11 Days of Grand Canyon Whitewater

Grand Canyon whitewater rafting has always been a bucket list dream of mine.  Given the cost and time, I sort of assumed I’d be retired before I did it, but for whatever reason, I decided to take the leap for my 40th birthday. I had already taken 3 trips with OARS, so there was no question which outfitter to use for a Grand Canyon whitewater trip.  Spots on any Grand Canyon whitewater trip are highly coveted and must be reserved months in advance. I booked mine as soon as the 2015 dates were available, 20 months pre-departure.

I flew into Phoenix and then caught a shuttle bus up to Flagstaff, where I booked a room using points at the Holiday Inn Express.  I met some of my fellow boaters on the shuttle bus, and they kindly invited me to join them for dinner before our trip orientation that evening.  Soon, it was time to meet our trip leader at a nearby hotel, get a brief orientation and receive our dry bags for packing.  Then back to our rooms to figure out how 11 days of gear could fit into 1 large drybag!

11 days worth of stuff into 1 giant dry bag!

The next morning, we gathered again to board our shuttle vans to Lee’s Ferry, where we met the rest of our guides, and began our journey down the Colorado River.  There were a few other trips loading at the same time, including these monstrous blue motor boats which held a small village of passengers.  We were all glad we chose the OARS trip and didn’t have to listen to a motor or smell gasoline the whole trip.

Sunday 9/6Launch at Lee's Ferry

We quickly settled into the rhythm that became our daily life for the next 11 days (or 5 days, for some of us.)

Sunday 9/6

Each morning, the coffee call comes, which I treated as my snooze button since I don’t drink coffee.  A while later, the breakfast call finally gets me moving.  After breakfast, it was time to break down camp and re-load the boats.

Saturday 9/12Camp 6 - Garnet

The guides had so much work to do each morning, that we were never rushed in packing our tents and personal belongings.  One of our guides, Galena, often led us through a morning yoga practice, which was the perfect way to start our day!

Tuesday 9/8Morning Yoga

Mid-morning usually brought us to a hiking spot or scenic stop. The guides were super great about setting expectations – they’d let us know the length of the hike, whether we might want hiking boots vs water shoes, snacks, etc.

Wednesday 9/9Hike at Tanner

Friday 9/11Hike at Shinumo

Sunday 9/13"Patio" at Deer Creek

Somewhere around mid-day, the guides would look for a good lunch spot and set up the lunch table and a snack table with fresh fruit and any breakfast leftovers.  PB & J on pancakes made for a pretty excellent snack!

Friday 9/11Lunch at Shinumo

After lunch, we’d have more rafting and sometimes another hike, or we’d paddle on to our next campsite, depending on the day.  Upon arrival in camp, we would disperse and set up our campsites, while the crew set up the common areas, like the toilet and the kitchen. There was usually time for relaxation – reading, napping, “laundry”, horseshoes, bocce ball, or enjoying some adult beverages.  Every meal on this trip was top notch – you can’t imagine the delicious food you are being served miles from any civilization!  Not to mention fresh avocados every day!  How do they do that?!

Sunday 9/6The first of many exquisite meals on the beach.

As we settle in to eating our dinner, Ryan, our lead guide, gives us an overview of the following day’s activities so we know what to expect and can pack our daybags accordingly. On several nights, we were treated to a campfire, guitar-playing guides and even a group pedicure one night!

Sunday 9/6The Living Room

Many people slept out under the stars each night.  My tent was mostly mesh, so I got the same effect, but one night (my 40th birthday) I chose a little ledge for my campsite.  No room for the tent, so I slept out in the open.  I loved it!

Friday 9/11Camp 6 - GarnetCowboy Camping on my 40th birthday!

Midway through the trip, we reached Phantom Ranch, where 13 of 16 travelers would hike out and head home.  10 new travelers joined us for the remainder of the journey.  It was bittersweet to bid goodbye to my new river friends so soon, but the 2nd group was just as great to travel with! (If you aren’t going to do the whole trip, it’s worth considering whether you want to hike down to meet the group or hike out of the canyon…it’s seven steep miles! I think the rapids in the second half were better, and personally would prefer to do the downhill hike at the start of my trip)

Thursday, 9/10Group photo from the 1st weekFront:  Maddie, Leigh, Kirby, Linda, Sophia, BruceBack: Ralph, Carol, Stuart, Karen, Cynthia, Kate, Chris, Encie, Joe

In addition to magnificent scenery, geology, history, we had amazing night skies, shooting stars and one day were treated to a rainstorm which created thousands of waterfalls all around us.

Monday 9/14

After 10 nights in the canyon, I was sad that my journey was drawing to a close.  We said our goodbyes at the last beach and hopped a helicopter, which was another highlight of the trip!

Wednesday, 9/16Group Photo at our last camp - 185 mileFront:  Joan, Nathan, Kathy, Shelly, Encie, Kelli, LeighBack: Scotty, Brandon, Runar, Aurelie, Stan, Randy, Eric, Joe, Adam, Sean, Kim, Mike, Joe, George and Ryan

Encie and Joe were the only other 2 passengers who were on the whole trip with me!  They are avid train travelers so I hope to see them again as they pass through Union Station in Chicago!

