Images of Northern Arizona
Map of land and river routes
Day by day trip plan
Everything you need to bring
In June 2019, my wife Janet and I finally took the trip to the Grand Canyon that we had been talking about for a long time. We didn’t know what this would actually look like until I rafted through the Grand Canyon for seven days with my son Alex the year before. As I learned more about the region, and the preparation required, and then had the direct experience of running the Colorado River with Alex, I knew I had to do it again with Janet. As we planned our adventure, we realized that we wanted even more immersion in this incredible place. So we extended our trip to 16 days in order to add over a week of excursions in and around the canyon that included: the iconic upstream attractions of Page, AZ, hiking on the canyon’s Corridor Trails, and visiting the remote jaw-dropping Toroweap Overlook on the north rim.
You should know that a trip like this requires commitment. It’s a highly physical undertaking that needs a lot of forethought and planning. It also demands flexibility, as the wilderness doesn’t always cooperate with our plans, and hordes of other people want to be there just like we do. But we put in the work to get ready and were rewarded with a shared experience of a lifetime. We also had the tremendous good luck of seeing our plans coming to fruition without a hitch, something I’ve subsequently learned doesn’t always happen. Of course, we also helped our cause by doing our research and making good choices. My goal is to share what we learned with you, to give you the lay of the land, and to point you to valuable resources that helped us immeasurably.
Keep in mind that, if there are constraints on your time or resources, you can take on portions of our itinerary separately. For instance, just the seven days of rafting is, for most people, a perspective-altering event. In fact, most of our fellow rafters in both 2018 and 2019 were there solely to run the river. They also had less of a challenge in packing for only the week of rafting than we did by having to also include necessities for a second week on the trails. But in any case, the Grand Canyon offers a vast array of opportunities to have an encounter filled with immeasurable meaning.
What to Know
I would rather be on that dusty windy path than any place I know. Open to the sky and at the mercy of myself.
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Rafting – The Experience
Let’s begin with the fact that you will be outside in the desert for the entire length of your trip, in our case, seven days. You’ll be completely off the grid. No communication will be possible with your loved ones or anyone else. On my initial trip in 2018, the first morning was tough. I recall sitting on the raft with the frigid water stinging me and realizing that I had a week of this in my immediate future with no way of turning back. I thought of the lyric in the Taking Heads’ song Once in a Lifetime, “my God, what have I done?” Pretty soon the sun rose higher in the sky and the mid-June air quickly reached a toasty 100+°F. I also remembered to pull my rain suit out of my day bag to protect me from whatever the river dished out. After running a few rapids, and languidly watching the ever rising canyon walls go by during the long calm stretches in between, the world began to slow down and my sense of perception had somehow changed. By the time we had dinner in camp and watched the sun drop behind the cliffs, I was a changed man. This place had somehow permeated my being and all I wanted to do was to be here.
But after seven days of extreme heat and dryness, setting up and tearing down camp, the powder-like sand getting into everything, and peeing into the frigid river while trying to maintain my balance on a rock, that first warm shower sure felt good. Yes, after seven days we were ready to return to the comforts and insanity of civilization but, for me, the longing to return to the canyon began to intensify almost as soon as we got home. I feel confident in saying that the experience of the canyon will stay with almost anyone, but for some it really does approach being an awakening of sorts.
I often think of Grand Canyon in almost mystical terms. As I floated through it on the raft, it occurred to me that so much of what I was seeing – the sheer cliffs of the Inner Gorge dropping straight down to the cold, swift river below – was never touched by humans. That blows my mind. Many of the geological gems that we visited, such as Redwall Cavern, are only accessible by river. Of the 6 million people who experience Grand Canyon each year, only a relative handful – about 25,000 – do so by raft and ever see these places. The Grand Canyon is such an enigma that, as Kevin Fedarko noted, “nobody figured out how to walk all the way through the thing until a 25-year-old river guide named Kenton Grua completed it in the winter of 1976, some 65 years after both the North and South Poles had finally been reached, and 23 years after Mount Everest was first summited. Think about that for a moment – and consider what it says about how complicated and wild this place truly is.”
All of that said, we do need to remember the more prosaic considerations to be aware of when rafting through the canyon. These are important to know, because as I mentioned, there is no realistic way out once you shove off from Lees Ferry for the 188 mile river trip. Let’s look at the most important aspects of this journey to help understand what’s in store.
✦ Commercial vs. Private
The entire discussion here is based on rafting with commercial rafting tours, not private trips. On a commercially guided trip, there is a crew consisting of boat captains who navigate the river and lead the trip, and “swampers” who attend to most of the logistical tasks on the raft and in camp. The rafters are responsible for their own camp sites, packing and unpacking their gear, and helping to load and unload the boats. The crew handles many of the chores that would fall to the rafters on a private trip: providing and operating the rafts, supplying and cooking all the food, bringing essential knowledge of the best way through the rapids, setting up and tearing down the portable toilets, being ready to address medical emergencies, obtaining NPS permits and complying with regulations, and more.
However, this is definitely not glamping. This is a physically taxing undertaking. Unloading all the provisions and equipment from the boats every day in camp, and lugging your 25 pounds of gear to your camp site for a quarter mile over unstable sand is hard work. So is riding the boat through awesome, but violent, rapids and hiking through amazing side canyons in blazing heat. Still, for most people, commercial trips are what make an experience like this even possible. The outfit we used in both 2018 and 2019 was Western River Expeditions, one of 15 companies who are commissioned by the NPS to run tours on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. The fact that I returned to raft with them in 2019 attests to the high regard in which I hold them. Aside from the quality of the people, operation, and experience, there are other important factors involved in selecting a certain outfit over another. These will be covered in the Rafting Trip Alternatives section below.
✦ Cautions & Dangers
On both of my river trips, the very first thing on the lead guides’ agenda was a speech about safety. They idle the rafts directly across the river from the Lees Ferry boat ramp and give everyone the lowdown. On the 2018 trip our leader, Wiley, had a “big three” in term of cautions. First was scorpions. It’s no surprise that they are common in the canyon and, while usually not deadly, their sting can cause a great deal of pain. In camp, we all had to diligently shake out our footwear, sleeping bags, etc. before using them. No one got stung on our trips, but one morning I rolled over on my cot to see a baby scorpion on a large table-like rock right next to me. I have no idea how he managed to get up there.
Number two on Wiley’s list was rattlesnakes. According to Death in the Grand Canyon (see References), there have been no reported fatalities from a snake bite in the canyon. But like Scorpions, the experience can be very unpleasant, possibly resulting in one’s having to be airlifted out of the canyon to a hospital. Here, the instructions were to be careful where you step. Snakes aren’t looking for trouble but may not take too kindly to being disturbed while resting underneath some brush. The third item to watch out for was a surprise: ravens. Wiley warned us that these birds, a larger cousin of the crow, are highly intelligent creatures and know how to get into a duffle bag or other type of case if they are not properly secured. As I recount in my story The Brazen Raven, this highly embarrassing event is exactly what happened to Alex and me during dinner on our first night at camp.
On our 2019 trip, our trip leader Evan, focused more on how to be safe on the raft and the river. First, and most obvious, it was mandatory for everyone to properly wear their lifejacket at all times on the boat. Next was one of Evan’s tips about how to hold on through the big rapids when sitting in the front of the boat where the ride is roughest. He told us to use an underhanded grip on the rope, with the elbow bent. Using a straight arm has resulted in torn biceps, the power of the river being what it is. Along with this was the need to bend low, face down near the boat’s front tubes right before they hit the rapid’s first wave. This is called “sucking rubber,” and is necessary because the boat is designed with a hinge to allow it to absorb the force of the waves by flexing suddenly at an unexpected angle. The last main topic concerned what to do if you are thrown into the river. Aside from always floating feet first through a rapid, we were admonished to remain calm and allow the crew to come to you and hoist you into the boat by the top straps of your lifejacket while you face away from the boat.
In 2018 we saw this unfold for real when one of our raft-mates was flung overboard while running Boucher Rapid. This mid-size rapid was more than powerful enough to surprise a guy who was sitting up front and not holding on correctly. Just like that, he was in the ice cold Colorado and, almost as quickly, our crew calmly pulled him back onto the boat. But right after that excitement, Wiley gathered the two rafts together for a powwow and made a chilling statement. Crystal Rapid, one of the two most dangerous of all the 80 large rapids in Grand Canyon, awaited us only a mile ahead at river mile 99.
In sobering tones he explained that the time for falling out of the raft was over and you absolutely would not want it to happen in Crystal. He made it clear that the boat’s small motor was mainly for steering and would not be able to power the boat back upstream for a rescue. Not to mention the fact that it would put all the others on the trip at serious risk. What made this particular rapid especially treacherous was the technical difficulty in navigating the boat precisely around a huge and extremely dangerous hole (or hydraulic). The risk of being sucked into this hole, either as an individual or as a raft, made Crystal the site of legendary carnage on the Colorado. We quickly understood that, this time, it was all about paying attention to our safety, not the joyride.
Lava Falls Rapid is the other beast of the river at mile 180. While not quite as technical as Crystal, is simply a gigantic, steep, and fast monster. Once the rafting trip gets underway, it’s not long before everyone knows that Lava Falls is the climax to the trip just before the take-out at Whitmore Wash (mile 188). And, as the grand finale, it certainly does not disappoint; there is much well-deserved celebrating and a shared sense of triumph for the entire group. But like Crystal, Lava Falls has seen its share of dramatic wipeouts. This is the main reason I felt more comfortable running the river in a bigger motorized craft (see Rafting – Trip Alternatives, below). There are no guarantees with big boats either, but they are safer (or at least the feel that way).
