Grand Canyon Rafting – Colorado River
Lee’s Ferry to Pearce’s Ferry
Length: 280 miles, shorter trips possible; 1 to 21+ days
Gradient: 7 ft/mile
Permits: Required, won through the Grand Canyon Rafting Lottery (held in February for following year).
A Grand Canyon rafting or kayaking trip is the best of western river expeditions and arguably the top river trip in the world. Starting just south of the Arizona/Utah border the Colorado River flows unhindered from Glen Canyon Dam almost 300 miles to Lake Mead.
Grand Canyon rapids have some of the largest waves of rafting rivers anywhere. Another unique aspect of these trips is the ability to spend two-weeks floating downstream. However, the exquisite scenery and countless side hikes are the most memorable parts of the trip. A whitewater rafting or kayaking trip through Grand Canyon is a truly unique experience.
The key is how to get on a trip. Many Grand Canyon outfitters are booked years in advance, and the weighted lottery system is not easy to win so plan ahead. That being said, for small groups with some date flexibility there are always lat minute trips that become available.
Luxury Rafting Options
For those looking for luxury rafting trips like the Rogue River Lodge trips in Oregon and safari camping trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho will be disappointed. Due to the way the river is managed by the National Park the outfitters are unable to offer luxury trips. That being said, it’s worth roughing it for a week or two and experience one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Rating System for the Colorado River
This section of river is unique in that it doesn’t use the level I – V International Scale of River Difficulty that is used on most whitewater rivers world wide. Instead it uses a 1 through 10 system. A 10 is arguably like a class IV+ rapid. Cataract Canyon, just upstream from Lake Powell also uses this rating system.
When to raft the Grand Canyon
One of the most common questions is when is the best time to raft the Colorado River. The obvious answer is whenever you can get on a trip. That being said, it is really about personal preference. Grand Canyon in the spring has wild flowers, milder temperatures and tends to be more windy particularly in May. While June and July are hot and dry until monsoon season start, meaning the Little Colorado is typically vibrant clear blue water. Some try to time the high water of July and August to see the biggest whitewater the Grand Canyon has to offer.
Monsoon season in Grand Canyon starts in late July and continues through August. Monsoons bring afternoon thunderstorms that cool down temperatures and can lead to amazing sights of hundreds of waterfalls of different colors cascading into the river. Unfortunately, this rules out certain hikes at times due to lightning and flash flood concerns. The fall is cooler, a little dryer and the days are shorter. As a result the hiking options become endless. Winter temperatures can be cold at the bottom of the Grand Canyon where the sun never reaches the river, however there are less people on the water.
Best Grand Canyon Rafting Trips
While spending two to three weeks on the river is one of the special aspects of this trip, there are options for one, two, three, and four day trips. To raft the whole Grand Canyon but in less time, river runners will take a motorized trip. Others hike in and out of the Grand Canyon at Phantom Ranch to be able to do a week long upper or lower canyon trip. Flying in or out by helicopter at Whitmore Wash is also an option. For those flying in at Whitmore, it is possible to do a 3-day western canyon river trip.
The best and most popular oar trips are the 6-day upper, 8-day lower, and 14-day full Grand Canyon tours. The best motor trip is the 8-day full river tour. All of these options provide an opportunity to be immersed in the canyon and unwind. If you are not sure which trip you want, consider contacting a booking agent like Rivers and Oceans. They work with outfitters so they know all the options and you can make one phone call instead of calling all 16 outfitters.
Where to End Your Grand Canyon River Trip
Finally there are the options of taking out at Diamond Creek which is quite expensive and can get washed out during rain storms or adding another 50+ miles with some fun rapids and serious flatwater rowing to Pearce Ferry. Outfitters provide a jet boat when taking out at Pearce Ferry to make the journey must faster. The Hualapai Tribe offers one-day and two-day trips from Diamond Creek downstream (sometimes called a Diamond down) with an optional helicopter ride out of the Grand Canyon.
Two nice resources that make camping easier:
Grand Canyon Rafting Camp Sun/Shade Information – Fairly accurate listing to the of day shade reaches camps during each moth of the year.
Tides for the Colorado River in Grand Canyon – Shows when the river will be rising and following depending upon how far downstream a party is and how high the river is. Helpful for avoiding waking up to beached rafts in the morning.
Mile 0: Put-in at Lees Ferry
Put-in at Lees Ferry. The right side of the beach is for private trips and the left side is for commercial trips. The National Park rangers will show up to check your pfds and make sure you are bringing all the required equipment. There is a smooth water float trip that starts upstream at the base of Glen Canyon Dam and ends here. This is a nice day trip but for those wanting rapids the one-day Diamond down rafting trips are a better option.
Mile 0.3: Paria River
The Paria River enters on river right. This “river” typically runs like a creek until a local storm brings the flow up for a couple of days. The Paria adds much of the sand that is in the corridor and also is one of the drainages that commonly causes the river to turn brown.
Mile 4.2: Navajo Bridges
The original bridge was completed in 1929 and the new bridge was finished in 1995. This is a common spot to see California Condors.
