It was Thursday morning, and the day began in a beautiful suite at the luxurious Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The sun had not yet risen, but anticipation of the day’s journey had us up and anxiously preparing for our safari. As my wife was showering, I was busy checking cameras, film, footwear and the other gear we would need for the twelve-hour adventure to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I felt like a kid after seeing the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth–except that this was real, and this was my journey.
Only a month earlier, my wife had called me into the den to see something she found on the Internet–a soft adventure/safari package that featured a trip via four-by-four vehicle to a remote part of the Grand Canyon and from there down to a sandy beach at the edge of the Colorado River. Previously, my belief was that visitors were forced to take a mule train or a helicopter to reach the bottom of the canyon. Apparently, I was wrong. For centuries, the Hualapai Indians (“wall-a-pie“) have used an access trail that leads down an ancient wash to access the Colorado River. They simply never told anybody about it. In recent years, they’ve used this trail to assist in extracting rafts from the Colorado River.
Our adventure guide arrived in a white Ford Expedition emblazoned with a picture that looked like Indiana Jones (how appropriate!). Other than heavy-duty tires, the vehicle was a stock Eddie Bauer complete with leather interior and dual air. I didn’t mind having air conditioning, because we were headed into the Mojave Desert. Bill Monk–a tall, handsome fellow about forty and a native of the southwest–politely greeted, boarded, and briefed us, and we were on our way. As we departed Las Vegas, Bill gave us a rundown on the city, its size, how quickly it has grown, the new hotels, and–of course–its infamous mob background.
Surprisingly, the west rim of the Grand Canyon (the least known and one of the most pristine locations) is only a little over two hours drive from Las Vegas and offers many beautiful sights along the way. As we left the city behind, I realized just how remote Las Vegas truly is. There’s nothing to see for hundreds of miles in any direction but the southwestern wilderness. Our first photo opportunity was the majestic Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Bill told us the history of this magnificent structure and specifics about the dam and the lake. After crossing the dam, we were in the state of Arizona and heading southeast into a rugged, desert/ mountainous wonderland.
Only a mile past the dam, Bill stopped the vehicle and disembarked for us to take pictures of a herd of bighorn sheep. It was barely seven fifteen in the morning, and already the day was overwhelming. This was gold mining country. When God put gold in “them thar” hills, he must have thought, “I’m going to make this stuff really difficult to get.” Interestingly, this part of the world is still full of gold, but the price is so low that the cost of mining it exceeds its value.
As quickly as we had entered the mountains, we broke into a high plains grassland plateau. The Mojave Desert is not a sand dune desert but a scrub growth desert with an abundance of wildlife. The largest herds of bighorn sheep in the world live in the surrounding mountains. They share the area with mountain lions, coyote, a variety of deer, pronghorn antelope, millions of rabbits, desert grouse, golden eagles, and many other desert critters. What I wanted to see most were the herds of wild horses and burros. The Spanish conquistadors brought horses to this region some five hundred years ago. The burros came with both the Spanish and the miners of the 1850’s. When the Spanish left, they cut their herds loose. Similarly, when the prospectors gave up, died, or were shot for their gold, their burros wandered off to make themselves at home. Both species thrived due to ample forage and many springs along the base of the mountain ranges.
Our next encounter with civilization was Kingman, Arizona. The town and surrounding area with its striking rock formations were used extensively by the movie industry back when cowboy films were popular. Just east of Kingman, Bill raised his arm, pointing south, and exclaimed, “Mustangs!” Two hundred yards to the right, a herd of twelve mustangs danced across the desert. “Ten adults and I would guess two to be two-year-olds,” Bill described. “Relax. They’ll stop, and we’ll get some good shots.” The horses were awe-inspiring, a testimony to the survival of the strong. At last, the lead stallion reared to a halt only seventy-five yards from the road. We quietly climbed from the car for photos I never imagined I would capture. We watched the herd for about fifteen minutes before Bill said, “Saddle up, Cowboys. It’s time to ride.”
A few minutes later, we arrived at the Hualapai Indian reservation and the beginning of the twenty-two mile trail to the bottom of the canyon and the Colorado River. Once we started down the dirt trail, we quickly left juniper forest behind to enter a completely different environment of Mojave yucca and prickly pear cactus. The paddles of the prickly pear were ten inches across; the plants spanned ten feet. The brilliant red fruit of the cactus grew as big as lemons, and there were tens of thousands of them. The canyon walls began to rise around us as we journeyed deeper into this wonderland. We paused to inspect the cactus and to take some great shots with cactus in the foreground and the rust-colored canyon walls in the background. I chose a 35-mm lens, because I love to get close to my subject, with f16 for depth of field and a polarizer to enrich the sky and colors.
