The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and for good reason. Yearly, millions of people come from all over the world just to see it, and strangely, most of them pause on the South Rim long enough to take a few pictures before roaring off to their next destination. But that’s no way to see this great jewel. Not even close. The best way to see the Grand Canyon is by raft. Get down on the river and soak it in.
During your journey you’ll travel 188 miles, camping each night on a clean sandy beach. You’ll explore numerous side canyons. You’ll make new friends. You’ll see amazing sights. You’ll experience the adventure of a lifetime. And many years from now when you’re on your deathbed, your Grand Canyon river trip — it doesn’t matter what other amazing things you did in your life — will be one of the top five best weeks of your life.
Here, then, are seven reasons why you should take a raft trip through one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
1. Apollo’s Temple: Your river trip will actually begin in Marble Canyon. And this is fortunate, for when you find yourself waking up inside Marble Canyon, pause a minute and look around, for you have awakened inside a temple — a temple dedicated to the perfect presentation of light.
When you awake, the camp will still be in shadow but the rims of the thousand-foot cliff walls that surround you will just now be catching the morning’s first bands of light. The early morning light falls in the spectrum between yellow and red, passing slowly through orange.
What light makes it into the bottom of this deep and narrow canyon, to be reflected once again off the river, has been repeatedly reflected, refracted and diffused. Marble Canyon is an actino-lurgical lab; a temple really, where light comes to be melded, bent and gilded, made malleable and soft, and draped gently across Marble Canyon’s cliff walls like beloved pieces of art. Sip your cocoa and take it in.
2. Exploring the many side canyons: It’s amazing really, for the Grand Canyon is a singular paradise, yet inside it, you’ll find dozens more paradises. To be disappointingly honest, there are simply too many beautiful side sights to see during your trip, but your guide will give you a tour of the best of the best.
Perhaps you’ll swim in the healing waters of the Sipapu when you reach the Little Colorado River. Or the Caribbean blue waters of Havasu, every guide’s favorite stop! And then there’s the Patio at Deer Creek, the single-best napping spot in the Grand Canyon. Or you may hike to the Anasazi granaries at Nankoweap, from where you’ll behold the most beautiful view in the entire Grand Canyon.
3. One thousand Veronicas: The Grand Canyon is world famous for its whitewater. It’s a river runner’s Mecca. Rafters come from all over the world to be doused in its famous whitewater. During your week on the river, you’ll run more than 100 rapids. You’ll run your first one eight miles into the trip, and your last one, six days later, about two miles above your last camp.
The biggest whitewater of the trip will come on the fourth day (if you’re on an oar trip, it will be stretched out from day five through eight). The river guides call it Rapid Transit Day, or Gorge Day, because it’s here that you enter the upper Granite Gorge. You’ll conquer 14 of the canyon’s biggest rapids that day, and several more medium-sized ones.
Over and over again the gorge’s massive waves will fold your raft into a shape that looks like a fortune cookie. Hold on a little bit. And just wait until you get to Hermit Rapid. I would nominate Hermit for best rapid in the world. Hermit Rapid alone is worth the price of the trip.
All day long you’ll summit the top wave in a rapid, then lose your breath as the raft pitches downward like a bull lowering its head as it charges the matador, and the wave will sweep over the boat, and everyone on it, like a matador’s cape performing a Veronica (a bull charging through a matador’s cape is a Veronica). After a week of Grand Canyon whitewater, your adrenal gland is going to need its own vacation.
4. The food: One of the best parts of a river trip is the food. And river guides feed you like kings. With the food the guides serve you, you’ll think every day is Gorge Day.
In the course of a typical day on a Grand Canyon river trip, you will go on a hike or two. It may be to an Anasazi ruin, or a scenic overlook. You will stand beneath waterfalls, you will swim in the Little Colorado River, or Havasu Creek. You may jump from the rock at Elves Chasm. That’s good. It’s all good. To experience a true adventure, you must leave your comfort zone.
But leaving your comfort zone can be uncomfortable. That’s where Dutch oven brownies come in. And peach cobbler. And a New York strip grilled medium-rare. With the appetite you worked up, you’d be happy with a peanut butter sandwich, but forget about that. Have you ever had prime rib cooked in a Dutch oven? No? You should try it.
5. Unplug: You’ll pull into camp anywhere from 3:30 to 5 p.m., and you’ll have a chance to do as the river does when it reaches Conquistador Isle: slow down and reflect.
Your day will be filled with hikes and swims, but the afternoon and evening are yours. Down in the depths of the Grand Canyon you can’t get a cellphone signal. There’s no wi-fi. There’s no TV. Get this: people gather their chairs together and actually talk. They explore trails, they wade in the river, they read novels, they write in their journals and draw in their sketchbooks. They throw a Frisbee with their kids. They sit on the riverbank and just stare at the river. They see shooting stars. They remember what it feels like to be a human being, rather than a human texting. And they love it.
6. The night sky: One of my favorite places in the Grand Canyon is my sleeping bag. Not because I’m tired (though I am), but because I like watching the night sky. But after a busy day running rapids it’s a challenge to keep my eyes open long enough to take it in. But every night I still give it the ol’ Boatman Try.
And such will be your challenge. From the minute you leave Lees Ferry you’ll be bordered by tall cliff walls, and your view of the sky between them will be narrow but oh so amazing. From down here the night sky looks like a planetarium with only two of its five star projectors working. But from each new camp you’ll see a new swath of sky and constellations.
Seen from the depths of the Grand Canyon, the night sky is clear, unpolluted and full of stars. From down here the Milky Way is as vivid as a white-sand beach, and it cuts through the sky like a cosmic contrail, or an intrusion of Zoroaster Granite in a wall of Vishnu Schist.
7. Canyon Magic: You will reach river mile 188 and you’ll be helicoptered out of the beautiful Grand Canyon, and you’ll think your trip is over. You’d be wrong about that. In truth, your trip is just beginning, because after a week experiencing its adventure, its grandeur, its paradisical glory, the Grand Canyon is now in your blood. You’ll get home and discover that you can’t stop thinking about it. You’ll browse travel magazines hoping to find an article about a Grand Canyon river trip. You’ve been struck by Canyon Magic.
Grand Canyon Magic is different for each person. For some it was that day they swam in the Little Colorado River. For others it was the majesty of the canyon’s natural architecture. For some it was evening storytime. To initiate storytime, just ask the guides to tell you the craziest thing that’s happened to them down here. Then get comfortable; they can go on for a while.
For many, it was the camaraderie of their fellow passengers. Because the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it attracts curious, adventurous people, just like you, from all over the globe. Put them together on a small raft and a medium-sized camp for a week or two, and they’ll emerge on the other side lifelong friends.
Whatcha waiting for? The biggest misconception about taking a Grand Canyon river trip is that there is a long waiting list. If you want to take a private trip, yes, there's a bit of a wait. But if you want to take a commercial trip you can book it right now for any month next summer.
All the food and gear is provided by the river company. You only need to bring personal items like sunscreen, toothbrush, camera and a change of clothes.
A seven-day motorized raft trip in the Grand Canyon costs about $2,500 for adults and $2,100 for kids 16 and younger. Oar trips cost a little more.
Wilderness River Adventures: 1-800-992-8022. www.riveradventures.com
Grand Canyon Expeditions: 1-866-360-4206. www.gcex.com
Western River Adventures: 1-866-904-1160. www.westernriver.com
Steven Law writes science articles and features for KSL.com, but prior to that he was a Grand Canyon river guide for eight years.