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The Forgotten Road to Laws Spring - Rediscovering the Beale Camel Trail Near Williams, Arizona

Rediscovering hidden Beale Camel Trail. Co-publisher Tim Ernster and his son Mark Ernster find the forgotten back route to the old Beale Camel Trail.Rediscovering hidden Beale Camel Trail. Co-publisher Tim Ernster and his son Mark Ernster find the forgotten back route to the old Beale Camel Trail.

On August 23, 1857, Lt. Edward F. Beale headed west with a caravan of camels, surveyors and army soldiers. The purpose of the expedition was to blaze a new wagon route for immigrants heading to California.

A secondary purpose of the journey was to test the use of camels for the U.S. Army as more efficient methods of transportation across the desert of the American Southwest. The experiment became known as “The Camel Corps” and in fact, the camels were a great success and did much better than horses or mules. For instance, camels could easily carry four times as much cargo as an Army mule, could travel at a much faster pace, and could go for weeks without water. They were easier to care for and feed since they effortlessly ate the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus, thorny mesquite shrubs and many other unappetizing desert plants along the trail.

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Long after the Camel Corps program was disbanded (primarily due to the Civil War), the camels were abandoned in the desert and left to fend for themselves. The camels were able to reproduce, and descendants of the original camels were spotted well into the 1920s. Some sightings were even reported in the early 1930’s.

In an earlier "Travels with Ernie" episode, we detailed a visit to Laws Spring, one of many springs found along the old Beale Camel Trail. We decided to find Laws Spring from a lesser-known entry, still along the Beale Trail, but almost forgotten, grown over and hidden by vegetation.

Exploring the rocky terrain around Cedar Mountain, on the way to find the Beale Camel Trail.Exploring the rocky terrain around the old volcanic cinder cone of Cedar Mountain, on the way to find the Beale Camel Trail.

We started out exploring a series of unpaved forest roads near Williams Arizona just off Highway 64 that leads to the Grand Canyon. On the way, we explored the volcanic mountain referred to as Cedar Mountain, and climbed to the top to take a few photos. Strange, dolman-like rock formations jutted from the ground as if placed deliberately, but were in fact volcanic features surrounding the old cinder cone that formed the mountain. The views from the top of Cedar Mountain brought to mind what Beale must have been thinking as he gazed from this and similar mountains in the area at the incredible landscape that lay before him. To the north, you can see all the way to the Grand Canyon, and to the southeast, there are magical vistas of Kendrick Mountain, Sitgreaves Mountain, and the San Francisco Peaks. To the west and south are endless views of the rolling valleys and Bill Williams Mountain.

Historic reenactment of Camels used on the Beale Trail.Historic reenactment of camels used on the Beale Trail.During our search, we followed a rocky dry streambed (which had ample evidence of a former torrent of water) and found amazing ancient Indian petroglyphs. A check with the Verde Valley Archaeology Center suggested their purpose was to indicate water was just under the ground surface, and another indicated where a net for hunting could be successfully suspended. The petroglyphs were most likely left by the peoples of the ancient Cohoninia Culture that are thought to have occupied the area between AD 500 and 1200.

Prehistoric native-American sites can be found throughout the region, and many are not generally known and have not been studied or recorded.  It is not uncommon for hikers and hunters to stumble on to these sites in the backcountry. If these sites are encountered, they should always be treated with respect and left in the same condition as when they are discovered.

A variety of stunning small, colorful wildflowers and unusual plants were scattered across the landscape along the way, and were remarkable due to extremely dry, rocky, and unforgiving terrain in the area.

Finally, we found a pond referred to on Forest Service maps as Cowboy Tank.  Upon arrival, a rather chubby coyote was drinking from the other side, and we were barely able to snap a photo before it saw us and dashed off into the woods.

A little way further up the road, off to the right, we spotted a short, heavy metal cylinder in the ground, and there it was, the permanent marking for the Beale Camel Trail! Now, the next task was to find the cairns that would lead us to Laws Spring. A few steps further, we found the first deliberately constructed cairn (a pile of rocks marking a trail), and every 50 feet or so, another, and another. As we followed the cairns, it was evident that many were in disrepair and blending into the rocky ground.  Time would eventually claim these carefully constructed markings of the historic trail. After following the cairns for about 200 yards, it was evident that we had run out of time and would need to turn back and finish the adventure on another day.


Next episode: Finding our final destination, Laws Spring, along this forgotten part of the Beale Trail. Also see our previous article about Laws Spring near Williams, Arizona.

Photos of Beale Camel Trail Historic Reenactment courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior - Beale Camel Trail Historic Reenactment.



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