Rafting the Grand Canyon

Running the River - The Long Awaited Trip Begins
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Egrets at sunset on the Colorado
Egrets at sunset on the Colorado River

It finally happened in 1997. On September 19, we launched four rafts, three hard-shell kayaks and two inflatable kayaks at Lee's Ferry, gateway to the Grand Canyon. Lee's Ferry is where all Grand Canyon trips begin. A road leads to the river here. The next place a road reaches the river is 225 miles away, at Diamond Creek on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. A mile away from Lee's Ferry, where the Paria River enters the Colorado River, I knew the Grand Canyon would be different from anything I'd ever floated.

The Paria was running brown after recent rains, and it immediately changed the color of the river. Above Lee's Ferry, the Colorado was blue-green and clear, fresh from the Glen Canyon dam 15 miles upstream. Below the Paria, it would vary from the color of milk chocolate to a deep, earthy brown for the rest of our trip. But that wasn't what caught my attention.

Like every Colorado River tributary, the Paria occasionally dumps debris into the big river — branches, limbs, sometimes even whole trees. In high water, these tributaries also transport rocks and boulders, which fan out into the Colorado and form many of the dozens of rapids in the river. The Paria had done just that. When we floated past its mouth, we encountered a series of splashy waves that were three feet high or more. The raft churned into the waves, sending cold spray into the boat. It took no great skill to negotiate these waves, but that's not my point. On any river I'd ever floated, this would be considered at least a Class II rapid. But this was the Colorado River, in the Grand Canyon. We had just floated the Paria Riffle. If that's a riffle, I thought to myself, what are the rapids going to look like? Sometimes, it's good to be ignorant.

We ran the Colorado River for 17 days at a water level of about 20,000 cubic feet per second?a moderate volume. For the bulk of the trip I rowed an 18-foot oar rig. I never dumped it but I thought I would lose it on 24.5 Mile Rapid, a seemingly simple drop near the start of the trip. A lateral wave came in from the right side, unpredictably, and when the raft and I arrived at that spot the wave pushed the right side of the boat three or four feet into the air, causing me and my two passengers to fall rather violently to the opposite side of the boat. No one fell from the boat but for the first time I felt the power of the Colorado River.

The Colorado is a big river, but its power comes from depth, not width. Through the Grand Canyon, it's usually 200 to 300 feet wide. At its narrowest, it's only 76 feet across. There are places in the canyon where the river is more than 100 feet deep. Compressed as it is between the walls of the canyon, especially in the central part of the canyon known as the Granite Gorge, the river packs an awesome wallop.

Waves 10 feet high are common; Hermit Rapid, the most frightening 200 yards on the river, concludes with a 20-foot wave that can flip even the largest raft. Still, although the Colorado is challenging, it is not a technically difficult float. Grand Canyon rapids rate no higher than Class III on the international whitewater scale, meaning there is very little maneuvering required once the rapids are entered. But because of the great volume of water and the steepness of the rapids, a different rating system is used.

The Grand Canyon scale rates rapids between 1 and 10. The higher the number, the more difficult the rapid. Basically, all youcan do is choose a good line through the rapid, enter it properly and stay on that line. Make a mistake and you're doing thebackstroke in 50-degree water. (The water released from Glen Canyon Dam comes out at 46 degrees and it doesn't warm upmuch the entire trip.)

There are huge holes on many rapids — Lava Falls, Hance, 209, Horn Creek, Crystal, Granite — thatcan eat a boat. Holes form when the river pours over a large rock, creating a small but powerful hydraulic effect that can trapand flip even the huge 36-foot rafts used by commercial outfitters.

A 1997 flash flood washed away the prime campsites atHermit Creek. It also changed one of the major rapids on the river. Hermit Rapid, always a nerve-wracking run, is a genuineterror now. It's a series of five waves, each bigger than the previous one. The fifth wave is a monster, easily 20 feet high and capableof flipping the largest raft.

Before the flash flood, there was a "cheat route" on the left side of the waves. A boat could slide intothis secondary current and skirt most of the troublesome water. No more. On its face, Hermit Rapid doesn't seem that difficult. The five waves are fairly evenly spaced. On a smaller river, boaters would call it a roller coaster and would look forward to running it. But when it reaches Hermit Rapid the Colorado is pushing its load of water through a relatively narrow canyon.

The forces created by that combination form a rapid that causes stomachs to churn and spines to shrivel. The fifth wave on Hermit Rapid is taller than most houses. It's not a smooth, glistening wave, although sometimes it rises so cleanly. It's quite beautiful. But every now and then, unpredictably, the wave collapses at the top of its surge, falling back upstream with enough force to stop even a large raft. It's like driving up a hill and having the highway collapse beneath your car. Somehow, we managed to hit the wave when it was friendly — none of the boats suffered more than the temporary addition of a few hundred gallons of water.

