Why you should raft Grand Canyon, a 5-year trip

Why you should raft Grand Canyon, a 5-year trip

Option Gray founder Cody Martin takes us through his trip rafting the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. He calls it a five-year trip. Why? Because this "once in a lifetime/bucket list/you have to do this trip" could easily be yours if you put a little bit of cash away every month. Any dream is not unreachable ... It's setting and achieving small goals, which ultimately allow you to achieve the big goal. Follow along with his recount of the trip, and get inspired to start planning yours.


Wave hits a woman on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

What you are about to read is my experience taking a 137-mile trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Before we get going, I want to let you know ahead of time that this is not an inexpensive trip. However, it is worth every single penny you sink into it. That’s why I’m calling it a 5-year trip. This trip will change your life and provide you a host of experiences you will not be able to get anywhere else in the world.

View of Grand Canyon from the South Rim.
The most common way to see Grand Canyon National Park is from the North or South Rim.

"If you want to truly experience the vastness and awe-inspiring magnitude of Grand Canyon, you need to go to bed with the darkness and wake up with the light. You need to rest under the stars and let the roar of the river put you to sleep. That’s how you truly experience a place like this."

Most people travel to Grand Canyon and they see it from Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, take a couple of pictures from the easily accessible observation points, and are in awe at the vast views of the canyon. It’s easy to do. It’s so easy that most of the parks 5 million visitors per year do that exact same thing. Out of those 5 million, roughly 20,000 make their way down the canyon and float the Colorado River by one means or another. When you spread those folks out over the length of the season and the length of the river, the number of people you will run into on the river drops quite a bit.

However, if you want to truly experience the vastness and awe-inspiring magnitude of Grand Canyon, you have to explore it. You have to become intimate with it. In order to do that, you need to hike it and you need to paddle it. You need to go to bed with the darkness and wake up with the light. You need to rest under the stars and let the roar of the river put you to sleep. That’s how you truly experience a place like this.

Last minute gear check at Maswick Lodge the night before departure.
Last minute gear check at Maswick Lodge the night before departure.

Again, I’m calling this a 5-year trip because it would be well worth the investment of time and money for you to pursue. It’s a bucket list trip for many people, as it was for me and my wife. If you have the means, put yourself on a 5-year plan. Simply put, start saving $50 per month for the next five years. Heck, if you can save more, do it. That will just cut down on the time you have to wait to take the trip.

By the numbers

9 Days spent on the river

137 Miles traveled

4 Oar Rafts for people and gear

1 Dory as the traditional Grand Canyon boat

1 Paddle Raft for those wanting more adventure

The night before our trip officially began, we had an orientation meeting at Maswick Lodge, located at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We had made hotel reservations some six months in advance. Standing outside on the back patio, to get away the noise of the lodge’s cafeteria, our new teammates slowly made their way in. We checked each other out, to get a sense of who the people were that we’d be with. Two families of four from England, three childhood friends (now 65 year olds) originally from New York City, and us. With introductions complete, the AzRA guide went over logistics for the next 12 hours. Meet in the lobby at 5:30am. Make sure everything you’re taking to the river is in your pack, with the rest in a duffel that will be taken back to Flagstaff for you. This is your pee bucket. Here are some snacks for tomorrow. Drink water. And, don’t forget to be here at 5:30am.

We headed back to our room and passed out. After driving through the night from Texas, we were ready for sleep. Even the excitement of the trip finally starting couldn’t keep us up.

The next morning, we met in the lobby (and fortunately, everyone was on time). The Bright Angel Trail Trailhead is right in the middle of Grand Canyon Village, and we began our descent as the sunrise started to show its colors.

  

Starting down Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail connects the South Rim with the Colorado River. It is 7.5 miles long and can be considered strenuous by most standards. However, the beauty of the environment you are surrounded by more than makes up for the difficulty of the hike. While hiking down, you lose approximately 4,600 feet of elevation and the average time for the trip is usually 4-6 hours.

But, we weren’t in any rush. Being able to set your own pace gives an opportunity for the slowest hikers to enjoy the trip. We knew we wouldn’t leave in the rafts without everyone accounted for. We wanted to take the opportunity to slowly warm up to the vastness of the area we were entering. To take in the beauty that is Grand Canyon.

Sunrise on Bright Angel Trail, coming out of the South Rim.
Sunrise on Bright Angel Trail, coming out of the South Rim.

Making small talk with our new friends and teammates, we were able to learn a bit about their lives: where they are from, how they decided to embark on such a trip, and their thoughts and fears about what we were starting. We had to keep remembering to look up from our feet and pause, to take in the beautiful views of the morning sun coming over the canyon cliffs.

Bright Angel was giving us a seamlessly never-ending amount of switchbacks, which help to establish an approximate 10% grade.

Switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail.
Switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail.

The National Park Service has installed four bathrooms from Grand Canyon Village down to the river. As long as the water pipe is functioning, you can get potable water too. We stopped at each rest area to take advantage of the view and wildlife. Deer, squirrel and numerous types of birds were fairly common.

Eventually, we arrived at Indian Garden, which is a lush oasis appearing out of nowhere. There are several structures there, one of the four bathrooms and plenty of places to sit down and rest in the shade. We topped off our water and ate our snacks, watching the traffic of the trail. We saw park visitors on mules heading down the trail for a day trip, hikers and campers, and started to see folks who were coming up from a week on the river.

