Photographer’s Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Part 3 – the Little Colorado through Deer Creek
Before I get into the photo highlights of this section of the canyon, I want to discuss some basic geology of the canyon because the landscape is based on the geology. Below the Little Colorado River, the canyon changes as the Marble Canyon ends and the Grand Canyon proper begins. The look of the canyon, at least from the Colorado River, is controlled by geology. The river cuts through the bottom of the Paleozoic rocks that from Marble Canyon, across the Great Unconformity, and into much older, and softer, sedimentary rock. With this change, the canyon widens. Further downstream, the pre-Paleozoic sedimentary rocks are replaced by truly ancient metamorphic rocks and granite. These rocks are hard, and the canyon narrows.
The lowest Paleozoic rock formation is the Tapeats Sandstone. Just downstream from the Little C, groundwater seeping through the Tapeats has left salt deposits near river level on the Tapeats. These salt deposits, known as the Hopi Salt Mines, are sacred to the Hopi people, would still make occasionally make journeys from the canyon rim to harvest salt. The Hopi Salt Mines are off limits and rafts cannot stop in this section of the river. To take a good photo of the salt deposits, shoot with a telephoto lens from your raft, trying to keep your entire composition in the shade to prevent too much contrast when the white salt is in direct sunlight.
Below the salt mines, the canyon opens up as geology changes as described above. There are no significant rapids here, or any must see sights, just broad canyon views, sometime up to the rim, as you float downriver. Both at Tanner (mile 68.5) and Cardenas (mile 71) there are short hikes to ruins of ancient pueblo watchtowers that overlook bends in the river. The second of these overlooks the Unkar Delta, which contains many ruins (though they are not very photogenic).
The rapids start to pick up below the Unkar Delta. From mile 73 to 85, there are a series of rapids, including five big ones: Unkar (rated 6 – 7), Nevills (6), Hance (8-10), Sockdolager (8-9), and Grapevine (8). Hance, in particular, is big, dropping 30 feet in half a mile. Considered by many as one of the top three rapids in the canyon, many trips will stop and scout the rapid. The primary scouting point is high above the river on river right. From this spot, you will need a telephoto lens to shoot rafts braving the rapids, but the view of the river and rapids from the scouting point is quite scenic even without rafts and can be shot with a wide-angle or normal lens.
Shortly below Hance, the river enters the Upper Granite Gorge, where the river has cut down into the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite. These 1.7 billion year old rocks are the oldest in the canyon. The black schist and red granite make this section of the canyon very scenic, but also very hard, so the canyon (at least at river level) narrows forcing the water to speed up and the rapids to become generally bigger. This section includes Sockdolager and Grapevine Rapids.
Below Grapevine, you will come to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge, also known as the Black Bridge, and Phantom Ranch at river mile 88. Most trips stop at Phantom Ranch you can mail a postcard and buy an ice cream cone. Many trips transfer passengers here, with some leaving and hiking out to the South Rim, and others hiking down to join the trip downriver. Camps near Phantom of reserved for trips doing passenger transfers. On my trip in March, we dropped off four (including one of our boatmen, who had hurt his hand and had to be airlifted out) and gained three.
As you leave Phantom, you pass under the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge, known as the Silver Bridge. The river continues through the Upper Granite Gorge, narrow and fast. Anyone joining the trip at Phantom won’t have much time to relax, as there are several big rapids between miles 90 and 98.5, including Horn Creek (8-10), Granite (9), Hermit (8-9), and Crystal (8-10). The primary scouting spot for Horn Creek is similar to Hance, fairly high on the hillside, providing a nice view of the canyon and rapid, but not good for photographing whitewater action without a telephoto lens.
Both Hermit and Crystal provide good opportunities for photographing rafts braving the rapids close up. The scouting locations are very close to the large waves and holes in the river, and you can get decent photographs of rafts shooting the rapids with a short to medium telephoto lens, or even a normal lens. Guides may not necessarily want to scout Hermit, so you may want to ask to stop and photograph the other boats in your group going through. On the other hand, Crystal, is scouted by most trips, and you can easily position yourself by the monstrous hole that makes Crystal famous.
Crystal is the last big rapid for awhile, though there are many smaller rapids in the canyon below Crystal (including a series named after gems). At river mile109, there is a short hike to Shinumo Creek Falls. These falls are reportedly not very photogenic (I have never stopped there). However, next waterfall is very scenic. At mile 116.5, there is a short trail/scramble into Elves Chasm. You’ll need a wide-angle lens to get the best composition. Every river trip seems to stop here, so you may not be alone, patience is the key to getting your shot.
