Over six million people visited Grand Canyon National Park last year, and for most of them, their lasting impression of the park is the view from the top of the canyon looking down. From the rim, where thousands of people gather each day to gaze at its spender, the canyon looks bottomless; there are only a few viewpoints where you can glimpse the Colorado River: the reason the canyon exists in the first place.
Some adventurous visitors hike a mile or two into the canyon, but only a small percentage of those who visit the park make it all the way to the river at the bottom. An even lower number spend time on the river. Floating through the magnificent canyon by day and sleeping on sandy beaches at night is a chance to see and experience the Grand Canyon from an entirely new and thrilling perspective.
Most float trips begin at Lees Ferry at the far northeast boundary of the park, a spot where boats can be easily put into the river, but that’s about the only thing the different types of boat tours have in common. Park concessionaires offer a wide variety of tours (on different types of boats) that last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It can be confusing trying to decide which kind of trip is right for you. This article will explain some of the factors to consider and hopefully help you make informed decisions before you book your trip.
In 2016, we went on a Grand Canyon dory trip from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch (floating a total of 89 miles on the river) with fourteen of our friends and a crew of ten. A year later, we published a book about that trip titled Dories, Ho! The text in italics below is a short, edited excerpt from Dories, Ho! where we discuss aspects of the different types of trips that are available. If you’re seriously considering a float trip through the Grand Canyon, you should read the full-version of Dories, Ho! It’s a front seat, day-by-day recounting of our trip and will give you a first-hand perspective of what it’s like to spend a week on the river.
This adventure was such an incredible experience that we made reservations to do it again later this year (2019), but our next trip will cover the entire length of the Grand Canyon over sixteen days.
Planning Your Trip
I can think of at least five things to consider when choosing a Grand Canyon river trip: cost, type of boat, which guide company to go with, route and time of year.
On top of those factors, there is also the decision of whether to take a commercial trip, or if you are an experienced boater, enter the lottery for a permit to do a private trip. Even though there were boaters in our group, we never entertained the idea of attempting a private trip.Going with a commercial outfit is not inexpensive. Costs vary depending on the type of trip, length, the number of days, etc. For us, this was a once in a lifetime event. Was it worth it? In my opinion, yes, it was worth every cent. Given the time, logistics and supplies that go into putting on a trip like this, I understand why the guide companies have to charge the prices they do in order to have a viable business.
A list of tour operators
Current float trip rates are easily accessed on the Internet or directly from the guide companies. You can find a list of commercial river trip concessionaires on the Grand Canyon National Park website.
Choosing which type of boat
One detail that made it much easier for us to choose which guide company to go with was our choice of boat type: a dory. We all had just read The Emerald Mile: a bestselling book by Kevin Fedarko about a record setting dory trip through the Grand Canyon that took place in 1983 during a rare flow surge of the Colorado River.
A dory is a small, shallow-draft boat, about 16 to 23 feet long. It’s usually a lightweight boat with high sides, a flat bottom and sharp bows. As fragile as these boats look out of the water, they’re capable of carrying five people and a large amount of cargo through the canyon. Their wooden hulls are more susceptible to damage from rocks and debris than rubber rafts, but in comparison, dories are much more maneuverable. A skilled boatman has a better chance of avoiding obstacles on the river in a dory than in a lumbering raft.
Choosing a tour company
Once we decided to go with dories, there were only a couple of companies listed on the Grand Canyon National Park website that offered dory trips. The company we chose was O.A.R.S. They provided our group with an incredible experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed riding in the dories, but I’m curious what it would have been like to float the Colorado River on the other boat types. Rafts are by far more prevalent than dories. Out of the sixteen guide companies who offer river trips through the Grand Canyon, most of them offer trips using rafts as their main boat type.
