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Little Colorado River Gorge: Cameron(almost) to the Confluence

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Little Colorado River Gorge: Cameron(almost) to the Confluence

Derek Bartz

It is 57 miles down the Little Colorado from Cameron to the Confluence with the Colorado River.  57 miles of relatively unknown territory to most with the exception of those hardy few who see the unimaginable gash in the Earth's crust while driving Hwy 64 during their approach to the Grand Canyon and ask themselves, "why aren't we going down there?"  Little reliable beta about the route exists, a few trips reports are found online(most of them very outdated); but a good description of the route is written in the phenomenal guidebook Grand Canyoneering by Todd Martin.  He describes the canyon as "a remote backpacking/wilderness trip" and gives it four stars.  No real technical aspects besides the logistics; all dealing with water related issues.  I agree with him, although I would not hesitate to add another star to that rating of this classic desert canyon.  The diversity of the place is like nothing I have ever seen in the desert, a combination of The Narrows, Paria Canyon, and Havasupai all in one; making this one of/if not the best desert backpacking trip I have ever been on.  Hidden on the edge of one of the most visited National Parks in the world I estimate the LCR Gorge is fully descended by only a handful of parties a year.  Why aren't people going down there?  I few things come to mind:

  • No reliable drinking water exists for the entirety of the canyon - we chose to carry all of the water we would need until reaching The Confluence.  13 Liters for myself and 8 liters for Michele.  13 Liters of water = about 30lbs.  Plus food this was the heaviest my pack has been in years.  
  • Conditions are highly variable with the Gorge being capable of seeing 120,000 cfs flash floods(I can only imagine).  The canyon normally has water from December-April and often July-September.   When wet the canyon can/would be much more challenging
  • Temperature/weather extremes- 100's in the Spring/Summer, T-storms July-September; Short, cold days November-February
  • Entry/exit routes are few and far between- From our entrance point the next exit to the south rim is nearly 35 miles down canyon and involves route finding & class 4 scrambling
  • Length- at 57 miles+ the exit out Beamer & Tanner Trail, this canyon is longer than most want to commit too
  • Remote - this is in fact remote territory.  Help is a long ways away and you most likely won't see any other parties(especially in the upper gorge)
  • Lack of National Park status.  The LCR Gorge is managed by the Navajo Nation and remains unknown to most(not a bad thing)

Time this thing right though and you are in for a classic desert trip through one of the most incredible gorges on the Colorado Plateau.

From dry riverbed...

From dry riverbed...

To water filled hallway

To water filled hallway

Cameron to the Confluence

An idea spurred on my first trip to the Little Colorado River almost 6 years ago.  We had walked in via the Tanner and Beamer Trails; anticipating turning the last corner and seeing the mythical bright, turquoise blue waters of the LCR mixing with the muddy ColoREDo.  All signs led us to believe this would be the case, and even the backcountry ranger issuing our permit agreed the river would probably be flowing blue.  Turns out an early season winter storm in the White Mountains had began melting out bringing sediment down with it, muddying the LCR.  The Colorado River also rarely flows muddy Red this "far" up river in The Grand thanks to Glen Canyon Dam.  Besides the Paria River, the LCR is the first  major tributary responsible for turning the Colorado back to it's original red  form and it is much more common to see the clear green waters of the Colorado mixing with the muddy LCR.  The Confluence is such a stunning spot this first "failed" visit was still an extraordinary trip despite the lack of blue water; the canyon walls here are huge, and the unique juxtaposition of two large desert rivers meeting in such a grand place is jaw dropping.  

Four years later I began eyeing up the trip in earnest.  Every fall/spring we would start paying attention to the LCR gauges, the weather in the canyon, and current conditions of the lower gorge posted via social media(if any).  Our first attempt was Thanksgiving week 2014.  I knew little about how the river worked, and despite the Cameron gauge reading 30 cfs I figured the lower canyon may be dry enough to hike.  We made the drive from Boulder and upon arriving at the bridge were quite surprised to see a full flowing river.  Todd Martin states in Grand Canyoneering, "If water is flowing beneath the bridge, then it's safe to conclude that the canyon will be a muddy mess and best left for another day."  That trip was over before it even started.  A year and a half later we were literally on the way to the Grand Canyon Backcountry Office to get a permit after eyeing up the river at the second Navajo Tribal Land overlook off of Hwy 64.  By the time we reached Desert View clouds were forming and the 20% chance of thunderstorms predicted that afternoon was right on track to hit the LCR gorge.  We pulled over at Navajo Point and watched the canyon fill with atmospheric clouds and a light rain turned into a torrential down poor.  The canyon went from dry to 1,000 cfs overnight.  Returning to the overlook the next day, bank to bank water now filled what was a dry, sandy riverbed the afternoon prior.  Fool me twice...  

