I opened my groggy eyes and squinted at three layers — cloth, water, rock — and tried to remember where I was. When my eyes focused, I recognized the end of my blue sleeping bag and beyond that, the rugged waters of the Colorado River and an immense rock wall that towered above me. Oh yes, my “bedroom” was the floor of the Grand Canyon.
A lot happened before I opened my eyes to that view. For years, my husband, Dean, had wanted to take a multi-day rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (who knew you could do such a thing?). When he suggested it, I had questions: Rafting? For multiple days? Sleeping in the canyon? Sure, the stars would be incredible, but what about bodily functions? Will my arms fall off from all the rowing? How wild are those rapids?
He called a former coworker who had taken this trip several times. She recommended using Hatch River Expeditions as our outfitter, and we took her recommendation. Before I knew it, we were signed up, peering over packing lists, and I was somewhere on the spectrum between excited and scared.
Hatch runs trips April to September in various configurations. We chose a full week of rafting from Lees Ferry to Whitmore Wash (188 miles) on motorized rafts. Hatch’s website promised “intense rapids, great hiking, ancient ruins, caves, waterfalls, and unforgettable swimming spots.” We’d camp in the canyon on sandy beaches or rocky ledges for six nights and be transported out by helicopter at the end.
Pro Tip: Check the Risks and Requirements to be sure you meet minimums, including the physical ability to climb on and off the raft, walk on rocky terrain and sandy inclines, carry your personal gear (25 pounds max) to and from camp, and tolerate repeated exposure to temperature extremes. You don’t need previous whitewater experience or swimming ability.
On our June 1 departure, we joined 24 co-adventurers to meet three guides and embark on two rafts (capacity is 16). Before I set foot on the raft, there were things I expected, and over the course of the trip, they proved true:
- It’s breathtakingly beautiful. There’s nothing like waking up in a sleeping bag (on a cot) on the floor of the Grand Canyon, under a canopy of stars.
- The guides knew what they were doing. I expected them to respect the canyon and its mighty waters, to keep us safe, to excel at history, geology, and folklore, and to take care of the odd request, and they did.
- The rafts are a marvel of engineering; the process is solid. We carried everything we needed for the entire week either in the underbelly of the raft or piled high in the center, covered by tarps. Seeing firsthand the logistics for gear storage, day and night bags, handwashing, dishes — and even backup plans for motor failure — was impressive.
- Many hands make light work. The guides positioned everything, but rafters formed an assembly line to get luggage, gear, cooking equipment, and food on and off the rafts efficiently.
- It’s a simpler life. No hotels, no showers, no bathrooms. Unplugged. Unscreened. Unparalleled.
Of course, the trip also had a few surprises…
Surprise #1: The People Who Take This Kind Of Trip Are Varied… And Fascinating
People are always more than what they do, but our trip included every occupation from schoolteachers and a professional chef (could come in handy) to an ER nurse and a risk manager (ditto). We were from eight states (including Alaska) and ranged in age from 11 to 70-something.
I loved all the informal conversations on the rafts during calm waters and when circling camp chairs for happy hour and meals. It’s a unique environment: Makeup and pretenses are off, and people are just people, with all their marvelous quirks, habits, and ideas.
Surprise #2: The People Who Guide This Kind Of Trip Are Varied… And Fascinating
As you’d expect, the river guides are full of personality. Our lead guide was 34 and has been running trips since he was 18. The “swamper” (a guide in training) was 30. He rode on the lead raft and was a “jack of all trades.” The guide who piloted the second raft was 36. His raft carried a unique passenger: a large blow-up toucan who joined us for numerous antics along the way.
One night at camp, before our nightly briefing on the events of the next day, one of the guides asked if we’d like to hear some poetry. I must admit I was expecting something frivolous or elementary, but he read Robert Service’s “The Joy of Being Poor” with passion and heart. He treated us to several other poems along the trip, too. My husband rolled his eyes, but I was delighted.
