I’ve done some cool shit in recent years, but the coolest one so far (and really, the one that sparked my love for adventure travel) was the river-rafting at the Grand Canyon. It was one of those things that I never even thought about (similar to my Ben Nevis experience), but once I heard about it, it just seemed like the most fun way to experience a place that is visited by millions every year.
It more than lived up to my expectations; it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life! I did a motorized raft trip in early July, spending 8 days & 7 nights on the river and seeing the full canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry at Lake Mead.
Here’s a day-by-day guide on what you can expect on a river-rafting trip at the Grand Canyon.
Day 0: Arrival at Marble Canyon
The first night of the trip was actually spent at Marble Canyon. As I had selected to leave from Las Vegas, I had to take a Vision Air flight from North Las Vegas airport to Marble Canyon.
The flight was on a really small plane. The pilot warned us the flight would likely be bumpy and boy was he ever right! Flight duration was about an hour and it was a bad hour for me. The view from the plane was pretty amazing but I was concentrating on not puking my guts out, haha.
The trip included a night’s stay at Marble Canyon Lodge so I checked in and took a nap before the orientation meeting.
At the meeting, I met our 3 guides & the other people on the trip. They consisted of 4 different families with young kids… and me. I was like, oooookay let’s make the best of this and not be an awkward turtle.
The guides gave us a quick orientation on what to expect and what the plan would be for the next day. They also gave us our mugs and dry bags etc and gave us a tutorial on how to pack them securely.
Then it was good night and see ya bright and early tomorrow morning.
Day 1: Embarking at Lee’s Ferry and experiencing some rapids
Our meeting time was 8.15am for our van ride down to Lee’s Ferry. When we reached Lee’s Ferry, our bags were loaded on the two boats and we got our life jackets fitted (i.e. tightened until you’re just about able to breathe). We got a short talk on boat safety and then we were off!
There were only 18 of us on the trip so the boats were very comfortable in terms of capacity. Given the sizes of the families, there was usually 8-10 people on each boat, depending on which boat I decided to get on.
And so we were on the Colorado River and seeing Marble Canyon! We saw the Navajo bridge, one of the few bridges in the canyon. The water was calm for a while… and then we hit some rapids. Running rapids is pretty much the MOST FUN EVERRR. Also, the splash of that first wave hitting the boat and us: DAMN FREAKIN’ FREEZING. Yeah, I was aware that the water would be cold but DAMMMMN.
So, yeah that first rapid (Badger Creek rapid) was pretty exhilarating. Once we hit the Roaring 20s, it was non-stop amazing fun.
The Roaring 20s was a pretty much a blur of rapids: all I remember was getting drenched, haha. We hit a 7 on this day and it was pretty dang cool. The motorized rafts are quite big and there’s little risk of it being overturned but running the rapids in them was still a lot of fun. Just seeing a wall of white water rising up to meet the nose of the raft was so awesome!
The other interesting thing that happened this day was meeting a restoration biologist who works for the park services. She was hitching a ride to their experiment site and she told us a bit about the restoration efforts on the plants and trees that grow along the canyon.
When we reached our campsite later in the day, the guides briefed us on the routine and the help they would need getting stuff of the boat. So we each went to find our own camping spot then went back to the boats to fireline the bags and kitchen stuff down to the beach.
On the opposite note, we also got a little briefing on the bathroom facilities available in the camp. Which consist of 2 buckets: one for liquid waste and the other for solid. Peeing in the bucket gets easier as you get used to it, hahaha. So does peeing in the river. But let me say: no toilet would have the same amazing view as we did each night. 😉
I have never been camping before so sleeping outdoors was a new thing for me. They provide the necessary: a cot, a sleeping bag and a sheet. Since I’m a scaredy cat, sleeping that first night was a stressful experience. When the sun sets, it gets dark very very fast. And then my imagination started running in overdrive. Sure, the cicadas quiet down after sunset (thank God), but the other night sounds freaked me out. I woke up in the middle of the night and had trouble going back to sleep cos I kept imagining random creatures watching me from the tree behind me. HAHAHA.
