In April 2021, we boated 226 gorgeous miles down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek over 16 eventful days. My peak experience was hiking 8 miles up sparkling Tapeats Creek to impressive Thunder River, across the remote desert of Surprise Valley, then down to delightful Deer Creek Slot Canyon and Falls. Carol’s favorite was swimming beautiful bright-turquoise water down travertine terraces of the Little Colorado River. See camera and clothing tips at bottom.
All images from rafting the Grand Canyon April 3-18, 2021
Click “i” to read descriptive Captions in the above gallery show. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above images to your shopping Cart at this link: “2021 Apr 3-18: rafting Grand Canyon, AZ.” Highlights from this show are conveniently laid out further below.
The following video by fellow rafter Amanda Byrd and friends encapsulates the fun and joy of our trip. Please turn on Captions (CC/Subtitles) to read the words by Rebecca Douglass, sung by clients to their guides, to the tune of “The Sound of Silence” written by Paul Simon.
Above: YouTube video “Hello Water My Old Friend – Grand Canyon April, 2021“
Among the 15 Grand Canyon river concessioners, I chose:
Our skillful guides formed a truly exceptional team, as they enthusiastically served tasty food and spun river lore. This 16-day hikers’ special (offered only in April and late September) provides more onshore time than other trips to explore the wonderful side canyons, and lets you experience three kinds of craft (1 paddle raft, 1 dory boat, and 4 oar rafts). Plunging through whitewater and unplugging into sandy wildland camping for more than two weeks stretched our minds in new ways, away from clamorous news and social media. Grand Canyon’s colorful rock layers took us to awesome depths revealing 40% of Earth’s geologic history.
Having already paddled through the Grand Canyon in 1990 May 1-14 on a paddle boat run by Canyon Explorations, in 2021, I relaxed on AZRA’s dory and oar boats, each rowed by a guide, which left my hands free to take pictures—except when clinging to the boat during rapids! The many exciting rapids consumed only 10% of float time, leaving 90% placid time for contemplating canyon splendor, in the company of 24 nature-loving passengers and 7 guides. Minor discomforts included chilly wetness alternating with withering heat and living over two weeks in a sandy tent without hot showers. When wind subsided, many enjoyed sleeping without a tent under the brilliant starry night in the clear desert air with no rain.
I recommend this great book: While a dangerous Colorado River deluge threatened Glen Canyon Dam in 1983, three legendary river runners set an incredible speed record, rowing through the entire Grand Canyon (277 miles) in just a day-and-a-half using a dory boat. Their thrilling adventure is poetically interwoven with natural and historical context, including struggles between conservationists and dam engineers, in the following classic:
“The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon [at Amazon]” by Kevin Fedarko (2013)
The following photo highlights are gleaned from the animated gallery show at top. Colorado River Mile 0 starts at Lees Ferry embarkation…
Above: Initially masked per pandemic rafting regulations, our Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) group embarks from Lees Ferry (Mile 0) to boat down the Colorado River for 226 miles through Grand Canyon National Park. For pandemic safety, masks were required during the initial AZRA meeting in Flagstaff, for bus rides, for embarkation at Lees Ferry, while being served for all meals, and for final disembarkation at Diamond Creek. Otherwise, this relatively safe outdoor activity was unencumbered by facial coverings.
Above: One of the world’s rarest birds, a California condor (tagged for research) takes flight from the Historic 1929 Navajo Bridge. As of 2021, the world total of California condors is around 500, more than half of which are in the wild. Although still endangered and facing ongoing challenges such as lead poisoning, they’ve come a long way since numbering just 22 in 1982.
Above and below: Sunrise light spotlights a wall in Marble Canyon on Day 2, where we breakfasted at Twentymile Camp at Colorado River Mile 20.2. Marble Canyon runs from Lees Ferry at River Mile 0 to the confluence with the Little Colorado River at Mile 62, which marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Although John Wesley Powell knew that no marble was found here when he named Marble Canyon, he thought the polished limestone looked like marble. In his words, “The limestone of the canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. Sometimes the rocks are of many colors – white, gray, pink, and purple, with saffron tints.”
Above: Furnace Flats seen from the Tabernacle Trail. Hike 4.6 miles round trip with 2250 feet gain from Colorado River Mile 74.6 to the Tabernacle butte (4830 ft elevation). The trail starts from Upper Rattlesnake Camp by ascending a steep hogsback spine of Dox Sandstone. Atop the Tabernacle, admire views of the eastern Grand Canyon, including Furnace Flats and the Palisades of the Desert. Day 5.
