Photographers Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon Part 4 – the Lower Canyon
It’s high time I finished my series on rafting the Grand Canyon now that it is December and I’m about to head off on a new adventure (Christmas in Toronto). Part 4 covers the lower canyon (you can see the earlier posts in the series here, here, and here.) Granted the lower canyon is typically defined as the portion below Whitmore about river mile 187 to Pearce Ferry at river mile 277, this post covers a bit more, from below Deer Creek at river mile 136. Above Whitmore, there are several major attractions as well as the largest rapid in the canyon, the feared Lava Falls. But below Whitmore, there is still plenty to see, even though this section of the river is less traveled (many trips take out at Whitmore; others at Diamond Creek at about mile 225).
The next major “must see” site after Deer Creek is Matkatamiba Canyon at river mile 148. Matkatamiba, also known as Matkat, is a gorgeous and photogenic narrow limestone canyon on river left. The entrance to the canyon is narrow, so that not all trips stop here, and is also easily missed. I can attest to it being easily missed, as I found out on my recent trip, when the raft I was on, not seeing the rafts ahead of us pull in, sailed right by. I do have fond memories of it from earlier trips, however. The canyon presents a twisting layered limestone narrows section close to the river that requires some chimney climbing, so leave large camera bag in the boat. The canyon can be dark, any you’ll probably not have your tripod, so crank up the ISO.
Matkat is followed, at river mile 156 by Havasu Canyon, also on river left. Havasu is a day tripping site for nearly every raft trip because of its beautiful blue-green waters, travertine ledges, cascades, and stunning water falls. The hike up the canyon to the lowest of the water falls, Beaver Falls, is about 3 miles and Mooney Falls another 5 miles or so. It’s a significant round trip hike, and most rafters stop at or below Beaver falls. Even without visiting the waterfalls, the creek and canyon is more of the most beautiful spots in the Grand Canyon, if not the world. Unfortunately, due to COVID and the resulting closure of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, we were not able to stop and visit Havasu Canyon on my trip last March.
The land on the left bank of the river from mile 164.5 through 273.5 is part of the Havasupai Reservation, and was partially closed to our trip due to COVID. Hopefully it will be open when you make your trip. The first photo worthy stop on the reservation is National Canyon, where there is a nice short hike with limestone narrows and pools of water at National Canyon at river mile 166.
At river mile 178 is Vulcan’s Anvil, a black volcanic plug sticking out of the middle of the river. Though not super photogenic, you may want to get a shot as a reminder of what lies ahead – Lava Falls.
Lava Falls, the most formidable rapid in the canyon, occurs at mile 179. You know you are close after you pass Vulcan’s Anvil and you can hear the roar of whitewater but you can’t see any, with the river disappearing below a “horizon line” line ahead. That horizon line represents the top of the rapid, which drops 37 vertical feet over several hundred horizontal feet. It is reported by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest navigable water in all of North America. Rated as class 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10), it is a wild ride that can flip even the most experienced rafter.
The rapid is usually scouted on the right, where trails lead to a perch overlooking the top of the rapid. From the scouting position, you may wonder how any raft can make it through without flipping. And many do (do a Google search for “youtube lava falls flip”). With luck, you can shoot the action as another group or a portion of your group attempts the rapid. You’ll probably want a telephoto zoom to shoot rafts taking on Lava Falls, the top of the rapid is fairly close to the viewpoint, while the bottom is distant. You may also want to shoot with shutter priority with a shutter speed of 1/250th or faster, possibly with a partial to full positive stop of exposure compensation to account for the white water, or shoot on manual mode.
When it’s your turn to run the rapid, seal the camera in its waterproof container, strap it in well, and hang on! On my trip earlier this year, no rafts flipped, though a few of my fellow rafters got tossed into the maelstrom. Many trips stop at a river-right beach, known as Tequila Beach, below the rapid to celebrate a successful run. Pull the camera back out and shoot the celebration (while also take a few tequila shots yourself).
About eight river miles below Lava Falls is Whitmore Canyon. Many end their Grand Canyon trip at Whitmore, where there is a trail up to the rim (two of my group hiked out here), and a helipad used by some commercial trips for flying their clients out. Yet, if you can, keep going past Whitmore, there are still about 90 miles of Grand Canyon left. You won’t have any more huge rapids (but plenty of smaller ones), and final 37 miles of so is on the slow currents of upper Lake Mead, but the scenery is still great.
At river mile 199 you’ll pass Pumpkin Spring on river left. The spring has built up a wall of colorful orange travertine above the river. At the top, inside, you will find the milky green water of the spring, which contrasts nicely with the orange rock. The green water is not visible from the river, so you’ll have to stop to photograph it. Alas, on my trip earlier this year, we did not stop.
The river enters Lower Granite Gorge around mile 216. The gorge is formed by black schist interlaced with red granite, and you can capture some abstract looking shots as you float by. Eventually the gorge opens up with views of the scenic and distinctly shaped Diamond Peak. At mile 226 is the Diamond Creek takeout. Most commercial trips that didn’t takeout at Whitmore take out here. Many private trips do as well. It is also the launch site for day trips through the lowermost canyon, so river traffic may actually increase below Diamond Creek.
The next landmark is Travertine Falls at river mile 229. It forms an impressive and colorful wall of travertine. It is worth a stop to shoot (though we did not on our trip due to it being crowded when we floated by). At mile 240 is Separation Canyon, where several members of Major Powell’s first trip through the canyon left the river (and were never heard from again) rather than go through the biggest rapid of the canyon, Separation Rapid (now drowned under the water of Lake Mead). There is a memorial marker on the rocks above the river on the southern side of Separation Canyon.
Lake Mead formerly extended up to Separation Canyon, but with the decades long drought in the Southwest, that is no longer the case. The river continues with current all the way to Pearce Ferry, but the rapids are gone, buried by sediments deposited when the lake was higher. For this final stretch of the canyon, motors are allowed year-round, and our trip tied the rafts together and got out an outboard motor to help speed us down to the takeout.
While the canyon is still impressive in this final 37 miles, the sediments left by Lake Mead when it was bigger mar the canyon along the river. These sediments make steep banks and cliffs (growing every taller as you travel downstream) along the river which occasionally “calve off” into the water as the river continues its erosional job. There is one last photographic stop, the pretty Columbine Falls at about river mile 274.5. It is located via a short hike on river left. Though impressive, the falls are now about half their former height, reduced by sedimentation from Lake Mead.
At mile 277 is Pearce Ferry, the final practical takeout (there is another takeout further downstream, but shortly past Pearce Ferry is the newly formed and very nasty Pearce Ferry Rapid, created when the river cut a new channel, rather than resuming its old channel, through the lakebed sediments and encountered bedrock). Pearce Ferry is, in my opinion, rather a hot and dreary spot, and while you may want to document the end of your trip as the boats de-rig, the location itself is not much to look at.
Here are some more shots from the lower canyon.
Photographer’s Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Part 2 – Marble Canyon
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.