I wanted to go to Lee’s Ferry, because I wanted to see the place where Grand Canyon rafting voyages begin. I’ve been working up my courage for a Grand Canyon rafting trip for years (I’m still a few years away). In my mind, Lee’s Ferry was a cute little town, with a restaurant and a bar and maybe a little shop where floaters picked up last minute supplies before they ventured out on the mighty Colorado. It was going to be a festive and fun place.
Lee’s Ferry is located at the spot in northern Arizona where the Colorado River emerges from Glen Canyon and lazes around a bit before entering the Grand Canyon. From 1871 to 1928, this was one of the best, and one of the only, spots to cross the Colorado River. Lee’s Ferry is at the end of a dead end road that branches off Route 89A, the route that carries tourists between Mesa Verde/Four Corners/Monument Valley and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Expecting a spectacle, I was surprised to find that Lee’s Ferry isn’t the buzzing metropolis I was imagining. In fact, there’s actually nothing in the way of businesses. There’s an old fort that Lee built to defend the crossing from the local Navajos, there’s an old farmstead complete with orchards, cabins, and a graveyard (life in the desert wasn’t kind to the children of the families who ran the crossing). There’s a small, nice campground and a bunch of official park buildings. There’s a steady stream of traffic to the put-in point: school buses full of river runners and trucks towing inflatable rafts. There are a few fishermen and some brave souls who swim in the ice-cold Colorado River from a small beach created by the entrance of the Paria River. It feels like a little-known place to relax, not a place to party it up.
The Lee’s Ferry campground is great. It’s perched on a little hill overlooking the Colorado River and the rafters as they begin their trip. To the west, the Vermillion Cliffs tower overhead. It’s dark and quiet at night, for the most part. Almost everyone else in the campground was there for some sort of party, and the headquarters was next to our site, but they behaved themselves, for the most part. About 8:00, (or so, who knows what time it actually is in AZ) a guy went into the men’s room and proceeded to loudly vomit for about ten minutes straight. Everyone tried to ignore the sounds of his distressed retching and carry on with the party. We entertained ourselves by imagining that someone had just told him that the Rocky Mountain oysters he ate for dinner weren’t actually oysters.
But the thing I loved most about Lee’s Ferry wasn’t the vomiter, or the rafters, or the peaceful solitude. The best part was Cathedral Wash. Cathedral Wash runs from the Paria Plateau down to the Colorado River. If you hike the upper portion of the wash, you’ll be hiking into Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. If you hike the lower portion of the wash, you’ll be hiking into Grand Canyon National Park. If you have time, do both, but if you’re pressed, the lower wash hike is the BEST WASH HIKE IN THE WORLD*!
The lower wash hike starts out like any other wash. Maybe twenty foot high walls, sandy bottom, no scrambling. Boring. Then you hit the first obstacle: a deep water-filled pit that must be carefully climbed around. Then you come to the thirty foot dryfall. And it just gets crazier from there as the walls get higher and the obstacles more numerous. This adventure stretched my way of looking at wash hikes. I typically thought it was best to stay on the canyon floor and climb over any obstacles that blocked the way. In Cathedral Wash, the obstacles were major, and the best way through often involved climbing up and along the canyon walls like a mountain goat. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds, because some kind person had brought along a piece of chalk and drawn arrows where the best route was less than obvious.
If navigating the canyon was a fun learning experience, then the end of the canyon was a treat. Most wash hikes end where the wash peters out or at an insurmountable dryfall. Not Cathedral Wash — it ends at the Colorado River. There’s a small beach and a riffle where debris has washed into the Colorado and created a set of mini-rapids. If you’re a confident swimmer, you can jump in and cool off. If you’re a confident wader, that works too. It helped with the bathtub ring of dust that had collected around my ankles. After cooling off, you can hang out and watch rafters float by.
It’s a popular hike, but this won’t bother you at all. A group of shirtless guys made it to the river as we were leaving and splashed around happily, but five minutes later they were passing us, going back up the trail. I commented that they were fast, and one of the guys said, in a stressed out tone, “We’re headed to a wedding!” Just then, they met a member of their group who had lagged behind, who reminded them that it was an hour earlier here in AZ, so they had an extra hour before they were expected. “Let’s go back in the river!” they all yelled as they ran back down the wash.
*Pending further exploration.