Cliff House Ruins - Part I: Return to the Cliff House of Redfield Canyon
By Matt Marine, with Patrick Ortiz, Sam Negri, Pete Hokanson, Gloanna Peek, Ever Zuleta, Angel Marine and Mike Lineberger
I opened the garage door and stepped outside. As expected, the air was dark and cool. What I did not anticipate was the smell of fresh rain. I remembered listening to the meteorologist less than 24 hours earlier state that the chances of rain were so small that he wasn’t even going to mention there was a possibility of rain.
I looked down at the wet concrete and smiled to myself. The weatherman was wrong. That wasn’t a surprise! But the rain sure was. A welcome surprise. And it would just be one of many we would have during this adventure. Some welcome, some not.
The object of this adventure was a “Cliff House” built into the side of a narrow canyon in a similar fashion to the cliff dwellings perfected by the Native Americans thousands of years ago. I’d visited the house four times before and it’s always a wonderful experience.
The house (built in the 1930s) is in very good shape for its age. Not a great deal of destruction by Mother Nature or vandals. This is due to its construction under an overhang which protects it and its difficulty to access.
Very Short History
The Cliff House was built in the 1930s by Chick and Harriet Logan. Chick met Harriet in Reno and brought her and her two young children back to Redfield Canyon where he had been capturing wild horses. Harriet's son, Frank Logan, wrote a short novel on his experience living there called, “A Cave House Ranch.” I have not read this book (the only copy I have "found" has been at the U of A library which states they have one). I have not been down there to read it yet (on my to do list).
The first time we went to the Cliff House, there was a three-ringed binder that had articles and stories about life there. I have not verified if these stories are correct (or if my memory serves me correctly), but here's what I've heard/read:
- They found a "mummified" Indian girl while excavating the basement. It was a small child, probably around 10-12 years old when she died. The kids used to take her to school for "show and tell" and pack her in their luggage when they went on vacation. I believe they had people at the U of A look at her and then either they (the U of A) or the family "lost" her
- Supplies (and children) used to be delivered down to the house via a steel wire cage, cable, A-frame and winch from the canyon above
- I have talked with people who have stayed the night there and have had "strange" things happen and heard "strange" noises
It’s not easy and you have to really want it.
There are two ways to access the house. The first requires permission to go through a locked gate and a payment of $25 per vehicle to a local rancher (at least that’s my understanding as I’ve never gone this way before). The road drops you off fairly close to the house, but it’s still quite a climb down into the cabin. The second is via a long 4WD road that has a “drop off” point for a strenuous hike into the canyon. This hike is much longer and more difficult than the first way, but you don’t have to pay and coordinate with a rancher. I have done this five times now and can testify on the difficulty of the hike. We’ve had people vomit during the climb due to vertigo and exhaustion, mountain lion encounters, and weak knees. Some could just not make it.
"The route to the drop off point was different from the route I used some 15 years ago. This route was longer but far more scenic than the one I’d been on previously. The rain and heavy clouds created a wonderful dappled light on the cliffs and peaks in the distance, and my only regret was that I hadn’t brought a more sophisticated camera with me."
I am very particular in picking the people I bring along on this adventure. Unlike most of my adventures, I do not share specific details about its location. There are some places that are so delicate and exceptional that I can’t bring myself to give it away to the masses. This is one of those places. If you want to visit this site, you’ll have to do some work before and during your trip to get there.
Sam is a young 72 year old who wrote an article on the Cliff House for January 2001 edition of Arizona Highways. He was there about two years before. It was this article that a friend and I had used to do some of our original research on the place. He contacted me a few weeks before the trip to ask about using pictures of the Cliff House for his blog (click here for the story). Sam’s email gave me the spark to make another trip – it had been a few years and I wanted to see how it was fairing. I invited Sam along and he readily agreed to a return trip.
Patrick is a friend of mine and four-wheeling enthusiast who had been asking to make this trip for a long time. He’s an avid explorer with a quick, wry sense of humor and a thirst for knowledge.
