Pipe Spring National Monument

At Exploring Off the Beaten Path, we’re always looking for out of the way places with interesting but little known things to see and do. Not long ago, we came across a real gem in the high desert north of the Grand Canyon, an area called the Arizona Strip. One of the historical highlights of the Strip is Pipe Spring National Monument.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: For our readers outside the United states, here’s a miles to kilometer converter. We Yanks don’t do metric very well.

Grand Gulch Mine in the Arizona Strip

There are over 6,000 miles of dirt roads in the Arizona Strip. Here’s one of them. The Grand Gulch copper mine is in the western side of the Strip. Active from the 1880’s to the 1960’s, it’s as remote now as it was then. From St George, it’s an 80 mile drive – one way – on that dirt road to get there. Because of the climate and the remoteness, the site is remarkably well preserved. The Arizona Strip is full of these things for those rugged enough and prepared enough to get there – and get back.

With an average altitude of 5,000 feet, the Arizona Strip occupies almost 8,000 square miles in the extreme northwest corner of Arizona. That’s about the same size as Massachusetts. Almost all of it is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the Kaibab Paiute Nation. To the south (and 3,000 feet higher) lies the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Utah is to the north with Zion National Park about 25 miles up the road. East of the Strip is the foreboding Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. To the west lie the equally foreboding thousand foot high Hurricane Cliffs and the Parashant Wilderness on the way to Nevada. This is hard country, as physically isolated and remote as you can get in the continental U.S. There are two small towns and two decent paved roads. If you get away from them, you’re on your own.

Weather can be extreme and unpredictable, causing danger and disruption for the unwary and the unprepared. Yet as forbidding as it is, the Arizona Strip has been settled, farmed, grazed and mined for over 1,000 years. The reason – water. Due to a stroke of geological good fortune, fresh water springs bubble up year round at various places. One of them is Pipe Spring.

Winsor Castle at Pipe Spring National Monument

This odd looking outpost is the centerpiece of the monument – Winsor Castle. It was built by Anson Winsor, an elder in the Mormon Church. Construction began in 1870 and took a year and a half. It was designed and built as a fort to defend against Indian raids, which had plagued the area for years. By the time it was completed, the raids had ceased. That’s probably a good thing. As a fort, this thing was useless. It’s dug into the side of a rocky hill with the second story at ground level. Attackers could have been over the hill, down the slope and up on the roof in nothing flat. It was placed in this vulnerable position because Winsor wanted to build the upper structure directly over the spring, assuring a supply of fresh water under any circumstances.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Nobody really knows how Pipe Spring got its name, but the Park Service spins a yarn about it that’s as good as any. According to the NPS story, sometime around 1858, Mormon missionary and explorer Jacob Hamblin and several companions camped at this unnamed spring. They decided to have a shooting contest. One of the targets was a corn cob pipe. Hamblin sent his bullet through the tobacco chamber and out the back without hitting the sides. Afterward, he dubbed the flowing water – Pipe Spring. **

In early 1863, Pipe Spring got its first homesteader – James Montgomery Whitmore. Leaving his wife and three children in St. George, he set to work making Pipe Spring a working ranch on the 160 acres he had been deeded by Washington County, Utah. His home was a dugout, dug into the ground, built up with rocks and covered with dirt and bark. He split his time between Pipe Spring and St. George. Two years later, he had corrals enclosing 11 acres, orchards, grapevines and several hundred head of cattle and sheep.

Inner courtyard of Winsor Castle

The inner courtyard. The yellow arrow points out the steps down to the spring room. The yellow line shows the route of the spring water pipe to the spring room. The actual spring is beneath the floorboards of the parlor on the far bottom right. Both top floors and the bottom floor of the north (right side) house were living quarters. The bottom floor of the south (left side) house had rooms cooled by spring water to produce dairy products. The intimidating looking gates were removed by a new owner in 1884. The entire castle was rebuilt by the CCC in 1935. You must be on a Ranger tour to access the inside of the fort. The NPS web site has an excellent virtual tour of the whole castle.

In January 1866, the Indian raids came to Pipe Spring. They ran off with Whitmore’s livestock and destroyed much of what he had built. Whitmore, who now had six children, was in St. George when it happened. He got word through the militia that he’d been hit. Whitmore and his brother-in-law Robert McIntyre saddled up and rode hell bent 60 miles to the ranch. Finding everything gone, they followed tracks in the snow in an attempt to recover the herd. They were never seen alive again. Three days later, a militia patrol found their frozen naked mutilated bodies about four miles south of Pipe Spring. The patrol continued the pursuit and came across a small band of Paiute wearing clothes belonging to the dead ranchers. They were executed on the spot. Later it was discovered that the Paiute had traded for the clothes with the Navajo war party responsible for the Pipe Spring attack and killings. Several weeks later, Joseph, Robert and Isabel Berry, a Mormon family returning home, were killed by Paiutes as revenge.

