Paddling Overview: Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon, Arizona

  • To raft on your own, at least one member of the group must have the experience and skills required by the Park Service. If you've got the know-how, check the park’s website for details on obtaining a non-commercial permit.
  • Although all rafts enter at Lees Ferry and take out at Diamond Creek or Lake Mead, you also can join or leave commercial tours near Phantom Ranch or Whitmore Wash for a wider choice of trips.
  • You'll enjoy reading accounts of the first river trip through the Grand Canyon, made in 1869. Recommended are John Wesley Powell's The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, and Michael Ghiglieri's First Through Grand Canyon.
  • On commercial trips, you have a choice of lively oar-powered dories, small oar-power rafts, and motorized large rafts. Some tours have a paddle boat option, whereby passengers are responsible for paddling.
  • Oar-powered boats take half again as much time as motorized rafts, but they provide a quieter and more natural experience. It's also easier to talk with your guide and fellow passengers.
  • Hualapai River Runners is the only company to offer day trips in the Grand Canyon. Based in Peach Springs, it runs motorized rafts in the lower canyon.
  • A big advantage of rafting the Grand Canyon is that you have the opportunity to hike many beautiful side canyons that you cannot easily reach from the rims. Some tours, especially in the spring, add on extra days for hiking.
  • Rafting companies advise booking well in advance, but often you can get one with short notice, especially in spring and fall. The park's website has a trip planner with a list of river-running companies.

What are you doing in 12 years? One possibility might be paddling the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, if you get your name on the waiting list now. Can't wait? Consider a commercial guide.

February is the only month that the park accepts applications. The river permit waiting list currently stands at almost 6,500 names. Once your name is in, you can either wait it out, or you can try to claim a canceled reservation. The park requires that you pay a first-time application fee, then an annual fee to keep your name on the list. To get the ball rolling, call the park's river office at 800-959-9164 to order an application.

What to expect when you finally on the river? Hard to say—no two Grand Canyon trips are alike. Oh sure, there are electrifying rapids—161 in all. And the usual breathtaking scenery. But its the constant change that will hold your imagination, change from moment to moment, and if you're lucky, trip to trip. The play of light and shadow on canyon walls. The constantly flowing, talking, rushing river. The wildlife that appears at unexpected times, always with an inscrutable, but absorbing message. And paddling through the canyon gives you access to remote side canyons and caverns practically inaccessible by foot.

Before you go, or even if you never go, search out a copy of Colin Fletcher's River. Fletcher traveled the length of the Colorado River, from source to the Gulf of California. His account of passing through the Grand Canyon is moving, and respectfully revelatory. Also, read through Jim Wright's story on Rafting the Grand Canyon.

Here are some of the landmarks along the way:

The first stretch of the trip is through Marble Canyon, named by John Wesley Powell who, in 1869 was the first recorded person of European descent to navigate the river. Powell thought that the canyon's limestone walls resembled marble.

Navajo Bridge, Mile 4 - Your pick, engineering marvel of intrusive mistake, spanning the canyon at 467 feet.

North Canyon, Mile 20.5 - After a rain, the tributary becomes a playground of waterfalls.

Silver Grotto, Mile 29 - A beautiful, but lethal, side canyon.

Vasey's Paradise, Mile 32 - A lush sojourn.

Redwall Cavern, Mile 33 - A huge, sandy bottomed canyon.

Nankoweep Graineries, Mile 53 - Cliff-bound Anasazi granaries that make a good hiking destination.

With the confluence of the Little Colorado River, the Grand Canyon officially begins. The next stretch has many rolling rapids.

Elves Chasm (Royal Arch Creek), Mile 117 - A small tributary that strikes many as enchanted—hence the name.

Thunder River, Mile 134 - Gushing from a limestone cave, this could well be the shortest river in the world. A spectacular sight, and good hike.

Dear Creek, Mile 136 - A must stop for a dip in the pool underneath a 100-foot-high waterfall. The hike above travels through a canyon of pools with Anasazi petroglyphs.

Havasu, Mile 157 - The "Land that is Green." Tribal lands with wonderful hiking.

Lava Falls Rapid, Mile 179 - An ancient, awe inspiring lava flow makes for a heart-stopping rapid. This alone is worth the trip.

Separation Canyon, Mile 240. This is the spot where three members of Powell's expedition decided to strike out on their own rather than risk their lives on what was once a truly fearsome rapid. They were never heard from again.

Commercial whitewater trips through Grand Canyon begin at Lees Ferry (just six miles from Marble Canyon, Arizona) and vary from three days to three weeks in length. Some companies offer partial trips ending at, or starting from, Phantom Ranch, which is accessible only by trail from Grand Canyon Village. Partial trips are also available from other points along the river. Food, portable sanitation facilities, some or all necessary camping equipment, and guide services are provided by the river companies. Rates vary depending on trip length and transportation costs. Reduced family, children, group, and off-season rates are sometimes available. Most offer private charter trips in addition to their regularly scheduled trips. You must make reservations for these trips well in advance. Commercial river trips through Grand Canyon operate April through October.


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