Friday, December 14, 2012

Lee's Ferry, Arizona

During our trip to Arizona four years ago, we drove out of our way 30 extra miles to Lee's Ferry to see the Colorado River up close and personal.  Lee's Ferry, officially part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park, and bordered by the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, is THE launch site for river rafters.  It was mid-October then and the water at the small, sandy beach area was so cold, it numbed our feet and ankles within seconds; but there were kids swimming - of course they were!  We didn't spend much time here because we were on our way to Page for an overnighter.  This time, we want to see some of what the river and canyon has to offer.

Campsite with river below
There is a campground on a hill overlooking the river rapids; surrounding our trailer are bright red/orange cliffs about 1,700 feet high.  Only 15 miles downstream, the gorge becomes the infamous Grand Canyon, so you can picture what we see.  Lee's Ferry is, reportedly, the only place within 70 miles to get down to the river.  The colour (green) and power of the water are reminiscent of the mighty Niagara River.  The sound of the rapids lull us to sleep at night.  The water level is fairly high (even though Lake Powell upstream is so low!) and the beach we walked on four years ago is now under the current.

The name, Lee's Ferry, originated from the man who started the first (and only) ferry service here - John D. Lee, a Mormon settler.  River crossings were more common then as other Mormon settlers used the service in their pioneering during the late 1800s.  A small settlement grew here and there are several sandstone buildings as evidence of the lives that once called this magnificent place home.  Gold mining was also attempted here, but the technology did not exist to extract the fine, powdery metal from the abundant clay.  A short, interpretive trail follows the river for about 1/2 a mile, exhibiting the old buildings and mining boilers.  The Spencer Trail climbs to the top of one of the cliffs for a view of the gorge, but at 1,700 feet up, we take a pass!

Marilyn climbing down around various dryfalls
We do, however, hike the Cathedral Wash.  This is a short 1.5 mile trail that leads down the wash to the Colorado River.  At first, the hike is less than interesting, although the hardened clay/sand walls contain many fossils from ancient seabeds that once covered this area; in fact, much of the rock resembles a huge sea sponge.  And suddenly, we come to a 25-foot drop - a waterfall, now dry awaiting spring snowmelts.  There is no mention of this in our photography book which has guided many of our hikes on this trip; nor in the Glen Canyon brochure - we are supposed to be able to get to the river.  Upon closer inspection, we spy a way to climb down on the side wall (hope we can get back up!).  This is not our last dryfall we must circumnavigate, but it is the highest in this canyon, which has narrowed to a very pretty slot canyon with 1,500-foot high red cliff walls.  Then we can hear the rushing water of the Colorado River, and our trail ends at a beautiful, sandy little beach.  What a pleasant surprise!
Brad (bottom left) standing in Cathedral Wash

Picnic lunch at the Colorado River
Notice how much higher the water is behind us above the rapids
The sand is soft, there are huge boulders that have been pushed down Cathedral Wash during floods (flash floods are VERY common in the desert, but happen mostly in the summer and early fall after thunderstorms which may occur many miles away), trees and bushes.  There are animal tracks all over in the sand, probably small rodents.  We have lunch on the beach and notice that, looking up-river, we can easily see that the height of the water is some two feet above where we are standing.  It's a bit disorienting as you expect a river to at least look level even though you know it's flowing downhill.  But such a drop I haven't seen except in the Niagara Gorge where we hike down from the Niagara Glen picnic area near the Whirlpool.  The river here is only about 50 or 60 feet across and flowing incredibly fast.  It's a great spot for our picnic lunch, at least until the sun goes behind the cliff wall and we are reminded that it's the middle of December and only in the mid-40s (temperature, maybe 6C)!  Our hike back is much easier now that we know the route (getting around the dryfalls).  Another canyon hike survived.
Making our way back up the 25-foot dryfall (seen on right)

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