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.