Best Time for Big Whitewater when Rafting Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon attracts tourists because of its unique and intriguing geology. However, beyond its famous red and orange walls and winding crannies, it is a perfect white water rafting spot as well. Rafters not only get an inside look at the canyon but they are also rewarded with Class IV to V rapids for an adrenaline rush filled ride and enjoy the big whitewater during the high water season.
The Colorado River’s water levels through Grand Canyon are regulated every 9-12 hours and determined by the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP). Big whitewater in Grand Canyon is not during spring run off like most other rivers as this river does not rely on the melting of the snow and ice for its water flow. Instead, white water rafting season in the Grand Canyon is generally during the warmer months when air conditioning becomes a necessity in the Southwest, and more water is needed downstream for agriculture. The more electricity needed in the surrounding states, Las Vegas for example, the more water is let down the river. The Glen Canyon Dam is responsible for producing this electricity and holding back the enormous amount of water collected at Lake Powell.
The commercial rafting season through Grand Canyon National Park operates from April through October. Each month has fluctuating water flows and every day the water is released within the predetermined water flow amount. These water levels are determined by the amount of moisture, snow melt and rain that the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin receives. Once the amount of water is estimated, hydrologists determine the amount of water released on a monthly basis to meet the goals outlined in the CRMP. The water from the Colorado River is shared amongst 7 states and Mexico. The CRMP helps to meet the distribution goals and regulations in place to properly distribute the water amongst these areas. What does this mean for big whitewater in the Grand Canyon? It means that every year the water flows are different, and every month there is a team of scientists determining the amount of water that will be released downstream of Glen Canyon Dam.
When to Raft Grand Canyon for the Big Whitewater Experience?
The decision of when to raft Grand Canyon or the best time to visit grand canyon comes down to personal preference. If you are someone hoping for the chance of experiencing big whitewater in the Canyon, your best bet would be to travel during July or August. Coincidentally and historically, this is when most people visit grand canyon and the rims. This is when the hydroelectric needs in the Southwest are at their peak, and the most water is released. Typically, the water flows during July and August are being released between 12,000-18,000 cubic feet per second. Many of the renown rapids in the Grand Canyon, such as Crystal and Lava Falls, get larger and become more exciting during higher water flows, and are at their peak for big whitewater.
If you are hoping to not have the big whitewater rafting experience in the Grand Canyon, you will want to consider rafting during slightly lower water season. April, May, September and October all tend to have lower water flows being released and this slower water means just about 1 mph slower then June/July/August. Trends show that April has the lowest water levels. Typically in April you can expect to see steady flows, where there is minimal fluctuation of water levels being released. Generally, these flows are between 5,000-8,000 cubic feet per second. May, September and October tend to have more fluctuation than April, meaning the CRMP allows the water to be released between 8,000-16,000 cubic feet per second during these months.
Key Points to Keep In Mind
All of this information is useful if you understand water flows and cubic feet per second. But it can mean very little to someone who has yet to learn about water flows on high volume rivers, such as the Colorado River. If you don’t understand fluctuation or the Colorado River Management Plan, no need to worry. Your guides will educate you on this during your trip. At this time, here are the key points to keep in mind when considering the best time to visit the Grand Canyon:
- The higher the water level (cubic feet per second) being released, the larger many of the “big” rapids in Grand Canyon become. The big whitewater tends to be in late June, July or August. On the same note, the lower the water level, many smaller rapids become larger or rated at a higher level, due to additional waves created by rocks or obstructions in the water, or they become more technical to run. This means that anytime you raft in the Grand Canyon, you will have exciting rapids and get to experience some big whitewater.
- Regardless of the water flow speeds, there is one constant and that is the fact that towards the mouth of lake mead, when nearing the end of your full or lower canyon raft trip, the water does slow down. Couple this with some headwinds that occur in certain parts of the river and the non-motor rafts can be a bit more challenging to keep pace. Have no fear however, your guides are prepared for this and any slower rafting is already anticipated in any given itinerary or trip length that he outfitters offer.
- Those who have visited the canyon rim tend to ask how big is the grand canyon and this is a question that is not so easy to answer. The total length of the river is 280 river miles as the start of Grand Canyon begins in Marble Canyon at Lees Ferry and ends at Pearce Ferry near the mouth of Lake Mead. Along the way, the canyon walls fluctuate in height answering another often asked question of how high is grand canyon. The tallest part of the canyon is at the north rim with an elevation of 8,297 ft. The south is 7,522 ft in elevation. Often, it's easier to answer this question of how big is Grand Canyon, by simply saying "you need to see it to believe it".
