Grand Canyon Whitewater Rafting; There may be no more widely celebrated whitewater trip than that through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, one of the world’s biggest and most breathtaking gorges. Seen from the North or South Rim in a top-down view, the Grand Canyon is certainly sublime: a gaping wound of raw red rock, engulfed in silence save for the breeze in the pinyons and the croak of a cruising raven. Get down on the river, though, and you’ve got an entirely different—and much more intimate—perspective: riding roaring rapids, gaping at sheer waterfalls and hanging gardens, peering into mysterious side canyons, lounging on tucked-away beaches most visitors never get the chance to see.
More than a dozen outfitters offer guided whitewater trips through Grand Canyon National Park from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek; you can find a full list at this Park Service site. (You can also go the self-guided route, which involves a weighted lottery system.) When it comes down to it, there’s no better way to see the Grand Canyon than a ride down its very heart.
Types of Whitewater Vessels
A variety of crafts ply the Colorado’s wild and wooly water, and each offers its own distinct experience. A motorized pontoon raft has the benefit of greater speed, allowing you to see more of the canyon in a shorter span of time. Among non-motorized vessels, you’ve got oar rafts, rigged with a rowing frame and steered by an oarsman, and paddleboats, where you and the other passengers help out in the paddling work. Some companies, such as O.A.R.S. Grand Canyon, Inc., also run wooden drift-boat-style dories through the gorge.
You can choose from a range of Grand Canyon itineraries, too. The shortest jaunts, say on the order of four days, often require entering or exiting the canyon by foot or helicopter. For instance, you might opt for a few days’ rafting from Lees Ferry just above Marble Canyon down to Phantom Ranch, from where you’d hike up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail—or you might hike into Phantom Ranch to run the stretch downstream to Diamond Creek. There’s also a helipad at Whitmore Wash, where a chopper can airlift you and your equipment into or out of the canyon—an option for those wanting to do a short trip but intimidated by the rim-to-river/river-to-rim hike, which, especially in the heat of summer, is nothing to take lightly.
The classic full canyon trip is the 225-miler between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek, both road-accessible. A motorized raft can make this in a week; an oar- or paddle-powered raft takes closer to two. Whether you’re on the Colorado for four days or 13, you’ll certainly get an unforgettable taste for its whitewater. Dozens of rapids stud the river’s deep-nested course, including such legends as Upset Rapids and Lava Falls (rated Class 10 on the Grand Canyon’s singular 1-10 ranking system for whitewater).
The rafting year in the Grand Canyon typically stretches from April through October. The shoulder seasons offer cooler and less-crowded conditions; spring enchants with blooming wildflowers, while early autumn often serves up very pleasant temperatures. High summer can be roasting—though remember that you’ve got river spray and natural swimming holes on hand for cooling off—but its monsoonal thunderstorms can also generate gorgeous ephemeral cascades off the canyon walls, and the plentiful daylight provides more time for hiking side-trips.
In short, each season has its special advantages and challenges—but the experience is worth it no matter what. Whenever you can find the time to escape the workaday crunch to the Colorado Plateau and land a spot aboard a commercial whitewater raft is going to ensure a transformative experience.
The Joys of the River
Part of the irresistible spice of a guided whitewater trip are the juxtapositions: Funneling through a gloriously wild chasm far from any road, you’ve got the backcountry luxury of a crew setting your itinerary, hauling your gear, and fixing your meals, and the warm camaraderie of guides and fellow passengers on and off the raft. Guides tend to be well-versed in the geology, ecology, and history of the canyon: They can tell you about the Vishnu Schist you’re sluicing by (the ancient Precambrian bedrock exposed in the Inner Gorge), point out a nicely camouflaged desert bighorn ram on the riverside cliffs, or lead you to a view of Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
Guided rafting trips involve plenty of adventure and leisure off the river. Hiking forays give you access to sublimely remote tributary defiles and other magical places that may be reachable from the rim only via arduous and technical canyoneering—or that are downright inaccessible.
And there’s really nothing like swapping stories and jokes around the campfire after a hearty river-runner’s meal, above a spectacularly star-spangled sky framed by the titanic gorge walls—and with a beachfront sleeping bag awaiting.
The Grand Canyon isn’t simply one of the world’s most astonishing landforms: It’s also one of the greatest whitewater safaris anywhere. From rodeo-style whitecaps to serene flats, from cliff-shaded beaches to waterfall plunge pools deep in heavenly side canyons, this is hallowed territory for river runners. As the great desert rat (and Grand Canyon lover) Edward Abbey once advised, “Behold the river roar among the basaltic fangs of Upset Rapids. See the blue and gold twilight walls soar above you, out of shadow into morning sunlight. Smell the old-time smell of river mud and cottonwood and willow.” Take him up on the offer and book yourself a seat on a whitewater raft that’s Grand Canyon-bound: It’s going to be the ride of a lifetime.