My plan was to park about a mile below Lees Ferry and follow alongside the river to an exit out at Cathedral Wash. Then I would hoof it back across the plateau to my vehicle. Altogether, I figured I would cover about five miles. Given that it takes at least four hours to drive up here and back from Flagstaff, that makes it a pretty full day.
I saw only one person all day, fishing along the river. I started out on a well-worn trail that follows along the emerging cliffs of Kaibab limestone.
This trail goes around a bend in the river and abruptly ends at a rocky ravine. Here you must climb down to a small beach. Ahead of me, I was treated to a view of the river, a deep emerald green, flanked by sheer cliffs of the Kaibab and capped by a deep blue sky.
For the next half-mile the route follows narrow ledges at the river's edge. An occasional bush will present a challenge, as will sloping rock surfaces. I mostly feared that I would take a tumble into the river, which I really didn't want to happen!
The ledges gave way to a small talus slope and the bushes returned with a vengeance. Walking directly alongside the water was no longer possible. Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves are highly recommended if you want to survive this section unscathed.
About two-thirds of the way to Cathedral Wash, a drainage presents some problems. I had to divert into this drainage and down a steep slope to its bed. From there it was 10 to 12 feet up a brush-covered sandy slope, which would give way with every step I took. All told, it took me 15 minutes just to cross this little unnamed ravine.
The effort through this drainage was rewarded with a wider talus slope and the emergence of a definite track to follow the rest of the way to Cathedral Wash. Except for a lunch break, it took me about two hours to get here, covering less than two river miles. That is typical. So difficult are parts of Marble Canyon that the first person to have completed hiking its entire length, some 52 river miles, was Ron Mitchell in the 1970s.
Cathedral Wash gets more visitor traffic as there is a pull-off along the road to alert you to this trailhead. It takes about an hour to follow this meandering canyon that begins only 10 to 15 feet deep at the road and ends up nearer to 250 feet deep at the river. The twisting narrows have some obstacles that need to be passed, and I found small cairns marking the routes around them.
As I neared the road, I took a side canyon out to my right. Once on the plateau, I picked a route that I thought would lead me back to the trail near my truck. Although I had to backtrack around some ravines lined with small cliffs, I found the walking quite pleasant. Along the way I found a survey marker showing a section corner and dated 1927. I also found an old beer can that pre-dated the era of pull-tabs. It took me about an hour and a half to find my way back to the trail. I was back to my truck 10 minutes later, as the setting sun lit up the Vermilion cliffs above Lees Ferry.
Dennis Foster lives in Flagstaff and has been an avid hiker in Grand Canyon since 1977.
If you go
Marble Canyon Hike
Take U.S. 89 east out of Flagstaff 105 miles to Bitter Springs. Turn left on U.S. 89A; it is 15 miles to Marble Canyon. You can stop at Navajo Bridge and walk across the old bridge. The interpretive center is on the west side, and open from mid-April to mid-October. Just beyond the bridge turn right for Lees Ferry, which is five miles down the road. This is a fee area and managed as part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Cathedral Wash pull-off is 1.3 miles down this road and it is another 3.2 miles to the first parking area at Lees Ferry. Marble Canyon, which has a lodge, gas station and convenience store, is on U.S. 89A just past the Lees Ferry road.
For More Information:
There are a number of hiking guides that include Marble Canyon itineraries. One good choice is "Day Hikes from the River," by Tom Martin, now in its fourth edition.
There are many books written about Lees Ferry, none more comprehensive than P.T. Reilly's "Lees Ferry: From Mormon Crossing to National Park."