From September 12th through the 21st, Sandy and I got to participate in a bucket list travel destination for the second time — rafting and exploring the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River. Our first trip in 2001, just six days after “9/11” covered 100 miles over four days, but this trip would span 226 miles requiring 8 full days, 9 nights, and a partial day on each end.
Unless you consider staying at a Holiday Inn rather than a Hyatt “roughing it”, you should consider adding a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon to your travel bucket list. For adventure travelers, it is an awe-inspiring trip for the senses as you literally journey through 1.8 billion years of the earth’s history, uncovered by relentless erosion. Visually, around every bend of the Colorado River is the incredible beauty of multi-colored rock layers, glowing in the early morning and late afternoon sun. You will also have the chance to spot wildlife as you slowly cruise the river. At night, you are covered with a blanket of stars, more numerous and brighter than can be seen in or near the towns and cities where most people live. It is difficult to close your eyes while staring at the Milky Way or rediscovering constellations, but soon the sound of nearby rapids will lull you to sleep. The thrill of running over 100 named rapids adds the sense of touch as you feel your body dropping into a hole in the water and quickly rising on the next wave, all while feeling the invigorating cold spray from the river.
While 4 ½ million visitors visit the Grand Canyon rim each year, National Park Service restrictions result in only about 25,000 people who have the opportunity to experience the canyon from the river, and you not allowed more than one trip in a year. Relatively speaking, it is a rare opportunity to enjoy what most people do not take or have the opportunity to experience.
Most trips are “commercial” in that people sign up with an outfitter company that has a certain number and types of trips offered each year. The outfitter supplies everything except for most personal gear and they handle all the logistics. “Private” trips are available for experienced river rafters through a lottery system. Professional guides are not permitted to be hired for a private trip, but a number of outfitting companies may supply water crafts and food if requested.
Due to high demand for a limited number of permitted trips, professional photographer and trip organizer Drew Eschbacher from Columbia, South Carolina, secured a date for this custom photo trip five years ago with outfitter Arizona Rafting Adventures (AzRA). When we heard about the trip in November 2013, Sandy and I quickly decided to go. The 11-person group met with AzRA on the Friday night before the trip in Flagstaff, AZ, for a detailed briefing, and the next day we bused to the trip starting point early the next morning.
At Lees Ferry, AZ, a two-hour drive from Flagstaff, we met our 3-person crew: head guide Randy Tucker, “swamper” Chris Zielinski (Randy’s assistant), and helper Zoe O’Toole. Randy, with years of experience in the canyon, was no-nonsense when it came to safety rules and protection of the fragile environment. Life jackets were required on the raft at all times, and he quickly noticed if a single buckle that was not properly clipped. Due to the cooperative efforts of all river guides, everywhere we stopped was pristine. All trash and garbage is carried out, with only footprints left in the sand. Randy’s dry sense of humor was evident when telling us before we left, “If you get hot, you’re stupid!” While the September daytime temperatures did not stray out the 90’s, relief from hot afternoons was as close as the spray of 50˚ river water from the next rapid.
Before departing from Lees Ferry, we quickly learned the bucket brigade process of loading our gear on our motorized 32’ four rubber pontoon raft. Each of us had a blue dry bag (our checked luggage) that held personal gear that we would only need overnight in our campsite. We also had a smaller white dry bag (our carry-on) that was accessible anytime during the day. Already loaded were more blue bags containing our individual sleep kits – a sleeping bag, sheet, and ground cloth. As this was a custom photo trip, most of the passengers also had a tripod and a dry bag or waterproof case for camera equipment. The crew quickly secured the blue bags and the larger camera bags around the perimeter of the raft, and we took our carry-on’s aboard, and using carabineers, clipped them to straps near where we sat.
We spent each night of the trip camping on a sandbar along the river, but while considerable time is spent on and around sand, the trip should not be confused with a beach vacation. During the briefing meeting, the AzRA representative told us to “Embrace the sand.” All along the river and in the river was sand and it got everywhere . . . everywhere! Whether it be the inconvenience of ever-present sand, the weather, not having electricity or cell phone coverage, or the lack of other modern conveniences, we quickly learned not to sweat the small stuff so we could focus instead on the beauty of the inner canyon, the geology, the history, the camaraderie among a group of new friends, and the thrills of riding the rapids. For me, I welcomed the lack of cell phone calls, television, and computers. People actually talked with one and another, just like in olden times.
In the late afternoon each day, Randy stopped at a sandbar that would serve as our campsite for the night. Most of the time, the sandbar was large with ample room to spread out, but a couple times it was more compact with individual sites close together. I was reminded by another briefing comment, “On the trip you don’t get privacy, you give it.” Being close together in all aspects of daily life is part of the experience everyone embraces, along with the sand.
After Chris securely tied the raft to a tree or sand anchor, the drill was to unload personal and camera gear, followed by unloading the camp kitchen (steel tables, propane tanks, burners, wash buckets, dishes, water, food, etc.), and other camp gear (folding chairs and sleep pads). Randy took care of unloading and setting up the “#2” portable toilet called the “groover”. It was literally a metal box with a seat, and along with everything else, it is packed out at the end of the trip. Urine went directly into the river as “the solution to pollution is dilution”.