At approximately river mile 117, the river exits the upper gorge and enters the Stephen and Conquistador Aisles, where the Tapeats Sandstone again lines the banks of the river. At mile 120.5 is Blacktail Canyon, a lovely slot canyon through the Tapeats Sandstone with a small waterfall. Just past Blacktail is the Conquistador Aisle, the longest (3 miles) straight stretch in the Grand Canyon. By river mile 123, the river cuts into the older schist and granite and enters the Middle Granite Gorge. This gorge is much shorter than the upper (or lower) ones, ending at about mile 131. Within the gorge is Bedrock Rapid (8), the only rapid in the canyon formed directly on the bedrock of the river bottom.
Leaving the Middle Gorge is the Deubendorff Rapid (7-9), is Stone Creek at mile 132. A short hike up the creek from the beach on river right leads to a pretty waterfall that is definitely worth shooting if your group stops here. At river mile 133 is Tapeats Creek. From here, its a great hike along the creek up to Thunder River – a large spring that gushes straight out of a cliff face creating a large waterfall. The hike is about 3 miles from the river.
Below Tapeats Creek at river miles 134 to 135 is the Granite Narrows. Here, again, the river cuts into the harder older rocks, forming a short stretch of narrows, at one spot only being about 100 feet across. As you come out of the narrows, Deer Creek enters on river right. Deer Creek plunges over a 180-foot waterfall, just a short distance from the river. Above the falls, the creek cuts through a slot canyon to an incredibly beautiful place call the Patio.
The entire falls is not visible from below (or above), and a wide-angle lens is required to place the visible portion of the falls in your frame. Deer Creek Falls (and the narrows above the falls) are one of the most popular stops on Grand Canyon rafting trips, so there is a good chance you will not be alone when photographing the falls. Additionally, during warm weather, the pool at the base of the falls is a popular swimming hole and, also, many people like to stand directly beneath the falls. Therefore, you may need to incorporate people into your composition or that multiple shots and use selective editing to create a composite without people.
There is a rafting campsite on the opposite of the river a short distance downstream. If camping there, you can get an excellent shot of the falls with the river in the foreground by hiking back upstream to a spot directly across from the falls.
Above the falls is Deer Creek Narrows, a deep, narrow canyon where the creek curves through brownish-red striated sandstone, creating a stunning slot. You will need to climb the short, steep trail south of the falls to access the narrows and the Patio. As the trail comes out at the top of the narrows, there is a great view up canyon of the river . The trail through the narrows winds along the western canyon wall above the slot canyon. There are several spots along this section of the trail with good views down into the gorge. When shooting here, take care along the edge of the cliff. Along the non-gorge side of the trail through the narrows there are several spots with hand-print pictographs. Some are rather faint, and in general, the pictographs are easier to spot when walking toward the river.
The narrows opens up in the Patio area, where are lots of compositions of small waterfalls, the creek, rocks, and cottonwood trees and other vegetation using wide-angle to short telephoto lens. Because of potential contrast issues, Deer Creek Narrows and the Patio are probably best photographed on cloudy days or when completely in shade. This may require using higher ISOs to limit shutter speeds.
The Grand Canyon continues for nearly another 140 miles past Deer Creek. I will cover this lower stretch of the canyon in the fourth and final part of my series.
Unless you hike in at Phantom Ranch, your raft trip through the Grand Canyon will start at Lee’s Ferry. At Lee’s Ferry, the Colorado River runs green and cold, as the water is freshly released from Glen Canyon Dam several miles upstream. The color often seems impossibly green, especially when shooting with a polarizing filter. Just south of Lee’s Ferry, the Paria River flows into the Colorado River, typically adding brown silty water to the Colorado; however, not enough to change to green color. Shortly thereafter, the walls of Marble Canyon rise up around the river.
Marble Canyon, though not nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, is wonderful to photograph. The sedimentary rocks that form the canyon walls, often make spectacular, colorful cliffs which plunge straight down into the river – particularly the Redwall Limestone. The resultant photographic experience is quite different than in the Grand Canyon proper, which cuts through older granitic and metamorphic rocks, leaving the sedimentary formations high up on the sides of the canyon, often not visible from the river.
As you leave Lee’s Ferry and the Paria River behind, Marble Canyon gradually deepens as the river winds south and west, cutting downward through the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that are found at the top of the Grand Canyon proper. Several miles south of Lee’s Ferry, the canyon is already several hundred feet deep, with sheer vertical cliff walls. Here is the Navajo Bridges (the original highway bridge and the neighboring foot bridge added much later). It’s fun to shoot from the day before your trip begins then again looking up at the bridges on the first day of the trip. The spot is also popular with Californian condors. These huge birds are probably more easily photographed from the bridges than from your raft. You will likely see other condors on occasion throughout the length of Marble Canyon.
