EVERY YEAR, thousands of people make the journey down the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. To see this incredible landscape from water level is an experience like no other and is certainly a trip of a lifetime. Sabina Allemann counts herself very fortunate to have made the trip twice and gives us some handy tips on planning based on her experience.
What you need to know before planning.
If you’re looking to do an 18+ day private trip, gather all the information to enter the weighted lottery. Think about a great group of friends you’d like to make this journey with. Some will need whitewater paddling experience to row the rafts (one per raft) and group size will determine how many rafts you’ll need. It’s a big river and, although it’s not considered technically very difficult, the volumes of water can be rather intimidating! Paddling a kayak is another popular option for those with the right experience. Thankfully, there are other, faster ways than waiting for a permit.
Commercial operators offer trips on large motorized rafts for those pressed for time and not wanting the challenges of organizing a private trip, but still wanting to experience the raw magnitude of this landscape. Rafts aren’t the only options either; some operators offer trips in wooden dories that hark back to the original river running era.
What you need to read to plan the best trip.
The National Park Service website is a one-stop shop no matter what type of trip you’re looking at doing. Within the site, you’ll find everything you need regarding commercial trips and non-commercial trips, as well as outfitter and boat-hire info, a link to the weighted lottery, and a list of very useful FAQs that you absolutely need to look at.
Although the NPS controls how many groups are on the river at any one time you’ll still need to be flexible when it comes to choosing campsites. An indispensable resource to study before and once you’re on the river is a waterproof river guide. It can be purchased through the NRS website.
For insight into the Colorado River rapids and features click here.
Packing for a trip down the Grand Canyon.
Know that high season (late spring/summer) will be busier and potentially very hot, but the trade-off is that you won’t need many clothes and you can always cool off in the cold and refreshing Colorado River. If you don’t like crowds, look at going through the cooler months, but be prepared for shorter days and the need for warm gear. That said, always check the weather forecast before going as there are monsoons in the summer in this part of the country.
In the summer months, you don’t need much by way of clothes, but it’s always nice to have something dry (and relatively clean) to change into when you get to camp and something warm for those cooler evenings. If you’re sun-sensitive, bring a few long-sleeved shirts and long pants. There’s a lot of sun in the bottom of the Canyon. You’ll find that you pretty much wear the same thing day in and out so don’t bring too much!
As for shoes, my first trip I got away with one pair of Keen sandals to which I added socks for longer hikes. On my second trip, I added an old pair of running shoes to my beloved Keen sandals. Always wear something on your feet unless either on a raft or the sandy beaches as there are rocky landings, cacti, scorpions and the potential for rattlesnakes in The Canyon.
Depending on the time of year you may not need a tent. Both my trips were in the summer, so our sleeping system consisted of our sleeping mats on top of a tarp to keep the sand out, a sleeping liner, a very lightweight sleeping bag, a pillow and perhaps the most important item in my wardrobe — a sarong. The sarong is multi-function; at night if it’s hot, just soak it in the river and use it as your sheet for a cool night’s sleep. You’ll find it will be dry by morning and then doubles as a dress or skirt, towel, sun protection, etc. The other sleeping option (the rowers get first priority on this) is to sleep on the raft. It’s cooler in the hotter months as you’re closer to the river and you may even be gently rocked to sleep.
Having done 2 trips now without, I can safely say that next time I will invest in renting (or buying) a lightweight, folding camp chair. Something with legs and a place to hold your drink of choice — your back will thank you!
Food and drinks
Depending which package you choose, you can get the outfitters to provide all the food according to your dietary needs and wants, which makes life much easier. They have the knowledge and experience to know how to plan for 18+ days of mostly fresh food in a challenging environment. They’ll provide you with an extensive grocery list from which to choose for all meals and snacks and they do the shopping! Beverages will be up to you — the rafts are big so don’t skimp, but if you’re running low on beers you might be able to barter some for toilet paper with a passing group running low on the latter!
How to be as safe as possible while on your trip.
1. Always wear your life vest while on the river — it’s mandatory and may just save your life.
2. It’s a harsh environment at any time of year. The sun, wind, hot/cold/dry air are challenging and your skin will take a beating! Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing are a must. I also like to have some Vaseline on hand for those nasty cracks that appear on hands, feet, and lips.
3. When it comes to first aid in this austere and remote setting, prevention is the name of the game. Of course, there will always be a mandatory first aid kit with every trip for minor issues, but there’s no quick fix if you break or sprain something. Never walk alone for any distance or if you do, make sure someone knows where you’re going — and don’t deviate from that plan!
