Geomorphology and vegetation change at Colorado River campsites, Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5096

Prepared in cooperation with Northern Arizona University



Sandbars along the Colorado River are used as campsites by river runners and hikers and are an important recreational resource within Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Regulation of the flow of river water through Glen Canyon Dam has reduced the amount of sediment available to be deposited as sandbars, has reduced the magnitude and frequency of flooding events, and has increased the magnitude of baseflows. This has caused widespread erosion of sandbars and has allowed native and non-native vegetation to expand on open sand. Previous studies show an overall decline in campsite area despite the use of controlled floods to rebuild sandbars. Monitoring of campsites since 1998 has shown changes in campsite area, but the factors that cause gains and losses in campsite area have not been quantified. These factors include, among others, changes in sandbar volume and slope under different dam flow regimes that include controlled floods, gullying caused by monsoonal rains, vegetation expansion, and reworking of sediment by aeolian processes.

Using 4-band aerial imagery and digital elevation models (DEMs) derived from total-station survey data, we analyzed topographic and vegetation change at 35 of 37 long-term monitoring sites (2 sites were excluded because topographic measurements do not overlap with measurements of campsite area) using data collected between 2002 and 2009 to quantify the factors affecting the size of campsite area. Over the course of the study period, there was a net loss in campsite area of 2,431 square meters (m2). We find that (1) 53 percent of the net loss was caused by topographic change associated with controlled floods and erosion of those flood deposits, (2) 47 percent of the net loss was caused by increases in vegetation cover, the majority of which occurred in high-elevation campsite area, and (3) gullying was significant at certain sites but overall was a minor factor.

Sites in critical reaches—sections of river where campsites are infrequent or where there is high demand by river runners—were subjected to more erosion and changes in sandbar slope than sites in noncritical reaches, suggesting that campsite area is less stable in those reaches. There was also a greater increase in vegetation cover at sites in noncritical reaches than at sites in critical reaches. Our results show a continuation of sandbar erosion and vegetation encroachment that has been occurring at campsites since construction of the dam.

A new campsite survey methodology using a tablet-based geographic information system (GIS) approach was also developed in an effort to map campsite area on digital orthophotographs. Using a series of repeat measurements, we evaluated the inherent uncertainty in mapping campsite area, the accuracy of the new tablet-based method, and if there is any bias between the tablet method and the total-station method that is currently used. We find that uncertainty associated with surveyor judgment while using the total-station method is about 15 percent, which is higher than a previously reported uncertainty of 10 percent. Use of the tablet method adds additional uncertainty; however, the benefits of being able to quantify factors that lead to campsite-area change in the field may outweigh the additional error. Future campsite monitoring may need to consist of a combination of total-station and orthophotograph techniques.

Suggested Citation

Hadley, D.R., Grams, P.E., Kaplinski, M.A., Hazel, J.E., Jr., and Parnell, R.A., 2018, Geomorphology and vegetation change at Colorado River campsites, Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey Report 2017–5096, 64 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Geomorphic and Vegetation Change at Campsites between 2002 and 2009
  • Evaluation of Methods for Measuring Campsite Area
  • Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes 1–6. Descriptions of Changes at Campsites in Grand Canyon National Park

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Geomorphology and vegetation change at Colorado River campsites, Marble and Grand Canyons, Arizona
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Southwest Biological Science Center
Report: x, 64 p.; Appendix 1-6; Data release
United States
Other Geospatial:
Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Marble Canyon
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):