We gathered some information and tips for your Grand Canyon Trip, that might come handy.
Here are our topics:
1. How can I join a private trip?
2. When is the best season?
3. What do I bring on the trip?
4. How are the rapids?
5. How did an average winter-day in the Canyon look like?
6. Our Grand Canyon schedule
Very often, we get asked, how we could join a private trip on the Grand Canyon, without participating in the lottery for the few non-commercial spots. Well, it’s easy, if you team up with a winner ;-). We found him at mountainbuzz, a website all about watersports. In the forum, trips are often looking for people to fill remaining spots for their trip.
Since June Markus checked the posted topics and got in contact with a few groups. For us it wasn’t easy to join a trip though, as we wanted to kayak the Canyon, rather than oaring one of the rafts. Mostly it’s two or three people per raft, so that the rafts don’t get too heavy to navigate.
In September we got in contact with Mike, an experienced Cat-rafter. He was doing the trip for the sixth time, was looking for trip-members and was ok with us kayaking. We skyped with him a few times, liked each other right away and thought that we want to do the trip with him. When we first talked, we found out, that it will be probably just us three going on the trip, as all his friends bailed out on the “cold” and long 25-days winter-trip, including Christmas in the canyon.
Mike owns all the necessary equipment for the trip (his raft and dryboxes, as well as the portable toilet – named groover – as you have to pack out all solid waste) and really wanted to go, because his birthday was during the trip. The only thing we had to take care of is the menu, as we didn’t want to use an outfitter (who can outfit you with everything you need for the trip, including rafts, drysuits and food) for that.
Menu Grand Canyon
Normally all bigger groups go with an outfitter, as it’s really hard to organize a menu and pack food for a group of 8 or 16 people. To use an outfitter for the menu has also one big advantage, i.e. your food will be cooled or even frozen at all times and therefore doesn’t go bad.
Towards the end of our trip our food situation was a little critical, as we had just one cooler, which wasn’t that cool anymore after about 10 days. But all in all we just lost a handful of veggies and Mike a couple of his steaks. Although on my next trip I would take some more dry food and canned food for the last few days.
Mike is also living in Fort Collins, where we wanted to visit our friends Leif and Natalie anyway, so we could see Mike in person and talk through some details of the trip. Mike is in his mid-fifties, but still young-at-heart, who uses a good portion of his money, he earns with his own company, to live his dreams.
He started kayaking in his teens but due to shoulder-problems around ten years ago, found his new passion: catamaran-rafting. His first Grand Canyon trip was as a kayaker about 35 years ago and after that he applied for a permit and entered the waitinglist, which existed back then. After a waiting period of about ten years, he got his first trip as a trip-leader and since then tried to go on as many trips as possible. This was his sixth trip on the Colorado, so we were in good company. The only thing new for him as well was, that the trip was in winter.
If you want to enter the Lotterie, just team up in advance with the group you want to go with. With all of the group members entering the Lotterie, each with 3 launchdates, you have a good chance to win!
Every season has its advantages and disadvantages! I can just tell our experiences in the winter and therefore have to rely on stories of friends for the other seasons.
and also a few very cold nights (don’t forget to sponge out your kayak, otherwise your feet won’t fit in the morning, because of all the ice!), but on the whole we had surprisingly good weather.
The Grand Canyon is a very arid landscape, with little precipitation in general and down in the Canyon it’ll be always a little warmer than up on the rims. But bring your drysuit, the downjacket and the winter-sleepingbags! But for hikes (perfect in winter) and in camp you will wear T-shirts and shorts often enough during the day! More advantages for a winter-trip are, that your food stays good longer, you are allowed to have a campfire out of driftwood (prohibited in summer)
that there aren’t any commercial trips in motorized rafts with up to 35 people and that you can stay up to 25 days in the canyon. With about 230 Miles (to Diamond Creek) and 25 days on the river it comes down to a stress-free average per day, even when you have – as we had- 7 “restdays”, the so called layover-days!
In summer it is apparently extremely hot, so that trip-members sometimes are just able to sleep, when they are covered in wet towels. The maximum duration of stay is 16 days, so that you have to cover long distances with just one or two restdays. Also be prepared for flashfloods and thunderstorms.
The big and popular beaches are mostly occupied by commercial trips and towards the end of the trip you have to be careful, that your food doesn’t go bad in the heat. But all in all, a summer trip is worth going and a lot of fun, because the Canyon is a magical and amazing place and you can find some refreshment with a bath in the constantly 10°C (50°F) cold Colorado River. But also be careful with this, because of the heat, people won’t wear warmer (neoprene-) clothes and therefore, especially kids and elderly, are more prone to hypothermia. For example in bigger rapids when people fall out of the raft and have to swim a longer distance.
Spring and fall are the most popular seasons for a trip on the Grand Canyon. It’s even better during the commercial low-season with nice temperatures and a long duration of stay. Therefore it’s harder to win the lotterie for these launch-dates, but the effort is worth it!
Because we all did’t know, how cold it would be, we prepared for the worst. For being on the water we packed the drysuits, neoprene-mittens/gloves/pogies, a few fleece layers for underneath and the thickest merino-wool-socks we could find. For being in camp we brought our downjackets, our Didriksons warm softshell trousers and jackets, our Didriksons rain-jackets/trousers (although we ended up never having to use the trousers), our deuter down-sleepingbags (up to -10°C/14°F) and the hiking-boots.
We tried to keep it as light and small as possible, as we had to rig it all on just one raft. One would think that two medium size drybags are not too much luggage, but don’t forget your tent (in a drybag as well) and the waterproof sleepingpads and you have a nice stack of stuff. And Mike alone had more stuff then us two together, just his “washbag” was about 5 gallons. ;-)
The equipment you need according to Nationalpark rules or generally want to bring is a big box of kitchen-stuff, a fire-pan, a massive first-aid-kit, a big repair-kit, a big camping-stove, a kitchen-table, a portable shower, a groover, camping-chairs and a lot of bits and pieces you may need.