A couple miles downstream from the bridges you will encounter the first rapid of the trip at Badger Creek. While not a small rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, along with the other rapids in Marble Canyon, is rather tame compared to the big drops in the Grand Canyon proper. Depending on flow levels and the experience of you boatmen/guides, your trip may not stop to scout any rapids within Marble Canyon, so most of your photography in Marble Canyon will be of scenery rather than whitewater action unless you bring a waterproof camera. That said, my recent trip did stop to scout Mile 24 Rapid because it is unusually difficult at low water levels (and indeed it was, the raft I was on flipped and two of our other boats dump-trucked their passengers and boatmen).
While you may not shoot much white-water action in Marble Canyon, you can create some wonderful shots of rapids should your trip camp next to any (and most campsites both in Marble and Grand Canyons are adjacent to rapids). By camping near rapids, you can shoot the canyon with the rapids in the foreground during the golden hours, using long exposures to make the white water smooth and silky.
Much of the scenery in the Grand Canyon occurs in side canyons to the Colorado. Many trips stop to hike in several of these side canyons. Cathedral Wash, located at river mile 3, upstream of the Navajo Bridges, is quite pretty and can be hiked either up from the river or down from the road into Lee’s Ferry. The next canyon downstream worthy of a photographic stop is North Canyon, at about river mile 20.5. We didn’t stop there on my recent trip, but did so on one of my earlier trips back in the late 1980s.
About 30 river miles are so below Lee’s Ferry is Vasey’s Paradise, a gushing spring shooting from the red rock above the river, with ferns and other green covering the slopes below the spring. This is often mentioned as a good photographic location. However, on my recent visit, the spring was trickling rather than gushing, and much of the vegetation was brown and dead. Consequently, it was not very photogenic. I suspect the decades long drought on the Colorado Plateau has contributed to the decrease in spring flow such that now is it a shadow of its former self. If you do stop here, beware of poison ivy.
But drought cannot harm another highlight of Marble Canyon: Redwall Cavern. Not really a cave, Redwall Cavern is an huge, deep alcove at river level carved out of the Redwall Limestone. In his exploration of the canyon, Major John Wesley Powell described Redwall Cavern as being able to sit 50,000 people. That might be an exaggeration, but it could easily fit several thousand. The floor of the cavern is deep, soft sand. Reflected light off the canyon wall lights the inside of the alcove with a warm red glow. To get the entire mouth of the cavern in a single shot requires an ultra-wide-angle lens. Alternatively, you can stitch several images together to form a panorama covering the entire cavern. To have detail both inside and outside the cavern, consider using HDR. Also consider shooting silhouette shots of people to give a sense of scale. Good shots can be made most anytime of day, but are probably best in the morning when the sun lights up the opposing canyon wall.
Past Redwall Cavern, there is a natural bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, on river right at about river mile 36. It’s not most photogenic arch you’ll ever see, but if you want to catch a shot of it, be prepared as it is only visible along a short section of river and you’ll likely be shooting from the boat rather than stopping.
Near river mile 41.5, you will pass the very scenic Royal Arches. These large alcoves are easily photographed from your raft as you float by. At mile 43.3, you can see the remains of Anasazi Bridge, a wooden structure build by the Ancestral Puebloan people to connect two cliff ledges, high above the river on the right. It is quite distance from the river, and without a long telephoto lens, difficult to shoot. At river mile 47, you will pass the Triple Alcoves, and like the Royal Arches, good shots can be made from your raft.
Shortly past the Triple Alcoves is Saddle Canyon. This side canyon is definitely worth exploring with your camera. A short hike (about 1.4 miles one-way) up the canyon leads to a slot canyon and scenic waterfall. (Unfortunately, we did not stop on my recent trip. I did hike up this canyon on one of my earlier trips through the Grand Canyon, however).
At river mile 53, you reach one of the highlights and most icon shots of the entire Grand Canyon, the Nankoweap Granaries. Almost every raft trip stops here and takes the short, but steep (about 0.6 miles and 600-foot elevation gain), hike up to the granaries. With the granaries in the foreground right and the canyon in the background left, it is truly a world-class spot. A moderately wide-angle lens works well, or you can stitch together a panorama, possibly using HDR to help with the contrast. Touching or otherwise disturbing ancient structures in Grand Canyon National Park is prohibited, so please be careful not to touch or lean against the granary walls. It would be a shame if the Park Service decided to fence off this area sometime in the future due to visitors interfering with the structures. Besides shooting compositions with the granaries, try shooting the canyon by itself, the view of which, even partway up the trail, is amazing.
