Lees Ferry, Arizona – The beginning of Grand Canyon

Lees Ferry once was for 500 miles / 800 km the only spot to cross Colorado River. It was and is for a long distance the only place where the endless and high canyon walls are interrupted so that it’s possible to reach the river. A ferry existed between 1873 and 1928 to cross the river. Still today, the only bridge crossing the Colorado between Glen Canyon, Page, and Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, is here in Marble Canyon. There is not much to see any more in Lees Ferry: some old houses; steam boilers that show the failed attempt to extract gold from the surrounding rocks. Only the steam boiler from a sunken ferry can be seen in shallow water, just covered by some feet of clear water. The wooden parts were already washed away.

Glen Canyon Dam has changed more than just blocking boat traffic to the north. Before building the dam, waters of the Colorado River were seasonally tempered and muddy-red. Local residents said about the river that its water were too thick to drink but too thin to plough. The water that escapes the dam today, regulated by human hand, is clear-green and with 8° C/46° F evenly cool. Many plant and animal species disappeared or are endangered while other new ones like trout settled.

Today, Lees Ferry is mainly known for the rafting tours through Grand Canyon that start there without exception. Even today some boats cast off. Private persons have to wait up to ten years to receive a permit to sail down Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Choosing an established tour operator costs a horrendous amount of money, and the trip has to be booked well in advance anyway. Nevertheless around 22,000 passengers sail the river through the canyon each year.

We hike around Marble Canyon, how the area is called that marks the beginning of Grand Canyon. Who doesn’t shrink from driving some miles of a bad country lane (high clearance is sufficient) can have a glance into Marble Canyon some miles downstream. Ten Mile Rock, a squared rock monolith, is situated in the middle of Colorado River. The rafters from noon have arrived here and are admiring the big piece of rock. We are looking at them from some hundreds of metres higher. When heading westward a prairie-like plain opens. The mountains to the left disappear together with Colorado River to the south. To our right the Vermillion Cliffs accompany us for a while.

Since some years the US Fish and Wildlife Service tries to establish there a second population of the California Condor living in the wild. The only other one lives in southern California. In the 80s the bird were exterminated to two dozen specimens. Californian Condors belong to the family of vultures, are hence carrion-eating animals, have a wing-span of up to three metres / nine feet, and a face only a mother can love. Sometimes one can watch the imposing gliders circling above the plain, but today there is no air traffic.

Suddenly a massif appears in front of us and the road climbs higher and higher to 2,500 m / 8,200 ft onto Kaibab Plateau. Trees are able to bee seen; at first the classic desert combination juniper-pinion, then spruce and fir that stand in snow. At Jacob Lake hwy # 67 turns south and leads to the not much visited North Rim of Grand Canyon. We would have liked to hike down into the canyon from North Rim, since we’ve done that at the South Rim few years ago. But North Rim closes consequently after the first snow and re-opens not before early summer. But we’ve found an alternative for tomorrow that should console us.

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