Flash flood the night prior to attempting the canyon in May of 2016.

Flash flood the night prior to attempting the canyon in May of 2016.

April 30th, 2016

April 30th, 2016

May 1st, 2016

May 1st, 2016

This past winter much of the West/Southwest saw above average precipitation with near record amounts in certain areas.  A good portion of the LCR watershed was around 150% normal, which was indicated by a flow of over 500 cfs at the Cameron gauge for nearly the entire months of February and March.  This alone had ruled out the trip for this spring, the ideal time of any year for the LCR.  Besides, I had made bigger plans to tackle the first section of our thru-hike of the Grand Canyon, Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch.  Long story short, we lasted a DAY AND A HALF/15 river miles along the Colorado River before succumbing to the fact that my trip iternerary through Marble Canyon was a bit ambitious, and our minds weren't prepared for the days of on and off borderline type 3 fun that type of trip requires.  Marble Canyon is perhaps the crown jewel of The Inner Canyon though and the draw to walk this seldomly visited part of the park(by backpackers at least) only grew with the failed first attempt. 

Winter 2017 LCR Flows

Winter 2017 LCR Flows

Bailing on Marble Canyon :(

Bailing on Marble Canyon :(

After re-hiking South Canyon to pick up a food cache (and spending the night at one of the best beach camps I've had on the river), our eyes turned to the LCR.  Checking the gauge the river had miraculously gone from 200 to 0 cfs in a matter of three weeks, but had just fully dried up within the last week.  Stopping by the Navajo Tribal Park building in Cameron confirmed that the river was running blue, but was the riverbed in the upper portion of the gorge dry or a slurry of mud and man eating quicksand?  Only one way to find out.  

After yet another long car shuttle and obtaining permits from both the Navajo Tribal Park and NPS we parked the van at the Cameron Trading Post and walked the service road used in the 2014-2016 construction of the new bridge that provides easy access to the river bed.  Within the first few steps I was up to my ankles in mushy, gravely quicksand.  Damn.  Passable, but already a real concern.  Anyone researching the Cameron to the Confluence idea will most certainly come across the section of canyon MRK(Michael R. Kelsey) dubbed "quicksand alley" some 30 years ago.  This section of canyon is the gateway to the narrows (the river is pinched down into wall to wall sandstone cliffs only 20-30' wide) and the start of the dramatic deepening of the gorge. Accounts of people entering quicksand up to their necks and deeming this section as impassable under these circumstances quickly came to mind.  "Is quicksand alley such a good idea?", I instantly ask Michele.  We both agree, we will retreat and enter down into the LCR via the Overlook Route to assess the conditions of the canyon from there.  Skipping this ruins the aesthetics of walking a wide shallow wash and abruptly entering a deep, narrow chasm(much like walking into The Grand from Lees Ferry); but the risk of walking 8 miles to Quicksand Alley and being turned around wasn't worth it.  

The Overlook Route is briefly, but accurately described in Grand Canyoneering(go buy this book already).  From the viewpoint it looks impossible.  Steep cliffs drop precipitously from the rim of the canyon, but upon walking a few hundred feet from the parking area a sneak route comes into view.  The boulder filled ravine leads down a hundred feet to a series of short ledges, a bolt & fixed handline confirmed we were in the right place.  The gully is steep and the climbing is easy, but the weight of 13 liters of water plus food for five days made the descent a bit intimidating.  Once at the river bed we were thrilled to find ideal conditions, hard packed sand with intermittent pools/mud/quicksand.

Dropping down into the LCR.  The entrance gulley is hidden up and to the left.  Steep, loose, and a little exposure; but doable.  

Dropping down into the LCR.  The entrance gulley is hidden up and to the left.  Steep, loose, and a little exposure; but doable.  

And into the depths we go...

And into the depths we go...