“The rocks of the Vishnu Formation, predominantly mica schists, are the oldest in the Grand Canyon. Approximately 2 billion years ago, 25,000 feet of sediments were deposited and volcanics extruded onto the ancient sea floor. During an orogeny, a mountain-building episode, 1.7 billion years ago, those rocks were folded, faulted, and uplifted (metamorphosed), and intruded by the Zoroaster Formation, predominantly granite (also subsequently metamorphosed to form granite gneiss). The resulting mountain range is believed to have been 5-6 miles high. Over the next 500 million years, the mountains were eroded until only their roots remained, and today, the roots of those mountains form the steep walls of the inner gorge.” —GeologistWriter.com
Above: Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) trip leader Lorna Corson rows under Bright Angel Bridge (aka Silver Bridge). Built in the late 1960s, the Silver Bridge supports hikers and the transcanyon water pipeline across the Colorado River, connecting the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and the North Rim. Hikers only (no mules) may cross this narrow suspension bridge. Five-hundred-thousand gallons of water a day are piped from Roaring Springs near the North Rim down Bright Angel Canyon through Phantom Ranch, across the Colorado River, and then pumped up to provide almost all of the water to the South Rim tourist area. Day 6.
The Vishnu Basement Rocks average about 1,700 to 2,000 million years old and consist of mica schist. These were originally sediments of sandstone, limestone and shale that were metamorphosed and combined with metamorphosed lava flows to form the schist. This layer along with the Zoroaster Granite were once the roots of an ancient mountain range that could have been as high as todays Rocky Mountains. The mountains were eroded away over a long period then topped by new sediments deposited by advancing and retreating seas. The crystalline Vishnu Basement Rocks underlie the Bass Limestone of the Unkar Group of the Grand Canyon Supergroup and the Tapeats Sandstone of the Tonto Group. These basement rocks consist of metamorphic rocks collectively known as the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite, sections of which contain granitic pegmatite, aplite, and granodiorite that have intruded into fractures as dikes.
Below: Starting at River Mile 134.5, a portion of our party disembarked rafts for a hike one way up beautiful Tapeats Creek Trail to the wondrous Thunder Spring and River, across remote Surprise Valley Trail, then down Deer Creek Trail to meet others of our group at The Patio and Deer Creek Falls at River Mile 136.9. This scenic one-way traverse was 8 miles with 2300 feet gain (measured by my smartphone GPS app).
Above: along the trail up Thunder River, Echinocereus triglochidiatus is a species of hedgehog cactus commonly known as claret cup cactus, Mojave mound cactus, or kingcup cactus (the official state cactus of Colorado).
Above: The astounding volume of water in Thunder River emerges year-round from a deep cave system of Muav Limestone. The half-mile-long Thunder River drops 1200 feet over a series of waterfalls, making it the steepest river in the USA, and one of the shortest. It’s a rare instance where a river is a tributary of a creek. While Tapeats Creek was named by the second Powell Expedition in the winter of 1871–1872, the expedition did not discover its main tributary, Thunder River (which wasn’t found by European-Americans until 1904). Day 10.
31 years after I last rafted the Grand Canyon in 1990, I noticed lots more (dozens of) native bighorn sheep in 2021, a healthy sign for this fascinating ecosystem, which is gradually recovering since nonnative wild burros were removed in the 1960s. Since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, floods no longer scour the vegetation or deposit as much sand on the diminishing beaches (which affects rafters). Aggressive nonnative species such as tamarisk trees continue to threaten native riparian biodiversity.
Above: Starting from River Mile 187.9 in Grand Canyon National Park, Whitmore Trail heads north into Grand Canyon–Parashant National Monument (covering 3 miles round trip with 920 feet gain). Day 14 of 16 days rafting.
Camera recommendations for rafting
- Smartphones cameras: should be waterproof and well protected, such as in a Temdan smartphone case which gives easy access to all buttons, including the power button. Your smartphone case or holder should have a lanyard attachable to your life vest with a small locking carabiner. Our waterproof Samsung Note 9 smartphones were useful as my wife’s main camera and my backup. (Our Willbox Professional case was too bulky and wasted precious phone power by not allowing power button access.)
