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Posts tagged “Grand Canyon National Park

Photographer’s Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Part 1 – Overview

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).

Stone Creek Falls

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.

Punching through a wave in Hermit Rapids

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.

The Patio at Deer Creek

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.


North Rim

Point Imperial Sunrise

Sunrise at Point Imperial

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.Bright Angel View

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).

AgavePhotography 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.

Crazy Jug Point

Sunset at Crazy Jug Point

Crazy Jug Sunrise

Sunrise at Crazy Jug Point, taken from a spot just a 2-minute walk from my tent

Bright Angel Tree

I loved the look of this tree near the start of the trail along Bright Angel Point

Sunset at Bright Angel

Sunset, taken from the Bright Angel Viewpoint

Blue Hour Walls

Grand Canyon walls below Bright Angel Point, taken during the blue hour

Bright Angel

View from Bright Angel Viewpoint, taken after sunset during the blue hour

Mount Hayden

Sunrise with Mount Hayden, Point Imperial

Sunrise Glow

Glowing canyon walls at Point Imperial

Mount Hayden

Another shot of Mount Hayden from Point Imperial