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Tuesday, 01 January 2019

The Last Wild Miles of Glen Canyon

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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I have dreamed of floating the Colorado River through towering red rock walls, past hanging canyons, and shorelines dotted with wildlife and petroglyphs. I did not want to have to spend a week camping or going through dangerous rapids or hiking down three thousand feet. Glen Canyon was the answer to my dream. The 15 miles of the Colorado River that stretches between the Glen Canyon Dam and Lee’s Ferry is a trip for everyone.

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This is the last wild section of the canyon that was mostly buried by the deep blue waters of Lake Powell. This stretch of the river is smooth and calm. It allows you to take in the towering walls of Navajo Sandstone that reach over 1000 feet up into the sky. You see how nature has used water and wind to carve its own rock sculptures into the cliffs. Wild Horses, Bighorn Sheep and several species of waterfowl make the steep shorelines their home. The serenity of floating a stretch of this mighty river without rapids or cataracts gives you the chance to appreciate its fragile beauty.

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My journey started with a bus ride through a two mile long tunnel from the top of the Glen Canyon Dam to the river below. A few holes in the tunnel wall that were carved out to allow the rock from the tunnel to be removed allow some glimpses of the canyon as you ride in darkness to the shoreline. The 32 foot raft awaited my fellow passengers and me to board. The raft pushed off into the current as I gazed up at the second highest arched Dam in the United States. Glen Canyon Dam is only 16 feet lower than Hoover Dam. The steel bridge that carries Highway 89 north into Utah is perched above it.

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The raft drifted downstream away from the Dam and into the tall red stone cliffs that dominate this section of the Colorado. Rain water spilling down the cliff faces leaves dark vertical streaks called “Canyon Varnish” on the canyon walls. Nature seems to be painting abstract art on the cliff sides. Mallard ducks floated peaceable nearby. A mile or so downriver rocky side canyons appeared. A “Hanging Canyon” was around another bend. This is where the mouth of a side canyon ends in a sheer cliff above the river. I imagined what a waterfall must flow over the edge during the summer monsoons in Arizona.

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A fly fisherman casts his line into the deep blue water as his boat lies beached nearby. He must have come up from Lees Ferry to fish this isolated section of the river. Trout fishing here is considered excellent. There are no houses, marinas, or other human habitation in Glen Canyon as it is part of The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A few rough campsites exist that require a steep hike down the cliffs or a boat.

Native Americans lived on the cliff tops and took steep and winding trails to the river. There are no cliff dwellings here even though it would have been an excellent spot for them. There are Petroglyphs left by these ancestral Puebloan people on a low canyon wall are a short walk from Petroglyph Beach at Mile 5. Drawings of Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Geometric shapes and Man were etched into the red canyon wall. Their age is unknown but could be hundreds to thousands of years old.

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6 miles into my journey, I glimpse the beginning of the famous 180 degree loop in the river called Horseshoe Bend. I stare up the steep rocky cliff at the apex of the bend. I can see dozens of people at the top looking down on the raft. They are just dark stick figures on top of the 1,000 foot cliff. I was up there earlier in the day at sunrise to photograph that iconic Arizona location.

The canyon is silent and peaceful as the raft makes it way around each new bend. A movement on the shore grabs my attention and I glimpse several gray four legged members of the sheep family, Desert Bighorns. They gaze at the boat as it glides by without any alarm then continue to graze on the riverside grasses. The river continues to twist and turn as it meanders past the steep walls of this last remaining section of Glen Canyon. A long narrow section of one wall contains a hidden arch called “Finger Arch” for its opening near the top of it that looks like bent finger.

The end of Waterholes Canyon comes into view on the south side. This is a hanging canyon that stretches 15 miles back toward Page, Az. Parts of it are so narrow it is considered a slot canyon.

A large swath of sand is visible downstream at the base of steep mountain side. The river takes me around another bend close by this large pale sandy hill. Grazing on the sparse vegetation is a small herd of wild horses. A young colt is among handful of animals that slowly wander across the hillside.

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Echo Peaks sit at the end of Glen Canyon and the beginning of Marble Canyon. Marble Canyon ends 60 miles downriver and marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Echo Peaks with its serrated cliff tops signals that our destination at Lees Ferry is just around the bend.  Lees Ferry is the only place to access the Colorado River for 250 miles. It was discovered by Spanish Explorers and from the late 1870’s was the place Mormon settlers crossed from Utah to Arizona by the ferry. It is now the starting point for rafting expeditions downriver to the Grand Canyon and upriver to Glen Canyon. The Navajo Bridge built in the 1920s eliminated the need for the ferry. The steep canyon cliffs all around made it the only place to build a road to the river that allows the limited access granted by government to this last wild section of one of the best canyons of the Colorado.

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If you go:

You will need to book one of the half or full days tours thru a tour company. I went as part of a tour with Arizona Highways on a PhotoScape. If you like photography, these tours are the best. You can book your own tour through Wilderness River Adventures. This is a very good tour for those with mobility issues. You need only to be able to walk short distances. Water and Lemonade are provided but either arrange for a lunch or bring snacks as there are no places available till Lees Ferry. There are no rapids or difficult stretches of water. Life jackets are available for everyone.

Page, Arizona is a great base for visiting this section of Utah and Arizona. It has several hotels and restaurants that give you a good selection of places to stay or dine at. Other mandatory sites to see are Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Lake Powell. Horseshoe Bend requires a 1.5 mile round trip hike up and down an easy but steep hill. It has wonderful views but no safety railings yet so be careful near the edge.

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©Jim Chamberlain

Last modified on Saturday, 15 December 2018