UPDATED January 16, 2024 — “Rafting Grand Canyon” is not just an adventure but a rendezvous with nature in its most dramatic form. This blog post by Grand Canyon expert Megan Collier will guide you through the top 10 things you should consider to make your Grand Canyon rafting experience both exhilarating and less risky.
Table of Contents
There are many details you want to consider when deciding on a rafting trip through Grand Canyon. Many wonder if they can do a one- or half-day trip in Grand Canyon; however, no one-day rafting trips are available through the heart of Grand Canyon National Park.
There is a 1-day float trip through Glen Canyon from near Page, AZ, to Lees Ferry, where all Grand Canyon concessionaires begin. There is also one company that offers a one-day trip from Diamond Creek (where many commercial rafting trips finish their trips) to near Pearce Ferry, which is an area of Lake Mead.
All the rafting companies licensed to run trips in Grand Canyon National Park run multi-day trips. This is due to the remote nature of the Grand Canyon region that the river runs through, allowing for only two vehicle access points.
Below are the most important things to consider when you are planning on rafting Grand Canyon:
1. Your Physical Ability
On a multi-day trip in the backcountry and in a dry, desert environment like Grand Canyon, you want to be in at least moderately good physical condition. The average Grand Canyon rafter hovers between 55 and 65 years of age. You do not need to be in tip-top shape for this adventure, but the more physically fit you are, the more enjoyment you’ll get out of it.
Moderate exercise 3-5 times a week for the 8 weeks leading up to your adventure is highly recommended.
Not only will you be hiking almost every day on this trip, but the physical stamina required for living outdoors, sleeping on a pad on the ground, setting up and tearing down tents and camp, and helping unload and reload the boats every day for 3 or more days cumulatively can be taxing.
It’s also very doable, but the rigors of the trip should be a consideration before reserving a rafting adventure.
2. Types of Grand Canyon Rafting Trips
In Grand Canyon, there are three different river trip types:
- motorized (where the motor does the work with a 30HP engine),
- all-paddle (where you do the work paddling with a canoe paddle), and
- oar boat combination trips (where the guide does the work with two big oars).
All of these vary significantly from company to company.
- Some companies run oar trips that have a motorboat carrying most of the gear;
- others offer oar boat and paddle boat combination trips and require you to decide which boat you’re going to be in every day;
- other rafting companies run combination trips with oar rafts, paddle rafts and a hard-sided dory; while
- some companies run trips where you only ride in hard-sided dories.
Each rafting Grand Canyon company offers a slightly unique experience, and they are all great in their own ways. Find what boat style and trip length (which we’ll talk about soon) suits your needs the best, and go from there!
3. How Long Are Grand Canyon River Trips?
The length of your trip is another variable that is very dependent on the company you choose. The shortest rafting trip in Grand Canyon National Park is three days, and the longest is 16 days. There are varying lengths of Grand Canyon river trips in between.
In general, the longer you can be down there rafting Grand Canyon, the better. That doesn’t mean you have to choose a 16-day trip, but if you can do eight days instead of three, you will get more true enjoyment while rafting Grand Canyon. You’ll find that the longer you can be down there, the deeper your connection to the river and your disconnection from the real world will become.
4. What is the Best Month to Raft the Grand Canyon?
Ultimately, if there is a date available, and you’re able to make that date work, do it! Grand Canyon rafting trips can fill up a year and a half in advance, so if you find a date that works on the trip type you’d like to do, get it reserved.
Each month has different pluses and minuses, but ultimately, any time you go down the river, you’ll love it and come back feeling you went the best time. Commercially licensed Grand Canyon concessionaires are allowed to raft April-October.
April, May, September, and October seem to fill up the fastest as overall, there are fewer launches than the summer months, and people are concerned about the heat, understandably! However, a well-experienced and time-tested river guide once said, “If you’re hot, you’re stupid.”
This is said because the Colorado River water runs on average 48-60F / 9-16C degrees, so if you’re getting warm, you jump in the river or get your clothing wet to cool yourself off quickly while rafting Grand Canyon! (We’ll discuss later the weather you can expect each month.)
5. Water Levels: Can You Still Raft on the Colorado River?
Understandably, with all the media posting about how the Colorado River is drying up, people are really worried about whether the Grand Canyon is even raftable. The quick answer is yes, it is absolutely raftable. You can still raft on the Colorado River.