And as the nights are long and cold (sun is down at around five) and we spend nearly a month on the river, we brought some entertainment as well, like a dartboard, some boccia-balls, Risk, Jenga, a telescope with tripod and – very important – the sauna-tent!
gamesEspecially using the Sauna was a blast! Most of the time, our camps had enough driftwood, so that we could heat up the Mike-made woodstove (out of an ammo-can) really hot, enjoy a good sweat and cool down in the river!
One thing you should really not forget is a, or even more, good hand-crèmes! The cold water in combination with the cool and extreme dry air wear your skin out and after just a few days it will feel like sandpaper and you’ll have deep cracks in your fingertips if you don’t keep care.
We really underestimated that and bought a container of oily “Supersalve” at Phantom Ranch, which literally saved our skin for the rest of the trip. Mike also brought the so called Udder-crème (yes, it’s originally for cow-udders) on the trip, which helped a lot to keep the skin elastic. And the cuts you already have will not heal till you’re a week off the Canyon.
To repair your, or other peoples drysuits, make sure to have a tube of Aquasure with you, cause the sand in combination with the hikes you do in full gear, will wear out the material. We also packed a neck gasket repair-kit, because you really want to use your drysuit all the time. Kokatat has a frame which is relatively easy to use.
For charging camera-batteries or your headlamp, a solar-charger (we brought the “power monkey extreme”, which includes an extra battery) might come handy.
One group we met had a car battery, which charged all devices of the group.
A very important piece to bring is the Rivermap. We packed two copies of the “Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon – Lees Ferry to South Cove“ written by Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis (River Maps TM), which served us well. It has water-resistant pages, has a wire binding and shows everything in detail, from the surrounding topography to little descriptions of camps and rapids, as well as little hikes and must-sees. One map was tied to the raft and one was in the kayak, so that, if one party flips or swims, one map will remain.
Mike told us about past trips, where he ended up with no map, which made the trips rather exciting…
When we started to plan the Grand Canyon Trip, I really had no idea about the character and difficulty of the rapids. The Grand Canyon also has its own rating system for the rapids, so it makes it even harder to judge them on paper. Therefore we watched a few of the multiple youtube-videos and I interviewed our friend Natalie, who did the trip already a few times.
In general one has to know, that the Colorado River has a flow of about 9,000 to 18,000 cfs (goes up and down daily) because of the dam release, and therefore is considered a big water volume river. The rapids are defined within their own GC-rating system (1-easy to 10-very hard) with the majority of the rapids ranging from 3 to 5.
For a kayaker, who has a solid roll, no problem at all. The few rapids rated 7, 8 (e.g. Hermit) and 9 (e.g. Crystal) are mostly easy straightforward runs with big wave-trains. Only the famous Lava Falls (GC-rating: 9) are one of the harder rapids with a technical nature. More so for the rafts, as the main flow pushes against a big rock, called cheese grater, creating a massive wave just in front of it, which flips a lot of rafts. And there is at least one big siphon between the rock and the shore to watch out for, if your raft or kayak ends up in that eddy above cheese grater.
For that big day, we joined a bigger group, so that we could set up better safety. Luckily we met another group at the rapid with a lot of kayakers, who waited below to pick up bits and pieces. The descent works well for everybody, as we had no flipped raft, just one raft ended up in the bad eddy but is rescued quite quickly from the shore and we also had just one kayak swimmer. Afterwards everyone celebrated with a lot of Tequila together at the famous Tequila Beach downstream!
Foto d20_1481_happy at Tequila Beach_Grand Canyon
We had a low daily average of miles to cover, so we could take it easy in the mornings and rise with the sun around 7:30 am. Before that it’s still really cold and dark anyway. Everyone took care of his (in bigger groups assigned) tasks, as preparing breakfast, washing dishes (in GC style) and packing up the camp. Loading and riggin the raft took quite a while for us, because we had to pack everything on one single raft.
Around 10 or 11 am we finally hit the water. Our daily average was about 13 miles (about 21 km), so that we had enough time for little side hikes or sightseeing stops on the way. Without stopping we would have made the 13 miles in roughly 3 to 4 hours. Not really exhausting. So on some days we made a good 20 miles (32 km) so that we could make a nice hike on another.
Mike had a rough plan for our trip, which we followed more or less. But one should stay flexible enough, to make an unplanned restday, for example to sit out pouring rain or to fix some important parts. Plan your restdays a little, cause you don’t want to sit in the cool shade all day and want to charge batteries with your solarpanel (as different beaches have different amount of direct sunlight during the day. You can find a list of hours of sunshine/day per camp for each month online) , or you want to be able to go for a longer hike.
After our team finally hit the water, it enjoyed the day with a few rapids, a little bit more flatwater, hoped for some sun to soak in and maybe made a stop at a beautiful waterfall, explored one of the many side-canyons or scouted one of the bigger rapids a little longer. Around 4 pm we started looking out for a camp for the night, because with a sunset around 5 pm it gets quickly dark and very cold as well.
During wintertime there are just a few private trips on the water, which makes it rather easy to find a nice beach to camp on. As we were a small group, we could also share camps with other groups easily.
When we finally landed on the chosen beach, the routine of unloading the stuff and setting up camp started all over again. The portable groover gets heavier and less portable every day and you hoped that your eddy is calm enough, to make unloading easier. During the day you collected driftwood,
We had 25 days in the Canyon (230 mi / 370 km), 18 days on the water and 7 layover days
>Day #: Camp to Camp, paddle till mile#; Sightseeing, Hikes, big rapids, etc.<