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


Grand Canyon Whitewater

For more photos, click here!

Green River Rafting – Gates of Lodore

After a week in Colorado, it was time head to Utah for my 2nd OARS whitewater rafting trip.  My first experience with OARS was a 4 day trip through Canyonlands in Utah.  I had such a great time, I did not hesitate to sign up for 4 days on the Green River through Gates of Lodore.  OARS just happened to have a “solo travelers” trip starting on my 37th birthday….perfect!  For true thrill seekers, I recommend rafting earlier in the season when the water is higher, but I prefer the relaxing fall float trips.

Our trip began with a pre-trip meeting in Vernal, Utah at the OARS warehouse.  We would meet our fellow travelers, get our OARS-issued dry bags and any instructions for the following morning.  I spent the night at the Vernal KOA.  Normally, I prefer a more rustic/remote camping experience, but I needed laundry facilities after a week on the road.

The next day, we met bright and early and jumped into the shuttle van for what seemed like a pretty long trip, with a stop for liquor once we crossed back into Colorado! (Utah has some strange liquor laws)

We were off to an auspicious start, with low water levels, and had to push the rafts pretty far out to get going.  Unlike my previous trip, there were no motors on these boats, just two paddle rafts under muscle power of our two guides, Charlie and Scotty.

9/11 - my birthday and Day 1 of a 4 day raft trip on the Green River through Gates of Lodore with OARShttp://www.oars.com/colorado/greenriverrafting.html

We launched immediately into some incredibly scenic views of the Gates of Lodore.

Each day, as we pulled into our campsite for the evening, the first order of business was to get the “fireline” going – we’d line up and empty the boats, unload our dry bags set up camp.  While we set up our evening accommodations, the guides would get the kitchen ready for dinner.

The campsites were quite scenic!

This was such a fun trip, and a wonderful group of ladies to travel with!

Group photo - Leigh, Irene, Kathleen, Charlotte, Pam, Sadie, Sue, Marc, Scotty and Charlie

As with my last OARS trip, the end of the trip was bittersweet.  Spending every waking hour for 4 days with these folks, along with no electronics, email or outside communication, is kind of hard to snap out of!  I believe they call this the river blues.  I get them every time.

Charlie, me and Scotty

After a shuttle back to the warehouse and some tearful goodbyes, I headed to Steamboat Springs for 1 night, then on to Denver area to camp with friends for one night at Pickle Gulch, then the long drive back to Illinois.  My 2nd OARS trip would not be my last!

For more pictures, click here!


Green River Utah

Cataract Canyon Rafting

For my 36th birthday trip, I reserved a spot on the OARS Cataract Canyon trip – 4 days rafting through Canyonlands National Park from Moab, followed by a sweet Cessna ride from Lake Powell back to Moab. The rafting trip started on a Tuesday, so I had plenty of time to drive from Illinois to Moab.

Overnight Stop in Silt, Colorado

On the drive to Moab, I stopped at the Holiday Inn Express in Silt, CO. What a nice surprise! If there’s one thing I love, it’s having a balcony in my hotel room. This room had a large balcony overlooking the Colorado River….the same river I’d be rafting in a few days! The only downside to this place is there is NOTHING there – I had to get back on the Interstate and go up one exit to Rifle for dinner, which I brought back to enjoy on my balcony.

Arches National Park

Now that the long miles were out of the way, it was time to slow down and start enjoying the scenery. I still had two days to explore Moab before reporting for my rafting trip. I had a campsite at Devil’s Garden Campground in Arches National Park for the next two nights.

Site #4 at Devil's Garden campground in Arches National Park.

This was my first visit to Arches, and being solo, I had planned several short hikes instead of any longer ones. First, I took the short (paved) trail to Windows Arches.

North and South Window Arches from the primitive trail that goes behind them.

Then over to Double Arch

Double Arch

And then on to world famous Delicate Arch – you’ve no doubt seen photos of this one before. There was a shorter hike with nice viewpoints of the arch. Seeing the hordes of people at the arch itself, I declined to hike all the way out. I guess the good photographers must come in the off season…or just Photoshop all the people out!

Delicate Arch

After this, it was back to camp to make dinner and rest up. After washing my dishes at the bathroom, I came back to find my tent….missing! It had blown up into a nearby juniper tree. Staking out a tent in the desert doesn’t quite work the same was as it does back in the Midwest. Too tired to re-stake everything, I crawled into the car (all my cars get the “sleep test” before I buy – can I comfortably fold down the back seats to sleep?)

Fiery Furnace Tour

I reserved a spot in advance for the ranger-led tour of the Fiery Furnace – a maze of sand spires and canyons. It’s highly recommended to go on the ranger tour, as navigation here can be quite tricky! Before this, I had a short window of time to explore the Devil’s Garden trail. The Devil’s Garden is an easy walking trail that takes you past several arches and sandstone formations. I didn’t have time for the whole trail, but what I saw was so beautiful!

The Fiery Furnace tour was incredible – it is like being on another planet. I don’t know how many times it would take to learn the trails like the ranger – I would definitely get lost if I tried this on my own!

Fiery Furnace - the downside of a ranger tour is hiking with 25 other people!

