Every year, about five million tourists come to see the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. And no wonder it's so popular -- at about a mile deep (1.6 kilometers) and up to 18 miles (30 kilometers) wide, it's a massive and majestic sight to behold. The views are so beautiful from the top, however, that many don't think about visiting the river at the bottom. The water is, in fact, largely responsible for forging the canyon.
The Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River sees about 29,000 boaters each year [source: National Park Service]. As these adventurers can attest, you haven't fully experienced the canyon until you've rafted the Colorado River. From Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs, the Grand Canyon is 277 river miles (445.8 kilometers) long. End to end, a river trip by raft can take about two weeks. But boaters have plenty of options as to how long and how challenging they want their trip to be.
Although Native American Indian tribes had lived in the area for thousands of years, John Wesley Powell completed the first known expedition through the canyon on the Colorado River in 1869. Powell was a veteran who had lost an arm fighting for the North in the Civil War. Although three of the nine men who started the expedition abandoned the expedition and were never seen again, the rest survived, completing it in three months.
A modern-day rafting trip doesn't have to be as harrowing as Powell's expedition. But you will see plenty of adventure. It takes a good deal of planning and commitment, however, and the following tips will help prepare you.
Two important things to decide early in your planning process are what kind of boat you want to use and how long you want your boating excursion to be. Many people like to use either an oared/paddle raft or a motorized raft. Which one you choose can affect your trip length. For noncommercial trips (private, self-guided trips not conducted through a for-profit company), motorized boats have a maximum trip length of 12 days between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. A motorized boat also must have a 4-stroke motor.
You have plenty of options when it comes to trip length. If you aren't feeling very adventurous, you might consider a half- or full-day smooth water trip, offered between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry by Colorado River Discovery, a commercial river trip company.
A slightly bigger commitment would be a two- to five-day self-guided trip, which can launch from Diamond Creek to Lake Mead for 52 miles (83.7 kilometers) of smooth, white water. To access this launch point, however, you'll have to pay a fee to cross Hualapai land.
Some for-profit companies offer trips that take various routes between Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek and last between three and 18 days. These may include guides, equipment, supplies and a variety of vessels. Some incorporate both boating and hiking. For this kind of service, expect to spend a couple thousand dollars.
Rafting the Colorado River is a very popular activity. But the river and its campsites can only handle so many visitors and the National Park Service (NPS) has to limit the number of people permitted to ride the river each day. We'll explore the process next.
An extended river trip can't be a last-minute decision. Companies often book up a year or two in advance. And to go on the private two- to five-day trip from Diamond Creek, you'll need a permit, which is given out on a first-come, first-served basis one year in advance. The longer private trips require enrolling in the lottery.
Because of the high demand to ride the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, the National Park Service (NPS) instituted a lottery, and then a waiting list for non-commercial trips in the 1970s. By 2003, the waiting list was so long that people theoretically had to wait 20 years for their names to come up (in practice, some could take advantage of cancelled trips) [source: Whittaker]. It was clear that the waitlist wasn't a workable system, so in 2006, the NPS switched to a weighted lottery.
Lottery points are based on how many years it's been since your last trip (commercial or noncommercial), with a maximum of five years for five standard points. Those leftover from the old waiting system also get bonus points. People with more points get more entries ("tickets") in the lottery, and thus a better chance to win. The NPS doesn't allow someone to have more than one river trip each year.
If you're lucky enough to be picked in the lottery for a noncommercial private trip from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, you should already be familiar with all of the regulations required by the NPS. Each trip can consist of a maximum of 16 people. Although there's no age restriction for trip participants, each group must have a trip leader who is at least 18 years old. Each person over the age of 15 must carry photo identification. The NPS requires that the leader must be familiar with whitewater navigation and safety, as well as first aid and equipment repair.
The trip leader is not a paid guide, however. In fact, members of your group must share responsibility for all of the costs, preparation and conduct. If the NPS discovers the trip is being used for profit, it will revoke the permit. The NPS doesn't take such requirements lightly, as rangers are known to travel the river and check for permits and passenger lists, which a leader must always carry.
You may wonder what happens if your best friend schedules his wedding on the launch date you just won through the lottery. Unfortunately, launch dates are final, fees are nonrefundable, and you can't defer or swap the date. You can, however, pass the reins to a potential alternative trip leader (PATL) listed on your lottery application. If you didn't list a PATL, you will be forced to cancel and the date will be rereleased in a follow-up lottery.
If you can make the launch date, you can arrive at Lees Ferry up to one day before your launch. If you arrive in the afternoon, you can use the day to rig your boats and prepare for an early start on your actual launch date.