While I have the utmost respect and admiration for guides like Wiley and Evan, and Newtie our co-leader in 2019, I need to add my perspective as a rafter, which I think is also important. Once you sign the rafting contract, including the hold harmless clause, you are ultimately responsible for what happens to you on the trip. The Grand Canyon is an inherently unpredictable and dangerous place. A reputable outfit with experienced guides gives you an excellent chance of have a fulfilling experience. But as they say, stuff happens (see A Close Call at Dear Creek Falls).
The guides will not be your parents on this trip. My impression is that they know their guests have paid a lot of money to be on a once-in-lifetime adventure and will do everything they can, short of tolerating endangerment of others or the canyon, to refrain from inhibiting the guests’ experience. It’s also true that, for all the ways to die in Grand Canyon, the incidence of death on a rafting trip is rare. The onus is clearly on the rafter to decide whether to walk on a narrow ledge at the edge of a cliff, or to pee off an unstable rock in the pitch dark at 3:00 am right next to a powerful current in the ice cold river. I’ve had several conversations with my wife about their hands-off approach and what it would feel like to know a person fell to his or her death on your watch. But clearly the guides’ do it this way on purpose. There is no easy answer, and after all, we are accountable to ourselves. Again, being forewarned is being forearmed.
✦ Appropriate Ages
Taking both of our trips together, the people ranged in age from about 12 to 75 years. On the younger end of the spectrum, the main issue would be maturity. The young people on our trips were wonderful. In one case, a young lady was far more mature than the adults in her group. But to the discussion on dangers above, they still need proper oversight, and this 12 year-old was no exception. She had to be firmly counseled by the guides not to return from the Patio at Dear Creek by herself, but instead to wait until the entire group was ready to depart.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had a 75 year-old woman who, to my amazement, was able to join and complete most of the hikes. These were not walks in the park. Another septuagenarian woman was on the trip by herself (her fifth time!), and while not a hiker, she was able to get on and off the rocking slippery rubber boats and function independently in camp. So there are no cut and dried age boundaries and it really depends on the individual’s maturity and capability. I will say that, as a parent of two boys, I would not have been comfortable taking them on this trip at 12 years of age. However, that is probably more because of my fears than their development. As far as the elderly, I’m not in a position to lecture anyone. All I would say is to be honest with yourself and think about what additional load you might be putting on the guides, who already work incredibly hard, if you really can’t handle it.
✦ Bodily Functions
As I mentioned earlier, peeing on a rafting trip in Grand Canyon is done into the Colorado River. All other liquids – for instance, an unfinished beer – also end up in the river. This is called the “dissolve and disperse” method. The average daily flow of the river ranges between 10,000 and 18,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), depending on the level of water being released from the Glen Canyon Dam upstream. This volume can easily accommodate a relatively tiny bit of urine. Peeing anywhere on the ground is forbidden, as it not hard to imagine what the canyon would smell like in these hot, arid conditions. Obviously, men and women have different approaches here. For the men, it’s mostly a matter of safety. Ensuring that your pee hits the water sometimes requires unnatural acts of balance and contortion. This is especially true at night, when you’re trudging down to the river at 3:00 am, half asleep on unfamiliar terrain, trying to find a stable spot and not fall into the river. The main challenge for the women is having nature call on the raft, say, after just shoving off from having lunch. Since the raft doesn’t stop, women are instructed to hang off the back of the boat and let ‘er rip. In camp, whether peeing or bathing, the men and women go in different directions – upstream or downstream, respectively – to take care of business.
Clearly, solid waste can’t be handled that way, so the crew sets up two portable toilets for use in camp. These are both essentially a sceptic tank in a box with a seat on top. One box sits inside a yellow tent-like enclosure for privacy not too far from the communal area. The second is quite interesting. The crew places that one out in the open about 100 yards beyond the enclosed unit. To avoid invasions of privacy, a token (in our case, a boat oar) is taken by the person currently using the facilities so that someone else knows to wait for the oar to be returned to its original spot. On some occasions the exposed unit is placed in a truly spectacular location. I’ll never forget doing my business all alone outside right on a ledge next to the Colorado as it rushed by. I sat there just taking it all in until I realized I was probably not making any friends as the line for the toilet grew.
This may all sound very strange, and indeed, it could be a deal-breaker for some people. Alex and I were not the only father-son tandem on our 2018 trip. In our case, we had been planning our adventure as a bonding experience, which was known to the rest of our family. With the other father and son, they said the wife and daughter refused to go on the trip because of the bathroom arrangements, or lack thereof, as I just outlined. But I can say that, although the average person on the trip may have had some initial discomfort around handling their bodily functions in the canyon, it didn’t take very long for any concerns to recede into the background. Everyone just accepted it and moved on. Of course, the overwhelming nature of the canyon helps to make all of these issues seem petty.
✦ Bathing & Hygiene
Bathing was an adventure, at least for me. It’s all done in the river, of course, but the water temperature is less than 50°F. If that doesn’t sound too bad, try turning on the shower full blast with only cold water and standing under it for a minute. You may ask, “Why is the river so cold if it’s over a hundred degrees in the canyon?” Until the Glen Canyon dam was completed in 1966, 15 miles upstream from the start of Grand Canyon National Park at Lees Ferry, the Colorado was often a raging torrent of warm, liquid mud. John Wesley Powell, who led the first expedition through Grand Canyon on the river in 1869, famously said that the Colorado was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” With the dam in place, the flow of water into the canyon is tightly controlled. It exits the dam 700 feet below Lake Powell (the huge 186 mile-long reservoir behind the dam), causing its dramatic drop in temperature. The Colorado now is often a rich green – at least it was in summer when we were there – and its metamorphosis has substantially changed the ecosystem around the river.
This digression is important to let you know the reason I screamed like a baby when I forced myself to dunk in the river every day after pulling into camp. The water’s cold really does take your breath away. Just standing in it up to my ankles caused intense pain in my feet after about five seconds. I thought I could just pass on bathing to avoid this trauma but the idea of going to sleep with sand and sweat all over me was too much to bear. The good news is that once you dunk, lather up with biodegradable soap, and dunk again, the warm air feels incredible. Still, I now understand why it’s easy for a person to die of hypothermia quickly if they are in the Colorado River for too long.
As you can imagine, all other hygiene and cleaning chores are also done in the river. Washing clothes – tee shirts, shorts, etc. – is simply a matter of giving them a good rinse and then finding a nice mesquite bush to use as a drying rack. With the low humidity, they will be ready to use again in no time. Unfortunately, your skin will not be as resilient. Make sure to pack lotion to help avoid the very real discomfort and pain from having your skin turn into a brittle piece of parchment. The same goes for sun protection, for lips as well as skin. The summer sun in the canyon is remorseless.
On both trips with Western River Expeditions, they provided each rafter with a sturdy cot and an optional multi-person tent. Both were of high quality but because there was almost no precipitation in June, we chose to sleep on the cot under the stars. Assembling the cot took some getting used to, but like peeing in the river, it didn’t take long. In addition to the challenge of finding new superlatives for the daytime experience of the canyon, the same held true for looking up into a night sky that seemed to be made of a billion glittering diamonds on a field of pitch black. I watched satellites slowly traverse the heavens and saw shooting stars in all their glory. And I didn’t get a lot of sleep.
It’s jarring how fast it gets dark in the canyon and how quickly the temperature drops as a result. On average, we pulled into camp at 4:30 in the afternoon, set up the site and bathed, while the crew prepared dinner (the food was excellent throughout the trip). By the time we had eaten and visited with each other, it was dark by 8:00 pm and time to turn in. As I mentioned earlier, it can be surprisingly cool on a summer night in the desert. Having a lightweight fleece and augmenting it with the sleeping bag also provided by Western River definitely came in handy. At 5:15 am, just as the sun is rising above the rim, the coffee is brewing and breakfast is cooking. By 8:00 am, after loading the boats and throughly inspecting the campsite for micro-trash, we’re on the river again.
✦ Other Rafters
One dimension of the trip that will affect your experience is who your raft-mates are. The large 37-foot-long motorized rafts, such as those Western River Expeditions use, generally accommodate 14 passengers and 2 crew (a river guide and a swamper). There are usually 2 of these boats on a seven day trip. At Lees Ferry, where the trip begins, there is a grand sorting out of people, gear and bags that eventually make it on to one raft or the other. If there are two of you, this means that the other 12 people on your raft will become important determinants of your journey. If your goal is to be one with the canyon, and you are with hard-core partiers, that could be a problem. It’s impossible to know for sure what people are going to be like when you haven’t even met them yet. But you will have the opportunity to size them up from the time you gather a couple hours before at Marble Canyon Lodge until you shove off on your trip.
Just to be clear, almost everyone we met on our trips was pleasant. But in 2019, we had an extended family of ten that drank and smoked (pot) their way through the entire trip. Fortunately, they weren’t overly obnoxious, but it would have been a detractor had we been on the same boat for the week. In camp, it was usually easy to find our own space and avoid the party, The odor of pot did waft over our camp occasionally but I actually like the smell, so no worries there. I did ask Evan and Newtie what would happen if a group of rafters became uncontrollable or destructive. They said they had satellite phones to call in the authorities and, if necessary, would not hesitate to use them. Then they regaled me with fascinating stories about the unruly guests they had to put in their places and how they did it. In any event, you do get a narrow window to decide which raft to ride, so make your first impressions and decisively place your bet on the horse you think is best.
