Grand Canyon Rafting – A Beginners’ Guide

Grand Canyon Rafting

You know you want to go rafting in the Grand Canyon!

Publications that think they’re a big deal (Like National Geographic) have often cited a Grand Canyon rafting trip as America’s #1 adventure vacation. It’s always at the top of those “lists” that they like to make… and for a good reason!

The Grand Canyon is OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD AMAZING… beyond words. So to experience it slowly, from the bottom-up? Even better! Whitewater rapids, hidden slot canyons, tasty meals, sandy beaches, and great people are just the beginning of the fun.

Look at this video. I mean, LOOK. Ahhhh. I just watched it again to get psyched up to write this article.

That’s why they call it the Trip of a Lifetime!

Taking the first step in planning to do a river trip can be overwhelming. The trouble is that you have to choose from over a dozen tour operators that do guided tours through the Canyon. Worse yet, each of these individual companies offers about a dozen of their own choices of raft expeditions.

Going through all of their websites makes you want to pull your hair out!

This article is going to break down all the information and logistics for you, including:

Where do the trips begin and end?

Oars, paddles, or motorized? Or… hybrid? Huh? A Toyota Prius raft?

What’s the “Upper” and “Lower” Canyon?

When is the best time to go?

How safe is it?

Where’s the list of all the different rafting guides?

What about just doing a day trip?

Do you want to try and win a private permit from the National Park Service? “We don’t need no stinking tour guides!” Even better.

But let’s start from the beginning, defining where all the Grand Canyon rafting trips begin and end.

Places to Begin and End Your River Trip

Colorado River Map
Check out this awesome map! I paid a 5-year-old kid two dollars to make it!
(click on map for larger version)

All the river trips don’t start and finish in the same places. There’s a number of variations, so I’m going to outline them for you here.

Sometimes I’ll call the location where you begin your trip the “put-in.” It’s where you first enter the Colorado River. The place where you end is called the “take-out.”

One way that the Grand Canyon is measured is in “River Miles.” If the Colorado River was a paved road, its length through the Grand Canyon would be 277 miles.

Glen Canyon Dam – The Minus Level

Glen Canyon Dam

The smooth-water day trips begin at Glen Canyon Dam. In terms of river miles, the dam would be at mile marker “minus fifteen.” You’re driven through an access tunnel to reach the shore of the River. The trip ends 15 miles downstream at Lee’s Ferry.

If you want to steer clear of any “excitement,” this is a perfectly simple float with no white water rapids. For the full Mario Brothers effect, go ahead and book the same tour for the next day, and the day after that, too…

Lees Ferry – Ground Zero

Lees_Ferry

Lees Ferry is considered to be the beginning of the Canyon. It’s at “Mile Zero.” Most river trips start here. There’s a boat launch, a campground, and not much else in the area, except maybe a glimpse of Wile E Coyote.

All of the commercial companies will drive you to Lee’s Ferry from someplace more civilized. Marble Canyon AZ and Page AZ are the closest “cities,” but there’s almost nothing but a lodge and a gas station in Marble Canyon.

Phantom Ranch – The Divide

Phantom Ranch

From Lees Ferry it’s a journey of several days through the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch, at river mile 89. The section between Lee’s Ferry and Phantom Ranch is called the “Upper” Canyon.

The only way to get to the Ranch is by mule, on foot, or on that boat you rode in on! There’s occasional helicopter traffic, but it’s only for use by the National Park Service. I suppose you could try driving your Hummer down there too, but the rangers get a little irritated at that sort of thing.

You’re now a vertical mile below the rim. It’s far from the outside world, and civilization. There’s some basic services here, like lemonade!

Most companies begin or end some of their raft tours at Phantom Ranch. The 10-mile Bright Angel Trail connects Phantom Ranch to the South Rim Village, where you can finally find some air-conditioning and pizza. If you choose this option, be prepared to hike a strenuous 10 miles up or down the trail. It’s no joke.

Some companies provide vehicle transportation to or from the Village. Others leave you there to find your own travel connections. The Historic South Rim Village is the centrally developed area of Grand Canyon National Park.

Sometimes you’ll see references to Pipe Springs. This is just a place to access the River on the Bright Angel Trail. Pipe Springs is about 1.5 miles (hiking) closer to the South Rim Village than Phantom Ranch. Generally companies will drop you off at Phantom Ranch, but pick you up for the “put-in” at Pipe Springs.

