June 29 – July 7, 2014

Summer Vacation Trip: Arizona

Colorado River Rafting Adventure: Pipe Creek to Diamond Creek

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Grand Canyon National Park

Starting Point: Bright Angel Trailhead (Grand Canyon Village)

Way Points: One-and-a-Half-Mile Shelter & Three-Mile Shelter & Indian Gardens & Pipe Creek Beach (hike); Horn Creek Rapid & Granite/Monument Beach & Granite Rapid & Hermit Rapid & Crystal Rapid & Serpentine Rapid & Bass Beach & Ross Wheeler boat & Shinumo Creek & Waltenberg Rapid & Royal Arch Creek & Fossil Rapid & Specter Rapid & Bedrock Rapid & Lower Bedrock Beach & Deubendorff Rapid & Tapeats Rapid & Racetrack Beach & Deer Creek Beach & Upset Rapid & Havasu Creek & Bloody Ledges & National Beach & Gateway Rapid & Lava Falls Rapid & Angel Beach & Powell’s Cave & Lower Parashant Beach & Kolb Rapid & Pumpkin Springs & The Diving Board & 221 Beach & Diamond Creek Beach (raft)

Ending Point: Diamond Creek Beach

Campsites: Granite/Monument Beach & Bass Beach & Lower Bedrock Beach & Racetrack Beach & Bloody Ledges & Angel Beach & Lower Parashant Beach & 221 Beach

Side Trip: Monument Creek (hike)

Side Trip: Shinumo Creek (hike)

Side Trip: Royal Arch Creek & Elves Chasm (hike)

Side Trip: Tapeats Creek & Thunder River & Thunder Spring (hike)

Side Trip: Deer Creek & Dutton Spring (hike)

Side Trip: Havasu Creek & Havasu Pools (hike)

Side Trip: National Canyon (hike)

Side Trip: 194-mile Canyon (hike)

Approximate Total Stats:  10 miles traveled & 4400 feet lost on Bright Angel Trail; 136 miles traveled & 1070 feet lost on Colorado River.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Eileen, Brooke, Derek, and I spent the first week of July rafting the Colorado River through the lower half of Grand Canyon.  It was a grand week of floating, hiking, paddling, and camping, with a couple travel days on each end.  This was Eileen’s choice for a 50th birthday “bucket list” family trip.  She handled all of the logistics, including selection of Canyon Explorations as our guiding company.  She liked “Can-X” because they offer a more active experience:  more side-canyon hikes, more paddling opportunities, and more hands-on involvement with camp chores.  I don’t think she could have made a better choice for us.

Day 1 began at 4:30am, when we met seven members of our group in the Bright Angel Lodge on the canyon’s south rim.  After a few minutes of pre-hike discussion, we headed down the Bright Angel Trail in the dusk of a desert morning.  This ultra-famous trail had been on my personal “bucket list” for many years, and I savored every step.

Bright Angel Trail Sign

Temperatures changed from cool to warm during our first hour of hiking, as the sun started to highlight Grand Canyon’s tiered walls and stone temples.

Sunrise On Bright Angel Trail

By 8:00am, when we passed through Indian Gardens (the trail’s midpoint), temperatures had risen to the high 90’s.  We stopped to drench our shirts and refill our water bottles at a spigot.  The next few miles were in full sun and included a mercilessly hot series of steep switchbacks known as “The Corkscrew.”  It was, like most of the Bright Angel Trail, a marvel of trail engineering.

Corkscrew On Lower Trail

At 9:45am, we reached Pipe Creek Beach (near Phantom Ranch) on the Colorado River.  Our Can-X rafts and guides were waiting there, along with seven more members of our group (they had started their journey a hundred miles up-river and were on Day 8 of a 17-day rafting trip).  It was about 110 degrees in the shade…but there really wasn’t much shade to be found.  Fortunately, the river water was a refreshing 48 degrees.

CanX Rafts At Pipe Creek Beach

Over the next eight days, we rafted 135 miles down through the awe-inspiring limestone, sandstone, and schist walls of Grand Canyon.  It was like moving through a geology textbook, and our six rafting guides were the teachers.  Their knowledge of the canyon also included its wildlife, plant life, ancient civilizations, and early explorations.

Ryan, our lead guide, was prone to begin each day by quoting John Wesley Powell, the first known person to explore Grand Canyon:  “It will be a journey fraught with peril…What dangers lie ahead, we know not.”

Oarboats in Action On Day 2

Our flotilla comprised five oarboats, one paddleboat, and two inflatable kayaks (fondly called “duckies”).  The oarboats were piloted by the guides and carried all of our camping gear, food, clothing, and other provisions.  Fully loaded, each weighed about 2400 pounds.  The paddleboat had a captain/guide but was powered by six clients.  We rode in the paddleboat and duckies on a rotating basis.

Floating Thru Middle Granite Gorge

Each day included numerous rapids, ranging in difficulty from Class 2 to Class 5 (based on the common whitewater scale; the Grand Canyon actually has its own 1 – 10 scale).  Our guides managed to navigate every single rapid without capsizing a boat and without ejecting a passenger, but we learned that this was not typical.  According to an old adage, there are three kinds of Grand Canyon boatmen: those who have flipped an oarboat, those who will flip an oarboat, and those who will again.  By way of confirmation on Day 8, we encountered a private group that had just flipped two oarboats in a rapid, and our guides stopped to help them right the boats.  The code of the river demands that you always stop to help others.

