Once you have started the rafting trip through Grand Canyon National Park at Lees Ferry, one of the first landmarks you see is Navajo Bridge. Navajo Bridge is located between miles 4 and 5 from where you started, but can be seen well before you actually reach it.
There are actually two Navajo Bridges that span Marble Canyon today. Construction on the original Navajo Bridge (upriver) began in 1927 and the bridge officially opened to traffic in 1929. This bridge is 834 feet in length and reaches 467 feet in height from the Colorado River at the Marble Canyon floor. The opening of the original Navajo Bridge fostered in the closing of Lees Ferry which had been the only way to cross the Colorado River in the vicinity up to that point.
A newer Navajo Bridge (downriver) was built to accommodate increased highway traffic with heavier loads and was completed in September, 1995 at a cost of about $15 million. The newer bridge is 909 feet in length and reaches 470 feet in height from the Colorado River at the Marble Canyon floor. It was constructed next to the original bridge with a similar visual appearance, but updated to conform to modern highway codes. The original Navajo Bridge was then turned into a pedestrian bridge with an interpretive center nearby which explains the history of the bridge and the early crossings of the Colorado River.
When passing under the Navajo Bridges while on a Colorado River rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, it’s worthwhile to look closely at the bottom of the bridges (definitely take out your binoculars if you brought them). California condors have been reintroduced to the Marble Canyon area and one of their favorite resting places is in the bridge beams under the Navajo Bridges.
California condor on Navajo Bridge photo courtesy of CanyonCountry
The official beginning for most Grand Canyon rafting trips is at Lees Ferry (also commonly referred to as Lee’s Ferry or Lee Ferry) in Marble Canyon which gives a wonderful preview of what’s to come with the Colorado River surrounded by magnificent canyon scenery:
Since this is where the Grand Canyon rafting trips launch, this is where you get your initiation to what the rafting trip will be like. You meet the crew that will be guiding you down the river, are given supplies to keep all your belongings dry on the trip, given a quick course of raft safety and life jacket use, and load all your belongings onto the rafts. While there are some historical buildings and beautiful scenery all around, unless you make a concerted effort to seek them out, you will likely miss them as your focus will be on all the activity to get you on the raft and on your way down the Colorado.
There is quite a bit of history that goes with the Lees Ferry launch site. The ferry was originally built in 1871–1872 by John D. Lee with financing from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The ferry was located near where the Colorado River and Paria River merge and the crossing was originally called Paria Crossing. For nearly 50 years, Lees Ferry was the only available crossing of the Colorado River by ferry between Moab and Needles. This made Lees Ferry the main Colorado River crossing point for travelers between Utah and Arizona.
The actual ferry at Lees Ferry closed in 1928 with the building of Navajo Bridge (7 miles to the south) across Marble Canyon. The steel wire cable from the ferry still remains and crosses the Colorado River at the old ferry site. This cable marks the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park as you begin the float trip down the Colorado River. Lees Ferry is currently part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and is deemed as a historical site.
Photo courtesy of Li Ru Yue
Although a Grand Canyon rafting trip officially begins when you hit the water at Lees Ferry, it unofficially begins when you make your way to Las Vegas. There are options to fly from Las Vagas to Lees Ferry, but I would highly recommend renting a car and driving.
While it’s about a 5 to 6 hour drive from Las Vegas to Lees Ferry, the route allows you to drive through Zion National Park. Planning an extra day or two to explore and play in Zion before a Grand Canyon rafting trip would be an excellent way to begin the entire vacation (while it’s possible to do it after the rafting trip as well, you will have a lot more energy before the trip).
Even if you don’t have the time to give yourself a full day at Zion National Park, it’s still possible to do a short hike while passing through (what we ended up doing). A hike along the Riverside Walk path that takes you to The Narrows (Temple of Sinawava stop) is ideal in this situation since it also requires a trip on the shuttle bus which allows you to see the entire park and gives a quick guided overview of Zion.
The Riverside Walk is a relatively easy 2 mile round trip (about 1.5 hours) on a maintained path that is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers and gives some wonderful views of the North Fork Virgin River:
The end of the Riverside Walk path is at the North Fork Virgin River where the beginning of the The Narrows hike begins. This is a much more strenuous hike through the river and requires water shoes (these can be rented at a number of shops just outside the park’s south entrance). You can hike the first few miles of this without a permit, but the entire 16 mile hike up The Narrows does require a permit.