If you're a fan of Murphy's Law, you'll appreciate the National Park Service's thorough regulations about safety and back-up equipment.
Perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment is the portable flotation device, required on all river trips. The NPS explains that one of the major reasons for this is the water temperature, which can be 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 to 15 degrees Celsius). This was not the case for John Wesley Powell, who encountered much warmer water. Since the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the water released into the Canyon has been from 200 feet (61 meters) below the top of the dam. This has spelled dangerous conditions for boaters. If you fall into 47-degree Fahrenheit (8-degree Celsius) water, you'll only have about five or 10 minutes of muscle activity to help you survive [source: National Park Service].
Secondly, every trip should have first aid kits in waterproof containers. Recommended items for the kits include antibacterial soap and ointment, Band-Aids, Betadine, gauze, thermometer, and tweezers. In addition, each trip is required to have emergency signaling materials that we'll explain in more detail later on.
The NPS also requires extra oars or paddles on non-motorized boats. Motorized boats have to carry one extra working motor in addition to spare parts, like water pumps, that are prone to break. Motorized boats also need fire extinguishers. Al trips need a boat repair kit, and all inflatable rafts need to carry an air pump.
Finally, you should have maps and river guides with you. The NPS recommends U.S.G.S. Quadrangles or the equivalent.
As with any strenuous activity, you have to make sure to drink enough water and eat enough food, even when you don't feel like it.
It's not unusual to face 120-degree Fahrenheit (about 49-degree Celsius) heat on the Colorado River. And there's a saying about working in the heat: Once you're thirsty, it's too late. Thirst, they say, indicates you have already started to get dehydrated. The NPS recommends downing at least a gallon per day. Water is great, but you can also choose fruit juice or a sports drink like Gatorade. Of course, this is a vacation, and some rafters will want to partake in alcohol while camping. But alcohol, as well as caffeine, are diuretics and contribute to dehydration. So, if you drink alcohol and caffeine, do so moderately, and make sure you're getting plenty of hydrating fluids.
Of course, it's good to bring your own water, but if you run out, you'll want to know about the available water on the trip. Unfortunately, water from the Colorado River itself isn't safe to drink, and neither is the water from the side streams and springs. To disinfect the river water to make it potable, the NPS lays out some options.
First, any cloudy water you gather should be left alone for a few hours to settle any sediment at the bottom. Then, pour the clear water into another container and run it through a micron filter. To ensure disinfection, finish by adding two drops of bleach or five drops of tincture of iodine to each gallon of water. Let it sit for another 30 minutes (longer for extremely cold water). If you have enough material for a fire, another option is to boil the cleared water for a minute.
Along with the thrills that come with battling the river, you'll also have to sacrifice many of the conveniences of home. One of these is trash pickup. The NPS doesn't have any kind of trash pickup for their campgrounds. So the courteous thing to do is to have the least impact and leave as little evidence of yourself as possible. This takes some planning.
You must remove all your waste -- including organic waste. This means that you can't even leave behind human waste or ashes from a campfire. Food waste attracts rodents and ants. And these ants will do more than invade your crumbs and food supply -- they will also bite.
Luckily, the NPS has some helpful recommendations for good camping techniques. For instance, they say you should ideally start camping at a location during low tide. You can do your activities (such as bathing and dishwashing) on the beach at low tide so that once the high tide comes, it can help clean up for you, leaving a pristine beach behind. The NPS provides handy tables for you to figure out which locations will have low water at what times.
If you are committed to making as little impact as possible, the rangers at Grand Canyon suggest that you choose a camping site with willows and Tamarisk. These plants indicate that it is the post dam area flood zone. Avoid areas with native plants like Mesquite trees, which indicate the old high water zone and take a long time to recover. If you do find waste leftover from previous campers at your site, consider taking it with your own trash.
Campfires are allowed on the beaches, but the NPS asks that you make fires in elevated fire pans. Also, use a fire blanket to catch falling ashes and prevent them from scarring the beach. You must collect the ashes and take them with you -- campers are prohibited from simply dumping the ashes in the river.
Keep in mind that you're not allowed to collect firewood at all in the summer season. In the winter, you may only collect driftwood. During those winter trips, you should be on the lookout for piles of driftwood along the edges of the water. You can collect it throughout the day on your raft so you have enough wood for that evening. But even in the winter, it's best to bring your own charcoal or firewood in a dry container in case driftwood is scarce or you encounter some wet days.