After the Fiery Furnace tour, I wanted to check out nearby Canyonlands National Park. I was surprised, it looked a lot like the Grand Canyon! This small glimpse from the visitor center got me very excited for the Cataract Canyon rafting trip!

Canyonlands National Park (cell phone photo)

Cataract Canyon Rafting

The night before the trip, we met our guides and fellow travelers in Moab, got our OARS-issued dry bags, and received final instructions for the next day. In the morning, we all met at the OARS warehouse, enjoyed one final flush toilet and then packed into a van that took us to our put-in on the Colorado River. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement and butterflies I had leading up to this trip!

At the put-in, we got some basic paddling instruction and hung around the beach while our guides got everything loaded up and ready to go. I was surprised to see that we’d be using a motor for parts of the trip. It makes sense, as it’s not 90 miles of all rapids, so the motor was used on the slower parts, including most of Day 1. We started out with our 3 boats lashed together and had a relaxing float for most of the day.

We stopped to hike at "The Loop" and the boats left to pick us up on the other side

Each day on the trip started with  a yummy breakfast, taking down camp, loading the boats, usually a stop for a hike somewhere along the way, another stop for lunch, and then finding a campsite with plenty of leisure time before dinner.

On the hikes, we saw pictographs, like these:

Ram, sun, rainbow?  Note the handprints on the left - kind of creepy like a ghost left them.

The campsites were quite large, with room for the kitchen, a living room area where we would socialize (no campfires, though!) and tents scattered around. Another important location was the bathroom – we had a few very scenic groover spots (Groover is what they call the toilet on the river)

3 perfectly aligned, symmetrical tents

Camp 3

I can’t even describe how good the food was on this trip – I know, everything tastes better outdoors, but the guides were amazing – cooking outdoors, using whatever they had packed in the boats and we had 3 delicious meals each day. Even the quick lunches they threw together on the beach were delicious! One night we had salmon, wild rice and veggies, followed by a delicious dessert of strawberry shortcake. Another night we had bacon wrapped filet mignon, mashed potatoes and caesar salad. And did I mention the 3 hot men doing all this cooking and cleaning for us?

Salmon (3 flavor options) with fresh veggies and wild rice?  So much for "roughing it" this week!

Day 2 and 3 we really started hitting some rapids – no more loafing about the boat – time to put on the helmets and life jackets and paddle for your life! Ok, maybe not…we did have one lady pop right out of the boat in a rapid (she probably weighed 90 pounds) – and our guide, with one hand still on his oar to keep us in the right direction, just reached over and grabbed her with one hand, and plopped her right back in her seat….it was really impressive! I guess that’s what these guys train for. So, lunch stops also gave us a chance to dry out our clothes

The "flea market tree" where we tried to dry our soaked clothes during lunch

Flight Over Canyonlands National Park

Our last day on the river had a sad feeling – it was all ending way too soon. It was another lazy river day with fewer rapids, ending at Lake Powell, where our charter flight awaits.

And here we are....off the river, and a tiny plane awaits us.  Although I was a bit nervous, it was super cool to fly back over all the sections of the river we'd just spent 4 days floating.

I’m not gonna lie, I was terrified of this plane. At one point, I had looked into having my car shuttled down here, but it was too expensive. So I was stuck. OMG, am I glad I did this!  This was absolutely a case of “fake it ’til you make it” – I plastered a smile on my face, kept my eyes glued through my camera viewfinder and took about 400 pictures. It was incredible, though! I’ve since grown fond of small planes.

Here’s Lake Powell:

Lake Powell

And the confluence of the Green River and Colorado River – this was the start of Cataract Canyon and the point at which we had to don lifejackets and helmets on the river.

Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers - This is the point on the river where we had to stop and put PFD's on

When we landed in Moab, we were shuttled back to our cars at the OARS warehouse. It was such a strange feeling, but I really was sad to see that river trip end. It was easily the most magical 4 days of my life. And I was with a bunch of strangers! I knew this was going to be the first of many OARS rafting trips for me….I was sold! After a short drive, I got a motel room in Monticello, UT for the night.  I hadn’t showered since before the river trip, so I was overdue!

Mesa Verde National Park

The next day I stopped at Hovenweep National Monument and then on to Mesa Verde National Park, where I met my mom, who was on a road trip of her own. We explored various ruins along the Petroglyph trail and then checked in to our room at the Far View Lodge.  We were given a Kiva room, which had gorgeous hand-crafted wood furniture.  We also had a delicious meal at the Metate Room, and watched several bus tours come in and completely take over.  (You may want to call ahead for reservations)

Telluride Blues & Brews Festival

The next day we drove to Telluride, for the Blues & Brews Festival featuring Willie Nelson. What a setting for a festival! I love ski towns, and Telluride was no exception – I would LOVE to go back someday! All the hotels in town were either booked or outrageously expensive, so we stayed in Norwood at the Backcountry Inn. What a gem of a find in this tiny town! I probably wouldn’t want to drive those crazy roads in the winter, but it was a great place to stay close to Telluride.

Willie Nelson did not disappoint; I heard “Roll me up and smoke me when I die” for the first time! I sure do love Willie and hope to see him many more times in concert.

For more photos, click here and here!


Canyonlands National Park