Lava Falls is the most famous and most formidable rapid in Grand Canyon National Park. Fabled for its steep drops and highly technical rapid layout, Lava Falls is rated as a Class 10 rapid, the highest rating a rapid can receive under the Grand Canyon's older classification system. Located at river mile 179 in the Lower Grand Canyon, Lava Falls is inaccessible to tourists who are just visiting rim-side observation centers. If you really want to experience the spraying waves and thunderous roar of Lava Falls, you'll need to see it up close by rafting down the Colorado River or by trekking down the Lava Falls Trail.
What Is The History of Lava Falls?
Intersecting both Lower Grand Canyon and full Grand Canyon river rafting trips, Lava Falls Rapid is a particularly well-known and somewhat notorious rapid system. To understand what makes Lava Falls such a famous rapid, it's important to first understand how Lava Falls was originally formed. Located at the foot of Prospect Canyon, Lava Falls Rapid developed due to the presence of a significant alluvial fan, a geological term for a triangle-shaped accumulation of channeled sediment. Due to its proximity to the Uinkaret Volcanic Field, the alluvial fan at Lava Falls is actually the second-largest alluvial fan in the entire Grand Canyon.
On the floor of the Grand Canyon, alluvial fans are often responsible for rock shifting and unevenness in the river bed, leading to water constriction and eventually, the formation of turbulent local rapid systems. The alluvial fan at Lava Falls first formed when lava flows cascaded into the Grand Canyon and temporarily dammed the Colorado River. Amazingly, when volcanic activity was at its highest, what we now call the Colorado River was dammed from Lees Ferry at River Mile 0 to Lava Falls at River Mile 179. The bulk of these lava flows can be traced back to the periodic eruptions of Vulcan's Throne, an ancient cinder cone volcano at the edge of Uinkaret Volcanic Field.
Major George Wesley Powell was one of the first people to site Lava Falls. Known as the father of American geology, Major Powell performed two surveying expeditions down the Colorado River. During his first expedition in the 1860s, Major Powell briefly considered running Lava Falls for the first time. However, after assessing the already weakened integrity of his raft, Major Powell opted to portage around the formidable Class 10 rapids of Lava Falls Colorado River. At this point in time, the rapids that now constitute Lava Falls were at least 85 meters downstream from where they are located today.
Some 27 years later in 1897, the first successful rafting run of Lava Falls was completed by George Flavell and Ramon Montez. While today's Grand Canyon tours operate a fleet of modern motorized and non-motorized rafts, Flavell and Montez had to make do with the Panthon, a fifteen-and-a-half-foot, oar-powered dory raft made from lightweight pine planks and flimsy canvas decking. Today, Flavell and Montez are celebrated as trailblazing adventurers who paved the way for modern river running and facilitated the development of the commercial Grand Canyon rafting industry.
In 1960, a New Zealand adventurer named Jon Hamilton would follow in the pioneering footsteps of Flavell and Montez after successfully completing the first upstream journey through the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River. In order to safely navigate Lava Falls upstream, Hamilton had to equip an 18-feet motorized jet boat with a twin-fin V8 engine.
If you're thinking of planning a trip to Grand Canyon National Park, a visit to Lava Falls Rapid has to be on your to-do list! Unsurprisingly, the first step to visiting and exploring Lava Falls is getting to Lava Falls. To reach Lava Falls, you can either trek down the Lava Falls Trail from the Grand Canyon North Rim or you can travel there on the Colorado River via a Grand Canyon rafting trip. If you want to know more about what each of these options entails, keep reading for a brief breakdown of both Lava Falls Trail and Lava Falls Grand Canyon rapid rafting.
Lava Falls Trail
Beginning at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls Trail boasts a 2,540-feet elevation change across its 1.5 mile-long track. This makes Lava Falls Trail the shortest rim-to-river route in Grand Canyon National Park. However, because it has such a steep gradient, Lava Falls Trail is also one of the most strenuous canyon descent trails in Grand Canyon National Park. As if the very steep descent wasn't enough, Lava Falls Trail is also littered with treacherous sheer drops, loose volcanic debris, and unstable basalt platforms. Even though it isn't directly maintained by the Grand Canyon National Park Service, Lava Falls Trail is still suitable for seasoned hikers. However, because of its severe gradient and relatively unstable ground, Lava Falls Trail is only suitable for adventurers who are descending into the Grand Canyon.
Unlike other famous trails in the Grand Canyon, getting to Lava Falls Trail will require the use of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. To reach the trailhead, you'll need to take a west-facing sidetrack off Toroweap Point Road and towards Toroweap Lake. This sidetrack is rough and uneven, descending 3 miles through a small, curved ravine to finally reach the canyon rim. At the end of the sidetrack, you'll find a trail register and a small parking area. Make sure to stop by the trail register to refill your water bottle and pick up a route map.