On our last trip, two members went for a “quick” walk up to some ancient granaries. When they did not come back on time, we decided to organize a search party. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to find them both, somewhat dehydrated and a bit scratched up from a little fall. It turned out they had gotten off-trail and ventured further than was logical. That night at dinner a few more parameters were put into place to avoid any such recurrences.
4. Always carry some water and snacks in case things take longer than planned — particularly in summer when temperatures can reach into the 90’s and up.
Things to do when you’re not rafting.
Even though the main component of this type of trip is river travel, there’s much to explore on land as well. There are many short and long hikes up the side canyons flowing into the main river.
1. The steep Nankoweap trail at mile 53 will take you to the ancestral Puebloan granaries of a bygone time. The view from there is exceptional.
2. Elves Chasm is beautiful side canyon with a small clear-flowing stream with waterfalls and multiple pools to swim through.
3. Walk through the water-sculptured walls of Clear Creek that end at a refreshing waterfall.
4. Stop at the Little Colorado River. Its luminescent aquamarine color is in stark contrast as it joins the murky waters of the main flow and it provided us with a couple of hours of good fun. A few of us donned our life vests like diapers to protect our backsides as we slid down the little and relatively smooth travertine (limestone) rapids while the others watched, sitting off to the side, in their own travertine “hot tub.”
5. At approximately mile 88 you’ll reach Phantom Ranch where the South Kaibab Trail crosses the river. It is possible to walk up (watch out, it’s steep!) or hire a donkey to the South Rim. There’s also a little café and post office to buy a refreshment and send friends and family a postcard.
6. If you’re up for something longer, one of my favorite hikes is Surprise Valley. A point-to-point hike, it begins at Tapeats Creek and finishes at the magnificent Deer Creek Falls via Thunder River. There are some steep sections to this trek, but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views and a different perspective of this magnificent landscape. To make this hike feasible, you’ll need a few volunteers to take the rafts from Tapeats to Deer Creek while the others do the 6+ hour hike. It’s also possible to do an out-and-back to both Thunder River Springs and Deer Creek which would negate the need for ferrying the rafts down river.
7. There’s always some down time so get creative and bring some fun toys. On one of our trips, we had hula hoops that provided much entertainment and laughter as well as a set of bocce balls which were put to use, playing our way up a little side creek. On our second trip, someone brought LED poi balls which provided great photo opportunities in the fading evening light.
8. If there are any musicians in the group singing along to a strumming guitar or harmonica while floating on a calm stretch of river can certainly pass the time and add to the experience. And, of course, don’t forget a good book or diary to settle in with at the end of the day.
Respecting the Colorado River — how to deal with your waste.
Hygiene is paramount — there are strict protocols put in place by the NPS to keep the environment pristine. Everything from washing dishes to dealing with toilets is part of the briefing given to every group traveling the river by an NPS Ranger. One thing to know is that all human solid waste travels with you to the end in secure canisters.
1. There is a simple toilet system that gets set up at every camp. A leak proof “ammo” canister gets fitted with a toilet seat for solid waste and toilet paper only and a separate bucket for urine (the urine gets dumped into the main flow of the Colorado River). Separating those two bodily functions is not such an easy task, so practice before your trip!
If you’re on a hike and nature calls there is a portable toilet system consisting of plastic and paper bags and toilet paper that can be carried out and put into the toilet canister once back in camp.
2. Hand sanitation using either soap and water or alcohol gel is a must before cooking and after using the toilet. Remember that you’re a small community and if one person gets sick most likely everyone else will too.
3. For bathing, I liked to find a safe little eddy in the river, out of eyesight, near camp for a cleansing wash at the end of the day. Biodegradable soaps are allowed for this purpose.
It may seem like a monumental task to organize a private trip, but once you get the process started and begin working with an outfitter — we used Ceiba Adventures and they were great — it comes together smoothly. Rest assured that after inflating and loading the rafts at Lee’s Ferry, the adrenaline will be pumping as the first strokes of the oars are taken in anticipation of what the next 18 days will bring. I guarantee you that this is a trip you will remember for the rest of your life.
After a 20-year career in dance, Sabina retired and moved with her husband Andrew Peacock to his native Australia. After dance Sabina garnered a passion for rock climbing, mountaineering, hiking and pretty much anything related to exploring the great outdoors. These days she often joins Andrew on many of his adventures and when back in Australia works as a qualified remedial massage therapist.
Andrew is an Adventure Travel Photographer and Expedition Doctor. Often on the move in remote areas exploring, learning, and photographing. For more of Andrew’s adventure travel photography, visit his Facebook page and Instagram feed.