Written By Lynn “Quadman” Blamires
This was not my first ride to the Grand Gulch Mine. I wrote an article about a trail that approached the mine site from St. George previously. We trailered 65 miles on dirt roads to a staging area near Poverty Mountain. We then rode to the mine and visited several points along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That ride was 109 miles without counting the 130 miles we had trailered.
This was 2020, the month was February, and my friends Willis and Scott were bound and determined to ride to the mine from Mesquite. “It will only be 75 miles on easy trails. You will like it” they said. Nothing was mentioned about the 75 miles it would take to make the trip back. I did my best to talk the others into taking a shorter ride, but no. “You guys are crazy,” I said, “We won’t be back until 9:00 p.m.” I was the crazy one, I guess, because I went with them.
Staging on the south side of Mesquite, we climbed up through Lime Kiln Canyon on the Lime Kiln Road into the Arizona Strip. The morning was chilly, but the sun was bright with the promise of a warmer day. While the canyon road was rough, we came out on smoother trails as we passed Red Pocket Tanks and Cow Canyon. I have ridden a lot of trails in Utah passing by canyons with the word “cow” somewhere in the name. Turning onto Nuttal Twists Road, no one questioned the name of this trail. We were skirting the north edge of the Grand Wash Cliffs Wilderness Area on a very twisty road.
The sun had done its job – the day was now comfortably warm. We were oblivious to Hidden Canyon as we passed it for obvious reasons. Other canyons we passed included Last Chance, St. George, Rattlesnake, Gardner, Coyote, and Dry. I couldn’t find any information about these canyons on the Internet. Finally dropping down into a little valley, we came to the Grand Gulch Mine. It wasn’t 75 miles like Willis and Scott said it would be. It was 90 miles and now it was 3:00 p.m. and we still had the return trip to make. I knew this would happen. I just knew it. I also knew that it would not do any good to talk about it because by now, we were all in this together.
It just served to remind me of how isolated this mine was from civilization. It was one of the richest concentrations of copper ore to be discovered in Arizona and yet the remote location required expensive logistics that drastically reduced the value of the ore. Even water had to be hauled into the mine site to serve the needs of the mining operation and the workers’ livelihood there.
According to the Library of Congress, the Grand Gulch Mine depended on the expansion of the railroad for any hope of increasing the value of their product. While a smelter was built on-site to process the ore, the nearest rail spur in 1899 was 175 miles away. That was reduced to 75 miles in 1906 and to 45 in 1912. The mode of transporting copper to the rail line improved from horse-drawn wagons to large haul trucks. The Grand Gulch Mine closed in 1919 due to a drop in copper prices. This mine site is different from the others I have visited because this site is located in the desert and the structures were built of stone. Those I have visited in the mountains made of wood have little left but the tailings as evidence of their existence.
There is still much to see here. Two of the large haul trucks remain on the property and the stone buildings are still standing. The smelter still towers over the complex. I could close my eyes and almost hear the noise created by the mine when it was in full operation. Back to reality, it was now almost 4:00 p.m. We had taken seven hours to get here and now we faced the prospect of getting back.
I had complained about the miles to the mine being 90 miles and not the 75 miles Willis had indicated. He called me on it and I checked my GPS again. I had exaggerated the number by 10 miles. It just made me look whinier. Not wanting to go back the way we came, the map indicated a shortcut that would cut 20 miles off the trip. While that appealed to us, we had no idea what we were in for. As you know, shortcuts are the subjects of movies and books. Our caravan was made up of three UTVs and five ATVs. The ATVs have a shorter wheelbase and the suspension is nowhere near as good. One of the riders had an ATV with no power steering which made for a sore shoulder ride.
Shortly after leaving the mine, we came to a dugway that dropped into North Fork Canyon. To be safe, we stopped to take a closer look at this difficult section. I later learned that this half-mile section is called, “The Staircase.” YouTube features a video called, “The Staircase – Savanic Mine Trail.” Not knowing that at the time, we decided to make the descent.
To be more accurate, the dugway was a series of steep steps littered with big boulders that had to be negotiated. Scott was in the lead. He made it down easily with his big four-place super suspension RZR while the ATV riders bounced down the half-mile drop with gritted teeth. Making the tumble to the bottom, I noted that everyone kept the rubber side down, whew!
The Savanic Copper Mine was located at the bottom of The Staircase. It was only in operation a short time beginning in 1906. It closed in 1919, but still, it is one of the many mines that dot the Arizona desert. Several of the riders took a chance to peer down a deep shaft that was still open. Oh, and they might have tossed a rock or two down the hole as boys will.
After a short break, we mounted up and continued our ride. The trail hugged the side of the canyon on a narrow ledge with a steep drop-off to the right that extended over a thousand feet to the bottom. There were no two ways about this trail. It was a very narrow one-way track – the kind of which nightmares are made. What if we met someone coming the other way or the trail was blocked? It would be nearly impossible to turn around.
Well, to say the least, we had drama. Ken Britten thought he was going to die and his wife Chris kept her eyes focused straight ahead, refusing to even glance down into the canyon. Back in Mesquite after the ride, Ken called it the Disastrous Grand Gulch Mine Ride. I thought about the drivers of the horse-drawn wagons that would have hauled ore from the mine. It was probably just another day in the life of a wagon driver. By the time we got down to the flats, it was dark. We were a caravan of lights working our way among the cactus and Joshua trees. We were passing landmarks that meant nothing in the dark.
At this point, I was experiencing my own drama. The desert nights get chilly quickly after the sun goes down. I was driving my Ace 570 with ski gloves to keep my hands warm. I had taken my riding gloves off and secured them, but not very well because I lost one somewhere along the trail. I was bummed about that, but also I was hitting a lot of rocks on the trail. My Ace has ten inches of ground clearance, but still, I was hitting rocks that I should have been clearing
Finally, we came out of Lyme Kiln Canyon and saw the welcome lights of Mesquite. It was 9 pm just like I thought it would be when we loaded up and headed back. It was the end of a very long day. I decided not to say anything about that, I had whined enough already. It wasn’t until we got back to our motel that I realized that my left front tire was almost flat. I was not riding on the rim, but I think it was the cause of my hitting so many rocks.
I wouldn’t recommend this trail on a short February day, but if you go, take plenty of
water, keep the rubber side down, and have your own adventure in the Arizona desert.