Choosing a Grand Canyon trip

Unless you hook up with a private Grand Canyon river trip, you'll have lots of choices when you look over a list of potential outfitters. Here are some ideas to steer you towards the trip best for you.

What time of year should I go?

Motorized or oar-powered trip?

Some guides feel strongly about the superiority of oar over motor trips or vice versa. I run both types of rafts, and I like both types of trips. Purists claim the rowing trips are quieter, and they don't like motor noise. This is true, to an extent, although many companies are switching to quieter four-stroke engines, minimizing this complaint.

There seems to be a misconception that motor trips don't spend as much time hiking as rowing groups. On the contrary, some motor trips actually do more hiking because they have the flexibility of motors to get from point A to point B. Oar rafts, however, are occasionally at the mercy of upstream winds and low water flows, using much of their trip time on the water.

As for the ride through the rapids, you may get wetter on a row boat, but a ride on the front of a motor rig can be wet and exciting! Your chances of going overboard are greater in a row boat, so those with a fear of swimming a rapid may be better off on a motor boat.

How much will a commercial trip cost?

About $175-$200 per day.

How long will the trip take?

Average length of a motorized trip is 7-9 days. Most row boat trips last anywhere from 10-14 days.

How scary are the rapids?

With a reputation as a first-class whitewater rafting trip, most people who sign up for a Grand Canyon trip are preoccupied with the 160 rapids found in the Canyon. However, most folks find as the trip progresses, the rapids become less important than the scenery and the side canyon stops. To ease your mind, consider these facts: First, many Grand Canyon guides have years of experience. It's a place people fall in love with and don't want to leave. In fact, compared to other Western rivers, the Grand Canyon has a high percentage of "geriatric" boatman (myself included!). To a passenger, this means you're likely to find yourself in experienced and capable hands when navigating the whitewater. Second, statistics prove that most injuries on Grand Canyon trips occur on land while hiking or in camp; few accidents happen while boating. This said, if you're really concerned about the possibility of washing overboard, take a motorized trip instead of a rowing trip. You're more likely to take a swim from an oar-powered boat than from a motor rig.

What is the minimum age for kids on the trip?

Children must be able to fit in a life jacket and follow instructions well. 10 years old is a typical minimum age requirement. Kids seem to have more fun if there are other kids in the crowd, so think about teaming up with another family for a joint vacation, or asking the outfitter to put you on a trip with other families.

What sort of food is served on the trips?

Chances are you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food served on Grand Canyon trips. Most companies make an effort to serve a variety of meals like chicken, steak, pasta, fish, turkey, or shrimp, accompanied by fresh fruit, salads, and dessert. Lunch is typically do-it-yourself sandwiches, with different lunch meats and occasionally salads. Some companies are willing to provide additions like gardenburgers or soyburgers for vegetarians. As for alchoholic beverages, due to new regulations you'll have to provide your own beer, wine, and spirits.

Look for special interest trips

If you enjoy geology, photography, archaeology or natural history, ask about trips providing specialists in various fields. Often these trips cost no more than "regular" trips, and you might find the information provided by the additional interpreter worthwhile.

Consider the logistics before and after the river trip.

Although this aspect may not compare in importance to the trip itself, it can make a difference in cost and comfort. Consider these points: In what city do you meet for the trip? How will you get to the starting point, by bus or by air? At the end of the trip, will you be transported by jet boat, air, or bus?

Several companies start their adventures in Las Vegas, which offers good airline connections but obviously is a big contrast to the Grand Canyon! From Las Vegas, river outfitters may transport passengers to the starting point at Lee's Ferry by bus or by single engine aircraft. If you enjoy flying, the choice of a pre-river trip flight over the Canyon may be appealing, and is faster than the bus ride. However, for people reluctant to fly in small planes, the five-hour bus ride is the preferred option.

Likewise, at the end of the river trip there are different choices. Some trips, especially the oar-powered rafts, end at Diamond Creek, Mile 225, returning by van to Flagstaff (a three hour drive). Other trips continue through the lower Granite Gorge (spectacular, but hot in the mid-summer months) to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead. Here passengers are bused back to the starting point, usually Las Vegas (a three-hour bus ride).

What about the trips with helicopter take-outs at whitmore Wash?

Unlike the trips ending at Phantom Ranch, ending a trip at whitmore (mile 186) makes sense, particularly in mid-summer when it's really hot. Although the Grand Canyon below whitmore is beautiful (the lower Granite Gorge between miles 225-240 is one of my favorites), often it's too hot to appreciate it during June, July, and August. A typical river schedule plans more off-river time above whitmore where the side canyons have running water. This means you probably won't be doing much hiking in the lower Canyon, and your last day(s) will be spent riding on the boat in blazing heat.

How about the partial trips beginning or ending at Phantom Ranch?

I would strongly discourage anyone from taking a partial Grand Canyon trip. Here's why:

If you're taking a 3-5 day trip disembarking at Phantom Ranch, you're in for a major hike to reach to South Rim. We're talking nine miles straight up (After all, the Grand Canyon is one of the deepest canyons on earth!) and it can be hot. You'll have to carry a minimum of two quarts of water per person along with your personal gear. People inevitably underestimate the difficulty of climbing the Bright Angel Trail, and even good hikers can be leveled by the extreme heat. And in most cases clients are just relaxing and beginning to enjoy the trip, and they don't want to leave! They're also missing the biggest rapids in the Canyon which are below Phantom Ranch.

Conversely, hiking in at Phantom Ranch is less difficult, though even on a downhill trek I've seen folks show up at the bottom with heat exhaustion. The long downhill grade is hard on knees and thigh muscles, even if you're in good shape, and those stiff muscles can mean you won't feel up to side canyon hikes for the next couple days. Another problem is you may be joining a trip already in progress where the other passengers have already bonded, leaving you feeling like an outsider for a day or two. Finally, entering a river trip at Phantom Ranch means you're immediately in for the biggest rapids of the trip, without a day or two "lead time" to get used to the raft.

What to expect on the river:

How can I get on a private river trip?

If you have lots of boating experience and solid whitewater rafting/kayaking skills, consider applying for a private permit from Grand Canyon National Park. Be forewarned: this is not a trip for beginners! Currently the waiting time is about seven years for a permit. However, there are ways to get on the river sooner. If you're flexible and can put together a trip on short notice, consider checking with the permit office for last minute cancellations. In addition, the off-season permits (Nov.-March) are easier to get than the peak season permits. Finally, I've heard of people connecting to a group of private boaters via Internet newsgroups. If you're willing to gamble on traveling companions, you might check out this option.

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©1998 Mary Allen. All Rights Reserved. All photos copyrighted.