You can choose between two distinct approaches to seeing the spectacular Grand Canyon on the Colorado River: wait until February, send in $25 for a public lottery assigning launch dates for the following year and then gamely tackle the river yourself–or you can sign on with one of more than a dozen commercial rafting outfitters licensed by the National Park Service to show you the river-running experience of your life.
Besides being the safer choice, hiring a guide allows more time to watch for soaring condors, to see ancient Indian ruins and half-hidden crystalline waterfalls, and to soak in the towering red-columned splendors of this mile-deep geologic wonderland.
You can opt for a motorized or oar-and-paddle-only trip, or a combination journey. Most hosted trips last three to 18 days and cover all or part of the 277 miles of the river between the outflow of Glen Canyon Dam upstream at Lee’s Ferry and Lake Mead downstream.
A weeklong adventure costs $2,000 to $2,500 per person–cookouts and skinny-dipping included. Spring and summer are the most popular times to go. Searing inner-canyon air temperatures commonly exceed 100 degrees F from July through early September, when summer thunderstorms roll off the high desert. The rains diminish come mid-September. The weeks from the first day of autumn through Halloween offer an excellent time to raft, featuring less competition for prime camping sites, comfortable daytime temperatures from 70 to 90, delightfully cool nights and splashes of color in passing canyon foliage.
INFORMATION: Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023, (928) 638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca (watch the 40-minute online video, An Introduction to Colorado River Running).
BOOKING A TRIP: Arizona Raft Adventures, (928) 526-8200, www.azraft.com; Hatch River Expeditions, (800) 856-8966, www.hatchriverexpeditions.com; Western River Expeditions, (800) 453-7450, www.westernriver.com.
A Little History
Although a Spanish explorer stood at the south rim of the Gran Canõn as early as 1540, reporting that some of the rocks were “bigger than the great tower of Seville,” one of the world’s great spectacles remained the secret haunt of bands of Hopi and Paiute peoples for centuries. It wasn’t until 1869 that a 35-year-old Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell set out to explore the deep and daunting canyon of the Colorado River. On May 24, he pushed off into the Green River with nine mountain men and their supplies loaded in four oak-and-pine dories. Nearly three months later, navigating through the splendid strata of two billion years and braving roaring red rapids with standing waves the size of houses, two battered rowboats finally beached at Virgin River. Five of the men and their leader had survived the 1,000-mile adventure.