There are no major sights through the rest of Marble Canyon until the Marble Canyon ends and the Grand Canyon begins at the Little Colorado River at river mile 61.5. The Little Colorado River is a major tributary of the Colorado River that flows year round due to the discharge of Blue Spring at about 200 cubic feet per second. Blue Spring, which is located about 15 miles upstream on the Little Colorado from its the confluence with the Colorado River, is aptly named. The water emanating from the spring is a wonderful turquoise blue color and the color carries downstream all the way to the confluence. However, the blue waters can occasionally be overwhelmed by brown dirty water during extended rainy periods or flash flood events further upstream in the Little Colorado basin (the Little Colorado is typically dry upstream from Blue Spring). This more typically occurs in the “monsoon” season of late summer.
The high mineral content in the waters of the Little Colorado River also lead to incredibly white sand deposits along the river banks in the area near the confluence. The white sands, blue waters, red canyon walls, and dark green water of the Colorado River make the lower reach of the Little Colorado River an amazing spot to do photography.
Most commercial river trips stop at the Little Colorado River for several hours, and some private trips stop for longer periods which allow hiking up the canyon. The confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River is a sacred place for several Native peoples. It is also one of the last places the endangered humpback chub lives (a type of fish). Please respect the land and water in this area.
As mentioned, below the Little Colorado River, the Grand Canyon begins (though you’d be hard pressed to see any distinct change in the canyon walls). In my next post in the series, I’ll cover the next 75 miles of river and canyon, from the Little Colorado River to Deer Creek.
I recently did a series of posts on the American Southwest. As a final entry in that series, I wanted to tell my story of obtaining photography permits from the Navajo Nation. Sometime in the past, I’m not exactly sure when or how, I learned that photo permits are required for commercial photography in Navajo Parks. So when I started planning for my trip that was to include visits to three Navajo parks: Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Antelope Canyon, I started an internet search to determine if a permit was truly needed, and if so, what was the cost. My whole experience turned out to be an adventure in bureaucracy.
It is important to remember that all officially recognized Indian reservations in the United States are recognized by the federal government as “domestic dependent nations.” This status allows each tribe to independently have its own laws and regulations. I am quite familiar with this. Here in Washington State, there are 29 federally recognized Tribal nations. Three tribes are good clients of the environmental company I run for my day job, Robinson Noble, and several others we work for on an occasional basis. Working with Tribal nations on a regular basis, I was inclined to pay for a permit for the Navajos. Little did I know, however, how involved the process would be.
One of the first things I learned in my internet search is that most photographers do not get permits. They are only required for commercial photography, and many landscape photographers don’t bother because of lack of enforcement and cost. If you are not planning on selling any photography from the parks, you do not need a permit. Chances are you will not see any Navajo rangers or police, but if you do, you may be asked to show your permit if you have expensive looking equipment even if not shooting commercially. And, of course, there is the question of what is commercial. You may not consider yourself as a commercial photographer if you only sell an occasional fine-art print, but based on my dealings with the Navajo Parks Department, they would consider you as one. On their website, on the Monument Valley page, not on the main permits page like you might expect, it states permits are required for “filming and photography undertaken for commercial purposes, i.e. for financial gain or public display and exhibition.” If you have any intent to possibly sell images taken in a Navajo park, legally you need a permit.
I also learned that finding the exact rules for photography in Navajo parks is next to impossible. The Navajo Parks website is not very useful. If you go their website, there is a top menu link to “Permits and Services,” and hitting that link takes you to a page that largely talks about hiking and camping (permits also needed). However, on the side menu, there is a link titled “Filming and Photography Permit for Tribal Park Area.” This link does take you to a permit form, but it is for filming, not still photography. There is a separate permit form for still photography. I only found this application form by doing a Google search for “Navajo photography permit” not through their website. While researching for this post, I did actually find links to the still photography permit. There are links on some of the individual park pages, not at the main permits page.
If you look at the two permit forms, you will notice that the still photography form is much simpler (which is nice), but you will also notice that it does not specify what the fees are like the filming form does. After some searching, I found this page on the Navajo Parks website that discusses fees for both still and video photography, though that page is also unclear as to what fees apply only to videography vs still photograph. However, based on that fee list, I determined that there a fee of $10 per day per person and a $50 processing fee. It seemed fairly reasonable.
