|A hiker’s view of the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River from Cape Solitude in the eastern region of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.|
One afternoon and for most of a night I walked 30 miles roundtrip so I could shoot a landscape photo in the Grand Canyon. I started from Desert View Tower on the Canyon’s South Rim with my destination being Cape Solitude, an overlook above the confluence of the Grand Canyon, 15.1 miles away. The confluence is where the canyon’s two great river systems, the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers, meet. The place is considered by many to be the heart of the Grand Canyon and it holds spiritual significance to many Native American tribes. What sent me there was an assignment for Smithsonian magazine for the March 2015 issue (you can see the story here:
www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-can-save-the-grand-canyon-180954329) to document a story about a proposed development that could forever change this iconic, wild and scenic landscape. While the photo I was seeking to shoot was important for the story, I actually enjoyed the unexpected adventure of this painful long walk, a walk that was rewarded by being able to experience such an extraordinary view. In short my little adventure is what exploring national parks is all about.
Before my walk to Cape Solitude I met with Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga at Yavapai Point. He explained that there are two proposed developments, a massive resort on the park’s southern boundary and a tramway from the canyon rim to the confluence. He says these developments pose the greatest threats that Grand Canyon National Park has ever faced in its history and the Grand Canyon is no stranger to development. Over the past 95 years there have been dams, uranium mines and many other threats to the land, air, water and scenery in and around the Grand Canyon.
Surprisingly, in my many years of exploring in the Grand Canyon, I had never been out to Cape Solitude. The Cape is a lofty and remote vista that sits 3,400 feet above the confluence and unfortunately has a perfect view of the proposed tram development. I first heard about the Cape years before when reading Edward Abbey’s account in his book Abbey’s Road. Following an exhaustive book tour Abbey sought out the most remote place in the southwest, to reconnect with wilderness, nature and recharge his soul. This is what led him to Cape Solitude. Abbey writes of his visit, “Tonight and tomorrow and for the next few days, I am going to walk the rim of Cape Solitude, along the palisades of the desert, and save myself. Without half trying.”
My original intent in getting out to shoot at Cape Solitude was to mountain bike out there, loading my camera gear (a Nikon D810, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D and a small Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod) and some water and food onto the rack of my full-suspension mountain bike (I am using the Freeload rack formally made in New Zealand and now distributed as the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Tour Rack). But then I learned from the Park Service backcountry office that new national park rules will only allow me to pedal a little more than a mile. The rest of the trip out to the Point had to be on foot. I rode my bike as far as I was legally allowed, then donned my daypack and camera. My plan for a few hours’ bike ride to the Cape had been changed to a 12-hour power hike. I expected the walk to be pure hardship, but instead it became a sort of quest.
Twenty minutes after leaving the rim on my bike, I had lost most of the elevation from Desert View to the spot where I stashed my bike above a tributary of Straight Canyon. This is where the walk started down a 4×4 trail toward Straight Canyon and past Cedar Mountain, a familiar landmark in the Eastern Grand Canyon. When I left Straight Canyon, the piñon and juniper trees thinned out and I found myself on a broad expanse of rolling grassland and sagebrush. I stood on the undulating 6,000-foot plateau that leads out to Cape Solitude. My trail lay less than a mile east of the boundary with the Navajo Lands. Farther east I could barely make out the rim of the Little Colorado River, a ½-mile-wide, 3,000-foot-deep fissure, but from where I walked, it appeared as a wisp of white limestone cliff peeking above the flats, visible only if you knew what to look for.
Before leaving the rim I had marked my route with an iPhone app, Gaia GPS. For my return hike Gaia would be invaluable as I retraced the trail in the dark and located my bike. In the daylight, the trail out was easy to follow. My GPS waypoints assured me that I didn’t stray at trail junctions and the Mophie battery pack on my iPhone gave me power to spare for the 12-hour hike. Call me old- fashioned, but for backup I carried a map, compass and two extra lights.
The trail I followed led me through a gently rising ocean of gray sage, grasses and, ten miles distant, Cape Solitude. The ponderosa-forested rim of the Grand Canyon in the southwest and the distinct red mesa of Gold Hill to the east were all that distinguished this place from a prairie grassland.
My deadline to reach the Cape was sunset, so I had to push a hard pace. In the final hour I was still several miles from the Cape watching the sun creep ever closer to the horizon. I pushed myself into a steady easy run. I passed one false summit after another. Then with little warning the trail ended and I was at the edge of the 3,000-foot cliff looking down on the confluence. I had arrived at Cape Solitude ten minutes before sunset. I remembered what I once read by photographer Dan Winter in his book, Road to Seeing: “I have found that I am able to see much more clearly when I am doing the least.” It was that line or my beat-tired legs that I sat right down on the edge of the rim.
From my perch my eyes followed the deep green ribbon of the Colorado River until it disappeared into the northern reaches of Marble Canyon, and below my feet, under tiers of red sandstone benches, the milky-blue waters of the Little Colorado River blended with the waters of the Colorado River. My first photograph is the one you see here—my feet dangling over the abyss. As I framed the photo, I wondered if this was the same place Ed Abbey had stopped for his first view of the confluence. Looking up I saw the sun had set behind my left shoulder, causing the light of the bright sky and the dark canyon to find a balance. This is one of my favorite times of day to shoot in canyon country.
I walked along the rim looking for other vantage points, setting up my tripod and shooting as the canyons and river aligned into a composition. I explored the rim country of Cape Solitude until the stars shone in the moonless night. It wasn’t until the light was gone that I knew my assignment was over. In the quickly chilling air, I put away the camera, ate a bar, drank a swig of water, pulled on a hat and gloves, and checked my headlamp. I got the southern bearing on my GPS and started walking away from the rim. It would be a seven-hour walk back to the road in the dark and the temperature was expected to drop to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
Walking back, I realized that I had visited one of the most beautiful landscape panoramas to be found in the American Southwest. My walk to Cape Solitude got me to thinking about my passage through the landscape and standing on the rim where thousands of others had stood to enjoy the view, make some photos and then leave. In comparison, the proposed Grand Canyon confluence development would be as subtle as a nuclear bomb.
I know I will be back to this place again, and I can only hope when I return it will be as I left it.
To see more of Bill Hatcher‘s photography and read his blog, visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.