COLORADO RIVER GORGE
General Description: A steep route into an incredible gorge
Best Season: March-May, late September-November. Foot travel in this gorge should only be attempted when the river is very low or altogether dry. Elevation: 5,300’ --- 3,160’
Length: 1 mile to Blue Spring
Time Needed: 2 days, or 4-8 hours to go down and back out in 1 day.
Difficulty: Difficult (climbing)
Maps: USGS; Blue Spring 7.5
Permits: Navajo reservation permit. Obtain in Cameron at the visitor center/ranger station at the junction of highways 89 and 64. Call (520) 679-2303 for more information.
Access: From Cameron, take highway 64 west into Grand Canyon National Park. The road you want is about 50 yards beyond the Desert View entrance station. Unless you can sweet-talk the entrance guard, you'll have to pay the $20 entrance fee to the park. Once past the entrance station, turn right onto Cape Solitude Road. This road is steep, rocky, and can be muddy. It requires a fourwheel drive and some off-road driving skill!
In 1 mile down Cape Solitude Road, stay to the left. The right fork leads to a sewage lagoon. At 3.4 miles from highway 64, bear left. At 9.0 miles stay straight. At 12.4 miles, stay left. At 13.3 miles, bear left. At 13.9 miles, take a deep breath, you've made it.
Your destination is a point on the rim of the gorge just west of Gold Hill. Don't confuse Gold Hill with Cedar Mountain. Cedar Mountain is the most prominent butte in the area, and it is covered with juniper trees. Gold Hill is much smaller, nearly void of trees and closer to the rim of the gorge. Both Gold Hill and Cedar Mountain are visible from highway 64, many miles before the entrance to the park.
Description: Before setting out on this trip, check on the current
flow of the Little Colorado River at Cameron. If it is more than 50 cubic
feet per second, don't go. Crossing the river will be hazardous, and the
lovely blue water of Blue Spring will be drowned out by the chocolate
brown water of the main river. Ideal conditions are when the Little
Colorado is dry or just a trickle, like less than 10 c.f.s. You can make a
quick scan of the flow below the bridge in Cameron. If it is anything more
than a little creek here, it is too high.
This steep route leads into the impressive Little Colorado River Gorge at Blue Spring, the source of the Little Colorado's azure blue flow. With binoculars, you should be able to spot the spring from the canyon rim. The route begins just east of the parking spot. On the map, it is to the northwest, or just downstream, of Blue Spring. Cairns will lead you all the way down through cliffs of Kaibab limestone and Coconino sandstone, then across a bench of Hermit shale. The final cliff just above the river is Redwall limestone. To get through this layer, the route leads upstream about 200 yards before descending a short, moderate slope to the river.
If you're an acrophobiac (fear of high places), this trip isn't for you. There are a couple of spots along this route where you may want to shed your pack to downclimb. The climbs are mostly grade 4 scrambles, with one or two spots bordering on 5th class climbing. The exposure on some of the scrambles is huge. Up to 200 feet of air hangs beneath your toes in places. All the moves with big exposure, though, are class 4. If you are comfortable around high places, there should be no problems, but if you are uneasy around heights, this will be challenging.
Once at the bottom, you can enjoy beaches of sand and Blue Spring an outlet for a large portion of northern Arizona's subterranean water. It gushes out of the river left bank of Redwall limestone with a Caribbean-like turquoise blue color. The temperature of the water nearly emulates the tropics too, it is over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The combination of warm, clear water and a deep gorge make this spot an Eden.
Downstream, more springs add to the river's flow and canyoneers can expect lots of swimming and wading. I have only explored 1 mile below the springs, and I had to swim once in that stretch. It is about 12 miles to the Colorado River from Blue Spring. If you go that far, you technically need a permit from the park.
My upstream progress is even less impressive than my downstream. I was turned back in 0.5 miles by quicksand. There is supposedly quicksand in the Little Colorado Gorge, and though I can't imagine it's as lethal as the maidensucking stuff we see in the movies, the squishy thigh deep mud I encountered was intimidating enough to turn me back. Progress could safely be made through here if two people crossed pools separately and carried a rope. It would definitely be a muddy experience.
The real problem with exploring this gorge beyond Blue Spring is timing. Ideal conditions are found only after a prolonged dry spell, and finding good water could be a problem then. Your best chances for exploring the Little Colorado Gorge would probably come in June (after spring runoff), October or early November (after monsoon season, but before winter sets in).