Consequently, I prepared an application, selecting the three full days I planned to photograph in Monument Valley, at Canyon de Chelly, and in Antelope Canyon (which is in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park). At the time, I assumed that one processing fee was required no matter how many parks were visited, but then I re-considered the statement at the top of the application which says, “Submit application and applicable fees to the address at each location photography is to take place.” Did that mean, I asked myself, that I needed to send three separate applications, each with the $50 processing fee? Suddenly, the fees seemed less reasonable.
To make sure I did things correctly, I called the Navajo Parks office in Window Rock. On my initial call, made in late afternoon, but definitely before 5 pm, the phone went unanswered. I tried again in the morning and got through. They confirmed that a separate application and a separate processing fee is required for each park.
Consequently, I filled out three applications and sent them in to the three parks, each with a $60 check to cover the processing fees plus one day photographing in each park. About a week later, I received a phone call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park. They said my application had been received, however, they do not accept personal checks. Instead, I would need to send a money order or cashiers check, and it should be for $50, not the $60 I’d sent. The daily fee was only $8, not $10, and should be paid when arriving. Further, on the application, I needed to not only state the day I would be photographing, but the hours I’d be there and the name of the tour operator I would be using (visits to Antelope Canyon and other slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation require a tour guide for non-Navajos).
So my next step was to set up reservations with a tour operator for visiting Antelope Canyon. After researching the various Antelope Canyon tour operators and didn’t see much difference between them in terms of price or service. All offered a photo tour, where tripods are allowed, for about $80 or a standard tour for about $30. The photo tours were all about 1/2 longer. The number of people per tour are all large, and the photo tours occur concurrently with the standard tours, so at any time there could be hundreds of people in the slot canyon. It sounds like a really zoo, but I’d never been there, so though I was tempted to forget the whole thing, I decide I need to go at least once.
I eventually chose Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours solely because they are located at the entrance to the canyon, not in Page like the others. I chose them because I wanted to do Lower Antelope Canyon in the early morning, then Upper Antelope Canyon later the same morning. I called them to see if I could book Tanya on the photo tour, so we could tour together, even though she would not have a camera. The answer was no, only photographers are allowed on the photo tour because allowing non-photographing spouses on the tour would deny some worthy photographer of a spot. They said to book Tanya on a standard tours, and she would have to wait a half hour after her tour ended for me to come out. I went ahead and booked us on separate tours. Luckily, they did not require a deposit.
Then I investigated Kens Tours, which is the only company that does lower Antelope Canyon tours. Photo “tours” there $50. There is no tour involved, you get a pass that allows you in the slot canyon by yourself for 2 hours. Again, non-photographer spouses must go on a standard tour ($28, one hour long). Reservations are not required.
Now armed with a reservation for Upper Antelope and a plan for Lower Antelope, I filled out a new photo permit application, bought a money order for $50, and sent if off again. Now, several days after the call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park, I was beginning to wonder about Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Did they also not accept personal checks? Would they need specific times? I was starting to get a bit worried about timing, this was only a couple of weeks before we were to leave on our trip.
I decided I needed to call each and find out. Again, I tried calling in the afternoon, but the phones went unanswered. So the next morning I tried again and reached the office at Monument Valley. The conversation was a bit surreal; it went something like this:
Me: Hi, my name is Joe Becker. I recently sent in an application for a photography permit and I had some questions.
Them: Sure, how can I help?
Me: A few days ago I talked with the folks down at the Lake Powell Tribal Park. I had sent them an application as well. They said they do not accept personal checks for the fee and that I needed to send a money order. With my application to Monument Valley, I had also paid with a personal check. Do you have the same policy of not accepting personal checks?
Them: Yes, cashier’s checks or money orders only. You said your name is Joe Becker?
Them: Oh, yes, we received your application. I’ve sent it down to Window Rock for processing.
Me: What did you do with the check?
Them: I cashed it.
Me: You cashed it? I thought you didn’t accept personal checks?
Them: We don’t. You’re check’s not going to bounce is it? I’ll be in trouble if you don’t have any money in the bank.
Me: No it’s fine. I have plenty of money in the bank. But, I’m a bit confused. You cashed my check, so I don’t need to send a money order?
Them: You will need to talk to Jane (not her real name) in Window Rock about that. You sure your check was good?
I decided not to call Window Rock; she said she cashed the check. That should be good enough, right?
Instead, I called Canyon de Chelly. The phone call was answered by someone at the campground, which I thought was a bit odd. I asked about the application and whether personal checks were okay. They told me to call the main Park’s office in Window Rock, and I should call the National Park Service, they’d want a permit as well (Canyon de Chelly is co-managed by the Park Service and Navajo Parks). I know the rules for national parks and knew I didn’t need a permit.