Also along on this trip was the ever friendly, Ever. He’s fearless, always smiling and ready for whatever the day decides to throw our way. And if something does get thrown our way, it was probably Ever as he's a big practical jokster.
Angel and Mike
Angel and Mike are my steadfast exploring cohorts. And it so happens that Angel is my sister. They are both great “finders”, with the ability to find places, animals or treasures that others miss. Cat-dog also uses them to rest her head on during the long ride home.
Pete and Gloanna
Pete’s a coworker of mine and a devoted hiker. His friend, Gloanna, is a nurse who decided to join us for this adventure. Pete had not been four-wheeling in a long time and Gloanna had no idea what to expect. I was very happy to have both of them along on this trip.
She’s my adventure and trail companion. She goes with me on almost all my hiking, biking, four-wheeling and camping adventures – as long as I have an ample supply of cat treats along!
I’m an Arizona Jones wannabe who enjoys the beauty and history of Arizona. I also feed Cat-dog her cat treats.
I love my bright red 2010 Rubicon. Last year I put on new 34 inch Goodyear Wrangler MTRs and black rims. Love the look. But with only a 2.5 inch lift, they do rub when I articulate. Hmmmm. Is a bigger lift kit in the future?
Not quite a TJ, not quite a Rubicon, it's Ever’s 1997 Wrangler that's mostly a TJ with a sprinkling of Rubicon (front and rear lockers). It's a Rubican because it can go just about anywhere … albeit at a very slow pace. With only a four cylinder powering it, speed is not its friend. But with Teraflex 3-1/2 inch lift and Teralow Gearbox, 33 inch tires and a winch, rocks sure are.
"I love the way the 4 banger sounds like a WWII Jeep! It gives me a feeling of .... security. If only he could keep the springs from popping out!"
Patrick’s Red TJ
This is Patrick’s little pony that’s not all that small. With a 3.5 inch Superflex lift by Rubicon Express, 33 inch Goodyear MTRs, winch, sliders and a new Aussie front locker, it appears to be unstoppable. He also carries a nice yellow tow strap that we’ve used on many occasions (once on me, but never on him). At one point we thought we were going to have to use it on this trip too.
Pete’s Chevy Z-71
Pete owns a 1996 Chevy Z-71 truck. It’s completely stock and is a little long for Arizona four-wheeling, but Pete took it anyway. The good news: it didn’t dig any trenches with the trailer hitch like the Chevy Avalanche did the last time. The bad news: it wouldn’t go into 4Lo (exactly like the Chevy Avalanche did the last time).
I met Sam, Pete, Gloanna, Angel and Mike on the northwest side of Tucson to begin our adventure. We headed through San Manuel, while Patrick and Ever were going to come in through Redington Pass. Our meeting time was set at 8 am in Redington.
“It sure looks like rain,” Sam said from the passenger seat of my Jeep as we drove through Catalina.
I looked out the window at the lightening sky to the east and had to agree. All I could see were low hanging clouds, heavy with moisture over the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Two minutes later the rain started. Huge drops and much harder than I expected. So much for the “such a slight change of rain that we won’t even mention it” forecast.
I was beginning to get nervous about our adventure. I didn’t bring my rain jacket and the thought of a three hour hike in cold rain didn’t seem like much fun to me. But, by the time we went through San Manuel and began driving south along River Road, the sky was beginning to clear. There were still pockets of rain in the mountains, but we could see some of the cloud layers thinning.
"We arrived at the crack of dawn and right on time (incredibly), our vehicles already with a nice mud paint job having just been through the clouds and rain showers coming over the pass."
- Patrick and Ever
We meet Patrick and Ever at the designated rendezvous point, aired down our tires and came up with an alternate plan of attack. Instead of taking the most direct route to the drop off point (where we start the hike), we would take the “long way” around and do the hike later in the day. This would give use another few hours for the weather to clear. This decision turned out to be one the best we made all day.