Mules coming through Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail.
Mules coming through Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail.

We left Indian Garden and continued the descent towards the bottom of the canyon. Along the way we saw more beautiful scenery, crystal clear water and amazing rock formations.

Rock formations on Bright Angel Trail, with clear springs feeding into the Colorado River.
Rock formations on Bright Angel Trail, with clear springs feeding into the Colorado River.

Eventually, we made our way down far enough to be exposed to our first glimpse of Devil’s Corkscrew. The hikers we met coming up definitely didn’t appreciate the views as much as us hiking down. The name “Devil’s Corkscrew” is pretty straightforward in its meaning. The switchbacks create a sort of corkscrew appearance from above and the midday heat in the summer can easily top 125 degrees, hence Devil in the name.

"I’m calling it a 5-year trip. This trip will change your life and provide you a host of experiences you will not be able to get anywhere else in the world."

We had passed some hikers headed up right after we left Indian Gardens. Seeing their “AzRA” shirts, we introduced ourselves. Some of the guides were taking rafters up, would hand them off to our orientation guide at Indian Gardens, and would hike down with the slower paced folks, making sure everyone was getting down safely. We had continued down on our own, but Trevor, one of our guides quickly caught up with us. In his late 20’s, Trevor had the partially grown-out facial hair that made him look the part of a river guide. He’d already spent six days on the river and with his sarong tied around his waist, he kept going, much faster than we were hiking, to get back to the boats. He had work to do.

With every turn we thought we’d see the river, and finally did. Walking down to Boat Beach was a great feeling. Three of our fellow rafters were doing the entire trip, and therefore didn’t hike up Bright Angel. We are finally able to meet the rest of our teammates. “The Sisters” were from Southern California and were going to give us a run for our money. I’m not sure of their ages, but one was a proud grandmother. Having rafted the entire canyon for the last 21 years and the other rafting it for the last 12 years, we were pretty amazed at their love for this place. Mike, the third teammate that was doing the entire river, is a retired AzRA river guide from Michigan.

Loading gear into dry bags at Boat Beach, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park.
Loading gear into dry bags at Boat Beach, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park.

Becky, our Trip Leader, gave us our dry bags and gave us a quick overview on how to pack our “blue bag” (which we’d get at camp every night) and our “white bag” (which we’d keep with us while on the rafts). Born and raised in Missouri, Becky had gone to Colorado on a short river trip at 18 years old. She fell in love with everything about life on the river and moved to Colorado at 19 to pursue it as a career. Guiding in Colorado, Costa Rica, and other parts of the world, she finally ended up in Grand Canyon. Her serious but friendly demeanor quickly put everyone at ease.

Our backpacks we used from the hike were emptied and were stored by the guides in large waterproof dry bags where they remained until the end of the trip. Into the white bag our water bottles, carabiners, sunscreen, camera, rain gear, hat, sarong, etc. went. At approximately 24” tall and 18” wide, it held a lot more stuff than we thought it would. In went our clothes, personal hygiene products, camp mug, etc. into the blue bag, which can also hold much more gear than you think.

"Keeping your cool, swimming towards the boats, and really paying attention to what was going on was critical. We weren’t at Disneyland. This was a place where bad accidents happen."

We were also assigned and fitted with a PFD. Each PFD is assigned a name, written in permanent marker across the back. This way you can make sure you use the same one throughout the trip. I thought my assigned life vest name of “Condor” was fitting, although with my wife’s reaction of eyes rolling, it seemed she thought otherwise ...

With all our teammates safely down the canyon and with everyone’s gear sorted out, we had our first lunch of the trip and prepared to head down the river. For AzRA’s “Classic Adventure” they typically offer one paddle boat on the trip, which requires six teammates to paddle while the guide steers, via a single oar in the back. After asking our three veteran team members, we found out Jay, one of the river guides, was in charge of the paddle boat for this trip. A river guide and oarsman for AzRA for over 20 years, Jay is a tell-it-like-it-is person who can be serious and yet hilarious at the same time. A lifelong resident of Montana, his love for the outdoors and big spaces was evident. Little did we know getting volunteers for the paddle boat is hit or miss, so he quickly agreed to secure us a spot for the day.

  

Finally on the river

With the boats loaded up, we had little time for our paddling 101 lesson from Jay. We started with Pipe Springs Rapid and promptly headed towards the Horn Creek Rapid (10).

It should be noted, the Grand Canyon uses a 1-10 rating system that mirrors the international class I-VI ratings system with a 10 equaling that of a class V rapid on the international scale. The Grand Canyon’s rating was in use well before the international scale became prominent and they continue to use it today.


The first rapids we experienced at Horn Creek Rapid, much bigger than what we could have ever imagined.

"I was genuinely terrified and yet had the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever experienced in my life."

Jay went over the commands he’d yell out, so we’d know when to paddle and when to stop. He then gave us our first safety talk, and the reality of what we were doing really sunk in. “Be an active participant in your own rescue” was one thing that we’d hear again and again. Keeping your cool, swimming towards the boats, and really paying attention to what was going on was critical. We weren’t at Disneyland. This was a place where bad accidents happen.

