Harvey Butchart: Grand Canyon's 12,000 Mile Man

Harvey Butchart: Grand Canyon's 12,000 Mile Man

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Butchart Butte

Butchart Butte

Butchart Butte in Grand Canyon National Park is a summit of Coconino Sandstone with an elevation of 7,061 feet. The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names designated the butte on July 16, 2008. Additional pictures of Butchart Butte can be found at this link.

I didn’t know I was getting Butchart Butte in the photo! I was just trying to get a good shot of Mt. Hayden while I was at Point Imperial in Grand Canyon National Park. At the time I had never even heard of Butchart Butte, and I knew very little about the man the butte was named for. What I did know of Dr. John Harvey Butchart came from reading Colin Fletcher’s accounts of him in The Man Who Walked Through Time.

So who was Harvey Butchart and what did he contribute to Grand Canyon National Park that he deserved to have a butte named after him?

By the Numbers

Considering Harvey Butchart was a mathematics professor he would probably appreciate that his Grand Canyon exploits are always listed numerically.

Harvey spent 42 years exploring Grand Canyon, and in those years he:
Hiked over 12,000 miles;
Spent 1,023 days below the rim;
Discovered 164 routes through the Redwall Limestone;
Discovered 116 rim to river routes;
Climbed 83 buttes and temples, 28 being first ascents;
Over a 17 year period became the first person to walk end to end through Grand Canyon.

Along with these achievements Harvey left a large historical record. This includes his Grand Canyon logbooks of 1,079 typewritten pages, his three guidebooks - Grand Canyon Treks I, II and III, thousands of slides and photographs, a large volume of correspondence related to Grand Canyon, and his Matthes-Evans topographic maps of Grand Canyon which have all of his routes documented. Much of this historical record has been archived by the Cline Library of Northern Arizona University.

A Grand Life

John Harvey Butchart was born on May 10, 1907 in the Chinese city of Hefei. His parents, James and Nellie Butchart, were missionaries in China for the Disciples of Christ Church. His father was a doctor, and would work over 80 hours a week for 10 months a year, caring for the sick and evangelizing. But during the summers the family headed to Kuling, a resort town on top of Mount Lushan, so James could rest from his relentless work schedule, and so they all could escape the summer heat.

Harvey’s father died in 1916 and his mother Nellie moved the family to Kuling permanently. It was in Kuling that Harvey developed his love for the outdoors. Living in this mountain region Harvey started hiking extensively before he was even a teenager. He was also a member of the Kuling Boy Scout Troop, which allowed him to go on numerous camping and backpacking trips.

His mother moved the family to the United States in the summer of 1920. They moved to Nellie’s hometown of Vermont, IL. Harvey attended Eureka College where he majored in mathematics, and met his future wife Roma Wilson. Harvey continued his study of mathematics in graduate school at the University of Illinois, obtaining his masters, and later his PhD, completing his doctoral thesis in 1932. Harvey would eventually publish 13 papers in mathematics journals over the course of his teaching career.

After graduating, Harvey held a variety of teaching assignments at colleges across the Midwest. And since he now had summers off, he followed his father’s practice of taking his family to the mountains for the summer. Starting in 1938 Harvey spent anywhere from a few weeks to several months camped in Estes Park, CO. These trips were his first adventures into the mountains since he left China 18 years prior. He spent his summer days summiting peaks and became enthralled with trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers. He would end up summiting 46 of them over the course of his life, getting his last 14er in 1980 at the age of 73.

Harvey ButchartCourtesy Dale Slocum

It was his daughter Anne’s asthma that eventually led him to Flagstaff, AZ in 1945 and close proximity to Grand Canyon. Her doctor instructed Harvey to move her to a drier climate in the southwest. He ended up as head of the Math Department at Arizona State College (ASC) in Flagstaff (later renamed Northern Arizona University).

Harvey was 38 years old by the time he took his first hike down into Grand Canyon, Thanksgiving weekend 1945, completing the South Kaibab-Bright Angel Loop. He spent the next seven years hiking the main trails, but in 1953 he bought a set of Matthes-Evans topographic maps for Grand Canyon and started hiking off-trail. He would pencil in all of his routes on these maps.

