Solo on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River
This trip was everything I was looking for and more. 15 days of pure bliss in an incredibly awe-inspiring environment.
I’ve always thought about a solo trip for my first experience in the Grand Canyon. A few of my core values are adventure, endurance and solitude. So, tackling the big ditch by myself for my first experience just felt right. I was fortunate enough to pull a December permit in a follow-up lottery. Initially, I reached out to a number of close friends to see if anyone had interest and availability to join me on a last-minute trip down the Canyon. Unfortunately, this permit was too last minute for anyone to join. But instead of being disappointed, a quick mindset shift allowed me to become extremely excited about my upcoming solo trip. After a few days of meal prep, dehydrating, and trip planning, I decided to head south for a month of paragliding and being a tourist while I slowly made my way to the Canyon.
Its finally happening I thought to myself. I had arrived at Lees Ferry, organized a shuttle and just finished a smooth briefing with the park ranger. It was time to begin a game of tetrus and fit 15 days of food and gear into my boat. With my groover and sleeping bag strapped onto the stern of my boat (turning my boat into a sort of la z-boy and everything else inside it was time for the adventure to begin. Stellar views and a few great rapids to start the trip. I was fortunate enough to watch several condors thermalling up above the rim of the canyon. With some bad weather on its way I decide to pull over and camp under a large rock shelf to set up camp hidden from the storm. So, happy to be on the water and paddling again. Rain was coming down hard, I'm happy to be listening to the storm form rivers down the canyon walls and rockfall as it erodes but be safely removed from it.
Long solo adventures mean the world to me. To be able to wake up in paradise, make coffee from bed, listening to the tail end of the storm is just magical. As I hit the water, I look up and see a low cloud ceiling down in the canyon. It feels like another world down here, and yet I feel right at home. Some of the rapids are starting to get bigger and I’m enjoying playing with the momentum of a loaded longboat. A perfect surf wave appears, and I lock on for a couple of surfs. It’s pretty incredible just how stable a loaded boat can feel. A lunch stop at silver grotto, followed by a quick scramble up the canyon, leaves me awestruck. My next stop is in Redwall Cavern. It's hard to describe the magnitude of this place and pictures don’t seem to do it justice. I let out a big kooooeeeee to enjoy the acoustics and listen to the echo. The rest of the afternoon is spent looking up at the views until I reach mile 50 aka Dinosaur Camp.
The joy of true solitude is beginning to set in. I woke up early full of excitement and decide to hike up to the top of the diving board (a rock outcropping up above camp) to enjoy the sunrise. Quite an involved hike to do in the dark but it has seen enough travel over the years that I find my way. Gaining a different perspective on the river looking to the upper rim and then down at the river from where im standing on the edge of the inner rim really makes you feel small. Once I'm back at camp I decide to have a slow morning and enjoy the sun (that is often quite limited in the lower canyon). I go for a swim and enjoy some mate while doing some reading. After a short paddle, I pull over find my running shoes to check out the granaries. What a cool place! Back on the river to enjoy some wavetrains and before I know it, I've made it to the LCR (Little Colorado River). It’s a clear night so I decide to read under the stars and nearly full moon.
