A river trip through the Grand Canyon is often referred to as the trip of a lifetime, and not only for the experience of floating downriver for over two weeks. While the 5-year waiting list for launch dates is a thing of the past, winning a slot in the weighted lottery is the only way to make your dream river trip a reality. Those fortunate or stubborn enough to receive a permit will spend up to 25 days floating, paddling, and exploring one of the nation's longest stretches of wild river, traveling 226 miles from Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek, with no road access between. And if that isn't enough for you, you may choose to continue into Lake Mead.
Obtaining a permit
Obtaining a permit is only marginally less difficult than you might think, especially for first time applicants. The details can be found here, but the basics are as follows:
Rentals and Shuttles
Many of the commercial rafting companies offer gear rentals and shuttle services. Canyon R.E.O. offers the widest variety of options for renting gear and shuttling vehicles. No matter what you choose to do, come prepared to Lee's Ferry. Because of a landslide, the nearest town is currently over an hour's drive away, and last minute resupplies are limited to the inventory at the local gas station.
Camping at the launch site is only allowed night prior to your launch date. This is highly recommended, as it will give you extra time to organize and pack gear.
A NPS ranger will inspect your personal floatation devices, first aid, and the trip's roster, among other requirements. A full guide to regulations can be found here. On your launch date, the NPS ranger will guide you through a 1.5-hour orientation regarding proper waste management, rescue protocol, and general knowledge about the canyon. Afterward, you are permitted to launch at your leisure.
While many of the rapids in the Grand Canyon are certainly world class, approaching the river with an exclusive focus on the whitewater will leave you sorely disappointed. Despite hosting over 150 named rapids, the majority of the paddling through the canyon is done on flat water. The 10 miles through the "Roaring Twenties" and the approximately 20 miles of "Adrenaline Alley" are notable exceptions, featuring a higher density of rapids than the rest of the canyon.
Grand Canyon river runners describe whitewater difficulty with a unique rating system, rating rapids from Class 1-10 as opposed to the usual Class I-VI. In both cases, Class 1 is slow-moving flatwater. Class 10 in the canyon is roughly equivalent to Class V everywhere else. Most of the rapids will be Class 6 (roughly class III+ on the regular scale) or less. The larger rapids are clearly marked in all guidebooks, and they generally have scouting points that are hard to miss.
The water level in the canyon fluctuates daily as water is released from the Glen Cooley Dam depending on electricity demands throughout the southwest. It is important to "mind the tides" in the canyon and consider this fluctuation when tying off rafts at night and when planning which camps to use. Since the dam releases water from the bottom of the reservoir, the Colorado is always exceptionally cold, even in the extreme heat of the summer.
Many miles of flat water interspersed with the occasional Class 5 or 6 rapids lead up to the takeout at Diamond Creek. Camps and firewood are plentiful in the final miles, and the canyon opens up once again for great views of the conical Diamond Peak. However tempting it may be, don't run the rapid that starts at the takeout; it would be incredibly difficult to make your way back up along the shore.
The Diamond Creek takeout has a few shade structures, an upper parking lot where shuttles drop vehicles, and portable toilets. The access road is rugged at best, and sometimes it is not passable with ordinary vehicles. Fortunately, most shuttle services have specialized vehicles that will pick you up and deliver you to your vehicles at a more accessible location.
A brief discussion of some of the notable rapids on this run follows, but please consult a river map for specific locations and information.
Short scrambles, full day hikes, and even overnighters all can be accessed from the river. Do not underestimate the difficulty of these hikes. Extreme heat, the remote location, and naturally hazardous terrain are important factors to consider. Always bring a small medical kit and extra water. Here are some highlights:
Silver Grotto (river mile 29): Silver Grotto is a short hike, but it requires some effort to explore. There are two options to enter the Grotto: you can follow the rugged trail just upstream of the mouth and rappel, or you can climb straight up the Grotto from the mouth. The first pitch of the route up the middle of the Grotto is the most challenging, where those with some climbing experience will excel. From here, several deep pools of water provide beautiful swimming holes amidst beautifully polished white canyon walls. A few hundred yards farther upstream, Silver Grotto is a large waterfall and chockstone, marking the turnaround point for all but the most dedicated of traditional climbers. The challenging first pitch of the grotto now becomes an enjoyable (if bumpy) natural slide back to where you started.
Redwall Cavern (river mile 33): Although less of a hike and more of a picnic spot, Redwall is impossible to miss, and it should not be passed up. The massive cavern features a floor of soft sand, and it extends further back into the red canyon walls than might be expected. A great stop for a game of frisbee, brunch, or just relaxation, the scale of this place is unbelievable.
Nankoweap Graineries (river mile 52): The Nankoweap Graineries, created and used by the Anasazi people to store their seed stock, lie a few hundred feet up the canyon wall and are accessible via a rocky trail that switchbacks its way up the cliff. Here you will see the well-preserved remains of the granaries and the longest uninterrupted downstream view within the Grand Canyon.
