After facing a near deadly early winter storm near present day Milford, Utah, the Dominquez/Escalante party of explorers faced a decision whether if they should continue on to find a trail to Monterey, California or return to Santa Fe. The 1776 calendar was approaching November and the Franciscan Fathers decided to leave it up to God for their decision. The answer would come in the drawing of straws – a short one for Santa Fe and long one for Monterey. God chose the short one and the decision was made.
As with most early Fall storms in the warm Southern Utah valleys, the snow quickly melted and the party moved south through what is now called the Escalante Desert toward present day Kanarraville, Utah. Here they met another indigenous tribe, the Southern Paiutes, but this tribe was more wary of the travelers, their only experience with white men were the few trappers who migrated the streams of the area but seldom came face to face with the natives. But here were the same type of men, but bringing with them natives from their northern relatives, who stopped and attempted to converse with them but showed no intent to do them harm. So they agreed to assist and lead them down the canyon the men named Ash Creek to the vale the natives called Pintura. Now the winter weather became warmer with more pastureland.
Near this point they encountered a river running high with run-off from the mamouth sandstone towers to the east. The stream would later become known as the Virgin. Leaving this river’s drainage, and their Paiute guides, the explorers head eastward across the sage covered land toward the Kiabab land. The name meant “mountain lying down” to the natives, and the name was aptly drawn as the low hills showed abundant ponderosa pine, juniper and aspen. But the mountain grades were easy and rose gently. The ease of this part of the journey was desceptive, because on the eastward side of the Kiabab were the deep canyons of the Colorado River but the Spaniards were warned of the deep canyons beyond. Here the Colorado River that they had easily cross earlier in the Gunnison, Colorado area had now joined the Green River (which the party had named the San Buenaventura when they crossed it east of the Uinta Mountains) and cuts into the sandstone north of the area to be known as the Grand Canyon dipped to impassible depths.
Their first attempts were to follow the Paria River but that became too narrow. Then they turned south of the Vermillion Cliffs and were able to reach the mouth of the Paria where it joined the muddy Colorado. Still, the river was too swift and deep for a safe crossing. It was now late enough into Springtime so the river seemed to churn with mud but the amount of water had declined. So, they looked for easier sections.
They scouted up and down the canyon walls, but southward the sheer walls became even deeper and northward it also narrowed through what would be Glen Canyon.
They retraced their path up the Kiabab mountains, then swung northward. Even though the trackless land became difficult, pastureland scarce, and water for both themselves and their stock difficult to find, they pressed on. Many of the party became seriously sick from the dry, hot air and lack of water.
Finally, near an area where a warm creek flowed southward toward the Colorado, the travelers found the harsh desert canyons of red sandstone soften into rolling sand hills. Beyond the first creek they found a second. This would become known as Padre Canyon. A larger stream flowed here and grasses grew along the banks.
As they followed the stream southwest toward the main river, it narrowed but by traversing the hills they came to a spot where the Colorado was wide, shallow and meandering in sweeping bends. Although it was difficult to get down to the river, it wasn’t impossible. The water was tumbling over small rocks that pierced the surface forming large sandbars in the stream. A towering standstone butte rose out of the hills to the east – a landmark that would be used by future travelers looking to cross the mighty Colorado at this spot to be known as “crossing of the Fathers.” The butte would also carry the name: Padre Butte. Centuries later, after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the crossing would be covered with hundreds of feet of water from lake Powell.
Once across, the party would meet the Native Americans of the Navajo tribe. This friendly group would lead them through their homeland back to Santa Fe. They would arrive in November, 1776. Father Escalante’s detailed maps and journal would provide invaluable guidance for the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail to avoid the harshness of the desert of the southwest and the building of settlements stretching to California.
Unfortunately, Father Escalante wouldn’t live to see these effects, he would die in 1780 before he could get medical aid.