This is a trip report of a trip from May 14th-June 4th, 2018 – rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Earlier this year I had the privilege to be invited on a private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. So, on May 12th, I flew from Bangkok to Denver, arrived late in the evening, woke the next day to prepare gear and see friends/family, then the following day headed south towards Flagstaff, Arizona to raft the Grand Canyon. A busy 24 hours to say the least.
The first stop was Salida, Colorado to help pack up gear and meetup with the group. We spent the following day driving towards Flagstaff, camping an hour outside in Navajo National Monument under a clear night of bright stars.
We woke early and arrived into Flagstaff, met up with the rest of the group coming from California and Las Vegas, and packed/loaded the trailer. Unpacking vehicles and coordinating how to repack things onto the trailer took most of the day. There were 8 people going on the rafting trip: my friend Andrew, his brother, his dad, his aunt, his 3 cousins, and me. A few other family members were there to help pack and checkout the area.
When everything was loaded, we grabbed dinner and drove the 2 hours to Lee’s Ferry, the put in spot to start rafting the Grand Canyon. We spent a few hours preparing the rafts and loading them, then resting by the river eating dinner, and eventually sleeping under the stars along a trail to the campground near the river. Many others were camped out all over the trail. There were several large commercial, 35 ft+ pontoon boats packing nearby, but we were the only raft group for the day. Each day the park limits the amount of people who can put in, and if I’m not mistaken, it is 1 private group each day, plus whatever commercial limits there are.
The next morning we woke with the sun, did the final preparations on the boats, and left mid-day after the ranger checked out gear and lectured all the people departing from Lees Ferry that day (was probably ~40 people). We had a few lifejackets that didn’t meet the quality needed so had to rent some from the outfitter, which they luckily had nearby. We saw a dory boat being loaded off a trailer the following morning as well, which reminded me of the “Emerald Mile” (see below).
From the beginning, it was stunning scenery. Even from Lees ferry it is a remarkable backdrop with the tall, red canyon walls shading the put in point. We had 3 boats across 8 people, 18′ rafts plus 2 extra kayaks. Andrew mostly kayaked the canyon, while the other 7 of us split amongst the 3 rafts and rotated at the oars. It was a strange feeling leaving Lees Ferry, as the water was so calm and peaceful, but in just a few miles up stream, it would get a lot more violent and intense.
The first day was mostly calm, getting into the routine of rowing and switching, getting comfortable with where to put water bottles and sit, etc. The canyon walls were stunning for the entire 17 days straight, it is hard to describe and really quite hard to capture in a picture how remarkable the canyon is.
We stopped at various spots to hike into some canyons and cool sights. Andrew’s dad had rafted the canyon 5 times prior in the early 1980’s, so he knew a lot of the geology and features to explore.
The policy at the canyon is leave no trace, meaning we have to bring out everything we bring in, including human waste. This meant we had to mount a toilet seat onto an old military ammo cam, or “groover box”. We also had to urinate separately from the groover, which meant we had a bucket we had to piss into simultaneously while shitting. It was a slight challenge but got used to it after a day or two. The pee could be dumped into the river as long as it only went into the water (and not the beach), but the poop had to be carried out in the groover boxes. I’d say we had some incredible scenery for taking a shit, to say the least. Often we put the groover box facing beautiful canyon walls or beautiful sunsets overlooking the river – it was almost magical.
It took a couple days to get into a sort of routine, but it worked out well. Each day the same people got on the same rafts; this way those people knew exactly what was on the rafts and where it was. It also meant that we had somewhat of a routine for setup and takedown. For example, one raft had the kitchen tables and the tarps underneath to catch any waste, another boat had water buckets for washing dishes and hands, and another boat had groover boxes, etc. Each night one or two people would setup the bathroom while others started cooking and preparing the chairs. We ended up having quite comfortable settings and great food. There was no rain, clear skies pretty much every night, and excellent temperature. I didn’t use a tent once, and just slept on my sleeping pad with my sleeping bag each night, it was perfect.
While Andrew kayaked most of the trip, I joined a couple times in some of the calmer water, as did others. The normal routine for the day was to wakeup with the sun, pack our gear, eat breakfast, pack the kitchen and repack the boats, pack the groover, and row around 20 miles, stopping for lunch midday. We’d typically be on the water in the morning by 8:30am and be off the water around 5pm. After getting off the water, we’d setup the kitchen and groover, and setup our camp site. We’d rotate cooking each night – 3 people would cook one day, the other 3/4 the other day. Whoever didn’t cook would setup the bathroom and then have some down time. We had a speaker so we had some good music, and we had a lot of bags of red wine which was also nice. We’d typically be in bed by 9pm most nights after a good dinner. Most nights I’d stay up chatting with someone about the stars – it was beautiful.
Throughout the trip, there were several dry bags that were ruined when mice chewed tiny holes in them at night. Most of this was caused by leaving food in the dry bag at night. Also during the nights, we had a UV light which would turn scorpions bright glowing white (this was Tim’s idea and it worked like a charm). It was fun walking around and seeing tiny 2-3″ scorpions, mostly on the rocks. One night we saw a 5-6″ one, though hidden in a hole in the rocks.
The water flow in the canyon runs between 7-15,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), depending on the day and release from Glen Canyon Dam upstream. We were told the release times from Glen Canyon Dam, and as the trip progressed and we got further from the dam, we had to calculate how long it would take for the increased water levels to reach us. We then planned our how tie the boats for the night to ensure the boats didn’t ensure up too far on shore or too far off shore.