But, in the end, I did call Window Rock after all. However, my conversation with the folks at Window Rock was limited to my application about Canyon de Chelly. And yes, they do not accept personal checks. I was to send a new application and a money order. By the way, what should they do with the check I had sent? Should they send it back to me or shred it? I asked them to shred it. Later that day, I sent a new application with a money order in for Canyon de Chelly.
About a week later, I received my permit in the mail for Lake Powell Navajo Park (Antelope Canyon), and several days later received an email with a pdf copy of my permit for Canyon de Chelly. But nothing showed up for Monument Valley. Finally, just a couple of days before I was to leave on my trip, I emailed “Jane” at Window Rock, saying I was leaving in two days and asking about the status of my application. She emailed me back the next day, asking if I had submitted an application, saying my name was not familiar, and if not, email one to her as quick as possible.
I immediately emailed back with the story of my application, about how I had talked to the Monument Valley office, and that they told me my check had been cashed. But in case she still couldn’t find my application, I attached a new one with the email. I also attached a pdf of the cancelled check.
She responded four days later. By this time, I was camping in Arches National Park with plans to drive to Monument Valley the next day, and I had little hope of getting a permit. However, around lunchtime we drove into Moab so I could again check my email. Sitting on a nice shady bench outside the visitor center, using their free WiFi, I finally found a response from Jane. In the email she said the check I had previously sent had been shredded, so I would have to pay the fee once I got to Monument Valley. Attached was an invoice for $70 ($20 entrance fee and the $50 processing fee). Also attached was the permit.
I wrote her back, thanking her for the permit, but also explaining once again that the check had been cashed. I explained how I had also sent an application for Canyon de Chelly, and that was the check she had shredded. She emailed back an hour later, simply stating that the check attached to the application sent to Window Rock had been shredded.
So obviously there was some confusion, but at least I had the permit, though it was unsigned. We drove to Monument Valley the next day, arriving late in the afternoon. The park office was closed. The following day, the day my permit was good for, I got up early and took sunrise photos. Tanya and I then drove the scenic drive, where I took more photos. Around noon, we drove back to the hotel and visitor center. The park office was open. I talked to the same woman I had talked to on the phone (the one who had cashed the check) several weeks before. She had no memory of the phone call or of cashing the check. She did have a copy of my permit and wanted payment. I gave her the whole story, and showed her a pdf copy of the cancelled check on my smart phone. She accepted that as proof, and officially signed the permit.
The three permits were quite different:
Canyon de Chelly – the permit is simply a copy of my application signed the park manager with an attached receipt for the payment.
Monument Valley – the permit is a single page of Navajo Parks letterhead, signed both by me and a park official, allowing photography on September 4, 2014 subject to 17 different conditions, five of which were marked as not applicable. One of the non-applicable conditions was the requirement to have a certificate of liability insurance naming the Navajo Nation and the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park as additional insureds.
Lake Powell Navajo Park – the permit is four pages long. The first page gives the date of the permit as September 8, 2014, the times of my scheduled Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon tours, states an $8 balance was due (the entrance fee), and says liability insurance is required. The second page was signed by the park manager and includes the statement that any photography that exceeds 8 hours will be considered as part of an extra day. The final two pages are a listing of 24 extra conditions, including the need to have the Navajo Nation as an additional insured on my general liability insurance policy.
I should also note that one the conditions on both the Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon allows the Navajo Nation free use of the photographs. Specifically, the Monument Valley permit states: “you agree to provide final finished project products (filming and photographs) to the Navajo Nation.” The Antelope Canyon permit is a bit more specific. It states “the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department reserves the right to use any image, photograph or video, obtained from Navajo Nation park lands without recompense to the photographer for marketing, promotion, advertising or informational purposes whether such image is obtained for personal or commercial purposes and where such image is displayed or exhibited in a public forum such as the internet or broadcast.”
After this whole adventure in Navajo permits, how did the photography turn out? I’m very happy with my results from Monument Valley. My favorite shots from Canyon de Chelly were taken from the rim, where I doubt a permit is actually needed. However, I do have a few good images from inside the canyon were a permit is definitely required (at least if you follow the rules). And Antelope Canyon? We ended up not going. It rained on the day of my permit, and I thought that exploring a slot canyon in rain was a foolish thing to do. Though I do have some good images from the trip, I doubt I will ever earn my permit fees back in image sales or licensing. But if I do, I will do so legally.
During this whole process, I was told several times to carry the permits with me when photographing in the parks and to show them to any ranger or police officer that asks. During my days in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, I did not see a single ranger or police officer and was never asked to show my permits.