My wife summed up this moment well when she said, “Preparing for the trip, I was so busy trying to make sure we had all the right gear that I forgot we were going on a big water rafting trip. It wasn't until we hit that first big rapid that I realized what this trip was really about. I was genuinely terrified and yet had the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

After the adrenaline faded and Horn Creek Rapid was done, we set up camp near Mile 91 Creek. This is where we got our first taste of nightlife on the river. If you’ve never slept under the stars with zero interference of light pollution and man-made noise, you are in for a treat.

Dinner time at Mile 91 Creek. Good food with good people.
Dinner time at Mile 91 Creek. Good food with good people.

Everyone picked their own place in the sand to camp and Becky gave us the camp tour. Two bathroom stations are set up at camp, each with a growler (for #2) and a hand-washing station. The growler, a metal box with a circle lid, allowed us to pack out poop. Urine goes straight into the river, so you can either use your pee bucket and then dump it, or just go to the river’s edge. At first the “all liquids into the river” rule was a bit odd, but as Becky explained, the idea of showing up at campsite that reeks of urine and feces from previous campers ends up ruining the experience for everyone. So in the 1970’s the National Park Service required all feces to be packed out of the National Park while the fast-running Colorado River would dilute urine and other liquids to where it wasn’t an issue. "Dilution is the solution to pollution". I'm not sure who coined the phrase, but it is life on the river.

With my wife’s birthday just the day before, Jay surprised her with a chocolate birthday cake made fresh in a Dutch oven--and it even had candles. With our guides and teammates singing her the Happy Birthday song, it was the first of the many kind gestures from our newly formed group of friends.

As the sun went down, we gathered our camp chairs in a broken circle and Trevor sang a few songs, strumming along on the guitar. The sand was kind to our very sore bodies, as the hike down Bright Angel that morning was felt in the legs of every member of the trip. Sleeping right there on the beach, we felt lucky to walk a few feet to our sleeping bags.

  

A big day of Grand Canyon rapids: Granite, Hermit, Crystal

The next morning, the coffee call came bright and early, before the sun was even up. We had an amazing breakfast cooked by Jay and Becky, broke camp, and loaded up. Mile 91 Creek's beach has brush along the shore, separating the river from the beach. Working together as a team and grabbing gear as each guide needed it was important. These boats are loaded up to ensure the weight is in the right place.

We spent a little bit of time that morning going over where we were going, what was going on with the river, and what we were seeing around us. This morning routine would quickly become a special time for the group, as Becky would read to us history, geology, and poetry about and inspired by Grand Canyon. As we got further into the trip, these readings would start to come alive for us, with the poetry having a deeper meaning and a deeper impact on our lives.

Day 2 was a huge day for rapids. We negotiated for the same group from the previous day to be on the paddle boat, since our time before seemed too short. That morning we would run Granite Rapid (9) and Hermit Rapid (9).

It’s hard to describe the feeling of a 9 or 10 rapid unless you experience it first-hand. In the history of Grand Canyon, different theories emerged on how to best tackle these beasts. Anything from weighing down boats with chains to going through rapids as slowly as possible had all been tried, without much success. Finally, it was found that going into rapids head on gave boats the best chance of getting through right side up.

AzRA guide Jay gives a pep talk and words of wisdom to the paddle boat before Hermit.
AzRA guide Jay gives a pep talk and words of wisdom to the paddle boat before Hermit.

Before each big rapid, we'd get a great overview of what to expect, which really got us to buy into what we were doing. We were the “engine” for the raft and Jay would guide our boat into the waves. His experience had taught him how to read the river, seeing how to tackle each drop, hole, eddy, rock, or wave. Hermit was no exception. Jays words of wisdom this particular morning were:

"For Hermit, basically there is about 10 waves. We're going to go through the first three, which are a bit tame. Then we get to four and you're going to be like, 'Really...right down the middle?' Number four has this big right hand lateral off of the big face. We're going to try to drift left and go onto the steep, flat part of it. Number five has a tendency to surge. The top five or six feet will just explode. We have to drive up that one as far as we can get. Sometimes, the boat can just stop and skip down the front of that face because it's so big and steep. If that happens, it's, 'Oh **** and hang on.' Just try to stay in your seat and lean into the wave. As soon as we stop leaning into the wave, we just cartwheel down. This one has a really great exit, 2.5 miles of flat water below it, so it's a great chance to pick up the pieces, all of the people, and flip the boat back over."

Looking back now, I'm sure that getting a fresh crop of newbies at Boat Beach and taking them through such advanced rapids is not an easy feat. We had no idea what we were doing, and yet Jay did a phenomenal job getting us to take what we were doing seriously, while still being able to have a ton of fun.

"Jay would yell for us to start or stop, but you're just giving it all you've got as you try to get through."

Today was a great example of what having knowledgeable, experienced guides can do for your trip.

We started at the top of both Granite and Hermit, where the river narrows, and would start paddling. Jay would yell for us to start or stop, but you're just giving it all you've got as you try to get through. On Hermit my wife, who was in the far back right of the boat, lost her paddle as a wave came in from the back. Blindsided, it ripped it from her hands. She said paddling kept her mind off of the magnitude of what she was doing. That is was far more terrifying to just hold on than to paddle.

Luckily, guide Wes and trip assistant Trisha found her paddle downstream. 