For the first 4-5 days of the trip, I didn’t take notes, and have limited pictures. On the 22nd of May, I started writing a bit. Here was the dairy I made during the trip, with some added notes along the way:
May 22 – Was a long day. Camped at Kwagunt Creek Rapid just below Mile 56. Great spot. Burritos for dinner with canyon in backdrop. Remarkable. Last night slept at mile 38 at Tatahatso Canyon. Nice spot. Saw huge 6″ scorpion with UV light.
Yesterday saw arc and huge cave like thing – Redwall Cavern. Hiked into Dolomite, and Shinumo Wash. Stars out are very clear, can see milkyway. One of the clearest nights I’ve ever seen in the sky.
May 23: A lot of rapids. Nearly flipped on a class 2 as Alberto bumped boat in front of us and put us into a hole. Recovered though Alberto ejected. The other boat had a jacket and solar charger get lost to the rapid (or ripple). Camped after Nevills Rapid, mile 76.
May 24: Dave’s birthday, made a cake and had a little celebration. Camped at mile 94 above class 8/9 Granite rapid. Yesterday the first rapid drained me and went into a hole sideways. Also stopped at Phantom Ranch – lots of hikers there – was the most people we saw all trip, felt a bit strange being so far from civilization yet seeing so many people. Overall challenging but fun day.
May 25: Hit a lot of big rapids, rowed a couple class 8s and 9s (scale on Grand Canyon is 1-10, 10 being the most difficult). Learned a lot and improved confidence. Had a beautiful camping spot at Garnet Mile 114. Saw many lizards throughout the trip.
May 26: A few more big rapids. Hiked up two different canyons. Camped after a rapid in a rocky spot. Layover day tomorrow so we can hike. Mile 134, Tapeats. Stayed up and chatted with Curran, and saw mice running around. Lots of lizards here too.
May 27: Camped near Tapeats Creek again, hiked all day (steep, full day, but beautiful). Crossed the creek twice to Thunder falls – incredible views up there. On the way back, Dave, Alberto, and I stayed right of the creek and got back to camp an hour earlier.. Amazing hike with stunning views. See many other hikers. Mile 134 still.
May 28: Raft 3 miles and hiked up Deer Creek. Then 11 miles to 145 mile to camp. Great spot with big beach. Olo canyon camp.
May 29: Wake up and get ready, Andrew and Dave and Drew go climb. I read on the shade. Then we raft to Matkatamiba Canyon and hike there. Camp at 156.5 mile at Last Chance. Tomorrow will be another short day and we hike Havasu.
May 30. Hike Havasu. Nice waterfalls, good hike. By crazy coincidence, I run into an ex-girlfriend from Thailand who was hiking there (hadn’t seen her in years). Perhaps one of the craziest coincidences I’ve ever experienced. Camp at Mile 158.7 on rocks. Very hot.
May 31: Raft quickly to near Lava falls, camp mile 178. Drink wine by water, then hike. Get stuck at cliff, Andrew climbs it with Dave at top. Amazing stars, satellites, and shooting stars.
June 1: Wake up and run Lava rapid (class 10) early. Flip boat and go through two rapids off boat. Row all day, 27 miles. Camp at mile 205. Great spot with great stars.
June 2: camp at 239. Long day of rowing. Sandy camp. Windy too.
I did some kayaking with Andrew on the last days, running through a ripple or two and almost flipping. The water became much more calm the last couple days and the canyon walls began to decline, eventually ending up a slowly moving, super wide river, which is now Lake Meade (down 120 ft from 20 years ago). It’s a bit scary to think of such a water drop in just 20 years.
On the last night, we played frisbee on the beach and drank some wine. Throughout the night we could hear the sand bars falling into the water. We woke early the next morning, rowed for 15 minutes to Pearce Ferry. Once there, we spent a couple hours unpacking, deflating and folding the rafts, and loading it onto the trailer that was shuttled to us at Pearce Ferry. We then grabbed an early lunch at a diner in the closest town, and then to Las Vegas. Half of the crew drove back to Flagstaff, while others went back to Las Vegas.
Overall the trip was remarkable. It is an intense adventure, with more remarkable beauty than almost anywhere I’ve seen in the world. The combination of incredible weather, steep canyon walls that are billions of years old, crystal clear skies at night, and amazing company, it is the trip of a lifetime. And one I’d love to do again.
Sleeping under the stars for 2 weeks without any insects or rain at a comfortable temperature surrounded by the marvels of the grand canyon is beyond explanation. Going to sleep with the sun and waking with the sun made for good rest. It was interesting how easy it was to wakeup at 5am not tired, as if I sleep indoors it is much more difficult. It just reassured me the value of being outside and how we as humans evolved to wake and sleep with the sun, not be indoors shaded all the time.
I recently finished reading the book “The Emerald Mile” which documents the history of Glen Canyon Dam and the ability for humans to control the Colorado River, and is based around the story of the fastest boat ride through the Grand Canyon during the summer flood of 1983. Three guides decided to get on an infamous dory boat, named “The Emerald Mile”, during the high water floods of 1983 when the water level went from 15,000 cfs to 90,000+ cfs. In turn, they set a new record for the fastest trip down the canyon, around 38 hours (it took us 17 days).
It is an incredible book and well worth reading, especially before or after a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon.
To see all of my pictures from the trip, click on the Google Photos album here.