There are many ways to reach the Little Colorado River on foot – none of them are easy. Even the trailheads are notoriously difficult to locate.
The bottom of the 58-mile gorge is rough and wild, and without trail in most places. To travel down-canyon you either pick your way along the shore, through the dry wash, or walk through the river itself.
A few miles downstream from Horse Trail, the river starts to gain depth and power. It becomes a full-fledged, perennial river several miles (at least) before Blue Spring.
From Blue Spring down to Salt Canyon, it is textbook “choose your own adventure” style hiking. There are few, if any, distinct footpaths on the shoreline. Instead, you must make your own way down, alternating between river-wading and crashing through the scratchy shore vegetation.
Several miles above Salt Canyon, you’ll pick up a distinct footpath on river right. The path is well-worn and easy to follow, thanks to the twice-yearly fish research scientists that get helicoptered in to their camp at the base of Salt Canyon. You can cruise along it.
Many times, this path goes through dense flax thickets. The thick vegetation stands 7-9 feet tall and closely envelops any meager footpath. The ground is always wet, oftentimes muddy – a slick, deep, oily black mud. You’ll want to keep your shoes on and move quickly through these sections. Rattlesnakes typically prefer drier, rockier locations, but your wilderness instincts will be on high-alert regardless.
Fun fact: one of the early names for the Little Colorado was the Flax River, thanks to the large, dense, pockets of vegetation that frequently line the shoreline in the bottom third of the gorge.
You’ll always want to boil, chemically treat or filter the water, but it is drinkable over short periods. The taste is poor due to its very high mineral content, but it’s not as bad as often feared. The taste is chalky, slightly salty, with the occasional sulfurous bite, depending on where you draw it from. Clear water can be found upstream from Blue Spring that looks more palatable, but the taste is the same as the turquoise stuff.
Is it safe to drink the Little Colorado River water? Ask a scientist – I’m honestly not sure. Several radioactive studies have been performed over the years (in addition to latent radioactivity there was a significant uranium tailing spill in one of the Little Colorado’s tributaries in the 1970s) but I have not been able to retrieve the data from USGS yet.
On longer trips when we’ve drunk from the river for several consecutive days it does have a considerable “drying” effect – probably due to the high salt and mineral content. By the third or fourth morning, it’s not uncommon to see every member of the group wake up with puffy eyes and faces. The effect goes away once you mobilize and get the blood going a bit.
I don’t believe it would be possible (or advisable) to sustain human life for extended periods on Little Colorado river water due to its slow desiccating effect on the body. Short term, it’s entirely do-able.
Under heavy flows, you’ll have large volumes of silt and sediment to deal with, as well.
The first perennial source of water in the gorge is nearly halfway down, a mile or two upstream from where Horse Trail joins canyon bottom.
Treks into the Little Colorado River gorge are a gamble at any time of year, but certain seasons offer a higher degree of safety, comfort and opportunity to see turquoise waters. None of the following observations are guarantees – the Little Colorado can turn into a surging, muddy deathtrap any time of year.
The winter season can be a fine time in the canyon, and many successful trips to the Little Colorado have taken place this time of year. Cooler temperatures prevail and the days are short. River temperatures drop into the 50’s, making crossings (a frequent occurrence when travelling up-and-down the gorge) a chilly proposition.
The river runs blue most winters. Summer storms are a distant memory, winter storms are more sporadic, and the plateau and surrounding mountains are cold enough to hold onto any snow and ice that falls until Spring.
Some winters (like 2017) run warmer and stormier than others, however, and the Little Colorado won’t catch a break from muddy runoff until April or May.
Spring offers comfortable hiking temperatures but makes finding clear, turquoise waters an unlikely proposition – particularly in the early season.
The Little Colorado gorge rarely sees significant snowfall in its depths. However, as temperatures rise on the plateaus above, snow melt often triggers significant flows that inundate the gorge. Some of the largest flows in recorded history occurred when heavy snow runoff coincides with early season storms.
Late Spring (April-May) offers a better window for safe exploration and blue waters. Temperatures can soar to punishing heights by then, but snow melts have dried up and the summer monsoons are still in their infancy.
This is perhaps the most dangerous time of year to venture into the Little Colorado gorge. The canyon’s depths become punishingly dry and summertime heat can cripple or kill even the most seasoned hikers. To make matters worse, once the annual monsoon thunderstorms wind up in midsummer, these events can drop significant flows up on the plateau that barrel toward the gorge in the form of terrifying flash floods.
Summer flash floods have claimed the lives of even the most veteran Little Colorado explorers.
Once the threat of summer monsoons has faded, the gorge once again becomes an attractive target. Rainfall becomes less frequent, the temperature becomes more moderate, and the days remain long enough to allow for considerable foot travel before nightfall.
The ancient Hopi route through Salt Canyon doesn’t receive a lot of foot-traffic, but it remains the most popular method for reaching canyon bottom.
It’s the most popular trail for a few reasons:
- It’s a relatively short hike (under 4 miles). Keep in mind, that’s on paper. In reality, it is a rugged, difficult trek with several sections of route-finding and tricky exposure.
- It offers a direct route to a fantastic section of the Little Colorado’s fabled blue water
- It has ample historical and religious significance
- Good camping exists along the route and also where the trail terminates at canyon bottom
- While information is scarce, it is more well-documented than other routes into the Little Colorado gorge
Trails to the Confluence
|Name||Description||Yearly Hikers*||Distance to Confluence||Elevation Gain/Loss|
|Beamer Trail||Long, dry and without shade, Beamer is the only National Park trail to reach the Confluence. A descent via Tanner Trail from Lipan Point is the shortest path to reach it from that side.||< 250||18 miles||4,600'|
|Blue Spring Trail||Difficult, seldom-used trail. Reaches canyon floor where the river starts becoming turquoise. Significant, exposure and unforgiving route-finding.||< 25||16 miles||2,200'|
|Cameron Route||Longest but simplest grind enters the gorge near the town of Cameron and follows canyon bottom the whole way||0 - 25||38 miles||1,400'|
|Horse Trail||Comparatively easy descent down an unknown side-canyon, far upstream from the confluence. Brief section of raw cliff exposure to negotiate.||25 - 75||23 miles||1,900'|
|Salt Canyon Trail||Rugged, ancient route with moderate exposure, route-finding and scrambling.||250+||11 miles||2,900'|
|Walter Powell Route||Faint, dangerous route with high degree of exposure and notoriously difficult route-finding.||0 - 25||4 miles||3,400'|