But Harvey was interested in exploring more of Grand Canyon than he could reasonably reach on foot. He particularly wanted to get to the many side canyons and amphitheaters. The problem was that the Colorado River blocked his access. So he started using an air mattress in August, 1954 to float down the Colorado River, which allowed him to bypass cliffs and to cross the river. He chose the air mattress over a rubber raft as it was light, and he was already carrying it to sleep on. Using the air mattress dramatically increased the amount of new territory he could see. Harvey would continue using his air mattress to assist in his Grand Canyon exploring until 1964. Once the Glen Canyon dam was built and the Colorado River was released from Lake Powell, the temperature of the water became too cold for his style of river running. Since Harvey combined the elements of river running, backpacking and technical climbing into his exploring, he has often been referred to as the father of the sport of canyoneering. (Prior to writing this article I searched the SP database and found only one reference to Harvey, in this Forum thread, which not surprisingly discusses methods for crossing the Colorado River.)

A juniper snag frames a view...Wotan's Throne by EasyPeaks

While finding rim to river routes was his greatest passion, Harvey’s interests in Grand Canyon exploring were many. The objective on many of his descents into Grand Canyon was to find areas of historical importance. This “to do” list was fueled by his relationship with Otis "Dock" Marston, a Colorado River runner and Grand Canyon historian. His “butte and temple” fever was inspired by a chance meeting with Grand Canyon climber Merrell Clubb. Harvey met Clubb shortly after making his first Grand Canyon climb up Shiva Temple in June, 1957. In June, 1962 Harvey climbed Wotan’s Throne, probably his most treasured summit. In October 1959 Harvey discovered Royal Arch while on a solo backpacking trip and took the first photograph of the arch. Since he found the unknown arch he had the rights for naming it.

Royal ArchRoyal Arch by SirT

Harvey was very intense when it came to his Grand Canyon exploring. He hiked at a ferocious pace for up to 12 hours a day, even into his mid 70s. He was known to leave very good hikers half his age eating his dust. In reality he preferred hiking solo, as he didn’t enjoy being on the trail with someone too slow to keep up with him. Harvey was focused more on reaching his “objectives” as opposed to enjoying the beautiful scenery of Grand Canyon. The pictures he took were primarily route photos, not scenery. Harvey was very competitive, taking pride in beating out Colin Fletcher (by a few weeks) for being the first person to hike the length of Grand Canyon, and for summiting more buttes and temples than anyone else in his time. But Harvey was a simple man and his gear matched this character trait. His hiking boots were actually standard work books, which he normally purchased at K-Mart. Sandwiches of white bread and baloney were a staple of his trail diet.

Like many people, I learned of Harvey Butchart through Colin Fletcher. In 1963 Colin Fletcher became the first person to hike Grand Canyon National Park from end to end below the rim in one continuous trip. In a two month period he hiked approximately 100 river miles from Havasu Canyon to Nankoweap Canyon, which at the time was the boundary of the park. He wrote the story of his journey in The Man Who Walked Through Time, published in 1968.

A few months before the start of his trip he contacted Harvey. Colin learned about Harvey by reading his Appalachia article “Old Trails in Grand Canyon.” He figured correctly that Harvey was the one man that had the route information he needed to reach his goal of hiking Grand Canyon from end to end. The two men visited together for several days and Harvey did supply Colin with assistance he needed, except for information on a short four mile stretch.

In his 17 years of exploring Grand Canyon, Harvey had covered all of the territory that Colin would hike, and all of these miles of off trail routes were documented on his Matthes-Evans maps, except for a four mile stretch below Great Thumb Mesa. Years before meeting Colin, Harvey had the goal of becoming the first person to hike Grand Canyon National Park from end to end. He had put 17 years into the project, piecing the puzzle together a few miles at a time, and now Colin Fletcher was going to take two months and beat him to the punch – with only four miles left to go! Being as competitive as he was, Harvey wouldn’t stand for this. Although he had unsuccessfully tried to complete this four mile stretch on a few occasions, he made his mind up to finish the last piece, and several weeks before Colin would reach Great Thumb Mesa, Harvey succeeded in completing the task, making him the first person to hike Grand Canyon National Park from end to end.

Colin Fletcher did succeed and in his book credits Harvey for this success. He even coined the term Butcharting, which he used in his book to describe "Harvey style route finding in Grand Canyon".
Harvey ButchartCourtesy George Billingsley

In 1970 Harvey published his 70 page paperback, Grand Canyon Treks. It was the first Grand Canyon backcountry book. It was very short and consisted of concise route descriptions. Grand Canyon Treks, along with Colin Fletcher’s commentary in The Man Who Walked Through Time confirmed Harvey as the official Grand Canyon backcountry and route finding expert. He would later go on to publish Grand Canyon Treks II (1975) and Grand Canyon Treks III (1984).