Our next stop was a spectacular overview of the trail as it disappeared into the canyon between sheer walls of gold. Beyond, we could see a distant mountainous vista that yielded all the shades and hues of blue and mauve you imagine when you think of the Grand Canyon. About two thousand feet below the rim of the ancient wash, we encountered another stirring oddity–an ocotillo forest that towered fifteen feet tall. Farther on, we stopped beside barrel cactus that reached over five feet in height. Cactus must grow for at least five hundred years to achieve such size and stature. Our next surprise was a small herd of wild burros. Some were gray and some an unusual albino. To me, the sight was almost too good to be true. They showed no fear of man and struck some great poses for us.
The canyon narrowed to a breathtaking one hundred feet in width and three thousand five hundred feet in height. We drove down a crystal clear creek, watching the water spray up on both sides of the vehicle. Bill brought the vehicle to a halt. “Now be quiet as you get out,” he warned. “We have six big horn sheep one hundred yards ahead and about two hundred feet above the creek on a cliff.” I grabbed my telephoto. The big horn are somewhat spooky with company near and only stayed long enough for some good photography. They seemed to defy gravity as they left, scaling a cliff face and disappearing over a ridge.
At a depth of four thousand feet, sand dunes appeared to our right. Just beyond was the white water of the Colorado River. We had driven to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Bill pulled the Ford Expedition onto a sand beach. I took off my shoes and socks and waded into a calm pool at the side of the river–a treat I’ve never outgrown. To my surprise, the water was freezing cold, my stay measured in seconds. I concluded that a whitewater raft trip was not for me.
After about a half hour of relaxation and photography, we started back up the trail to the top. The views on the way up were as stunning as the trip down. Then on to our next location, the west rim of the Grand Canyon.
The high plains above the canyon, the low juniper forest, and distant views of the Grand Canyon as we circled the rim in a northerly direction were spectacular. Bill explained that this was pronghorn antelope country, and only minutes later, they were standing one hundred fifty yards off the road. The twisted horns of the antelope and their unusual facial markings reminded me of a remote plain in Africa. Although they’re shy and stayed a good distance away, we were still close enough for some good photos. Shortly thereafter, we encountered more wild horses before a group of a dozen or so wild Javelina pigs (small wild boar) scurried across the road in front of the vehicle. This was an exciting find but a definite no-shoot, as they were gone as quickly as they had appeared.
Leaving the thick scrub growth, we broke over a rise to encounter the west rim of the Grand Canyon. Our timing was perfect. The mid-afternoon sun was on its way down, beginning to be stained with red. We parked at Quartermaster Canyon, which offers a fabulous view, and prepared for a short hike to the canyon rim. The ground was covered with fossils, low Mojave yucca, and scrub growth. The Hualapai reservation is a pristine, non-commercialized location. It seemed odd that we were the only people there. One of the rules is that you cannot remove anything from the Indian reservation. Not only is theft against Hualapai law, but it’s also supposed to bring bad luck.
Carefully stepping onto a ten-by-twenty-foot flat area at the edge of a four-thousand-foot sheer precipice where no guardrails have ever existed, I was struck breathless by the magnificence. We could see five miles of the Colorado River below, one of only two locations that offer such an expansive view of the river. At that point, the far side of the canyon is only one mile away, so the visual impact of such depth and closeness in the same scene is stunning. I actually had to pull myself together to start shooting. The light was perfect. The far, jagged walls had sharp, dark shadows that showed every detail.
Soon I was overcome with a visual, emotional, euphoric exhaustion–relieved to hear Bill say, “I hate to tear you away, but we need to move on to the Joshua tree forest before we lose the light.” A seven-mile drive across a grassy plain at the top of the canyon brought us to a narrow gorge with 1,500-foot mountains on either side. The mountains to our right, which were lit by the setting sun, glowed a rusty red as we descended into a forest. Not only had I never seen a Joshua tree before, but this forest was twenty-five to thirty feet tall, nine hundred years of age, and spread over an area of more than two hundred square miles. Neither a cactus nor a tree, the Joshua tree is actually a member of the lily family. Protected by the red Sentinel Mountains, these “trees” had begun their existence at the time King Arthur held court in Camelot.
Seven miles later, we were back on paved road, heading toward Las Vegas. I put my arm around my wife. Never had we seen so much, filmed so much, and consumed so much information in one day. The trip into the Grand Canyon was an expedition that any shutterbug or serious photographer would truly enjoy. I was already planning where the enlargements were going to hang.
For information, contact Adventure Photo Tours, Las Vegas, Nevada 702-889-8687(tour) toll free 888-363-8687 or http://www.adventurephototours.com/
By Bill T.