Later, one of the shuttle drivers who picked us up for the drive back to Flagstaff told us Hermit had been wiping out boats with a dreadful regularity. One commercial group recently flipped three of four rafts, he said. So we were lucky. That wouldn't be the case forever.

A few days later I stood with a group of friends on the shore at Lava Falls, the most infamous rapid on theColorado River. The rock that forms the rapid is the remains of an ancient volcanic flow, an ominous black stone that reachesdown the walls of the canyon and into the river. Running from the right shore to a point almost two-thirds of the wayacross the river is a huge, deep hole. It's known as the Ledge Hole, and it's not the place to be. We were going to split the runon Lava so the people in the first two boats could hike back upstream after running the rapid. They were going to take photosand videotape of the kayaks and the other two rafts.

Those of us in the second group watched the first 18-foot oar rig drivethrough, a picture perfect run down the left side. We were still watching as the boatman on the second raft in our groupmisjudged the location of the Ledge Hole. We watched as his 14-foot raft entered the hole, then came to an instant stop whenit was assaulted by the breaking, upstream waves. The raft folded and flipped, dancing in the white foam for nearly a minute.Through the churning water we saw a cooler, dry bags, buckets and the two sodden occupants of the boat floating down theriver.

They made it through fine and were quickly rescued by one of the other boats. But the sight of that boat, tossed aroundby the river like a fallen autumn leaf, shook those of us who stood watching. "I've never seen anything like that in my life," afriend finally said. Neither had I. But we'd never been on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon before, either.

Colorado River Rafting Practicalities [Map]
Nearly 30 commercial outfitters offer trips on the 225 miles theColorado River flows through the Grand Canyon. Most offer a variety of trip lengthsand boat types. Some run short, 4- or 5-day motorized trips on big pontoonrigs, or somewhat longer trips on shorter, but still motorized "snout" rigs.Others offer extended oarboat or paddleboat trips, ranging from 12 to 18days.

Booking: It's a good idea to book your trip well in advance, especially if you're hoping to float during the prime summer season. Some outfitters are booked two years in advance, although most will put you on a waiting list if openings become available. It's easier to book a float during the off-season, especially after Sept. 15, when motorized boats are not permitted on the river.

Origination: Trips begin at Lee's Ferry, Ariz., located about 17 miles below GlenCanyon Dam. Most trips end at Diamond Creek, where a boat ramp and road aremaintained by the Hualapai tribe. Much of the southwestern Grand Canyon isactually on Native American reservations. Some outfitters offer their clients an easy exit from the canyon by helicopter, which then whisks them to airports at Las Vegas or Flagstaff,Arizona. Others shuttle clients by van.

Cost: Depending on the length of trip and the amenities offered, a GrandCanyon trip will cost between $750 and $2,000 or more, per person. Floating with a commercial outfitter, while a bit pricey, is the easiest and safest way for a novice to experience the Grand Canyon. Commercialguides are regulated by the National Park Service, and most have spent many seasons on the river. Nearly every detail of the trip is taken care of by the outfitter.

Health: Outfitters place few restrictions on clients, butmost prefer clients that are in decent health, if not fitness. People with heartconditions or other chronic medical problems that require regular medicalattention should check with their doctors before booking passage on theGrand. For passengers, the river trip itself is more exhilarating thanexerting, so you don't have to be in the best physical condition of your life.

Weather: Expect hot weather much of the year, and during the summer it's common for daytime temperatures to exceed 105 degrees.

Children: Outfitters vary on the minimum age for children, although 12 years oldis a common cutoff point.

Side Excursions: Most outfitted trips include plenty of hiking, and there are dozens of marvelous canyons and other sights to visit. Although most hikes are short,others can be several miles long and rather strenuous, especially in theheat of the day, and if you're not in decent shape you're better off lounging onthe boat while others hike.

Getting a Permit: About 70 percent of the boats that launch on the Grand Canyon are run by commercial outfitters. The remaining 30 percent are private boaters, whomust obtain a permit issued by the NPS. Getting a private permit is a daunting task. First, plan on waiting 10 years or more -- the waiting list for a Grand Canyon permit is legendary. It's a bit costly, too. The NPS charges $100 to apply for a permit,which may be done only during February of each year. The agency recently waived a rule that charged an additional $25 annual "maintenance fee" that basically kept a boater's name on the waiting list. When you do draw a permit, there's a $100 permit fee for every person on the trip. There are occasionally cancellations, but the permits are only reissued to people who are already on the waiting list.

For More Information: Contact The Grand Canyon National Park at (520) 638-7888 for a list of commercial outfitters. Also, check out GORP's Grand Canyon Trips and Tours. If you are interested in applying for a private permit call (800) 959-9164 or (520) 638-7843 or write: Grand Canyon River Permits Office, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023

Published: 28 Mar 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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