Southwest corner of Winsor Castle

A closeup of the southwest corner of the exterior wall. Note the firing ports built into the solid stone construction. This is the outside wall of the spring room. The yellow arrow shows where the spring water comes out. It then flows down into two man-made pools for irrigation and watering livestock. Originally, there were no doors or windows in the exterior walls but some were added later.

That’s the way it was in the Arizona Strip and southern Utah for the better part of a decade. From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Homesteads were attacked. Livestock stolen. Dozens of Mormons were killed. Nobody knows how many Indians were killed. Atrocities were committed on both sides. The frontier was basically abandoned and the prosperous Mormon expansion there came to a screeching halt. In today’s dollars, they lost millions.

Brigham Young requested federal troops but was turned down. They were on their own. The Mormons were not pacifists. They were well armed and organized. Although they went to great lengths to promote peace, they were fully prepared to resist any threats. For safety and security, they concentrated their people at key towns, built forts and patrolled aggressively on horseback. Like their U.S. Cavalry counterparts, the Mormon militia spent most of their time chasing shadows and ghosts up endless canyons.

The parlor at Winsor Castle

This is the parlor, the center of family life for the ranchers. It was on the bottom floor of the north building in the northwest corner of the fort. The main item of interest here is that this room is built right on top of the spring. From here, it flows along a short pipe buried underground directly across the courtyard to the spring room. The spring water kept this room nice and cool in the hot Arizona summers. Note the blank wall on the right with no firing ports. It’s built right up against the rock wall. The far wall is also partially covered by rock.

The fort at Pipe Spring was part of that defensive effort. With its central location, fresh water supply and commanding view of the area, it would be a good place for a fort. The church bought the land from James Whitmore’s widow and assigned a church elder, Anson Winsor, to take charge of the ranch, build the fort and get the operation up and running again.

The design called for two stone ranch houses of two stories each built facing one another. Their ends would be joined by walls and gates, forming an inner courtyard and a stone perimeter. The long axis of the outpost ran southwest to northeast, so the two houses were called the north and south house. On top of the north house was a wooden observation cupola. There would be no windows or doors in the outside walls. Instead, firing ports were built into the stone walls on all sides and on both floors. Defensive ramparts lined the upper walls and two massive wooden gates bracketed the courtyard.

The spring room at Winsor Castle

This is the spring room, located in the southwest corner of the castle. Note the firing ports on the two exterior walls. The water entered from the right, flowed into and along the concrete trough and exited to the left. The water was ice cold, keeping the temperature in the room around 50 degrees all year. This could also be called the dairy room. In the early days of Winsor Castle, the ranch produced dairy products as well as beef. That started right here. After Winsor and his four sons milked 80-100 cows twice a day, the fresh milk was set out in pans on the rack above the trough. In the cool room, it separated and the cream rose to the top. It was skimmed off and carried into another room where cream, butter and cheese were made. Most of the ranch’s food production went north to feed construction crews and cowboys. The dairy production didn’t last long. By 1874, the ranch had gone to all beef cattle.

The red sandstone was quarried in the nearby hills. Each rock had to shaped individually. Lumber had to be brought 50 miles from Mt. Trumbull in the forests of the Grand Canyon’s north rim. The whole thing was built right on top of the spring, which was channeled into a spring room. This ensured fresh water in the event of an attack. It took a year and a half to complete. The result was a very formidable looking outpost, although much smaller than originally envisioned. It’s not real big. It measures 68 feet long and 40 feet wide with connecting walls that are 20 feet high. The fort was promptly dubbed Winsor Castle. The name stuck and even became the name of the new ranch – the Winsor Castle Stock Growing Company. Pipe Spring had a new lease on life as a working cattle ranch belonging to the Mormon Church.

The ranch was active from 1871 to 1924, but was a revolving door for owners and managers. Anson Winsor left in 1875. The ranch changed hands again in 1879, 1884, 1887 and 1896. That last one was significant because the church sold it to a family and relinquished ownership. For the first time, Pipe Spring was private property, but the revolving door continued. It was sold again in 1901 and yet again in 1906. The 1906 buyer, Jonathan Heaton, was central to the Pipe Spring we know today.

Map of the Arizona Strip

A National Park Service map of the Arizona Strip. Pipe Spring National Monumment is clearly marked as are some of the other features mentioned in the text below.

