Six days at Lees Ferry, Arizona…
Why we came…
We visited Lee’s Ferry four years ago. We were only there for an afternoon to fly-fish the Colorado River. We both fell under the spell of the river and the dramatic Vermillion Cliffs. We vowed to come back to do a multi-day kayak trip and to hike the historic Spencer trail.
Lees Ferry Campground has 54 sites. It looks like it was designed forty years ago. A lot of the sites are short and narrow. We chose one of the longer pull through sites though there were a couple of nice sites along the cliff with a great view of the river. Our site was a bit unlevel, composed of gravel and shaded with a few small trees. We also had a picnic table and fire ring. There are no hook-ups but there are two older bathrooms (without showers) that were kept fairly clean. Surprisingly, we had a decent Verizon cell phone signal. There is a single dump station with potable water a mile from campground.
The campground is “first come, first served”. The campground was about half full when we arrived on a Thursday afternoon. By Friday afternoon, the campground was full.
We were comfortable and would return. Like most places, it would be best to go during the “shoulder seasons” and during the week.
Lees Ferry on the Colorado River about 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam
Our camp spot at Lees Ferry
Page, Arizona, population 7,247 and elevation 4,118 feet, offers about 30 restaurants, a big Walmart, a nice Safeway grocery store, and other services. It’s a circuitous 45 mile drive from Page to the Lees Ferry Campground.
The tiny little communities of Marble Canyon, Cliffhouse, and Bitter Springs are closer and offer a couple of restaurants, gas stations, some lodging, a post office, and a laundromat.
21-24 October we kayaked the Colorado River…
I planned a four day, three night kayak trip that would allow us to take our time and fully explore the river and the canyon. There is no access to the fifteen and a half miles of river squeezed between majestic 700-1,500 foot Navajo sandstone cliff walls from the Glen Canyon dam downstream to Lee’s Ferry. That section of the Colorado River moves along steadily with just a few bumpy riffles making it perfect for a peaceful float adventure.
We met Mick Lovett from Marble Canyon Outfitters late Friday afternoon. Mick helped us and two other ladies load our kayaks and gear on his river boat. Next, he showed us a map and discussed the various camp spots. He was on the river most of the day and knew which camps would have open spots.
Primitive camping on the river is limited to 14 days. “Camping is permitted in designated areas only. There are six designated areas, marked with signs, on a first-come first-served basis. Upriver campsites are provided with toilets and three fire pits. All campsites are located well above the river and require a short walk from your boat.”
As we headed up river, Mick briefed us on the best fishing spots and areas to explore during our adventure. He graciously allowed us to unload the gear at the camp spot closest to the dam, Ropes Trail camp. Then he took us up near the dam where we unloaded our kayaks.
Four day long kayak route on the Colorado River / Mick, our shuttle captain, explaining things on the map
Arleen and I slowly paddled a couple of hundred yards upstream to fish in the shadow of the dam while the ladies floated towards the camp.
Before we left, we got a fishing report at the nearest fly shop. The fishing was rated “fair”. That, in fish speak, is bad news.
I tentatively tied on a San Juan worm and after five minutes of letting it drift down from a gravel bar, I had a good hit. I pulled in a nice, fat 16” rainbow. Arleen and I were both excited and were hopeful that the fishing report was too pessimistic.
Arleen fly-fishing the Colorado River just below Glen Canyon Dam
Caught a nice rainbow trout
The sun was sinking fast, so we called it a night and paddled a mile downstream to our stuff waiting for us at the Ropes Trail camp. As we set up our tent, darkness quickly filled the narrow canyon. We had a snack, and crawled in our net tent as the stars filled the sky.
We shared the area that night with a family of five and the two lady kayakers. The camp spots were separated by thick desert shrubs so we had privacy. Once everyone turned in, it was very peaceful.
