By: Steve Smith
Craig Canyon is a prominent canyon on the eastern side of the Inyo Range between Daisy Canyon on the south and Hunter Canyon on the north. As shown on the New York Butte and Craig Canyon topographic maps, its a steep canyon and extremely narrow on the bottom half. The canyon leaves the Inyo crest at 9,100' and ends on the floor of Saline Valley at 1,000', a drop of 7,800' in about eight miles with 10 rappels points.
Friends of the Inyo WSA Brian Webb, Matt Webb, Tom Budlong and Desert Survivor Morgen Irby joined me for this three day backpack exploratory descent. As with all the east side Inyo Canyons, Craig was not to disappoint us and offered up some surprises. We used the southern fork tributary to access the canyon and were able to follow the canyon bottom the entire distance down to Saline Valley.
Running water was encountered at 7,100' in the south fork and first night's camp was at 6,800' on a scenic promontory overlooking a 150' waterfall. After down-climbing the waterfall and a short 30' rappel, the second day was rigorous plowing through real dense brush and down-climbing another 70' waterfall through plenty of brush at 5,140'. Unfortunately, this canyon has the most extensive spread of stinging nettle of any of the canyons and it was constantly encountered down to where the surface water ended at 1,000'.
At 4,950' the canyon opened up into a large, scenic bowl for a half mile and we found a water powered 5-stamp ore mill, rock cabin and other mining remains - probably from the 1930's. The miners had diverted water upstream into a 8" pipeline and used it's water pressure to drive their mill. They had to access their mill from the north or south (no hauling ore through the upper or lower portions of this canyon) but their trail route into the open bowl was not apparent to us.
Immediately below the mill site at 4,900', we entered "The Narrows" - the canyon narrowed down to 6' across in some areas and it was impossible to avoid walking in water. The next two miles was a spectacular narrow canyon averaging perhaps 10' wide with a continual water flow, fascinating water sculpted high rock walls and patches of lush vegetation. We had nine rappels in the lower half of Craig, six with running water and the last three below 4,000' were dry.
We completed two rappels on the second day and hoped to get into a wider spot for safety but got as far as 4,700, where we ran out of daylight and camped in an eight foot wide stretch of canyon with small patches of fairly dry rock where we could at least stay out of the water. Fortunately, there were no rain storms that night - otherwise it would have been quite a ride down the canyon for us.
The third day was more spectacular scenery with interesting rappels and some more stretches of extremely dense brush. We encountered one small rattlesnake which we somehow spotted coiled amid the brush before almost stepping on it. A couple of the rappels were a real challenge where you are forced to go down through the stinging nettle infested brush and spraying water.
At 4,000' we left the water and encountered three dry rappels with the last rappel at 2,700'. At 3,300', we were climbing down a 50' rock embankment and almost to the base when a mountain lion bolted from his shelter beneath a rock ledge. It was startling to have him bolt out 20' in front of us. We were glad he had not waited until one of us dropped down in front of the ledge before heading out and perhaps figuring he was cornered and would come out clawing.
The bottom two miles of Craig is fairly open with only occasional rock faces requiring easy climbing. We reached the canyon mouth by early evening and their was a l/4-mile use trail leading south to an old mining area and roadhead where we can parked the cars three days earlier. Several of us then made the long drive back up to the crest to retrieve our shuttle vehicle at the top of Craig. Craig Canyon was as interesting and impressive as the other major east side Inyo Canyons which all offer spectacular scenery, streams, and historic features.
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