Cliff House Ruins - Part II: 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
“Where’s the trail?” someone asked.
I looked down into the canyon. Weathered rocks jutted out from shear cliffs that disappeared into a heavily wooded chasm below. The narrow gorge snaked its way from the mountains in the west to the flat valley in the east. It looked impassible.
“There isn’t one,” I lied.
It wasn’t an intentional lie, but nonetheless, it wasn’t true. Not anymore. The first time I’d visited the Cliff House about six years ago, that statement had been correct. Mostly. We had to bushwhack our way down, fighting ankle daggers almost the entire way, taking multiple wrong turns and ending up at high cliffs or insurmountable cactus forests. The only section that seemed easily navigable was the last few hundred yards at the bottom of the canyon. Since then, we have learned easier ways to complete the hike and today I would be surprised by the existence of a semi-permanent trail marked by cairns that made the hike much easier than previous attempts. Even so, it would still turn out to be a strenuous adventure for all of us.
It had already been quite an adventure just getting to the drop off point (see Part I). Now, new and old friends (Mike, Angel, Sam, Pete, Gloanna and Ever) gathered around the parking area, eating lunch, assembling hiking equipment and deciding whether to take a rain jacket or not. The early morning rain and clouds had dissipated somewhat, but we could still see dark storms in the distance that could threaten our adventure.
As a cool damp breeze flowed through the canyon, we quickly finished lunch and packing for the trip. I decided not to take my heavy jacket as I knew the climb out was strenuous and wanted to be as light as possible.
I took one last look down into the canyon and drew in a heavy breath. Ready or not, here we come.
The best way into the canyon isn’t a direct route (we had found that out during our first attempt). We began our descent from the west side of the parking area as our party followed the steep path downward. The trail resembled a game trail occasionally marked by small cairns which helped keep us on track. Trekking poles can be very handy here as some sections are steep and the footing treacherous.
After about 15 minutes, we made it to a small “V” shaped ravine carved along the canyon wall. The path skirts the ravine’s edge and we took a short break. The steep descent is hard on the knees. I took inventory of our party. All were accounted for and in good spirits, however, Sam seemed to be struggling a little more than we would have liked to see at this point in the trip.
“How ‘ya doing, Sam?”
“I’m okay,” he said with a semi-forced smile.
I knew he really wanted to do this hike and was putting on a strong face for everyone. But I was becoming concerned that he may not be up for a hike of this magnitude. Prior to the trip, he told me he had a serious illness about 6 months ago and was still recovering from it. I told him we weren’t going to rush the hike and he could do whatever he felt comfortable with. Even much younger people were feeling the strain at this point in the trip.
I looked up at the sky. It had become cloudy again and I felt a few sprinkles on my face. I was thinking I may regret not taking my jacket. I prayed the Heavens wouldn’t unleash a downpour and turn our adventure into a freezing nightmare. But standing here wishing it wouldn’t rain wasn’t helping us. We needed to press on. Slowly, but press on.
The trail crossed over a rocky ridgeline and headed down the opposite side. From this point I could see a small, open saddle that marked the half way point of the descent.
"I'd say this was a pretty serious hike. On the way down my knee was starting to twinge from a surgery a few years ago."
“We’ll take another break there,” I said pointing to the saddle. But first, we have to get there, I told myself. I looked in front of me and could see nothing but rock and cactus.
I had lost the trail.
“Anyone see the trail?” I called out.
There were a couple of comments like, “Is that it?” “Maybe it’s over there,” and “Nope.”
Footing was really tricky in this area with loose stones on top of steeply inclined rock faces. Mike passed me, taking a slightly higher line and found the trail about 50 feet ahead. Meanwhile, Pete and Gloanna called from behind asking for assistance.
I walked back and found that Sam had almost taken a spill on the slippery surface and had cut himself. We weren’t quite half way down and he already looked tired. I began to think this wasn’t a great idea. Gloanna, a nurse by profession, said she was concerned due to Sam’s recent illness.
“I was very happy to have Gloanna along on this trip. Not only for her sparkling demeanor, but her nursing knowledge.”
I know Sam felt like he was letting us and himself down, but we all came to the conclusion that it wasn’t to be for Sam that day. I have the utmost respect for Sam. He did a great deal already … and for knowing when to play it safe. After a short conversation, we decided I would help Sam back to the vehicles and make sure he was okay while the rest of the group went on to the Cliff House. I would follow if Sam was okay and I felt like I could still make it down there in time to see it. We were a little late with the rain and it wasn’t that big of a deal for me since I’d been there before. I could live vicariously through everyone else’s pictures.