Upside: Seeing the large expense of blue sky filled with stars was absolutely fantastic. I had never seen so many stars in my life! So so beautiful.
Day 2: The Little Colorado
When the sun rises, so do you. I think we were up for breakfast at about 5ish in the morning? Breakfast was, if I remember correctly, pancakes. AND IT WAS SO GOOD.
After breakfast, we cleared the camp site and loaded everything back on the boats. Then we did a short hike from the campsite up the canyon.
Here’s where I have to mention my footwear malfunction. I had bought Teva sandals especially for the trip and had worn them a few times to break them in. And then they broke down on me THE FIRST DAMN DAY OF THE TRIP. %#^&(&(#( The bottom part of the sole of both sides came unglued during the trip. One of the guides helped to glue them back but I pretty much gave up on them. I was lucky that one of the ladies on the trip gave me her slippers which I used for the remainder of the trip.
So, climbing up boulders and rocks in slippers was a challenge to say the least. But I was careful and did not fall to my death, hahaha. It was pretty fun actually, once I stopped being paranoid. We hiked up to this little “tv screen” in the canyon where you have to crawl through the opening to see the inside where it drops off.
After the hike, we got on the boats. The second day on the river was a lot calmer than the first. Many stretches of flat water. So it was a quiet, peaceful day where you just lounged on the boat, talked and enjoyed the scenery.
We did a stop at Redwall Cavern which is this beach with an alcove. Some of the kids (and adults) played Frisbee here. It was a nice place.
But Day 2 was one of my favourite days on the trip for one reason: the Little Colorado. It’s a tributary river that merges with the main Colorado river and it is an unreal, beautiful shade of blue. We hiked up the river to a portion where we could swim in it. Then we put on our lifejackets around our bottoms and swam the little rapid. IT WAS EXTREMELY, SUPREMELY FUN. :DDD I can’t even describe it, that’s how much fun it was.
Where the Little Colorado meets the main river is basically the start of the Grand Canyon so we were officially entered the Grand Canyon by the end of Day 2. We found a campsite and after the first night, I was smart enough to pick a spot a) away from the big rocks cos it’s too warm there; b) not with many trees so I wouldn’t get freaked out by insects; and c) near the river. Haha!
Day 3: Entering the Grand Canyon and lots & lots of rapids
Day 3 was probably my favourite day of the whole trip because it was the most exciting one. We basically spent the whole day on the boat, running rapids. We hit rapid after rapid, and we hit the big ones (the 10s!) on this day.
I can barely remember the names of all the rapids but I do remember Hermit was damn amazing. I was in the front of the raft most of the time, and almost always in the middle “lounge” part which is the splash zone where you get wet from both sides of the raft.
The waves were great! Seeing a huge white wave rise over your head and hit the raft was exciting. The water was still shockingly cold, of course; half of the fun was anticipating the cold wave hit you, haha. But the sun was blistering and we dried out very quickly.
We had lunch at the beach at Phantom Ranch and while the guides were prepping lunch, we hiked up to the bridge. Saw the ruins of an ancient village and we went across the bridge. Encountered some hikers and judging from the way they looked, the hike into Phantom Ranch in that heat was not fun at all.
We ended the day at this little creek with a waterfall. Splashed around for a while; the water was warmer so it was a real treat. It was a really pretty place.
Although the focus of the day seemed to be on the river, I took the time to appreciate the canyons as well. As my first view of the Grand Canyon itself, it was pretty damn amazing. It was like a postcard come to life and so surreal to be there.
But running the rapids is absolutely a great memory. The thrill of it, getting drenched and then looking back at the waves and realizing you went through them: very very cool. I do remember watching the other raft run Hermit & at one point, the waves were so high that the raft was obscured by the water!!!
