This September/October, I had the unforgettable opportunity to raft for 21 days down the Colorado River through a portion of the Grand Canyon with my parents. Prior to the trip, I had gone on a few other rafting trips before, but still knew very little about rafting. Now, post-trip, I am hardly an expert, but I can at least answer the top questions that I had before!
Where do you do the rafting, exactly?
The navigable portion of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon runs from Lee’s Ferry, near the middle of the border between Utah and Arizona, to Pearce Ferry, right before the Colorado River runs into Lake Mead at the border between Arizona and Nevada. In between, the river snakes for 280.5 miles. We stopped at Diamond Creek, however, 225.9 miles down the river.
How do you get to raft the Grand Canyon?
Because of the high demand for rafting trips down the Grand Canyon and the limited capacity of just a few private/non-commercial launches a day (472 private trip launches total in 2017), there is a lottery system for permits. When applying for a permit, you can specify up to 5 desired launch dates, for a trip lasting up to 21-25 days. In February, the National Park Service notifies the permit winner(s) for the following year.
For 2017, there were 5,550 applications for 472 private permits. That makes a 8.5% chance of getting a permit. But certain times of the year are much more popular (e.g. 371 applications were submitted for September 19th, 2017, when the weather gets more temperate and motor season ends, versus only 1 application submitted for December 14th, 2017, which I imagine is a less ideal time to be in the Canyon). Thus, there was in reality a 0.78% chance of getting a permit for our specific launch date.
My lucky mother pulled both this permit and a previous one less than 10 years ago. While she’s on this lucky streak, I don’t think it would hurt to apply for the actual lottery… In any case, I’m also very lucky that it was my own mother who got the permit, as my chances of getting invited on a Grand Canyon rafting trip would be similarly low otherwise. Although for the record, I do bring a few things to the table: documentation, photography, a helping hand, and a knack for spontaneous gift-giving!
Alternatively, you can also forgo the whole permit system by booking a commercial trip through a company that will provide guides and most of the gear. The number of commercial launches is also limited, and commercial trips have fewer days (16-18). It’s also not cheap – a 16-day trip that I found which covered the same distance, from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, costs more than $5,000/person.
What do you pack?
Organizing and packing is the biggest part of a river rafting trip, especially in the weeks preceding the trip. Everything that you need to eat, wear, and use for 21+ days, along with some group gear like tables, kitchen supplies, and bathroom supplies has to fit on the raft. It must be accessible when needed, but also packed in water-sealed bags/compartments and strapped down so that you won’t lose it if the raft flips. No wonder why, in response to the question “So how hard is rafting the Grand Canyon?”, the river guide writes, “The biggest challenge is often arranging the logistics of an extended river trip.”
We made it especially hard on ourselves by only leaving 5 days to get everything prepared. The 5 days consisted of mad dashes to Costco, where we tried to estimate with limited success how much food we needed for 21 days, hurried orders on Amazon for items that we were missing, and frustrating searches through piles of dusty gear. We got it all together on time, but just barely!
A very incomplete list of essential river gear:
- Personal floatation device (PFD) with a knife (to cut yourself free if tangled in ropes) and a whistle
- Helmet, in case you fall out of the raft and hit rocks or items on the raft
- Sunglasses with a strap to keep them attached to your head, and a backup pair in case the first pair gets knocked off
- Quick dry clothes
- Splash jacket and pants, to stay a little less wet
- Waterproof sandals with traction
- Good hiking boots
- Folding chair
- Down sleeping bag
- Headlamp, so that you don’t step on a scorpion or fall in the river in the dark
- Satellite phone, to call for help in case of emergency
- Badge balm or some sort of cream for cracked hands and feet
- Baby wipes, because bathing in the river is cold
- Beer and coffee – I didn’t personally bring any on the trip, but i have it on good authority that this is critical to survival
Where do you stay at night?
Campsites are usually located every couple of miles along the river, and they can range from large, flat sites with multiple, well-marked sites to small, steep sandbars where it’s difficult to find many places to pitch a tent. No matter the camp, the one thing they have in common is sand.
The great thing about camping while rafting is that space and weight are not much of an issue. My parents brought two air mattresses that each occupied more volume than their actual tent. If you can fit it on the raft and you can lug it up onto the beach, then you can bring it!
Every night, you pull into a camp ground, tie the boats down, unload the rafts, and set up the kitchen and your tents/sleeping area. And every morning, you pack up your things, load them back on the raft, and tie them down so that they won’t leak or disappear if the raft flips upside down. It’s a cycle that’s repeated every day, for 21+ days. By the end, I got pretty damn efficient at packing my tent and fitting everything onto the raft at record time.
What do you eat?
It’s possible to restock water at various springs along the way, but there’s only one opportunity to get food of any kind (at Phantom Ranch). That means that all food that you need for the entire duration of the trip has to be packed on the raft at the beginning and has to last until the very end. That doesn’t mean that the food options are limited, though – we had scrumptious hot meals every day, and only resorted to cans for the last few days (though those meals were delicious too).
The standard system for food is that everyone is in charge of their own lunch, but rotating cook teams make dinner and the following breakfast for everyone. With 10 people and 4 cook teams, we were in charge of dinner and breakfast for all 10 people every 4 days. It’s a great system because you can sample other people’s cooking, and it’s positively delightful on days when you’re off duty to relax and wait for dinner to be served. It’s something I kind of which could be implemented permanently – just get a group of friends together and rotate hosting dinner parties for each other every weekend. Not a bad idea!
