Discovery in Copper Canyon

Exploring Mexico's Mightiest Canyon - Deeper than the Grand!
Woman on Hillside

Editor's Note:Mexico's Barranca del Cobre - Copper Canyon - is indeed North America's most massive. It lies in the Sierra Madre southwest of Chihuahua. One great way to experience this awesome cut is by train, leaving Chihuahua early in the morning. You will pass through 73 tunnels and over 28 major bridges, attain an altitude of 2300 meters, and marvel at a feat of engineering that took half a century between start and finish.

You can reach Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast by evening. But you are better off breaking the trip in two. Stop at Creel, about the halfway point, and spend a day or several exploring the canyons, walking to Basaseachic Falls (likely the tallest on the continent), and experiencing the culture of the Tarahumara, the Indians who thrive in this inhospitable terrain. For more on this remarkable area, read on for the adventures of archaeologist Gary Ziegler, as he roams the canyon walls in search of ancient peoples that made this land their home. - Bill Greer

A lot has happened in Mexico's Copper Canyon area since its pyroclastic origin some twenty five million years ago. Great mountains rose in a fiery display of smoke and ash. Torrents of rain and wind, cut deep slashes in the raising igneous colossus that we now know as the Sierra Madre, to form immense canyons. Some eleven or twelve thousand years ago, the first humans arrived, migrating bands of nomadic hunters seeking fate and fortune in dangerous unknown lands. During the ensuing millennia multitudes of unknown peoples passed through, some eventually staying to take up residence in the many sheltered caves to practice simple farming

And so it was in the spring of 1541 when a detachment of Conquistadores from Coronado's expedition in search of the seven golden cities of Cebola first encountered a group of naturales, they called Tarahumara. More time passed, the Tarahumara, or Raramuri as they call themselves, planted maize and warred with their southern neighbors, the Tepahuanes. In 1607 an event took place that would change life forever in the canyon country. Jesuit missionaries arrived with mandates from the Spanish Crown to Christianize and civilize, the policy of reducion which changed forever the way of life in Spanish America. The story of the survival and adaptation of the Tarahumara, during the colonial years and later under the Mexican Republic, is a fascinating, complex epic that I leave for a long evening around the campfire.

Mysteries abound in a multitude of inaccessible, forgotten arroyos and cerros that climb and plunge in rugged highlands separating the great canyons. Who built the Mogollon style houses that occupy several cliff sites? Who built the carefully made stone terraces? What early people lived in round houses? These are a few of many enigmas that capture our imagination.

It was with these thoughts in mind that naturalist guide Amy Finger, author Carl Franz (People's Guide To Mexico) and I sat out to explore several new areas in the rugged hill country north and east of the Copper canyon last fall. Teaming up with local rancher, Esteban Cobos, we searched the lower Cusarare canyon for evidence of pre-Tarahumara occupation. We located several shelter cave sites that appear quite old. Time limitations prevented further examination. Fortunately, we will be forced to plan another trip.

Our next goal was to locate a new remote route down into the upper Urique Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), by which Amy could bring her small adventurer groups. We were excited to follow a stone paved mule trail that proved to be part of Alexander Shepard's Camino Real. Shepard, a silver baron of Batapilas build this system of trails to transport the metal from the depths of the Batapilas Canyon. Although part of the trail showed recent use by Tarahumara, we cleared and repaired many places to allow our loaded burros to pass.

A broad beach camp site at the Urique river was everyone's romantic fantasy. And we were miles away from the backpacking hordes, muchileros. Wanderings from camp located an abandoned mine with hot springs and a hidden grotto canyon with magical swimming pool beneath a waterfall. We shared this canyon with an Elegant Trogon and Magpie Jays.

Carl remained for further explorations. He planned to connect the new route with an old trail from Divisidero via the rancho village of Pamachi. From Guatemala where he is researching his latest book, he reports a list of new interesting sites worth further examination but that the connecting route remains illusive. We plan to get together again next November for another go at it.

Article copyright © by Gary Ziegler of Adventure Specialists

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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