You know you want to go rafting in the Grand Canyon.
The trip is often cited as America’s #1 adventure vacation.
Why? The Canyon is simply out of this world.
So to experience it slowly, from the bottom?
Whitewater rapids, hidden slot canyons, sandy beaches, great people, and tasty meals are just the beginning of the fun.
This video sums up the experience, check it out:
That’s why they call it the Trip of a Lifetime!
The first step in planning a river trip can be overwhelming.
You have to choose from over a dozen companies that do guided tours through the Canyon. Worse yet, each of these individual companies offers about a dozen of their own different choices of raft expeditions.
Going through all of their websites makes you want to pull your hair out!
Let’s start from the beginning, defining where all the Grand Canyon rafting trips begin and end.
Places to Begin and End Your Grand Canyon Rafting Trip
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 the place where you first enter the Colorado River. The spot 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
The smooth-water day trips begin at Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Arizona. In terms of river miles, the dam would be at mile-marker minus fifteen (-15). You’re driven through an access tunnel to reach the shore of the River at the bottom of the dam.
The day trip through Horseshoe Bend wraps up 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.
Lees Ferry – Ground Zero
Lees Ferry is considered to be the beginning of the Canyon. It’s at “Mile Zero.”
Most river trips start here. There’s a launch ramp, a campground, and little other development in the area.
The commercial tour companies drive you to Lees 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
From Lees Ferry it’s a journey of several days through the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch, at river mile 89. The section between Lees Ferry and Phantom Ranch is called the “Upper” Canyon.
The only way to get to Phantom Ranch is by mule, on foot, or on that boat you rode in on! There’s occasional helicopter traffic, but that’s only for official National Park Service use.
You’re now a vertical mile below the rim. Phantom Ranch is far from the outside world, but 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 South Rim. Others let you 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 the river access on the Bright Angel Trail. Pipe Springs is about 1.5 miles closer to the South Rim Village than Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Canyon. 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 half 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 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 or farther downstream at Diamond Creek. These tours exist for those that only have a short window of time. They’re still awesome experiences, but they miss 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 or Diamond as the bottom. The section is more commonly referred to as Diamond Down.
Diamond Creek – Maybe The End
Diamond Creek is the next access point at River Mile 226. This is a popular place to finish your rafting trip 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 at Diamond but a ramp and a parking area.
You’re not missing much by ending a trip at Diamond Creek. Farther at Separation Canyon (Mile 240), commercial trips often pick you up in a jet boat for the rest of the way to Lake Mead at speeds up to 35mph anyway.
The whitewater day trips begin here at Diamond Creek.
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. In most cases 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.
The road begins in Peach Springs, Arizona.
Pearce Ferry – The End
Pearce Ferry (Mile 281) is the main take-out at Lake Mead. There aren’t any views of the broader lake 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, though the impressive “Pearce Ferry Rapid” is located about one mile downstream.
Companies will drive you from here primarily to Flagstaff AZ or Las Vegas.
Driving distances from Pearce Ferry:
- Flagstaff – 210 miles
- Lees Ferry – 330 miles
- Las Vegas 110 miles
Looking a bit further, South Cove (Mile 297) is an historic take-out point for the Grand Canyon at Lake Mead. Fluctuating water levels of the lake create a level of unpredictability beyond Pearce Ferry – namely the problematic Pearce Ferry Rapid.
So now you have a better understanding of where to access the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. You’re more prepared 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.
Motorized Rafting Trips
Motor trips involve large pontoon rafts, sometimes affectionately called “bologna boats.” These can hold a lot of passengers – 10 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. They’re so sturdy that the pilots deliberately may steer into rough water for a more exciting ride. Motor trips are the fastest option if you want to see as much of the Grand Canyon as you can in a limited time. These trips entail the least number of days, and are therefore less expensive, too.
The motorized rides are big business for the raft companies. It’s more of a roller coaster ride than a rafting experience, watching the Canyon pass you by at a higher rate of speed.
Or to put it another way, motor trips are like driving a car down a scenic road.
Non-motorized oar trips are more like riding a bicycle down that road.
Non-Motorized Rafting Trips (Oar Trips)
Oar trips use 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 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 gives direction from the back (and paddles too).
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.
Most paddle trips are set up as hybrid trips.
Some outfitters offer trips on a dory. Resembling a large canoe, dories are typically 17 feet long and constructed of wood and fiberglass. Readers of the best book about rafting the Grand Canyon, The Emerald Mile, are no strangers to the craft.
Dories traditionally offer a more rigid and elegant ride, and more comfort too. There’s the ability to lounge back through the slow stretches, and the ability access your gear more easily. They have a reputation for offering the ultimate Grand Canyon rafting experience.
Oar Trips vs Motor Trips
No matter which oar trip you choose, you’ll have a more intimate experience than the motor trips. 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 much more expensive than the motorized trips.
If you’re a crazy thrill seeker that enjoys getting pummeled by the big whitewater, some companies offer kayak support. Sometimes they have inflatable kayaks (Often called a ducky) available too.
Finally, there’s all kinds of specialized trips available. Some have a strong focus on hiking. Others specialize on a subject like geology or yoga. One company even offers a string quartet that serenades you through dinner!
Grand Canyon Rafting Safety and Deaths
You don’t have to know how to swim. Stringent rules require you to 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 the 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 comprehensive record of deaths is found in the book listed above.
So regarding those stinky guides and their high prices and their speedboats and string ensembles… maybe you just don’t want ‘em!
This National Park belongs to you, a citizen! Maybe you want to 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.
The good news is that the legendary 20-year waiting list for Grand Canyon rafting permits 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?
The best time to go is when you can!
The first thing to know regarding timing 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 is late May. The river should be quieter than the summer months, and the beaches will show less impact after the quiet winter.
Additionally, the summer months are HOT at the bottom of the Canyon. Like 110-degrees-HOT. May should be slightly cooler (Like only 100 degrees vs 110).
Monsoon thunderstorms 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 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 blue-green, but the chances of clear water are better in late May, June, and in 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 that time, too.
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. You also have more competition for permits throughout these traditional times for summer vacation.
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.