Since I was the only one, besides Sam, who had visited the Cliff House before, I gave Pete my GPS, a quick lesson on how to use it, and more importantly, verbal directions to the ruins in case the GPS failed. Also, given previous experiences with difficult hikes, I had a few of us pack FRS radios. I took one for Sam and me and left one for Pete. We would be in communication for as long as we could until out of range if anyone got into trouble.
Trouble could mean anything from getting lost, to twisting an ankle to a mountain lion attack. On a previous trip a couple of hunters told us they had watched a mountain lion watch us and keep track of us (they fell short of saying it was stalking us) as we hiked down into the canyon. We also saw some nice big prints in the canyon's sand (see picture to the right). It's best to be careful and travel in groups.
We said our farewells, then Sam and I headed back up the hill, while the others disappeared behind the ridge. We took the trip back up the hill slowly. Which was fine with me. I was breathing just as heavily as Sam on the way up. It took about 20 minutes or so for us to make our way back to the Jeep (I had lost the trail for a short distance once again). Sam and I drank some Gatorade and I gave Cat-dog some much needed water.
Sam and I talked over what to do next. He insisted he would be fine by himself in the Jeep if I wanted to make a dash down the canyon to join the group. As Sam looked and sounded in good spirits and health, I took him up on his offer. I gave him a third FRS radio, tested it and headed back down the trail.
“While it was disappointing to not make the hike to the bottom, I felt it was wise to respect the fact that I was still recovering from serious illness, and the hike would have been challenging for a person not dealing with any health issues whatsoever. Matt and the others supported my decision to turn back, and made me feel very much at ease about my decision.”
I really didn’t think I had much of a chance at catching the others as they had about a 30 minute head start, but thought I’d give it a try. Having just hiked the top portion of the trail twice, I knew it pretty well now and made really good time. Every five or ten minutes I would call Pete and Sam on the radio to see how they were faring.
Just before I got to the saddle, Pete said they’d entered the canyon and were heading west. They were going fairly slow, making sure they were on the right trail. It might just be possible to catch them so I increased my pace.
Not far after the saddle, the trail looks over a portion of the canyon and I shouted out a, “Hellooooo!”
After a few seconds, “Hey!” came back in return, louder than expected.
“Where are you?” I shouted.
“In the canyon, by the creek.”
I know it was a dumb question, but I was trying to home in on their voice. There! Movement under the tree canopy. I was surprised at how close they were. The canyon doubles back after you enter it and they were about as close as they would ever be to me on the trail, but it was still quite a ways both horizontally and vertically.
“Hey!” I called back, waving my arms. “Do you see me?”
The figures stopped, but I was mostly hidden by rock and cactus, so they couldn’t see me.
“There’s a dam about 100 yards to the southwest from your position,” I shouted. I knew it was there from previous trips, but also knew it was difficult to see unless you were right on top of it.
I could see them looking, but they didn’t see it.
“I’ll show it to you on the way back,” I called down to them and began the last half of my descent.
I made quick time to the canyon floor. This section of the trail is well-worn and although steep, more easily traversed than the top half. When I got to the canyon, I made a sharp left, not bothering to find the creek. I knew this would cut off a good 10 or 20 minutes from the hike.
I called Sam on the radio to tell him I’d made it down and ask how he was doing.
“Relaxing and enjoying the scenery,” the radio crackled back.
Cat-dog and I hiked quickly through the canyon, past the dam and down the creek. Soon, I could hear voices. I’d caught up with the rest of the group.
Now, I could relax and enjoy the scenery. And it was beautiful. The floor of the canyon was littered with a thick carpet of brown and orange leaves. Water, more than I had expected, trickled over smooth river rock and collected in clear, reflecting pools. Above us, large trees blocked out a majority of the sky and multi-colored canyon walls stretched for hundreds of feet toward the clouds.
There’s no trail along the bottom of the canyon. We made our way westward, having to crisscross the stream again and again. Sometimes this was easy, sometimes it was not – at least if you wanted to keep your feet dry.
