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Rafting the Grand Canyon: The Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

An introduction to planning your river trip through the world’s most famous canyon.


Rafts on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

Many have marveled at the unparalleled views from the rims of the Grand Canyon. But the eye and the heart are naturally drawn down to the lifeline of the mighty chasm, as if its deepest secrets might only be revealed by looking up.

 

In planning a Grand Canyon river rafting trip it’s easy to relate to the early explorers who happened upon the canyon: once past the initial awe, excitement and anticipation you’re left wondering how on earth do we get down there? With so many options and resources, it’s easy to become overwhelmed in the planning process. So let’s tackle some questions together and get you to the river.

 

Commercial vs Non-Commercial

The first decision you’ll have to make in planning your Grand Canyon rafting adventure is whether you’ll be taking a guided rafting tour provided by a sanctioned rafting company or if you’ll be organizing your own trip and crew.

 

Commercial

There are 16 river concessioners approved by the National Park Service that offer 3-18 day rafting trips. But researching each company individually is admittedly daunting. Fortunately, great resources like Advantage Grand Canyon and Rivers and Oceans slog through the research and planning process for you. Their websites allow you to input your preferences for trip duration, rafting type and route. Then they connect you with the appropriate rafting outfitters offering experiences that meet your needs. And the best part? Their services are free!

 

Trips offered by sanctioned rafting outfitters will likely include seasoned river guides, appropriate permits, food, camping gear and often even transportation and lodging before and after your trip so that you can focus on enjoying the rafting experience and not on logistics. But spots fill up fast, so consider booking your trip a year or two in advance.

 

Non-Commercial

Have prior rafting experience or know someone who does? A non-commercial run of the canyon allows you to avoid large groups and have a flexible and personalized itinerary. While this may sound appealing, consider that private rafting trips require a great deal of planning and preparation; not just anyone with a watercraft can launch into the river at will. If you’ll be taking your own boat and crew down the river, you’ll need a permit from the National Park Service. Permits are awarded through a lottery held in February and must be obtained a year in advance of your trip. Depending on where you’ll be camping and hiking, there may be additional fees for accessing Hualapai land where it meets the river. Check out these FAQs provided by NPS for information on obtaining the appropriate permit.

 

Private trips like these are entirely self-guided, thus at least one person in your group must have rafting experience and skills required by the National Park Service. You’ll also, of course, be responsible for all other aspects of your trip including the watercraft, itinerary, gear, food, etc.

 

Who can raft the Grand Canyon?

Adults of all ages and levels of physical fitness can find a trip that fits their situation, no experience necessary. However, keep in mind that rafting and side canyon hiking is moderately strenuous by nature, as is being exposed to the elements. So those who come physically prepared will likely have a better time. Some advance physical training is recommended for long trips and those that require passenger paddling or strenuous hikes to and from the river. Food restrictions can often be accommodated with advance notice, and some outfitters offer adaptive rafting experiences for those with disabilities or unique health considerations.

 

Children

Age minimums vary based on the type and length of the rafting trip as well as the chosen outfitter. But most motorized trips require children to be a minimum of 8 years old, and for paddle-powered trips, a minimum of 12. Grand Canyon Expeditions shares some great questions to ask yourself about your child to determine if they’re up for a rafting adventure. If they’re not quite ready or they don’t meet the age requirement, consider a smooth water float trip which we’ll discuss momentarily.

 

Who CANNOT Raft the Grand Canyon?

Animals. Sad, but true (and necessary): dogs, cats and other pets are not allowed on raft trips. But there will be plenty of wildlife to observe along your journey that your beloved furry, feathered or scaled friends will no doubt love to hear about when you return.

 

What is the river like?

view of the Grand Canyon

As thrilling as the rapids will be (and there are many), over 95% of the 277 miles of river through the Grand Canyon is calm water. This stretch of the Colorado River is a veritable mood ring with its ever-changing hues and consistencies. Water released from Glen Canyon Dam is mostly clear, so often the river will appear a bright emerald green. But sediment from various tributaries below the dam can flow into the river, especially during monsoon season, and create the chocolate-milk-colored water you often see in not-so-whitewater rafting pics. The time of year and the route you take will determine which of the river’s “moods” you’ll witness.

 

The Rapids

Most of the rapids you’ll encounter were formed by debris that has fallen from main and side canyon walls, not changes in elevation. This makes the whitewater so nuanced and complicated that it’s earned its very own rapids classification system.

 

If you’re familiar with rafting, you know about the International Class of rapid ratings I-IV+. But the Colorado River follows a unique Grand Canyon Class rating system of 1-10, 10 being similar to the difficulty level of a IV+ in the international system.

 

Whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon

The Big Ones

The Lava Falls and Hermit rapids are the most challenging depending on the flow and what type of boat you’re in. In fact, Lava Falls is one of the most famous whitewater rapids in the world and was named the fastest navigable water in North America by The Guinness Book of World Records. The Crystal, Horn Creek and House Rock rapids aren’t far behind in difficulty. Rivers and Oceans has a comprehensive list of the rapids, their difficulty ratings, and their locations along the river.