Rafts Anchored At Bass Beach

We traveled an average of about 15 river miles each day between campsites, but the actual daily distance was quite variable, depending on our sidetrips.  Most camps were established on a sandy beach amid salt cedar trees or boulders.  The guides always slept on their rafts, in the traditional boatman style, whereas we clients always slept on the land.  Tents were deployed twice due to nighttime rains.  Interestingly, most of the boatmen use off-the-shelf Black Diamond Megamid tents as rain shelters on their rafts.

Camp At Bass Beach

The lone exception to our beach camps was a remarkable place called Bloody Ledges, which consisted of flat, reddish-colored, limestone terraces rising above the river level.  The guides anchored the rafts using rock chocks, and we all spread out across the ledges.  Although each of us had been issued a sleeping bag for the trip, it was seldom cool enough to warrant the use;  usually, we simply slept in—or on top of—a cotton sheet sack.

Camp 5 At Bloody Ledges

On easier stretches of the river, the guides would relax and even occasionally let the clients take a turn rowing.  Eileen was happy to spend an hour at the helm.

Eileen Rowing on Flatwater

On the rafts, all personal gear is stored in blue roll-top dry bags with identifying numbers.  We quickly became accustomed to forming a “bag line” (a variation of the traditional “bucket brigade”) to unload the bags every evening and load the bags every morning.  Kitchen equipment and other group gear was unloaded and loaded in the same manner.

Blue Bags Ready For Loading

With daytime temps usually hovering in the 90’s and 100’s, we were keenly aware of the need for hydration, sun shade, and cooling.  Frequent dunks in the chilly river—with clothes on—became a standard part of our daily routine for young and old alike.  Incidentally, we were informed that the average client age on a Can-X trip is 58.  Our average group was a bit younger, due to having along several teenagers and one irrepressible 11-year-old girl.

Nicole & Brooke & Beatrice Cooling Off

Every camp involved setting up a kitchen with folding aluminum tables, on which the guides prepared delicious meals using fresh ingredients.  By careful logistical planning and strategic management of icebox coolers, they were able to haul fresh meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables through the canyon heat for 17 days.  Kitchen equipment, non-perishable food, camping gear, and trash is carried in army surplus ammo boxes.  All told, our flotilla carried well over 100 ammo cans, and considering that approximately 50 similarly equipped flotillas are operating in the canyon at any given time, it is easy to imagine where the nation’s supply of old ammo cans is ending up!

Camp Kitchen At Bloody Ledges

Our rafts carried a water filtration system to generate potable water at each campsite.  Part of our morning routine was to fill up water bottles for use during the day.

Water Filtration Setup

The first thing to be set up and the last thing to be removed was our commode.  It consisted of a toilet seat bolted to an ammo can (of course).  In the old days, there was no toilet seat; everyone simply sat directly on an ammo can to do business.  Because the ammo can would leave grooves in one’s buttocks, the commode became nicknamed “the groover.”  Thanks to the advent of the toilet seat top, there are no more grooves, but the name “groover” lives on in infamy.  At most of our campsites, our groover had a fine view of the river.

Typical Groover Setup At Rivers Edge

Grand Canyon river guides have developed all manner of shenanigans to entertain themselves and their clients.  Our favorite was the amazing “fire bomb.”  This pyroclastic spectacle involved a raft pump, an extension hose, and a bottle of lighter fluid.  The hose was partially buried in sand, and lighter fluid was poured into the exposed end.  An unsuspecting client was selected to lie on the ground and hold a match over the hose end while a guide gave the pump handle a firm push.  To the delight of all onlookers and to the dismay of the lightsman, an incredible ball of fire erupted from the hose.

Fire Bomb Ready For Action

Most days involved a short hike up a creek valley that would give us a sweeping view of the Colorado River.

Family Moment Above Colorado River

Most hikes ended at some little secret grotto, such as this one at Shinumo Falls.  A frigid shower never felt so good!

Brooke & Jim & Eileen & Derek At Shinumo Falls

Our longest hike of the week was a 3-mile ascent up Tapeats Creek to Thunder Spring.  The word “spring” is a bit misleading for this water feature, however;  in reality, a full-fledged stream gushes from a cavern in the limestone wall and cascades down a ravine.  The water, having percolated downward through a thousand feet of semi-porous rock, is many centuries old.  It is also wonderfully refreshing on a hot afternoon.

Thunder Spring From Upper Thunder River Trail

Another popular canyon hike is a 1-mile jaunt up Deer Creek to a series of scenic pools set amid a little oasis.  The creek has carved a deep, serpentine gorge into the sandstone bedrock.

Hiking Into Deer Creek Gorge

Our favorite hike was up Havasu Creek, on Day 5.  Here, a turquoise-colored stream flows through a twisting, polished, banded-sandstone cleft.  The whole image seems surrealistic and other-worldly—like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  We spent an hour exploring and soaking in the magical bathwater-warm pools.

Hiking Up Havasu Creek
Havasu Creek Gorge

When we landed at Diamond Creek on the morning of Day 9 and unloaded our rafts for the last time, we had a sense of the Grand Canyon allure that our guides felt.  Some of these boatmen have been running the canyon multiple times per summer for over 15 years, and they talked about Colorado River water flowing through their veins.  It is truly an incredible place.

Drifting Through The Granite Gorge


——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–