Mile 17.1: House Rock Rapid
Grand Canyon’s first big rapid with some features on the left that cause rafters trouble. Scout on the left.
Mile 20.7: Rapid Roaring 20’s
A fun splashy series of rapids. Watch out for Georgie’s Rapid (mile 24) and Tiger Wash (mile 26.8).
Mile 33.3: Redwall Cavern
One of Grand Canyon’s iconic spots. This huge shelter is worth a stop.
Mile 39.7: Marble Canyon Dam Site
The federal government was extremely close to building a dam here that would have backed the river up past Lee’s Ferry. The Sierra Club was instrumental in stopping this dam with a famous national media campaign.
Mile 52.4: Nankoweap Creek and Granaries
The Nankoweap trail meets the river here after a long descent from the North Rim along Nankoweap Creek. This is a popular place to camp and hike a steep trail to ancestral Puebloan granaries.
Mile 61.5: Little Colorado River
Seeing the sparkling turquoise-blue water contrast with the red and tan walls of the canyon is a sight to see. On river left the Navajo land ends and becomes Grand Canyon National Park land. Some geologist argue that this is the official beginning of the Grand Canyon.
Mile 77.1: Hance Rapid
The first and one of the more challenging rapids of the Granite Gorge. It is commonly scouted on river right. However, there isn’t much time to relax. Downstream are a couple other big rapids, Sockdolager (mile 79.1) and Grapevine (mile 82.1).
Mile 88.1: Phantom Ranch Boat Beach
After going under South Kaibab Trail foot bridge there is a large eddy and boat beach on the right. From here it is a 10 minute walk up Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Ranch. Oar and paddle rafts try to land at the middle and upper end of the beach to leave the deeper downstream portion of the beach for motor rafts.
Mile 89.5: Pipe Creek Beach
Rafters hiking in and out of the canyon at Phantom Ranch typically use the Bright Angel Trail and leave from the Pipe Creek Beach saving 1.5 miles of hiking along the river.
Mile 90.8: Horn Creek Rapid
Horn is the start of the biggest series of rapids within the Granite Gorge. Scout on the right, pull in high to be sure you can get back out to the middle line. Next is Granite Falls (mile 93.9), scout on the left.
Mile 95.5: Hermit Rapid
The Hermit Trail meets the river here. The rapid can be scouted on the left. In July and August Hermit rapid flips many rafts. If you can make it down upright or upside down it is an unforgettable ride.
Mile 98.2: Crystal Rapid
This is the most notorious rapid in the Grand Canyon. Flipping in the hole at Crystal can lead to an ugly swim through the boulder garden below. Scout on river right. This is the start of the Gems, a fun series of rapids including Tuna, Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Emerald, Ruby, and Serpentine.
Mile 117.2: Elves Chasm
One of the classic short hikes for Grand Canyon rafters. The shorts hikes leads hot adventures to a relaxing grotto with a deep pool.
Mile 131.1: Bedrock Rapid
This is a common scout on river right. Avoid going left of the rock island by pulling right. Just downstream is another tough rapid Deubendorff (mile 132.3) which is typically scouted on the left.
Mile 134.3: Tapeats Creek
The hike from here up to Thunder River is probably the best hike in the canyon. A fantastic kayaking side trip is the Tapeats Creek Gorge.
Mile 136.9: Deer Creek Falls
Another must stop, Deer Creek Falls is a spectacular water fall shooting out of a crack in the Tapeats Sandstone. Boaters with a little more time enjoy hiking around above the water fall along a narrow trail to relaxing “patio.”
Mile 150.2: Upset Rapid
The last big rapid above Lava Falls. Scout on river right.
Mile 157.3: Havasu Creek
A classic side-hike with beautiful turquoise water and impressive travertine formations. The common destination used to be Beaver Falls. However, the Havasupai have done a much better job of marketing their canyon and Beaver Falls is a now a busy place. Plus there is typically a reservation ranger collecting fees of $50 per person.
Mile 179.7: Lava Falls
Big fun! The most iconic rapid in the world. Scout on the right at lower water and on the left at higher water.
Mile 187.4: Whitmore Heli-pad
Some commercial trips exchange river runners here. Typically these trips start and end in Las Vegas. This area can be noisy with helicopters on busy exchange mornings.
Mile 225.9: Diamond Creek Take Out
A common take-out for Grand Canyon trips. Diamond Creek flashes yearly closing the road and forcing groups to run to Lake Mead. This really means Pearce Ferry which is now above the lake. There are some fun challenging rapids downstream: 231 Mile Rapid, 232 Mile Rapid (worth scouting), and 234 Mile Rapid. Below Separation Canyon the river gets flat with minimal current – happy rowing! Outfitters typically have a jet boat meet trips at Separation Canyon for a fast, thrilling ride across the flatwater. If Lake Mead ever gets the river back into its original channel a couple more notorious rapids, Lava Cliff and Separation will reappear.
Mile 280.7: Pearce Ferry Take Out
Don’t miss the take-out. Just downstream is Pearce Rapid a nasty drop that was formed as the river cut down through the sediment of the reservoir creating a new channel. Just upstream the canyon opens up signaling the true end to Grand Canyon.