We spent the first two nights at the Ropes Trail Camp / Petroglyphs near the camp
We got up early the next morning. As I walked up river, I saw a boat with 2 Labrador Retrievers leaning over the bow as it ran up river. A few minutes later I heard a shotgun fire a few times followed by a few splashes. That reminded me that duck hunting season begins last week October.
I spent a few hours fishing from a sandbar. Unfortunately, I did not have any hits. Oh, no, was the fishing report true?
As I fished, the first of many Colorado River Discovery boats floated by. We heard the guide mention something about an actual rope ladder on the cliffs. Arleen and I set off on the slick rock to find it.
As we climbed up the slick rock, we saw that it was not one solid cliff of sand stone. But rather it was a series of fins oriented next to and stacked on top of each other. It was possible to move from one fin to the next, climbing higher and higher.
We could see that the family had made it all the way to the top of the cliff! We were not able to figure how they were able to do that. We took a break a few hundred feet above the river and listened to the Discovery boat guides brief that the area was used by natives for centuries to get to the river.
Usually wilderness areas are quiet and peaceful but we heard quite a bit of small airplane noise during the day. Later we learned that the Page airport was only two miles away. Between the boat traffic and airplanes, Glen Canyon was not too peaceful during daylight hours.
Arleen and I made the decision to stay put another night rather than packing up and floating downstream to another camp site. The ladies had left early and the family of five departed in the mid-afternoon. We had the entire campsite to ourselves until we left the next morning.
We launched the kayaks and fished a perfect big, slow eddy for several hours. But in that time I only hooked one small rainbow on a woolly bugger. Rats, we were proving the fishing report to be accurate.
We hiked up the cliffs again in the afternoon. This time we found the, “rope”. It was not made of plant fibers as the natives would have used. But rather, it was a thick steel cable. You’d use it to “walk up” or rappel down the slick rock in the steeper sections.
Me fly-fishing near the camp the first morning / A lizard enjoys a snack
Fishing a riffle downstream of the camp
Exploring the slick rock above the Ropes Trail Camp
A hawk soaring over the river / Enjoying an evening walk. Our camp is in the shrubbery below
Exploring the Colorado River near the Ropes Trail camp
Arleen fly-fishing the big slow eddy near the Ropes Trail camp
We packed up the kayaks the second morning and hit the river. We were curious about the other camps and made it a point to check out each one. The Ferry Swale Camp is a large flat area. There were a few dozen tents set up by a large children’s rafting camp…it was a zoo!
We also stopped at a couple of day use spots to walk short paths to see ancient petroglyphs. Some of the engravings were obvious and some seemed cryptic. They always give us a small peak into their mysterious past.
As we floated, we drift-fished. Sadly, neither of us got any bites. At the next camp we found the reason why.
9 Mile camp sits directly below the famous Horseshoe Bend overlook. We could see a bunch of tiny tourists over a thousand feet above us.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) had a large camp set up at 9 Mile. There were at least a dozen scientists camped there while they did studies of the river, plant life, and fish. Apparently they were electro shocking the trout and gathering detailed information. The zap is only supposed to last a few minutes but my theory is that the fish were lethargic and sulking deep in the water.
We checked out 8 Mile camp, too, but thankfully pushed on to 6 Mile camp. Till late at night, we would hear the scientists racing their boat up and down the river as they tried to spotlight fish in the dark. At 6 Mile it was more of a distant irritant. At 8 Mile, the researchers and their noisy boats would have kept us awake much of the night.
Reading in the tent / Headed to the next camp site on day 3
Stopped at the beach at the Ferry Swale Camp
A horseshoe bend between Ferry Swale and Nine Mile Camps
Petroglyphs at that horseshoe bend / A fishing break
A beautiful spot just upstream of the Six Mile Camp
On our third and final night, we had 6 Mile camp to ourselves! It was Sunday evening and all of the boats appeared to be leaving the river as the weekend came to a close.
There was one very nice camp site with a great view of the river but it was a steep hike up deep sand to get there. Arleen and I were both a bit stiff so we settled on the most convenient camp spot.
