts seem to be diluted by the constant flow. Harvey B. reported his visit here in the hot season when the stream disappeared in the heat of the day and was restored to a trickle at night.

There is a realistic likelihood that Lava Creek at the Butte Fault may be dry in summer or fall and this factor should be evaluated in any choice of target destination. But the added risk is low overall because the distance to the river is not far. Another option when traveling north-to-south is to angle across the Carbon area approximately on a direct line to Still Spring at the midpoint of Chuar Valley — this is definitely the shortest track to sure water in Lava Chuar from East Fork Carbon Creek.

To Lava/Palisades Crossing

One easy way to get across here is to go down Lava Creek to the beach camp area. If a rafting group has stopped here for overnight or at the end of a dayhike loop then arranging a crossing to the Palisades beach area is easy. You may also get a short ride through Lava Canyon Rapid, which I have gone down twice floating in a lifejacket just for fun. The traditional crossing that has been described as a low-water ford is near the island below Palisades beach.


This is the main problem with this route — water sources are Kwagunt Butte Fault, diversion to the river descending at Malgosa Canyon, and at Lava Canyon Creek. Water seeps in the Carbon area are all mineralized. Malgosa, Awatubi, Sixtymile, and Carbon are all isolated from the Walhalla rim by the upper reaches of adjacent drainage systems (Lava and Kwagunt), and so the prospect for water, even in the springtime of a good year, might not be justified — certainly cannot be assured.


Route conditions are very rugged although getting lost or disoriented seems rather unlikely. The most problematic spot is the lower end of the north fault ravine from Sixtymile, bypassing the Redwall section. Proper route selection in the complex geologic structure of the slopes around Kwagunt (Nankoweap/ Kwagunt or Kwagunt/Malgosa) is also critical. Elevation changes are at the most extreme for inner canyon travel. This is very remote and the main factors in success will be water management, off-trail navigation skills and route selection, and a fairly rapid rate of travel between any necessary dry-camps — no doubt, a really strong hiker has at least a chance to connect between the water sources in a day. It is entirely realistic for a group with an experienced leader to be able to travel from water at Kwagunt to water at Lava in about a day-and-a-half. If you find yourself in real trouble the place to get help will be where the air-tours overfly Sixtymile coming west from the Little Colorado area.


Many elements combine to make this irresistible to Grand Canyon fanatics. Historic value. Exceptional wilderness. Unusual geology and dramatic topography. Physical and logistical challenge.

Reference Notes: Grand Canyon Treks (GCT-I) by Harvey Butchart


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