Two Grand Canyon Area Hikes
Cathedral Wash - Vermilion Cliffs
by Christine Maxa
Off the road that intersects U. S. 89-A at Arizona's Marble Canyon and leads to Lees Ferry, near the beginning of Grand Canyon, you will find two exceptional opportunities for day hikes. One will take you north, up into the stunningly colorful Vermilion Cliffs, to a formation that locals call The Tooth. More formally, it is also known as Powell's Rock. The other will take you down through the spectacular Cathedral Wash to the Colorado River.
The Lowry Spring Hike
The route north, up a wash to Lowry Spring, requires a bit of route-finding skills and some pluck. After following the wash for about half-mile, the fun begins when the route dead-ends at a pour-off as high as a two-story house. You will have to ascend a path of least resistance up a steep slope where the canyon wall collapsed. It is jammed with a curious collection of rocks. Pedestals, chipped away by the elements, stand tenuously. Blocks derived from the Keyenta formation teeter precariously as though they were frozen in mid-stride down the canyon wall.
You can expect to spend several minutes picking your way carefully through the mix of crumbly earth, ball-bearing-shaped rocks, and chunks of rock and boulders. You will top off on a road. You'll have to use some route-finding skills in following the chewed-up track that once serviced miners who had claims in this basin below the cliffs. Cairns may or may not be present, but the track is usually discernable, a scar across the fragile high desert countryside. Hikers who travel off the trail should take care to minimize their own tracks.
This basin yielded some caches of copper ore here and there, but the big draw was uranium. Chunks of uranium still litter the ground. Stakes mark present claims. The Chinle geologic formation has yielded fragments of petrified wood scattered along the ground at the foot of colorfully banded mounds. The petrified wood, once giant redwood trees, has a golden color to it. Word has it that dinosaur bones may be found in the area, as well.
Along the way, you may notice prehistoric rock art pecked in dark-hued boulders. Please remember: a) look, but don't touch, as skin oils can cause deterioration of prehistoric drawings; b) don't draw anything alongside the art; c) keep pets on their best behavior so they don't dig around or soil the art. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act and state laws prohibit digging, removing artifacts, damaging, and/or defacing archaeological resources. Arizona's managing agencies and courts are not sympathetic to offenders.
Continuing onto Powell Rock, you follow a game trail that heads up a sandy hillside. You will occasionally see segments of black pipe, remnants from a system that piped water years ago from the Lowery Spring to a lodge. After trudging about a mile uphill, hikers reach the cliffs, and the spring rises to the right of Powell Rock. This mini-oasis, where cottonwood trees arch over the silver flicker of water seeping from the Kayenta formation, makes a good place for a break and good look at the area before you head back down the trail. From here, you can see Navajo Mountain, Echo Cliffs and Marble Canyon.
The Colorado River Hike
Following the second trail, you will follow Cathedral Wash down to the Colorado River, near the historic Lees Ferry. While the first route takes you over more open countryside, this 1.25-mile-long lower route takes you through a subterranean turn and through the wash as it narrows into a slot canyon. Generally sharp and raspy if unaltered, the Kaibab limestone walls at the route’s beginning are smooth and well worn by the flooding that has created a series of chute-like pour-offs. Staff at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center at Glen Canyon Dam warn that hikers should stay away from the wash at any hint of rain. This is a hike for a sunny day, preferably in the dry, milder months of spring and fall.
Aside from the flash flood caveats, the route does have some other spooky moments, especially when you need to negotiate the areas around a couple of dry falls. A metal sign near the first pour-off designates the boundary of the Grand Canyon National Park, informing hikers that permits are required for overnight camping. From there, the walls grow as the route eventually drops a total of 200 feet. Ledge walking makes up a big part this segment. One ledge skirts an imposing outcrop that pushes itself onto the path and forces you into a slow sidestep. A few loose rocks might ricochet against the walls of the narrow wash as hikers creep past this spot, reminding them a misstep might land them about 30 feet down below. You will keep hoisting up and down ledges and ducking under low-hanging alcoves, and sidestepping pouroffs while following cairns that delineate the route.
While negotiating jungle gym maneuvers, you should watch for arches up on the rim. One appears near a set of utility wires strung across the rim of the canyon and another nearer to the river. Strangely sculpted rocks also stand at the wash's rim.
A series of hops down a bundle of smaller ledges finally brings you to the wash's floor. A mile-long scramble along the boulder strewn wash floor brings you within earshot of the roar of the Colorado River's Cathedral Rapids. Near the river, weaker Toroweap sandstone walls have caved in under the force of erosion in spots, creating an obstacle course of boulders.
The canyon's mouth, located near Mile 3 on a river runner's log, is one of the first riffles that whitewater rafters encounter. The spillages of boulders that provoke Cathedral Rapids barely rock the boats. These boulders make great perches, where you can sit, cool hike-weary feet in the 48-degree river water, and have lunch before returning back up the trail.
When You Go
To reach Cathedral Wash, go south from Page, Arizona, on U. S. 89 for about 25 miles. Turn right (north) onto U. S. 89-A. Drive for about 14 miles to Lee’s Ferry Road, and turn right (north). Drive for about a mile to the second turn-out at Cathedral Rock. Walk just north of the turn-out to Cathedral Wash. Turn right (east) in the canyon to the Colorado River or left (west) toward Vermilion Cliffs.
The lower route to the Colorado River enters the Grand Canyon National Park. Hikers will need a permit for overnight hiking.
For a safe and comfortable hike:
- Do not hike anywhere in the wash if rain threatens.
- Wear a hat and sunscreen.
- During warmer weather, hike early in the morning.
- Use a walking stick for added support and balance.
- Hikers with vertigo should not attempt the route.
For more information contact the Carl Hayden Visitor Center at 1-928-608-6404. Use the USGS Lees Ferry Map to plot your course.
Camping & RV Parks
There are many commercial and National Park Service locations for camping and RVs in and near Page.
For a complete list contact:
Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce
644 North Navajo Drive, Suite C
P.O. Box 727
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