How to Win a Permit to Raft the Grand Canyon

Check out the Beginner’s Guide for more general rafting information.


The Colorado River through Grand Canyon has serious rapids and extreme conditions! It’s probably best not to apply for a permit in the first place unless you really know what you’re doing – or unless you have a vast circle of experienced, agreeable, and openly-scheduled friends.

The legendary one-million-year waiting list to raft the Grand Canyon has disappeared like cassette tapes and the 8-bit Nintendo. In 2006, the Park Service ditched the old list and began a weighted lottery system. Some people that were waiting forever on the old list got screwed, sort of like a lot of us did during the recent federal government shutdown…

Before I get into the details of the permit system, some more good news you may not be aware of is that it’s not necessary to own thousands of dollars of rafts and gear to lead your own river trip.

This information applies to self-guided, non-commercial, full length trips that launch at Lees Ferry. That means that you’re alone without paid assistance (Such as tour guides), and rowing your own boats. These trips range from 12 to 25 days.

A separate system is in place for private (3 to 5 day) trips that begin at Diamond Creek.

Here’s the steps of the weighted lottery procedure, but first…

Some Red Tape From Our Lovely Federal Government.

Redwall Cavern

You’re only allowed to go on one rafting trip per calendar year. This applies to both Commercial (Guided) and Non-Commercial (Private) trips. If you only did the “Upper” or “Lower” Canyon, that counts as a full trip.

You need to be at least 18 years old.

When you win a permit for a specific date, you own it, and only it. You can’t switch dates, give it to somebody else, or anything like that. Use it or lose it. Period. The only way around this is a designated “PATL” More on that later.

Monetary costs of the trip must be shared equally. It’s illegal for any member of your group to make a profit in the planning and execution of your trip.

Go here for the full War & Peace edition of the regulations. You may want to brew a cup of coffee and sit back in your favorite chair before tackling it.

Applying for a Permit

First it’s necessary to create a free profile on the official NPS website.

After you have a profile, you’re open to apply for a permit whenever the Park Service holds a lottery. There’s a main lottery held annually in February, where they assign all of the available permits for the following calendar year.

They hold smaller lotteries to fill cancellations throughout the year. When you create a profile, there’s an option to be notified by the NPS every time they hold a lottery.

Filing an application requires a $25 non-refundable fee.

There’s two available group sizes – 16 people or 8 people.

How the weighted lottery works

Names are entered and drawn for each launch date like a virtual raffle contest.

Preference is given to those with the least recent experience:

  • If you have never been on the river, your name is entered 5 times
  • If you were on the river 5 years ago or more, your name is entered 5 times.
  • If you were on the river 4 years ago, your name is entered 4 times
  • 3 years ago = 3 times, 2 years ago = 2 times
  • If you were on the river last year, your name is entered once.

You can enter for five different dates, in order of preference.

The closest thing to a SECRET TIP that I can tell you is that you are more likely to win a permit if you apply for a date in the winter, late fall, or early spring. Keep in mind that rafting in the winter will be very cold and unpleasant. The days are short and the bottom of the Canyon doesn’t see a lot of sunlight.

As is the case with so many things, it’s more about who you know than anything else. Putting yourself out there and befriending those in the Grand Canyon rafting community is one of the best ways to get yourself on the River.

When you apply, you have the option of designating a Potential Alternate Trip Leader (PATL). This is to ensure that your permit will still be honored, should you win and not be able to go on the trip. The PATL must also have a profile on the Park Service website. Between the two of you, the weighted lottery points will defer to the individual with least points.

What if you win?

Tuckup Canyon

Congratulations! The first thing you should do is INVITE ME! 😀

Upon winning a permit, you’re immediately required to pay a fee of $400 (For a 16 person trip) or $200 (For 8 people).

You’ll receive a form from NPS that explains an additional fee of $100 per person that will on the trip.

It’s possible to swap group members at any likely point on the trip – probably via the Bright Angel Trail at Phantom Ranch. The $100 fee applies to each individual person that will be on your trip.

All fees and final paperwork are due to the Park Service 90 days before your scheduled launch date.

You’ll also be reminded of the 1,000-page Non-Commercial River Trip Regulations – the rules that you and your group must follow during the trip.

Know What You’re Doing

The paperwork will require that you designate a Qualified Boatman. This is the individual in your group with the most whitewater rafting experience, preferably having rowed the full length of the Grand Canyon in the past. A “comparable river” is okay too.

Comparable rivers, according to the Park Service, include

  • Cataract Canyon, Utah
  • Lodore Canyon, Colorado
  • West Water Canyon, Utah
  • Rogue River, Oregon
  • Green River, Utah
  • Selway River, Idaho
  • Yampa River, Colorado
  • Tuolumne River, California
  • Main Salmon, Idaho
  • Middle Fork Salmon, Idaho

They will also ask for you and your group to view the River Trip Orientation Videos.

Duties as the permit holder and Trip Leader

With great power comes great responsibility! Putting together a Colorado River expedition is a monumental task! The process of choosing your team members will be the most important set of decisions that you’ll make.

Even if you succeed in delegating some of the planning to your friends, there will still be a lot of work to do! While on the River, there’s a great deal of required leadership and day-to-day decision making. Be ready for this!

Outfitters for Private River Trips

One of the best, little-known facts about private trips is that you and friends do not need to own all of the boats and equipment! There’s a handful of companies that will provide rentals for all of the most expensive items (Hello, $8,000 rafts!) and provide quite an elaborate service.

Here’s a few things that most of these companies provide:

  • boats
  • oars
  • life jackets
  • first aid kits & repair kits
  • drybags & straps
  • toilet system
  • solar charging system for electronics
  • satellite phone
  • full kitchen set
  • round trip transportation to and from Flagstaff

The Full-Service Outfitting Companies & Reviews

Professional River Outfitters (PRO)

Moenkopi Riverworks

Ceiba Adventures

Canyon REO (River Equipment Outfitters)

Vehicle Shuttle Services

All of the above companies offer shuttle services between the major put-in and take-out points along the river, as well as the following business that specializes in it.

River Runner’s Shuttle Service