In hindsight, I wonder if the whole thing was worth it, though it makes an interesting story. In summary, here’s what I learned about Navajo Parks photo permits:
- If you are only photographing for personal enjoyment, you do not need a permit.
- If you are photographing commercially, including just having the intent to possibly sell a fine art photograph, you legally need the permit.
- A separate application and permit is needed for each park.
- Each application requires a $50 processing fee, payable with a cashiers check or money order (personal checks are not accepted).
- You probably need general liability insurance (if you are shooting commercially, you should have it anyway).
- If going to Antelope Canyon or any of the other slot canyons on Navajo land near Page, Arizona, you need to specifically state on your application the dates, times, and tour companies you will be using.
- It’s best to send your applications in at least a month prior to your trip.
- Carry your permit with you when photographing.
If you decide you need a permit, good luck. May your adventures with the Navajo Parks Department be less complicated than mine.
During our recent trip, Tanya and I originally planned to visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for three days. I reserved a spot at the North Rim Campground in Grand Canyon National Park back in May. However, life got in the way (at least in a good way), and Tanya was awarded a full-time teaching job 2 days before we left on the trip, and therefore, needed to be back in Tacoma sooner than our original plan. So I cancelled 2 nights of our campground reservation. As it turned out, we did get three days at the North Rim. Torrential rains hit the Utah-Arizona border area when we were staying in Page, Arizona. After Page, we were planning to camp in the Paria area for two nights before going to the North Rim. While we were able to drive to the campground near Paria, all the trails we wanted to hike in the area were inaccessible due to impassable dirt roads. So instead, we went to the North Rim two nights early.
Now, you may be asking, if Joe had to reserve a camping spot 5 months ahead of time, how could he just show up and expect to set up his tent? Good question. The answer is I didn’t expect it. We called the national park, but were unable to get through the voice mail system to find out if any spots were available. Instead we headed to the national forest, where “dispersed” camping is allowed without reservations – just find a spot and set up your tent (but don’t expect any amenities and bring your own water, toilet paper, and “cat-hole” digging device). Though we have done primitive car camping before, we weren’t prepared for it this time, having left our portable table and shovel at home. So we stopped in Kanab, Utah at the local Ace Hardware and bought a table and shovel ( a nice folding table actually, better than the one we have at home). Somehow we fit this new gear in the already overstuffed car and drove to the Forest Service ranger station in Fredonia, Arizona. There we asked directions to Crazy Jug Point.
When most people think of the Grand Canyon, they think of Grand Canyon National Park. But actually, a large part of the canyon’s north rim is outside the park and inside Kaibab National Forest. National forests are much less restrictive than national parks, including allowing camping almost anywhere. Crazy Jug Point is a great place to camp. It took about 2 1/4 hours to drive the roughly 50 miles from Fredonia to Crazy Jug (mostly on well maintained dirt roads). We arrived in mid-afternoon and found three other groups already camping there. However, we found a very sweet, nicely shaded spot, just 20 feet off the rim, out of sight of the other groups. The view was not quite on par with the view from the Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim in the park, but the lack of a crowd (and the price – free) make up for it. We stayed two nights. After our first night, the other groups left, and Tanya and I had the entire place to ourselves. Imagine, sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, sipping a cold beer (okay, wine for Tanya), watching the sunset without anyone else within miles. That was our experience at Crazy Jug on the second night.
For our 3rd night at the North Rim, we drove to the North Rim Campground in the park, a distance of 36 miles and about 1 3/4 hours. The campground there had all the amenities you’d expect for national park, with the added bonus of showers (which in my experience are not common in national parks). It is a good campground, and with a short walk (1/4 mile or so), you can see the canyon. But it is not a place for solitude. The campground was full (90 sites).
Photography wise, camping in the park offered more options and better views. There are ten north-rim viewpoints in the main portion of the park. Four of these are accessible by paved road or short trails, the others by day hikes. With only one night in the park, we drove to the four easily accessible viewpoints, only stopping at three, and I made plans to on where to go back to for sunset that night and sunrise the following morning.
That evening, I stayed close to the campground and went to Bright Angel Point, which is directly behind the North Rim Lodge. This is the most popular viewpoint on the North Rim. A 0.4-mile, paved trail leads from the lodge and visitor center out to the viewpoint proper. However, there are many great views along the way; the trail being along the top of a narrow promontory. Being close to the lodge and campground, I was joined by perhaps a 20 other people. Right at sunset, I was out at the end of the trail. With limited flat areas at the viewpoint, it was a bit difficult to find a spot to place the tripod and find a pleasing composition without getting people in the frame. However, I did get a good spot by stepping down a couple of feet off the trail and standing on a flat rock. I would caution those of you with vertigo; you might not want to do the same. The rock I was on was about 5 or 6 feet across, with drop offs on three sides of 50 to 100 feet. The sunset was not anything to write home about, and the crowd dispersed quickly after the sun went down. I stayed for another 45 minutes, bringing home some nice shots from the blue hour.
