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How to Choose a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip

By Dean • June 2, 2020

Picture this, you’re in charge of booking an epic vacation for your group; they want to raft through the Grand Canyon. Should be simple right? Choose a company, pick a trip, select the date, and sign up! Well, if you’re in charge of researching your options, you are discovering that it is not that easy. It’s hard to compare apples to apples since each outfitter offers a wide range of trips, transportation, and lodging options. Plus, there are 16 companies. Really?! Sixteen?! After calling your third company and updating your spreadsheet with yet another column of information, you don’t even want to call the next company and you still have 13 to go!

Lower canyon, upper canyon, full canyon, western canyon, Marble Canyon. What does it all mean?! To top it off, some companies use different terms for the same trip. We get it. We’ve spoken to many of you as you sift through the details and try to keep it all straight. Well, we’re here to help!! Of course, we’d love for you to book with us at Arizona River Runners or with our sister company, Grand Canyon Whitewater, but we don’t always have the right trip or dates for everyone.

We want you to have the best Grand Canyon rafting experience possible, so here are a few bits of information that can help you ask the right questions as you compare outfitters and their trip options.

Insider tip: Before you start calling around, be sure to talk to your group and understand their interests, abilities, timeframe, and budget. Use the sections below to guide your conversation.

Raft Type:

Options include motorized rafts, oar rafts, paddle rafts, and dories. To help narrow down your list of potential trip options, selecting a raft type that meets the desires of your group is a good place to start. However, your physical abilities and the length of your vacation time will affect your options as well.

Arizona River Runners offers both motorized trips and oar trips. Some companies have paddle rafts and dories. We know that many people picture themselves personally paddling through epic whitewater rapids in the Grand Canyon, but the reality is that much of the river is flat water. If you have an upstream wind (which is common), paddling a raft for 225 miles becomes quite a chore. We have found that our oar trips give people the pace and intimacy of a paddle trip without the strain. Guests who want to get more involved have been known to man the oars through flatwater sections with helpful instruction from our professional guides.

Oar trips can be tough for some people to participate in due to the length of the trip (13 days or more) or the physical act of hiking into or out of the canyon for a partial trip. The motorized trip options allow people to do a full canyon trip in about one week. Our motors are only 30 horsepower, so our average speed of travel is 8 mph instead of the river speed which is 4 mph. This small boost in speed allows us to cover the river in half the time when compared to an oar raft.

Insider tip: Motorized raft design varies by company. You’ll spend 4-6 hours per day on the raft, so the seating design makes a difference. Compare pictures of people riding the rafts from various companies as you check out their websites.

We are proud of our motorized raft layout! Guests sit in a more ergonomic position up on a bench seat and can lean back against the luggage pile for back support. There are several ropes and straps to hang on to as our expert guides navigate the rapids.

Trip Length/Availability:

Motorized trips range from 3-8 days. Oar/paddle/dory trips range from 6-18 days with shorter trips requiring a strenuous hike into or out of the canyon.

Insider tip: Be sure to clarify the number of nights on the river.

Some companies arrange your lodging the night before your trip and they list their trip as a 7 NIGHT trip instead of a 7 DAY trip. Both trips spend 6 nights on the river, the difference comes in transportation and lodging the day before the trip. To sort through the various trip labels, ask each outfitter the trip dates (e.g. August 4-10) and then ask which nights are spent camping on the river.

For our trips, we do not arrange lodging before your trip, but we do provide you with contact information so you can make your own booking easily. For example, our 7 day trip begins early in the morning on the first day of the trip. You’ll book your own hotel room for the night before the trip, spend 6 nights on the river with us, and then we fly you out of the canyon on the morning of the 7th day.

If you are coordinating a large group, finding dates that work for everyone can be one of the most challenging parts of booking a trip! People often ask how quickly we sell out, but it can be quite unpredictable. As a rule of thumb, the larger your group and the more specific your time frame, the sooner you should book your trip. If there are just one or two of you and your schedule is pretty flexible, your urgency isn’t as high, but it’s fun to get it on your calendar and let the anticipation and excitement build!

