The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Seeing it in person will take your breath away. Being at the bottom of it, rafting on the mighty Colorado River, adds a whole new layer to the experience.
There are a couple of ways to raft the Grand Canyon. If you’re an experienced boat operator (or plan to travel with someone who is), you can apply for a permit for a self-guided trip. If you’re like most of us though, you’ll want to find a tour operator to take you on a guided trip.
There are a number of outfitters who offer trips ranging from 3-18 days. I traveled with Grand Canyon Whitewater (GCW) and highly recommend them. Everything was taken care of — from the food to the camping gear — and the guides were fun, knowledgeable, and had been down the river hundreds of times.
When you decide to go on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, you’ll have a few choices to make right off the bat. How long do you want to go? Do you want to hike in or out of the canyon? Do you prefer a motorized raft or an oar-powered one? The tour company can help you weigh the pros and cons of each option to decide what’s right for you.
I love to hike, wanted to see as much of the river as possible in a short time, and I’m on a budget, so I went with a four-day motorized trip that ended with a hike out of the canyon.
When it comes to packing, you really don’t need much. Rain gear is the most essential item on the packing list, followed by good hiking shoes (if you plan to hike in or out). If you are hiking, you’ll want to be especially mindful to keep your pack as light as you possibly can because every extra ounce counts when you’re covering that kind of ground.
I took one change of clothes for my four-day trip, but really could have done without it. The air is super dry in the canyon, so wet clothes will dry quickly (although it’s helpful to pack quick-dry or synthetic materials…leave your jeans and cotton t-shirts at home). I appreciated having a long-sleeved shirt and fleece pullover for the cooler evenings and some members of the trip brought a separate bathing suit to go in the water.
Some of the time spent on the river will be in the shade of the canyon, but when you’re in the sun, it’s helpful to have a hat and sunglasses. Don’t feel like you have to buy special gear for this trip. I got by just fine without a retention strap on my glasses and also wore a regular hat, rather than one of the ones with all the extra flaps (although if the flaps are your thing, go for it!). If your hat doesn’t have a chinstrap though, just make sure it’s tight enough not to blow away.
A word of caution: The sand in the canyon finds its way into everything, including cameras. Take the necessary precautions to shield fragile devices from getting jammed up with grit.
A shuttle picked us up from Flagstaff bright and early on the first day of the trip for the two-hour drive to Lees Ferry, where the river part of the trip was to begin. When we arrived at the river, the rafts were waiting for us and the beach was laid out with dry bags containing our camping gear. Each person on the trip grabbed a bag and began sorting their things. We had a larger bag with our sleeping bag, sheet, and pillow, which is where we also kept our packs and anything we would only need in camp. Our smaller dry bags were for the things we’d need during the day, like our rain gear, camera, and sunscreen.
Once everyone was packed, the bags were piled onto the rafts, strapped down, and we loaded up. We had about 15 people per raft, plus two guides. The seats on the raft run longways, so that you are facing out towards the canyon walls and can lean back against the pile of gear in the middle. It’s a surprisingly comfortable way to travel.
It was hot when we loaded onto the rafts and I began to regret not wearing shorts. It wasn’t long after that we hit our first set of rapids. I didn’t expect the water to be warm, but when that first wave of ice cold water hit us in the face, all thoughts of shorts went away. The experience was still exhilarating, but when we stopped for lunch, I was very happy to layer on the waterproof gear.
Camping and Eating
Each afternoon our guides found a spot large enough for our group to camp on the banks of the river. We’d pull in, secure the rafts, and begin the process of setting up camp. We’d all line up to pass the bags, tents, cots, camp chairs, kitchen supplies, and food from the rafts to the beach. The crew would go to work setting up the kitchen and bathroom areas while the rest of us secured prime sleeping spots, set up cots, and organized our things.
The food on the trip was much higher quality than I expected. Breakfast included coffee, tea, oatmeal, fruit, and pancakes (with real maple syrup). We had a full sandwich spread for lunch and cookies, fruit, and other snacks always available. Dinner began with appetizers (often fresh veggies and dip), followed by a main course and dessert each night.
Both myself and the friend I was traveling with are vegan, so we weren’t sure what our options would look like or if we’d need to bring our own food. As it turns out, we had nothing to worry about. In addition to all the other “accidentally vegan” food, GCW also brought us vegan cheese, pancakes, and black bean burgers.
Lots to Learn
The guides are very knowledgeable about the canyon and its history. As we passed through different geologic layers they pointed out the various rock types, highlighting unique features and explaining why each looks the way it does. They talked about Native American culture, including coming of age ceremonies, food preservation, and seasonal migration. When we stopped at sites of archaeological significance, including the granaries of Nankoweap Canyon, they showed us the sites and described how they would have been used hundreds of years ago.
Time on the River
Some of your time on the river will be spent going through the rapids. These range in size from small-ish to pretty wild (as rated on a 1-10 scale). The good news though is that it’s almost impossible for you to end up in the water (as long as you’re holding on). Unlike smaller rafts that you may have experienced for whitewater day trips, these rafts are large and sturdy. They still flex and bounce around during the rapids, adding to the thrill, but their size and the power of the motors mean that they can navigate the water pretty easily. And because your hands aren’t occupied by paddling, you can hold on, which is a key part of staying in the raft and out of the water.
Much of your river time is on flat water, which is a great opportunity to sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery. Take in the magnificent canyon walls rising up high above you, watch for wildlife along the banks and in the sky, imagine what it would have been like to be one of the first people to navigate the river or live in the canyon, or reflect on all the incredible places this planet has to offer.
Compared to seeing it from the top, relatively few people experience the Grand Canyon from river level. Absorb the experience.