Ask any of the 22,000 Colorado River runners who brave Grand Canyon white water river rafting trips each year to describe the experience and you're likely to hear that it is "the trip of a lifetime." Licensed Grand Canyon river rafting companies vie with eager private boaters for the limited Grand Canyon Colorado River rafting permits the National Park Service makes available every year. Kayaks, dories, oar-powered inflatable rafts, and graceful motorized rigs are the watercraft of choice through this world-class Grand Canyon whitewater rafting wonderland. Trips are moderately expensive and last anywhere from one day to just over two weeks. There are also different levels of excitement available for these trips. Float trips tend to be milder and travel mostly on the smoother part of the Colorado River with fewer rapids. Other Grand Canyon river rafting trips take on the Class 5 rapids head-on! If you have the desire to travel through the Grand Canyon via water, there is a Grand Canyon river rafting trip for you.
Many Grand Canyon river rafting trips depart by van from Flagstaff or Las Vegas and put-in at points like Lees Ferry, located about 2 1/2 hours from Flagstaff and about 50 miles north of the North Rim entrance. These trips start booking up a year in advance, but it never hurts to keep an eye out for last-minute cancellations or unfilled spots. Grand Canyon river rafting trips are definitely one of the most memorable Grand Canyon experiences a person could ever experience.
Rafting through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River is absolutely one of the best trips you will ever take in your life. The Grand Canyon is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and the only one you can spend a week peacefully floating through. The scenery and geology change mile by mile, and the mood of the canyon shifts just as much as evolving clouds and light create a spectacle for the senses. A lack of cell phone service and Wifi will help bring your family closer together, and you will likely develop friendships with the other passengers that can last a lifetime. Kids struggle to comprehend how they can survive a week without interacting with their friends on social media, but it is beautiful to watch them blossom time and time again after just a couple of days of being present and engaged with the world around them. Guides do the majority of the work so that you can enjoy the canyon and quality time with each other. Still, everyone is expected to participate in loading and unloading the boats each day, and working together as a group is one of those intangible things that makes rafting through the Grand Canyon so memorable.
You will sleep on sandy beaches underneath one of the best night skies the country has to offer. On a night without a moon, the Milky Way lights up the sky between canyon walls a mile high. Have satellite races and count shooting stars with your loved ones as you lay in bed. You aren’t allowed to fall asleep until you’ve seen 2.
Days start early with the intention of packing up and leaving camp by 8 or so in the morning. This allows for ample time hiking upside canyons, to Ancestral Puebloan ruins, or to waterfalls, and for relaxation time at the next camp in the afternoon. Everyone will stop and have a deli-style lunch around lunchtime, and dinner around dinnertime. Leave your watch behind and embrace falling into a natural rhythm. The food is outstanding, but dietary accommodations can be made as long as ample notice is given to the company you book a trip with.
Most of the time spent on the river is in flatwater, providing plenty of time for guides to explain the geology, ecology, and human history of the canyon, as well as regale you with countless colorful stories from their previous river trips. This, of course, is punctuated by the thrill of whitewater rapids. There are over 80 named rapids and they are rated on the Grand Canyon scale of 1 - 10, but some days will be calm and some will feel like an adrenaline roller coaster.
Before choosing a trip, the first thing to consider is whether to do a private or commercial rafting trip. Private trips are for experienced river rafters who want to organize the whole adventure on their own. Permits are awarded through a lottery system, and the permit holder must have been on at least one Grand Canyon river trip before. Permits are applied for over a year in advance. For more information, please see https://grcariverpermits.nps.gov/
Commercial trips are run by professional outfitters and are typically booked 6 months - 1 year in advance. Outfitters provide the boats, guides, food, water, tents, waterproof bags, and sleep kits. Experienced guides know where the shade is when it’s hot, how to keep you drier when it’s cold, and understand the logistics of how to go on the best hikes during the day and still get the best camps at night. If you don’t want to figure any of that out on your own, keep reading!
The first thing to take into account before choosing a commercial Grand Canyon river trip is whether you want to do a motor or oar-powered trip. Motor trips are shorter and can carry more amenities, while oar trips are longer and a little more rugged.
Motor trips are generally considered more appropriate for all ages and ability levels. They typically consist of two 37’ rafts that are each powered by a 25 hp motor, allowing you to cruise through long flatwater sections and run more rapids in a given day. Grandma, Grandpa, little Billy, and even Aunt Esther with the trick knee are all welcome on a motor trip. If you want to get wet, you can sit in the front and be slapped in the face by the best waves the Colorado River has to offer. If Grandma prefers a smoother, drier ride and wants to watch little Billy get slapped by waves all day, she can do that too by sitting towards the back of the boat. Motor trips fall more on the ‘glamping’ side of outdoor recreation and have more storage for things like professional cameras and evening cocktail ice than oar trips do. Companies set their own policies on age restrictions, but 8 years old is often the minimum. There is no maximum and able people in their 80’s come on these trips every year.