Trips that begin at Lee’s Ferry and end at Phantom Ranch are considered the top half or upper half of the Canyon.

Trips that begin at Phantom Ranch (Pipe Springs) are considered the lower or bottom half of the Canyon.

Whitmore Wash – The Beginning of the End

From Phantom Ranch it’s a dramatic ride through the biggest, baddest rapids to the next portal – the Whitmore Wash Helipad, at river mile 187. By now you’ve been through the best of the Grand Canyon.

There’s no road or trail to the Colorado River at Whitmore. It’s a helicopter pad where you’ll be whisked away to the Bar X (10) Ranch on a remote part of the North Rim. You’ll then be flown again to another airport, usually in Las Vegas NV or Page AZ. So if your trip involves Whitmore, you can expect an included helicopter ride and charter flight!

Some trips begin at Whitmore Wash, or farther downstream at Diamond Creek. These tours only exist for people that have a shorter window of time. They’re still awesome experiences, but definitely missing out on the best that the Canyon has to offer. As opposed to the upper trips and lower trips, I refer to trips that start at Whitmore as the bottom.

Diamond Creek – Maybe The End

(And the Beginning of the Hualapai West Circus)

Diamond Creek is the next access point at River Mile 226. This is a popular place to finish and exit the Canyon, particularly for non-motorized trips. Your outfitter will drive you to civilization, likely in Peach Springs AZ, Flagstaff AZ, or Las Vegas. There’s nothing here but a ramp and a parking area.

You’re not missing very much by ending a trip at Diamond. Beyond here at Separation Canyon (Mile 240), you’ll likely be picked up by a jet boat and shot the rest of the way to Lake Mead at speeds up to 35mph anyway.

The whitewater day trips begin here at Diamond Creek.

Just an interesting fact – Diamond Creek Road is the first place that you can drive to the bottom of the Grand Canyon after Lee’s Ferry. That’s 225 river miles without any access to roads!

This is a 26-mile dirt road completely on Hualapai Tribal Lands, requiring a high-clearance vehicle. The Hualapai charge a toll of at least $65. Of course you shouldn’t have to worry about these fees when an outfitter is handling your transportation.

To “drive to the bottom of the Grand Canyon” here is definitely not a worthy vacation activity. It’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth, and the Canyon isn’t quite as Grand down here anymore.

The road begins in Peach Springs, Arizona.

Pearce Ferry – The End

They Built the Hoover Dam. Sorry. 🙁

Pearce Ferry (Mile 281) is the main take-out at Lake Mead. There aren’t any views of the lake itself from here. When they say your trip ends at Lake Mead, that most often means Pearce Ferry. There’s nothing more than a ramp and a rough parking area here. Companies will drive you from here primarily to Flagstaff AZ or Las Vegas.

From Pearce Ferry it’s now more than a 200 mile drive to Flagstaff, 330 miles to Lee’s Ferry, and only 110 miles to Vegas.

South Cove (Mile 297) is a lesser used take-out point at Lake Mead. Fluctuating water levels of Lake Mead create a level of unpredictability beyond Pearce that the tour guides prefer not to deal with, like the problematic Pearce Ferry Rapid.

So now you have a better understanding of where to access the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon? Great! You’re a lot more ready to check out all the Grand Canyon Rafting Companies, but first…

Motors, Oars, Paddles, Hybrids, Dories, and Duckies!

There’s a choice to be made among a variety of different boats.

Motor Trips

Motor Trips
Motor trips involve large pontoon rafts, sometimes affectionately called “bologna boats.” These can hold a lot of passengers – ten or more. There’s usually a couple of crew members on board, in addition to the pilot. The pilot sits in the rear and steers with an outboard motor.

These large rafts offer the highest sense of safety, even though the pilots may deliberately steer into the rougher whitewater for a more exciting ride. Motor trips are the fastest option if you must see as much of the Grand Canyon as you can within a limited time. These trips are usually shorter in the number of days, and therefore less expensive too.

The motorized rides are big business for the raft companies. It’s comparably much more of a roller coaster ride than an experience, watching the Canyon pass you by at a higher rate of speed.

Motor trips are like driving a car down the road. Non-motorized trips are more like riding a bicycle. Which do you think would offer a better experience?

Here’s several different options for the non-motorized trips.

Oar Trips

Oar Trips
Oar trips use much smaller rafts, usually 14-18 feet long. They’re piloted by a single “boatman” that simply rows down the River with two long oars. These rafts typically hold about four passengers in addition to the boatman.