At first light, I open my vestibule and make coffee and muffins from my sleeping bag. A beautifully clear bluebird day pulls me from bed. After a morning meditation and another pot of coffee, I cross the river to the mouth of the LCR and head up for a little hike. The opaque blue water is completely mesmerizing, and I enjoy the stunning scenery until about 2 miles up where my inReach shows the edge of the Navajo Reservation. Back on the water for an afternoon of cruising down the river. Being in such a vast canyon on a wide river can throw off your perspective. I am quickly reminded of this as I charge over what I thought was a small pour-over that turned out to be a massive hole that would have taken a monumental effort to surf out of. Luckily my momentum helps me squeak through. The canyon begins to narrow and the rapid just above Hance provides some wonderful boofs and surprise holes. Hance itself was much bigger than I expected. I caught an eddy river left to take a peek at the entrance. I had been here with my friend Kaya on a lovely day hike just before I started my river trip and had gotten a look at the rapid. Having a rough idea of where I want to go, I attained back upstream and move to the right and rally in. I passed a large entry hole, caught the backwash of it to slow things down a get a look at the next move. I boofed a hole just left of a rock protruding out above the surface then pointed left and charged to get back in the center of the river to paddle into a giant crashing wave. I tucked right into the middle, accepted the wall of water on my back and popped out on the other side with a huge smile on my face. I feel one with the river and even though it's beginning to get dark I've found my favorite headspace to paddle in. I’m in the zone so decide to continue downstream through several larger rapids in an epic canyon. Time passes much too quickly and before I know it, I’m at the Grapevine camp just passed mile 81 and its dark. I pull over tired and completely content. I settle in for the night and enjoy the white noise created by an eddy line and a few small waves.
I’m doing enough looking up in awe to counter all the hunched over cooking reading and writing I’ve been doing. This morning’s sky is full of wispy Sirus clouds warning of some inclement weather on its way. Thought of the day is “novelty drives exploration” and with that, excitement has me packed up and on the water in record time. The first rapid is lovely with a cool thread the needle line from left to right followed by a surgery wave-train bottom right. I see a raft trip below this rapid and say hi as I float by. I stop on a beach at phantom ranch enjoy the luxury of filling my water bottles without needing to filter water and have a quick lunch. Not wanting to interrupt my solitude and a little wired from some maté I continue downstream. More quality whitewater and then I see a beach calling my name. I've found my rhythm and camp basically sets itself up at this point in the trip. Its pizza night so I make some dough and leave it to rise while I curl into my chair and finish my book “the Heartbeat of Trees”. Such an amazing concept shifting book that challenges you to change how you look at forests and the trees comprising them. There is something about making good food in remote places that has always captivated me. Throwing dough into the air puts a huge smile on my face. I construct 2 pizzas but decide to turn the second one I cook into a calzone thinking it will make less of a mess when I save it for lunch tomorrow. I've started a new book over dinner. This one is called “Desert Solitaire”, I think I’m really going to like this one.
No better way to start your day than swinging a pot of cowboy coffee. I decide to have a slow morning today as the water is on the rise and there are some big rapids downstream that will only get bigger. I dove back into “Desert Solitaire” for the morning and read about how to save national parks by removing roads and vehicles. While I loved the idea, the realist in me is saddened by how unlikely this is to occur. I do love Edward Abby’s direct no bs communication style and agreeing with his idealistic views of solitude. Finally, the urge to move drives me back to the river. I meet a raft crew at a rapid called Granite and enjoy the spectacular wave train. I eddied out on the right to watch the rafts then continue downstream while making some new friends. I love how solo travels often force one to make new connections where they might not have otherwise. I was invited to join the raft crew for some river time and a campfire. Plenty of lovely rapids today and I was even able to borrow an RPM for an extra lap of Hermit and Crystal. I found a neat surf at the bottom of Hermit to play on while waiting on a few rafts and unfortunately lost my hat. Fortunately, I found my hat about a mile downstream (I must be up on my river Karma). I'm definitely a bit surprised at the size of a lot of the rapids, the river has a huge reputation around it and the quality of the whitewater is very high with incredibly awe-inspiring scenery. I don’t feel too pushed by the river. That being said I didn’t come here to be pushed, I came here to reflect and improve upon my knowledge of myself. The day blew by and eventually, we stopped at Bass camp near mile 108. The wind switched 3 times in the last 20 minutes before taking out. I took this as a hint to set up my tent well and took extra care and to be extra vigilant I wasn’t in a spot where water would pool. A lovely dinner around a fire with my new friends including good conversation. Rain drove us all to bed early and I got into my tent just as the gust front of the incoming system hit. Gotta love being comfortable in what could easily be an uncomfortable situation.
