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.
It’s hard to believe I haven’t yet posted this year; not that I’ve done that much to post about, except for one big trip – a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Back in March, I took a 17-day private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. I’ve rafted the Grand Canyon before, but it has been over 30 years, so I was excited to go and anticipated doing some great photography, and I do think I came away with some very good shots.
The hardest part about rafting the Grand Canyon, at least on a private trip, is getting the permit. Permits are handed out through an on-line lottery. Each year, in February, the Park Service holds a weighted lottery for permits for the following year, as explained here. The chances of getting a permit for any one person is pretty slim. Both Tanya and I have put in for a permit almost every year for the past dozen years or so and have never been selected. However, we do so as part of a group of people lead by a buddy of mine who tries to score a permit every year. Last year, two member of the group got permits for March of 2021. So we were in. Each permit is good for up to 16 people. COVID messed things up a bit, and only 19 people ended up going on the trip (Tanya being one who did not go).
Of course, you can always go on a commercial trip, but they are quite a bit more expensive and you have have less freedom for photography unless you book one specially tailored for photographers (a good, but expensive, option).
It may be different when your trip is on a large motorized raft, but my advice is tailored to riding on small (14-18 foot) oar boats, which typically have one or two passengers in addition to the boatman (not always a man, but in my experience always called a boatman) on the oars. These smaller rafts work great for photography because it’s easier to take shots on the water without getting a piece of the raft in your composition and often the boatman will help out with your photography (positioning the raft, volunteering to go in a second group of rafts through a rapid so you can shoot the first group, etc.).
Once you book your trip, you will need to figure out how to keep your camera gear safe from sand and water. You will get wet, even on days without big rapids, so how do you keep your camera dry? The main two options are ammo cans or Pelican (or similar) cases. Some people may also use dry bags, but I don’t recommend these as they are difficult to seal properly, especially if you are in a hurry to seal your gear before an upcoming rapid. Pelican cases have the advantage over ammo cans of being easier to open and shut, having your gear better organized, and (depending on size) carrying more gear. However, while both ammo cans and Pelican cases can leak, personally I trust an ammo can more than a Pelican case. On my recent trip, our raft flipped and all my gear spent about 20 minutes underwater. My two ammo cans, which were carrying my camera and lenses, were completely dry inside. My Pelican case, which carried some spare batteries, books, my journal, and assorted other odds and ends, leaked. Not a lot, but things were wet. Others have told me told me similar stories.
However, there are those that prefer Pelican cases (like Laurent Martres, as he describes in his Arizona photography guidebook). And reportedly, on commercial trips you may not have full access to your ammo can when on the boat. What you use to carry your gear is an important consideration and you should talk with your trip leader or commercial outfitter about what will work best for your individual situation.
While ammo cans come in varying sizes, there are only one or two sizes that work well for quick access: the 50mm size and the fat 50mm size. I used a fat 50, in which I could fit my camera body with the 24-70mm lens, by 14-40mm lens, a spare battery, and some odds and ends like sunscreen, lip balm, etc. I also used a large ammo can to carry my 70-200mm lens and my 150-600mm lens. This larger can was not accessible when on the boat, though I could access it when we made stops during the day. I also had a day pack available at all times, but didn’t keep any camera gear in it as it typically got quite wet each day. I carried several small dry bags inside the backpack to hold extra clothes, my running shoes (to use on hikes), etc. These could also be used to carry an extra lens when hiking.
While I took four lenses, most photographers will be happy with two, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm or similar. I rarely used the wide-angle zoom, and the big telephoto I mainly used for shooting rafts going through rapids; however, several rapids I shot could easily be done with the 70-200mm lens.
Whether using ammo cans or a Pelican case, you will want to make sure it is well strapped in on the raft. Your boatman should have straps you can use to strap you can or case to the frame of the raft. When accessing your camera when floating, I like to loosen the strap, but not totally remove it, and close the can/case after removing my camera. You never know when you might accidently bump your case and send it over the side.
In addition to your main camera, you might want to also carry a small waterproof camera for shooting when in the rapids, or get a waterproof case for your phone and use its camera. I wish I had done one of these, but did not and missed out on some fun action shots.
Speaking of phones, many people use their phones as their main (and only) camera. I considered bringing my phone as well, but didn’t because of needing to charge it each night. You will need to consider how to keep your camera batteries charged. I carried six batteries for my Canon 6D, as well as five power packs to recharge them (three of my power packs were my drone batteries with a special connector; they hold a lot of power and were very handy). I ended up not needing that many power packs, but I really didn’t want to run out of juice.
You should also consider image backups. I took a risk and didn’t back up my images on the trip. I brought a lot of SD cards, and normally didn’t use any one card more than a couple days before switching to a new card. That way, in case any one card became corrupted, I wouldn’t lose all the images from the trip.
