Driving some 740 fully-vaccinated and pregnant cows from their summertime grazing rotation through 20 different National Forest pasture permits near Bryce Canyon National Park to Grand Canyon’s north rim is a formidable task supervised by Alton-based Heaton Livestock Co. Manager and trail boss, Kevin Heaton.

“These marathon runners run rim-to-rim (of the Grand Canyon),” he poetically points out, “and literally, we run our cows rim-to-rim, and we can see the pinks of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, to Alton, and down through here, and end-up to where Kanab Creek dumps into the Colorado River. So, pretty amazing!” 

Kevin, along with his other fifth-generation cousins Wade and Andy, who including their sixth’s up-and-comers, are owners of their family’s sustainability-conscious beef operation. “The overgrazing of 80-90 years ago is a thing of the past. If you think about it, we’re actually collecting solar energy from the sun through grass, and it’s like ‘up-cycling’ in the form of grass. The cows forage grass humans can’t consume on range ground, digest that and turn it into highly-digestible beef (protein!). If we overgraze, it’s definitely going to be less grass. We try to keep the ‘solar panel’ so that it makes us sustainable.”

Once on the 12 BLM-allotted parcels along the Arizona Strip in sight of Mt. Trumbull, the cow’s nine-month gestation will yield its springtime harvest. Kevin notes, “They calve-out unassisted and we help our first-calf heifers, but other than that, they calve-out in the sagebrush and amongst the coyotes; and they fight them off. We tend to have less disease problems that way, as far as calf scours and things like that.” As the season progresses, they’ll all be trucked on up to the fertile green high country.

Traversing through the deep sands of Peekaboo Canyon and crossing Highway 89 early afternoon on Wednesday, November 3, the third day of a more than 100-mile trek (perhaps the longest one of it’s kind left in America), the cattle drive persevered on toward Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park before settling in at a most-welcoming water tank and corralling for the night. The next day, they continue west just beyond the park, and following a mid-day two-hour-long respite while feeding, they arrive for their overnight at the four large plastic tubs of fresh water set in place and tanker-truck poured in by Andy Heaton.

As Andy relates things, “My grandpa and his brothers, at first they had a sheep ranch. And they would trail their sheep from between Alton and Hatch, meeting up at Tropic Reservoir, all the way down to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. And then, they transitioned to cattle. So, they’ve been doing this drive for a long time, with multiple species. And they’ve used primarily the same route to come down through here. 

“Now, we come down through four mile from Alton, down to the elbow, the turnoff at the junction where you go to Johnson Canyon, and over to the Glendale Bench, and you go down four mile to Kanab Creek, and then come over to here, which is Coral Pink Sand Dunes. And then, go on to Cane Beds, and then drop and go straight south, so it crosses under Highway 389 through a tunnel, and then, go straight down to, basically, the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

“Takes about 10 days; 11 days, now, doing cattle, and most of the time no showers and sleeping in sleeping bags. Tracy (the mother of their six children) and I, a couple of times have woken up with six-inches of snow on our sleeping bags. Wow!” Then, in spirit of that rambunctious Old West romance, he exclaims, “And it’s a lot of fun!”

That multi-generational spirit of Heaton family participation prevails to this present day through the active cooperative contributions from their offspring.  Wade and Julie have Brooke, Braxton, Brittyn, Bret and Brandt.  Andy and Tracy have Cole and Bronx.  And that goes for their local Long Valley drovers, too. Glendale’s Jason and Carlia Bauer have Sadie and Chet.  Orderville’s Braden and Cheyenne Jackson have Tyree and Lafe. Kevin and Melanie have Alecia, as well as his 76-year-old dad Karl, occasionally accompanying the drive.

Prior to the prolonged drought and COVID-related considerations of the past two years, many a European dude slapped-down cold, hard cash for the opportunity to live their ‘Cowboy Dream,’ only to realize three days later, as Wade Heaton confides, “The work is hard”, and the nighttime weather cold. But, it’s a good dream that still, thankfully, persists in adventurous hearts.