Pre- and Post-Trip Logistics:

Meeting locations vary by company and trip type.

Insider tip: Transportation options and logistics are actually some of the biggest differences among the outfitters and affect your final cost considerably.

Check out a map and familiarize yourself with Las Vegas, NV; Phoenix, AZ; Flagstaff, AZ; Page, AZ; Marble Canyon, AZ; the Bar 10 Ranch; and Grand Canyon South Rim Village, AZ as these are the starting and ending points for most trip types.

It’s often easiest to talk to a representative when looking at transportation options. Some trips are straight-forward with only one transportation option, while other trips have several. Take your time and ask questions to make sure you understand the logistics for your trip. Also, find out which elements are included in the base trip cost and what the additional costs will be so you can calculate the total costs associated with your trip type.

Trip Terms:

Insider tip: “Full Canyon” trips can actually have 3 different take out points, so be sure to ask where the trip takes out.

Full Canyon: 188-280 river miles

All full canyon trips start at Lee’s Ferry which is near the town of Marble Canyon, Arizona, so Lee’s Ferry and Marble Canyon are often used interchangeably. Lee’s Ferry is marked as river mile zero (0). Full canyon trips can helicopter out at Whitmore Wash (river mile 188), bus out at Diamond Creek (river mile 225), or bus out at Pearce Ferry/Lake Mead (river mile 280). All of these full canyon trips hit the biggest rapids and the most famous side hikes.

Upper Canyon: 87-89 river miles * These trips require a strenuous hike out of the canyon.

Upper canyon trips start at Lee’s Ferry/Marble Canyon at river mile 0 and go to Phantom Ranch Boat Beach at river mile 87 or Pipe Creek Beach at river mile 89. These trips require a hike out of the canyon via Bright Angel Trail which is roughly 10 miles of trail with a vertical mile of elevation gain while carrying your gear. Hiking out isn’t an option for everyone. The trail is steep and rocky in places and often has little shade. It is a rewarding finish to a rafting trip for those who are experienced hikers.

Lower Canyon: typically 138 river miles * These trips require a strenuous hike into the canyon.

Lower canyon trips start with a hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch Boat Beach (river mile 87) or Pipe Creek Beach (river mile 89) and typically go to Diamond Creek (river mile 225), but some take out at Whitmore Wash or Pearce Ferry. These trips require a hike into the canyon which is roughly 10 miles of trail with a vertical mile of elevation loss. People often assume that hiking in is easier, but be aware that it is very hard on your knees, ankles, hips, and back. Your muscles will likely be sore the first few days of your river trip, so the epic side hikes can be a bit more challenging due to fatigue.

Western Canyon: 91 river miles

These trips sometimes include a day and night at the Bar 10 Ranch on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Other trips take you straight to the river at Whitmore Wash (river mile 188). You’ll take out at Pearce Ferry (river mile 280). Again, ask how many nights you’ll sleep in the canyon to help compare the various trip packages. Our trip is 3 days with one night spent at the Bar 10 Ranch and one night in the canyon.

Cost and What’s Included:

Insider tip: Take time to understand what’s included in the trip cost – lodging, transportation, camping gear, etc.

We all know what it’s like to get a bill with all sorts of extra fees on it! Most outfitters list the base price of the trip on their website. Depending on the trip type, you might have more than one transportation option, so final cost will vary. Some outfitters pay for a hotel the night before the trip. Some outfitters charge to rent a sleeping bag or other camping gear. Take your time to fully understand all the costs involved in your trip.

Cancellation Policy:

Insider tip: No one books a river trip and plans on cancelling, but life happens and we have numerous cancellations each year.

Read and understand the payment deadlines and refund policies for each company. 

Hopefully you feel a bit more educated on your Colorado River rafting trip options! Exploring side canyons, playing in waterfalls, learning about pioneering river runners, and making new friends await you in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Happy shopping and we hope to see you on the river soon!

No question too small!

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