- Recommended: waterproof, shockproof, dust-resistant Olympus Tough TG-5 waterproof camera (2018, 9 oz, 25-100mm, f/2.0-4.9 lens), which can potentially beat contemporary smartphone image quality if you shoot and edit raw file format, as I did using the TG-4.
- For photography on dry land, I recommend the best POCKETABLE CAMERA , the 8x zoom Sony RX100 VII (price at Amazon) or RX100 VI with 1-inch Type sensor. Read my Sony RX100M6 review. This pocket camera, backup batteries, and soft carrying case fit well inside the Pelican 1060 Micro Case. When your guide on a motor rig, oar boat, or dory says that you have enough placid time before the next rapid, it’s possible to risk the camera out of the hard case for quick shots (which isn’t practical if you are an active paddler on a paddle boat).
- Portable charger battery pack: is essential for recharging smartphones and cameras for the extended time away from electrical outlets.
- Beware that bringing a larger or pricier camera risks damage from sand, water, and impacts.
- A hard waterproof case (such as Pelican case) is required to protect your camera or anything fragile. (On the boat, your gear is stored in flexible dry bags which are tossed about, compressed by straps, and may be stepped upon as people clamber around.)
Clothing recommendations for rafting
Brrrr, my inadequate raincoat failed to defray the frequent splashes from the bone-chilling 50- to 55-degree-Fahrenheit water, released from the frigid bottom of Lake Powell! As rapids doused us randomly and intense sun alternated with canyon shade, we frequently vacillated between being too cold or too hot! Dressing in layers was helpful to a point, but when soaked, any extra layers added for warm tend to retain frigid water and delay drying out. That’s why you see the guides counter-intuitively wearing few layers (helped by frequent rowing to raise body temperature). Keep dry clothes, a warm knit hat, and hiking shoes available in your waterproof day bag.
- Waterproof paddling jacket: Invest in a long paddling jacket with a fitted waterproof neck (I say with hindsight).
- In early April 2021, record-warm air temperatures helped us warm up and dry out in the sun, but then overheating became a risk. When afternoon hiking became uncomfortably hot (85 to 90+ degrees), presoaking our shirts felt great. For handling intense sun while boating on a hot day, we liked shading ourselves with a multi-use cotton sarong wetted in river water. When you wear shorts on a hot afternoon then get cold as evening falls, a warm dry sarong stylishly wraps legs, for both women and men.
- Footwear: While boating, on some days I wore lightweight waterproof breathable socks with Crocs sandals with heal straps and enclosed toe box; but cleaning and drying the socks took more time and effort than using wetsuit booties. Beware, those who wore bare feet in sandals were exposed to intense sunburn through the open slats. My wetsuit booties worked well in the rafts, but had painfully-thin soles for the frequent walks on rocks. Instead, I recommend wetsuit boots that have a stiff waffle tread, to accommodate shorter hikes of up to a mile or so. For longer hikes, change into dry trail-running shoes (like Altra’s “Olympus” or Hoka) with good hiking socks. To prevent skin cracking in the dry desert air, frequently moisturize your hands and feet (especially the heal), because repeated river splashes suck away your natural oils.
- Sun gloves: “Coolibar UPF 50+ Gannett UV Gloves – Sun Protective” are worn by me throughout the day in dry climates and on any hike. If you paddle a lot, instead pick a good paddle glove. To prevent skin cancer, get gloves that fully cover your finger tips.
- Hats: For rafting and desert hiking: Sunday Afternoons Sun Guide Cap. For any hiking: Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat. I brought both.
- Dry bags: For protection from water and sand, bring extra lightweight dry bags and waterproof resealable plastic bags for clothing and gear. Expect that the company-provided dry bags may leak, so everything should be double or triple bagged. Bring carabiners to lock your day bag and water bottles to the boat.
Itinerary: our rafting, hiking, and camping locations April 3-18, 2021
- Day 1: April 3: Ride AZRA bus from Flagstaff to Lees Ferry (Colorado River Mile 0) to meet the guides and board the meticulously prepared boats—4 rafts, 1 dory, and 1 paddle boat. Lunch at Six Mile Wash (5.9) (Georgie White’s favorite camp). Camp at Twentymile Camp (20.2). Marble Canyon runs from Lees Ferry at River Mile 0 to the confluence with the Little Colorado River at Mile 62, which marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon.