Day 4: Chasing waterfalls
Day 4 had some more rapids. For two of the bigger ones, we had to be down and in (i.e. crouched on the inside of the raft so that our guide could see the river and there would be less chance that anyone would fall out).
For those two, I took the chance to the right in front of the tube on the right hand side. All I remember is seeing two big walls of water heading straight for me and getting totally soaked. Hee!
We had a couple of pitstops. One was a waterfall where you could jump off the rock and into a deep pool. The other cool stop was into Blacktail Canyon. It’s a little side canyon and we hiked into it. The guides brought a guitar and sang us a couple of songs.
It was a very nice moment cos the canyon has great acoustics. We were just lounging on the rocks and listening to the music and it was just so tranquil. One of my fave moments on the trip. :))) It was simple but the combination of the location and the music is unbeatable.
The last pitstop of the day was Deer Creek. It’s a picturesque creek with a high waterfall. Most of the group did the 30 minute hike up to the Patio which is kind of where the waterfall starts. I later heard they had to scramble across a narrow ledge on the hike! Between the heat and my footwear situation, I sat it out and hung out at the creek instead.
The sky looked especially beautiful that evening, turning all pink and purple. It was nice to just relax at the campsite after another exciting day on the river.
Day 5: Havasu
Day 5 was a little similar to Day 2, in that there’s a lot of flat water and cruising along the river.
We made one stop at Havasu Canyon. We didn’t reach Havasu Falls, but we went as far as the first pool of water which had a small waterfall. It was very pretty; the water was blue and relatively warm and it was quite reminiscent of the Little Colorado in some ways. The hike was fun, but not so much fun in slippers.
There was some jumping off this huge rock and into the pool and lots of hanging out and cooling off in the water, before we headed back to the rafts.
It was in the later afternoon when it started to drizzle. Though there was thunder and lightning, it was only light rain. But at one point, I started to feel cold and decided it would be a good idea to put on my rain gear. (Afterall, I had bought it especially for the trip so I might as well use it!) It turned out to be a good call cos minutes after I put it on, the rain got heavier.
It was cool to see the Grand Canyon in the rain. Rainfall is very rare and I wouldn’t be surprised we got most of it that day cos it rained for over an hour.
The rain tapered off a little as we approached Lava Falls rapid. The gloomy weather was a pretty good build-up for the rapid and added to the atmosphere!
Day 6: Whitmore Wash and beyond
This was the day the rest of the group helicoptered out of the canyon at Whitmore Wash. I was the only nutcase doing the full canyon trip, hahaha.
While waiting for the new group to helicopter in, I just hung out by the river. It took a while for the other 23 people to arrive and get their gear in order. Then, there was another safety briefing for the new folks and since I already knew this stuff, I helped out the guides a bit. It was pretty funny that some people thought that I was on the crew instead of a guest!
Those last 3 days were more mellow. Less time spent on the boat (we would reach camp a bit earlier in the afternoon), more flat water and less action in general. The canyons are similar yet different. The feel is different from the upper canyon, though equally beautiful.
We saw the “Arizona alps”, which is a section of the canyon so-named because it resembles the Swiss alps. Haha.
We stopped at this area where you can jump off the rock and into the river. In case you were wondering, I was too chickenshit to do it haha.
Just before camp, we did a short hike to a creek. Sweet view of the canyon from the boulders!
Day 7: Some rapids, some waterfalls, a lot of flat water
The mellowness continued in Day 7. We hit a couple of fun rapids and everyone loved it but for me, it didn’t quite compare to the excitement of Day 3. :PPP The weather seemed hotter the further down we went so getting wet was certainly a welcome relief.
We did a short hike at Travertine Canyon to a waterfall. It was uphill and we had to climb up boulders. In midday, those rocks are hot as hell I tell ya. There were ropes and ladders put up by the Hualapai to help in the climb, but it was still a very exciting hike. The waterfall was great so it was worth the climb up.
Other than that hike, we also did another short hike into a side canyon which was nice.