✦ The Take-out
Eight miles after the ultimate rush of running the monstrous Lava Falls Rapid, it’s suddenly the end of the trip. Hard boiled adults such as us may try to hide it, but it’s kind of emotional. It reminded me of the last day of camp at end of summer as a kid, leaving Uncle Art, the cool, god-like counselor, and all your bunk mates you played ball with, rode the bus with, drank bug juice with, and liked and hated. You really feel a connection to the guides who you learned so much from and had come to admire. Then you go to hug them to tell them profusely how much you enjoyed their company, and you’re met with a wall of cold, professional detachment. This is obviously on purpose and I’m sure they are trained to separate in this way.
I believe one obvious reason is that they can become attached to us as well. On the last night of the 2019 trip, Newtie broke out the mini- Martin 6 string (similar to the one I played on the 2018 trip). After most of group turned in, he and I passed it back and forth and bonded over Neil Young songs and stories of concerts, bands, and families. But once we got to Whitmore Wash and I approached him to say goodbye, he was all business. There’s an even more understandable reason for this. While the group from the seven-day trip is departing, a new contingent is arriving at the same time for a three-day journey, run by the same crew, that continues from Whitmore to Diamond Creek at mile 225. Newtie and the rest of the crew now had to attend to all the logistics of quickly getting everyone and everything turned around to shove off again. As I watched the somewhat chaotic proceedings, I came to appreciate his priorities.
While the crew turns its complete attention to the new group, responsibility for the departing group is handed over to the helicopter shuttle brigade. That’s right, the only way out from Whitmore Wash, short of hiking and climbing thousands of feet to the rim, is a thrilling joyride in a whirlybird. Before getting aboard, there is a highly regimented process of weighing everyone with their bags, and then calculating which combination of six passengers and seat assignments will yield a safe payload and optimal weight distribution. The helicopter continues ferrying groups of six out of the Inner Gorge until the entire group is on the north rim.
After lift off, you are treated to a nap-of-the-earth ride 20 feet above the surface of the canyon as it rises up and away from the river. The nose of the helicopter is often tilted down, just like in the movies, so that you’re moving forward at high speed, facing the ground as you go. In ten minutes, you arrive at the Bar-10-Ranch, a charming destination in remote north rim country for getaways and the reclamation of grizzled river runners like us. For rafters who have been in the canyon’s elements for seven days, it’s a welcome return to the conveniences of hot showers, dining tables, and wheeled vehicles. It’s also the home of Whitmore International Airport, a landing strip for small planes, one of which will take you on a 45 minute flight to either Boulder City, Nevada, near Las Vegas, or back to Marble Canyon Lodge near Lee’s Ferry, where your journey began. Your first cell phone service in a week will begin once you touch down at either of these airports. Be ready to spend time looking at emails and texts to make sure your significant others are okay and that the world is still in one piece.
Having the right gear with you on the rafting trip is essential. Here are Western River Expeditions’ guidelines for what to bring and how to pack. I’ve also included the checklist we used (at the top of this page) to cover our entire two-week journey. I want to emphasize the importance of making sure that your gear fits into the river bags provided by Western River to each rafter at Lees Ferry. The waterproof, heavy duty gear bag holds a 24 inch duffle and won’t be accessible until reaching camp. The 7 inch by 13 inch day bag is also dry storage, but is available for essential items (water bottle, sunscreen, rain jacket, camera, etc.) while on the boat. The message is to pack light. You won’t need much other than what’s on the checklist to be in the canyon.
Rafting – Trip Alternatives
There are 15 outfits who have concessions to run commercial trips on the river. Together, they offer a variety of trip durations and different types of river craft. There are also different segments of the river that can be run. A popular version of the trip starts from Lee’s Ferry at mile zero of the river and runs for 188 miles to Whitmore Wash, at which point rafters depart the canyon via helicopter. Shorter trips typically cover roughly 38 miles, from Whitmore Wash to Diamond Creek at mile 225. There are other variations that may involve rafting to Phantom Ranch at mile 88 and hiking up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. The durations of these trips are largely dependent on whether a river craft is a large motorized rig, or a small oar-powered raft. The NPS has a comprehensive list of rafting services and information about each of their specific niches. Let’s take a closer look at each of these alternatives to help identify which type of river trip would be right for you.
✦ Large Motorized Rafts
- As I mentioned before, I traveled with Western River Expeditions on both my river trips. They specialize in operating a fleet of large, inflatable, motorized 37-foot-long rafts called J-Rigs. First, a large craft is inherently more stable and offers a variety of experiences, depending on where you sit on the boat. Sit up front, and you will get a wild ride through the big rapids. Sit further back, and the ride is smoother, but still exhilarating. Martin Litton, the late conservationist who was at the forefront of saving the Grand Canyon from being dammed up in the 1960’s, derisively called these large hulking craft “baloney boats.” I can understand his well-earned belief that a genuine Grand Canyon river trip ought to be experienced “in the raw,” sitting in a small boat down in the whitewater, eye-to-eye with the huge waves.
If the canyon had come into my awareness earlier in my life, I would definitely have done that “rad” small craft trip. For a middle-aged novice who also wanted the chance to contemplate the beauty around me and take lots of photos, the big boat had its advantages. Although no trip on the river is without risk, the bigger boats are less likely to flip in rough water, and are therefore safer. This was not only important for my comfort level, but for having more confidence in the well-being of my loved ones who were with me.
I also appreciated the design of the J-Rig compared to the other large boats, called S-Rigs, that I saw on the river. Rafting on the J-Rig allows you to sit facing forward in most areas of the boat, which affords the same panoramic windshield-view you would get driving a car. On the S-Rig, most rafters sit along the side of the boat, their backs against its interior section, so that the view is like being in the back of car looking out the side window. Still, you’re in the Grand Canyon, so perhaps that’s nitpicking. Still. as I mentioned above, the J-Rig’s design offers more seating choices around the boat, each of which provides a different ride. Clearly, my only river trips have been with Western River Expeditions, and there were lots of other outfits who seemed to be thriving and giving their guests their money’s worth. But my trips did not disappoint, and the type of craft we rode was a big reason why.
One other important consideration with a large motorized raft is its effect on the duration of the trip. As noted above, the 188 mile trips run from Lees Ferry to Whitmore Wash in durations of six or seven days. The additional day on the seven day trip affords extra time to see a few more attractions along the way. A low-horsepower motor on the boat acts as a rudder for steering, and also provides more maneuverability compared to manual oar power on a small inflatable raft. This helps a big boat to cover more distance per day. In contrast, the trip duration over the same route using a small five-passenger rubber raft with one person rowing could take up to 18 days.
✦ Small Oar-Powered Rafts
Clearly, a small raft makes for a much different experience. I love the idea of taking 18 days to explore more intimately the same terrain I traversed in seven. The flip side is that it’s even more physically demanding and there is a significantly greater chance of capsizing in the big rapids. Yet, these small boat tours run all the time, and people live to talk about it, so it must be a blast. Again, another choice – in this case the chance to feel the river in a much more dynamic way and become even more immersed in this cathedral of the earth.
Martin Litton was not only a great American conservationist. He was also the founder of Grand Canyon Dories, a legendary fleet of small, colorful five-person boats with a captivating heritage. Litton named each of his boats after a natural treasure that was lost to development projects, such as those now underwater behind a dam in places like Glen Canyon. Litton, who passed away in 2014, left an indelible legacy in the southwest. The full story of Martin Litton, his dories, and so much more is captured in the riveting book, The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko. (see Resources). They are also memorialized in Martin’s Boat, a masterful 22-minute on-line documentary directed by photojournalist Pete McBride. I heartily encourage you to consume both book and video. Having just finished viewing Martin’s Boat again, I feel determined, if at all possible, to do what I can to have this experience.
Eventually, Litton sold his fleet to Oars, another venerable commercial rafting outfit that specializes in smaller craft. According to Oars, the dories are: “Hand-crafted using fiberglass and closed-cell foam, … hardwood-hulled and ultra-buoyant. At an elegant 17 feet, dories slice through waves and buck through rapids and land large drops with ease …” The Emerald Mile describes these boats as sitting lower in the water than an inflatable raft, which provides more stability for a craft of this size. In any case, it’s another experience of the river that sounds mind-blowing.
Hiking – Alternatives & Experiences
If rafting through Grand Canyon on the Colorado river is a highlight of a lifetime, so is being on the trails under or on the rim. It’s another unique experience of a place that, as you know by now, reveals itself in an endless kaleidoscope of possibilities. Hiking in and around the canyon also comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. For day hiking, check out this guide from the National Park Service (NPS).
For trails below the rim, which is our focus here, The Grand Canyon Conservancy has a nice introduction. The National Park Service (NPS) publishes a more in depth guide that includes comprehensive information about each trail’s maintenance level, skill requirements, trail head access and route, and backcountry use areas (camping, capacity, ecology, etc,). There are four types of use area zones, through which the trails in the Grand Canyon travel. Each is described in this concise excerpt from the NPS guide:
Corridor Zone Recommended for hikers without previous experience at Grand Canyon. Maintained trails. Purified water stations. Paved roads to trailheads. Toilets, signs, emergency phones, and ranger stations. Use of private livestock (horses and mules only) allowed only when specified on permit.
Threshold Zone Recommended for experienced Grand Canyon hikers. Non-maintained trails. Scarce water sources. Dirt roads to trailheads. Pit toilets. Use of private livestock (horses and mules only) allowed with permit only on Whitmore Trail and on designated roads and trails on the rim.
Primitive Zone** Recommended for highly experienced Grand Canyon hikers with proven route-finding ability. Non-maintained trails and routes. 4-wheel-drive roads to trailheads. Occasional signs. No other developments. Use of private livestock (horses and mules only) allowed with permit only on the Ken Patrick Trail to Uncle Jim Trail to Uncle Jim Point and on designated roads on the rim.
Wild Zone** Recommended for highly experienced Grand Canyon hikers with extensive route finding ability. Indistinct to non-existent routes require advanced route finding ability. Water sources scarce to non-existent. No other development. Use of private livestock is not allowed.