 

Smooth Water


Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend


If you have younger children or if intense rapids just aren’t your jam, a great option is a smooth water raft trip. Half-day Horseshoe Bend Rafting trips are perfect for families as they allow passengers ages four and up. While technically not a Grand Canyon experience, you’ll traverse 15 miles of smooth water from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry, seeing iconic Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon, petroglyph panels, and the river as it heads into the Grand. These trips have been temporarily suspended, but new trip options should be coming in April 2024.


When Should I Raft?

Grand Canyon Rafting season runs from April to October. April, May, early June, September and October are your best bet for milder weather. Late June, July and August are hotter with monsoon season beginning mid-July. With stronger currents and arguably stronger rapids, July and August are the busiest times of year for river running.

 

Where Should I Raft?

Where you raft will depend on your preferred trip duration as well as the type of water you want to experience and your willingness to hike to or from the river. Most outfitters will offer a range of trips covering the following sections of the Grand Canyon.

 

Full Canyon

You’ll begin at Lees Ferry and end at either Whitmore Wash (River Mile (RM) 188), Diamond Creek (RM 225), or Lake Mead (RM 280). All options will offer transportation back to your starting point, whether by coach transport or aircraft. Full canyon trips will expose you to the gamut of water variation and scenery the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River has to offer.


Upper Canyon

This canyon experience begins at Lees Ferry and ends near Phantom Ranch. Then you’ll hike about 9.5 miles along the Bright Angel Trail up to the South Rim for transport back to your starting point. This option is great for exploring side canyons and observing geologic formations and ruins.

 

Nankoweap Granaries, Upper Canyon

Nankoweap Granaries, Upper Canyon


Lower Canyon

Instead of ending your rafting trip with a hike, you’ll begin with one: a trek of 7.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail. Lower Canyon trips vary in length, ending at Whitmore Wash, Diamond Creek or Lake Mead depending on your itinerary. This section of the canyon is popular because it has (arguably) the best side hikes and the highest concentration of big rapids.

 

Western Canyon

This route is a good option for families and individuals of all fitness levels because there isn’t a big hike at the beginning or end of the trip. The rapids you’ll encounter are also good for beginners. You’ll be helicoptered into the canyon to begin at Whitmore Wash and end at Lake Mead. You can also experience the Western canyon on one- or two-day trips chartered by Grand Canyon West, which is run by the Hualapai tribe out of Peach Springs, AZ.

 

How To (and How Much $)

Once you’ve chosen between commercial and private and decided on a route, you’ll need to choose your watercraft.

 

Motor-powered rafts:

  • largest and most popular

  • hold 15 passengers plus gear

  • quiet motor

  • travel at about 8 mph (twice the speed of the natural current)

  • time effective

  • best for families and those new to the rafting experience

 

Oar-powered rafts:

  • accommodate 6-8 passengers

  • rarely exceed the natural current speed of about 4mph

  • passengers are not required to row (on a commercial trip)

  • slow and quiet

  • great for visiting with other passengers and learning from your guide

 

Paddle-powered rafts:

  • smallest commercial option

  • passengers help steer with wooden paddles

  • experience recommended given the physical demands

 

Dories:

  • made of wood or fiberglass

  • most uncommon small boats on the river (only two outfitters run dory tours)

  • hold 4 passengers plus a rafting guide

  • agility makes them slightly faster than other options

 

Hybrid tours:

  • alternate between oar and paddle propulsion so that passengers can experience both

 

How Much Does it Cost to Raft the Grand Canyon?

You’ll know the damage once you narrow down the specifics we’ve mentioned above. But you’ll find yourself paying around $400 for a one-day motorized excursion and up to about $7000 for a full canyon hybrid oar/dory trip.


Grand Canyon Rafting

Why should I raft the Grand Canyon?

Every traveler’s “why” will be personal: the thrill of riding the rapids, communion with nature, a more intimate exploration of the canyon, bonding with strangers, challenging oneself, escaping reality, to name a few. Whatever your driving force, the magnetism at the watery heart of the canyon is undeniable. It seems only natural to want to see the majesty of things from the perspective of the force that created them, but with that pull comes a certain trepidation: Am I up to the task? Will it be everything I hoped it would be? What does the river hold for me?

 

As intimidating as these questions can be, the river will give back what you’re willing to put into the journey, tenfold. Do your research. Plan ahead. Prepare your body and mind. Accept that sand will get into absolutely everything. Check your modesty at the shore (you’ll be peeing in the river (and pooping in the “groover”)). Learn from your guides. Push through when you don’t feel like it. And allow the river to change you as it continues to change the canyon: radically and completely.


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We’re not much help to you throughout your rafting journey. But if you’re needing a place to rest up before or after your Colorado River adventure, Backland has you covered. Maintain the connection with nature that you enjoyed on your trip but from a luxury tent suite providing all the creature comforts you were missing on the river. It’s the perfect place to reflect on the rafting trip of a lifetime.


Backland Glamping Tent Near the Grand Canyon

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