White water rafting on the Colorado
Even the most seasoned travelers look back on this trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The beauty of the rock, the camaraderie of a gay group, the excitement of the white water, the remoteness of the location, and the skilled, congenial guides, all combine to create a magical period.
For our week of rafting in the Grand Canyon, we'll use an outfitter with a long history of safe trips down the Colorado River. The description below, supplied by our representative and participant John Barber, recounts our first Splash! trip, in August-September 1999. Some specific stops, hiking routes, and other details may change, based on weather and other conditions. The overall schedule will remain as shown here -- and the majesty of the Grand Canyon timeless.
1 Arrival Day
We met at our hotel in Las Vegas in the early evening for a reception as we get to know one another. Who will be there? Our first year, the group of 14 had assembled from all over the United States and ranged in age from 34 to 74. The excitement and anticipation of the trip was obvious. Later that evening we would meet the river guides who would brief us on what to expect on the river and how to pack our belonging -- so this time was for us to acquaint ourselves with each other.
Dinner and a briefing by the rafting guides follow. Then we head to our rooms to pack for an early start the next morning. We recommend getting a good night's sleep tonight. If you're eager to hit Las Vegas' gambling extravaganzas, there'll be time for that on the last night of the trip when we return to Las Vegas.
And for a white water rafting trip down one of the world's most beautiful, natural wonders, why do we start in Las Vegas? Simply because it offers the closest major airport to our starting point, and you can usually get low airfares to Las Vegas from most major cities.
2 Onto The Rafts
An early wakeup call, breakfast, and soon we're on the bus for the drive across the desert. There were two brief stops en route. The bus, well equipped with food, drinks, and "facilities", made the transfer to the river painless. The scenery was spectacular as we approached the Grand Canyon.
Our rafting guides were on the bus with us and, as we approached the river, began the next level of detailed briefing. There is a lot to absorb, and they wisely do not hit us with it all at once. When the time came that we needed to know certain things, they would gather us and fill in the information that would insure a fun and safe trip.
Lee's Ferry is a rather unremarkable spot in the middle of nowhere. It is, however, the northernmost access point to the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon and has thus been used for more that 100 years for boats entering the canyon. Our gear was loaded and stowed and we were issued the life jackets, which are required by the National Park Service for all raft passengers and crew. While it was still only mid-morning, the sun was high and it was quite warm, yet very dry. The water in the Colorado River is heavy with silt and looks like a coffee milkshake flowing by -- thick and cold.
After being instructed how best to sit and hold onto the raft, we set off and were almost immediately wrapped up by the Grand Canyon. Within a half-mile we experienced our first "riffle" -- fast water that doesn't quite constitute a "rapid". The canyon walls slowly rose around us and the trip had begun. The raft is propelled by a 4-stroke outboard engine and glides smoothly along with the current. But for the engine, we would be weeks getting down the river rather than the eight days of our trip.
White water rapids occur with great frequency along the river and we had our first significant experience at mile 3. The front of the raft takes on more water than the rear and we had a good representation of stalwarts on the bow with the rest hanging back in mid-raft to see what the new experience would be like. Wet and cold was the conclusion -- and FUN!! We found relief from the heat and thrill at the rush of water as the raft deftly maneuvered through the rapids into the calm water below. While this "drop" was only a few feet, as the week progressed we would become seasoned at making drops of 15-20 feet over a space of only a few hundred yards.
We stopped for lunch below Badger Canyon and the 15-foot drop of Badger Creek Rapids. Everyone was charged from the thrill of the last rapid, and lunch was a welcome and filling diversion. The crew had their first opportunity to impress us with the quality of the cuisine we would experience during our week. We were not disappointed. It was a constant surprise to witness the variety and imagination which went into keeping us well fed during the trip.
As we made our way deeper and deeper into the Canyon, the guides explained the various geologic formations and the history of the canyon. We paid close attention to the descriptions of the early explorers and their adventures with the then "unknown".
The first day we traveled 29 miles and shot 14 rapids! Quite the ride, and a new experience for all of us onboard. We beached the raft and made camp just above 29 Mile Rapid. The unloading process went quickly with all hands helping in a fire-brigade style line. The crew set up the kitchen while we scouted the area for individual campsites for the night. Several people chose to use the tents, while the majority elected to enjoy the open spaces and sleep under the stars. We each had a drop cloth, air mattress, and sleeping bag. That seemed to be all that was needed given the warm weather and clear skies.
We gathered for a glass of wine after everyone had settled their gear and cleaned up from the day. Dinner was a grand repast of pasta, sauce, salad, French bread, and home baked chocolate cake, with a choice of red or white wine, beer, or soft drinks.