** Primitive and Wild Zones are not recommended for use during summer months due to extreme high temperatures and the lack of reliable water sources.
In the commentary on Rafting Trip Alternatives, I mentioned that I felt most comfortable being on the large motorized craft due to my lack of experience running the river. The same holds for me with regard to hiking into the canyon. The trails in the Corridor Zone are highly maintained and well traveled, and more than challenging enough to give me all the exhilaration I can handle. Keep in mind, we are talking about some of the most iconic hiking in the world. It’s possible to have kick-ass day hikes from both rims on the North Kaibab and South Kaibab Trails, as we did. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can go all the way from one rim to the other on the corridor trails. This is known as the Rim-to-Rim Hike, a 21 mile bucket-list adventure for many people (using the South and North Kaibab Trails). Usually, this is recommended to be at least a two-day journey, requiring a backcountry permit to camp overnight in the canyon.
As I mentioned in The Western Road Trip That Went South, my son Alex and I had planned to do the Rim-to-Rim in August 2020, but fate had other plans for us. It was just as well, because the temperature at the bottom of the canyon at that time was hitting 115°F. Carrying gear on our backs along with two gallons (16 pounds) of water in that heat, not to mention hiking during monsoon season, would have probably been a bridge too far. We have talked about going for it again someday, but in the cooler conditions of May or September. It’s also important to note the logistical challenge of parking your car on one rim, hiking across to the other rim, and having to find a way to get back to your vehicle. Unfortunately, unless you want to retrace your steps 20+ miles in the reverse direction, you have to follow the 213-mile route that crosses the Navajo Bridge to the east. That’s the last point a car can cross the Colorado River until 277 miles downstream near Lake Mead. Fortunately, the Transcanyon Shuttle provides four-hour rides (departing early morning and early afternoon) to the opposite rim from May into October.
For those who want to take it to the limit, there is the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. As the name indicates, it involves returning pretty much the way you came to your starting point. Well, not exactly. Usually, if you start on the South Rim, you will descend to the river by way of the South Kaibab Trail. This is because it involves hiking down a ridge where there is high exposure to the elements, mainly the relentless sun. There are no water sources on this trail, so it’s best to let gravity help reduce your effort (albeit with extra stress on your knees). On the return, from the river back up to the South Rim, you would follow the Bright Angel Trail, which is a bit longer. But this route offers some shade and sources of water along the way. Except for individuals with triathlete-level fitness, most people would cover the 43 miles and 10,000+ feet of elevation gain in five days or so. If I were going to attempt any hikes of this magnitude, it would be multi-day affair. Not only to avoid killing myself, but nearly as important, to savor every bit of the canyon I possibly can.
✦ Corridor Zone Trails – A Deeper Dive
Even on a day hike, the corridor trails are not for the faint of heart. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare is critical. This includes having the right gear. For instance, a well-fitting pair of good quality hiking shoes or boots can make all the difference (see our checklist above). The NPS has a great resource that covers the Essentials of Corridor Trails Hiking. It contains, among other insights, the charts highlighted below for all three trails with mileage, time, and elevation to reach each major landmark, and the risk guidelines for each.
Click on an image to view it full size
The NPS map below clearly shows the configuration and length of each corridor trail, as well as the major campsites and landmarks. You can quickly see that the North Kaibab is a beast at 14 miles long, while the the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails are relative babies at seven and nine miles, respectively. Of course, at 4,300 to 5,700 feet in elevation gain, none of these trails should be considered babies. But the difference in the amount of hiking on the north and south sides of the canyon does raise another interesting alternative. You could hike from the South Rim to the river by way of the South Kaibab, stay at Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground overnight (if you’re fortunate enough to get a reservation or backcountry permit), and return to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This would be a nice two-day 16 mile excursion, perfect for many people. However, there is a logistical twist here, too. The trailheads of these trails are about five miles apart. It happens that most of the hotels on the South Rim are adjacent to the Bright Angel Trail. So you would use the park’s early morning shuttle service to get to the South Kaibab and begin your hike, knowing you will emerge from the canyon the next day just a short walk from your hotel (well, no walk is short after hiking down to the bottom of Grand Canyon).
✦ Corridor Zone Trails – Our Experience
North Kaibab Hike
As I mentioned, Janet and I hiked on both the North Kaibab and South Kaibab Trails. After a week of rafting and hiking in the side canyons, day hikes on the corridor trails were a perfect undertaking. But believe me, they each were some of the most incredible hiking we’ve ever done. We did the North Kaibab first, descending almost 3,300 feet and five miles to Roaring Springs before turning around. This segment traversed most of the Roaring Springs Canyon before it meets the Bright Angel Canyon that runs for another nine miles down to the Colorado River and the Inner Gorge. Our entire route, including the one-and-one-half mile trek from Grand Canyon lodge to the trailhead, covered 12 miles in ten hours.
When we set out at about 5:30 am, it was a chilly 40°F, fairly normal for June at the North Rim’s 8,300 foot elevation. I remember after about a mile into the hike experiencing an incredibly intoxicating smell, the likes of which I had never known. It seemed to be a combination of several trees and flowers at that time of the morning, and I won’t even try to describe it because I can’t. In a couple hours, we had descended through the subalpine layer into the dry desert climate where the heat quickly ramped up. We chatted briefly with a passing ranger who told us he was hoofing it back up to the rim after a week-long shift at Roaring Springs and confirmed that it was indeed hot – 95°F. The constant pounding of the descent on my legs was turning them into jelly even though I had trained pretty diligently before coming out west.
As we reached the four mile mark, we starting to hear (but not yet see) Roaring Springs, a gusher of water pouring right out of the east wall of the canyon. I had learned that while the Colorado River supplies water to a large swath of the American Southwest, this spring supplies water to facilities inside the canyon, as well as on the North and South Rims. As we neared mile five, the spring really did approach a full roar and we stood watching it pour down the opposite side of the canyon.
Finally, we decided to turn around, knowing that in the canyon what goes down must come up. This is more than a trite saying. Most people are used to hiking up a hill or mountain and then descending. There are certainly pitfalls and dangers in the up-then-down scenario. But even if you exhaust yourself on the way up, you still have gravity as your friend on the way down. With a canyon’s down-then-up scenario, other than the possible stress on your knees, it’s seems pretty easy. But it generally takes twice as much effort to ascend, even more so because of the hot desert climate where the altitude approaches 8,000 feet. You have keep enough stamina, strength, and drinking water in reserve to get out. Having a plan to turn around after a realistic amount of time and distance is crucial.
One more interesting facet of our experience, mainly on the return trip, was our encounters with the mule trains. Besides the much greater exertion, heat, and oxygen deficit on the way back up, was the challenge of being overtaken by people riding mules on the trail (more on mule trips in Grand Canyon). First, hikers are required to stop and yield to the trains when they pass. This sometimes meant pressing ourselves into the canyon walls on the narrower sections to make room for these 1,000 pound animals. Second, as you can imagine, mules relieve themselves on the trail wherever it suites them. As the heat and dryness of the afternoon set in, the trail becomes very dusty. While the smells during early morning were intoxicating, these hot afternoon odors could be characterized as simply toxic. When the mules passed us by and kicked up the dust, it was pretty tough. The solution here, as we learned, is to have a neck gaiter handy, something we won’t overlook next time. Yet the mules were an amazing sight to behold. Watching their loping pace and placid demeanor makes it seem like they are ambling along in low gear. Then you look away for just moment to take a swig of water, and turn back to see that they have climbed literally a couple hundred feet above you. A good metaphor for how the entire Grand Canyon is a perception-altering paradox.
South Kaibab Hike
The day after our North Kaibab trek, we drove due east back over the Navajo Bridge near Marble Canyon, then south and west to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. This is a fabulous 200 mile ride through the desert, with many lookouts and opportunities to explore a bit off road (see Driving Around the Strip – Overlooks & Sights under the section below, The Arizona Strip & Other Nearby Attractions). After a night at the Bright Angel Lodge, we caught the shuttle bus for the South Kaibab trailhead. I had some reservations about how my body would respond just two days removed from the exertion, heat, and altitude of the North Kaibab. Surprisingly, I did pretty well, as did Janet. For one, the weather was perfect – in the 70s – 80s, probably owing to the fact that we started later in the morning and “only” went down into the canyon 1,100 feet, to Cedar Ridge. The three mile round trip made for a tidy four hour excursion.
The views on the South Kaibab are iconic and spectacular. This is helped by the fact that the trail follows a ridge, such that the earth slopes away on three sides, providing an expansive panorama in almost all directions. It’s a much different experience than the North Kaibab, where the hike descends into a deep canyon and a section of the trail, built in the 1920s, is actually a ledge that was carved into in the west wall. It’s still an aspiration of mine to hike the full rim-to-rim route someday soon to see all of the Kaibab trails (see this history of the South Kaibab Trail).
Images of Our Hikes (click on a photo to view it full size and use arrows for carousel viewing)
✦ Other Trails in Grand Canyon
We have not hiked any of the trails in the Threshold, Primitive, or Wild use areas (non-Corridor trails). At my stage of life it’s unlikely I would acquire the well-honed backcountry skills (advanced route finding, traversing ledges of cliffs, rock climbing, etc.) needed for many of these routes. If I were only twenty years younger. But … if I am able to maintain good physical fitness, I could see myself getting a just a taste, probably to the consternation of the rest of my family. Two trails have captured my imagination, and I’m sure I could be enticed by others, if nothing else, in my dreams.