Paddle Trips

Paddle Trips
Paddle trips are where you actually get to paddle down the river with your own muscle and sweat. The typical arrangement is that six “passengers” use individual paddles, instructed and assisted by a guide that sits and paddles from the back.

Hybrid Trips

Hybrid trips involve a combination of oar boats and paddle boats. You’re given a choice each day between active involvement on the paddle boat or just relaxing on an oar raft, piloted by one of the guides.

Dories

Some outfitters offer rides in a Dory. I’ve never been on a dory or even seen one in action, but they’re evidently a beautiful thing to behold. Resembling a large canoe, dories are typically 17 feet long and constructed out of wood.

They traditionally offer a more rigid and elegant ride, and better comfort as well. There’s the ability to lounge back through the slow stretches, and access your gear more easily while on board. These seem like the ultimate experience and I’d love to ride in one someday.

No matter which non-motorized trip you take, they offer a much more intimate experience than the big, motorized rafts. You’ll be up close and personal with the River, and maybe even swimming in it!

The simple rhythm of the oars splashing the water’s surface is something you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, these tours are significantly more expensive than the motorized trips.

If you’re a crazy thrill seeker that enjoys getting pummeled by the big whitewater, several companies offer kayak support too. Sometimes they have inflatable kayaks (Often called a ducky) as well.

Grand Canyon Kayaking

Finally, there’s all kinds of specialized trips available. Some have a strong focus on hiking. Others zero in on a subject like geology or yoga. One company even offers a string quartet that serenades you through dinner!

Rafting Companies and Reviews

So if you want to go on a multi-day commercial trip, then you’re now ready to take a look at the comprehensive list of tour guides and reviews.

Grand Canyon Rafting Safety and Deaths

First of all, you don’t have to know how to swim to go on a river trip. Stringent rules are in place that you must wear an approved life-jacket at all times on the water (Often called a personal flotation device or PFD).

All of the commercial outfitters are known to have excellent safety records. It’s simply in their best interest for your trip to be injury-free.

The National Park Service doesn’t publicly release its safety statistics, but Tom Myers (Co-author of Death in Grand Canyon) reports that Grand Canyon rafting injuries “occur at a rate similar to golf and bowling.” As with any thrilling outdoor activity, accidents and even deaths sometimes do occur. The only easily-available record of deaths is this book.

So about those stinky guides and their high prices and their speedboats and string ensembles… screw ‘em! This National Park belongs to you, a citizen! You’ll just blow up an inner tube, pack a few sandwiches, and go!

Well hold on there, Alexander Supertramp. Putting together your own rafting trip through the Grand Canyon is a huge undertaking, an expedition. All sorts of things can go wrong. “I like what I hear, go on!” you say?

The good news is that the legendary 20-year waiting list is ancient history. Read more about how much easier it is to win river permits these days, and what comes next if you actually get one.

When is the Best Time to Go?

River Wildflowers

The best time to go is when you can!

Just go. I think you need to watch THE VIDEO again.

Okay, okay…

Well the first thing you should know is that multi-day commercial tours are only available from April 1 until the end of October.

Motor trips only run from April 1 until September 15.

The majority of people book their commercial trips for the common vacation months of June, July, and August.

I think the best time to go on a motor trip would be late May. In addition to the bigger “crowds,” the summer months are HOT at the bottom of the Canyon. Like 110-degrees-HOT.

May should be slightly cooler (Like only 100 degrees). Monsoon thunderstorms also roll through the Canyon in July and August. In addition to the obvious precipitation, this means flash floods, so your guides are less likely to show you some of the narrowest and prettiest slot canyons.

Whenever it rains, the river is likely to be thick and brown with sediment, like the picture of the kayaks above. This is okay when you get used to it, but obviously less picturesque.

It’s impossible to predict when the water will be more blue-green, but the chances of clear water are better in late May, June, and late September.

The best time to go on a NON-motorized commercial trip is probably late September into October. This is for one simple reason – there won’t be any motor trips out there! The Inner Canyon also has some of the best weather of the year at this time.

Private trips
are available year-round. September, October, and March into April are the most desirable times to score a trip. These months have the best combination of pleasant weather and fewer people on the river.

The remaining summer months are okay, but crowded with motor boats.

Winter is okay too, so long as you don’t mind the cold… and the short daylight hours. The Canyon is exquisitely quiet in winter.

Winter Rafting