Discovering a Secret Camp in a Hidden Spot

Tucked under an alcove, he finds someone’s precious trove.

Halfway down the Grand Canyon’s layer cake of the ages, I walk on the pumpkin-colored, level Supai Group, feasting my eyes on the scenery. As summer radiation parboils my neck and pack straps dig into my shoulders, I scan the sandstone benches for refuge. Below, on a natural patio next to an outcrop, an old horseshoe snags my attention. I drop the pack to scout and discover an opening, stone gaping like a whale’s jaws.

This alcove housed people once. Its centerpiece, rodent-ravaged bedding, is folded neatly and weighted with a rock. It looks as if the most recent cave dweller stepped out to attend to his horse and never came back. There is firewood, a Dutch oven, a torn bag spilling flour, a can of lard and another of Calumet (the baking powder with the hatchet-nosed chief)—it could have been biscuit or pancake day. There is coffee of course, and a coffeepot, a glass jar of pitch or molasses, a box of matches that look like they would still light, a double-blade ax, and blackened silverware. Against the wall, two wooden panniers for hauling all this stuff sit beneath a rough-scratched date: 1942.

I picture the lone buckaroo dodging summer’s inferno while another, manmade hell raged in the South Pacific. Clearly, he had meant to return.

With soot on the ceilings, dust tracked by generations of mice, and rusty-tin middens nearby, the Esplanade’s abodes differ drastically from the romanticized chuck wagon camps of John Ford Westerns. Spend a few hours in one and you’ll taste not campfire wistfulness but hardship and hardheadedness, the hermit’s self-imposed exile and deprivation.

I roll out my sleeping pad and spread my T-shirt, which dries quickly on sunbaked sandstone. A seep above the Supai, which a stockman with a dynamite stick had supposedly tried to enhance and which I hoped to tap, turns out to be barren. Luckily, as the North Rim’s shadows flood the patio, bringing chills in their wake, I find a gallon of rank effluent a stone’s throw from the alcove, where runoff has guttered the bedrock. This must be part of the shelter’s appeal: the only water for miles around.

In this stark landscape alcoves not just anchor the body but also the mind. Bedded down on slickrock under star-strewn infinity, far from rainfall or rescue but near the abyss, even the hardiest soul feels a shiver. Cradled by stone instead you ignore what could keep you awake.

Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.


Michael Engelhard is a writer and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. See more of his work at
  • Jeff Fujita

    Thanks Michael for the sparse but descriptive camp note. I love all things canyon country and Abbey; you painted it well.

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