Heaton was a established rancher who had 15 sons. He owned a 400 acre spread several miles away at Moccasin Springs and worked it with them. The church and the federal government both pressured him to share the water with the Paiutes, other ranchers and anybody else who needed it. To increase his supply, he bought Pipe Spring in 1906. He had no interest in the buildings and they deteriorated badly. For the next 15 years, cowboys, round ups, Paiutes, travelers and everyone else used the water sources at Pipe Spring. Winsor Castle became an oddity in the high desert as memories of the violent past faded.

Entrance to the Pipe Spring National Monument

The Pipe Spring National Monument near Fredonia, AZ. It recognizes the contributions of the Mormon Church in the settling of the west. It also recognizes the Kaibab Paiute Nation and their history on the Arizona Strip. Many Paiutes remained friendly to the Mormons even at the height of hostilities with other tribes and their own. The Pipe Spring Ranch never quite became the lucrative operation it was envisioned to be. However, it was a welcome outpost for travelers, cowboys, salesmen, wagon trains, gold miners and Indians. All were welcome, knowing they could get fresh water, a meal and a room or a place to camp. In that respect, Pipe Spring played a key role in the settlement of the Arizona Strip and Utah, which is why it’s a National Monument today. It’s open year round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas ans New Year’s. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.862796, W112.737425. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson formed the National Park Service. The first director was Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman and conservationist who was instrumental in getting the service formed. In 1920, Mather was touring parks in the region and looking for new possibilities. In addition to the Grand Canyon, Zion and other well known established parks, he came across an odd looking outpost in the Arizona Strip that looked totally out of place – the dilapidated, ramshackle remains of Winsor Castle.

Mather sought out the owners and the Heatons told him all about the place. Mather was fascinated by the history and intrigued by the idea of a park service property dedicated to it. Heaton, anxious to get rid of the place, happily went along. In 1923, Pipe Spring was designated a National Monument.The land and buildings became the property of the government in 1924. By this time, the eldest Heaton son Charles was running things. They paid Charles Heaton $5,000 and hired him as the caretaker.

In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up camp near Pipe Spring and completely renovated it into what we see now. By this time, there was a new caretaker – Leonard Heaton, son of Charles and grandson of Jonathan. He was there until 1964. During his 30 years on the job, Heaton collected an untold number of artifacts from the early days. They are now on display in the castle, on the grounds and in the museum.

Early tourists

Early geocachers on the Arizona Strip. They’re doing it right – dressed for the weather, closing the gate behind them and driving a high clearance vehicle. Well done, comrades!

The first tourists came in 1925. There were probably no more than 100 the whole year. Today, there are 60,000+ each year who visit this unlikely castle in the desert. Sandwiched in between Zion and the Grand Canyon, it’s easy to get to and worth a few hours of your time. There’s much more to see and do here than we can cover in one blog post. That includes a short hiking trail, more historical buildings, ranger tours and geocaches.

There are geocaches everywhere, however, cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging. It’s ok on the paved roads and at the monument. If you head off road, you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS along with a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. A couple of spare tires would be good too.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. The back country of the Arizona Strip is not the place for a leisurely Sunday drive. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution and common sense. If you like exploring off the beaten path, you won’t be disappointed.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Park entrance

The entrance to the park. Located 35 miles east of Raton, NM it is definitely off the beaten path. It’s not hard to get to. It’s just not on the way to anything. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.778739°, W103.980068°. (Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.) The really cool thing is that you can drive to the top and hike around the crater. The word “capulín” is Spanish for chokecherry, which grow in abundance here.

February 1943. Against the backdrop of a world at war, a monumental geological event is taking place in Mexico. In the small village of Paracutín about 200 miles west of Mexico City, a volcano is about to be born. A peasant farmer named Dionisio Pulido is working in his corn field. The ground has been rumbling for weeks and a six foot wide fissure has opened up in his field. At 4:00 PM on February 20 all Hell broke loose. Señor Pulido was there to see it – and lived to tell about it.

First came the hissing of superheated steam and sulphur fumes. Then ash and rocks. By nightfall, rooster tails of lava and red hot rocks were shooting over 1,000 feet into the air. Smoke and ash went much higher and fell as far away as Mexico City. Lightning from static electricity flashed through the dense black clouds. As the lava, rocks and dirt came back to earth, they started to form a cone shaped cylinder around the fissure. It grew with amazing speed. Within 24 hours, it was 150 feet high. Within a week, it was 500 feet and visible for miles.

Paracutín Volcano eruption

Filmed as it happened – the eruption of Paracutín. Date unknown but probably in the first months after the initial blast. The cone has grown substantially and is still going strong.

