Any reason is a good reason to raft the Grand Canyon

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Stunning scenery and towering temples of sandstone provide a mesmerizing backdrop as you travel the winding waterways through the Canyon. Courtesy of Arizona River Runners
The expression, “That was awesome!” does not begin to describe an experience that truly defies description. And yet, it was the one our group of adventurers found ourselves using over and over again as an expression for our epic journey. To an outsider, it might have sounded trite, but to us, those three words held a world of meaning and seemed to sum up the range of emotions we all felt during a magical and memorable seven-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon with Arizona River Runners.

There were 25 of us who came together to do this trip of a lifetime. Our group was comprised of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, good friends, husbands and wives, solo travelers and colleagues. And though we hailed from different places and backgrounds, we all had one thing in common – a shared desire to do the mother of all raft trips through one of the most heralded natural wonders in the world. Each of us, however, had our own personal motivations for wanting to embark on this amazing experience. And so, you might ask, what drives people to explore the Grand Canyon from the seat of a raft?

They do it for the thrills and chills of experiencing impressive Class V rapids like Hermit, Granite, Crystal and the grand finale – the longest stretch of navigable whitewater in the country – Lava Falls. It’s a pure adrenaline rush to run the rapid train of the mighty Colorado River, no matter whether you’re in an oared or motorized raft. And when the water is really flowing (during my trip, it measured 23,000 – 25,000 cfs or cubic feet per second compared to a normal flow of 7 – 15,000 cfs), it’s one hellacious ride.

You can hear the roar of the thunderous rapids way before you reach them, which stokes the level of excitement and anticipation. And then you see the furious churning motion ahead and your heart begins to race. You assume the required position, batten down the hatches and then hold on tight for an extreme version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. My group adopted its own approval rating of the rapids by using what we called, a “yeee ha!” scale. The louder and longer we yelled these words, the crazier the rapid. For us, Hermit was the clear winner, as it not only had the gnarliest waves, which completely drenched us and our boats, but it seemed to go on forever. We all looked like drowned rats when it was over. But, we were giddy and laughing like a bunch of kids, as we savored the natural high of the experience.

It’s all about the thrills and the chills when you ride the Colorado River’s rapid train through the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of Arizona River Runners
The Colorado River is mostly made up of snowmelt from the Rockies and rarely reaches temps above 50˚ F. This translates to water that can only be described as liquid ice. You’re guaranteed to gasp with shock when it hits you, no matter how hot it is outside. One of our group’s members likened the sensation of riding the rapids to being on a rollercoaster while getting shot at with a fire hose. The water packs a walloping punch and it knows no boundaries. You will come to respect its power and understand that it is a life force with a heartbeat and mind of its own.

They do it because the trip has been on their bucket list for many years. Maybe they’ve heard about the experience from a friend, or read stories or seen a program on T.V. about it. Or perhaps they’ve visited the Grand Canyon before and have been

fortunate to spy a glimpse of a sliver of the Colorado River from a perch at the top of the South Rim. The tales, the pictures and the descriptions fuel their fervor to explore the Canyon’s depths and get an up-close and personal view of its splendors. They think about it, dream about it and one day, they translate their goal into reality. And when at long last they accomplish their objective, they discover that the adventure exceeds their expectations in every possible way. They go on to be ambassadors for the experience, spreading the word far and wide and vowing to make a return trip.

They do it to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the Canyon’s geology and history. On a raft trip, your knowledgeable guides will explain about the lives of the ancestral Native Americans who made the Grand Canyon their home. For a thousand years, these “ancient ones” roamed the area, carving small plots of farmland from rocky niches, hunting game on the rims above and building basic shelters under the ledges to protect them from the harsh elements. Remains of their dwellings are still visible and serve as reminders of the struggles these pre-historic people endured.

You’ll also learn facts about the first explorers; most prominent being John Wesley Powell, who led the initial exploration into this uncharted territory back in 1869. These adventurers were brave and determined individuals; many who lost their lives on the river as a result of inferior equipment, insufficient food and supplies, and inexperience. It seems only appropriate that those fearless men and women who met their demise during these early journeys receive recognition. Thus, a number of the rapids on the river are named in memory of some of these pioneers. All told, the tales the guides regale help bring the Canyon alive with “voices” from the past. They also give newfound appreciation to our ability today to make the same trip in safety and comfort.

As for the geological aspects, rock hounds will be particularly enthralled with the extensive information given about the Canyon’s layers and spectacular travertine formations. The rocks, some of which date back as much as two billion years, reveal a record of the earth’s past and are testimony to the combined effects of uplift, erosion and time. Even those who don’t know much about geology will find the details fascinating, as well as helpful in interpreting the ever-changing, vivid landscape.

They do it for the challenge and the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone. For some people, it could be the first time they’ve gone rafting or encountered whitewater. For others, it might be the camping experience. And then there are those who aren’t seasoned hikers. It’s important to note that the hikes offered are always optional and usually include several choices based on level of difficulty. Some are fairly mellow, but others are of the “kick-butt” variety, where you’ll be scrambling among rocks, scaling ledges, fording streams and climbing atop boulders. The guides are always there to help, as are your fellow group members. Many a time did I grab for a willing hand or arm as I walked on narrow, exposed ledges that would have normally caused me to freeze due to my fear of heights. The goal is for everyone who wants to do the hikes to participate and you will be highly motivated to join in because it’s a chance to explore the hidden gems of the Canyon that can only be reached on foot.