The Colorado River is a highly regulated area, with many laws in place promising water to Arizona, Nevada, California and parts of Mexico. To deliver that water to those states, it must go through the Grand Canyon. Although there will almost certainly be less water flowing through the Grand Canyon in the future, enough water will still go down river to raft it.
With proper conservation and reduced usage, humans should be able to continue living in the southwest, which means there will still be rafting in Grand Canyon.
With that said, many people are also concerned about when river flows are best, but in the end, it does not make as much of a difference as it would seem! Some months are higher water, and some months are lower water. Some rapids are more exciting at high water, while others are more exciting at lower water.
Even at lower flows, the river is still considered a big water river, so no matter what water level you go, you will have fun rafting Grand Canyon!
6. What Will the Weather Be Like for Rafting Grand Canyon?
Rafting Grand Canyon with a commercial company means you’ll be going downriver from April through October. There are pluses and minuses for every month of the commercial rafting season.
What is the weather like rafting Grand Canyon in April?
April can most commonly be the coldest month out of all of them, and it’s usually a bit windy. However, you can often catch the amazing wildflowers on display this month, which is spectacular.
What are the pluses and minutes of rafting Grand Canyon in May?
May is a very variable month weather-wise; it’s been known to be one of the rainiest, coldest months, but also known to be setting record warm temperatures. Typically though, May is pretty moderate when talking about temperatures, so it is an excellent time to go rafting Grand Canyon if you don’t want to be too hot or cold.
Weather to expect in June while rafting Grand Canyon
June is typically the hottest and driest month of the commercial rafting season. You can easily experience 110-115F / 43-46C-degree temperatures. The perk of that, though, is that you WANT to play in the cold river water. And besides that, hiking during this time of year consists of many waterfalls and side streams to play in.
July and August in the Grand Canyon
July and August are typically pretty similar in that they both bring the Arizona monsoon season with them. This means it’s nice and warm in the mornings, and then come late morning or early afternoon, the clouds roll in, providing a much-needed reprieve from the heat. Sometimes it rains, sometimes, it sprinkles, and sometimes it pours, bringing waterfalls cascading off the Canyon’s walls.
What to expect in September while rafting Grand Canyon
In September, expect warm temperatures still at the beginning of the month and temperatures tapering off toward the end of the month. October is cooler than September and can bring a chill to Grand Canyon evenings. September and October, with their cooler temperatures, allow for more vista-type hiking with more sun exposure.
You can read this blog article by one of the outfitters that features an image of average highs and lows each month, along with how much rainfall is expected.
No matter when you go, your outfitter of choice will provide you with a list of equipment and clothing to bring that matches the weather you’ll be experiencing. So you can be assured to have all the equipment necessary to keep you warm or cool.
7. Hiking the Bright Angel Trail for Shorter Rafting Grand Canyon Trips
Most all the Grand Canyon rafting companies offer shortened versions of their full canyon trips—those shortened options require a hike in or out of the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. The 7.5-mile / 12.1 km hike has about a mile / 1.6 km in elevation gain/loss.
Some companies start the trail from Phantom Ranch, which makes the total hike 9.5 miles / 12.1 km. This trail is doable and traveled by many daily, but is also very strenuous. You must take this aspect of the trip very seriously and not underestimate the difficult nature of this trail nor overestimate your ability.
What’s Better? Hiking in or Out of the Grand Canyon?
Most people assume that hiking in is easier because you are going downhill, but the reality is that walking down is very painful on the lower body. If you have any pre-existing knee, back or ankle issues, hiking down is not an ideal option for you. Hiking out is very cardiovascularly difficult and requires good strength in your core and your legs to help propel you up the trail after rafting Grand Canyon.
No matter whether you hike down or out, you will want to prepare for this hike many months before your trip.
Another Option for Shorter Grand Canyon River Trips
Four companies offer a shortened 3-5 day section of river that starts at river mile 188 with a helicopter ride to the bottom of the Canyon where participants meet the rafts and guides who have already been rafting for a week or more through the most spectacular part of the Grand Canyon. Those trips are an excellent introduction to Grand Canyon and a taste of what a long trip is like, but you do miss the most famous hikes and rapids upstream in the heart of Grand Canyon.
8. Where Do Grand Canyon Rafting Trips Start and End?
Since the Grand Canyon is 277 miles / 445.8 km long, Grand Canyon rafting trips start and end at different points along the way.
