I had waited all my life to see the Grand Canyon. It was at the top of my bucket list long before I had ever heard of a bucket list. I finally got to the Grand Canyon for the first time in my mid-40s. It was worth the wait. For me, the Grand Canyon is beyond description. Incredible. It exceeds all expectations. My first visit to the Canyon was in early in the spring season, when weather at the South Rim is still in flux due to the relatively high altitude. During that visit we experienced the magnificence of the Canyon, that gift of nature, through many lenses: dense fog giving way to bright sunlight, followed by snow, then clearing with a rainbow. I was hooked.
We were lucky enough to take a helicopter ride into the Canyon while that was still allowed (sorry folks, no longer considered sufficiently safe or quiet!) and make a subsequent visit to the South Rim. After those experiences, we occasionally discussed hiking down into the Canyon and then out again, but nothing concrete came of it. Clearly, we weren’t convinced we could haul ourselves out once we got down there! Then a friend of ours came back from a “trip of lifetime” that she had given herself as a retirement present: a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. She proclaimed it simply the best thing she had ever done.
We were back in the business of planning another excursion to that mightiest of canyons. Instead of viewing the canyon from the top, or partway down, we would spend 6 days on the Colorado River, a full mile below the canyon rim. We would traverse several major (“world-class”) rapids, camp under the stars at the side of the river, and be out of range of all distractions, allowing us to revel in the grandeur of the Canyon and the serenity – for the most part – of the river.
In order to do this trip, there are a few things you need to be OK with.
- You need to be OK with camping. It’s top-of-the-line camping – cots and tents provided, and all cooking and cleanup, plus Johnny-on-the-spot, taken care of by the staff – but it’s still camping.
- You need to be OK with going through some big rapids. The large pontoon rafts used by our outfitters (Western River Expeditions) are remarkably stable, but they’re still mighty rapids.
- You need to be OK with riding in a helicopter, because that’s the way you get out of the canyon.
- You need to be OK with flying in a small aircraft, because that’s how you get back to your car at Marble Canyon or Las Vegas.
Once you’ve cleared those hurdles, you are ready to sign up for the trip of a lifetime. Granted, not everyone can clear those hurdles. The group of 18 people we shared our experience with included a number of people who had come together because they wanted to go badly, but couldn’t convince a loved one or friend to go with them, so had looked further afield or come alone. They included neighbours, work colleagues, and father/daughter and mother/son combinations. Our ages ranged from 16 year-olds to retirees. One couple had driven all the way from Connecticut so that the husband could fulfill his lifetime dream, only to have his wife be too panicky to take the final step, despite having convinced herself she’d be able to do it once she got there. The husband stayed back with her!
The 6-day trip starts at Lee’s Ferry, a short drive from the motel, shop, and landing strip at Marble Canyon and just below the Glen Canyon Dam that forms Lake Powell. Lee’s Ferry is the only place in the Grand Canyon region where you can access the Colorado River easily by land. The rafts are loaded with provisions, campers’ duffle bags, and campers. Shortly after setting off, you are in the canyon. And in the canyon you stay for nearly 200 magical miles over 6 days.
There is a rhythm to being on water. In our case, it was hot August weather, especially down at river level, but the cold temperature of the mountain-fed river water made being on the river very comfortable. And it was perfect weather for sleeping under the stars at night – no tent required. What was our rhythm? For the most part: drift, relax, and marvel. We drifted down the river, exclaiming over new views as the canyon revealed itself to us, seemingly never-ending. A new canyon wall came into view at each turn in the river, with its own colour, markings, and texture. It was a journey through several different geological upheavals, as indicated by very different colours and rock shapes.
Each day we made stops for lunch and new adventures: to explore slot canyons on the side of the river, swim in hidden gems like the azure pools at Havasu Canyon, or hike in to a spectacular waterfall. We geared up for the occasional major rapid, when those of us who wanted to enjoy the “ride” went up front and held on tight (my husband), while those of us who simply wanted to survive the rapid sought the safe spots (me). Each evening our excellent staff identified a suitable campsite, a sandy stretch at the side of the river with enough space for setting up a cook site and to allow us all to find relatively private spots to set up our cots. The food was excellent – and always welcome.
The experience was visual, visceral, and spiritual. Pure enchantment. A wonder of nature writ large for 6 wonderful days.
Grand Canyon Rafting: #4 of our top 5 favourite trips of all time.
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Wonderful & Beautiful! Reading your post, I felt as if I was there with you.
Thanks, Carol. Coming from you, I consider this high praise!
You are an adventurer! I do not think I could have made that trip! I need my own bed! haha
And this from a former army nurse?! 😉 Not to worry, there are great hotels on both rims of the canyon. Still worth a visit!
As Carol says Jane, your travel writing transports us right to the location together with sounds, smells and sights. Great post. My mother, though of advancing years, is a serial visitor to Vegas. She recounts how she took a light aircraft trip over the GC in pretty poor weather, was fed some desperate native food at a stopping point before returning in a snowstorm. No wonder I’d rather just read about stuff.
Thanks, Roy. Great story about your mother. Vegas is a world unto itself. I’ve only been there once, on the way to the Canyon on this trip, actually. It was 105 deg F and I swear I could feel my eyeballs having the moisture sucked out of them, it was so dry. But the theme hotels on the Strip are something else; kind of a Disney World for adults. Too bad she didn’t get a good day. I don’t suppose she’d try again??!!
Thanks for this Jane – it brings back fond memories of our rafting trip, beginning with meeting you and Howie as you exited the helicopter. Great pictures!
Happy New Year, Mary. I should have mentioned that if you’re lucky you may even meet friends from home as you’re getting out of the helicopter!!
Sounds like an amazing trip! I’m really enjoying your travel posts, Jane! I get to travel vicariously and grow my must-see list!
Thanks, Steph. Writing about past travels also allows me to relive them in a safe, warm, dry place myself! It seems to
me you have chosen a pretty nice place for your up-coming half marathon!
That looks like a beautiful trip. I hope to make it to the Canyon someday. We have been talking about taking the kids for a trip out West, but I think they may be too young (7,6, 3 and 3) to appreciate it.
Wow, you must be a busy Dad! What fabulous ages; Christmas must have been wonderful, if chaotic. I’m glad to hear you’ve got a trip to some the western parks in mind. They are all pretty amazing, with great camp sites. You’re right that waiting a few years is probably for the best! Besides, who would take care of your chickens?!
I have heard it is outstanding. My brother went (you have to wait for your lottery ticket to come up) and he said it was a lifetime experience!
I agree with your brother! But there is no doubt that any interaction with the Grand Canyon or many of the other Natl Parks in the west is a special experience. Thanks for visiting, Linda.
I’m putting it on my own bucket list right now!
You won’t be sorry!
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Wow, so amazing. I want to do this now! I love the amphitheatre photo. I would wish to be alone though so I could yell and sing! 😛
Hi Gina. I’m not sure if you could arrange to be alone in the amphitheatre, but there’s plenty of space to give it a full-throated test! Definitely a bucket-list contender.