Rafting Grand Canyon

For a new photo perspective on this iconic landscape, take a trip down the Colorado River

Our group had landed a prime campsite just across the Colorado River from Deer Creek Fall, and we weren’t about to let a little rain dampen our spirits. The rain continued as I spread my tarp, assembled my cot and looked skyward for relief. While the sun was still buried in dark clouds, a patch of blue growing on the western horizon gave me hope. As the blue sky approached, I could see that the sun would soon be released and that we—and, more importantly, the falling rain—would be bathed sunlight. Rafting Grand Canyon provides a totally new perspective on this iconic national park, and sometimes something magic happens.

rafting Grand Canyon double rainbow photo

Double rainbow and Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park.

Rain, sunlight and a low sun angle are the ingredients for a rainbow. Though I’d always dreamed of photographing a rainbow arcing above the Grand Canyon, I tried not to get my hopes up. But when it became apparent that a rainbow was virtually inevitable, I suspended my campsite setup, grabbed my camera, and raced to the river like Paul Revere, crying, “A rainbow is coming! A rainbow is coming!” Of course, with the rain still falling, my cries were greeted with skepticism, but I insisted, and within minutes we were all marveling at a double rainbow spanning the Grand Canyon’s red walls. Thirty minutes later, when the rain finally stopped and the rainbow faded, our lead guide told us this was the most vivid, longest-lasting rainbow he’d ever seen in his 20 years working here.

There are many ways to experience Grand Canyon, but to appreciate this natural wonder’s scale, power and diversity, nothing matches a trip rafting Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in the shadow of its towering walls. “Putting in” at Lee’s Ferry, about 15 miles downriver from Page, the Grand Canyon eases you into its majesty. Here at the beginning of Marble Canyon, the Grand Canyon’s only significant north/south trending section, the walls are measured in hundreds of feet, not thousands, and the river’s pace is a gentle float punctuated by infrequent riffles and minor rapids.

Colorado River reflection, Grand Canyon National Park.

In Marble Canyon, the Colorado River has only just begun the relentless carving that will eventually reach 6,000 feet into the surrounding plateaus downstream. As you drift along, you’ll notice the canyon walls gradually rising to expose new layers of lithified sediment, each layer representing millions of years of Earth’s history. The 250-million-year-old Kaibab limestone that was just a few hundred feet above your head at the start of the journey now towers more than a thousand feet. And, as you’ll soon discover, that’s just the beginning.

About 60 miles (as the raft floats) from Lee’s Ferry is the confluence of the Little Colorado River, where your trip takes a metaphorical and literal turn. Just downstream from the confluence, the Colorado River makes a 90-degree bend to flow west, and the Grand Canyon’s once narrowly spaced walls open to reveal vast expanses of sky. Home to some of the darkest skies in North America, every square inch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is spectacular for viewing and photographing stars, but nowhere else in the canyon is so much sky visible.

The river also picks up speed after the Little Colorado. Not only do the rapids grow in size and intensity, but also they become more frequent. And just as suddenly as the canyon walls opened, they narrow, and you find yourself careening through the inner gorge, past rocks that are nearly 2 billion years old. In this section, beneath the panoramic vistas known to all Grand Canyon South and North Rim visitors, you hardly get a chance to dry off from one rapid before the next looms.

Colorado River rapid, Marble Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park.

Continuing west, the action moderates slightly—not in intensity as much as in frequency—but the sights continue to unfurl at a relentless pace. By the time the river deposits you in Lake Mead, you’re a seasoned river veteran who has traversed a cross-section of Earth’s history dating back over 2 billion years.

Balancing all this intensity will be some of the most serene moments you’ve ever experienced. For much of the canyon’s 277 miles, the white water is separated by long stretches of glassy water. In these areas where calm prevails, utter silence is interrupted only by the sounds of wind, water and wildlife. At any point on the river, you might hear a hawk’s cry, spy a California condor perched atop an outcrop or witness a family of bighorn sheep scamper along the rocky ledges. At night, if you’re lucky, you might spot the eyes of a ringtail cat glowing by the flames of your campfire.

Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon National Park.

One of the things that struck me most on my first trip rafting Grand Canyon and that still awes me with each return is the character and personality of the features that comprise the canyon. Viewed from the rim, the magnificent expanse of layered rock, accented by occasional glimpses of the distant Colorado River’s meandering thread, make for spectacular photography. Up top, the red rock is king.

But from the bottom of the canyon, it’s clear that the river is most definitely in charge. You also see that the rock that appears so solid from a distance is riven with deep caves, narrow slot canyons and spring-fed waterfalls. Garnishing all this detail are soaring spires and massive buttes, and ridges cut by hanging valleys that become raging cataracts during monsoon downpours.

Blue water, Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park.

I think the Grand Canyon feature I was most unprepared for is the impossible blue of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek during the months before the summer monsoon muddies the water with sediment and debris. And speaking of clear water, my favorite time for the trip is spring, when the temperature is warm but not too warm, and the Colorado River runs a deep, translucent green that’s a stark contrast to the opaque brown of the monsoon months.

But the Grand Canyon is not all water and rock. An alert eye might spot the remains from an ill-conceived, aborted plan to dam the Colorado River. And a little close-up detective work inside the canyon reveals ancient animal and plant fossils, and much more recent evidence of Native American inhabitation, such as the granaries at Nankoweap.

Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon National Park.

One final aspect of rafting Grand Canyon that shouldn’t be overlooked is the community and closeness the experience fosters among rafters. On each trip, lifelong friendships form between rafters (myself included) who were complete strangers when we pushed off at Lee’s Ferry. Nothing bonds people, friends and strangers alike, more closely than shared meals, stories and laughter, not to mention the common experience of a perfect moment in nature. The rainbow I started with happened four years ago, but that memory, and the memory of who I was with, will last a lifetime.

Gary Hart has photographed nature's beauty for over 30 years. Gary’s photos and writing appear in many publications, including Outdoor Photographer and Sierra Heritage magazines. You'll also find his images in greeting cards, postcards, calendars, galleries and many private collections throughout the world.
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