Hikes into side canyons reveal enchanting
hanging gardens and cascading waterfalls.
Photos by Deborah Stone
You’ll follow pathways dotted with wildflowers and blooming cacti and go through hallways of rock walls to small waterfalls, desert pools and unique rock formations. There’s Elves Chasm, an enchanting hanging garden with its dripping moss and ferns, and Stone Creek, with its clear cascading waterfall. Or magical Blacktail, a slot canyon with walls only 3 to 5 feet apart, that served as a natural amphitheater for an informal musical interlude by our talented guides. Other popular hikes include Upper Deer Creek with its ledges and carved narrows of Tapeats Sandstone, Nankoweap Ruins, where you can see the remains of Anasazi granaries, and Havasu Creek, an oasis of mineral-laden, turquoise blue water. The rewards of hiking in the Grand Canyon are many, as around each corner is a treasure that makes the effort worthwhile, not to mention the feeling of accomplishment that results from the endeavor.

They do it to disconnect and get in touch with nature on a more personal level. There are no cell phones, no computers or other technological devices to distract you when you’re rafting the Grand Canyon. You are off the grid and out of communication with the rest of the world. It’s an opportunity to leave the hectic grind behind and take a respite from the often overwhelming pressures of daily life and information overload. It may take a few days to get into the river routine, but once you adjust to it, that nagging feeling to check your e-mail disappears. You’re on Canyon time now, rising with the sun and sleeping under the star-studded sky. Decisions are few and far between, as your diligent crew tends to all the details, from rustling up the grub to finding the ideal campsite at the end of the day.

Your guides are more than just experienced boatmen and women who can read the mercurial water and navigate boats through the Canyon. On my trip, girl power reigned supreme. There were three über-fit females - veterans of the river - and one male. This hardworking team helped bring the group together, while juggling the roles of cooks, who created sumptuous and hearty meals; entertainers, who sang, played musical instruments and did stand-up comedy; and educators, who took pride in interpreting the natural surroundings. They clearly had a passion for their work, as well as for this special place, and they were committed to ensuring their clients had the most memorable and safest journey while under their care.

Your job is simply to make the most of this experience. Relax, tune in to your surroundings and let your senses come alive in this wilderness paradise. Prepare to be moved and mesmerized by one of Mother Nature’s magnificent creations.

Venture off the river to picturesque Upper Deer Creek with
its ledges and carved narrows of Tapeats Sandstone.
Photo by Deborah Stone.
They do it to meet kindred souls and share in the camaraderie that such an experience creates. Strangers at first, your fellow rafters will feel like friends and family in no time. You’ll find that your group bonds quickly and connections are easily made within the socially conducive environment. Conversations flow while in the rafts, on the trails or at the campsites. Mealtimes are communal gatherings, which serve as ideal opportunities to talk about the day’s activities. And later, there might be music, more stories and musings about tomorrow’s stretch of the river. You’ll learn that the majority of people who participate in these types of trips are fun-loving, adventuresome spirits with a deep respect for the great outdoors. They’re friendly, open and upbeat individuals, who understand the importance of and necessity for cooperative effort. Most importantly, they have a sense of humor, which always comes in handy in such situations. All groups have their class clowns. Ours were Kirk and Karl, who we could always count on for our daily dose of over-the-top levity.

And…drumroll…they do it for the view from the loo! Clearly, this is not a reason the majority of folks are prompted to give at the onset of one of these trips. However, it becomes readily apparent after a few days on the river that this is definitely one of those bonus perks which deserves mention. On your trip, you will quickly learn about the toilet facilities. They are basically nonexistent when you’re away from a campsite area, however, when in camp, the guides will set up a portable toilet in a secluded area to allow privacy. The location is often strategically chosen to provide a view of such eye-pleasing sights as the ever-flowing river, a wall of intricately veined and marbleized rock or a set of craggy cliffs and ledges that provide the perfect backdrop for a glowing sunset. You’ll wax poetic as you sit upon the throne admiring the setting. A colorful lizard or two might even join you if you’re lucky. But don’t stay too long…others are waiting!

Any reason is a good reason to take a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. It’s a place that must be experienced to be truly appreciated. Pictures don’t do its breathtaking vistas justice, books can’t really describe its natural wonders and movies aren’t fully able to capture the sights and sounds of this unique environment the way your senses can. When you travel its winding waterways and hike among the towering walls, you will come to know the Canyon’s heart and soul. And I think you, too, will say of your experience, “That was awesome!”

If you go: There are many different rafting companies that run all-inclusive trips through the Grand Canyon. I opted to go with Arizona River Runners, one of the original outfitters, which has been in business since 1970. It has an excellent reputation in the industry due to its stellar safety record, experienced guides and high customer satisfaction ratings.

The company offers a range of options from a three-day, taste-of-the-canyon motorized excursion up to a full two-week oar powered adventure spanning 225 miles. The most popular packages are the 6 day/5 night or 7 day/6 night trips, where you’ll float 187 miles through the heart of the Canyon. 2011 rates start at $1,175 per person for the 3-day escape and top out at $3,295 for the 13-day ultimate Grand Canyon experience. Early season and group discount rates are available.

For more information: visit or call 1-800-477-7238.


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