Some fun stories come out in the morning about running after tarps or adjusting guy lines. Looking up into the canyon, snowline is only about a couple hundred meters away. It was a lovely visit but it's time to resume my solitude. I fall into a rhythm and by the time I look at my map I'm well below Elves Chasm. I guess I need to leave some places to explore for the next time I’m on this river. I find a lovely, elevated rock shelf to soak up some sun, dry out my tent and enjoy another coffee while I catch up on some writing. Back on the water I am drawn into specter canyon. I scramble up for a shot under the waterfall, rad place. Then I'm back at it like a bad habit. I float into bedrock and decide to investigate the left side. Very cool scrub boof off the left side of the slot entrance (I can see how that would be a difficult move in a raft as the lead in is quite boil-y). The next rapid was super cool with a few sizable holes. I pull over on a nice beach around mile 135. Clouds have over developed, and I get to enjoy some virga to the south and a snowy upper canyon during dinner.
It's still raining in the morning, so I gear up in my tent. I float through the Granite Narrows enjoying the barrel cacti growing in the most peculiar spots. I stop at Deer Creek for a short hike, as I’m approaching the top the rain switched to hail. Luckily, I can duck into the slot canyon for shelter. There are paw prints from ringtails all over the trail, but I'm not fortunate enough to see one. As I emerge on the other side, the clouds part, and I see the sun. I strip off my dry suit, pull my runners out of my watershed, and go for a quick rip up to raging thunder spring. What a wild spectacle it is. By the time I get back to my boat, a raft trip has pulled up. I have lunch with some new friends then as they begin the hike, I continue downstream to Matkatamiba Canyon. There is a cool eddy to catch then a fun slot canyon scramble up to a big amphitheater. I was told about a big flat rock in the middle of the amphitheatre that if you strike it with a large rock it echoes throughout the amphitheater. I was not disappointed and rang it like a drum. I found my first tarantula slightly farther up the canyon and spend a few minutes playing with it and watching it rear up. I somehow paddled right past my intended campsite at mile 152 and end up on a small one-tent beach a couple of miles downstream. I put the tent up in the dark after an outstanding day of side adventures.
I spend my morning drinking coffee and reading a chapter of my book about Havasu creek. It seems fitting as I’m heading there as soon as I convince myself to leave my sleeping bag. I pull into the eddy and the stunning blue water is totally captivating. I paddle straight into the canyon find a rock to stash my boat on and clamber up the rivers edge and head up for about an hour. The lush green plants, cottonwood trees and striking blue water are quite a contrast to the Colorado river that has become my new normal. Back to my boat and to find some sun for lunch. Brie quesadillas, coffee and gummy bears fuel my afternoon of surfing and exploration of Fern Glen Canyon. The lush green lives walls are a must see. Mile 171 for camp at a massive site and a sunset dinner (as good of a sunset as you get in the bottom of a massive canyon).
Cinnamon rolls for breakfast! I’m in a particularly good mood this morning and after a meditation I’m headed for Lava falls. The ten miles from camp to Lava take no time at all. Thinking back to a picture a friend showed me before I put on I rally into the rapid. I instantly feel one with the river and it feels like im almost watching myself paddling. It was such a peculiar yet addictive feeling. Directly below the rapid on the left I see a small creek pouring into the river. I paddle over and run my hand under it and its hot! I find the next eddy on the left grab my e-reader and walk back upstream. Im pleased to find a small pool just big enough to sit in upstream of the falls and strip off for a soak and some reading. A little fuel up of coffee and brie while my gear finishes drying then I'm back on the water. I found a beautiful ledge campsite 30 feet above the river to set my tent up on and enjoyed some sun while making a curry. I left my boat floating tied to up to the cliffs I climbed out on. Slightly nervous about leaving it in the water overnight so I put my skirt on the boat and cam strapped the tunnel shut as to not lose anything if it was to flip.
