Among the most remote and beautiful creeks in Arizona is Chevelon Creek and it contains an abundance of challenges and history. With all its twists and turns it runs from south to north for about 65 miles from its headwaters until it empties into the Little Colorado River.
The flows from both Woods Canyon Lake and Willow Springs Lake conjoin to launch Chevelon Creek on its way; 12 miles later the water enters Chevelon Lake, created by an earthen dam, and here the water is so consistently cold the Arizona Game and Fish Department even stocks it from time to time with Arctic grayling. Needless to say brown and rainbow trout also thrive, encouraged by the remoteness that prevents many fishermen from finding it. A road north from Woods Canyon Lake takes one to the Chevelon campground, though the road ends and the last part must be taken on foot. The various trails and directions are abundant with a search of the Internet.
For our purposes, the history and prehistory of the area are of interest. In canyons closer to the creek’s junction with the Little Colorado River, there are hundreds of the oldest and largest collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest. Some have been dated to over 5,000 years old, and archaeologists swoon over their sheer number — more than 4,000 rock drawings.
Anasazi and Sinagua people came along about 1200 BC and added to the art gallery. Also at this northern end of Chevelon Creek a number of historic ranches can be found. Some of these are on land originally held by the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, in its day the third largest ranch in North America.
The first record of Chevelon Canyon is found in the writings of Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, for whom the Sitgreaves National Forest is named. In 1848, after the Mexican War when the area became part of the United States, the government was eager to explore the rivers of the Southwest. Before the establishment of railroads across the continent, rivers were seen as the best way for transportation and thus the expansion of the nation.
Captain Sitgreaves, with the Army Corps of Engineers, was appointed commander of a large party that headed west. By September 1851 they had reached the Zuni River and followed it southwest to its confluence with the Little Colorado River. Continuing their exploration of the LCR (as the Little Colorado is identified in shorthand) they came upon Chevelon Creek and its canyon. Here they met a trapper named Chevelon; his first name does not come down to us. He provided them with much information about the creek, so they did not have to spend much time following it upstream. In appreciation, they recorded in their journals and on their map that this was “Chevelon’s Creek”.
Word came later that Chevelon had died beside the stream from eating poisonous plants. One wonders how a mountain man, well versed in the flora and fauna, able to live off the land, would make such a mistake.
A couple of years later, in 1853, the Army sent out another expedition, this time to survey a possible route for a transcontinental railroad along the thirty-fifth parallel. Leading the party was Lt. Amiel Whipple. The desire for a railroad was motivated primarily by the California gold rush. Whipple passed to the north of Chevelon Creek’s confluence with the LCR, but another government contract brought a third exploratory party that way in 1857. This time it was Lt. Edward Beale who was working on a government contract to build a wagon road across New Mexico and Arizona. He is best known for his use of camels to carry the large loads and go without water for long periods of time.
He was following Whipple’s trail more or less, and he encountered Chevelon Creek. He wrote, “Here we found a curious stream flowing into the Colorado Chiquito from the south, about 25 yards wide and 6 or 8 feet deep. We found otter and beaver signs every foot of the way. Ascending a few miles we found a deep canyon, which was a sheer precipice several hundred feet high. At the bottom was a fine stream.”
This look at Chevelon Creek more than 150 years ago reminds us that today the creek is dry much of the time below Chevelon Lake, except for pools and rainy seasons.
In 1879 the Mormons attempted to settle this lower part of the Chevelon, but eventually abandoned their farm because of Indian threats and the lack of sufficient water to provide for their crops. Four years after that, Will C. Barnes, the first author of “Arizona Place Names”, staked a claim for a ranch there and wrote this, “My first cattle ranch after my discharge from military service was at the mouth of Chevelon’s Fork on the Little Colorado River, about 25 miles west of Holbrook…” He reported finding the ruins of the Mormon settlement. Then Barnes went on to say, “my nearest neighbors were at the railroad station of Hardy, about four miles across the Little Colorado. Twelve miles to the west was Winslow. One settler, Arnold Hugle, was about two miles east of me. He and I arrived at the same time.”
The Hugle family arrived in America from Europe on May 27, 1850. The father Andreas does not seem to have a wife listed in the immigrant records, but Arnold was age 5 and had 8 siblings. They reached Arizona at the little railroad stop Barnes mistakenly refers to as “Hardy,” when in fact it is called Havre. The family proved prolific, and has many descendants around the state.
I fondly recall the day my wife and I went exploring from Forest Lakes, driving north on gravel roads, when suddenly we came upon Chevelon Canyon with its inviting creek below. In its pristine beauty it looked like it should have been a ready spot for trout. I found a place in the canyon where a trail had been crudely made down the side, and enjoyed an hour with my ever-ready fishing pole while Ruthie waited patiently at the top. However, my mission was unfruitful. At that time I knew nothing about Chevelon Lake or the actual route of the stream. Unless a stray trout had found its way upstream from the lake I was destined to return fishless. After a rather difficult ascent up the side of the canyon we continued on to Winslow, crossing the Chevelon where trappers, explorers and Mormons had crossed over the centuries.
NEXT: Crook Military Road