Fun fact, this was Wes' first time down the river as a guide. He'd been assisting for years and so his mom, Trisha, came as an assistant on this trip. Trisha works in the office for AzRA and makes it on a trip at least once a year to keep "in the know" about what's going on with the river trips she helps support. Wes is getting ready to graduate from college, and it was really neat to see them together. Trisha's support and trust in her son's abilities as a guide were apparent.

Cooling off in Grand Canyon on a small day hike.
Cooling off in Grand Canyon on a small day hike.

We stopped for lunch just before Crystal Rapid (10) and took the opportunity to scout that beast. A notorious rapid in Grand Canyon, the guides picked out their lines and we launched head first into Crystal Rapid. 

Crystal is unique in that two side canyons come together at this particular spot and it is filled with numerous holes. It ends with a collection of rocks you have to navigate, affectionately called the Rock Garden. Crystal is the beginning of a series of rapids called the Gems. Having little experience on whitewater of this magnitude, I can say that Crystal Rapid was eye opening to say the least.

The guides made it clear that this rapid was the real deal and being in the paddle boat, Jay made sure to give us another pep talk. He old us what was expected of us and gave us directions as to what we needed to do if someone went over or if the boat flipped. In under five minutes, he opened everyone’s eyes to the seriousness of Crystal Rapid. Keep in mind, numerous people have lost their lives over the years at the hand of this particular rapid, and he masterfully created the desire in every one of us to follow his instructions, see our critical role as a member of the team, and to take what we were doing at this moment seriously.

Paddle hard. Don't fall out of the boat. If you do fall out, swim away from the rocks. Listen to what your guide will be telling you to do. And again, be an active participant in your own rescue.

Got it.

  

A bathroom with a view

Camp on the Colorado River, Mile 109
We used our sarongs to get some shade in the late afternoon.

After getting through the Gems, we set up camp at Mile 109. It was a good way to end a good day. Feeling like you gave it all you could on an adventure and having your entire group come out unscathed is an awesome feeling.

We were still sore, as we'd be feeling Bright Angel for a few more days, and getting to camp in mid-afternoon allowed everyone to take it easy for a few hours, do some laundry in the river, and get a Colorado River bath.


Rest, relaxation, and a little bit of the American spirit in Grand Canyon Mile 109 Camp. 

Mile 109 is a great camp, especially for larger groups. We settled in and enjoyed the evening, hanging out and listening to some good music from some fellow trip members and guides. 

A typical camp has the kitchen fairly close to the beach, as you don't want to haul all the stuff you need too far. The growlers were set up on either side of the camp, so you can get a little bit of privacy from the rest of your group while you do your thing. Depending on the camp, it can be more private than others, but Mile 109's is especially memorable.

Probably the best view of any restroom I’ve used. Typical bathroom setup for a Grand Canyon chartered trip.
Probably the best view of any restroom I’ve used. Typical bathroom setup for a Grand Canyon chartered trip.

The West growler was a bit of a hike up, but it offered amazing views of the river. Honestly, there is no better bathroom view, bucket or not. Seeing the turn of the river as you sit down to do your business can't be beat.

  

Canyons and swimming

Day 3 began and we continued our trip with more rapids. Every day you get to pick a boat to ride in, with the team rotating through each of the guides, as every guide had different stories to tell, different facts about the history and geology, and contributed to the experience in their own way. With two days back-to-back with Jay on the paddle boat, it was time to try something different.

AzRA guide Randy on the Colorado River
AzRA guide Randy, telling stories on a calm portion of the Colorado River.

We got to ride with oarsman Randy Tucker today. Randy is a 31-year veteran of Grand Canyon, which was just amazing to us. Quiet and unassuming when you first meet him, you quickly realize he is full of amazing stories and wise words, and had us laughing most of the time. With his graying handlebar mustache and long hair kept back in a ponytail, this proud dad and grandpa talked a lot about his family, as his oldest son is also an AzRA guide--and you probably couldn't tell them apart at first glance!

He first came to these waters with his son's boy scout troop, wanting to try everything as he thought he'd never get the chance to come back. Through a series of opportunities, he found himself using his vacation time to run the river a couple times a year, and finally got a chance to give it a go full time. My wife, only half-joking, still says she wants to be just like Randy when she grows up.

Before lunch, we made a stop for a little side trip. We pulled over, secured the boats and made our way towards Elves Chasm.

The short hike into Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon.
The short hike into Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon.

I had no idea what to expect, but was amazed at the treat at the end of this short hike.

There is a deep pool at the bottom of a small waterfall. With the Colorado River being muddy due to the high rainfall, the clear water is a welcome relief to cool down, rinse off, and have some fun.

The waterfall and pool at Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon.
The waterfall and pool at Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon.

Here, we took the opportunity to go for a swim in the emerald-colored water. The great thing about Elves Chasm is that you can swim up to the waterfall and climb up a little cave behind it. This allows you to pop out of a big hole about midway up the waterfall. Once you make it to this point, the water is deep enough for jumping off.

Taking the plunge in Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon.
Taking the plunge in Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon. Nothing like some healthy peer pressure to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

After spending some time relaxing and playing in the water, we headed back to the boats and made our way to our lunch location. We ended up stopping at Blacktail Canyon, which we were able to hike. This slot canyon offered us some much needed relief from the sun and the opportunity to explore its beautiful rock structures.

blacktail Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park
We were at a place in Grand Canyon where the oldest rock peaked out of the earth to meet the youngest rock, and you could touch both at the same time.