Two people on my trip had Go-Pros which they attached to the top of their helmets (while life jackets are required when on the river, helmets are optional and most people do not wear them, especially at normal water levels. The water level was very low for a portion of our trip, causing more rocks to be present in the river, and about half the people on the trip wore helmets at least part of the time.) We saw several other trips that had Go-Pros attached to rods above the back of their rafts. If you take a Go-Pro, you should attach it with an extra strap just in case the primary connection breaks. You may also consider attaching a float. One of the people with a go-pro on our trip was in a raft that flipped in Crystal Rapid. He swam most of the rapid, and when finally was rescued and pulled over to the river bank, he said “at least I got some good video” as he patted the top of his helmet to find the Go-Pro gone.
Tripods are a must for serious photography. However, on a raft trip, most of your gear is stowed during the day and not accessible. That includes tripods. I used my tripod extensively when we were camped for the night, but didn’t have access to it during the day, including on stops and day hikes. I suggest bring a tripod, and you may be able to work out a deal with your boatman to keep it accessible during the day, but don’t bet on it.
All raft trips start at Lee’s Ferry (except for some commercial day trips that start at Diamond Creek and only see the very end of the canyon), but can have varying lengths. Some people chose to hike in or out at Phantom Ranch via the Bright Angel Trail. Some of the best photography, in my opinion, is upstream from Phantom Ranch, so I suggest starting your trip from Lee’s Ferry. The various take outs include Whitmore Wash (river mile 188), Diamond Creek (river mile 226), and Pearce Ferry (river mile 280). Most commercial trips take out at Whitmore or Diamond Creek. Out trip continued on to Pearce Ferry. There is an additional take out below Pearce Ferry, but it is no longer recommended due to the new Pearce Ferry Rapid, which recently formed when the river cut through old Lake Mead lake bottom sediments (the water level in Lake Mead has dropped considerably in the past several decades, exposing the old lake bottom) and is considered not runnable.
I’ll follow up this post with suggestions for specific recommendations for photography in the canyon, so stay tuned.
My visit in September to Grand Teton National Park was marred by wildfire smoke. I came home with a few good shots; and lots of shots from good locations that would have been good save for the smoke. One way I found to improve the shots where smoke was an issue was to convert to black and white. This definitely saved some of my images, and perhaps I will do a separate post on that sometime soon. Right now, however, I’d like to tell you about a new photo guide to Grand Teton National Park that I’ve written for Photohound.
My guide covers some of the basics of shooting in the park as well as gives an itinerary of what to shoot if you only have a day or two. The guide describes 18 spots in total, including many well known spots and a few relatively unknown ones. There is definitely many other great photo locations in and adjacent to the park, and if you have some, I encourage you to add them to Photohound and improve this guide. I’m sure to go back someday in the not to distant future and would like to see you best Grand Teton locations.
Here are a few shots from the guide. Many more can be found on Photohound.
Stanley, Idaho is a small town in the heart of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area located near the headwaters of the Salmon River. The views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the area around Stanley are amazing, with the aptly named mountains abruptly rising thousands of feet from the Salmon River valley floor. There are many good photo locations in the Stanley area. Below I describe a few that I found in the three days I spent there last month.
A few miles south of Stanley is Redfish and Little Redfish Lakes. These lakes are named after sockeye salmon, turning red in fresh water while swimming 900 miles in from the Pacific Ocean, who spawn in the lakes. Today, only a handful of salmon can make the journey due to man-made obstacles, so the natural run is now supplemented with a fish hatchery. Redfish Lake is the larger and more developed of the two.
The view of the Sawtooth Mountains doesn’t get much better than from the Redfish Lake shoreline. The best time to capture the scene is in early morning while the lake is calm and the mountains reflect in the water, and prior to any motorboat activity on the lake. The light is not good in the afternoon, and sunset shots will only work well if there are colorful clouds in the sky.
There are several accessible spots along the shoreline to shoot, but perhaps the best spot in near the swimming area at the Outlet Picnic Area and Campground. East of the swimming area, the shoreline curves toward the mountains. Northwest of the swimming area, there are several logs in the water that can serve as foreground elements. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the entire set of mountains or a normal to short telephoto lens to make the peaks more prominent in your frame.
Little Redfish Lake
Like it’s bigger brother lake, Little Redfish Lake presents a wonderful view of the Sawtooth Mountains, especially in the early morning when the water is calm. The best location for shooting the lake and mountains is along the shoreline of the Chinook Bay Campground on the eastern end of the lake. You will need a wide-angle lens to capture the scene here, or alternatively you can stitch several images together to create a panorama. The best light will be in the morning, particularly at sunrise. Similar to Redfish lake, sunset shots will only work if there are colorful clouds in the sky lit by the setting sun.