Since the water was so flat, we could do something called “tube running”, where literally, you run along the tube of the raft and then jump into the water. Like so:
At camp, there was a nice little side creek which was a great place to hang out before dinner.
At this point, I was actually quite sad that the trip was coming to an end. Sure, two days prior, I was close to bailing… but I’m absolutely glad that I decided to do the full canyon trip. Seeing the whole length of the canyon made the experience feel more complete.
Day 8: Jetboating to Lake Mead
We had to get up extra early on the last day. The jetboat was scheduled to arrive at about 8am, I believe, but we had to pack up the camp equipment early so that one of the rafts could get an earlier start.
The jetboat was pretty cool. Trevor, our captain, told us that it would travel at about 40m/h and the journey would be about an hour. It was weird to zoom past everything after the relatively leisurely pace of the previous week!
The bus was waiting for us at Pearce Ferry where we disembarked the jetboat. Our driver, Jimmy, was great and gave us what he called “useless information” on where we were. I wasn’t really keeping track of time but I’d say the bus ride to Las Vegas took maybe 3-4 hours, with a short stop at Hoover Dam.
And then, it was back to civilization and reality.
The guides: Our 3 guides were terrific. As I was the only solo traveler on the trip, they made sure to check in with me once in a while to make sure I was doing okay which I thought was really nice of them. They were knowledgeable, entertaining and took really great care of everyone.
The food: Lunch on the river would be some kind of sandwich. Different types of bread available, all the trimmings (onions, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, cucumber, cheese, dressings & sauces), a different filling (cold cuts, tuna, chicken salad etc) and chips & cookies.
Dinner was a much more elaborate affair. The first night we had chips with salsa and guacamole for appetizers, chicken fajitas as the entrée and pudding for dessert. Let me say that the food got better as the days passed! We had everything from BBQ chicken to lasagna (really really good lasagna!) to salmon to steaks. We had a variety of cakes or brownies (freshly baked every evening!) for dessert. Seriously, it was good stuff.
Breakfast ranged from pancakes to eggs to little sausage mcmuffin-type of sandwiches.
I don’t know how the guides pulled it off but the food was absolutely wonderful.
The weather: Yes, it was really hot in July but as someone who lives in a tropical climate, it wasn’t that bad for me. And you always look forward to getting soaked by the rapids! As I mentioned above, it did rain on one afternoon but otherwise it was warm & sunny. If you’re covered up & slathered in sunscreen, river-rafting at the Grand Canyon in July is doable. I got really really really tanned, as you can see in that Day 7 picture of me. Heh.
Needless to say, this entire experience was absolutely terrific! I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit and I can safely say that nothing can compare to seeing the Grand Canyon via the Colorado river.
There are so many things about the trip that I will cherish. Specific places like the Little Colorado, Havasu, Blacktail Canyon, the waterfalls. Camping for the first time. Seeing the expanse of night sky full of stars. The fun of running the rapids and the shockingly cold water. And while those individual things were great, it really is the sum of all the different parts that truly made the experience special.
They say that rafting the Grand Canyon is one-in-a-lifetime experience. It certainly feels like one, but I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to do it again. I would love to do a longer oar or paddle trip with a takeout at Whitmore Wash. I think that would be an amazing amount of fun, to be able to spend more time in the upper canyon. And, of course, the extreme thrill of running the rapids in a smaller boat!
If you are thinking of river-rafting at the Grand Canyon, I would heartily encourage you to do so. It is a pricey trip but the experience is well worth it! (Everyone says that… AND IT IS TRUE.) My personal recommendation would be to do the upper canyon trip, if you are unable to do a full canyon one. The upper canyon trip, to me, gives a fuller experience of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river as compared to the lower half. Regardless, river-rafting at the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience.
A great resource I’d recommend is Rivers & Oceans. They provide a free service and assist you in selecting the most appropriate trip for your needs. I used them myself, and they were extremely helpful and made the process very easy for me.
Would you do a river-rafting trip at the Grand Canyon?