We were all ready for an early evening and as the sun set on the canyon walls, we started to settle down for our first night under the stars. Several of us commented that the Milky Way had never looked so dramatic.
3 First Full Day On The River
While it was a bit chilly at first light, the day quickly warmed up to a comfortable 85 degrees. We heard the "coffee" call at about 7 and slowly rallied to watch the sun creep into the canyon. After a knockout breakfast of fruit, eggs, sausage, toast, bagels and more, we got the raft loaded and the camp policed. (It's incredible how clean the campgrounds are. The guides emphasize the need to take out ALL of our trash and after only a short while on the river, everyone is appreciative of this sensitivity.)
With the raft fully loaded, and all gear secured, we headed downstream at about 9 o'clock. Within a mile, we saw our first mule deer. It was a buck with a fine rack, grazing peacefully at the river's edge. We got some fun pictures and our guide described other wildlife we would see on the river. Eagles, longhorn sheep, ringtail cats, and a variety of creepy, crawly desert creatures were in the offing.
At mile 32 we pulled over at Vesey's Paradise, a beautiful waterfall right at the river's edge. Flowers surrounded the base of the falls and we put in to take on fresh water. All of our water had to come from the river or side streams. We filled our water containers at Vesey's, took many pictures, and headed on.
Redwall Cavern was just ahead and again we stopped to walk through this huge, empty but beautiful space. The color of the rock, and the intensity of the light, created a magical experience. The cavern is an enormous cave that the river has carved out of the canyon wall over many millions of years.
After lunch, we hiked up to an extraordinarily beautiful Indian ruins at Nankoweap. I say "up" because every time you leave the river the only direction is up. But, the thrill of having the long views and panoramas is well worth the climb. The footing is generally pretty good and while many of us had hiking boots, they were not really necessary. Our guides wore river sandals (Teva-type) and did very well with them. We soon learned to watch what the river guides wore before choosing the gear we would use both on and off the river.
Not everyone hiked: The day was beautiful and some chose to enjoy the peace and calm of a majestic river bend and clear blue-sky day. The wind blows pretty much all the time (up-river for the most part) and is an important part of keeping the hot desert air at comfortable levels.
Our camp on day 3 was at mile 65 where we enjoyed a peaceful guitar concert after dinner provided by our multi-talented guides. As we listened to an impressive collection of songs, written and performed by a guide who you'd think would be exhausted this late in the day, we gazed at the bright stars overhead.
4 Flash Flood
After only 7 miles on the river, we pulled onto the north bank to take a morning hike up to a high promontory and ancient Indian ruin. It was fun to stand some 1000 feet above the river and watch another raft barrel through a narrow and fast rapid; one we would face as soon as we finished our hike. We often saw other river parties, but each group is highly respectful of the other's "wilderness experience" and therefore never camp or lunch or hike in near proximity to one another. If a party is planning a scenic hike and arrive to find another party at that site, they merely alter their plans and go downstream to the next available unoccupied venue. It's all very civilized, in a wild sort of way.
As the weather this day was threatening rain, we were not surprised to find ourselves under the protection of a cliff wall to enjoy our lunch. It was so warm that no one complained about the rain and, in fact, the accompanying thunderstorm was a highlight of the day. The roar of thunder rolling down the canyon is a not-to-be-missed experience. All colors change and the river takes on an entirely new dimension when the storms come through. To experience the river without a big storm is a disappointment.
We were not disappointed. That evening we camped at 91 Mile Creek and were just set up when the weather turned nasty. We had heard about flash floods in the desert but few people get to experience them, up close and personal. Wow, what a storm! We were able to get tents up for everyone and the kitchen covered with a tarp. The rain and wind came down on us. Our position was in a small grove of scrub trees on a high sandy point where the creek meets the river.
The creek bed had been completely dry and one guy had even used a large rock in the dry creek bed to air out a sleeping bag. We could see up the creek canyon, and high on the cliffs, waterfalls were beginning to appear. And then they REALLY started to run. It was a scene that will never be forgotten. The hills and canyon walls came alive with streams and beautiful cascading falls. Some were 100's of feet high.
The dry creek quickly became a raging torrent and the large sleeping-bag rock completely disappeared in the muddy rush. The rain kept up for more than an hour and we felt as if Mother Nature had staged a floorshow exclusively for our entertainment. We were safe and reasonably dry so we were able to watch and not worry. Yes, the sleeping bag was retrieved before the rain came down too hard.
5 On The Shelf Of Rock
We stopped a short distance down river to hike a particularly beautiful side of the canyon. As the climb was steep, only about half our party chose to make the trek. The docking point offered a beautiful waterfall at river's edge. The climbers were rewarded with the most extraordinary views seen to date on the trip. High above the river, the vista took in the canyon rim which is all but impossible to see from down on the river. We also witnessed the effects of yesterday's flash flooding. A wide area of streambed showed how violent and damaging the storm had been the night before. Trees were up rooted and huge boulders moved many yards, with tracks to prove it. We enjoyed a skinny-dip in the newly-formed pools, then returned to the raft with fun tales to tell.