Little Colorado River (river mile 61.5): Paddlers should stop above the confluence on river left to visit this special tributary. The LCR is one of the two well-known tributaries to the Colorado that feature tropical turquoise-blue water caused by dissolved travertine and limestone. It is also one of the last remaining habitats for the endangered Humpback Chub. If it isn't flooded and brown, spend some time along its banks.
Clear Creek Falls (river mile 85): Clear Creek Falls entails a short but involved scramble over several bands of fluted schist, and up a short canyon. The falls feature a small cave and a spout of water that bounces off of the bedrock and shoots out parallel to the ground, providing a unique place to cool off.
Phantom Ranch (river mile 87.5): Those unaccustomed to multiple weeks in the wilderness might feel compelled to take the short hike into Phantom Ranch, where paddlers are able to use real flushing toilets, send postcards, buy beer, and generally remind themselves what civilization is like. Phantom Ranch is a common stop for many backpackers hiking in the grand canyon, and it even features a lodge and restaurant (although it is generally booked solid several months in advance).
Elves Chasm (river mile 116.5): Elves Chasm is easy to miss if you aren't paying attention, and it is one of the most famous stops along the Grand. A short hike up and over some massive boulders on river left ends at a crystalline swimming hole that is fed by a waterfall. If you like cliff jumping, swim into the cave behind the waterfall and climb up behind the chockstone to the opening in the front of the falls. Higher jumping points exist, but they require some tricky climbing that has claimed lives in the past. Also remember that a riverbed constantly changes, and well-known pools can fill in over time.
Blacktail Canyon (river mile 117): Blacktail Canyon enters on the right, and the natural baffles in this canyon create a unique acoustic experience at the end of this canyon: it becomes totally silent as you come around the final bend.
Tapeats Creek and Thunder River (river mile 135): The steep switchbacks up the cliff are well worth the effort, as Tapeats Creek flows through a spectacular narrow canyon paralleling the trail. On hot days, hikers will likely enjoy the many creek crossings necessary to get to Thunder River, but for those less willing to get their feet wet, a trail continues up and down the hills on the right side. Here you will face another steep climb along a massive cascade. At the top you will find the waterfalls pouring out from two caves in the cliff. It is possible (but sketchy) to climb into these caves and explore, but bring a headlamp and wetsuit.
Deer Creek Falls (river mile 137): Deer Creek Falls funnels out of a narrow crack on river right, falling roughly 170 feet before landing in a relatively shallow pool. While visible from the river, this falls is worth a stop for a quick swim.
Matkatamiba (river mile 149): Matkatamiba is one of the hardest side canyons to catch for rafts, as it features a narrow opening and a rapid just downstream from the mouth. Don't miss the eddy on the left, as this is one of the best hikes in the canyon. Matkatamiba features an incredibly narrow, twisting slot canyon that requires some creative climbing on the rough walls to reach the wide open benches a short way up the canyon. While it is possible to continue all the way to the canyon rim from here, the first slot canyon is the most interesting part of the hike.
Havasu Creek (river mile 157): Havasu Creek on river left is another hike that is difficult to catch. It features the same bright blue water found in the Little Colorado. While many will be tempted to work their way up through the canyon, it is much easier to hike along the well-established trail on creek left. Several creek crossings and approximately 3 miles of hiking will lead you to a split in the canyon. The creek left side will likely be dry and filled with massive house-sized boulders, while the creek right side leads to a small double waterfall and a large pool.
Camping in the canyon is limited to designated sites only. Fortunately, these are numerous, and few are anything less than fantastic.
The large eddy at the bottom on river right of House Rock offers access to "Below House Rock," a wide, flat beach that is ideal for camping. It is, however, plagued by the incessant roar of its namesake rapid.
South Canyon enters on river right and offers another large beach for camp, with the bonus of a side canyon that is accessible from camp.
Nankoweap at river mile 52 hosts three expansive camps on river right, the lowest being the smallest. Camps here feel isolated, as small trees and brush weave a network of trails and isolated sandy areas that are just the right size for a tent or two.
Lower Basalt camp is another open beach with plenty of hiking options available from camp. Some, such as Ochoa Point and Apollo Temple, are entirely off trail. The canyon is a bit wider here, allowing for long, warm days with great views all around.
Clear Creek is a small camp at river mile 85 that provides some high quality bouldering and access to Clear Creek Falls.
Bass Crossing is another relatively small camp that can extend out into rockier terrain. More great bouldering along the cliff surrounding the camp.
Race Track at river mile 135 is a medium-sized beach camp.
Upper and Lower Ledges are some of the most unique camps in the Grand Canyon, as they are perched on a series of several stacked ledges. Very little sand can be found here. Avoid the temptation to cliff jump here until you've explored the landing zones very carefully, as many shallow ledges continue below the surface.
Tequila beach, located just below Lava's runout, is a large and flat beach that is ideal for celebrating successful lines through lava... or reassembling the pieces after a crash.
The canyon is filled with wildlife. Ravens, ringtailed cats, mice, and spotted skunks will make an appearance wherever food is left unattended. California condors often roost in the first few miles of the canyon, while Big Horn Sheep may be spotted in its deeper reaches. Scorpions and rattlesnakes also make their homes in the crags and bushes of the canyon, so watch your step.