One is the Nankoweap Trail. The reason I am intrigued by it is because it ends near a short, steep trail that leads up to the Nankoweap Granaries. These are the ancient structures that were carved into the cliffs around 1,000 years ago by the Anasazi Indians 700 feet above the Colorado River (at river mile 53). Janet and I hiked up to the Granaries after stopping for lunch on the second day.
It’s one thing to scramble up 700 feet of boulders and talus for a few hours in the mid-afternoon desert heat. It’s an entirely different proposition to hike almost 6,000 feet from the north rim down to the Colorado River on the eleven mile Nankoweap Trail. This paragraph from the NPS backcountry trail guide captures it nicely:
This trail is classified as MOST difficult of the named trails in Grand Canyon. It has the largest total rim-to-river drop (5640 ft / 1735 m) and is one of the longest trails. Hikers must be experienced in canyon route finding; this trail is not recommended for inexperienced or solo hikers. The Nankoweap Trail is not enjoyable as a summer hike as there is no water and little shade.
Hmmm … the most difficult trail of all the difficult trails in one of most extreme places on earth.
Let’s move on to the Tonto Trail. This is no walk in the park either. Instead of going from rim to river like most of the other trails, it runs longitudinally through the canyon on a shelf 1,300 feet above the river called the Tonto Platform. The Tonto runs for “95 rough, unmaintained miles, from Red Canyon on the east to Garnet Canyon on the west.” What places it at the edge of possibility is that it can be divided into segments (such as Bright Angel to Hermit Trail). Parts of the Tonto can also be combined with rim to river trails to create an interesting itinerary that allows for hiking along the river, albeit 1,000-plus feet above it.
The entire Tonto Trail is harsh and dangerous in varying degrees, and certain areas should be left to only the most experienced wilderness gurus. There are long stretches with no water sources, no way to bail out, and no way forward but going into and across side canyons that intersect the trail. So it’s essential to be clear where your segment of the Tonto will begin and end. If I do the Tonto, it will only be for a short stint. Maybe down the South Kaibab, west across the Tonto for a bit, and back up via the Bright Angel. All told, an otherworldly 12 mile jaunt through the canyon. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
The Arizona Strip & Other Nearby Attractions
As vast as the Grand Canyon is, it is still part of the larger Colorado Plateau, which encompasses a host of related and connected geological treasures in the desert southwest. The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square mile area centered roughly on the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. This huge expanse of high desert and forest was formed over eons by the unfathomable forces of vulcanism, metamorphic pressure, and erosion. The entire geological story of how the plateau and the rock strata below it came to be covers about 1.7 billion years, or 40% of the planet’s existence! One of the wondrous parts of rafting through Grand Canyon is witnessing this history unfold as you move deeper into the Inner Gorge. As our river guides put it, the Colorado River made this possible by carving an immense channel through the plateau, not unlike a baked cake (the plateau) rising up into a sharp knife (the river).
I could happily spend the rest of my life exploring, photographing, and writing about this amazing region. But for now, we’ll focus on the additional activities we enjoyed around the Grand Canyon vicinity, which is shown in the lower left quadrant of the map below.
More specifically, this locale is known as the Arizona Strip. In the next map, we see that this remote region ranges from Grand Canyon northward to the Utah border, and from Nevada eastward to Arizona’s midpoint at the city of Page. We found that a great compliment to our Grand Canyon rafting and hiking was the addition of a few days to experience the western third of the Strip. There were three main parts to our “extracurricular” adventure: 1) the attractions in and around Page, 2) the lookouts and features of the drive around the Strip, and 3) the Toroweap Overlook. A fourth and final outing was to the city of Sedona two hours south of Grand Canyon on the way to airport in Phoenix. Oh, and there is Monument Valley, a two hour, fifteen minute drive east of Page where Route 163 crosses the border with Utah. It’s technically outside the Arizona Strip but close enough to consider for a very worthwhile day trip. We also can’t forget the spectacular Grand Canyon overlooks on the north and south rims. Let’s explore each in turn.
✦ Page, AZ
While planning our trip, Janet suggested we add a few days at the beginning, before the week of rafting, to spice things up even more. Our river trip with Western River Expeditions commenced on a Tuesday morning, so we had a three-day weekend to explore the area. Page intrigued Janet, and once I learned more about it, I was all in. Not only were there iconic experiences to be had, but as we discovered, Page’s location 15 miles up river from Lee’s Ferry puts the Grand Canyon in better context. We could see where the basic nature of the Colorado River dramatically changes at Glen Canyon Dam as well how the nascent canyon begins to take shape. Also, getting acclimated to the heat and elevation before an extended period in the desert wilderness turned out to be a good idea. In no particular order, here is a synopsis of our forays in and around Page
This lookout is one of the most famous and most photographed spots in the desert southwest and it did not disappoint. In fact, we visited twice, first hurrying there on Saturday evening after flying into Phoenix, hoping to catch the sunset. While it was a thrill to see the Bend, after following the one mile path to the overlook, we didn’t have much daylight left to really absorb it. So we returned the next morning, driving about five miles from Page, to take it in at a more leisurely pace. The crowds at the main viewing area were large but friendly, and we were able to get to the overlook railing. But the real fun was walking several hundred yards to the right where we were able to climb up 100 feet or so on a mesa to spend some quality time gawking at the vista 1,000 feet below. A bonus was that we had this spot mostly to ourselves the entire time. Another plus was that the entrance fee was just $10 per passenger car, making this a great deal. I returned here with Alex during our 2020 road trip because I thought he had to see it.
Lower Antelope Canyon – Walking Tour
Option 1 – Lower Antelope Canyon Tour
Slot canyons are long, deep, very narrow channels commonly found in the Colorado Plateau region. They can be dangerous due to flash floods, and can sometimes induce claustrophobia. But they certainly can be enchanting and captivating. An especially dazzling exemplar of this geological feature is the Lower Antelope Canyon near Page. It’s about a mile in length, so you can walk through the exquisitely sculptured rock walls and formations as the sunlight illuminates their palette of oranges and reds in novel and unexpected ways. A well-known and popular chance to have this experience is with Ken’s Tours. The pictures below are from our hour-long walk through Lower Antelope Canyon with one of their guides. You can’t see it here, but it was quite crowded. It wasn’t that big deal, however, as our guide made sure to make room for photo ops, and directed us to the the best locations and lighting. Being that this slot canyon is on Navajo land, our guide was also well-versed in his ancestral history and shared some valuable insights that added perspective to the tour. An additional bonus was the gift shop in the visitors center, which had some very nice southwestern and Native American crafts and artwork.
Option 2 – Secret Antelope Canyon Tour
An alternative to the more crowded and commercial slot canyon experience is a semi-private excursion to Secret Antelope Canyon with Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon Tours. They drive guests in a 16-person open air shuttle to another, similar slot canyon near Horseshoe Bend, also on Navajo land. This option is a little more expensive, but offers more time to savor the experience, and is more accommodating to the needs of serious photographers. There is also the option to add a visit to a private, less crowded Horseshoe Bend overlook. Unlike the public overlook (see above), this one is also on Navajo land and jurisdiction. The original itinerary Alex and I had for our 2020 trip included both the Secret Antelope Canyon and private Horseshoe Bend overlook tour. Unfortunately for everyone, the Covid pandemic changed our plans, but I still have this on my radar for the future.
Antelope Canyon – Kayak Tour
Many aficionados of Lower Antelope Canyon may not realize that this slot formation continues north for approximately five miles to Lake Powell. The bottom mile-and-a-half of the canyon is actually a channel of water, so that you can kayak up from the bottom, reach land, and hike further up the slot for a while. Which is exactly what we did with Kayak Lake Powell Tours. The guide met us at Antelope Point launch ramp, about mile up Lake Powell from the start of the canyon with our kayaks. The pictures below attest to the wonderful experience of traversing this natural wonder by water and then continuing by foot through the towering cliffs. All told, it was a six-mile, three-hour round trip and a perfect compliment to the walking tour of Lower Antelope earlier in the day. Two thumbs up.
Glen Canyon Dam
A great change of pace while we were in Page was to see the technological colossus at the bottom of Lake Powell. The Glen Canyon dam – how it came to be, the way it completely altered the riparian ecosystem below it (not to mention transforming a canyon into a lake), the incredible size of its components, the power it provides to the southwest – is clearly many things to many people. With all this in mind, we just had to see it up close and personal. So on our second morning in Page, we arrived at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center to join a tour that eventually took us 700 feet below the lake near the green area you see in the picture on the left below. The guide regaled us with all of the mind-blowing fact and figures you would expect to learn in such as place. Janet and I both are fans of outsized machines that stretch the imagination and this one did not disappoint. It is only 16 feet shorter than its more famous cousin, the Hoover Dam, roughly 300 miles down river at Lake Mead.
With all the waxing poetic about this leviathan, we should remember the consequences. I’ve mentioned that it has completely changed the character of the river from a warm, often muddy and raging torrent in the spring and summer, to a frigid and deep green, punctiliously regulated millrace. The massive amounts of silt that had been carving the Grand Canyon are now building up behind the dam in Lake Mead, leaving the river neutered, so to speak. How long before the increasing silt makes the dam inoperable is one question. Another is how long the river can support the two gargantuan reservoirs of Lakes Powell and Mead, especially with a protracted drought of historic proportions afflicting in the southwest. I could go on, but I would refer you to one of my top five books of all time. The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko weaves the rich history of the dam and its impact on the Grand Canyon into a gripping account of its near-failure in 1983, and the dory runners who took advantage of the unprecedented water levels to … okay, I won’t spoil it for you.