Each person or couple chose their patch of sand by setting their personal gear on a spot, spreading the drop cloths and laying out the sleeping pads. Sleeping bags stayed in their dry bags until they were unrolled right before bedtime.
Depending on the time we arrived at camp, a hike followed camp setup or the crew started dinner after a brief rest. Dinner consisted of steak, thick pork chops, hamburgers, spaghetti, ravioli, and Thai turkey, as examples. Zoe was handy with a charcoal-fired Dutch oven, so we enjoyed carrot cake, chocolate cake, and a thick chocolate chip cookie for dessert. Needless to say, we ate well, and rarely were we able to eat everything prepared for us. Although voluntary, many of us helped the crew prepare dinner by chopping vegetables or making a fresh salad.
It was dark by 8:00 each night, so for many it was sleep time. It is a rare experience to lie under so many stars, so bright in the sky without light pollution. The Milky Way popped out of the sky in a way not seen at home. With the group consisting of photographers, most of us enjoyed star photography on one or more occasions except during two cloudy and rainy nights.
With respect to rain, AzRA supplied tents for each person or couple. We used them two nights during light rain, and set them up a third night so they could dry. The other six camping nights, however, were under the stars.
With an early-to-bed regimen, official wake-up was also early when Randy yelled out “C-O-F-F-E-E!” sometime between 5:30 and 6:00, depending on the day’s schedule. Example breakfasts consisted of eggs, bacon, sausage, Canadian bacon, smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, muffins, French toast, pancakes, fresh fruit, cereal, orange juice, and, of course, coffee. On eggs days, Randy offered them in any style. Curiously, they always ended up looking the same, even when I facetiously asked for eggs benedict one morning. (Well, they had everything, apparently except for hollandaise sauce.) Once again, there was more good food than we could handle, and no one went away hungry.
After breakfast each day, the previous afternoon’s drill reversed. We carefully packed are personal gear in the dry bags, giving them an extra fold to keep the water out. We broke down the kitchen, and then everything was loaded back onto the raft.
For lunch each day, the process was simpler, faster, and with less work involved. We still stopped on a sandbar, but the entire kitchen did not need unloading and reloading. One large table and a small one sufficed along with food. The crew either made a salad with meat for wraps, or laid out a sandwich bar with meat, a couple types of cheese, sliced avocado, peppers, sliced tomatoes, onions, and condiments. Peanut butter, jelly, Pringles, mixed nuts, dried fruit, and cookies were also on the menu.
For drinks, there was always water available. Five-gallon jugs were filled at the beginning of the trip and refilled at Phantom Ranch at mile 88. When the jugs got low, it was replenished with filtered and conditioned river water. Flavored electrolyte replacement powder was always available.
We also had the option to buy up to 36 canned drinks before the trip to bring along (soda, fruit juice, or adult malt beverages). Those who did were issued burlap bags to hold the cans. Each night we could put a couple cans in a mesh bag that was lowered into the river. In a few minutes, the drinks became cool enough – not refrigerator cold, but sufficiently cool. Glass bottles of any kind were not permitted for obvious reasons.
The raft also had an accessible snack box filled with oranges, juices, and a couple types of trail mix. With all we had to eat, I am a bit surprised that we almost emptied it
One of our more anticipated activities each day was a hike or two. Often they consisted of following a stream up a side canyon to a small waterfall. Sometimes they involved a significant climb, gaining hundreds of feet. In each case, we encountered scenery that we would not have experienced by staying on the river.
Our first hike on day two was a challenge. We set out on a fairly level, well-marked trail, but it soon turned to uphill, and then to twisty, steep uphill. Our destination was the Nankoweap Granaries, used by the ancient Anasazi people (pueblo dwellers from about 1000 years or so ago) to store and protect grain. We ascended more than 600 feet in the late afternoon to view the restored granary and witness an incredible view of the Colorado River. Most of us were panting heavily after reaching the top, but the effort was worth every step. One of the iconic pictures taken by countless photographers shows the granaries with the river as a backdrop.
Another hike the next day took us up over 400 feet, ending at a vertical cliff where we could view Unkar Rapids straight below us. While there, we were able to watch a group of three rafts and a kayak navigate the rapids. By comparison to Nankoweap, this hike was a stroll in the park (so to speak).
A hike up Clear Creek, situated in a narrow side canyon was also a stroll . . . once we got to the creek. Randy landed the raft before hitting the rapids in front of the creek as it emptied into the Colorado. Our first thought when we were securely tied to a rock was, “Where is the trail?” We were in what I would barely call a small cove with steep, craggily vertical rock in front and on either side of us. Randy said, “Let’s go!”, so we followed our leader, looking for and carefully planting our feet and hands on narrow ledges in the rock. It looked worse than it turned out to be, but we had to be careful as we climbed up and over the imposing looking rock hill to get to the gentle stream on the other side. Again, the work was worth it as we wandered up the canyon, walking in the shallow stream and crossing it a number of times before reaching the dual waterfalls. Some enjoyed the rinse, temporarily washing away some of the ever-present sand.