As soon as we passed the second trail (see Part I) on the northern side of the canyon, I knew we were close. By design, the Cliff House isn’t an obvious inclusion in the canyon. If you didn’t know it was there and were concentrating on the terrain in front of you, you may just pass it by.
Knowing exactly where to look, I caught a glimpse of the ruins from about 100 feet away. The beautiful stonework set against the rock face can take your breath away.
All words the newcomers muttered from behind me. Words that I’ve used before to describe the scene, but they never seem to do it justice.
"We had a terrific hike down to the Cliff House which was worth every bump in the road and step of the walk!"
One of the most interesting features of this home is how it was built into the natural curved cliff wall. Then there’s the unique architecture of the doors and windows.
We climbed the 20 feet up to the ruins from the canyon bottom and entered the ruins from the front patio. I LOVE the view from the patio. You can see the stream and the cliffs across the canyon. Everyone shed their packs and explored the ruins at their own pace.
“It’s much bigger than I expected,” I heard a voice call out from inside the home.
The main room looks out over the front patio with a wide assortment of windows. The rear wall is the curved section of the cliff. The kitchen has an old refrigerator (that’s only partially shot up) cupboards and a sink. Below the kitchen is the infamous basement where the builders supposedly found the mummified remains of the Indian girl. On the other side of the building are two bedrooms and a bathroom. The first bedroom is in wonderful condition with beautiful wood floors and ceiling. The second bedroom and bathroom are not in that good of condition as portions of the roof have collapsed. These two rooms are the most exposed to the elements, while the others are partially protected by the cliff’s overhang. On the west side of the home is a large open area that has a grave marker at the far end. I do not know who is buried there.
After our initial exploring, we all took a short break out on the patio to soak in the canyon’s exceptional beauty and have a snack. But this would be short-lived. We had to make the climb back out and finish the 4WD trail before dark.
I called Sam on the radio, but wasn’t really expecting to be able to reach him at such a distance and in such rugged terrain. To my surprise, he answered back, although it was a very weak signal. He was doing well and wished us good luck on the climb out.
We took one last look at the ruins and began working our way back to Sam and the vehicles. Knowing the best route through the canyon made our return trip much faster. We did take a few minutes to look at the stone dam tucked away in a side canyon. It did not hold any water as it was completely filled up with silt and rocks.
The hike up the canyon was strenuous, but having a well-marked (relatively) trail worked in our favor and proved much easier than any of my previous trips. That’s not to say there wasn’t the typical, “I need to take a break”, “This is tough!”, “My knees hurt”, and “Can you hold on a second while I catch my breath?” most of which were uttered out of my own mouth.
Everyone made it back to our vehicles and we had a happy reunion with Sam. We took a quick break, packed up our gear and headed for home. Although the road out was rocky and bumpy, only one hill gave Pete’s truck (stuck in 4Hi – see Part I) any problems, and it wasn’t much.
As we drove out, clouds gathered in the western sky and the setting sun created beautiful shades of gray in the distance. I stopped our caravan next to a few hundred saguaros that seemed to be watching over the valley below. The lighting seemed to be magical and I scrambled to take as many pictures as I could to try to capture the moment. After five minutes, I put the camera away knowing that my digital prints would probably never quite capture the real beauty of the scene.
"I can't remember the last time my thighs felt like Jello. On the way back up, I could feel the muscle cramps coming on strong.
Luckily, when we reached the vehicles, Gloanna was prepared with Ibuprofen for all!"
The last quarter of a mile of the 4WD trail took us through a thick jumping cholla forest. Usually this is where we would take a break, air up and use the public restroom. I called the group on the CB strongly advising against doing that at this location. I carefully (at least I had thought so at the time) ventured into this forest for a bathroom break on a previous trip and had found out why they call these cactuses “jumping cholla.” It is very embarrassing having to call your wife from the truck to help get the cholla off you. Not one of my finest moments.
All heeded my wise advice and we drove back up to Redington to the spot where we’d aired down. As the little air pumps purred, I recollected the events of the day. Although we could have been rained out, the weather turned out to be perfect. Cool and cloudy, adding to the adventure and beauty of the area. I had also made a few new friends. But best of all, we were all safe and had thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
It just doesn’t get any better than that.
"The day was a perfect day from beginning to end and has given me off-roading fever."
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 I of the story
Click here to go to the video tour and interactive layout of the Cliff House
Additional and Full-Sized Pictures From the Trip
Click here to go to the Cliff House Part II Gallery
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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