Hiking Lee's Ferry Area

The Spencer Trail

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a very large place, and beautiful Lake Powell its most recognized feature. While Lake Powell offers some of the greatest outdoor adventure in the nation, with its deep clear water and alluring side canyons, it nevertheless represents only 13% of the area of Glen Canyon NRA; there are innumerable opportunities for exploration and discovery on dry land as well.

The Colorado River proceeds from Glen Canyon Dam toward Lee’s Ferry through fourteen miles of deep canyon chiseled in sharp relief against the surrounding plateau. This is Glen Canyon also, where beauty and history come together to form indelible experiences. Through a providential quirk of geography, pioneers were able to lower their wagons from the canyon rim down an area of inclined rock known as Lee’s Backbone toward the ferry below. From there they could skirt the Paria Plateau into Utah. In 1910, though, a miner and trader named Charles Spencer forged another route, a quicker route, for his packhorses.

Just beyond the fort at Lee’s Ferry begins a well-marked trail that snakes its way up the sheer canyon face to the rim. The Spencer Trail feels like the old west, with the sharp contrasts one expects of a traditional western setting: historic buildings of sandstone and adobe, thick timbered with the tall but narrow windows ideal for defense, an old iron steam tank held together with massive rivets like the water tank of a 19th century locomotive, and everywhere the detritus of an earlier period of mining. Here, even the litter is historic.

But once one has followed the Spencer Trail above the fields of talus and onto the canyon wall itself, these contrasts change; the experience is now pure backcountry with great natural beauty to draw one upward toward the rim. Immense slabs of sandstone seem to have been cleaved from the cliff face and stand like disjointed columns a hundred or more feet high. The Colorado River flows cool and inviting below, green like liquid emerald. A condor soars above, casting a shadow that blocks the sun. At the rim, one steps upon another world altogether, a world written in geologic time. The sandstone is in places rounded and worn smooth while in other places it is sharp and jagged, like a storm-tossed sea frozen in place. From the rim, a view opens and bearings can be taken: Lake Powell, the blue of glacier ice, Tower Butte, standing like a sentinel over the plateau, the Kaiparowits, whose escarpment defines the horizon, and of course, the City of Page, which looks like little more than a village from this height.

The Spencer Trail is an accessible and worthy activity for a day in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Hiking time to the rim is from one to two hours depending upon one’s physical condition. The trail is steep in places, but switches back and forth so that there are long stretches of shallow grade. There are no water sources past the launch ramp at Lee’s Ferry, so carry at least two liters of water per person. The hike is best started in the morning, before the heat of the day.

Trail Notes by Kirk W. Robinson, Winter 2004