New Wave Hike
What to do after being inside of one the largest machines on earth? Take a hike, of course. Fortunately for us, Kris, the proprietor of the (Grandview Inn Bed & Breakfast), where we were staying in Page, was our very knowledgeable host. She pointed us to an off-the-beaten-track gem of a trail, called the New Wave, due to its approximation of the undulating, colorful striations of the famous Wave, which is about 20 miles west of Page in the remote Coyote Buttes North area just south of the Utah border. The famous Wave is highly restricted and nearly impossible to see (although we keep trying to get a permit). Not so the New Wave. Although located less than a mile from the dam, it exists in a completely different world. We had the place all to ourselves and had a bit of an adventure when we inadvertently passed the parking area and drove until our car started to sink into the deep red desert sand. Fortunately, we’re from the East where we learn how to drive in snow at a very young age, so extricating ourselves wasn’t a big deal.
We covered a portion of the trail that ran along the shelf of a small mountain about a hundred feet above the desert floor. Most of the path was marked by a fascinating border of small rocks going off into the distance. After a while, the trail began to loop around to the back side of the mountain where it gradually tilted at an increasingly dangerous angle towards the edge of the shelf. I was wearing sneakers and I got the sense they would hold their grip on the rock. But given the incredible bummer of either of us falling off the mountain, we decided not to risk it and turned around. Still, we had a blast taking our time staring at the multitudinous natural art work on display. We also enjoyed the view into the distant desert, where we could discern the crack in the earth that is Horseshoe Bend. It wasn’t the Coyote Buttes Wave, but it was a fine wave just the same.
✦ Toroweap Overlook
No place on the Arizona Strip captured my imagination or heart like Toroweap Overlook, and that’s saying something. We are familiar with the Grand Canyon looking like an upside down wedding cake, descending to the river in a succession of tiers. But Toroweap is one of the only locations on the rims where the canyon walls drop straight down to the bottom. From the moment I saw the pictures of the staggering vista upriver from the cliffs 3,000 feet above the Colorado, I knew I had to see it in person with Janet. But that’s easier said than done. The only route to the overlook is an unpaved, rutted 61 mile dirt track. A standard passenger car would have a tough time getting most of the way there, but the last five miles? Forget it. You need a four wheel, high clearance vehicle, ideally with the ability to make repairs if you break down. You don’t want to get towed out, which can cost thousands of dollars and wouldn’t happen until you were able to get word of your predicament to civilization. This would probably be done courtesy of the ranger on duty at the station a few miles away.
Not to worry, though. We were able to book a tour with Dreamland Safari Tours, based in Kanab, UT to take us to the edge. They provided a rugged Suburban, an experienced guide, a nice lunch, and a satellite phone in case of the unexpected. In fact, Kanab is a hub for all kinds of fabulous excursions into the Arizona Strip and Southern Utah desert. Our tour required a full day to account for four hours of very slow and careful driving, and four hours of sublime exploration and photo ops at the rim. It was also the perfect spot to give Janet a ring to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. But although Janet was shocked and pleased, I became somewhat of a villain to the other husbands on the tour when their wives heard about my romantic stunt. Dreamland Safari also has an overnight version of the Toroweap Tour which, given its extreme remoteness, is a great location for photographing the night sky. Capturing the sun coming up the next morning over the cliffs upriver is also an iconic shot. In any event, it’s a very good thing that long, bumpy, almost impassable dirt road is there. It’s the only thing keeping Toroweap the pristine treasure that it is.
✦ Driving Around the Strip – Overlooks & Sights
One of the great aspects of visiting all the amazing attractions throughout the Arizona Strip is driving between them. There are so many unplanned opportunities that pop up to pull over to see a jaw-dropping vista, encounter a captivating indigenous creature, or view a well-known geological formation from a novel perspective. The pictures below offer good examples of the unexpected delights we happened upon driving around the Route 89 / 89A corridor to the east and north of Grand Canyon.
The first two photos below show some great overlooks that are very easy to, well, overlook. We almost passed right by them but lucky for us, we didn’t. Pasture Canyon Lookout Point on Route 89A, not far from Jacob Lake, got our attention just in time to see the dramatic clouds rolling in above the Vermillion Cliffs about 15 miles away. A few days later, after turning west at Cameron (from Route 89) onto Desert View Drive (Route 64) toward the South Rim, we stopped at three successive overlooks. The best one was Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook. “Wait,” you say, “didn’t you see the Little Colorado with its spring-fed electric blue water during your rafting trip?” That’s right. But the picture with the blue railing was taken about 25 miles from Grand Canyon, where the river bed is usually dry except during the wetter winter and summer monsoon storm seasons. This view of the same river was completely different yet equally spectacular.
Another treat was spending some time at Navajo Bridge, which actually consists of two spans above the Colorado River just four miles downstream from Lees Ferry. One span allows cars to cross the canyon, the last point they may do so until Lake Mead, while the second is for foot traffic. Looking out over the nascent Grand Canyon where the walls are only 500 feet high, and knowing what would be in store downriver after going under that bridge on a raft the next day, gave me chills. Also thrilling was our encounter with a California Condor. This bird, which has a ten-foot wingspan, was recently brought back from the edge of extinction in this very area, Marble Canyon. As we turned around to walk back across the bridge, we saw condor number 90 alight on the railing about 100 feet away. My camera at the time didn’t have a telephoto zoom, so we crept closer and closer, expecting him to take off. As we made our approach he looked at us cocking his head side to side trying to decide what to make of us. I was getting a little nervous about upsetting a huge bird who might think we were a threat. Finally, as we got to within 15 feet, he took off, and we watched him soar languidly into the canyon before settling on the far cliff wall. Wow!
We made contact with some smaller inhabitants of the region as well, mainly lizards. A particularly charming one was the multicolored fellow (a collared lozard) in the photo below. We were crossing the tail of the Painted Desert on Route 64 east of the Grand Canyon, where you can see the amazing Arizona desert hues of purples, yellows, turquoises, and pinks. We pulled over to admire the scenery, walked into the desert a bit, and came upon this little guy. He greeting us by charging at me at high speed and threatening to run up my leg. Naturally, I jumped three feet into the air onto a rock, even though he only weighed as much as my foot. A scene right out of Jurassic Park.
Finally, if you drive along these roads in Navajo Nation you will see Navajo craft stands from time to time. I would encourage you to stop and take a look. Many of them have quality pottery, silver (such as belt buckles), southwest jewelry, knives with semiprecious stone handles, Navajo rugs, and more. We brought some of these items back as gifts and home accents. They are beautiful reminders of our time on the Colorado Plateau.
✦ Grand Canyon Rim Overlooks
These are the places are where you really get the shock and awe experience of Grand Canyon’s mind-bending immensity, infinite variation, and sheer incomprehensibility. Looking out from the rim can be so disorienting that some people have fallen off after getting too close to the edge and losing their equilibrium. It’s not only the effect of the astonishing visual tableau before you. The all-encompassing and incongruous silence of the place, at least where there are fewer people (such as Toroweap Overlook, see above), adds to its majesty.
Most people will have their encounter with Grand Canyon from these overlooks. This is especially true on the south rim in the Grand Canyon Village vicinity, which draws roughly 90% of the total six-million visitors per year (as of 2019). A great synopsis of all the main lookouts on the north and south rims is James Kaiser’s Guide to Grand Canyon Viewpoints. I also have his book, Grand Canyon, the Complete Guide, which offers a lot more very valuable need-to-know information about the park.
One of my big disappointments during the 2020 road-trip with my son Alex, was being unable to visit the south rim lookouts by bike as we had planned, because of my back problems. When I return there, hopefully sometime soon, this activity will be at the top of my list. Bright Angel Bicycles, at Mather Point in the Village, has rentals for day or multi-day use. My plan would be to avoid the crowded shuttles and devote two full days exploring the south rim trails and overlooks by bike at a leisurely pace. I will also make sure to visit the more remote north rim overlooks, including Point Imperial. According to the NPS, this location is “the highest point in Grand Canyon National Park at 8,803 feet (2,683 m) … [and] also the most northern boundary of the park.
✦ Monument Valley
As I said earlier, Monument Valley is outside the Arizona Strip, about 130 miles east of Page. I mention it here because it’s awesome, of course. If we had known about it, we likely would have incorporated it into our 2019 trip. In 2020 Alex and I had the pleasure of driving through it coming south through Utah into Arizona on Route 163. Monument Valley is also on Navajo land and encompasses some of most familiar scenery on earth. It has served as the backdrop for countless Hollywood westerns. And most people are sure to have seen photos of this area, even if they don’t know its name. Go to any well-known photography website and it won’t be long before you see someone’s instantly recognizable shots.
Spread over 150 square miles at the Utah – Arizona border, there is a lot more to see in Monument Valley than what Alex and I had time for, given our need to stick to the road because of the Covid pandemic. Nonetheless, what we did see was unforgettable. We were able to get views of the iconic mesa and butte formations rearing up from the flat desert around them. Yet the most interesting sight was what I later learned is called Algathla Peak, shown in the rightmost picture below. This atypical formation looks more like the Paramount Pictures mountain logo than a part of the Colorado Plateau. In late afternoon, as Alex and I were making our way to the southern edge of Monument Valley on Route 163, there it was, about 13 miles past the Utah border around a bend to the left: fifteen hundred feet of imposing igneous rock basking in the setting sun. We pulled over for dinner, put the cooler on the roof of the car, and stared at it while we ate. I soon realized that this scene had the potential to yield some striking images given the unusual subject, and the light from the fading sun playing across the shifting clouds. One of those moments in time that stays with me.
