Three Fascinating Historical Hikes and Sites Near the Grand Canyon

Red Butte
Red Butte Robb Hannawacker
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There are 1.7 million acres of public forest, prairies, and plateaus that surround the Grand Canyon. Within this vast region of wildlands just outside the park you will find some of the finest historic hiking trails in all of the Southwest. From wagon routes used by pioneers more than 150 years ago to sections of the Arizona Trail, which traverses the entire state, many of the trails and sites here display remnants of both human and natural history.

The Kaibab National Forest is split across the middle by the Grand Canyon and is quite historic itself. In 1893, there were portions of the forest that were included in the former Grand Canyon Reserve. Further acreage of the present-day national forest was added by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 when he created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve.

The modern boundary of the Kaibab National Forest was established in 1934 when the historic Tusayan National Forest, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, combined with the Kaibab on the North Rim. Today, the forest and the surrounding public lands are part of a proposal to designate them as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.

A recreation mecca, the lands in this proposed monument have been used and crossed by Native American tribes, ranchers, sheepherders, pioneers, loggers, and explorers for centuries. Some of the trails and structures left by these visitors and homesteaders are still in use today. Other trails, such as the Arizona Trail, have significance due to the natural history or scenic qualities observed from along their length.

Here are three significant Kaibab National Forest trails and historic sites to see on your next visit.


The Kaibab National Forest.
The Kaibab National Forest. U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest

Dale Shewalter, an Arizona school teacher, first envisioned the Arizona Trail in the 1970s. In 1985 Dale walked from Nogales, in Southern Arizona, all the way to the Utah border to explore the possibility of a trail that could someday traverse the state. Over the next 25 years his dreams became a reality as trail construction commenced and the word spread. The Arizona Trail was recognized by Congress as a National Scenic Trail in 2009.

For over 750 miles the Arizona Trail crosses plateaus and canyons, dips into cottonwood-lined drainages, and climbs past snow-capped peaks. Beginning in Utah, the Arizona Trail crosses into the Kaibab National Forest near Orderville Canyon. The trail continues south and eventually crosses the Grand Canyon and Grand Canyon National Park before continuing through the southern portion of the Kaibab National Forest and eventually winding all the way to the Mexican border.

It’s the North Kaibab Ranger District that features the oldest section of the Arizona Trail. For 50-miles, the trail weaves through some of the Kaibab’s finest features, including pinon and juniper woodlands, open grasslands, and shaded forests of aspen and Ponderosa pine. Traveling along this trail is like a step back in time, with essentially nothing having been developed in the last couple hundred years. The highlight of the trail is the East Rim viewpoint, which offers a sweeping view of the Saddle Mountain Wilderness as well as House Rock Valley and Marble Canyon.


Jacob Lake ERA camp, mid-1930s.
Jacob Lake ERA camp, mid-1930s. U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.

Jacob Lake, the nearby unincorporated community, and the US Forest Service Ranger Station are all named after early Mormon missionary and pioneer Jacob Hamlin. Situated at about 8,000 feet above sea level on the Kaibab Plateau, the water from the lake made the Jacob Lake area a popular stop for travelers and pioneers in the early days of Utah and Arizona. From the 1860’s through the early 20th century, the area became a popular place for timber and cattle grazing.

In 1910, the Jacob Lake Ranger Station was built and remains one of the oldest US Forest Service buildings in the country. And back in the day, Theodore Roosevelt would visit the Jacob Lake area to hunt mountain lions in the Kaibab Forest.

Today, there are plenty of trails that can be found in the area, including the 12-mile Lookout Canyon Trail, a section of the Arizona Trail, and the historic 13-mile Navajo Trail, an old Indian and sheepherding path.


Red Butte.
Red Butte. Robb Hannawacker

Red Butte is a prominent knob located south of Grand Canyon National Park. The Havasupai Tribe have inhabited the area for at least 800 years, and they, along with several other tribes, consider it a sacred area and have had it designated as a Traditional Cultural Property, so please be sure to treat it with respect when visiting. There is a short, but steep, trail that climbs over a mile to the summit and a Fire Lookout. The Fire Lookout is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register and is still in use by the Kaibab National Forest.

Red Butte itself displays important clues to the geologic past of the southern Kaibab National Forest. Most of the surface rock in this area is Kaibab Limestone, a 270 million year old limestone formed from ancient tropical seas floor. Red Butte is the only area where younger rock, which has eroded everywhere else, is still present and overlies the Kaibab Limestone.

The younger rock making up Red Butte is, respectively, 240 million year-old red sandstone and a 225 million year-old conglomerate known as the Shinirump Member. The red sandstone was formed in mudflats or tidal zones and the Shinirump Member by sand and pebbles in a river channel. Both of these layers are capped with 9-million year-old lava flows.

Thus, Red Butte tells the story of the southern Kaibab’s geologic past but in reverse: An ancient, receding ocean was replaced by estuaries and eventually a river before an era of volcanism.

Of note: The proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monumentencompasses the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and that these historic sites and trails remain preserved forever.Learn more about the proposal for making the lands around the Grand Canyon a national monument and get involved.

Originally written for Sierra Club.

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