By Published On: March 9, 2024Categories: arizona, canyoneer, grand canyonTags: , , ,

On a cold morning in mid-March we pulled up to a small pullout on Highway 89 in Arizona above the entrance to the Lower Waterholes Canyon slot. Our group of seven was present and accounted for. Our friend Chelsea had obtained the permits needed from the Navajo Nation to descend Lower Waterholes. A boat would arrive to pick us up at 4pm down at the beach on the Colorado River. All our clocks were synchronized, all our plans ready for the big rappel sequence. It was go time. As a side note, this canyon requires a permit from the Navajo Nation. More information can be found here: Waterholes Canyon (Lower) – ropewiki.

Right on cue, a passerby pulled over and informed us there was a marathon happening that day, passing right through our parking spot, and that we couldn’t park there anyway. We had researched the parking situation, with nothing indicating this was illegal parking, and moreover had been told that this was the place to park by Waterhole Canyon Experience themselves. A Navajo park ranger then arrived who checked our permits suspiciously, found them in order, and told us the previous lady, related to owners of the Waterhole Canyon Experience, had decided we should park in their lot and pay them $10/car for the day. Meanwhile, a marathon coordinator had arrived, was setting up his aid station, and told us we were just fine where we were. Eventually, the park ranger arrived at a Solomonic decision: we would take two cars to the paid parking lot and bring one back to the pullout to shuttle the drivers back to the canyon. Is parking legal there? Who knows… What is legality anyway? An hour had passed. Forget it Jake, it’s Page.

We donned our wetsuits to start the canyon. It had rained the week before in the area and with a persistently cold wind chilling our bones, we decided it was better to be safe than sorry. And so, neoprene-clad, we began the descent into middle Waterholes Canyon. Waterholes has three sections, all of which are incredible from top to bottom. This canyon is located only about 15 minutes by car from the famous Antelope Canyon and has very similar features, just on a much grander scale. The upper section is about two miles of non-technical narrows and is owned and guided for a fee by Waterhole Canyon Experience. The middle section is also non-technical but has a lot of downclimbs. This is where we began our descent. Immediately we encountered beautiful narrows that went on and on. We also encountered some of the craziest ladders that I’ve ever seen in any canyon. Rumor has it that some of these were set up for some kind of foot race not too long ago. Others had clearly been there a while, possibly set up to guide unsuspecting tourists, and were in various degrees of disintegration. Weirder than the ladders though, was a log wrapped in barbed wire that was very slippery and wedged in a narrow crack. Falling down on that would have resulted in tetanus and stitches. We all made it over safely.

One final huge ladder was installed heading out of the canyon. Shortly after this ladder was the beginning of Lower Waterholes and the technical section of our day. Max and I opted to remove our wetsuits at this point, as we were facing a greater threat from heatstroke than from minimal amounts of water.

As we continued our descent, the canyon alternated between beautiful stretches of narrows and magnificent open cathedral-like spaces with huge walls. In two places the canyon made 90-degree turns. There were several interesting downclimbs, a couple of easily escaped potholes, and finally several rappels. One of the most scenic downclimbs was an area that looked like Antelope Canyon with colorful narrows and a beautiful arch.

Mid-canyon we encountered one pool of unavoidable water that was about waist deep. Chelsea and Jim went first and set up a guided rappel for the rest of us. Much hilarity ensued as we all ziplined over with various degrees of success. I had forgotten my pulley and was trying to zip on a large carabiner, which didn’t quite work out and I needed assistance from below.

Right after the pool came the crux of the canyon – a tricky sequence of three rappels not for the faint of heart. This is known as the “big drop” sequence for good reason and earns this canyon an “R” rating. The first rappel is 90 feet into a very narrow crack that has become a graveyard for many  stuck ropes. After this is a 30-foot drop down to a tiny little ledge that has enough room for one person to precariously perch at the top of 320 feet of free fall, in the open on a giant red sandstone wall. Let me just say that this is a very long way down. This is where we had to swap from one rope to another at a hanging stance. Big air to say the least.

Max volunteered to go first and manage the rappel station on the tiny little ledge to shepherd everyone through. His job was to help everyone rappel down to the correct spot where we had a small foothold on both sides, clip in our safety tethers, hang our packs, and get off one rope and swap onto the next one. I will admit this process was rather terrifying. I was very happy to be securely attached to a rope and heading down one of the most scenic big walls of sandstone I have ever seen. At the bottom, I took a much-deserved break to catch my breath and get some snacks while taking photos of the rest of the party coming down. The whole procedure of getting the team down this sequence took over an hour for the seven of us, with Max staying on the ledge the entire time and working with Chelsea to set up the final toggle. Finally, he came down last. We did not lose our rope to the rope-eating crack.

The lower part of the canyon is incredible in its own way. Majestic walls and alcoves of red sandstone tower far above the canyon, while huge boulders lie strewn on the ground. There are several more rappels, and then a hike down a beautiful wash, surrounded by massive walls all the way to the Colorado. Many kayakers hike up this part of the canyon to the last rappel to enjoy the views.

After the last rappels, we all hurried to get to the beach by 4pm to catch our ride out. We were about 20 minutes late, but the captain was still waiting for us. What a relief! We caught our ride to Lee’s Ferry, but the day wasn’t done. We still had a long hike to the campground and a long shuttle to get our cars back. A long, but incredible day in an incredible place, with an incredible group of people.

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