To reach the Redfish Lakes, turn onto Redfish Lake Road from State Highway 75 about 4.3 miles south of Stanley. For Little Redfish, turn into Chinook Bay Campground after about 0.4 miles. Parking can be difficult if not camping at the campground (alternatively, you can camp at the Mountain View Campground, slightly further down the road, and walk to back along the shoreline). Parking on Redfish Lake Road is only allowed in designated areas and parking in the campgrounds is reserved for campers. The campgrounds are both first-come first-served and typically fill up early in the high season. Both typically close in mid-September.
To reach Redfish Lake, continue down Redfish Lake Road. At the round-about, take the second exit. In less than a mile, take the first right turn, and then another immediate right into the Outlet day-use area parking. From the southern end of the parking lot, it is a short walk to the beach.
Another scenic, easily accessed lake in the region is Pettit Lake. This lake is perched below Parks and McDonald Peaks. The beach at the day-use area presents a good view of the lake and the nearby peaks. A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture a portion of the scene, but to get the whole mountain range in your composition, you will need to stitch together a panorama. Like at the Redfish Lakes, the best light will be at sunrise through early morning. These are also the best times to find calm water.
To reach Pettit Lake from Idaho Highway 75, turn west on Forest Road #208 signed for Pettit Lake (about 16 miles south of Stanley). After 1.6 miles, continue straight onto Forest Road #361 to go the day-use area. The beach is directly west of the parking area.
Yet another easily accessible and scenic lake is Stanley Lake, located north of Stanley. Stanley Lake is one of the few easily accessible spots in the Sawtooth National Recreational Area that is good for both sunrise and sunset shots. However, the best reflections will usually be found at sunrise or in the early morning. While there are multiple spots along the lake to shoot, I like the area near the boat launch where you can put the nearby shoreline in your frame as a foreground element. From here, use a medium wide-angle to normal lens. Unfortunately, if you want a wider view, you will likely get one of the “no wake” floats located offshore from the boat launch in your composition. To keep these these floats out of your shot, you may want to explore further east down the shoreline.
To reach Stanley Lake, travel north from Stanley on Idaho Highway 21 for about 4.5 miles and turn left onto Stanley Lake Road. You will reach the boat launch area in about 3.6 miles.
Stanley Lake Meadows
Nearby the western end of Stanley Lake is a large meadow with a wandering creek and wetlands. Stanley Lake Meadows is a great spot to photograph McGown Peak. In the meadow, there are several unofficial trails along the meandering creek. There is a good spot for photographing the mountains’ reflection in the creek located a short distance west of the day-use parking area. Try shooting with a wide-angle lens to include both the mountain and its reflection in your frame. Both early morning and late afternoon light should be good. The meadow can be quite wet, especially in spring and early summer. You may wish to use waterproof boots, and please take care not to trample the meadow plants. To reach the meadows, follow the directions above to Stanley Lake and park in the day-use area.
Stanley Creek Road
There is a nice view of the Sawtooth Range from Stanley Creek Road with wetlands in the foreground providing reflections. Stanley Creek Road (also known as Forest Road #653) crosses Valley Creek a short distance east of Highway 21. At Valley Creek, it would be difficult to get a reflection of the mountains in the creek. However, a wetland on the south side of the road does the trick. Set up just off the edge of the road where the bushes give way to grass but before the hillside. While you might be tempted to go down into the grass to get closer to the water, expect to get your feet wet if you do as the grass here covers water rather than solid ground. You will probably want to shoot with a normal to short telephoto lens to prevent the road from being in your composition. The best light on the mountains will be in the morning, however, the foreground will be in shadow at that time. So you may want to use a split neutral density filter or HDR to control the contrast.
Highway 21 Viewpoints
There are many spots along Idaho Highway 21 north of Stanley that provide good views of the mountains. I like the spots where buck and rail fences line the road and provide foreground elements for compositions. All three spots described below are best at sunrise through early morning.
Iron Creek Road
One great spot for a shot of the mountains is at the intersection of the highway and Iron Creek Road, also known as Forest Road #619. Here a buck and rail fence runs along the south side of road. With a wide-angle lens, you can use the fence as a leading line element into your frame with the mountains in the background. Alternatively, you can use a short to medium telephoto lens to zoom in on the mountains and have the fence, further up the hill, as a linear element in the foreground.
Forest Road #169 intersects with Idaho Highway 21 about 2 miles west of Stanley, Idaho. There is plenty of room at the road intersection to park off the highway.