I'm not usually into man made structures in the wilderness, but after providing us with so much information over the past couple years the LCR Cameron Gauge was cool to see.  Michele asking thee gauge for easy passage through the Gorge.  

I'm not usually into man made structures in the wilderness, but after providing us with so much information over the past couple years the LCR Cameron Gauge was cool to see.  Michele asking thee gauge for easy passage through the Gorge.  

Upper LCR Gorge

Upper LCR Gorge

Did a lot of this.  HUGE canyon walls and towers.  

Did a lot of this.  HUGE canyon walls and towers.  

Boulderfield.  A number of these are encountered, but they are fairly short and easy to navigate.

Boulderfield.  A number of these are encountered, but they are fairly short and easy to navigate.

For the next four days the canyon is simply out of this world.  The diversity of the place is like nothing I have ever seen; a combination of The Narrows, Paria Canyon, and Havasupai all in one.  The immensity and solitude of the rarely seen upper gorge is serene.  Sheer Coconino walls close in over head, detached over hanging pillars defy logic; the sandy river bottom leads the way down canyon.  Just as you may start getting a bit bored with this terrain the faint noise of cascading water is heard and first spring enters the canyon as the Supai group begins to appear. Numerous pools offering a refreshing dip; especially for us as the temperatures were now getting into the 90's.  The sudden change of this dry, clean, desolate gorge giving way to a natural oasis(albeit one without actual drinking water) is like stepping into the tropics.  Entering the Redwall the canyon takes an unexpected turn into a long set of deep narrows.  In todays world of Instagrams, Facebook, Twitter, & Flickrs, I have yet to see a picture of this place.  The water here is crystal clear(the blue color really picks up after Atomizer Falls) and flows over sandy river bottom, shin deep in most spots with sections of pools forming below small riffles/rapids.  Simply one of the most scenic spots I have ever been.  Below Atomizer Falls a faint use trail picks up on river left.  It is worth finding this as walking in the river is suddenly much more difficult due to the now opaque water and the thick brush lining the river banks. This trail crosses the river three more times before The Confluence, anymore and you are just working harder than you need too.    

Same canyon, different scenery.  LCR Gorge redwall narrows.  No footprints in sight.  

Same canyon, different scenery.  LCR Gorge redwall narrows.  No footprints in sight.  

Tropical

Tropical

And all of a sudden the water is blue! 

And all of a sudden the water is blue! 

The last 9 miles of the canyon are littered with travertine dams and limestone formations.  

The last 9 miles of the canyon are littered with travertine dams and limestone formations.  

Thoughts on the LCR Gorge

  • It's a classic, go see it for yourself.
  • Waiting paid off.  Do some research, be flexible, and hit the canyon when it is dry and the lower waters are running blue.  
  • Know how to check the forecast for the entire LCR watershed.  This is not a place you want to be when a weather system is rolling through NE Arizona.  People have disappeared down there.
  • Caching water & food down the Horse Trail may be a good idea.  We carried water to avoid the drive and save the lower part of the canyon for when we got there.  We chose not to try drinking any of the pothole water or water below the springs to avoid getting sick, which is ironic b/c on the second night I became deathly ill and was for the remainder of the trip.  
  • Cache a packraft(or at least a tube).  The upper 4-5 miles below Blue Spring looked like an awesome section to run/float. Below Atomizer Falls you would be portaging numerous travertine falls and scraping bottom on the hidden karst formations.  
  • Exit via packraft.  Packrafting the section of the Colorado River from The Confluence down to Tanner Beach would be an excellent way to get to your exit out Tanner.  This float is also described in Grand Canyoneering.  Will do this next time(apparently I love carrying a heavy pack).  
  • The LCR is a GREAT hot weather hike.  Rather than seeking out ways around the deeper pools in the lower gorge we were jumping into them.  Do yourself a favor and suffer through the dry sections(i.e. the upper gorge, Furnace Flats, and Tanner) in order to be able to fully enjoy the waters.  

 

Cape Solitutde coming into view.  The last few miles before The Confluence the canyon really opens up revealing that yes indeed you are smack dab in the middle of the Grand Canyon; a fine morning walk.  

Cape Solitutde coming into view.  The last few miles before The Confluence the canyon really opens up revealing that yes indeed you are smack dab in the middle of the Grand Canyon; a fine morning walk.  

The Confluence

The Confluence