Some highlights of the menu de la rivière:
- Egg habanero
- Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, and mixed fruit
- Pita bread, falafel, and couscous
- Handmade beef and celery dumplings
- Jambalaya with jalepeno cornbread
- Chips and salsa, beef tacos
- Steak, garlic potatoes, and beans
- Ham, sauerkraut, potatoes, and carrots
- Cherry chocolate cake
- Peach cobbler
To cook the food, we had what basically is a portable, no-impact kitchen: a small propane stove, a kitchen box filled with all of the pots, pans, dishware, and utensils that one might possibly need, a fire pan and dutch oven, and a few tables. Enough to cook everything on the menu and more! The only dishes we couldn’t make were ones that require refrigeration – though if you pack the coolers right, you could conceivably serve ice cream on day 11, like my parents did on their first Grand Canyon rafting trip.
Clean up follows a rather ingenius system involving four buckets, river water, some dish soap, dish sponges, and a capful of bleach. The four buckets, arranged in order, are:
- Swamp bucket: a bucket of plain river water where all the food scraps are wiped off
- Soap bucket: a bucket of boiled river water with dish soap
- Rinse bucket: another bucket of plain river water to wash off the soap
- Bleach bucket: a bucket of river water with a capful of bleach, to fully disinfect
Where do you…er, do your business?
There are no toilet facilities along the river, so you more or less have to take bathroom matters in your own hands. Or, more literally, in your own raft.
Peeing in the river is standard practice, to keep the land around the river clean. But because poop presents a greater health risk and is harder to dispose of, rafters must carry all of their poop out of the Grand Canyon with them. Yep, you literally pack the poop on your raft along with all of your other belongings and float down with it until the end of the trip.
Early rafters found that ammo cans from army surplus stores made great poop containers. They’re durable, watertight (and therefore, thankfully, airtight), and easy to stack in the raft. Thus, ammo cans became the standard river toilets. And because the metal walls of the ammo can leave two parallel grooves in your butt when you sit on it, it became known as the “Groover.”
The Groover and associated terminology is one of the elements of rafting that I think should be incorporated into everyday life. For instance, some Grover-related sentences:
- “I’m going to get my groove on” -> “I’m going to go poop”
- “Everybody groovy?” -> “Has everybody who needs to poop pooped?”
- “I lost my groove for three days” -> “I’m constipated”
As for bathing, every (hopefully voluntary) swim in the river or side streams is tantamount to a bath. However, the river water is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be refreshing in the hot sun but freezing in the shade. Thus, solar showers, black bags filled with water that can heat to 120+ degrees Fahrenheit under the sun, are an alternative.
What are the rapids like?
Rapids are the first things that came to mind when I thought of rafting down Grand Canyon, but in reality they comprise just a small portion of the river. Rapids of various sizes appear in fairly frequent intervals, though, so oftentimes I barely started to dry my butt out from a previous rapid before getting hit by another one.
Rapids on the Colorado River are rated on a scale of 1-10, roughly equivalent to the International Scale of River Difficulty from I to V. The difficulty of the rapid differs depending on the water level, but most rapids are rated 6 or below. Then you have small “riffles” that are too inconsequential to be rated and may not even be on the map. They can still be quite a ride, though – I suspect that some “riffles” on the Grand Canyon could probably qualify as sizeable whitewater on other rivers.
Bigger rapids, rated 7 and above, generally need to be scouted. This consists of parking the rafts just above the rapid and hiking out to see it from land, in order to figure out what hazards to avoid and to identify a suitable line down the rapid.
The biggest rapid on the river is Lava Falls, a class 9 rapid at Mile 180 (nothing is class 10, which I imagine would just be unnavigable).
There are plenty of horror stories involving Lava, though most boats make it through unscathed. Not that that’s very reassuring when you’re looking at it from above and listening to its thunderous roar.
In the end, all of our rafts made it through Lava just fine! There were some pretty close shaves, but we adhered to the mantra of “stay in the boat, black side [bottom of the raft] down,” which is a big success in my book!
What else do you do all day?
One of the biggest benefits of floating down the Grand Canyon is being able to access various slot canyons and hikes that are difficult or impossible to access from above. Hikes may lead to clear streams and waterfalls to bathe in, Native American artifacts to examine, or simply ancient rock layers to explore. Some of the most popular places to stop along the Colorado River:
Ancient granaries built high up in the walls of the canyon, with a great view of river winding off into the distance.
Little Colorado River
An opportunity to wear a lifejacket like a diaper and slide down a (sometimes) turquoise stream.
Where you always imagined fairies would live.
See “The Great Unconformity” up close: 550 million year old Tapeats Sandstone resting on top of the roughly 1.6 billion year old Vishnu Schist.
A raging waterfall that blows out of the canyon wall and creates a thin oasis strip in the middle of the desert.
A narrow slot canyon with deep pools, that can only be accessed in some areas by shimmying up between the two walls with all four limbs.
Are you really disconnected the entire time?
Yes, in that there is no cellphone service in the canyon. Disconnecting for 21 days was a healthy digital vacation, but with the side effect of an early bedtime – An “Oh god, it’s not even 7pm yet??” bedtime.
However, there are some other ways of staying in touch. Every group brings a satellite phone to use in case of emergency, and a member of our party brought a satellite/GPS device that could download weather forecasts and send and receive texts and emails.
About a week in, as well, is Phantom Ranch. This is the only place throughout the trip that allows for contact with civilization.
The Phantom Ranch lodge is about a mile away from the river, and it’s there that you can use a payphone, buy and mail a post card, pick up some ice, and buy some snack foods and cold drinks (but no ice cream and popsicles, a major disappointment!).
Any other questions that I didn’t answer?
Comment below, and I will try to answer it or call upon the wisdom of various river rafting experts.