The number one thing I wanted to do on #TerryTreksUSA was to raft Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon is one of the most incredible natural wonders in the United States, and the world. I’ve always felt weird about traveling to see the wonders of foreign countries, but never seeing this incredible place in my own country. After rushing to finish hiking the Teton Crest Trail on time, I raced through Utah to get to my expedition’s orientation meeting in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area near Page, Arizona.

Booking A Grand Canyon Rafting Expedition

This trip required some research months before the start of my trek. Once I booked it, it became the centerpiece of my trip, with everything else planned around it. It’s best to book a trip like this as early as possible, because they fill up fast. Even though I only had a couple months until I would go, I was still able to find some availability because I was only one person, and had flexibility on dates.

Looking at Grand Canyon never gets old.
Looking at Grand Canyon never gets old.

I had to make a couple decisions on the type of trip: which part of the river, and what kind of boat. There are trips that just do the upper Colorado, just the lower Colorado, and the whole thing. Upper river trips start from Lee’s Ferry and finish up at Phantom Ranch. Riders have to climb out of the canyon via the ten mile Bright Angel Trail. Lower river riders hike in at this point, raft all the way to Lake Mead, and take a helicopter out. It’s said that the rapids on the lower river are more intense, so that is either a reason to choose this route, or, in my case, not to. I’ve only whitewater rafted once in New Zealand, and the smaller rapids on the upper river sounded just fine to me. For some people having to hike out ten miles, with a one mile elevation gain would be a negative, but I welcomed the challenge.

The next decision I had to make was the type of trip. There are motorized trips, oar trips, and “hybrid” trips. The motorized trips are faster, so they can cover more ground in the same about of time. But they have motors, so they are noisy. They also have more people. Either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, is that the boats are bigger, so the rapids seem smaller.

Floating on the river.
Floating on the river.

On oar trips the boats are inflatable rafts, and a guide does all the rowing. There are only four or five riders on each raft. The people sitting in front are guaranteed to get soaked! On hybrid trips riders can take turns with the paddling. Either an oar or hybrid trip sounded good to me.

There are several companies guiding trips on the river, and calling them all the check prices and availability would be time consuming. I used Rivers Oceans to check dates and availability for me. They get a commission on purchased trips, so it is a free service that saves a lot of time. Since I was calling at the last minute there was not a lot of availability, but they found an upper river oar trip with Wilderness River Adventures.

Our guide takes a break as we float through the Colorado River gorge.
Our guide takes a break as we float through the Colorado River gorge.

Getting Read For A Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure

These trips are not cheap, and this would be my biggest expense on #TerryTreksUSA. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With my trip booked and paid for, I had to get some special gear.

Trip insurance. The trip was such a big expense, I though another $100 to insure the trip was worthwhile, just in case something went wrong. Since health care in the USA is prohibitively expensive and I didn’t have health insurance, I also liked that this would provide medical coverage if something happened in the Canyon. Luckily I didn’t need it.

Quality waterproof gear. Both a jacket and pants are a must. Cheap ponchos will not cut it.

Hiking sandals. With quality hiking sandals, you wouldn’t really need hiking boots for the hike up the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail.

Hat. You will be out in the sun all day, so some kind of hat is essential. It doesn’t have to be one of those fancy river hats. I had one by Outdoor Research with a chin strap and a detachable neck cover.

Hiking pants. I found it easier to keep my whole body covered from the merciless sun, rather than worry about sunscreeen.

Long sleeve synthetic shirt. Again, the sun is relentless when you’re out on the river. A quick-drying long sleeve shirt works better than sunscreen. With my hat, long sleeve shirt, hiking pants, and beard, I only needed sunscreen on my nose.

Camera bag. A waterproof bag for a camera that can be worn around the neck would have been useful. I didn’t have one of these, so I had to keep mine locked up for most of the trip.

Neoprene socks. Optional, but I found these useful, especially since I knew I would be using them again to hike the Virgin River Narrows. Even on sunny days, the Colorado River is cold. These keep your feet warm, not dry.

Parking on the river.
Parking on the river.

Wilderness River Adventures provided ample packing space, but it’s still best to not be encumbered by unnecessary stuff. These are some items that are suggested by other blogs that I didn’t find necessary.

A solar shower. Everybody just bathed in the river.

Moisturizer. I never needed it.

Toiletries.Any kind of toiletries beyond toothpaste and soap is not necessary.

I also didn’t have as much room, due to the logistics of my stay on the South Rim. I would be taking my own tent, sleeping bag, and mat, and not using the ones provided by Wilderness River Adventures.

Rafting Grand Canyon

With my trip booked and my gear packed, I raced to get to the orientation on time. At the orientation our lead guide told us how to pack the provided waterproof bags, encouraged us to buy alcohol while we had a chance, and where to meet early tomorrow. The next day we had a long drive to the starting point, Lee’s Ferry, where we met the rest of our guides, and helped them stow our stuff.

We set out on the smooth, crystal clear water of the Colorado, which quickly turned muddy brown once once we passed the Paria River confluence. The first day had some of the biggest rapids, and I sat in front, so it was pretty exciting. At the end of the day we docked the boats and our guides cooked us an elaborate dinner. We all slept under the starts. The weather was so nice sleeping bags and tents weren’t even necessary.

Our guide Lorenzo prepares a delicious dinner.
Our guide Lorenzo prepares a delicious dinner.

The days were very relaxing. We’d be awakened early by our funny guides singing a song, and they’d have coffee and breakfast ready for us. Then we’d pack up our stuff, stow it in the rafts, and pick our places for the day. I alternated between the front and back. It wasn’t scary at all in the back, and it’s actually possible to stay dry back there, if desired. The front provided a more invigorating experience. But it wasn’t nonstop rapids, so there was a lot of lounging around as we floated. We’d stop for lunch and our guides would provide sandwiches, then we would have time to relax or explore. On a couple days we stopped for hikes through slot canyons to hidden waterfalls. We’d always stop around five or so, which gave us time to relax while our guides cooked impressive dinners. They kept surprising us with fresh food throughout the trip. Then relaxing with some beers around the campfire before sleeping under the incredible stars. Overall it was a very relaxing trip.

And there was no reason to be nervous about the rapids. In fact, I wish the rapids would have been more exciting. Standing in back makes the biggest rapids easy. There are no big waterfalls to go over. And there’s really no danger of being thrown from the raft. The guides know what they’re doing, so the raft isn’t going to flip. As long as you hang on tight, you’re not going anywhere. Nobody on my trip ended up in the river.

We camped out on little beaches.
We camped out on little beaches.

After the exciting first day, most of the remaining five days were actually a little slow. There’s aren’t that many rapids on the upper river, and there are really only two “big” rapids days. And we technically weren’t even in Grand Canyon. We were in Marble Canyon, and wouldn’t get to the main canyon until the second to last day. Still, it was interesting to start from the shallow canyon at Lee’s Ferry, and watch the canyon walls get gradually higher with each passing day. Our guides were very knowledge about the geology of the canyon, and explained all the different layers. By the last day we were down to the really old rock in the Colorado River gorge, a canyon inside the canyon. The rock here looked totally different from where we started.

The canyon was just starting to get really interesting when we got to Phantom Ranch. We were all disappointed that we had reached the end for us, but not of the River. I wanted to keep going. It was becoming apparent that I wan’t actually making progress crossing things off my bucket list. Every time I did something big, I found out about more things to do there, and wanted to go back. Some day I’d like to go back and raft the rest of the amazing Colorado River.

Getting ready for dinner in the gorge.
Getting ready for dinner in the gorge.
I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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