The violent eruptions continued unabated for several months. Then things quieted down. The Paracutín Volcano continued to erupt at irregular intervals for nine years. Then on February 25, 1952, it quit as suddenly as it had started. Its magma chamber was completely spent. When it died, it was 1,345 feet above Pulido’s old corn field. Its lava flow had destroyed 100 square miles, including two towns. Miraculously, no one was killed.

The Paracutín event was the one and only time in human history where a volcano was scientifically observed for its entire life cycle. Otherwise, it was far from unique. 60,000 years earlier, the exact same thing happened in present-day northeastern New Mexico near the of town of Capulin.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

From the National Park Service, an aerial overview of the 800 acre Capulin Volcano National Monument. Annotations added by yours truly.The highly symmetrical cinder cone rises almost 1,400 feet above the prairie, reaching an altitude of 8,182 feet above sea level. It was designated a National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson in April 1916 and gets about 50,000 visitors a year.

Sixty thousand years ago, the climate here was a colder, wetter Ice Age environment. Thick pines and junipers covered the land. Giant bison, camels and mammoths roamed, preyed upon by sabre tooth tigers. Man was still 50,000 years away. Millions of years before that, rivers of lava pooled underground creating a volatile and unstable region that covered 8,500 square miles in southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico. Geologists now call it the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. Over the course of many millennia, there were hundreds – probably thousands – of Paracutín Volcanoes. Evidence of this activity is everywhere. The oldest ones are worn down to almost nothing, but Capulin is still young and in good shape.

Capulin crater view

This is a photo taken from the highest point on the crater rim. The crater is 1,500 feet wide and 400 feet deep. The rim parking area is towards the center of the image as is the trail down to the bottom of the crater. Down and back is ½ mile. The crater rim trail is about one mile long and has some steep climbs that get your attention with the 8,000+ feet of altitude. Clearly visible off in the distance are extinct cinder cone volcanoes as far as the eye can see. The ridges, cuts and mesas in between them are old lava flows. Capulin Volcano is in the center of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field and surrounded by these ancient geological sentries. The field is still considered geologically active, but the chances of another eruption anytime soon are very slim.

Capulin and all the other remnants in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field are a type of volcano called cinder cone or scoria volcanoes. They start as flat ground. Pressure from magma and ground shifting eventually causes a fissure, then an explosive eruption to relieve the pressure. Secondary vents open as the crater builds and lava flows. Cinder cone volcanoes are monogenetic . They erupt once, then go dead. The eruptions typically last only a few years. Along the way, they create their own mountain – just like at Paracutín. The mountains tend to be symmetrical because all the debris falls back around a single original fissure. Made up of small cinders, the cones are unstable in the early stages. Eventually, plant life takes root and stabilizes it. That’s where Capulin is now. Eventually, weather and erosion take their toll. In a million years or so, Capulin Volcano will be no more. But for now, it’s worth checking out.

Distant view of Capulin Volcano

These cinder peaks have been used as navigation landmarks for centuries. In our more recent past, both branches of the Santa Fe Trail came right through here. In fact, this is the best area for exploring the trail. Some of the original wagon ruts are still visible.

Capulin Volcano National Monument is the perfect Off the Beaten Path destination. In a one or two day road trip, you can explore Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the Santa Fe Historical Trail, ghost towns, old railroad towns and more. If you like exploring along back roads with lots of history, geocaches, more cows than cars and the occasional bullet-ridden stop sign, you’ve come to the right place.

Capulin Volcano Visitor Center

If you like your volcano monuments quiet and austere, you’ll love Capulin. The Visitor Center has some displays, a small gift shop, restrooms (of course). No food, no camping but some great picnic areas and hiking trails. But let’s face it – the reason you come out here is to drive the two miles to the top of the volcano. It’s very cool. (BTW, you’re not allowed to walk it. No RV’s either.) For us, the park also had a couple of geocaches, munzees and NPS Passport stamps. So we got the off-the-beaten-path hat trick.

Much of what you see in the park is due to the efforts of one man – Homer Farr. A Kansas farm boy, he bought 160 acres of land just south of the cinder cone around 1910. For the next decade, he ran several successful businesses and promoted his little slice of heaven, which became the town of Capulin. He was the postmaster. The volcano became a national monument in 1916 and he became the superintendent in 1921. In 1925, he dug the first road to the crater summit using a horse and plow. It’s the same route used today. Superintendent Farr got the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) out to the monument in the 1930’s. They improved the road as well as building walls, trails and other infrastructure that are still in use. Homer Farr served as the superintendent at Capulin until 1955.

That’s all for now.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha