By Jerry Ginsberg
Not long after the Civil War, one-armed Union veteran John Wesley Powell was the very first European to explore the Grand Canyon, As a matter of fact, it was he who gave it that name. Legendary conservation pioneer President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908 and enthusiastically advocated for keeping it pristine when he said, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it.”
The large majority of the five million or more folks who visit this 1,900-square-mile geologic wonderland each year stick to the small stretch of tourist-friendly facilities along the South Rim. A far smaller number are fortunate enough to enjoy the wonders of the lightly visited North Rim with its jaw dropping sites. But just a relatively few – perhaps just 20,000 a year – are adventurous enough to plunge into the ultimate Grand Canyon experience – rafting the Colorado River through the very heart of this mile-deep rock extravaganza.
Running the River
Rafting through this grandest of all canyons your craft will be transported on the sometimes gentle, sometimes rushing waters of the Colorado as it winds through mile after mile of other-worldly rock forms eroded into their present shapes over the last four to five million years. As your small vessel moves downstream, the canyon walls rise sharply above you on both sides. With this colorful many-layered wedding cake of geology floating past your eyes, you will be treated to over two billion years of history. Looking closely at some of these sedimentary layers you may find small seashells embedded in the rock. This is clear evidence that this land was once at the bottom of an ancient sea.
Rafting the Grand Canyon is not only a world-class photo trip but, more than that, it can be the experience of a lifetime, even for the seasoned traveler. Spending your days exploring the bottom of the canyon and your nights lying beside the river is a very different and far more intimate experience than merely standing on the rim. It will forever alter your perspective on the meaning of this special place.
Choosing a Trip
To maximize your enjoyment, a fair amount of advance planning is required. That planning centers around the selection of an outfitter. Just about every other aspect of your trip will depend upon that choice and your degree of enjoyment will derive from it.
Perhaps the most fundamental decision here is whether to choose an ordinary tour group or a true photo tour or workshop. Signing onto a non-photo trip is very likely to create some frustration with the discrepancy in priorities as you try to linger at prime locations in the best light.
Floating down the Colorado with other like-minded photographers will certainly be more efficient, but will come with a somewhat higher price tag. Naturally, my recommendation is to sign up with an actual photo group.
This is also likely to put you into a motorized craft, rather than one that is solely oar powered. This will help in smoothly navigating the stronger rapids as well as the occasional need to get back a few feet upstream to a favorable mooring spot. However, some outfitters provide only oar powered craft. This is a pleasant way to travel and the crew members are generally very skilled in maneuvering through even the roughest rapids.
If going with a photo group, you might wish to verify with the group leader that his/her photo priorities line up well with your own. In addition to the many standard stops along the river such as North Canyon and Redwall Canyon, the prime “do not miss” photo locations are:
- Nankoweep – Anasazi granary. Requires a somewhat steep, but not too tough hike
- Elves’ Chasm – A very short walk
- Deer Creek & Falls – The falls are right at river level. Getting above the falls can be tricky. Havasu Canyon can be fun, but it’s a long trek up the creek to the famed falls. These and many other landing spots along the river will have you using foot power for short hikes up side canyons so lace up your toughest waterproof boots.
- Lava Falls – Traveling down the river as far as this exciting waterfall directly below Toroweep is a real plus, but may require adding some extra time to the length of your rafting adventure.
Outfitters will provide such essential camping services as meals and sanitary accommodations. Gear quantity will likely carry a reasonable limit. That said, you may wish to bring a lightweight tent in case of rain. Sleeping outside at the very bottom of the canyon on warm nights in summer can be quite comfortable with just a ground pad and sleeping bag beneath you while using just a sheet as a cover. You may be surprised at how much red dust can accumulate on that sheet by morning. Even in summer under the strong desert sun, consider wearing thin, but long pants, long sleeve shirts and a broad brimmed hat to protect yourself from getting scorched.
Important Note: Bring several camera batteries! As many as you possibly can. Without electricity, you will not be able to re-charge your batteries. Today’s mirrorless cameras can deplete batteries very quickly and you don’t want to be passing up shooting at some beautiful locations because of inadequate battery resources.
There is no cell service along the Colorado. If you really need to stay connected, consider buying or renting a satellite phone. Even with that, a decent signal may be available only at places along the river where the canyon is wide and open to the sky. Make sure to bring biodegradable and environmentally friendly soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.
Most river trips depart from Marble Canyon. The closest large gateway airports are Phoenix and Las Vegas. Since a rental vehicle will be parked at or near Lee’s Ferry for the duration of your trip, consider renting something inexpensive.
Located so close to many other A list photo spots in the area, you may wish to add on some time in Page, AZ, Zion and/or Bryce Canyon National Parks. If your trip is confined solely to rafting Grand Canyon, consider taking an air taxi from Las Vegas to Lee’s Ferry and back rather than renting a car. Immediately prior to embarkation it may be best to spend the night at the motel at Lee’s Ferry.
Some of the best equipped outfitters offering a wide choice of Grand Canyon rafting trips can be found online at:
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.