Start and End Your Outdoor Adventure in Flagstaff, AZ
Some companies that raft Grand Canyon require travel in or out of Flagstaff, AZ, a perfect town to start or end your outdoor adventure. Flagstaff is a large mountain town with a very outdoorsy-oriented community set in a cool Ponderosa pine forest. It is the closest major town to the South Rim if you are doing a partial canyon trip (which means you either start or end the trip at the South Rim).
There is a convenient public shuttle to and from Flagstaff and the South Rim. It is also a shorter drive to the beginning and ending locations of rafting Grand Canyon trips, as Flagstaff is almost mid-way between them. Flagstaff Pulliam Airport is the closest airport to Grand Canyon and has regularly scheduled ground and air transportation from Phoenix, AZ.
Start and End Your Rafting Grand Canyon Experience in Las Vegas, NV
Other companies will have you start in Las Vegas, NV. This works for some because there can be cheap flights in/out of Las Vegas, but there will be the added cost of a charter flight or a chartered five-hour bus ride to start rafting Grand Canyon.
Start and End Rafting the Grand Canyon in Marble Canyon or Page, AZ
There are also a few companies that have you meet in Marble Canyon, AZ, the hamlet near Lees Ferry (where most Grand Canyon rafting trips start), or the small town of Page, AZ, 45 minutes away. Page has limited commercial flight options provided by Contour Airlines. Marble Canyon only has a dirt airstrip.
Neither town has public ground transportation options to larger cities, so you will again have to charter a flight at some point or hire a private car shuttle depending on which type of trip you are on and whether you drive or fly to that area.
When choosing a company for rafting Grand Canyon, pre and post-trip logistics may be an important consideration in your planning!
9. Risks & Rewards of Rafting Grand Canyon
There are risks associated with rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It’s not just another vacation—it’s an adventure expedition that means constantly being exposed to the whims of nature. All Grand Canyon outfitters are approved by the Grand Canyon National Park Service and must operate by specific and strict regulations to keep their contracts. They all have trained guides who work to mitigate the risks associated with this type of trip, but many factors are still out of their control.
Illness, falls, allergic reactions, flash floods, pre-existing conditions, rock falls and many other situations can occur when rafting Grand Canyon, and it’s important to be aware of the risks. It is up to each individual traveler to decide if that risk is worth the rewards that come with it for them and their family.
All outfitters do what they do because they love Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. They have a deep connection with the area’s history and culture and so much more. They know that the outdoor experience of being immersed in such an amazing setting and unique adventure can lead to great rewards, and they want to share the experience with their guests.
10. Why Do a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip
Being on a Grand Canyon rafting trip is to place yourself in the heart of a very powerful place that, if you allow it to, can remind you of the most basic, simple things in life. It will allow you to reconnect with yourself, your significant other, your friends, or your family.
The Grand Canyon is one of the few places left where you have no cell phone service and can be completely disconnected from the outside world. It is tiring, yet invigorating. Beautiful, yet sometimes unnerving. You will feel exhausted, as well as re-energized.
The Grand Canyon is a place of mystery and surprises. There are so many hidden and difficult places that can take a significant effort to get to but are worth the time and energy required to get there by hiking or rafting Grand Canyon.
Only a few people ever get to see some of the Canyon’s most special and secret places. Sharing those places with others that also made the effort and dared to take risks to be there makes it even more marvelous.
It truly is an experience of a lifetime that will leave you with memories far into the future.
Rafting Grand Canyon Conclusion
As you evaluate different outfitters for your Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the details of pre and post-trip arrangements, such as flights and ground transportation, could be a critical part of your decision-making process.
Your physical fitness may also factor into the type of trip you choose—while peak condition is not a prerequisite, a better fitness level can undoubtedly enhance your enjoyment.
Moreover, weighing the risks associated with rafting the Grand Canyon against the unparalleled rewards of experiencing the great outdoors with your loved ones is vital.
The Grand Canyon is a treasure trove of hidden gems and awe-inspiring spots—albeit some may require substantial effort to reach. Yet, the rewards of navigating these challenging paths, whether on foot or while rafting Grand Canyon, make every bit of the challenge worthwhile.
Thanks to Megan Collier, Director of Guest Services at Arizona Raft Adventures, who wrote this informative blog post.
RELATED POST: Rafting Grand Canyon | What First Timers Can Expect
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