Down the Ditch (Grand Canyon, part 1: Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch)

October 24 – November 2

21 days, 225 miles, 16 people, five boats, 1800 beers…It’s hard to fathom what a Grand Canyon trip involves until you have been there. We found out about the permit on the second to last day of our honeymoon back in February of 2016, and by the time we landed in SF the seed of our year off had taken root.

Over the year-and-a-half between getting the permit and actually taking off on the river, the group changed numerous times and Theo and I went from knowing almost everyone to knowing just under half of the folks on the trip by the time put-in day came around. This was my third trip and Theo’s first—I was ecstatic to be able to share this place with her, with old friends, and to meet some new people along the way.

Put-in day is basically just moving a lot of heavy shit (not literally, that happens on take-out day!): By the time we were packed and ready to leave Flagstaff, we had a large moving truck and a 14-passenger van full of people and gear. It was then a few hour drive to Lee’s Ferry and the put-in for the Grand Canyon. Once there, it was a multiple-hour process of unloading, organizing, and rigging that lasted well into the late afternoon. At which point, we floated all of 100 yards to camp for the night. It had been well over a year since I had rigged a boat for a multi-day and I was feeling quite slow next to the folks who just finished up their commercial season, but eventually I had everything ready to go.

The first morning on the river, you float under Navajo Bridge, one of the last signs of the encroachment of civilization until you reach Phantom Ranch at river mile 88. Based on our group discussions, we had decided to float slowly and try to take advantage of the many side hikes that the canyon offers. In addition, this group was very efficient, saving us an hour or so each morning in getting on the water so we had plenty of time to explore and still were able to relax in camp. For the first ten days or so we were aiming to average just 10 miles a day: about 3 hours of time on the water each day, often extended with hikes and lunch stops. Many days we were able to just get to our next camp in time for a late lunch and lazy afternoon. On our way down to Phantom we stayed at Soap Creek, North, Nautiloid, Eminence, Lower Nankoweep, Carbon, Lower Rattlesnake (where we had a layover day), hitting Phantom late on our tenth day on the river.

While there are a few rapids of note above Phantom—House, the Roaring 20’s, Grapevine, and Hance—our main focus was on the day hikes and other points of interest. In the first 88 miles we found ourselves in North Canyon, Silver Grotto, Redwall Cavern, Nautiloid Canyon, Eminence Overlook, Saddle Canyon, Nankoweep Granaries, Little Colorado River, Carbon and Lava Canyon loop, Unkar Delta, Tabernacle, and Clear Creek.

North Canyon

Silver Grotto

Redwall Cavern

Nautiloid Canyon (look fossils!)

Eminance Overlook

Saddle Canyon


Little Colorado River

Carbon and Lava Canyons


Clear Creek

[Theo here…] There isn’t anything quite like rafting the Grand Canyon: The height of the canyon walls is unfathomable, so much so that depth is impossible to tell and there is nothing but more giants rocks to provide perspective; the sound of the rushing water is constant such that you feel deaf when you step into a side canyon and can no longer hear the crashing waves; the geology is ever-changing but orderly, and then all of a sudden the layers of rock are a mess (looking at you, Great Unconformity!). We were lucky enough to be there without any commercial groups and so, while we did see plenty of other people, we did not feel the overbearing presence of civilization and instead it seemed as though we were all survivors in a distant, lost land (which in some ways we were!). Routine is the name of the game, with almost the same schedule every day on the river: Wake up when the cook crew yells (or in some cases, gently whispers in your ear) “Coffee!!!”; eat breakfast around the remnants of last night’s fire; wash dishes and pack up personal gear, and then start loading the boats; on the water for a few hours, and then most often get to camp and unload the boats while the cook crew sets up lunch; personal time and/or hiking time after lunch, time for playing Euchre, reading (or writing!) a book, journaling, bathing and doing laundry, for playing Paddle Can or Polish Horsehoes; then, dinner and clean-up, campfire time, and bed time! Most nights the moon was so bright that you didn’t need your headlamp to see; it was great but also made it hard to sleep when it looks like daylight all night long!

Check out more photos from the first part of our Grand Canyon trip here!

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