"Like every part of the trip, you're left wanting more of this place. More time to explore, more time to take it all in."

The short hike ended when we reached a pool of water and a rock wall. The water is typically clear, but the heavy rains from the monsoon season had left it a milky brown, much like the Colorado River. It was a beautiful place nonetheless.

The guides had set up lunch in the shade of the canyon, which was an awesome experience. Chicken salad sandwiches, cookies, and some rest on the cool rocks were only made better by music.

Strumming the guitar in Blacktail Canyon
AzRA guide Trevor takes advantage of the special sound only Blacktail Canyon can offer.

The guitar and vocals echoed off the canyon walls, and when it was time to go, the time here seemed too short. Like every part of the trip, you're left wanting more of this place. More time to explore, more time to take it all in.

White water rafting on the Colorado River
The Colorado River is cold, even in the heat of the Arizona summer. 

We launched our boats and made our way down the river. We hit a few more good rapids before finally arriving at our next camp site at the mouth of Tapeats Creek.

Evening at Tapeats Creek, Grand Canyon National Park
It's almost dinner time next to Tapeats Creek, Grand Canyon National Park.

After another amazing meal, a few beverages and music, we settled in for the night.

  

A day off the river

The next morning, the call for coffee came a bit later than normal, as the sky was starting to show the lighter blues of the morning light. We drank our coffee and ate breakfast before our morning briefing. Betsy gathered us around and caught us up on the plans of the day, which included another night camping at Tapeats Creek. The flow of the river was quite high due to the monsoon rains and we were making really good time down the river. A nice surprise, we were getting a day off from breaking camp and loading boats.

Hiking to Tapeats Creek and the Colorado River
A brief hike from the campground to where Tapeats Creek feeds into the Colorado River.

On that day we were offered several options to choose from depending on your level of interest and energy. All of the choices centered around hiking up Tapeats Creek for various distances.

The guides set up a "make your sandwich" station and we got to packing lunches for the day. To our surprise, the Brits on the trip had never tried a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Our usual go-to lunch for hikes, we got most of them to make one so they could experience first-hand how good a squished sandwich can taste after getting some miles in.

Beginning the hike to Thunder River

The first stop on the hike was a neat feature in the creek that allowed us to slide into the cool clear water and float the current for a short distance. By the time we got up to this part of the creek we were already getting hot from the Arizona sun, so getting into the ice cold and crystal clear water was a welcome relief. We learned quickly that any time you get to water, you give yourself a good dunk, keeping you cool for a few more miles.

A natural slide in Thunder River, Grand Canyon
A natural slide allowed us to get in the water and feel the strength of the current, even in this small creek.

We would slide down a smooth part of the rock until we hit the creek, and then just let the current take us into the pool of shallower water.

If we didn't know it already, experiencing first-hand the power of just this small creek was humbling. You really felt how such a small, rushing amount of water can have so much power. 

Looking back towards the Colorado River
Looking back towards the Colorado River.

A few folks chose to take it easy and relax a bit at this location and a few of us chose to continue on hiking. The terrain and topography of the hike varied quite a bit over the next few miles. It was interesting to see how fast the landscape changed depending on how close or how far you were from the creek, as any water source offered such a contrast to the desert around us.

The final approach to Thunder River
The final approach into Thunder River, a welcome break from the harsh Arizona desert. 

We finally made it to Thunder River, which is water raging out the side of a canyon wall.

Thunder River travels a mile or so down the canyon and joins forces with Tapeats Creek. Rumor has it, Thunder River is the shortest river in the world.

The hike up to Thunder River was not particularly difficult, but I will say there are a few sections that are pretty sketchy. One in particular, just prior to reaching the mouth of Thunder River, is extremely narrow and covered with small pieces of shale. On top of this, you are really exposed on one side with a pretty good vertical drop. We approached this short section with a little more caution and navigated it just fine.

Peanut butter and jelly lunch break at Thunder River
PB&J lunch break at Thunder River. A few folks managed to get a quick nap in too.

The view back towards the canyon is really impressive.

All in all, it was worth every minute and ounce of energy it took to reach the mouth of the river. The beauty and power of the water forcing its way out of the rock was mystifying.

Getting a fill up at Thunder River
Getting a fill up at Thunder River.

We ate our squished and absolutely delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, filtered water and lounged around a while before making our way back down the trail.

  

An unexpected exit

On our way back down, we heard a sudden scream and look back to find that a teammate had fallen off the trail. I'm not sure how far she fell, but probably around 30 feet. However it happened, she ended up in good condition in a shallow part of the creek. 

"Having experienced guides made all the difference. [That] gave us the best outcome in two potentially terrifying situations. "

It really is nothing short of a miracle, as if she had fallen further up the trail it would have ended much differently, but she was okay. We were lucky to have a guide who was a medic and was able to assess her injuries, which mostly consisted of scrapes, gouges, a couple hundred cactus prickles, and fairly deep bruises. It was a scary moment, and a reality check for the rest of us. 

This caused us a little bit of a delay in getting off the trail and by the time we got back to the part of the creek where the rest of our teammates were, they had already headed down. Becky asked to talk to my wife and I in private. 

