Craig Canyon


By: Steve Smith


BLM Friends of the Inyo Wilderness first descended the length of Craig Canyon in June, 1992. The canyon had presented us with some surprises along with scenic canyon formations and challenging obstacles during that first, exploratory trip. A year later, we did a south to north traverse across the canyon. Now, seven years later, the BLM Inyo volunteers decided to go back and do a second traverse through the canyon. Even though we were familiar with the canyons topography this time, it still threw some surprises at us which required us to take an extra day beyond our planned four day trip.

Craig Canyon is on the east side of the Inyo Mountains between Daisy Canyon on the south and Hunter Canyon on the north. As shown on the New York Butte and Craig Canyon topographic maps, it is a steep canyon which is extremely narrow between 5,000' to 3,600'. Craig Canyon leaves the Inyo Crest at 9,400' and opens onto the floor of Saline Valley at 1,600', a drop of 7,800' in about eight miles. We knew from previous trips in 1992 and 1993 that the best way to access the canyon was from Daisy Ridge. Morgan Irby, who has done more Inyo Canyon descents than anyone, and Tom Budlong returned with me to do the canyon a second time and we were joined by Tom Jackman, Marty Dickes, Gerry Goss, Stacy Robinson, Don Pedersen and my 11 year old son Stenson Smith. Our plan was to schedule our days so that we would camp right where the narrows starts at a millsite at 5,000'. We thought this would enable us to traverse through the narrows in one day and not get stuck in an uncomfortable camping situation as had happened seven years earlier. But, as we would learn three days later, the narrows had some new surprises for us.

Shuttling several vehicles to the mouth of Craig Canyon on Thursday, the entire group of nine participants met at Keeler midday Friday. The Inyo Crest Road was its usual slow 4-wd drive with the group making a short stop to admire the historic Inyo Salt Tram and Salt Tram Cabin along the way. This cabin is on our BLM Adopt-A-Cabin list and in recent years has deteriorated quickly. Fortunately, the Bishop BLM personnel under their new Field Manager Steve Addington, have initiated work to stabilize and preserve this historic structure.

Reaching the Daisy Ridgeline on the south side of Craig Canyon, we left the Inyo Crest around 3:00 p.m. We had water for two days which was when we would reach flowing water in the canyon floor at 5,000'. We also carried four 50m. climbing ropes for the 9 rappels we had previously encountered in the narrows of lower Craig Canyon. Hiking about three miles eastward along the Daisy Ridge, we reached the Trepier Mine at 7,600' right about dusk. Its a great campsite with panoramic vistas of Saline Valley where we enjoyed watching the changing colors in the Panamint and Last Chance Ranges as the sun set.

There are some faint traces of trail extending northward from the Trepier Mine on the Daisy ridge down to a millsite on the floor of Craig Canyon at 5,000'. The upper half of the ridge dropping down to the millsite is an open, pleasant downhill but the lower half is steeper, looser rock which requires slow going. It was at about 6,000' while the group was taking a break along a limestone rock face overlooking the millsite that Stenson discovered an outcropping of large calcite crystals. Reaching the millsite by late afternoon, the group reminisced about our two previous visits to the millsite in 1992 and 1993 and enjoyed exploring the water powered 5-stamp mill and rock shelter remains. There is a stream running by the millsite with a plentiful year round flow of water along with a zone of thick riparian vegetation all around the millsite. It was a short evening sitting around the campfire as everyone was driven into their tents after it began raining around 8:00P.M.

The rain ceased during the night and it was clear Sunday morning as the group prepared to enter the narrows. During our previous trip, we had gone straight into the narrows where there was an immediate rappel and a huge boulder wedged about 50' above the streambed a short distance into the canyon. During the 1992 trip, it had been necessary to do nine rappels - six in the narrows with flowing water and three below the narrows which were dry. This trip we had more time and Morgan had done some scouting Saturday afternoon. He had found a bypass on the south side which easily got us around the first two waterfalls.

