For many years I had coveted the idea of a week long white water rafting and camping trip along the Grand Canyon but they aren’t cheap.
When I finally did the trip, it was better than I ever imagined – one of the top five trips of my life and I would highly recommend it.
My friend and I arrived in Las Vegas and the next day we took a small plane out to the Grand Canyon where we spent our first night in a motel at the top of the Canyon. We arose at 4.30am when it was still dark and began to slowly wend our way down into the Canyon with flashlights wondering if we were crazy as the path was rocky and steep. As our eyes became accustomed to the dark and as hints of sunrise glowed, we began to detect the blurred outline of the river Colorado below. Some four hours later we arrived at the bottom where there were vast numbers of people and boats. If we’d just stayed down there a few hours and then started making our way back up, the whole experience would have been anticlimactic and it would have been hard to experience the “at one with nature” sense that one imagines one will have there.
Fortunately this was just the start of the adventure and we packed our sleeping bags and small back packs into one of the rafts ready to set off. We had pre-ordered wine, beer and in my case Gin and tonic and these had already been loaded in crates onto one of the rafts. I was glad to see they had their priorities right! After listening to our brief orientation talk we finally climbed into one of our four rafts (there were about 20 people and several guides and a raft with supplies) and began to paddle off – mercifully leaving the chatter and occasionally piercing shriek of laughter from the day tourists behind.
Contrary to popular belief, a week long rafting trip is not battling rapids for 8 hours a day. Each day we would have between 5 and 6 rapids, some of which were exhilaratingly fast – most people looking at this post will have seen adventure shots of rafts on rapids and we had our fill too.
Inbetween the rapids, there are long flat periods of paddling – so come ready for some excercise. Having said that normal levels of healthiness and activity are enough – you don’t need to be superfit or to train at the gym beforehand. The paddling stretches are simply beautiful and far from being boring you can’t fail to be in wonder at the prehistoric landscape passing you by and to wonder what the rocks could tell if they could speak.
Every night we camped under the stars. Our choice of August meant water levels were not at their highest. Although some of the rapids were slightly below the maximum strength they were still exciting and the predictable dryness at night meant we could dispense with the tents. Each night we watched the red layers of stratified rock in the canyon disappear slowly into the dark and then the stars would bid us sweet dreams. For lunch we typically set up tables where we would make our own sandwiches. In the evenings the guides cooked us a simple but hearty meal – usually pretty good and always a highlight after a day of exercise.
The routine that gradually took shape was that after breakfast we’d raft in the mornings and then pull over for lunch. In the afternoon we’d have a choice of two or three hikes which ranged in their difficulty and severity. Again though, normal fitness is enough even for the advanced hike – you don’t need to be super-fit or a gym bunny. Sometimes the hike choices included a shorter option that had a waterfall or pool for swimming in so people could relax and sunbathe and play.
The Canyon opens up into endless side-canyons, some red rocks, some covered in cactus and some opening up into what looked like a field. There were many waterfalls to climb to the top of, caves to explore and freshwater pools to swim in.
Some people came alone, some with a friend, some in families. Those that had come in groups visibly grew closer and worked together better as the trip progressed, while people who didn’t know each other beforehand developed a wonderful camaraderie for the trip. I even forgave one chap who threw out my precious gin and tonic on the penultimate day. I’d been saving a last slug of gin and had just gone for a swim, planning to return to my Gin to find the cup had been emptied and washed up thinking the content had been water.
The rugged beautify of the landscape and the prehistoric rock formations caused each of us to inwardly re-evaluate what was important in our lives. It might not always last when one gets back to the real world but a journey of self discovery happens on a trip like that that one can catch again later in a smell or another outdoor experience or something someone says that reminds one of the trip.
There are a number of criteria to think about when looking for a trip like that:
a. Cost/duration – I did the 8 day lower canyon trip which I’d recommend. It is long enough to feel immersed in the adventure, but not long enough to get bored. And it is considerably cheaper than the full 10-12 day canyon trips. However if your budget only allows a much shorter trip then go for what you can afford rather than not doing it. Do try to stretch to at least one night camping though as the nature around you really starts to take its grip when the light starts to fade and you are alone in the Canyon somewhere further along the banks of the Colorado after the day tourists have left.
b. The best time of year to go is a trade-off between size of the rapids, kids holiday dates and the likelihood of rain. By going in August we had good but not maximum strength rapids and could dispense with tents knowing there would be no rain and we could sleep directly under the stars. Prices are lower outside prime school holidays and this might be a double advantage for those who prefer fewer children (though most of the trips don’t take very young children anyway). On the trip I selected, the combination of couples, singles and families made it a a great group with a lovely dynamic.
c. Paddle or motorised trip. This is one of the biggest decisions. I did a paddle-only white water rafting trip but if the trip doesn’t mention paddle rafts, you will find that the default for most of the operators is motorised rafts. To me this defeats the point of white water rafting. But if you are in a multi-generational family or have some family members who are unfit, a compromise could be the hybrid trips where most of the rafts are motorised but they take along a token paddle raft that people take turns on. If you possibly can though, go for a paddle only trip and note that as these are the minority of trips offered you may want to book 9-12 months in advance to secure a spot.
d. How do you get in or out of the canyon? If you don’t do the full 10 or 12 day Canyon trip, you either have to hike in at the start or hike out at the end. As I’ve said it is a steep 4.5 hour hike down so my friend and I felt that a gruelling hike up after an amazing trip didn’t sound that much fun. Instead we picked the 8 day trip that started half way along the Canyon, requiring us to hike down into the Canyon on the first day but allowing us to rise out of Canyon at the end of the trip by helicopter. You’ve no idea how much fun that was!
e. Total number of people that the trip can accommodate. I think one want enough guests that if there are some odd balls you don’t have to spend all your time with them but you don’t want this number to get too big or else the group splinters. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusions that parties of around 18-25 seem to be a good compromise.
Finally, don’t forget to look at reviews on websites like trip advisor and to note how professional the company sounds when contacted.
I built a little spreadsheet of these criteria and ranked each supplier against each criteria on a score from 1 to 5 with the winner being the one with the highest total score totalled across all criteria.
I know some of you will ask for my tour operator recommendations but in this particular case it will be out of date as I did the trip a while ago so it is definitely worth going through the supplier assessment exercise in the months before you plan to travel.
I would encourage anyone who reads this to save your pennies and do a trip like this when you can. It has stayed with me and become a part of me. And I would go again at the drop of a hat.