Simply standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon will make you see the world anew. But nothing compares to floating hundreds of miles through it, with towering, 4,500-foot walls jutting overhead and the mix of silent stretches of calm water interrupted by heart-pumping rapids. Some of the wonders of the canyon are only accessible from the water, and nights spent along the banks of the river, far away from it all, are unmatched.
On the itinerary of a Grand Canyon boat trip: whitewater rapids, swimming, sandy beaches, hidden slot canyons, side canyon hikes, and tasty meals. A full trip down the canyon is considered to be from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek and navigates 226 river miles and 80 big rapids, like the legendary Crystal and Lava Falls. Phantom Ranch, the historic cluster of cabins at the bottom of the canyon, offers a midpoint to start or end a trip to save time.
There are two different types of river trips in the Grand Canyon: commercial and non-commercial. The latter is for folks who can execute a trip on their own (you know who you are). The commercial trips are run by professional guides and are how the vast majority of people boat the Grand Canyon. But picking the right journey from the many options can be daunting. Below we break down everything you need to know about commercial trips, from length and launch points to outfitters and seasons, so you can make the best choice.
Choose A Trip Length
Trips on the Colorado through the canyon proper are anywhere between three and 18 days long. The advantages of a longer trip are obvious: camp in many different spots, explore different areas and side canyons, and let the experience marinate. That said, the shorter trip options mean time constraints shouldn’t prevent you from going. Our advice: Take as many days as possible.
Main Launch Points and Take-Outs
The length of the trip often dictates the launch point and take-out. Shorter trips won’t cover the river in its entirety, and often either cover the upper canyon or the lower canyon.
Lees Ferry: This is the beginning of the canyon. It’s river mile zero and most trips start here.
Phantom Ranch: The ranch is located at river mile 89. The section between Lees Ferry and Phantom Ranch is the upper canyon. The only way to get to Phantom Ranch is by mule, on foot, or by boat. Trips that end or begin here require a steep 10-mile hike to the South Rim. (Pipe Springs is not too far away and is another access point). The biggest rapids on the river are between Phantom Ranch and Whitmore Wash.
Whitmore Wash: This is river mile 187. Whitmore doesn’t have road access, just a helicopter pad. Boaters are often flown to Bar X Ranch on the North Rim and then to another airport, usually in Las Vegas, NV, or Page, AZ.
Diamond Creek: Diamond Creek is the next access point at River Mile 226. This is a popular take-out point and boaters exit the canyon via a long dirt road.
Pearce Ferry/Lake Mead: Pearce Ferry (mile 281) is another main take-out at Lake Mead. It’s the end of the road for boaters.
Choose A Boating Style
Outfitters use a variety of different boats to get down river, and what you choose has a big impact on your experience. Do you want a motorized pontoon (fast) or a raft you help paddle (fun)? Or something in between? Here are the choices.
These are the most common boats on the river because they save time and you don’t have to do anything but enjoy the ride. These are large pontoon rafts with a pilot who steers with a motor. These rafts are big and stable, allowing your guide to head right into the big rapids, so it’s an exciting ride. And since motor trips cover miles more quickly, they leave more time for on-foot exploration, compared to a similar-length trip. If you have a limited amount of time but want to see as much of the canyon as possible, a motorized trip is a great option.
On oar trips, guides paddle smaller rafts down the river with two long oars. Usually there’s less than a half-dozen passengers on these boats, making for a more intimate experience. With these smaller rafts you can expect a more thrilling ride as they move through big rapids.
If you want to paddle the river yourself, choose a paddle trip. Each passenger on the raft will have a paddle and the guide will give directions. On all paddle trips, boaters will paddle all day everyday.
On hybrid trips there will typically be paddle rafts, oar rafts, and perhaps some inflatable kayaks. This means boaters can choose their experience on a daily basis, alternating high-energy paddling days on paddle rafts with days of sitting back and relaxing on an oar raft.
Dories are what was historically used to boat through the canyon. They’re large, canoe-like boats made of wood and/or fiberglass and rowed with oars. (The speed record on the canyon is 36 hours and 38 minutes, set by river guides in 1983 who rowed a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. They rowed round the clock during a historic flood that pumped the canyon full of water). Along with paddle rafts, dories offer the rowdiest river experience. Only a few outfitters offer dory trips.
Some outfitters can accommodate people with disabilities on river trips (like Canyon Explorations). Canyon offers trips for folks with disabilities like MS, CP, and paraplegia; trips allow room for adaptive equipment and they specifically tailor side canyon trips around accessibility.
Choose A Season
Commercial trips operate between April and October. Here’s a breakdown of what each season is like on the river.
Expect fewer people and variable weather. In April the wildflowers are blooming and average temperatures are typically lows of around 50 degrees and highs of 82.
Summer is peak season in the canyon, it’s the most crowded time of year as well as the hottest (temps range from 80-115 degrees during the day and 70-90 at night). Summer (July and August) is monsoon season, meaning that afternoon rain is common.
There are fewer people on the canyon in fall, and the temperatures are more moderate; a little warmer than springtime but cooler than the summer months. This makes it more pleasant to explore and hike during the warmest part of the day. There’s usually less rain in the fall.
Expect to plan at least a year ahead if you’re picky about dates or if you have a large group, but if you and your crew are flexible on timing and trip style there’s a good chance you could book a trip sooner.