Paddle rafts are the smallest type of raft. On a paddle raft trip, passengers are required to paddle the entire way, which is different from an oar raft trip. Typically, on an oar raft trip, passengers ride while a boatman or boatwoman rows. There are also hybrid raft trips on which there is a combination of oar and paddle rafts. On a hybrid trip, passengers typically have a chance to experience both types of rafts during the course of the trip. Some companies also offer inflatable kayaks as an option, usually in conjunction with a paddle raft trip.
Based on numbers of passengers per year, motorized raft trips are the most popular. They’re the largest boat type on the river, move fastest through the canyon, and are also less likely to flip. It is however, possible for every boat type to flip. Regardless of which watercraft you are in, the conditions and outcomes can be unpredictable. That’s part of the deal.
Choosing the length of your trip
The route we chose was Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch. With Lees Ferry being the beginning, Phantom Ranch (between mile 88 and 89) is the mid-point on river trips through the Grand Canyon, but it isn’t halfway. It’s the middle because it’s the only practical place for people to hike out when they’re only going part of the way through the canyon, or to hike in if they’re joining a trip for the last portion. Pearce Ferry, a popular take out spot for trips going the entire length of the canyon is just outside the boundaries of the park at mile 280, but many river trips cover less than 280 miles.
O.A.R.S. sent us the itinerary well in advance of the trip: meet the lead boatman at the DoubleTree Hotel in Flagstaff the night before we launch; next day go by van to Lees Ferry; spend six days on the river; stay overnight at Phantom Ranch (at the bottom of the canyon); hike the next day from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim along the Bright Angel Trail; and from there take a shuttle back to the DoubleTree Hotel in Flagstaff.
Other routes that are typically offered by river guide companies are Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek (225 miles), Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry (280 miles), Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash (100 miles), and Whitmore Wash to Pearce Ferry (92 miles). There may be other routes available, but these are the most popular. Not all of these routes are offered with each boat type or every time of year.
The National Park Service limits the size of any group to twenty-six. This limit includes passengers and staff. Our trip had sixteen paid passengers and ten staff including the boatmen. Not all trips have twenty-six people.
What time of year to go?
If all of these options are not enough, there is one more factor to consider: what time of year to go. When we booked our trip, O.A.R.S. offered dory trips from April through October. We wanted to go late enough in the year that it wouldn’t be too hot, yet not so late that it might be cold. We also learned that the National Park Service does not allow motor-powered watercraft on the river after September 15th. With this restriction, the river is less crowded after the 15th—and less noisy. All considered, the last week in September was one of our choices and we were fortunate to get it.
Of all the options we chose, there is only one thing I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight: we should have floated the entire length of the canyon rather than only the first half. When it came time to disembark at Phantom Ranch, no one was ready to leave.
Most of the people we talk to about our river trip have another pressing question that I didn’t answer above. How do you go to the bathroom on the river? That’s also a topic we covered in Dories, Ho! The text below in italics is another excerpt from our book where we discuss this topic.
Originally, I had not intended to write in detail about the latrine. But from our conversations with people who are contemplating going on a river trip, we’ve learned that this is a topic in which many are interested. It’s not so much that they want to know the details. Rather, the lack of information about it causes them considerable anxiety. I hope this description will help people who are considering a river trip put this anxiety behind them. Here we go. (Shameless puns intended.)
Being that it was our first night out, the crew needed to explain some of the nuances of living on the river. Andy was the lucky boatman who got the chore of giving us the hygiene orientation.
Staying healthy was vital to us having a happy and harmonious week together. Given the communal nature of the kitchen, food preparation, and eating areas, hand washing was mandatory. You must wash your hands after you visit the latrine, and before you approach the meal table. Andy was polite as he delivered the cleanliness speech, but he was serious, as he should have been. “If we see you not wash your hands, we’ll call you out on it. We have to,” he said. Any illness in camp would spread immediately if the group didn’t adhere to a strict cleanliness routine. We were fortunate that everyone in our group remained healthy throughout the trip. That’s not always how it goes.
