A look at the Copper Canyon

Mexico’s Copper Canyon, located in the northern state of Chihuahua, is actually made up of about five large canyons. Each is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. In fact, the entire Copper Canyon, also known as the Barancas del Cobre, is about four times the size of the Grand Canyon and roughly about half the size of the state of Arizona.

The series of canyons drain the western side of the Sierra Madre, a region known as the Sierra Tarahumara. All the rivers that formed the Copper Canyon merge into the Rio Fuerte, which continues across the adjacent state of Sinaloa, emerging near the City of Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortez.

Spanning an altitude of 7,000 feet, from the valley floor at 1,000 feet to the rim that reaches around 8,000 feet, the canyon encompasses several ecosystems. Although the valley floors can be quite humid and tropical, it is not uncommon for the upper reaches to receive snow. Unlike the Grand Canyon, much of Copper Canyon is heavily forested with ponderosa pine.

The region is inhabited by the Taharamura Indians, who call themselves Raramuri, or “Light Feet,” and are considered among the world’s best long-distance runners. It is believed they settled in the canyons, where they live isolated, agrarian lifestyles, after fleeing from Spanish colonialists in the 1600s.

Mining in Copper Canyon dates back to the Spanish occupation, when silver was discovered in 1632. Strangely enough, mostly gold and silver were mined here – with copper being in short supply. It is believed the canyon is named so because of the color of the rock rather than what lies within.

In the late 1860s, American investors became involved in the mines around Batopilas, deep at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon at the region’s southern end. In 1880, an American, Alexander Shepard, bought the Batopilas Mining Co. and moved to Batopilas. Over the next 26 years, the mine produced 27 million ounces of pure silver. During this time, Shepard made many upgrades to Batopilas, including building an aqueduct and processing mill, bringing electricity to the town (Batopilas was the second city in Mexico to get electricity) and upgrading the silver trail. Huge “conductas,” or mule trains, of 100 mules with armed guards traveled the precipitous 140-mile route to the nearest stagecoach stop in Carichic, at Copper Canyon’s north end. The grueling trip was made in five days, with each night spent in a fortified way station.

In the late 1920s, the railroad came to the town of Creel, on the canyon’s western edge, and the old trail was replaced by a newer, shorter one. Since then, the old trail has slipped into disuse and many of the way stations are falling down or used as shelter by Tarahumara families. Still, much of the original trail remains as a footpath, used by the Tarahumara, who live throughout the vast, mostly roadless area.

– Missy Votel

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