Day Hike Down Cathedral Wash
Getting to the river near Lees Ferry

Sunday, February 1, 2009

by Dennis Foster

The namesake Cathedral Rock.

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     It is Super Bowl Sunday and the Arizona Cardinals are in it for the first time ever.  But, the weather is beautiful around here - crystal clear skies and temps in the mid-50s.  So, despite the allure of hot wings, beer and endless hours of pre-game hoopla, there was plenty of time for me to take a neat little hike in the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon.

     About a week ago, a story ran in the Daily Sun about hiking down Cathedral Wash, which is just a couple of miles below Lees Ferry, where the Grand Canyon river running trips put in.  The hike is a short one, but offers up quite a bit of variety.  With the football game on at four o'clock (or, so it was reported), I had a plan that I thought would make for the perfect Super Bowl combo of a hike and a game:  leave the house by seven, get to the trailhead by nine (about 120 miles away), do the round trip by noon and get back home by two.  Well, I didn't actually leave until 7:40 a.m., but was home by 2:15 p.m. without feeling like I had rushed anything.

     The trailhead is at a parking pullout just 1.4 miles down the road from Marble Canyon.  As you can see, below, there wasn't any problem finding a space to park!  You can descend to the bed of the wash on either side of the road.  It seemed easier to start on the west side and walk through the culvert, but there is a drop off here, where the water has eroded the bed below the cement slab.  So, it is just as easy to go down alongside the drainage ravine that runs down the east side of the road.

     I was on the trail at 9:45 a.m. and was quickly in a narrow bed with 15 foot walls penning me in.  Since it has been dry for a while, there were quite a few footprints to follow.  A few places narrow down and you have to move along sloping rocks, but nothing requiring thought and study.  Well, nothing until the first pour off.  Here, I studied the ledges to my right and couldn't see a quick way down.  So, I stayed high and went over some large fallen rock slabs before working my way down to the bed.  I had to really stretch to make a couple of steps and I had to jump the final foot, or so, from my sitting position.  On the way back up I saw that there was a route, relatively close to the pour off, that is walkable.

     There are lots of neat rock formations here and cool terraces to hike over.  Lots of shade here as well.  Although it was late morning, I found it much more comfortable to wear my fleece coat and my ear warmer headband!  It only took me about fifty minutes to get down to the river, an estimated 1.3 miles from the parking lot.

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Parking along Lees Ferry Road.  Trail information sign. You can walk through here.

Muddy tracks at a water hole.  Some deer tracks were clear as was a paw print.  The paw tracks were visible to the river, so may belong to a dog.

The well-defined wash. 

Looking down the first obstacle.  I stayed too high - above the jumbled rocks - before looking for a route down to the bed. 

Shelf pockets in the rock. 

Looking back up at the first pour off.  Bony looking limestone. In the narrows of Cathedral Wash.
     As quickly as you reach the river, looking up will show you that you've made a lot of progress getting through these rock layers.  In fact, it wasn't until I was at the last bend in the canyon that I could hear the river.  The water was quite calm upstream and the rapids here are small, so it isn't too noisy.  Lots of ducks were swimming around, diving into the water and flying up and down the river.  I stopped along a stretch of rocky shore and had my lunch and watched the ducks playing around.  Then, I headed down to a little beach where I took off my boots and unzipped my pant leggings and waded out into the river.  Well, that lasted about 30 seconds.  Man, is it cold!!!

     I decided to scout around a little bit before heading back.  There is a high terrace on the south side of the wash that has a fire ring.  I followed little trails downstream a bit but gave up when I got to some big chunky rocks.  I had wondered if I could peak around the corner and see Navajo Bridge, but I think I am just a bit too far away for that.  According to Butchart's notes you can walk along the side here back up to Paria (Lees Ferry) and down to Soap Creek, although there are a couple of narrow ledges along the way.  I got to a nice high spot and took a picture of the river here before heading back up the canyon at 11:30 a.m.

Self portrait in shadow near the
mouth of Cathedral Wash.

Cathedral Wash. 

A beautiful day on the river. 

Rapids at Cathedral Wash. 

 The Vermilion Cliffs. 

     The hike out was just as quick as the hike in - about 50 minutes altogether.  I noted a couple of spots where there was a better route than the one I took coming down.  Nearing the end, I had some great views to the west of the Vermilion Cliffs, nicely lit up by the sun and framed by the icy blue sky.  By 12:30 p.m. I was in my truck, heading back to Flagstaff, where I wouldn't miss a single play of the Super Bowl and where I wouldn't feel guilty at indulging in hot wings, guacamole and beer.  All in all, not a bad combo - a hike and a game - except for the Cardinals losing that nail biter at the end.

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