Ah, Sedona. Another lovely place I wish we had more time for. But again, I’m grateful for the day we spent there. It was the perfect coda to our trip as we made our way back to Sky Harbor in Phoenix to fly home. By staying in Sedona for a night and then departing on a red-eye to the east coast from Phoenix the next night, we had a full day for both adventure and fun. We spent the morning hiking over its famous and distinctive red rock terrain. All we had to do was walk out the front door of the Marriott Courtyard where we were staying in the Southwest corner of town, turn left, walk a half mile, and there was a whole network of trails to explore. It was just right: not a lot of elevation change to deal with, red rocks and dirt to traverse, novel desert vegetation to discover, and views of distant geological formations, such as the one below.
We had a relaxing lunch under umbrellas in town during a passing thunderstorm, and then spent the afternoon walking the Route 89A strip in the artsy, bohemian northeast section. Lots of unusual and interesting shops to explore, especially the Clear Creek Trading Post, in which we spent the most time – inspecting the furs, rugs, beads, rattlesnakes, apparel, and especially the Native American artifacts. While we were in the store, they were playing a set of Navajo songs and chants I found mesmerizing. They actually had the CD for sale, called The Heartbeat of Mother Earth, so I bought one. During our forays into art galleries and southwestern gift shops, I made friends with a busker who let me play his guitar for a while. He seemed to appreciate the opportunity to take a break. Meanwhile, Janet made friends with an iguana, who didn’t seem to mind the opportunity to have a bonding experience with her. Then it was time to make the trek south to the airport, and return to the world of temperate climate and fall foliage. Home is pretty, pretty good. And it makes the next opportunity to visit the desert southwest that much sweeter.
Seasons of Grand Canyon
Seasonality is an important factor in deciding when to visit the desert American Southwest. Nowhere is this more evident than in Grand Canyon. The canyon is so vast and deep that it encompasses most of the desert and mountain climates found in North America, from Mexico to Canada. This includes the alpine landscape of the North Rim with its Ponderosa Pine forests, reaching elevations of 8,600 feet. The riparian ecosystem of the Colorado River lies at the bottom if the inner canyon almost 6,000 feet below.
The canyon is, indeed, a place of extremes, particularly regarding temperature and aridity. As the National Park Service (NPS) states, “the highest temperatures are found at the lowest elevations inside the canyon.” More specifically, “temperature increases 5.5°F with each 1,000 feet loss in elevation.” So in addition to the season, it’s very important to consider climatic conditions at the elevations you will be visiting. In early spring, for instance, there might be snow and ice on the rims, while the temperature at the river could be in the 70s. Planning a hike from rim to river would have to account for all of these conditions.
From late November through mid-May, the North Rim is closed to vehicles and there are no visitor services available. Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, at 1,000 feet lower, has a higher average temperature and is open to visitors during winter. But since the commercial rafting season runs from April through October, this will be our main period of interest. With that in mind, here are the three general climates to consider for an experience in the canyon. Also see this comprehensive average monthly weather and climate data from the NPS for the inner canyon, and north and south rims.
✦ Cooler wetter spring
In April and early May, the inner canyon temperatures range from lows in the upper-50s to highs in the 80s, There is almost a half inch of monthly precipitation, almost twice as much as early summer. This may sound comfortable for a rafting trip, and it may be for much of the time. But the weather can be unpredictable. In case the temps fall well beneath the averages, be prepared with a heavier fleece, neoprene socks for the river, and additional layers for camp. The Colorado river’s water in the canyon is a frigid 47 to 50ºF. During the month of June, when we rafted, we felt every bit of its bone-chilling cold, but the 100+ºF heat helped us to quickly regain our warmth. I’m sure an early spring trip is awesome, but the message here, as with any foray into the canyon, is to be ready for the conditions you may encounter.
✦ Hot dry early summer
This period covers the tail end of May through early July, when high temperatures in the inner canyon reach well into the 100s – perfect for rafting in the icy Colorado. The lows are generally in the 70s, nice for sleeping outdoors. Both of our June rafting trips had this ideal weather, but there were some pretty chilly nights when sleeping bags came in handy. On one particular night, when it stayed above 90ºF, everyone slept right at the river’s edge for some natural air conditioning. One advantage of a June trip is that there is hardly any precipitation. In the 14 total days we were on the river over two years, we had one very brief rain shower and mostly cloudless skies. In fact, our lead guide during our 2018 trip started us off by saying that we picked the perfect time of year for a Grand Canyon rafting trip. At the time, I thought he was just trying to get us stoked for the adventure, but now I know he was right.
Still, as noted above, the water in the river is frigid and the currents are swift and powerful. While the extreme heat and aridity of the canyon require continual vigilance against rapid dehydration, the water’s severe cold requires the same caution with regard to hypothermia. Care must be taken not to stray more than a few feet from shore while bathing or urinating, to literally avoid being carried off by the river. Being in the cold Colorado for more than 20 minutes can be a life threatening proposition.
As far as hiking in the canyon, June is also an awesome time, but it’s absolutely essential to carry adequate water to counter the very harmful effects on the body of extreme heat and low humidity. Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate the threat of quickly becoming dehydrated and slipping into a life threatening state of heat exhaustion. I won’t cover the preparation required for hiking in the canyon here, but I have shared resources with lots of great information about all of these topics.
✦ Monsoonal mid-summer/early fall
From late July through early September, it’s monsoon thunderstorm season in the canyon, as well as in most of the desert southwest. Not only is it the hottest time of year, but in desert canyons, it’s also the riskiest period for flash floods. The possibility of experiencing entirely clear skies in one location in the canyon, and finding a wall of water rapidly approaching from the torrential rain of a thunderstorm 20 miles away, is very real. There are well-known incidents of people being washed away while hiking in a side canyon, completely unaware of the presence of a nearby monsoon storm. This is not to say that one shouldn’t enjoy the canyon during the summer, but “being forewarned is being forearmed.” There is also great information about this and other dangerous canyon phenomena in the resources below.
National Park Considerations
Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) was established in 1919, making it one of the most venerable of all the parks. Perhaps the best place to consult for anything having to do with GCNP is the National Park Service’s (NPS) website for the park. This site has key information to help you plan your trip, much of which I’ve highlighted in the sections above, including: park history, a catalogue of trails, river rafting requirements, backcountry permit process, maps, services, and much more. My goal is not to repeat what’s in this comprehensive resource, but to augment it with some observations and tips from our three visits to GCNP. Also note that much of this conversation applies to most of the national parks. (See more information about definitions and designations for national parks and other protected sites.)
✦ Crowds, Lodging & Activities
GCNP was the second most visited park (after Great Smoky Mountains NP), with 6 million people in 2019. The statistics in 2020 were obviously skewed mostly lower by the Covid pandemic. But 2020 aside, expect crowds in most parks, including GCNP, particularly coming out of the Covid lockdowns in 2020. There are ways to mitigate the impact of dealing with hordes of people if you know when and where they tend to go. First, roughly 90% of the visitors are in the Grand Canyon Village area on the South Rim, and most of these folks stay on the rim. So even though some trails, especially the Corridor Trails, are heavily trafficked, once you get a bit below the rim, say 1,000 feet, crowds won’t be an issue.
It also helps a great deal to hit the trails as early as possible. The same holds true for activities on the rim. As I mentioned earlier, consider renting a bike to explore the South Rim trails and overlooks to avoid the crowded shuttles, but make sure to book your rentals well in advance. This goes for hotels, too. In Grand Canyon Village, there are lots of lodging options at different price points, but they tend to fill up quickly. Xanterra is the concessionaire for all the south rim hotels and I like to make my bookings as far as a year in advance. Most national park hotels usually require a one night deposit that is refundable up to seven days before arrival, with some exceptions.
Conversely, the north rim, because of its relative remoteness, gets 10% or less of the total annual visitors to GNCP. There are spectacular trails and overlooks as on the south rim but they are dispersed at greater distances with no connecting thoroughfares and shuttles. Also, in comparison to Grand Canyon Village, there is only one main hotel, at least near the rim. This is Grand Canyon Lodge – North Rim, for which the concessionaire is Forever Resorts.
Getting into even smaller numbers, roughly 1% of visitors to GCNP annually reach the Phantom Ranch area at the bottom of the Corridor Trails. Less than 0.5% encounter Grand Canyon from the Colorado River. Once again, the farther below the rim you go, the less people there are, and the more intimate and immersive is the experience.
✦ Backcountry Hiking
In the the section, Hiking – Alternatives & Experiences, I recounted our experiences day hiking on the north and south side Corridor Trails. However, there are several points to consider when the plan is for a multi-day hike, on any of the trails in the Grand Canyon. First, permits are required from the NPS. When going below the rim, it’s also very important to become familiar with and observe Leave no Trace Principles. Make sure to leave the wilderness as you found it.
For the Corridor in particular, there are three campgrounds for overnight stays, as follows:
• Cottonwood – about halfway (in miles, not elevation gain) between the river and North Kaibab trailhead on the north rim
• Indian Garden – about halfway (in miles, not elevation gain) between the river and Bright Angel trailhead on the south rim
• Bright Angel – At the bottom of the canyon about one half mile from the river on the north side
Note that there is no campground on the South Kaibab Trail.
Another option for staying overnight at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, about a mile from the river on the north side, is Phantom Ranch. This historic lodge was built in 1922 by famed southwest architect Mary Jane Coulter, at an oasis where the three Corridor Trails meet. It offers the only cabin, dormitory, and meal accommodations available under the rims and, as you can imagine, way more people want to stay there than bed capacity will permit. Accordingly, a lottery is used to allocate these highly prized reservations. Xanterra also runs the Phantom Ranch operation and accepts lottery submissions beginning the 15th month prior to the stay month.
✦ Murphy’s Law
As your trip approaches, make sure to check the GCNP Alerts Page for the latest conditions that could involve any number of problems, such as: road closures, infrastructure breakdowns, fires, and more recently, disease outbreaks. In just the three years we visited Grand Canyon recently, we confronted several adverse situations and we followed the GCNP alerts closely to determine whether our plans would be derailed or modified. I relate these here to illustrate that a plan executed to perfection in a National Park is often an anomaly.