Before handling or eating any food, be sure to wash your hands. The NPS says that hand-washing should ideally be done with treated water. Or, if you must wash your hands with river water, finish with some hand sanitizer. For the most efficient cleanup, it's best to do all your food preparation, cooking and eating over a tarp. When you're done, remove all the waste and shake the crumbs on the tarp into the river.
Perhaps the least fun part of your Grand Canyon rafting trip will be getting used to the necessary routine of packing out your own waste and toilet paper. Unlike many other wilderness areas, where you can simply bury feces, the NPS forbids this in the Grand Canyon National Park. The area sees so many visitors each year that the area won't be able to naturally decompose everyone's waste. The waste can in turn contaminate the water and land, becoming a danger to future visitors and wildlife.
It would be best to purchase a handy portable toilet system that allows you to deposit the waste directly into a container. These systems must be washable and reusable, and allow you to safely transfer the waste to sewage treatment facilities after your trip is over. As an alternative (such as in between camps or on a day hike), you should bring a toilet system that uses special chemicals to treat waste, making it safe for landfills. Store bags of waste in a waterproof container.
To be sanitary, you should wear rubber gloves when setting up and breaking down the toilet system at your campsite. Disinfect these gloves after use, and use a disinfectant on the toilet seat. Keep soap handy at the toilet system for each camper to use when he or she is done.
Although you have to be careful to carry out all feces, it is, however, permissible to urinate in the river. The NPS asks visitors to urinate directly into the river and not on the beaches, as the sandy beaches don't have enough organic material to process the urine. Even hitting the wet sand near the water can leave a nasty, green algae.
After reading about all of the safety procedures that deal with human waste, you may be anxious to learn about bathing procedures. When you've spent many hours working in the heat and battling the river, you and your fellow trip mates will work up a smelly sweat.
Some of the side streams may look cleaner and nicer than the Colorado River, but you're not allowed to use soap in them (or even within 100 yards of them). Luckily, you can use soap in the main river. Because the water is so cold, however, you'll want to waste no time. It's be most comfortable to wash yourself in a low-tide area and walk into the river for a quick rinse.
Of course, the most important part of personal hygiene is keeping your hands clean to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease. We've already mentioned this, but it's important to wash your hands when preparing food, treating water and after defecating.
Although the rapids may be rough at times, they surprisingly aren't responsible for most accidents. Many occur at the campsites, when rafters are getting on and off boats. Accidents are also common on the hikes, so make sure you don't let anyone in your party hike alone.
While you're off the river, be aware of the potential to encounter rattlesnakes and scorpions. Neither should attack if left unprovoked, but you must be careful not to accidentally provoke them. Shake out sleeping bags, life jackets and clothing before you put them on, and look before you reach for anything.
If someone in your party has an accident requiring immediate, professional medical attention, you need to contact the NPS. Cell phones don't work in the canyon, so it's best to pack a satellite phone or ground-to-air transceiver with extra batteries. Be ready to give the NPS certain information: location, whether the person is in stable or critical condition, whether the condition is trauma or medical related, and whether your trip is private or commercial.
Trips are required to carry an emergency signaling mirror and two large, orange-colored panels. These panels will be used to make an "X" to signal a landing zone for a helicopter. Pick a cleared area that's about 75 feet (22.9 meters) across. To get the panels to stick to the ground, use buckets to wet the sand ahead of time. Remove the "X" as the helicopter descends for landing. Also, be sure to remove or secure anything important that could be blown away by the helicopter.
If we haven't scared you off yet with all of the necessary planning and precautions, you're probably ready to take your trip down through the Canyon -- one of the most thrilling adventures of a lifetime.
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- National Park Service. "Grand Canyon River: River Orientation Video." iTunes Store. Feb 2, 2008. (July 2, 2012) http://itunes.apple.com/podcast/grand-canyon-river/id271429836?mt=2
- National Park Service. "Noncommercial River Trip Regulations." April 19, 2012. (July 2, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Noncommercial_River_Trip_Regulations.pdf
- National Park Service. "River and Weighted Lottery Frequently Asked Questions." April 20, 2012. (July 2, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/River_and_Weighted_Lottery_FAQs.pdf
- National Park Service. "River Trips / Permits." June 7, 2012. (July 2, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm
- Samson, Karl. "Frommer's Arizona and the Grand Canyon 2012." John Whiley & Sons. 2011. (July 2, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=A6kcOCKBtHEC
- Whittaker, Doug, and Bo Shelby. "Allocating River Use: A Review of Approaches and Existing Systems for River Professionals: Chapter 8: Case Studies." Confluence Research and Consulting. July, 2008. (July 2, 2012) http://www.river-management.org/assets/docs/allocation%20sec%204.pdf