Strange and Beautiful: The “Arizona Strip”

By Hartt Wixom

One can find strange things on the Arizona Strip. Like a “milk stand” in the remote desert 35 miles south of St. George. A milk stand? Yes. “A fair number of dairy operations could be found on the Strip in the 1960s and ‘70s,”according to John Herron, archaeologist with the U. S. Bureau of Land Management office in St. George. “Of course,” he said, “they had to move that milk briskly on those old roads to avoid it spoiling. Or they made cheese.”

Arizona Strip Map
The “Arizona Strip” is the isolated section of the state north of the Grand Canyon. Nielson RV, located in Hurricane, Utah, is an ideal access point.

Several Mojave County (Arizona) signs on the Strip read: “One lane cattle guard ahead. Bicycles cross with caution.” I’ve never seen a bicycle on these dusty back roads. Herron sheds more light: “these signs probably originated from the idea that cycling would become as popular on the Strip as in the Moab area. But the same did not materialize.” Still, one wonders if the cyclists were really getting in that much trouble trying to keep wheels from getting lost in those cattle guard slots.

Another major wonder of the country south of St. George is the number of primitive homesteads in such a remote and seemingly barren land. I looked at a mammoth cistern some 40 feet square and just as deep, capable of storing thousands of gallons of water. The nearest source is a small pond a mile away, slightly uphill. Below the cistern is a dugout with a rusting iron stove.

Who is the mastermind behind this homestead? It shows on the Arizona Strip map as a small splotch of private land a few miles south of BLM 30 (Navajo Trail) just west of the Temple Trail. Herron’s research shows that it is linked to the work of the David Esplin family in 1863. How long it was occupied is not known. But kudos to their pioneer spirit in the attempt to make a living there at all.

There are remnants of many log cabins across the Strip. I’ve seen them on the north flanks of Mt. Trumble and on the west side of Mt. Dellenbaugh. There are several old log edifices near Green Spring Canyon at the trail head to Kelly Point. But for sheer defiance of the natural elements, the one south of the Navajo Trail beats them all for resolve. There are no trees within sight and very few rocks or boulders to build that cistern.

Many of the cattle operations would have been impossible without installing water catchments, a thing which came with jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The BLM, Arizona Game and Fish Commission and ranchers had a hand in constructing water catchments for livestock and big game animals. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 brought in federal regulations to avoid overgrazing. Not welcomed by some, it nevertheless helped make the playing field equal for a good many cattlemen.

Water catchments can be seen every dozen or so miles on the Strip from Wolf Hole to the forest on north rim of the Grand Canyon. Many dry up quickly but can hold water following any rainstorm for a few weeks. Efforts to preserve the water for as long as possible below ground can be seen with canvas tarps held down by old tractor or truck tires.

There is also considerable evidence of the Civilian Conservation Corp (early 1930s) putting in water tanks, fences and corrals. The CCC also helped round up wild horses which competed with the settlers’ cattle. In addition, according to Herron, these federal employees found themselves involved in rescue work during long winters with heavy snowpack. Few people have much idea of the work the CCC crews put into the Strip along with the early settlers.

Unfortunately, numbered road signs which are meant to correlate with the BLM maps are often filled with bullet holes or vandalized beyond recognition. They are sorely needed to see what the Strip has to offer. Report anyone you see defacing signs.

Also watch for mule deer and antelope. They are not as numerous as they would be with higher elevation and more vegetation but with massive winter range and distance from pavement, there are some trophy animals out there.

As you drive across the vast region, it may appear as one monotonous and level plain. But not if you get up close. This “level plain” can hold some surprises. Such as miniature canyons which beg to be explored. As long as there are no flash floods in sight.

Bottom line: there is much to explore here. Take four-wheel drive if getting off the main routes (darkest red lines on the map) plus plenty of water, along with camera and binoculars. Also: you can’t do the Strip in one day. I like to take my small vacation trailer ideal for back country exploring.

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