Last year we purchased a Kelty TrailLogic tent. It’s noted most for the, “roll-up Stargazing Fly™ for nighttime enjoyment”. Compared to our pervious tents, we struggled to set it up. To keep things simple, we had been keeping the rain fly off and thoroughly relishing the incredible night sky from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Though there were just a few clouds as we ate dinner, we expected rain during our final night. So, before we tucked into our sleeping bags, we added the rain cover but rolled up the “Stargazing Fly”. We could still see the stars, moon, and clouds, but would supposedly be able to rapidly close the Stargazing Fly if needed.
Sure enough, about three in the morning, we were awakened by rain drops on our faces. Even in our sleepy state it only took us a couple of minutes to fully secure the rain fly! We relieved ourselves and settled into our dry tent. It rained briefly a few times and there were a few flashes of light and cracks of thunder, but we slept peacefully and stayed dry.
Camped one night at Six Mile
We thoroughly enjoyed the float the next day from 6 mile to 2 mile. The canyon walls seemed even taller with more geological variety. There was a toilet river-right at 4 mile, though there weren’t any fire rings. On river-left, a prominent drainage joined the Colorado River that was tempting to explore.
A fellow fisherman, one of the few on the river this day, said they were hooking fish on San Juan worms. There were two great fish runs near 4 mile, one with good drop off. Arleen and I fished them for a couple of hours from both the kayak and by wade fishing. Finally, I caught a couple and Arleen caught one nice rainbow.
We paddled the last two miles with very little assistance from the river. We were thankful that there wasn’t a headwind! The current is very slow in this section which is one reason why John D. Lee chose this spot for his ferry. We pulled up to the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry just as the afternoon showers moved into the area. Once again, our timing was impeccable.
Floating and fishing on our last day
We each caught a trout here on the last day
Just two or three miles from Lees Ferry
On 25 October we hiked the Spencer Trail…
We heard about the historical Spencer Trail several years ago. The trail was named after Charles Spencer who was in charge of the gold mining operations in the area conducted in the late 1800s. He built the Spencer Trail to transport coal to the mine from Utah.
Each time we had been near the area, we carefully scanned the 1,500 foot high sandstone cliffs for the trail.
We set off to tackle the trail with some trepidation and a good amount of nervous energy. We had heard that just a short ways up, you get a great view. So we agreed that if the trail proved to be too much, we would enjoy the view, turn around, and return to terra firma.
We grabbed our backpacks and trekking poles and hit the trail. First, we followed the interpretive trail past some the ferry’s historic buildings. After a quarter of a mile, we turned up the steep rocky trail.
As we scrambled up, the trail materialized in front of us. It switch-backed and climbed steeply. It was rock-strewn and we had to watch our footing but the trail was easy to follow. As we progressed, the view of the river, the Vermillion Cliffs and Glen Canyon improved.
Finally, we crested the top of the sandstone plateau, 1,500 feet above the Colorado River. We had an outstanding view towards the northeast of the deep canyon, Page, and could see slivers of Lake Powell in the distance. We wandered around the top for a while peering into the canyon to see where we had recently floated and camped.
We probably took more time hiking down the trail, than up. It was steep and a wrong step could easily result in injury. It was a challenging and physical hike, but worth the epic view!
Hike route up the Spencer Trail / We spotted this three foot long rat snake by the trail
Original buildings from around 1900 for the ferry operation
Near the start of the trail / It’s a steep rocky trail
Climbing high above the Colorado River / The trail goes through that?!?
I left Arleen a note in the sand / Resting at the top, 1,500 feet above the Colorado River
The view is incredible. Six Mile Camp is on the left side of the river in the sun.
The view was even prettier on our way down
We are currently in Virgin, Utah near Zion National Park. Our next stop is Heber City, Utah where we will spend the winter. Bring on the snow!
Cliff House and balanced rocks
Lees Ferry is the launch point for Grand Canyon float trips. I wonder if this group will remember any of it!