The crew had stories about trips where one person catches a virus, and the entire group gets sick. There have even been times when a virus from one sick group sickened the next group who camped at the same site on a subsequent night. Given that there is no easy way to get a sick person out of the canyon, everyone on the river needs to do what they can to minimize the spread of germs.
Next was the bathroom talk. Other than the fear of flipping over and drowning in a rapid, going to the bathroom in the wilderness creates the most anxiety amongst first-time river-goers. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this was the source of worry for me before the trip. Now that the trip is over, I can say that my anxiety was unnecessary. Still, living for a week in the wilderness is not the same as staying at a Hampton Inn.
To start, a river trip in the Grand Canyon is strictly a “pack it in, pack it out” trip. Meaning, everything we brought with us had to be packed out, with very few exceptions. We could pee, bathe and brush our teeth in the river, but that was about it. (Regarding what type of soap we could use in the river, O.A.R.S. trip planning literature stated, “We recommend using a liquid biodegradable soap such as Campsuds or Dr. Bronner’s.)
The rule for peeing was you had to go in the river or a bucket. The buckets were then emptied into the river. As the lead boatman told us, “Dilution is the solution to pollution on the river.” There was a time in the past when it was acceptable for river rafters to pee on the ground away from the river, but eventually that turned the campsites into giant, smelly litter boxes due to the small amount of rainfall in the canyon.
With twenty-six people doing number one in the river we needed some basic pee traffic control. Andy told us that when we stop during the day for lunch or hikes, and there is no latrine set up, the rule of the river is “skirts up, pants down.” This apt phrase meant that women were supposed to head upstream from the boats to find a place to go and men downstream. Following this simple rule would give the women at least a fighting chance at privacy. I must not have been paying attention when Andy told us this rule. For the next couple of days, every time I started walking upriver with determination one of the women passengers would yell, “Skirts up, pants down!” I thought, “What does that mean and why are you yelling it at me?” Finally, Karen pulled me aside and explained.
“That’s why the women all go together because you guys keep wandering upstream,” she said.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only guy who didn’t understand the rule. The women would head upstream, try to find large boulders near the edge of the water to hide behind, and then form a half-circle facing outward, surrounding the woman whose turn it was to pee. When a guy would approach, the women standing guard would yell, “Skirts up, pants down! Geeeez!”
The river has a slight tide, a daily rise and fall in level, due to Glen Canyon Dam releasing water at different rates during the day. There were times when the tide was out and left a band of wet sand at the shoreline. The wet area made it difficult to pee so that you “hit” the river without having to step (or squat) in the mud. In those instances, hitting wet sand or mud was acceptable.
Depending on the time of day, the woman weren’t always required to pee in the river. If our camp was set up and they didn’t like the idea of “hitting the river,” there was a pee bucket in the latrine area. The crew also provided us with small blue buckets we could take to our individual campsites in the evening to pee in rather than trying to make our way to and from the river or latrine in the middle of the night.
On our first night out, I thought this was a ridiculous idea and decided it would be much easier to stand at the edge of the river and do my business. So, at 2:00 am, half asleep, in a strange place, and without wearing my contacts, I stood on the uneven sand and nearly fell face-first into the water. My middle-of-the-night close call taught me to be sure I knew where my little blue bucket was before falling asleep.
Peeing though, wasn’t the greatest source of concern amongst the passengers. After the pee talk, Andy explained the rest of the latrine set up. Each day when we landed at our campsite for the evening, the crew would find a secluded, out-of-the-way area to place the potty. The system was well thought out. At a safe distance from the toilet, there was a hand washing station, which consisted of hand soap, a bucket of filtered river water, a spigot connected to a foot pump and a drain bucket. Everyone coming out of the latrine must wash his or her hands. The crew also placed roadside reflectors along the trail leading from the hand washing station to the latrine. The reflectors were a lifesaver when it was dark out.
