Before rafting the Grand Canyon my relationship with the Little Colorado River was limited to the view from the Cameron Suspension Bridge on US 89, a route I’d traveled at least twice a year for many years. Rarely more than puddles connected by a muddy trickle, to me the Little Colorado seemed better suited to be an indicator of recent precipitation than an actual photo destination. So on my first Grand Canyon raft trip way back in 2014, when Wiley (the lead guide for all but one of my now seven(!) trips) said we’d be stopping at the Colorado River’s confluence with the Little Colorado River, I shrugged.
That day had been a mix of clouds and sun, great for photography—all we needed was to pull over and tie up at a worthy subject. When we reached the confluence in early afternoon, Wiley suggested that we be back on the raft in 45 minutes, and I remember thinking, Really? Surely we can find a better spot to take advantage of this great light. I wasn’t even sure whether to grab my camera bag, but since I was the photography leader, I decided I better set a good example. Still skeptical, I followed one of the along a short trail through the shrubs, the rest of the group trailing. Rounding a corner I emerged from the brush and stopped like I’d slammed into a brick wall. Unable at first to process what I was seeing, I finally turned and managed to call back to Wiley, “Uh, we’re going to need more time here.”
There is nothing subtle about color in nature. In fact, the vivid natural hues that surround us may just be my favorite thing to photograph. But we live our lives taking for granted a certain range of natural color constants: the sky will feature a reliable blue throughout the day, bracketed by certain shades of red or orange at sunrise and sunset, and darken to something close to black at night. Water we expect to be particular shades of green or blue depending on light and clarity. Even when nature’s color intensifies to a hue and intensity that moves us to pause and take note (or photograph), it’s reliably within our range of expectations—a vivid sunset, or the rich blues of Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake.
But sometimes nature throws us a curve. Death Valley’s aptly named Artist’s Palette features and array purple, green, and pink rocks; last summer’s fires turned California’s midday sky an otherworldly orange; it’s impossible not to be gobsmacked the greens and reds of an aurora. And I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the green and blue glacial lakes of the Canadian Rockies and New Zealand. But for me, none of these sights were as disorienting as my first view of the Little Colorado River’s azure hues.
So what’s going on?
What happened to the familiar greenish-brown puddles upstream? Clearly, somewhere in the 55 or so river miles between Cameron and Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado has gotten an upgrade. Not only is there a lot more water, the blue water that’s been added is not a color I’ve seen in nature.
It turns out that, after leaving Cameron the Little Colorado twists along a scenic canyon of its own creation, a canyon deep enough to cut into a travertine-laced aquifer that recharges and colors its flow. The travertine (limestone formed by mineral springs) is infused with magnesium and calcium that adds the blue hue to the water, and leaves deposits that paint the rocks and river’s bed a reflective white, further enhancing the azure hue. Adding to all this magnificence is the rich red of the surrounding Grand Canyon walls.
Of course like most things in nature, the Little Colorado’s color is not guaranteed. When the summer monsoon rains arrive, the Little Colorado’s blue is overpowered by reddish brown sediment washed downstream by frequent torrential downpours. But by scheduling my raft trips for May, I’m usually able to beat this change (in May we also get to enjoy the Colorado River at its translucent green best). Only once have we found the Little Colorado River running brown, and we just kept right on floating downstream.
About this image
My Grand Canyon raft trip has many photographic highlights, but the most memorable (in no particular order) are the Milky Way (in the darkest sky you can imagine), Havasu Canyon, Elves Chasm, Deer Creek Fall, and the Little Colorado River. For the Milky Way we want a campsite that has a good view of the southern horizon, with the river in the foreground (and of course no clouds); for the others we like clouds or shade, and even tougher, few to no other people.
Over the years Wiley and I have gotten pretty good at strategizing our schedule to maximize the photo opportunities at the trip’s photo highlights. We came into this year’s trip knowing we were facing nothing but clear skies—great for the Milky Way, but not so much for the key locations. So before putting in on our first morning, we made our plan.
The first highlight location is the Little Colorado River, about 60 miles downstream from the starting point at Lee’s Ferry. By scoring the campsite directly across the Colorado River from the Little Colorado confluence, we could monitor the comings and goings at the confluence and shuttle the group across when when other rafters cleared out.
The afternoon was hot, with a couple of hours of harsh sunlight remaining—lousy for photography, but spectacular for swimming in the cool, but not cold, Little Colorado. Our guides led us about a half mile upstream to a perfect little swimming hole fed by a natural water slide where we splashed and lounged for a couple of hours.
When the sun started to dip behind the surrounding canyon walls, the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, while the photographers stayed and spread out to enjoy the softly shaded river beneath towering red sandstone kissed by late light. When we returned to camp that evening, everyone seemed quite satisfied with their results, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the scene might be like in the morning. While I loved the way the sun lit the sandstone across the Colorado River, I realized that the most prominent peak above the confluence, in full shade for all of our afternoon shoot, should get really nice morning light.
At camp that night I talked to Wiley about giving anyone interested another shot at the Little Colorado in the morning, and we came up with a plan that would permit that without jeopardizing our schedule for what would be the trip’s longest, most intense day of rafting.
The guides had coffee ready at 5:15 the next morning, and by 5:30 five of us were motoring back across the river to the confluence. (This may sound early, but with nothing but natural light, we’re usually in bed by 8:30 each evening, and stirring shortly after 5:00 in the morning.
While we had less than an hour to photograph, that turned out to be enough. I only had to walk a short distance upstream before I was stopped by the view I’d visualized the night before. I tried it a little tighter to eliminate the boring sky, but discovered that I couldn’t get much sunlit sandstone into my frame without including sky. And as soon as I did that, I realized that including some regular old blue sky would actually provide context (and credibility) for the river’s otherworldly blue.
Pulling out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, I was able to include the entire sunlit peak (does anyone know what it’s called?). With a general idea of my composition, I moved around a bit until I found a foreground that worked. To get all of the foreground limestone island in my frame, I scaled a small ledge behind me and framed up this scene.
I used ISO 50 and f/16 to stretch my shutter speed a little (but probably not enough to make much difference). Extreme dynamic range made the exposure a little tricky, but I simply monitored the histogram in my viewfinder (have I mentioned lately how much I love shooting mirrorless?) and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Click.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Really nice Gary. I was glad to be there with our small group on that beautiful morning. The Little Colorado is truly unreal.
Thanks, Craig. Yes, there’s just something special about the first few minutes of daylight. What a special opportunity we had.