Oar trips are longer, more intimate, and more appropriate for those with outdoor experience. Each boat is rowed by a trained boatman and typically carries 4 passengers, so the atmosphere is quiet and seems to facilitate conversation that meanders with the river. You’ll hear canyon wrens singing as you float by, spot trout swimming beneath you, and feel your adrenaline pump at the growing thunder of an approaching rapid. Although it doesn’t happen every trip, there is always a risk of oar boats flipping in a rapid. (Please note: f-l-i-p is the worst four-letter word on the Colorado River, followed closely by w-i-n-d.) It is considered one of the safer rivers to unintentionally swim, but is certainly not an experience recommended for the faint-hearted.
Oar trips have a lot of variation in the number and types of crafts offered. The most common boat is the 18’ long raft. Dories are also rowed with oars by a single boatman, but are slightly smaller and made of wood or fiberglass, so they tend to slice through the water and fly up the faces of waves. Paddle boats are run by a paddle captain, who steers from the back and gives commands to 6 paddlers. They are great for a workout and usually the most fun boat on the river, plus there is always the option to participate on easier or harder days. Each company has a different combination of oar boats, paddle boats, and dories, so check before you book. Some companies will also send along a motor boat strictly for carrying gear to provide you with the same camp amenities enjoyed by motor trip passengers.
This is where it gets a little more complicated. The length of trip you can do is highly variable and depends mostly on whether or not you hike in or out of the canyon. Both motor and oar trips may exchange passengers at Phantom Ranch, who must hike the Bright Angel Trail 10 miles with a mile of elevation change. This allows you to participate on half of a 12-16 day oar trip or 7-10 day motor trip, although the lower half of the canyon takes slightly longer than the upper half.
The hike itself is spectacularly beautiful, but very challenging even for those in shape. Steep switchbacks near the river called the Devil’s Corkscrew are notoriously difficult. Heat radiates off the black Vishnu Schist when temperatures in the shade during June and July can already be 120 degrees. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even hyponatremia are common problems along this stretch of the trail when hiking in. Indian Gardens is the halfway point and offers bathrooms, ample shade beneath large cottonwood trees, and a creek to cool off in. Beyond Indian Gardens, the trail is steep and very sun-exposed. There are more frequently spaced water spigots, but also another long set of switchbacks to climb before reaching the South Rim. It is not recommended to do this hike during June or July because of extreme temperatures that make it by far the most dangerous part of the entire river trip. Young children, the elderly, those with heart conditions, and those unaccustomed to steep terrain or hiking at altitude tend to suffer on this hike. It is not uncommon for people to miss their river trip by underestimating this challenge and not being able to complete the hike. Go at your own risk.
You don’t have to hike at all. Full-length trips without exchanges are the best to do because it gives the whole group more time together and no time is wasted waiting for everyone to hike in or recover from the hike. However, this may not be realistic due to time or budgetary constraints. Upper half trips start at mile 0 and end at mile 88. Lower half trips start at mile 88 and can end in several different places depending on the company you book through. Many companies have passengers take a helicopter flight out of the canyon at Whitmore Wash, mile 188, after surviving the grand finale rapid, Lava Falls. Some companies take you downstream to Diamond Creek at mile 225 where you can bus out. Others take you all the way to the Grand Wash Cliffs at the very end of Grand Canyon, mile 280. Alternatively, those looking for a quick adventure can helicopter in at Whitmore Wash, experience a few moderate rapids and camp for just 1 night.
The last stretch of the canyon below Whitmore Wash is the hottest with the least to do, but the helicopter ride and charter flight back to civilization from the Bar X Ranch do add substantial costs to the price of the trip.
Both the upper and lower halves of a Grand Canyon river trip are unforgettable, but there are a few differences worth noting. The upper half has the potential for more hikes to archeological sites and more interesting geology. Although both halves feature the same rock layers, the colors are a little bolder in the upper half. Additionally, since you observe each one rising from the Earth around you as the canyon grows deeper on the upper half, you tend to hear more about each layer from your guides. The lower half has more big rapids and more waterfall hikes. You run most of the biggest and baddest rapids in Grand Canyon right after hiking into the lower half, but will still enjoy more tranquil days once you survive the Upper Granite Gorge. If price is a big concern, do the upper half, but if the thrill of whitewater is more important, do the lower half.
Trips vary extraordinarily in the number of days they take to complete the upper half, lower half, or whole canyon. This makes a huge difference in the quality of the trip. Longer trips offer more time for hiking, more time with a beer in hand and toes in the sand at camp, and fewer long days on the water. You simply don’t have as much time to see all the hidden gems in Grand Canyon’s side canyons on a short trip, and it can make the whole experience feel more like a bus tour. Unless the whole point of going is only to prove to family and neighbors you did something adventurous, I highly highly recommend taking the longer trip when presented with different options.
One last thing to consider are trips with a certain focus. Some companies offer yoga specials, hikers’ specials, kayaker support trips, etc. There is one string quartet trip every year, where they search for the best acoustics in Grand Canyon’s labyrinth for making music. Guides will always tailor their trips to the group they have, but if a focused trip will significantly enhance your experience, ask about options before booking.