Deer Creek Falls is the only waterfall I am aware of that is visible from the Colorado River. Just 50 feet or so away, it is quite easy to get to. While a shower would have been fun, the force of the water from an 80’ fall is tremendous. Some of us tried approaching, but we started hyperventilating as the strong wind and spray generated by the waterfall kept us away. “Where does all that water come from?”, we wondered as we watched the falls streaming out of a slit in the rock. A hike up the cliffs, another group favorite, would give us the answer. After a number of switchbacks along the steep trail, we ended up on a ledge over 300 feet above the river. At this point we could no longer see the waterfall, but we could see our raft below and follow the river upstream for miles.
From this point, we entered a narrow canyon with Deer Creek below us. The creek had created the canyon, of course, as it eroded the sandstone walls and left smooth, curved walls, showing the sedimentary rock layers. Our hike ended at “The Patio”, a flat area with three large Cottonwood trees, marking the beginning of the beautiful slot canyon we had just traversed. Deer Creek is a permanent stream, perhaps originating from a spring much further uphill from the patio area.
The waterfall at Elves Chasm is another popular stop for river runners. It is fairly close to the river, about an 1/8 mile, but the trip involves a 100 foot climb and some boulder hopping. We were rewarded, however, with a small canyon and perhaps the prettiest waterfall we saw on the trip. After some photos, the fun notched up a level. At the back of the pool and behind the rocks, you can climb up to the top of the falls and step out, landing in the pool that is probably 7’ deep. Several of us made the jump as others took embarrassing pictures. My score from the judges was not nearly enough to make the Olympic Team.
Whitewater may be what many think about with respect to a Colorado River rafting trip. Chis Zielinski, who has spent his adult life as a river guide, said the river through the Grand Canyon has an average rating comparable to a Class III-plus using the international “I to VI” scale of difficulty and scale. The Grand Canyon uses an older 1-10 scale that pre-dates the modern rating scale, but a “10” rapid in the Grand Canyon might be comparable to a Class IV or V.
On our trip, we figured out the “Randy Scale”. When our pilot stayed in his comfy seat when entering a rapid, we expected a comfy ride – fun, but no big deal. When Randy stood up when entering a rapid, it would be good for us to hang on as a big one was coming up. Randy needed to visually see possible obstacles (big rocks!) and understand how the water was running. Finally, when he told us to sit down on the raft floor and hang on with all we had, it was going to be a wild ride. We only had to sit on the floor twice, and through Lava Falls Rapid, normally the biggest, we did not even have to do that.
Needless to say, we ran some big rapids that left everyone wet, even those wearing rain gear in an attempt to keep their body’s core dry! In Lava Falls Rapid, I took a direct hit up my nose from a wave as we fell into a hole. Nice way to take a drink!
At no time, however, did anyone feel like they were in any danger. Randy was an excellent pilot, expertly reading the water and navigating through each difficult rapid. Yes, we got wet, and on many occasions that was Randy’s intent, but we embraced and welcomed the thrills.
Our trip on the river finally ended mid-morning on Monday, September 21, at Diamond Creek take-out. We emptied our personal gear for the last time and transferred everything to personalized lugged given to us by AzRA (a clear plastic bag with blue tape on which we wrote our name). Diamond Creek has the first road to the bottom of the canyon since we left Lees Ferry, 226 miles earlier. This road is usually passable, unless there has been a significant flash flooding event. Passable, however, does not mean smooth. Saying that the hour and fifteen minute ride out of the canyon was bumpy would be a severe understatement. Our patience was rewarded by lunch when we got to the top, including drinks with real ice in our cups. A few miles later, we stopped at Snow Cap, an ice cream joint in Seligman, AZ, on Historic Route 66. How quickly we reverted to life’s little pleasures. After ice cream, we headed back to Flagstaff for a real shower, a laundromat, and a group dinner. On Tuesday morning, most of the group left to catch a flight in Phoenix, and our adventure continued as we left for Monument Valley and Moab, UT.
If a trip through the Grand Canyon wants to be on your bucket list, plan at least a year in advance, perhaps two years. There are several professional, licensed outfitters offering a variety of trips ranging from 3 to 16 days, and using a variety of water crafts: motorized rafts, dory boats with a single rower, small rafts with a single rower, and small rafts with multiple paddlers. For a list of outfitters and links to their websites: National Park Service. It might take a month to peruse all the websites in detail to determine the various differences among all the choices. From what I have heard, they are all good, staffed with guides who are knowledgeable, highly skilled, and who love their jobs. I highly recommend AzRA and the outfitter we used fourteen years ago, Wilderness River Adventures.
Outfitters offer trips from April through October, and the weather can vary significantly from month to month. We have enjoyed two trips in September, generally after the monsoon season when the high temperatures tend to moderate during the day but the nights are cool and pleasant for sleeping under the stars. After the monsoon rains, however, the river turns brown below the confluence with the Little Colorado River due to side canyon runoff. In the spring, we are told the river is more of the blue/green color we saw at the beginning of the trip.