Wildfires – According to CBS News “since 2000, the West has experienced one of its driest 20-year periods in history due to a combination of a dry natural cycle and the changing climate.” One effect at the Grand Canyon is smoke from the recent historically massive fires in California, which drifts over the region, creating hazy conditions at times. But even more impactful are fires that arise nearby from lightning strikes during monsoon season and threaten the park. Aside from Covid, the biggest threat to our visiting the Grand Canyon in 2020 was the presence of several big fires that burned for weeks near the north and south rim. One closed Route 67, the main artery to the Grand Canyon Lodge at North Rim, for weeks until it was brought under control. In 2019, we encountered controlled burns set by the NPS on the south rim for forest management. Although these were prescribed events, the plumes of smoke were visible from our dinner table at the north rim, and made us wonder whether a change in plans was in store when we arrived at the south rim two days later.
Water Infrastructure Problems – In 2019, we learned that the pipe supplying water from Roaring Springs for the rims was undergoing a protracted repair effort. This affected the amount of water available from this critical spring and led to several of the usual sources of water on the Corridor Trails being dry. It’s essential before any hike to check the Critical Backcountry Updates, including water status on the trails. But regardless of the infrastructure conditions, always carry a water filter or other means of water purification, to ensure you can safely drink river or stream water if required.
A related problem we followed in 2020 that affected Phantom Ranch was the continuing overload of the water treatment facilities there. The system was not designed to handled the number of guests and through hikers in recent years. Although some repairs have been made, significant maintenance has been deferred, leading to a reduction in the number of hikers that can be accommodated.
Road & Entrance Closures – Adjacent to GCNP on the east is Navajo Nation, and to the south and west are the Havasupai and Hualapai, respectively. There are times when the needs and concerns of these Native American regions can impact the operations and accessibility of the park. One of those times was clearly during the Covid pandemic in 2020. During our August 2020 road trip, our furthest destination was GCNP. By following the alerts and closures over several months, and changing our plans to work around them, we knew that the eastern entrance to the park was closed and that we would have to approach from the south. This meant that we had to allow for three additional hours on our drive to the park from Southern Colorado. No complaints, but being aware set our expectations and allowed us to respond accordingly.
The Covid-19 Pandemic and Black Swan Events
Although it’s understood that a global pandemic is an exceedingly rare event, I wanted to say a few words about it anyway. In our story, The Western Road Trip That Went South, I talk about the obstacles Covid introduced and how it changed our plans. As I mentioned, GCNP, as well as all the national parks, had to close and change the way they operated to keep their staff and visitors as safe as possible. Covid-19 is receding as of this writing (March 2021) and three effective vaccines are being distributed now to quicken its demise.
But black swan events, in general, do not seem to be as infrequent as they once were. The effects of climate change (mega-droughts, monster wildfires), unforeseen problems at Glen Canyon Dam only 15 miles upstream from GCNP (such as its near failure from exceptional flooding in 1983), the needs of the Native American peoples that live around the canyon (who can influence the park’s operations), the increasing scarcity of water in the Southwest, and the ever increasing numbers of people taxing the park’s facilities and ecosystems, can all induce breakdowns that call for changed or cancelled plans. In a larger sense, these issues call for a fundamental rethinking of how we treat our parks and the earth. But perhaps that commentary belongs in the Viewpoints section.
Preparing Your Mind & Body
This will be short and sweet, as I don’t presume to know what’s best for you. I’m not going to get specific on how to work out or tell you “if you don’t eat your meat you can’t have any pudding.” But as a novice who became more experienced and knowledgeable, I do want to share some thoughts about what I’ve learned. This is really just advanced common sense.
As I intimated earlier, the initial impact of being on the river can be somewhat of a shock. Hopefully, the experiences I recounted about our rafting trips will help you in approaching your journey with your eyes open, fully prepared, and eagerly awaiting the adventure of a lifetime. The same applies for hiking. Be ready for an encounter with extremes: altitude, temperature, aridity, elevation change, and the disorienting incomprehensibility of the place.
Adopting the right mindset is understandably challenging when you haven’t done this before. As you have gathered by now, this is not vacation to kick back or to be entertained. It’s an experience of immersion and learning, as much about yourself as about the wilderness. Consuming high quality information ahead of time will help you to not only set your expectations, but also point you to the more subtle but awesome sights to watch out for that would otherwise escape your attention.
I will recommend two references here to begin really getting a good sense of the river and the canyon: Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide and the book Over the Edge, Death in the Grand Canyon. The river guide will take you river-mile by river-mile through the canyon with all of its rapids, geology, and historical milestones. The book recounts in lurid and fascinating detail all the ways in which people have died in Grand Canyon, but more importantly, advises how to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. It also contains a rich history of John Wesley Powell’s groundbreaking 1869 expedition and the formation of the National Park, as well as insightful commentary about the issues facing Grand Canyon today.
Still, although this trip is an undertaking best approached with purposeful preparation and planning, don’t worry that the spontaneity or sense of discovery will be lost. No amount of research will substitute for the experience of being there.
I know I’m stating the obvious that good fitness makes for a good wilderness experience in Grand Canyon. I did see many folks on our trips that didn’t look to be in the greatest shape and still seemed to do okay. But I’m just more comfortable knowing that I did what I could to enjoy, not to mention hold up well in, the extreme and unfamiliar conditions.
All elements of conditioning are important: cardio, lower and upper body areas, and the core. Whatever you can do to improve knee and quad strength for climbing and trekking, and arm and shoulder strength for gripping and lifting, is a good thing. You will be doing a lot of all these things on a wilderness trip. The core is also a key area, which includes the back as well as the abdomen. For me, paying attention to the condition of my back became more of a priority after injuring it on the 2020 road trip with Alex. Developing a stretching and strengthening routine for that area has helped me immensely, to the point where I have been able to resume full workouts and have renewed confidence in making it through a trip featuring many days of arduous hiking.
There are other steps you may want or need to take depending on your specific situation. In my case, I know I’m likely to encounter acute knee pain at about the seven mile point of a hike. I use poles to help cushion the impact going downhill. At times, knee braces provide stability and support and they do get me through to the finish line. But when I get home, it’s sometimes hard just to walk up and down the steps for about a day. When I travel all the way from the east coast for a once-in-a-blue-moon encounter with the western wilderness, I want to avoid this problem becoming a constraint. About a month before each of my trips over the past few years, I’ve gotten trigger point injections in my knees. These are small doses of cortisone in the muscle that are intended to reduce inflammation and remain effective for about eight weeks. I have found them to be beneficial and my doctor assures me they are safe (at the frequency and dosage we are talking about here). Clearly, it’s a personal choice, and before you do anything like this, you should consult your doctor.
Photography Tips for Rafting & Hiking
Landscape photography is a topic I cover further in the Resources section. I want to say a few words about it here, specifically with regard to rafting and hiking through Grand Canyon. When I keep cautioning about the Grand Canyon being an extreme place, that applies to photography equipment, too. On our 2018 rafting trip, I brought a higher-end point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix ZS-70. I wasn’t yet into full frame photography and liked the idea of getting decent quality images with little effort. I was prepared with a waterproof bag to protect the camera on the river and, for six days, all was well. Then, on day seven, it stopped working because the exceptionally fine-grained sand at our camp site somehow got into the zoom housing. For the rest of the trip, including our time in Yosemite, we relied on our smart phones, which we were fortunate to have with us.
With this experience in mind, for our 2019 river trip I came equipped with an Olympus TG-5 waterproof/shock resistant point-and-shoot. It’s in the same class as the ZS-70 (resolution, picture quality, features, price), and performed very well in the harsh conditions. Aside from a phone, this seems to be the go-to still camera for many people on these types of trips. The Grand Canyon pictures you see on this site were taken with these point-and-shoots or our smart phones. With a little post processing in Photoshop, it’s possible to get really good images. At least, I hope you’ll agree.
Shortly after the 2019 trip, my landscape photography bug really accelerated, and I stepped up to a full frame mirrorless Sony. My intent was to expand the possibilities of expression through pixels, as well as to produce larger high-quality wall prints. Of course, the challenge here is the increasing amount of gear (lenses, tripod, and on and on) you need to carry and manage to do it right. Because of the climate and terrain conditions I mentioned, things get even more complicated when you’re in a place like Grand Canyon. There is the obvious risk of water and sand destroying your sensitive equipment, and the fact that limited storage space makes this approach unrealistic on a standard commercial river trip. However, there is a tour tailored for serious photographers who want to capture the best images possible on the river. Gary Hart, a landscape photography professional and guide, offers river trips as well as excursions to other destinations that cater to the exacting needs of the photography community. His Grand Canyon river trips actually run on Western River Expedition boats, which I have described at length earlier.
On longer hikes, I’ve learned how to carry my full frame gear and take higher quality images, while not slowing down others in the group. The mantra of virtually all photography professionals I’ve consulted is “always on a tripod.” But since I want good photos and good hiking simultaneously, I have to adjust. I’ve had to learn to take decent handheld photos while on the move, which come close enough to, but don’t reach, professional standards. There will come a time when I venture out to devote most of my attention to capturing images of the highest possible quality in targeted locations. But when I do, it will be on my own, where I can go at my own pace, or on a guided workshop, such as with Gary Hart.
Selecting the right river runners, tour guides, gear rental, or shuttle outfit can make all the difference.
Take advantage of others’ experiences & knowledge to become educated about these multifaceted places.
Learn how to capture great photos while being on the move and being present with the experience of the wilderness.