Wednesday, 9/16Encie, Joe, me and Sean

Wednesday, 9/16Bar 10 Ranch

After showers(!) at the Bar10 Ranch, we boarded a charter flight to Vegas.  Again, pretty spectacular scenery!

Wednesday, 9/16Cessna Flight to Vegas

The “river blues” are no joke!  I was so sad to see this trip come to an end, especially when I was dropped into tacky Las Vegas!  Luckily, I had a few more days to unwind in Zion National Park before I had to rejoin the real world.

I can’t recommend this trip highly enough!  I would do it every single year if I could afford it.  I know I will be back to finish the last leg of the trip from Whitmore Wash to Lake Mead, hopefully sooner than later!

  • Total Cost for this portion of trip ~ $5000 (does not include the time in spent at Zion)
    • $4636 to OARS – included all meals, shuttle to Canyon, helicopter and charter flight!
    • $43 PHX to Flagstaff shuttle
    • $300 Guide Tips (whatever I budget, it never feels like enough – amazing guides!)
    • My flights and Flagstaff hotel were paid with hotel points and airline miles

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Grand Canyon Whitewater

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10 thoughts on “11 Days of Grand Canyon Whitewater

  1. I enjoyed your story right up until you mentioned (rather unfavorably I might add) about the motor trips. Please allow me to point out a couple of things for you….. 8 days and 7 nights on the river and not once did I smell gasoline. I sat at the back of the raft in the “chicken coop” close to the fuel supply and the 30 HP engine. I sat up front (Lava Falls) as well as every other seating position that was available without any gas or exhaust fumes…..
    The low hum of the engine at times not even audible and upon other times actually started to lull me into a nap as I closed my eyes and enjoyed ride and my daydream…..
    No matter how you see the Canyon and no matter the “mode” of transportation you utilize in doing so it is an amazing journey……. You leave the impression in this article that you are some sort of a rafting snob and in turn a bit ignorant to how others want to enjoy life…. Your way is no better than any other way…..

    I am glad you got to go BEFORE retirement. I never had a “bucket list” at 50 years old I started a “get it done now list” much better than a bucket list as your average bucket list is still full but not fulfilled when said bucket list person passes….. That won’t be me and I hope it won’t be you as well….. Enjoy the canyon whenever you can. I have been 2 times and have 2 more trips out there to go still…..

    • Thanks for reading, Jeffrey! I’m sorry to have put you on the defense about your choice of transportation in the canyon. I simply said that everyone in my group was glad that we chose the trip that we did, as we all preferred a more natural, slower, more intimate experience. This was the shared opinion of all 16 of us, not just myself. I honestly didn’t know such a raft existed until I saw them at Lee’s Ferry and I was surprised that motor boats were allowed in the canyon. Thank you for clearing up our misconceptions! However, yes, I may be a rafting snob, as I will always choose OARS over any other rafting company. They are the best!

      I do not disparage anyone’s attempts to enjoy our National Parks and am happy to hear you’ve experienced the canyon more than once! It’s a privilege not afforded to everyone, so we’re both very fortunate people!

  2. This sounds like an INCREDIBLE trip!
    I want to go to the Grand Canyon so much. I was supposed to go last year but the trip ended up not happening in the end.
    I love how in depth your trip was, as opposed to a quick 20 minute stop.

  3. What an adventure! I went to Grand Canyon once in 2009, but only saw it from the rim – I would love to do a similar trip to yours. Seems like it would be the perfect way to experience the canyon!

    • It was an incredible privilege to experience the canyon in this way for such an extended time. I hope I’m able to do it again someday!

  4. This looks likes such a cool trip! Not sure if my kids could handle 11 days though! How long were you in the rafts each day and how did you deal with toilet issues?( Am gathering info for a Grand Canyon adventure for the family next year.) Thanks!

    • You can do 1/2 the canyon by joining or leaving the trip at Phantom Ranch, although it involves hiking down from the rim. Those trips are around 5 days.

      I’ve been on several river trips and the bathroom situation is the same everywhere, you get used to it really quickly, although it’s usually everyone’s biggest worry. During the day, you just go in the water (unless it’s #2, then you have to ask a guide to set up the bathroom) and at camp, you use the “bathroom” which is set up in a private area away from camp. There are 2 buckets (#1 and #2) with toilet seats on top. ‘

      The ranch we helicoptered to seemed like a pretty cool place for a trip, too! (Bar 10 Ranch)

  5. Wow, what an adventure! We saw photos of a similar trip before, but didn’t have time to do it during our visit to Grand Canyon National Park. It’s not a cheap trip for sure, but it seems you are convinced it’s worth its price. Maybe we should consider doing it when we head back overseas one day. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Kudos for you for lasting for 11 days, as I’m not sure I would be cut out for that. This sounds like such an incredible once in a lifetime experience, and looks like you had some wild adventures and made great friends! thanks for sharing! 🙂

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