While most of Harvey’s Grand Canyon resume is impressive, he did have a number of traits that were less glowing. His first year in Flagstaff he volunteered as “sponsor” of the ASC hiking club, the Lumberjack Hikers, a position he would hold until 1957. Harvey didn’t always use the best judgment as the group leader. On several Grand Canyon outings he allowed the groups to split up, resulting in Harvey having to hike down from the rim to rescue the lost students. After such an incident in 1957 he decided to step down as group sponsor. During his river running days Harvey did not use a life preserver when he was riding on his air mattress. This practice unfortunately led to the death by drowning of one of his favorite hiking partners Boyd Moore, a former ASC student. Harvey was not necessarily a good environmentalist. He definitely did not live by the Leave No Trace ethics. He used spray paint to mark routes. He buried empty soup cans, among other frowned upon backcountry practices. He felt a little guilty with the safety precautions that were published in his Grand Canyon Treks guidebooks, confessing that he didn’t follow all of them. Finally there was the strain Harvey’s devotion to Grand Canyon put on his marriage. His wife Roma was not a big fan of the canyon. Between his frequent trips, his long hours typing up his logbooks and corresponding with his other Grand Canyon friends, Roma spent a lot of time alone, playing second fiddle to Grand Canyon. To the credit of the authors, these subjects are dealt with in depth in the biography Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon.

Harvey retired in 1976 at age 69 and he and his wife Roma moved to Phoenix (Sun City). Even at age 70 Harvey could still hike at a fast clip, but over the next few years his age would catch up with him and he started to slow down. He also started choosing routes that weren’t as difficult as he historically undertook. Harvey developed hip problems and this would eventually take him away from hiking altogether, and in May, 1987 at the age of 80, Harvey took his last hike into Grand Canyon, down to Amos Spring.

Harvey died in his sleep on May 29, 2002. In June 2004 in a funeral procession with family and friends, Harvey’s ashes were dropped into Grand Canyon at Shoshone Point.

Along with a butte, Harvey has a geologic fault named after him, faults being significant as they form the breaks that allow passage through the canyon walls. On Harvey’s Enfilade Point route there is a break in the Redwall Limestone below Enfilade Point. Geologist George Billingsley had it named Butchart Fault as finding this route was one of Harvey’s proudest achievements.

Harvey donated his logbooks and Matthes-Evans maps to the National Park Service. The maps are on display at the South Rim Backcountry Office. He also donated his hiking gear, including his backpack, canteen, and his last pair of K-Mart hiking boots. These items reside at the South Rim Museum.

References and the Written Record

Grand ObsessionCourtesy Butler and Myers

Grand Obsession
My primary reference for this article was the book Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon, by Elias Butler and Tom Myers. While I used articles on the Wikipedia and Grand Canyon Treks websites for my initial research on Harvey’s life, the content of these articles, as well other information I found, are basically subsets of the much more comprehensive Grand Obsession.

Cline Library Archives
According to Butler and Myers, there is 26 cubic feet of material in the Harvey Butchart Collection at the NAU Cline Library. A portion of this material is now available online.

All 1,079 pages of Harvey's logbooks have been typed up and are now available online.

Many of Harvey's photo's and slides, along with some of his correspondence are available online.

Harvey's East and West Grand Canyon Matthes-Evans maps are also online.

Grand Canyon Treks
The Grand Canyon Treks website has a large amount of information on Harvey as well. This includes his list of Colorado River escape routes, Grand Canyon water sources as well as his list of Grand Canyon bridges and tunnels.

There is also an article on his Wotan's Throne climb as well as an interview with Harvey himself.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-14 of 14

Dean - Dec 20, 2009 11:48 pm - Voted 10/10

Fitting tribute

I read the book about Harvey earlier this year and was impressed by his passion and love for the canyon. It was also an eye opener to find out that it was he, not Colin Fletcher who was truly the man who walked through time. Nice article.


MarkDidier - Dec 21, 2009 7:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fitting tribute

I also enjoyed reading Grand Obsession, and felt that Harvey was deserving of a place here on SP considering what he accomplished in Grand Canyon.

Glad you enjoyed the article - it made for a fun project.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Mark Doiron

Mark Doiron - Dec 30, 2009 8:58 am - Voted 10/10

Great Stuff!