Walking along the south side of the canyon, we admired the first two waterfalls and wedged boulder as we dropped down to the stream several hundred yards into the narrows. At this point, there was a 30' waterfall and it was obvious to us that there was a heavier flow of water than we had experienced during our 1992 descent. The canyon bottom had also changed with more potholes and pools of water along with several more rappels. The going was much slower than seven years earlier as we encountered several new rappels plus four pools of water which took time getting our packs across. It was a cool, overcast day so Morgan volunteered to go into the pools of waist deep water to ferry our packs across the pools to minimize everyone's exposure to the cold water.

The canyon was just as impressive as we remembered it - steep sided walls averaging about 40' across with a continuous variety of water cascades for a distance of about two miles. It was interesting to see the transition of Stenson who had not been very comfortable climbing on rock, now with some experience going ahead to help show me handholds. About midday we passed the point where we had been forced by darkness seven years earlier to stop and camp is small spaces between the water and canyon walls. It looked like we would make it through the narrows this year and have a wider, more comfortable (and safer) campsite but it was not to be. We were slowed by the pools of water plus there were five pitches requiring belays. Where we had been able to down climb slopes seven years earlier, the higher water level was now keeping these slopes wet or covered with slippery mud which necessitated belays.

We encountered a major obstacle where there was a 50' stretch of water which was over our heads. The north wall was laid back enough that Gerry and Tom were able to rig 100' of webbing for use as a handhold. This enabled everyone to walk along the side of the wall with their packs to get around the deep water. By early evening it was beginning to get dark and with another long belayed down climb confronting us, we decided to take advantage of a spot while it was available which was wide enough for everyone to camp together out of the water. Stenson and I smoothed off a 4' wide perch of sediment about 5' above the canyon bottom where we were able to stretch out and stay dry. The canyon was just wide enough to see some stars between the rock walls and that evening, with the water flowing by our campsite, everyone enjoyed the peacefulness and solitude of such a remote camp.

The going continued slow through the water and we encountered several long stretches of thick brush at points where the lower canyon widens out. It was not until late in the afternoon that we finally got out of the narrows at 3,900' and still hoped to make it out to Saline Valley. The last rappel at 3,100' was the highest - about 75' with an impressive overhang. Once past that, we pushed on down canyon, carefully down climbing around three high, dry waterfalls on the south side. As it was getting dark, we encountered a fourth waterfall less than a mile from the canyon mouth. In the darkness we could not find the route around so we had to settle for a dry camp and add a fifth day to the trip. It was a pleasant evening camped in the open dry wash with everyone sharing what food and water they had left.

Next morning, we quickly found the climb around on the south side and continued working our way down canyon. By midmorning we were through the canyon mouth and to where we had shuttled vehicles to an old mining area .25-mile south of Craig Canyon. It was at this point, while the group was relaxing around our vehicles that I first noticed a slight irritation on the side of my neck but didn't think anything of it. The group then caravanned back to Keeler where we retrieved the rest of our vehicles and everyone was headed home by early afternoon.

For the next couple of days, the irritation on my neck continued and developed into a small welt about one quarter inch long by Wednesday. On Thursday evening, I was headed with the family towards Los Angeles for an outing to Catalina when I got severe pains in the teeth on the right side of my face. It appeared that I had some type of a spider or other insect bite and the fight side of my neck now had a rash over it. A druggist suggested aspirin and for the next few days, I was taking 3-4 of them every 3 hours. The rash even developed on the opposite side of my neck and it took about two weeks before it had cleared up. I was aware of the toxin slowly working its way across my face as I developed pain in other teeth. After a week, it was a very unpleasant experience when the toxin reached my sinuses - I've never smelled or tasted anything so bad. I am still not sure what got me but several people mentioned that the Kissing Bug can produce similar reactions. In 35 years of sleeping out in the open in the desert, this was a first, and hopefully last, experience of that kind.

DPS Archives Index | Desert Peaks Section