A friend who had come on the trip with us had stayed back that morning to take it easy. She had gotten a bug bite of some kind the previous day, and had been experiencing some discomfort from it. We didn't know but after we had left for Thunder River, her symptoms had gotten much worse, very quickly. Just one side of her face was swelling and she was seeing spots. These symptoms matched stroke symptoms and Becky made a satellite phone call, as it was critical to get our friend out of the canyon as quickly as possible. The National Park Service sent a helicopter to get her. It turns out her "bite" was actually a scorpion sting. As a neurotoxin, it triggered Bell's Palsy, which can mimic symptoms similar to a stroke.

In both of these events, having experienced guides made all the difference. A medic to bandage and stabilize our teammate and then having the team in place to get our friend to a hospital in Flagstaff as quickly as possible gave us the best outcome in two potentially terrifying situations. (We found out later that AzRA's owner picked our friend up from the helicopter pad, took her to the ER, got her a hotel room to stay in after she was discharged, picked up her medications, and took her to the airport to get home--a level of customer service that we can't say enough good things about. Option Gray is not affiliated with Arizona Raft Adventures (AzRA) at all, and we paid full price for this trip, but want to pass on a good company when we find one.) 

We got back to camp and took it easy that afternoon, trying to digest the craziness of the day. We were thankful our teammate was able to begin healing with her family by her side, and thankful our friend was able to get to medical treatment and rule out a stroke. 

  

Blue water meets muddy water

The next morning, we took off down the river and made a quick stop at Deer Creek Falls after an extremely short hike. Deer Creek meanders its way towards the north side of the Grand Canyon where it makes its dramatic plunge 180 feet down the falls. That amount of distance creates quite a force when you are standing underneath the falling water. It was like getting sprayed with a power washer. The amount of energy it created was unbelievable. We took some time and played in the water before heading back and making our way a short distance down the river to have lunch.

Dear Creek Falls in Grand Caynon
The water pressure and wind at Deer Creek Falls is so intense, it's almost impossible to walk directly underneath the waterfall.

We then made our way down the river and hit Upset Rapid (9), which offered quite a rush after running smaller rapids most of the day. After Upset, we paddled our way down to our next stop, which was at Havasu Creek.

Havasu Creek meets the Colorado River
It was mesmerizing watching Havasu Creek water mix into the Colorado River.

Havasu Creek offers some of the most beautiful water I’ve seen. You first take notice of it at the confluence of the clear waters of Havasu and the milky brown waters of The Colorado. It was really neat to see those two coming together.

Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon Arizona
Havasu falls offers clear water, a break from the muddy Colorado.

The turquoise colored water is a stark contrast to the earth tones of the rock and sand in every other direction. The lower pools of this creek can be described as a paradise in the middle of an extremely harsh environment. We had ample time to relax and swim at this awesome location before moving on. What a great experience.

We travelled down the river for another couple miles or so before setting up camp for the night. 

Nighttime stars in Grand Canyon National Park
Going to sleep to the sound of rushing water with big, bright skies. 

It was a long and narrow camp, where most of us had to sleep on the large rocks right next to the river. The water was right next to our sleeping mats, and sleeping to the sound of the river rushing right next to you, staring up at the stars, was surreal. What a way to fall asleep.

  

Lava day

The next morning, we were all woke up by a random rain shower that kicked off in the wee hours of the morning. It sent folks scrambling for cover. Those that were smart enough to set up a tent "just in case" quickly got dry. Luckily, we had all of our essentials in our dry bags and hurriedly stuffed our sleeping kit into a dry bag as well. We used our sleeping tarp for cover while we donned our rain gear and got the morning started.

Despite the rain, we went through our normal routine of packing up camp, loading up the boats, and quickly got on the river. It was going to be a big day for us, as it was Lava day. The day we went through Lava Falls.


In monsoon season, small waterfalls pop up as the water comes into the canyon and feeds into the Colorado River.

If you think you can’t get cold in the Grand Canyon in August, think again. The rain and clouds gave the canyon a completely different feel. Water came down in any way it could. Small waterfalls were popping up all along the sides of the canyon.

It felt COLD after so many days in the hot Arizona sun. Becky had us get out and hike up a small creek, and getting moving what what we needed to get warm.

Rafting the Colorado River in the rain
Running the rapids in the rain created a totally different experience. 

Finally, the rain stopped and the clouds gave way to sunny skies. We stopped for lunch near Stairway Canyon. After a quick but relaxing lunch, we continued on until we neared the infamous Lava Falls (10). We stopped just short of Lava to scout the rapids.


The guides and team members scouting Lava Falls.

The guides took their time to make sure we picked the perfect line. If the water is normal or low, they would go right. If the water is high, they would go left. We were right at the middle, so picking to go left or right was critical. We received a pep talk from our guide, Steve, who was paddling the dory. 

"We drifted on the calm water, which gets incredibly smooth and focused in those last yards leading to the rapids. Steve fought the urge to paddle here at the beginning, just like the guides had talked about doing. The dory hit the edge of the ledge and here we went. The class 10 Lava Falls, the crux of Grand Canyon rapids, was finally here."

Steve is a great guy, quiet at first but very humble when it came to his skill on the water. He had trained and helped lead blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer down the Colorado back in 2014 ( you can get the book he wrote about the experience, No Barriers). Erik had hired AzRA to support the trip and it was on this trip that Steve got connected to Jay and Randy, who you met above.