I've attached this to the GC page. Thanks for taking the time for research and write it! --mark d.


MarkDidier - Dec 30, 2009 7:45 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Stuff!

I was going to PM you regarding getting it attached to the GC page, so thanks for taking care of that for me. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I guess I still have Grand Canyon on the brain after my recent trip.



MoapaPk - Dec 30, 2009 11:39 am - Voted 10/10


I bought "Grand Canyon Treks" from Spotted Dog Press a few years back. This book should not be read on a Kindle!


MarkDidier - Dec 30, 2009 7:52 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Treks

I picked up a copy of Treks II at a used book store a few months back (for $2.95 - original price listed on the back cover was $1.50 - go figure). I was amazed at many of the route descriptions. It's definitely the guide book for someone that doesn't want their hand held trying to find a route!

Thanks for visiting.

Dmitry Pruss

Dmitry Pruss - Jan 3, 2010 8:29 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Treks

Since you've read them, could you answer one specific question? Harvey's logs have terse descriptions of Deva Temple from several different directions. Do the books cover them in any better detail? (Gotta figure out if they are truly worth locating!)


MoapaPk - Jan 4, 2010 5:23 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Treks

The first Treks has barely a mention.


cp0915 - Jan 6, 2010 11:47 am - Voted 10/10

Harvey Butchart

Before I ever stumbled upon the Treks books or even Grand Obsession, the online transcriptions of Harvey's journals inspired me to climb several of the buttes and temples in Grand Canyon. I printed out hundreds of pages, tediously sifted through the text for bits of actual beta here and there...then went for it. I found it a far more rewarding way to bag a temple than with a step-by-step guidebook! Harvey, alone, inspired in me a genuine love of Grand Canyon.


MarkDidier - Jan 7, 2010 6:19 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Harvey Butchart

That is such an awesome story! It's great to hear a real life example of someone who has used Harvey's beta to do some exploring and climbing in Grand Canyon. Thanks for sharing. (I just hope to get off the main corridor trails on my next adventure in the canyon!)

Happy Trails,


dadndave - Jan 23, 2010 3:57 pm - Voted 10/10

Interesting Stuff

Great article and well written too. I confess I had never heard of Harvey Butchart until today so thanks for bringing him to life for us.


MarkDidier - Jan 24, 2010 9:22 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting Stuff

Up until late September he was under my radar screen as well, until I read Colin Fletcher's book.

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for the nice comments. I spent a fair amount of time researching and putting this all together - a thoroughly enjoyable project - so the positive feedback is appreciated.

Happy Trails,


cgptsnaz - Jan 5, 2014 7:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Harvey's Raft

While hiking near the Sipapo in the Little Colorado River area in 1996 I found a raft cached with some other old looking gear in a 5 gallon paint can. When I saw the image of Butchart at your write up about his life and saw him holding his raft, it reminded me of the one I found in the canyon.
I too spent many years hiking the Grand Canyon, every other year from as early as October to as late as April from 1983-2003 I would go to the Grand Canyon and stay in its depths for weeks at a time, return to the rim wait on a standby permit and go back in for more weeks. My longest hike in the canyon was 28 days covering 256 miles.
I read Fletchers book the man who walked through time many times while hiking there.
But long before I had ever heard of Butchart or Steck I had explored off trail along the east Red Wall Formation to from O'Neil Butte to Pattie Butte and beyond. And to the Alligator east of the Battleship also along the top of the Red Wall.
I have been up and down most of the side canyons between the Bass Trail and many of them on the north Tonto Trail.
In 1986 while working at the U of A in Tucson I found an old book at the main library written by a archaeologist who studied the canyon in 1927-28. As a university employee I was able to check out the book for a month and went to the Grand Canyon taking it with me and found many of the books places. One was the ruins in Haunted Canyon off upper Phantom Canyon and another below the Red Wall in Clear Creek Canyon.
I am returning to the GC in October this year to send a week during a 2 month hike down the AZT, the Arizona Trail.
I have spent about 276 days a year backpacking and bicycle touring every year since 1982. I work summers from Memorial Day to around Labor Day every year to budget my fall to spring adventures. I currently am backpacking near Zion NP in a canyon called the Parunuweap which is the East Fork of the Virgin River. I am in a small town tonight while resupplying to go back into the canyon soon.


MarkDidier - Jan 8, 2014 9:33 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Harvey's Raft

Interesting story. Thanks for sharing...Mark

Viewing: 1-14 of 14



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