The following morning, I got up an hour and a half before sunrise and drove to Point Imperial, roughly an hour’s drive from the campground. Here on the last morning of our trip, before we made the quick two-day drive home (later that day, we drove from the North Rim to Mountain Home, Idaho, about 680 miles), I stood alone, just me, my tripod, and one of the best views on planet. It was cold (about 37 degrees F), it was early (about 5:45 am when I got there; sunrise was at 6:09 am), and I was rewarded by the best sunrise or sunset of the entire trip. I shot like a madman for an hour or so, still the only person at the viewpoint, and headed back to pack up camp. While the view is fantastic at Point Imperial, it is more limited, with many fewer vantage points, than Bright Angel Point or Cape Royal. The perfect place for some quick shots before hitting the road.
After years of wanting to see the North Rim and not making it, I found the North Rim did not disappoint. This area is a landscape photographers paradise. I would have liked more time there, but it wasn’t to be. Now, having seen it, I have a big reason to go back. If you want to see the canyon without the huge crowds common on the South Rim, head north. It is well worth it.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a bit off the beaten track and missed by many visiting the Southwest. In fact, in my many travels to the Southwest, our trip last month was the first time I had been there. It certainly deserves more visitors than it gets; it is a wonderful place which combines scenery, ancient history, and traditional Navajo culture. First, the canyons are beautiful, and deserving of national monument status without their historical and cultural aspects. But what really makes it special are the many large and small ancestral Indian ruins sprinkled throughout the canyons and the Navajos who to this day make it their home. These canyons have been continually inhabited for nearly 5,000 years.
The park is made up of two main canyons that join together near the park entrance. These are Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly itself. There are many other smaller canyons that branch off these main two. The canyons start as a shallow wash and gradually deepen; eventually the walls reach a height of 1,000 feet. The stunning vertical red, yellow and orange sandstone walls contrast with the green cottonwoods and small agricultural fields, tended by resident Navajos, in the flat, canyon bottom.
There are two ways to see the canyons, above from the canyon rims or from below, inside the canyons themselves. The South Rim Road travels 36 miles along the southern side of Canyon de Chelly. There are seven viewpoints along the road, the best (in my opinion) are the White House Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook, but all are worth a stop. The North Rim Road traverses 32 miles along the northwest rim of Canyon del Muerto to three overlooks – all are worth stopping at.
While the views from the rim are good, to really experience the canyons you need to see it from within. To travel inside the canyons, you either need to go with a Navajo guide or hike in yourself on the only trail open without a guide – the White House Trail. This trail takes you from the rim at the White House Viewpoint, down the wall, and into the Canyon de Chelly just up canyon of the White House Ruin – so named because of one of the buildings is painted white. The ruin has two levels, one on the floor of the canyon and one some 30 feet higher on the canyon wall. The hike is well worth doing, but can be brutal in the hot sun of the afternoon. Most of the trail is in the sun throughout the day, expect perhaps late afternoon. You might try going first thing in the morning (which is what Tanya and I did). The ruin will be in the shade in the morning and in full sun in later in the afternoon. Be warned if you take a tripod. The ruin is surrounded by a 5-foot high wire fence. My tripod was too short to extend over the top of the fence, and I ended up shooting images of the ruin by setting the camera on the top of the fence and “hanging” the tripod down like a plumb bob to help steady the camera. This way I was able to get sharp photos with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 seconds. Such fences are also around other ruins in the canyons.
The other way to get into the canyons is to hire a guide. We took a “half day” tour from Changing Woman Tours. In this case, a half day was about three hours, which is barely enough time to start to see the canyons. Be sure to inquire about the length of your tour. Some half day tours are four hours. Full day tours can be six or more hours. In hindsight, I should have picked a longer length trip. There is just too much to see in only a few hours. Our tour guide, Victoria Begay, was quite knowledgeable, and we learned much about the history of the area. Because we had earlier hiked to White House Ruin, Victoria took us up Canyon del Muerto. It is my understanding, however, that most tours go up Canyon de Chelly. If you prefer to go one way or the other, be sure to ask your guide. Most people, us included, opt for a vehicle tour – typically in a 4-wheel drive supplied by the tour company. Hiking and horseback tours are also available. Tour costs vary. Our tour, for just the two of us and the guide, cost $165.