- Day 2: April 4: Lunch at South Canyon (Mile 31.8). Stop at Redwall Cavern (Mile 33.3). Camp at Tatahatso Wash (Mile 37.9)
- Day 3: April 5: See Anasazi Foot Bridge (Ancestral Puebloan Foot Bridge) at 43.5. Lunch, then hike to the Nankoweap Granaries. Some hike further to Little Nankoweap to spot the snow-capped North Rim. Two boats doing fish research swing by and gave us a talk about their project. Camp at Main Nankoweap Camp (53.4).
- Day 4: April 6: Stopped for a float on Little Colorado River (61.7), beautiful turquoise blue. Lunch. Boat to Lava Canyon Camp (65.9). Hike a short distance in Lava Canyon.
- Day 5: April 7: Boat to Upper Rattlesnake Camp (74.6). Hike 4.6 miles round trip with 2250 ft gain to the Tabernacle (4830 ft elevation). See burrow trace fossils.
- Day 6: April 8: Float the Inner Gorge, a big rapid day. Stop to scout then run Crystal Rapid. Lunch at Below Clear Creek Camp (84.8). Schist Camp (96.5).
- Day 7: April 9: Early arrival at Parkins Inscription Camp at Mile 108.6. Little-known “Geo. W. Parkins” neatly carved his name and “Washington D.C. 1903” into this hard Vishnu Schist rock. Lunch. From Parkins Inscription Camp, we hiked North Bass Trail to Shinumo Creek, to Bass’s old camp (featuring old rusting kitchenware). A dip in the rushing waters of Shinumo Creek refreshed us on an unusually hot April day.
- Day 8: April 10: Stop downstream of Garnet Canyon at (115.5). Clamber up steep rocks with the help of guides, then hike upstream to Garnet Canyon for lunch. Boat to Elves Chasm (117.2). Boat to Hundred and Twenty Mile Camp (120.3) (also named Michael Jacobs Camp for an old guide who died here.)
- Day 9: April 11: Stop at Stone Creek Camp (132.5) for short hike to first waterfall of Stone Creek. Boat to Talking Heads Camp (133.7) for lunch and relaxing afternoon.
- Day 10: April 12: Quick float just 0.7 miles down to Below Tapeats Camp (134.5), where Tom traverse hikes (8 miles with 2600 feet gain) with Rebecca and several others up Tapeats Creek Trail to Thunder River and Spring, across Surprise Valley Trail, then down Deer Creek Trail (wilted by 90+ degrees Fahrenheit conditions until reaching the cool creek) to The Patio, Deer Creek Slot Canyon, and Deer Creek Falls, where the boats are moored at River Mile 136.9. Others rafted down to Deer Creek, where some stayed at Deer Creek Waterfall while a larger group hiked up to The Patio area or beyond. Guides John and Bekah ran a reverse hike to pick up remaining rafts at Tapeats Creek and ferry down to Deer Creek. We then briefly float across the river to OC’s Camp (137.1).
- Day 11: April 13: Lunch at Upper Ledges (151.9). Boat to 158.7 Mile Camp (Bloody Ledges Camp).
- Day 12: April 14: Early arrival at Fern Glen Camp (168.6). Lunch then hike up Fern Glen Canyon.
- Day 13: April 15: Stop at Mohawk Canyon (171.9) for hike. Boat to 172.6 Camp for lunch. Stop to scout, then run the anxiously awaited Lava Falls Rapid (179.7) and Son of Lava Falls Rapid! No problems. Boat to Below Lower Lava Camp (aka Tequila Beach, at 180.1)
- Day 14: April 16: Hike Whitmore Trail up to Whitmore Overlook (3 miles round trip with 920 feet gain) from Colorado River Mile 187.9, followed by lunch on a sand bar island surrounded by a river eddy. Boat to Below Parashant Camp (198.9).
- Day 15: April 17: Lunch at Two Hundred and Fourteen Mile Camp (214.5). Mike and Jen chose to swim Three Springs Rapid (216). Boat to Two Hundred and Twenty Mile Canyon, Middle Camp (220.1).
- Day 16: April 18. Boat to the take-out at Diamond Creek (Colorado River Mile 225.9) on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. Ride the AZRA bus back to Flagstaff.
The rafting trip was part of the following longer trip March 21-April 22, 2021:
Seattle > Chico family visit > Lake Tahoe > snowy Mono Lake > Bishop > Mojave NSP > Joshua Tree NP > Mecca Wilderness > Palm Springs > Hualapai Mountain Park > Grand Canyon rafting for 16 days > Valley of Fire SP > Cathedral Gorge SP > Seattle