After an easy drive down the graded dirt road, we turned off and said goodbye to anything similar to smoothness for the next six hours. The trail isn’t difficult at first, but we put the vehicles in 4High as the ground was wet and rocky. The clouds and rain played hide and seek with the sun, making the desert come alive with contrasting colors and interesting tints. The mountains were shrouded in a thick cloud layer. Wet rocks glistened and cactus sparkled with millions of small diamond water drops whenever the sun peaked out from behind the clouds. A rainbow made a bright arc against a dark sky. The sun bathed a small hill in golden sunlight as if it were the magical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The trail became a little steeper and rougher as we got closer to the mountains offering some fantastic views into the canyons below. There’s a couple of rocky sections along the wash that may make some inexperienced drivers nervous here, including Pete. Although Pete was doing great, I told him to put his truck in 4LO. Unfortunately, this didn’t help. We didn’t know it at the time, but this action actually disengaged the front wheel, making the truck go into pseudo 2Lo. He seemed to be having more difficulties than I would have imagined and I had him make sure it was in 4LO. We would play with his 4WD select lever a few times in this area. This would prove to be an issue later in the trip.
As we reached an adobe cabin that I know of, the clouds released some of their watery cargo. We hadn’t received much rain this winter and I swear I heard the desert plants sigh in relief as they soaked up drops of the life giving nectar. We explored the cabin in the drizzle, occasionally taking refuge under the cabin’s roof. I loved listening to the drumming of rain on the thin metal. The adobe cabin has seen better days. The clay and earth walls are cracking and crumbling with age. The metal roof is partially ripped away and rusting. The inside has dirt floors and not much is left except an old 55 gallon drum, rusted bed frame and a completely destroyed mattress.
“I wonder why they built this cabin here, so far away from anything?” Someone asked.
While no one knew the exact answer, we all had our opinions.
“There’s a creek nearby that probably flowed more often back then. Maybe they were ranchers?”
“I think there’s a mine close by, maybe they were miners, not ranchers?”
“For the solitude?”
“Good satellite reception?”
We’ll probably never know the true answer, but each of us thought it would have been great to spend some time out there during the cabin’s heyday. We left the cabin anxious to begin our hike to the Cliff House.
The road between the cabin and the drop point has some of the roughest portions of the trail as it climbs up and down steep mountain foothills. I was in the lead, with Pete behind me, then Ever, and Patrick taking the tail gunner’s position.
"Freak Out Hill"
It wasn’t long before we came to one of the steepest sections of the trail. Although it was in good shape (no ruts), it was covered in loose rocks and was muddy from the recent rain. At about 100 yards long, it could look formidable to those not accustom to four-wheeling. I jokingly called over the radio that we’d all better switch to 4Lo.
“We’re going up that?” Pete radioed back.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Your truck can make this no problem.”
"We rounded the corner on our fun and bumpy ride and faced "Freak Out Hill" that seemed to rise straight to the sky. Peter said "I'm not sure we're going to make this."
Here’s where I did something really stupid. I had been in 4High until this point and was doing just fine. To place my Jeep from 4High to 4Lo, I need to move the lever toward the rear. Pete’s truck is just the opposite, 4Lo is toward the front. Due to so much thinking about Pete’s truck, my hand automatically pushed my lever forward. I unknowingly put my Jeep into 2WD.
I started up the hill. Immediately I felt my Jeep’s minivan 3.8 liter engine bog down and I put the transmission into 1st gear. This helped, but it still felt sluggish as it climbed and I began thinking, “Wow, this hill is steeper than I thought.” I felt my tires lose traction for about an 1/8 of a second, then they bit into the ground and I clawed my way to the top. Again, I said to myself. “Hmmm, that hill gave me more trouble than I ever would have imagined” thinking I was in 4Lo instead of 2WD. Not being the sharpest tack in the tool shed, I never checked to verify if it was in 4Lo.
I put my Jeep in park, got out and radioed Pete to come on up. I had told him to get up a little momentum as he began his ascent and he did it perfectly. The Chevy did great. For about 15 feet. From my vantage point, all I could see was that his truck stopped and refused to go any further up the hill. Pete did the right thing and didn’t punch the gas. He stopped and asked for assistance.
“Back down and try it one more time,” I said, “with a little more momentum.”