Needless to say, seeing Lava Falls for the first time was a mix between fear and excitement. Knowing that we had Steve guiding our boat put us at ease and we were all ears to his pep talk. He talked us through the different things that could happen and how we could be better prepared for the worst-case scenario, which was getting sucked to the bottom of the river and waiting for it to push you back up.

Getting ready to run Lava Falls, Grand Canyon National Park

Everyone got into our boats and pushed off from the bank. Steve made sure the gear was locked up and we were ready to go.

We drifted on the calm water, which gets incredibly smooth and focused in those last yards leading to the rapids.

The beginning of Lava Falls, Grand Canyon

Steve fought the urge to paddle here at the beginning, just like the guides had talked about doing.

Rafting Lava Falls in Grand Canyon National Park

The dory hit the edge of the ledge and here we went. The class 10 Lava Falls, the crux of Grand Canyon rapids, was finally here.

Rafting Lava Falls in a dory boat

Lava Falls waves in a dory boat

A dory boat hitting a wave in Grand Canyon National Park

Coming off the drop, we took a big hit and got spun sideways heading into the rest of the rapid with the right side of the boat facing the action. This meant we were heading towards the Big Kahuna Wave completely sideways.

This was the moment when Steve screamed, “Hold on!”

Big Kahuna wave in Lava Falls, Colorado River

The dory started to lift on the downstream side due to the force of the impact. Fortunately, Steve was able to high side and prevent us from potentially flipping over.

Dory boat comes out of Lava Falls

We came out of it full off water and adrenaline. Words can’t describe the excitement of that rapid, although it was short and over way too soon.

The paddle boat, which was behind us, had one passenger knocked overboard by the power of one of the waves. She did exactly as she was supposed to do and was promptly plucked from the cold Colorado River. It was a neat moment to see Dad pull his daughter to safety.

Right after Lava Falls is the campsite Below Lower Lava Falls Beach, or commonly known as Tequila Beach. Because after that experience, a little tequila is needed to calm your nerves.

It was an amazing campsite and set the scenario for a fantastic evening. Besides, we had our post-Lava celebration to take advantage of.

Costumes for guides on the Colorado River
Betsy and Trisha, in the spirit and tradition of Grand Canyon guides, dressing up for dinner.

That evening, the guides donned their choice of costumes and clothing and urged us to all join in the festivities...which we did. It was an awesome way to end the day. We had a great dinner and spent the evening chatting and telling stories, getting some life lessons and inspiration from the New York Contingency. Talking to three childhood friends that were now in retirement meant they were full of advice. We tried to soak it all in.

  

When it rains, it pours

The evening festivities ended a little earlier than everyone anticipated. 

My wife and I noticed the clouds thickening and the usually bright light of the moon becoming more and more obscured. We broke off from the festivities to gather up our drying clothes and began setting up our tent. As we were finishing the set up, all hell broke loose from the sky. A fierce thunderstorm let go with torrential rain and nonstop thunder and lightning.

Lightning storm on the Colorado River

We shoved everything we could in our dry bags, the best we could, and crammed everything else in the tent. We used sarongs to soak up any water that had accumulated in the floor. Meanwhile, the storm raged on. At one point, I heard a thunderous crashing sound coming from the river. In my uneducated river mind, I thought it was a wall of water coming down the canyon to sweep us down the river. I unzipped the tent door enough to look out into the darkness and waited for a flash of lightning. The thunder cracked, the lightning flashed, and I was able to see a waterfall raging off the rock face on the opposite side of the canyon. The loud crashing sound had been the initial surge of water and all the debris and rocks it had flushed into the main river.

In the meantime, the guides were busy trying to help folks secure belongings and set up tents. They also assisted some folks in moving their tents out of areas where waters were rushing towards the river. After a while, the storm subsided and we were able to get some rest.

The next morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise and began to assess the damage. 

There were several areas where water had come through the camp with significant force. 

Tents were fortunately moved and if the guides had not moved all the kitchen and cooking gear it would have been well on its way down the river. 

Camp at Tequila Beach, Grand Canyon National Park

They did an excellent job and everyone had a good time telling stories of how their night went.

After a sort of slow morning drying out and gathering gear, we eventually got everything loaded and left camp. 

  

Slower days on the river

We paddled for a bit and made a quick stop at Whitmore Wash around mile 188. This provided us the opportunity to view a pictograph panel where the bottom of the cliff merges with the talus of the slope below. 

Petroglyphs along the Colorado River
Petroglyphs along the river.

It was really neat to see this bit of history has been preserved for folks to enjoy.

We paddled on, stopped for a nice lunch then made our way to Parashant Wash to set up camp. We ate a nice meal, hung out for a while and turned it in for a relaxing evening under the stars.

We took off the next morning and made our way further down the canyon until reaching Pumpkin Springs for lunch. Pumpkin Springs is named after a spring that is found there that roughly resembles a bulging pumpkin. It’s a very interesting limestone formation that is filled with various harsh elements and high levels of arsenic. We were advised to stay away from the water, which seems like sound advice. Anything that color is probably not good to touch.

We made our way down the river to a location prime for cliff jumping. A few folks decided to take advantage of the opportunity and took a good plunge from the hot rocks of the river side into the cold Colorado River. 

Jumping into the Colorado River
Jumping into the Colorado River.

It was very refreshing and allowed us to have a little fun just prior to eating lunch.