Weather & Fall Time Whitewater Rafting Trips
When looking at water levels, also consider Grand Canyon weather, as the weather can be very hot in the summer, and cool in the spring or fall. Temperatures fluctuate from a low of 50 degrees during the shoulder seasons to a high of 115 during the summer months. On the other hand, regardless of the month, visitors should note that there are temperature differences along the way. The further east you go, or the closest to river mile 0, it is normally cooler but they pick up as you travel downriver, or towards the west. There can also be a 20-degree variation between temperatures at the river and at the top of the rim. This is why tourists are advised to bring clothing appropriate for both warmer and cooler days. There’s really no wrong time to visit and raft the Grand Canyon during the commercial rafting season, but if moderate weather is a factor, the fall season might be the right time for you.
April and May are popular months because of the moderate weather, as well as the chance to see some blooming flowers. However, Autumn is an optimal time to visit the Grand Canyon, with similarly mild weather. The environment starts to look even more colorful in October when yellow vegetation begins to bloom. It is also the best month to see California Condors and Bald Eagles. Visitors must be prepared with clothing for both cooler and warmer temperatures, as they may expect to have both during their trip. Another advantage is, as fall whitewater rafting season begins, longer trips can be planned. They are normally permitted to be longer during these months due to the earlier sunsets.
Springtime Rafting Trips
If you prefer a more comfortable outside air temperature, April averages 83°F highs and 53°F lows while May averages 93°F highs and 67°Fs, making for some ideal hiking and rafting conditions down in the Canyon. Also, if you prefer an adventure with less extreme rapids challenges, take a rafting trip during a low water season in either spring or fall. Don’t fret, you’ll still get your whitewater, but with the river carrying slightly less water during this time of the year, your overall experience will be more laid-back.
Though spring is a blissful and comfortable time of year to raft your way through the Grand Canyon, you will unquestionably experience the Canyon in all of its many faces of glory no matter what time of the year you decide to visit.
There Is No Bad Time For A Rafting Trip
In other words, you can’t choose a bad time to raft down the Colorado River. To date, the CRMP has regulated water flows that are always run-able for both motorized and non-motorized trips. There was a time in 1983 when the water levels were so high, that the National Park Service required passengers to hike around Crystal Rapid. This however was during a time when the water from Lake Powell was spilling over Glen Canyon Dam, and being released at around 100,000 cubic feet per second. There has not been a time when too little water was released, forcing rafters to hike around rapids. If you are hoping for the lowest water levels and slowest moving water on your trip, consider rafting in April, early May, late September or October. Every year the amount of water being released changes with the amount of moisture gained in the winter, due to this rafting outfitters cannot guarantee any water levels during any time of year. Having said this and as touched on above, one important fact to consider whether choosing to raft the full length or partial canyon beginning at the south rim, slower and lower water levels sometimes make certain rapids react more aggressively and contrastingly some larger rapids react less aggressively during higher faster water flows, so really any time during the commercial rafting season is a good time to visit Grand Canyon for a raft trip.
What Happens In The Whitewater Rafting Off-Season?
Wondering what everybody is up to when the whitewater rafting season in the Grand Canyon is over? Rather than rest and relaxation, we and our operators are doing the hustle and bustle, making sure everything is perfect for the next season Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trips. Our operators use every moment they can during the tourism lull, excitedly preparing behind the scenes.
First and foremost on the off-season chore list for all operators is equipment maintenance, and they all take this extremely seriously. As you can imagine, all of the rafting equipment (rafts, oars, motors, dry bags, tents, cots/sleeping pads, chairs, coolers, life jackets, etc.) sees a lot of use during the commercial Grand Canyon rafting season. Constant upkeep is imperative and regularly performed during the season. Yet, operators use the off-season to scour every inch of their equipment in their warehouses fixing any dent, ding or potential problem. Everything gets cleaned and repaired. If something cannot be easily remedied and carefully revamped, our operators choose to purchase brand new equipment. Safety first!
In the operators’ offices, staff is hard at work organizing details, updating menus general paperwork including risk waivers and medical forms for the upcoming season. They update trip packets that have specific details on every aspect of every trip to help better prepare rafters for their vacations. Seasoned guides go through training courses to stay fresh on their knowledge and CPR/First Aid, and new guides get put through the training wringer. Here at Advantage Grand Canyon we’re busy adding the new whitewater rafting trips that our operators have meticulously crafted. If you’ve already booked your trip, check out our blog and FAQ to prepare yourself for the adventure that awaits. If you haven’t booked yet, contact us today!