Rafting the Grand Canyon had been on my bucket list for years. After reading that National Geographic Travellerranked it “The Greatest River Trip in North America,” I finally decided to make plans and check it off.
Planning for the adventure was a lot more involved than other float trips I had taken. There were a lot of decisions to make before pulling on a life vest and crawling in a raft. Do I apply for a permit for a private float with friends using our equipment? Or should I pick a commercial trip? Commercial groups operate from early April to late October, so which month is best? Do I want a motorized or oar-powered raft? How many days do I want to be on the river?
Sifting through a dozen outfitters’ websites, I found answers to my questions at Wilderness River Adventures (riveradventures.com) and chose a six-day motorized raft trip. This past May, my girlfriend and I pulled into the WRA parking lot in Page, Arizona, and thus began our Grand Canyon rafting adventure.
We became acquainted with our new river family as we loaded our gear on the bus that drove us to the put-in at Lees Ferry. The group included adventurers from all over the United States, plus a contingent of four gentlemen from Denmark.
Adam, our fearless captain and tour leader, introduced himself and his fellow guides. He then gestured to our rides for the next six days. They were an impressive pair of 15′ X 37′ light blue neoprene rafts, powered by 30-hp, 4-stroke environmentally friendly outboard motors—ample room for the twenty-eight passengers, four crew members, and gear.
I had been on raft trips before, so I quickly nabbed seats at the front of the boat for Dalene and myself. That is the place to be when the action begins. The seats are appropriately known as “the bathtub” because as the raft plows through rapids, the water spray soaks those seated at the front.
It was a calm, smooth start through the towering, polished rock walls of Marble Canyon. That is until reaching Badger Rapids, where we caught a glimpse at what was to come over the next six days. Badger wasn’t a particularly big rapid, but Dalene and I got drenched at that river level. Rock House Rapids soon followed. The river ran head-on into a rock wall, generating a backwash that tossed our big raft about like a toy. Our adventure had begun!
We must have made the bathtub look like great fun. Following lunch, two teenage girls from Indiana asked if they could take a turn at the front. Entering the first of a string of rapids known as the Roaring Twenties, the girls began screaming and scrambling out of the front seats. Watching someone getting swamped by fifty-degree river water was more fun than actually being that person. Dalene and I finished the day in the bathtub.
At the day’s end, Adam directed the boats onto a large sandy beach to stake out our home for the night. As our group sat in camp chairs, sipping beverages and sharing exciting events from the day’s excursion, Adam and his crew prepared a delicious meal of pork chops, grilled mixed vegetables, and bread pudding. We spent the evening lying on open cots, snug in our sleeping bags, under a star-filled sky. As the moon rose to light the night sky, I drifted off to sleep, watching silhouettes of bats fluttering about feasting on mosquitos.
The following day we gave up the bathtub to a group of women who had been friends since second grade. They had plenty of opportunities to experience the bathtub as the rapids increased in frequency and size.
Midday, our flotilla beached at the confluence of the colorful Little Colorado River. The high calcium content turned the water aqua blue, and bright crystal formations, like those found in Yellowstone’s geysers, decorated the stream’s banks. We hiked up the scenic waterway to diaper dive back down the warm, flowing stream. Diaper diving is when you step into your upside-down life jacket, fasten it at the waist, then float sitting up. The vest also provides a cushion to protect your tailbone from rocks as you drift downstream.
Dalene and I began the next day in the VIP seats further back in the raft, allowing others to experience the front row. During lunchtime, Adam warned the group that challenging rapids were ahead, so we had no problem reclaiming the bathtub. After clearing a particularly menacing rapid, Adam turned our vessel around so we could watch the trailing raft. The boat would completely disappear when dropping into a wave, only to become airborne when breaching the next one.
The following day Adam turned back the throttle for a more casual pace. He stopped on occasion for hikes to several beautiful waterfalls. Elves Chasm was an oasis with lush, green foliage draping the rock walls. The crystal-clear water of Deer Creek Falls was spectacular as it plunged over the lip of the canyon ledge some 200 feet overhead.
On the final day of our adventure, Adam advised everyone to stow away their hats and any loose items. We had arrived at Lava Falls Rapid, featuring the trip’s largest and most notorious waves. Depending on water levels, these waves are class 7-10.
Dalene and I had no difficulty snagging the bathtub for this final leg of the journey as the others eagerly sought safer seating toward the back of the raft. We were thrilled to be at the front of the raft for Lava Falls Rapid. What an adrenaline rush! The thunderous roar of crashing waves engulfed us as the raft repeatedly plunged through walls of water. We were lifted out of our seats multiple times as the raft plummeted down steep, tall waves, and water poured over the front.
Our adventure did not end when Adam unloaded everyone at Whitmore Wash. We boarded a helicopter for an exhilarating, windy ride to Bar 10 Lodge. Then, we climbed into a small prop plane to return to Page, Arizona. The flight provided a unique bird’s eye view of the Colorado River we had floated the past six days. It was a fantastic end to a mighty fine adventure.
It is not too late to book a float for 2023. During September and October, water levels are usually lower, making them popular months for families with kids…and it’s not too early to book your 2024 rafting adventure.