WARNING: The Colorado River through Grand Canyon has serious rapids and extreme conditions! It’s best not to apply for a permit unless you know what you’re doing, or unless you have a vast circle of experienced, agreeable, and openly-scheduled friends.
(Check out the Beginner’s Guide for more general rafting information.)
The legendary one-million-year waiting list to raft the Grand Canyon disappeared with cassette tapes and the 8-bit Nintendo.
In 2006, the Park Service ditched the old list and began a weighted lottery system. These permits to go down the Colorado River are extremely coveted, so the lottery system is necessary to manage the vast demand versus the limited resource.
The system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best that we’ve come up with so far.
Before I get into the details, I have some good news – it’s not necessary to own thousands of dollars of rafts and gear to lead your own river trip. See more on that end of the page.
The information here applies to self-guided, non-commercial, full length trips that launch at Lees Ferry. That means that you’re alone without tour guides assistance, 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…
Here’s Some Red Tape From Our Lovely Federal Government.
You’re only allowed to go on one river 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 to apply for a permit.
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!. You must use it in your name for the specified launch date, or lose it. Period. The only way around this is by designating a “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, thus the term “non-commerical.” The National Park services takes profiteering through this system very seriously and will press charges.
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 the full document.
How to Apply for a Permit
First it’s necessary to create a free profile on the official NPS website.
After you have a profile, you’re free to apply for a permit when the Park Service holds a lottery.
There’s a main lottery held annually in February. This is when they assign all of the available permits for the following calendar year. So if you want to go on a trip in 2024, you must go online and enter the lottery in February of 2023.
They hold smaller lotteries to fill cancellations later throughout the year. When you create a profile, there’s an option to be notified by the NPS every time they hold a lottery, often with very short notice.
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 individual launch date, like virtual raffle tickets. When you enter the lottery, you can apply for up to 4 different launch dates.
So let’s say you apply for April 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Your “ticket goes in a hat” for each date, along with everyone else’s that applied for those dates. When NPS runs the lottery, they pull 2 tickets for each calendar date to choose the winners (generally 2 non-commercial trips launch each day).
Simple enough, right?
Now here’s where it gets just a little confusing. It’s a “weighted” lottery, so the odds are in favor of those that have never rafted the Grand Canyon on a private (non-commercial) trip before.
So if you’ve never done it before and you apply for April 1st, you get 5 tickets with your name put into April 1st’s hat. If I were to also apply for April 1st, my name would only go on one ticket in that hat, because I was recently on a trip just last year.
So the odds are weighted in favor of those with less experience in Grand Canyon. Here’s how it breaks down:
- 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 just once.
You can enter for five different dates, in order of preference.
Okay, Let’s Game the System
… legally, of course.
I’m not going to post my step-by-step strategy online for the world to see.
I mean, I want my permits too, and we may end up competing for the same launch date!
However, I’ll point you in the right direction with this simple tip:
It’s best to hand-pick a reliable crew and confer with them before you enter the lottery.
I think you should be able to discern a good strategy from that statement, but it still doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win. There’s a lot of smart people out there with “skin in the game,” so to speak. Also:
Choose Your Dates Wisely
The best time to be on the River (weather-wise) is in Spring and Fall… but everyone knows it.
Summer is brutally hot, but the Colorado River is ice cold year-round, so a lot folks (aka teachers and students) don’t mind and play for summer anyway.
Likewise, winter is cold and dark and can be downright depressing. I was on a December trip where most of us came down with runny noses and sinus infections and so on.
Maybe you’re an Alaskan and you’d deem the Canyon’s winter weather as wonderful… sunshine and rainbows. Awesome! Use that to your advantage when entering the lottery to win your permit.
What the heck is a PATL?
PATL stands for Potential Alternate Trip Leader.
Sometimes life happens, and you’re forced to back out of your trip at the last minute. So if you’re the permit holder, then your inability to go on the trip means that the trip must be cancelled for your entire team. Your permit is non-transferable.
The Park Service understands that it’s a raw deal for up to 15 people to miss out on the trip of a lifetime because of a single flake, so they created the PATL designation.
The PATL must also have a profile on the Park Service lottery website.
Between the two of you, the weighted lottery points will defer to the individual with least points.
The main drawback to this system is that a listed PATL may not enter their own lottery application. The regulations state:
You may only be listed on one application within any specific lottery, either as the trip leader or as a PATL. Being listed as the trip leader or PATL on more than one lottery application within any individual lottery will result in any trip won through that lottery being forfeited.
Unfortunately, since you’re competing with thousands of people for a permit, this effectively means that listing a PATL (rather than having them file their own application) lessens your probability of winning the lottery by 50%.
So it’s a roll of the dice here – you’re forced to cut your chances of winning in half, or forced to put the sole responsibility of getting to the launch ramp on a single individual. When considering this, remember that NPS also states:
While most applicants say they are sure they will go if they win, around one in 5 winners who pay their deposits end up cancelling or passing their trips to PATLs.
The only other exception to the non-transfer rule is that a trip may be transferred to a legally direct family member. In addition to a couple other parameters, the family member can not be listed anywhere in the same lottery.
What if you win?
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 the NPS that explains an additional fee of $100 per person that will on the trip.
It’s possible to swap group members at any point on the trip – most often 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. Choosing your team members is the most important set of decisions 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 rent out all of the most expensive items (Hello, $8,000 rafts!) and provide an elaborate service.
Here’s a few things that most of these companies provide:
- life jackets
- first aid kits & repair kits
- drybags & straps
- toilet system
- solar charging system for electronics
- satellite phone
- full kitchen set
- COMPLETE MENU AND FOOD FOR THE ENTIRE TRIP
- round trip transportation between Flagstaff and Grand Canyon
Here’s the Full-Service 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.
If you’re looking for something like vehicle storage or even just a local gear shop near the Canyon, see the NPS’s complete list of support services.