The toilet was a small box about two feet by two feet wide and the height of your toilet at home. (If you don’t have a toilet at home, I’m sorry.) It had a lid that could be sealed shut to keep the contents contained when the crew carried it to and from the raft. Campers and river goers have nicknamed these boxes “groovers.” Why groover? There was a time when they didn’t have butt-friendly seats. The box just had a hole at the top, and the edge of the box would leave a groove on the user’s bottom. Finally, after years of grooved backsides, some genius came up with the idea of attaching a traditional toilet seat to the box and—no more grooves, but the name stuck.
Andy explained that our groover was a chemical toilet, meaning that chemicals are applied to the waste to reduce odor and speed the composting process. Next to the groover was a plastic container of white powder that you sprinkled onto the contents of the toilet after you’re finished. Andy explained, “You just sprinkle this white stuff on, you know, what you left in the box. Kind of like sprinkling powdered sugar on a donut.” Nice. I could have lived without that imagery. That’s how the latrine got the nickname “The Bakery.”
The groover was for number two. There was a pee bucket next to it for number one. It was acceptable to put toilet paper from your groover-business into the groover. It was not acceptable to put toilet paper from your pee-business in the pee bucket. That had to be placed into a separate plastic bag so it could be packed out. The reason for this, of course, was that the pee bucket got dumped into the river when we broke down camp and you can’t dump toilet paper in the river.
We only had one “toilet paper in the pee bucket” violation on the entire trip. One of the female passengers forgot and violated the rule. Her blunder caused her considerable guilt. It ate at her. All morning she fidgeted nervously. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t make eye contact. None of us knew her secret. We became worried about her. Then she came out with it, “I put toilet paper in the pee bucket!” she announced to the group.
“I know,” said the lead boatman. “I fished it out. You get to fish out the next one.”
Now, you might ask, as I did before the orientation was over, “How will one know if someone is occupying the latrine? Are we supposed to whistle while we’re in there?” This sent a shot of fear through Karen. She can’t whistle. Thankfully that was not the correct answer. The key was the toilet paper, literally. There would be only one roll of toilet paper in use at any time. When the person using the latrine returned to the hand washing station, they must place the roll next to the hand wash bucket. This would be the only signal that the latrine was unoccupied. If there was no roll of toilet paper sitting next to the hand wash bucket, do NOT go to the latrine.
The peaceful coexistence of the group depended on everyone respecting this rule (as well as also the hand-washing rule). There were only a couple of times when someone would fail to bring the key back with them, each time resulting in a line up at the hand washing station. As soon as there were twenty-six people in line, we would realize that someone forgot to bring the key back with them from the latrine. Or, if ten minutes went by without the toilet paper returning, we would send a discovery party toward the toilet area. Fortunately, those expeditions never found anyone at the latrine, just a lonely roll of toilet paper resting next to the groover.
The latrine arrangement was all well and good, but we would be spending half of our time away from camp, on the river or hiking. What then? Andy said they had an emergency kit if anyone needed to go number two when the latrine wasn’t set up.
Karen later asked me, “How do you think that works? What if you are having an ‘emergency’ in the dory?”
I’m not sure how the emergency procedure would work on a dory. I guess we would row to shore. If we couldn’t get to shore in time then–I don’t know. No one asked, and the situation never presented itself.
Finally, Andy had special instructions just for the women. He reached down and grabbed an old army surplus ammo can that had “Fem. Kit” stenciled on the side. As soon as Andy said, “Now, for the women who might need to…” all of the husbands headed back toward the center of camp. As I was walking away, I looked back to see Andy and the wives in serious conversation. There was a lot of head nodding and looking in the ammo can. A few minutes later, standing in the middle of camp, we heard the women off in the distance explode into laughter. Andy appeared out of the bushes by himself shaking his head. We gave him one of our beers for being a good sport.
Hopefully, this article gives you some of the necessary information you need to jump start your trip planning or to help you decide whether a river trip through the Grand Canyon is for you.