As you descend down Lava Falls Trail, you'll notice that the route is marked with direction cairns and warning signs. Upon reaching the first ledge, you'll be met with a stunning view of Toroweap Overlook, Toroweap Lake, and Vulcan's Throne. As you travel further down the trail, Toroweap Overlook will fade from view and the noise of Lava Falls will grow from a barely audible rumble to a booming roar. At the end of the trail, you'll emerge onto a sandy shoreline about 200 yards from the beginning of Lava Falls Rapid. If you want to cool off after your hike, you can take a quick dip at the nearby Tequila Beach.
Rafting Lava Falls
A Colorado River rafting trip is one of the best ways to experience Lava Falls, giving you an unmatched opportunity to get up close and personal with the river's mightiest rapid system. Due to the complexity and intensity of Lava Falls Rapid, experienced and amateur rafters alike are always encouraged to scout the conditions in advance of running the famous rapid system. On an outfitter-run Lava Falls Grand Canyon rafting trip, the trip guide will typically go ahead of the tour group to scout for any obstructions and select a line through the rapid.
Depending on the conditions, you may also need to wait for the Colorado River to experience a surge in water flow before you're able to tackle Lava Falls. When the water level is at a safe point, you and your raft mates will approach the roiling rush of Lava Falls. After gliding across several agitated riffles, your raft will plunge straight into the frothy channels of the V-wave and the static 10-feet-tall rush of the Big Kahuna. When you cross through the Big Kahuna, the muddy waves of Lava Falls will buffet and spin the raft as you careen and pitch through the final leg of the rapid.
If you manage to make a clean pass, the run through Lava Falls will only take between 10 and 12 seconds. Alternatively, if you're unable (or unwilling) to maneuver your raft into the more sheltered left and right channels, there's a good chance you'll hit the Lava Falls Ledge Hole. In addition to taking about 10 seconds longer, a run through the Ledge Hole will expose you to intense lateral white water and exhilarating overhead waves. Regardless of which line you choose, after your tour group completes one or more successful runs through Lava Falls, it's a tradition for the entire group to stop and celebrate the achievement at Tequila Beach.
If you're ready to tackle Lava Falls, you'll need to book either a full Grand Canyon Trip or a Lower Grand Canyon trip. Read on for a more detailed breakdown of both of these route options.
Lava Falls Grand Canyon Trip - Full Canyon
A full Grand Canyon trip begins at Lees Ferry (river mile 0) and terminates at either Whitmore Wash, Diamond Creek, or Lake Mead. Depending on where you exit, a full canyon trip will cover 188, 225, or 280 miles of the Colorado River. Traversing the length and breadth of the Grand Canyon, a full canyon trip will give you the chance to experience between 38 and 47 big water (5+ rated) rapid systems. The exact amount of rapid rafting per trip will depend on the projected flow rate of the dam-controlled Colorado River.
Although specific trip availability will depend on your desired trip length, full Grand Canyon tours can be run with motorized, oar, paddle, or dory rafts. If you already have some experience rafting and want to ramp up the excitement when running Lava Falls, consider going on a non-motorized raft trip. In addition to providing you with more control as you go through rapids like Lava Falls, traveling on a non-motorized raft will also bring you closer to the river level, hopefully giving you a much more intimate appreciation of Grand Canyon rafting. Alternatively, if you're still new to high-intensity rapids, a motorized rafting trip is one of the best ways to get your confidence up!
Lava Falls Grand Canyon Trip - Lower Canyon
Similar to the final leg of a full canyon adventure, Lower Grand Canyon trips begin at Phantom Ranch (river mile 88) and end at either Whitmore Wash, Diamond Creek, or Lake Mead. Fortunately, the rapids dotted along the Lower Grand Canyon route are often regarded as some of the region's best rapid systems. After embarking from Phantom Ranch, you'll be able to test your skills on a wide range of 5+ rated rapids before tackling Lava Falls. In fact, before you even reach Lava Falls, you'll have the chance to run Crystal Rapid, another Class 10 rapid that routinely competes with Lava Falls for the title of most fearsome rapid in the Grand Canyon.
Like the full canyon route, lower canyon Lava Rapid Grand Canyon trips are available on both motorized and non-motorized rafts. With both 3-5 day and 6-9 day trips on offer, the lower canyon itinerary is packed with rapid rafting, side canyon hiking, and geological sightseeing. Please note, before you rush to book a Lower Grand Canyon tour, keep in mind that the trip begins with a (mandatory) strenuous hike from the South Rim to the canyon floor via the Bright Angel Trail.