The water in the Grand Canyon is bluer and clearer than most people imagine. When a raft starting at Lee's Ferry pushes into the Colorado River, it looks nothing like so many pictures of chocolate milk like water.
The rock formation shapes and textures and the diversity of color in the Grand Canyon are like no other. You do not have to have geological knowledge to be awe-inspired as you float by the walls of the canyon that provide a rainbow of color.
What You Will Experience
The first river trip someone takes may cause them to discover some unexpected aspects. It is helpful to travel with friends or family who have some experience to provide tips for what to expect and how to keep safe.
You can learn from them. Newbies often don't know the bow from the stern of a boat. You can learn quickly and be rowing through rapids beyond what you imagined—falling in love with the Grand Canyon rafting and learning to row are not the most surprising things you will discover. Some of the things you should know are listed here.
1. Colorado River Rapids Are Dangerous
Watching a video of a rafting trip in no way prepares you for the experience. There is suspense and prayer involved. An experienced oarsman guiding the boat is of great comfort. First-timers often opt or are advised to walk around large rapids.
- Your Job
Even when your job is to sit snugly in the boat and try not to fall out or do some highs siding, the adrenaline from big rapids can be exhausting.
2. Skin Needs to Be Protected
Veteran rafters have dedicated lotions and creams to protect their skin from the havoc they can wreak from days in the water and sun.
- Suggested Products
Two of the best are Aquaphor healing ointment and CeraVe moisturizing cream. You will also need a sunhat, sunscreen, and sun gloves.
3. Bring Plenty of Alcoholic Beverages
Unlike backpacking trips where the packing list demands that you pack light, you can pack beverage refreshments that you can enjoy on leisurely days with few rapids or mealtime.
- Suggested Beverage
Brings some wine to pair with evening meals or beer to enjoy on the water.
4. The Bathroom Situation is Very Primitive
You use an ammo can when you need to go to the bathroom. It is called a groover. The rapidly filling groover returns to one of the rafts each morning. Groups have playfully judged each boat on the scenic placement of the ammo can.
Park rangers recommend showering and rinsing soap in the river. It is a frigid challenge.
5. Some Optional Gear Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
Packing for Colorado River trips is a balancing act. You want to be comfortable and have choice gear for the entire trip, but you must accept that most of it will be stained with mud. Keep electronics in mind, and bring extra dry bags and plastic cases for a waterproof camera, cell phone, backup batteries, Bluetooth speaker, and GPS.
- You Will Get Sand in Everything
Sand will get into your underwear, sunscreen, hot breakfasts, and sleeping bag. You choose between going to great lengths to keep your things clean or relaxing and accepting it. Think about the feeling of sand grain on your face as you apply sunscreen as an exfoliation treatment. Packing some lotion helps.
Have a backup pair of sandals or flip-flops that you can slip on when using the groover at night. One piece of gear that comes highly recommended is a Paco Pad. It is an optional rental item that is worth the investment. The Paco Pad is far better than the sleeping bag found in most backpacking trip gear.
It is a thick pad that doubles as a cushion on the raft. The pad floats in the water. Another item that makes the rafting trip more enjoyable is a comfortable folding chair.
6. Your Eyes Need Protection
Eyecare is of particular concern for those who wear contact lenses. The problem may be the handwashing station that is used. Water is not filtered, and the silt from the water transfers to your hands and, coincidentally, your contact lenses.
- The Solution
It is best to wash your hands with drinking water or not at all. Sunglasses are also a necessity.
7. Know That You Are Going to Get Wet
Those who want to stay warm and dry need to bring pants and rain gear. The combination will keep you relatively dry on the rapids. Shorts and no shirt are an alternative that dries quickly. A sturdy pair of water shoes won't fly off your feet on the rapids.
Neoprene socks are another item experienced rafters bring to save feet from sunburn and drying out—temperatures are very unpredictable on a Colorado River trip. Even on days the canyon has temperatures in the 80s and 90s, it can be frigid.
If the breeze is blowing and the sun is behind the clouds, getting soaked by waves of 47 degrees, you will develop shivers and goosebumps. Neoprene shirts provide extra warmth.
8. You Can Sleep on the Boat
Some people prefer to sleep in a tent, but rafters have found sleeping on the boat and being lulled by gentle waves is very relaxing, especially if you have a Paco Pad suggested above.
- Advantages of Sleeping on the Boat
A bonus of sleeping on the boat is avoiding spiders that crawl on the ground. Temperatures are very unpredictable on a Colorado River trip. In August, the heat indexes are over 100 degrees, with lots of direct overhead sun during the day.
Water released from Lake Powell comes from the bottom and flows consistently at a chilly 47 degrees. If you are on an oars trip, that neoprene top is comfortable even when the air is sweltering. Most newbies expect cold desert nights. Even the wind that whips through the canyon feels hot in the evening. Sleeping on the boat above cool waters is the choice place to sleep.
9. A Longer Trip Acclimates You to River Life
A rafting trip traveling from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch is an eight-day trip. Eighteen days may seem like a long time to be on the river. Fantastic company and food, leisurely calm days drinking adult beverages, waterfalls, and hikes, and surviving terrifying rapids have a way of hooking people on the river life.
- National Park Service as a Resource
The National Park Service has information about commercial river trips that last from three to 18 days.
10. The Grand Canyon Has a Rapids Scale of Its Own
The Colorado River volume is enormous. Class I through VI rapids have a rating scale that is more detailed and vast than the typical range. The change in elevation from the top to the bottom of the canyon isn't very substantial. Rapids are caused by debris that spills from the canyon sides. Some of them are gigantic. They range from one to ten. A ten is a Class V.
Read more about Colorado River Rapid Class Levels
Source of Information
An excellent resource to learn about the adventure and fun in the Grand Canyon is the Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko. It is a book that tells a tale of adventure with the politics, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon woven into the text.