At this particular spot, there is a corner of two buck and rail fences, allowing both to be used in compositions. Try shooting close to the fence, making the roadside fence a prominent element in your composition with the perpendicular fence adding visual interest in the mid-ground. The bushes behind the roadside fence can be used to frame the mountains. Or shoot further up the bank of the highway for a different look, shooting over the tops of the bushes. The spot is located on Idaho Highway 21 a short distance east of milepost 129, about 1.4 miles west of Stanley. There are small pull offs on both sides of the highway directly at the spot providing easy parking.
Roadside Exhibit Pullover
About a quarter mile closer to Stanley from the milepost 129 spot described above are pullovers (one on each side of the road) for a roadside exhibit. Park at the one on the south side of the road and take in the view of the Sawtooths with a buck and rail fence running out into the meadow and another fence running parallel to the road. Both these fences make good foreground elements and the one running into the field can be used as a leading lines To get the complete set of mountains in your frame, you will need a wide-angle lens. A normal lens can be used to make the mountains more prominent.
If you are interested in the history of the area as well as the scenery, try driving up the Yankee Fork Salmon River. The turnoff to the Yankee Fork Road is about 13.5 miles east of Stanley on Highway 75. The highway follows the Salmon River, providing good views along the way. Yankee Fork Road intersects the highway at Sunbeam, where there is the remains of an old dam which formerly, before it was breached, provided power to nearby mining operations.
After reading about the dam’s story on interpretive signs overlooking the dam site, turn north on Yankee Fork Road and follow the river. Soon you will see multiple crescent-shaped mounds of tailings, one after another, stacked across the valley floor. These were left by the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, as it worked its way up the river mining for placer gold. Besides the dredge, there are ghost towns and old cemeteries to visit.
Eight miles up the road, you will reach the remains of Bonanza City. There isn’t much left today except a few old buildings, most in various states of decay. In 1881, at the height of it glory, the town had a population of about 600 people and featured main street with wooden sidewalks, several stores, a post office, a hotel and more. After two devastating fires, and with the nearby town of Custer (see below) providing an alternative place for business, the town faded. The building shown above is perhaps the best preserved; it is located just off the Yankee Fork Road.
About half a mile from the Bonanza City town site, up the West Fork Yankee Fork Road, is the Bonanza Cemetery. Most of the grave monuments in the Bonanza are wooden markers labeled as “unknown.” Some are surrounded by wooden fences, others are standing in the sagebrush. There are a few stone monuments as well, recording deaths in the 1880s and 1890s.
Continue another 1/2 mile up the West Fork Yankee Fork Road then turn right at a trailhead parking area and continue about a 1/4 mile up a rough road (may not be suitable for low clearance cars) to reach another cemetery, this one called Boothill. There are only three graves at Boothill, those of Elizabeth Anges “Lizzie” King and her two husbands.
According to the interpretive sign there, Lizzie’s first husband, Richard, was left dead after a heated argument with a business partner in July 1879. Lizzie and her close friend, Charles Franklin, buried Richard here and purchased two additional adjoining gravesites. A wedding between Charles and Lizzie seemed eminent, when in mid 1880, Lizzie traveled to Butte, Montana looking for employees for a dance hall she has recently opened. She returned with Robert Hawthorne, and the two were married on August 5, 1880. Six days later, both Lizzie and her new husband were shot dead. They were buried next to Richard. The murder was never solved, but Charles soon moved to a secluded cabin near Stanley. Years later, when he died, he was found with a locket containing Lizzie’s photo in his hand. Due to the circumstances surrounding the deaths, the residents of Bonanza decided to open a new cemetery, leaving Lizzie and her husbands the only souls on Boothill.
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
The Snake River Mining Company purchased the mineral rights to the various placer mining claims along the Yankee Fork, and in 1939 moved a gold dredge to the river. It was assembled in place and started working the deep river gravels upstream in search of gold. The dredge operated until 1952. After dredging all the claims owned by the company, it was left in place. In total, the dredge recovered about $1,200,000 in gold from over 6 million cubic yards of river gravel. Today, restoration of some of the tailings is taking place.
The dredge is located located about a half mile north of Bonanza on Yankee Fork Road. It is open for tours in the summer (though not this year due to the Covid pandemic).
Another mile and a half north of the dredge is the ghost town of Custer. Custer was founded in 1879 near the General Custer mill, which was completed in 1880 and processed ore from nearby mines. Custer eventually grew in size and became bigger than Bonanza City. It reached its heyday in about 1896 with several restaurants, a hotel, and many saloons. When the mill closed in 1904, people left the town. By 1910, only 12 families remained, and with time, Custer became a ghost town.
Today, much of the town has been restored and is preserved by by the Yankee Fork Historical Association, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The schoolhouse is now a museum, and many buildings are open to the public.