Some folks were a bit intimidated by the jump, including my wife, but after so many days on the river together, there was a lot of positive peer pressure. Teammates that were afraid of heights were able to overcome and we had everyone end up in the cold river.

Climbing in Grand Canyon National Park
Climbing down into the rock.

We were also able to climb down into a naturally formed circular cut out, which led to a small ledge, perfect for an afternoon nap. 

Guides napping on the Colorado River
Nap time on the rocks. Just a few days with the guides and you start to catch on with how they can sleep pretty much anywhere.

After lunch we took off and made our way to set up camp just past Three Springs Rapid, one of the most beautiful camps I've been to. The evening has happy and somber at the same time because we knew it was our last night on the river. 

We had another great meal and had a special evening. Each person was able to share their favorite memory of the trip, express what it meant to them, and one of the New Yorkers had written a song for all the guys to sing ... "Cause I love that muddy water, Grand Canyon you're my home" ... Still pops into our heads often. It was an evening we'll always remember.

We finally turned it in for our last night, sleeping under the stars and listening to the sound of Colorado River.

  

The last day

The next morning was a little more of the same routine, which we all had down so well. 

Morning sunrise with tents at Three Springs Camp
Morning sunrise at camp. We learned our lesson from the previous rain storms and always set up a tent, just in case.

There was anxiousness and excitement in the air knowing it was our last day. 

Loading up rafting boats on the Colorado River
Loading up the boats for the last time.

We took off down the river and made our way to the takeout at Diamond Creek. We were with Jay on the paddle boat again, and enjoyed the slow pace of the river.

View of Three Springs Camp, Colorado River
Saying goodbye for the last time to camp.

We made it to the takeout late morning and beached the boats. AzRA had a truck there to pick up all the gear as well as a bus to take us all back to Flagstaff. We began the process of unloading and breaking down the boats.

Unloading boats from the Colorado River

It felt good to get out of the boats, even though the most time we spent in a boat was probably 4-5 hours in a day. 

AzRA Crew picture
Our raft crew at the beginning of the trip: Betsy (Trip Leader/Oar Guide), Wes (Oar Guide), Randy (Oar Guide), Steve (Dory Guide/Food Master), Jay (Paddle Captain), and Trevor (Oar Guide). Not in photo is assistant Trisha (Section Assistant/Helper). Photo provided by AzRA.

Diamond Creek and is roughly at mile 226 and is located on and run by the Hualapai Indian Reservation. 

Hualapai Indian Reservation Diamond Creek

With that being said, there are some special rules and considerations that must be followed while you are there, mostly being respectful of the tribal land.

Unloading boats at Diamond Creek, Colorado River

We finished packing up, and were pretty stoked to see the sandwich spread that was waiting on us. We had coolers with ICE in them, which was something we hadn't had the entire trip. 

 

The wrap up

Once you depart the take-out, be prepared for a bus ride back to Flagstaff that is roughly 3 hours long. The first half is a rough creek wash (Diamond Creek Wash). We made two stops on the way back to Flagstaff. The first was were Diamond Creek Road meets Historic Route 66 in Peach Springs, AZ. We took a quick bathroom break at the Hualapai Tourism building and we were soon back on the road. 

Bus ride out of Diamond Creek, Grand Canyon
The bus trip out of the river was surprisingly not as rough as we expected.

We continued down Route 66 until we made our next stop, which was in Seligman, AZ. At this stop, we enjoyed some awesome ice cream at Delgadillos Snow Cap. It can be described as your typical, quirky Route 66 stop with eclectic decor. 

Delgadillos Snow Cap in Seligman, AZ
Post-trip ice cream in Seligman, AZ.

We were soon on our way and finally made it back to Flagstaff. We were greeted by an AzRA employee who had all of our “non-adventure” bags, which were left behind the morning of our hike down Bright Angel. She also had room keys for anyone staying the night at the Double Tree. We were driving back that night, so for $7 we got a shower at the Flagstaff Community Pool, which was money well spent.

"If you can put away $50 a month, this is a trip worth taking."

That evening we met the group as well as all of the guides at Salsa Brava Mexican Restaurant for the post-trip dinner. This was a nice way to see everyone (cleaned up) for the last time. It also gave us a chance to give proper farewells, which was bitter sweet.

It's hard to describe unless you experience a trip like this for yourself. You get away from the hustle and bustle of technology, work, and overcrowded cities. It takes a few days to let go of it all, and then you don't even notice when you finally settle into the rhythm only nature can give you. Our guides gave us a small glimpse of what life is like on the river. They educated us, kept us safe, gave us history lessons, read inspiring poetry, laughed with us, drank with us, and helped create lasting memories.

One of the poems they read along the trip was about how they sometimes think about "that guy from Ohio" and wonder how he's doing. I find myself doing the same thing ... Wondering if Trevor will get into that post-graduate program, if Wes ends up taking over his family's business, if Randy still wants to meet up on that fishing trip, if Betsy's enjoyed her back-to-back hiking trips, if I'd run into Steve on a mountain bike trail in Colorado, or how Jay's cross-country road trip went. I also think of our teammates, and how I plan to make good on the "call me when you visit" promises we made.

If you can put away $50 a month, this is a trip worth taking. You'll get to know your teammates and guides and hopefully create lifelong memories. It will refocus your life on what really matters.