Something was wrong, I told myself. His truck shouldn’t have any issues with this hill. It wasn’t that steep. Then again, my Jeep had more trouble with this hill than I’d expected. Maybe it was steeper than I thought.
I called to Patrick who was watching this scene unfold from behind, “Were his tires spinning?”
“Both back tires were spinning,” he called back.
Hmmmm. Pete’s truck has limited slip in the rear and still couldn’t make it up?
Pete tried it again and didn’t make it any farther. Something wasn’t right. I walked down the hill to see what was happening. On the way down, the bottom of my boots began to clump with mud and by the time I reached Pete I had grown about two inches in height.
Patrick and Ever had joined Pete at his truck. Gloanna had gotten out, stating she was going to walk up the freakin’ hill! I could see Pete was concerned and thinking that he might be stuck there forever. I told him not to worry, we’d figure it out.
I looked at Pete’s truck and sure enough, the selector stated it was in 4Lo. Someone suggested that Pete might do better if we air down his tires (Pete hadn’t done so with the rest of us since he didn’t own a tire inflator). Couldn’t hurt, so we quickly aired down his tires to 15 psi. Pete wanted me to drive and I wiped as much mud as I could off my boots and climbed in. I did worse than Pete, not even making it more than a few feet.
"All I could think was that it would be hard to get a tow truck to come pull it us out."
Ever pulled “The Tank” in front of Pete’s truck and Patrick began to get his famous yellow strap out for Ever to tow the Chevy up the hill. I scratched my head. Something wasn’t right, I told myself again. For all of you who already know where this is going, remember that I’m a pretty dull tack and it was just beginning to dawn on me. I looked at the 4WD selector and what had been stewing in my brain all this time finally reached the surface.
The last time we had gone out here, a friend with a Chevy Avalanche had joined us. But his truck had a problem. It worked fine in 4High, but although it said it was in 4Lo, it never engaged the front wheel drive. If it would have been dark, you could have seen the light bulb in my head go off. I told Ever to move his Jeep up the hill, I put the truck into 4High and first gear, then gave it some gas.
It didn’t even hesitate and went up the hill as if it had been waiting to do so all day. There were cheers all around. I find it strange that both Chevy trucks that I had taken out on this trip had the same exact problem. The Avalanche had made it in 4High and we knew the Z-71 could also, so it was a big relief to everyone.
"After huffing an puffing up the hill I looked back to see the guys (4 in total) working on the best way to get the truck moving. The truck started with Matt behind the wheel and made it. I also see Peter, who had sent me ahead for my safety, jumping in one of the jeeps to ride up the hill as I was still recovering from the muddy climb up!"
With that minor crisis averted, we continued to our drop off point. About a half mile from this hill, there was another steep hill with a rocky section. Again, my Jeep bogged down and slipped a little. I couldn’t believe it. I should not be having any issues with this. I could probably make this in 2WD if I had to. That’s when I looked down and saw that I was in 2WD!
I began laughing hysterically at my idocy. What a moron. I put in into 4Lo and, no surprise, it did perfectly. What was really funny was that I made it all the way up the hill in 2WD, and without limited slip in the rear, where Pete’s truck couldn’t do more than 15 feet. Pete is now looking at buying a Jeep.
It was just a short drive to the drop off point and we pulled into the parking area. From there we could see the canyon below. It snaked and wound its way from east to west. Sheer cliffs rose from a creek bed that was thick with tall trees. It’s incredibly beautiful. And something else.
“We’re hiking down there?” someone asked.
“And then back up,” I said.
There was some talk about finding an elevator, but we all got out our lunches to fuel our bodies for what everyone now knew was going to be a tough hike.
What we didn’t know was that one of us wasn’t going to make it.
Note: Don't bother asking me for specific directions. This is one of a very few sites that I won't do that. As I stated earlier, you're going to have to want to do this and it will require some work before and during your trip to make it. Good luck and let me know if you go!
Click here for Part II.
Additional and Full-Sized Pictures From the Trip
Click here to go to the Cliff House Part I Gallery
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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