My boat is still there and upright yay! A lovely morning reading about Edward Abby’s float down Glen Canyon before the dam went in. Sounds splendid, fuck dams. Had an intimidatingly large pot of oats for breaky, then precariously packed my boat from the cliffside. What a day to be alive. After a morning of wavetrains I find a nice sunny spot to read and have a chilly bath before lunch. Back up on the water, I catch up to a rafting trip of Moenkopie Outfitters Staff. What a friendly bunch! I was fortunately invited to join them for the night and to hang around a fire over dinner, which I was happy to accept. I was instantly welcomed by the group and flattered by their generosity. It was a lovely night spent around a fire listening to stories of travel and adventure.
I often struggle with finding a balance of independence and solitude while still creating and growing connections. In the morning, I decide to take off on my own again. I enjoyed a quiet float to the diamond takeout where I met up with my friend Kaya who was joining the raft trip I had just met for the bottom section of the river. Over coffee, lunch and chats I decide to hang out with the group for a few days and explore this next section with friends. Our first stop was at Travertine Canyon, we followed a cool section of rope ladders up to a gorgeous canyon with some fun climbing. Then time for some surfing and to continue downstream to Travertine Falls for camp at mile 230. The falls at camp where a gorgeous seep with a unique calcified build up on the wall. I catch myself slipping out of the moment around the fire thinking of future adventures, likely some ice climbing back home in the Rockies.
An easy morning and feeling very grateful to not have to make coffee of breakfast this morning. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know this group that outfits trips for Grand Canyon adventures. I must say, they have perfected the gear and food required for a Grand Canyon adventure and I’m quite impressed. I snuck away in the morning to find a nice quiet spot to write and meditate before we hit the river. What a rad awe inspiring place to spend some time exploring. I am glad that I didn’t really look into the river before my trip without too much outside perspective allowing for a high level of novelty exploring the canyon. The rapid called Fang was fantastic, moving at raft pace allowed for some surfing and a number of laps which was amazing. At separation canyon, we met up with the raft trip I was fortunate enough to spend time with earlier on in my trip. We exchanged some stories before moving on to mile 243 for camp, glow in the dark botchy ball and a fire.
Woke up to a dew turned to frost (probably should have used my tent fly…). Some great conversations in the morning ranging from art to river morphology before I have to pack up say bye to my new friends and make up for lost time. I rallied about 40 miles of flats and slow current to just before Pearce Ferry. I spend the day back and forth between being in the moment and feeling sad for being so close to the end of the trip/ thinking about the next adventures. A few of the straight a-ways seemed never ending in this section and there were lots of helicopters buzzing around throughout the day. A tourist skywalk and powerlines mark the return to civilisation. I arrive at camp just as its getting dark and make dinner hot chocolate and brownies from bed. I am lulled to sleep by the Pearce Ferry rapid, filling me with excitement for the following day.
Today is the day I finally get to lay eyes on a rapid I’ve received some conflicting stories about. I’ve built it up quite a bit in my head but not sure what to expect as from what I’ve heard its always changing. I scout from the left and am pleasantly surprised by a quite open line on the right of the river. I start centre to carry some momentum to the right avoiding a hole straighten my boat on the crest of the main wave and crash through the second river wide wave hole. My loaded boat sails through and puts a smile on my face. As I paddle to South Cove I am pleasantly surprised by a mile meandering wave train and two more lovely big water rapids that I was not expecting. Some beautiful white sandy beaches and highwater lines way above me from where Lake Mead used to sit. I even found a paddle sticking out of the silty shore 5 feet above the water. I feel like King Arthur as I pull it out to retrieve my prize. As I paddle out of the Colorado and into Lake Mead I am surrounded by silty chocolate milk water mixing with the stagnate bluey green lake. It’s quite a spectacle. Across the bay, I see my van waiting for me marking the end of this trip and the beginning of the next adventure.