Surprise #3: New Views Around Every Bend
“Seen one, seen ’em all” does not apply in the Grand Canyon. The color, texture, pattern, light, striation, water, and rock variety of the canyon make it a continual wonder, and we had time to really see it. Calm sections of the river brought perfect mirror images of the canyon to the waters. The luxurious turquoise color of the Little Colorado and roaring Havasu Falls were a clear contrast to the rest of the Colorado River. Cavern exploration, wading and swimming, and guided hiking added variety, too.
Surprise #4: Good Food… And Plenty Of It
River guides wear many hats, and meal prep is one of them. Coffee’s on by 5 a.m. (when rafting, you “run with the sun” and make the most of daylight). Breakfast could be made-to-order eggs, breakfast meat, cereal, fruit. For lunch: build-your-own “Dagwood” sandwiches, simple sides, chips. Dinner began with appetizers and advanced to grilled steak, salmon, chicken, carnitas, pasta, salads, baked potatoes, and more. Dutch oven dessert might be brownies, cheesecake, or pound cake. Filtered water and lemonade or Gatorade (for electrolytes) were always available both on the raft and at camp. Snacks included cookies, nuts, chips, fruit. The guides kept an eye on our food consumption, too; river runners need to keep calories up.
Surprise #5: It Was Easier — And Harder — Than I Expected
These are relative terms, but parts of the trip were easy:
- The raft is motorized, so passengers just “sit down and hold on.”
- Gear is provided, packing lists are thorough, and meals are prepared for you.
- Mesh bags tied to the rafts held our pre-ordered beer and wine, chilled at perfect river temp, which tastes exceedingly good after rafting. Hard to claim you’re roughing it as you’re sipping a cold beer in camp!
Some things that were not so easy:
- The temp extremes are challenging. In June, the Colorado River at a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit contrasted dramatically with Phantom Ranch hiking at a sweltering 120 degrees. My advice? Follow the packing list and listen to the guides. When they tell you to get in the river before a hike and dunk your shirt and put it on wet, believe them.
- TMI, but relieving yourself ain’t fun. All liquids go into the river. More complicated: Solids go into a portable seat/box thing (technical term) but fear not — the system for privacy and sanitation during such events is simple and somewhat ingenious.
- You WILL get wet; you WILL get sandy, and the sand will be everywhere. ’Nuf said.
Pro Tip: There’s no constantly dry spot on the raft. If you’re adventurous, sit in “the bathtub” in the front of the raft. It takes the full brunt of whatever the rapids want to dish out. At the back of the raft, “the tea room” is a less splashy option.
Surprise #6: I Laughed — Hard
We rafted through 120+ rapids on our route, including mild-mannered rapids with fun names like Soap, Badger Creek, House Rock, and even The Roaring Twenties. Larger rapids were more “rowdy” (as the guides liked to say): Horn, Granite, Hermit, and Crystal.
Remember when you were a kid and you heard big belly laughs that were contagious? The rapids are unpredictable — some looked ferocious, and they were. Sometimes, an upcoming rapid that looked innocent could pack a powerful deluge. And sometimes, even in calm water, a rogue wave would hit the raft and catch an unsuspecting victim (often me) off guard. That big belly laugh? It was mine.
Pro Tip: Hatch’s website is quick to point out that “a Colorado River trip is an active vacation in a wilderness environment.” If you aren’t up for a physical challenge, this probably isn’t the right trip for you. If you are, this is one you will never forget.
I’ve been to both rims of the Grand Canyon and experienced trails by foot and by mule. Yet this unique, prolonged vantage point from a raft surprised me. The nuances of color, the variety of pattern, texture. The sounds. The good people we traveled with who made us laugh. A myriad of stars at night. The subtle way the morning light crept into the canyon. It’s full of wonder and surprises. There’s a reason this canyon is called grand.
For more information and tips, check out all our Grand Canyon coverage, including 10 Key Ranger Tips For Visiting The Grand Canyon and 7 Amazing Canyons To Explore In Arizona After You’ve Seen The Grand Canyon.