Our camp this night was in a wide flatland at the base of a high cliff. The cliff offered accessible "shelves" of rock, which provided protected and majestic camping spots for several in the party. Long views up and down the river were available and again, no tents were needed this night. Next to the camping area was a side-canyon we decided to explore in the morning.
6 Serenaded In The Rock Theatre
Those of us sleeping up on the cliff wall woke to the sweet aroma of coffee and bacon cooking far below. Our guides had the stoves cranking and were in the process of preparing another fabulous breakfast as we made our way down from the rock shelves. This time it was fresh cantaloupe followed by French toast with bacon sausage and lots of hot coffee; just the ticket for starting our sixth day.
After breakfast we packed up and, before pushing off, we climbed into the canyon just to the south of our camping area. We walked up a dry creek bed between towering walls of dense rock. Climbing, we went until we found ourselves in the middle of a magical domed room. The walls were over 100 feet high and the acoustics were perfect for our second guitar concert. We sat in awe of the space and the sound, some reading, some snoozing, everyone in rhapsody.
Eight miles downstream we plowed through the enormous Specter Rapids. This class 6 drops only 6', but has the feel of a very big fall. The Grand Canyon has its own scale for measuring rapids. While most rivers use an I-V scale, the Grand (as it is called) uses 1-10. There are simply so many white water rapids, and they are so varied, that somewhere along the line this standard was adopted for use on the Colorado River. We soon became experts at evaluating and challenging the book rating of various rapids. The intensity of the ride through a particular rapid can vary dependent on the amount of flow in the river. Measured in "cubic feet per second" (CFS), the river averaged about 45,000 for our week. It can get as big as 100,000 and rarely drops below 25,000.
Just before camping at mile 139, we stopped to hike up Deer Creek Falls. This beautiful side hike was easily scaled and again offered spectacular scenery and photo ops. One of our group fell asleep in a quiet pool below the falls to the delight of the rest of the party hiking by.
Dinner this night was a Mexican extravaganza complete with margaritas and all the fixings. The variety and creativity of the guides was a constant surprise to everyone on the trip.
7 Geology, History and Apple Brown Betty
Now deep into the Canyon, our awareness of the geology of the area became very focused. The guides explained the surprising differences in the various strata of rock. Soon members of the group were talking in terms of this Shinumo Quartzite and that Vishnu Schist.
This day involved a morning and an afternoon hike of about an hour each. We would walk up dry creek beds or mountain goat trails to find vista points for snapping photos or just admiring the long and spectacular views.
Our camp was at mile 174 next to Cove Canyon. Tonight it was marinated, grilled chicken breasts with roasted potatoes and vegetables. To top it off, a homemade apple brown betty with whipped cream appeared for dessert. The depth of talent in these guides is amazing. They also never seem to get tired. As hard as they work from early morning to late in the evening, their spirits stay high and their enthusiasm is infectious.
8 Lava Falls and Filet Mignon
Today's rafting took us past the looming Vulcan's Rock, a massive chunk of lava in the middle of the river. Later that morning, we scoped out and ran Lava Falls Rapid, the largest and toughest in the Grand Canyon. White water rapids are hard to capture on film, but the experience will stay with you always. The power of the surging water and the roar of the waves is immense. There is a true adrenaline rush as one screams down the V of current where the raft typically enters the confusion of the rapid itself. This is the time to be listening carefully to the guide as he shouts instructions while we steer through the waves and around the huge boulders coming up out of the water.
Camp 7 was below Granite Spring Rapid at mile 221. Tonight the crew pulled out all the stops and grilled fillet mignon served with baked potatoes and a medley of fresh vegetables. At cocktail time, we enjoyed hearing from each traveler about their best moments on the river. During the week, the group had come together as a cohesive unit, enjoying each other's company and companionship on our wilderness experience.
9 Journey's End
This last day we drifted through miles of river as we approached the point where a jet boat would pick us up at noon for the trip across Lake Mead. We spoke in quiet tones and listened to a variety of readings about the history and wonder of this incredible place. While many had come before us, we felt unique and special in that we had traversed the entire Grand Canyon and careened through hundreds of rapids. We had seen many animals and all manner of flowers and plant life. What we had not seen was virtually any evidence of human inhabitation or desecration. It is hard to describe how special this was to each of us.
Just below Separation Rapid, the jet boat could be heard as it made its way up the river towards us. Sadly, we bid our farewells to the river guides and boarded the jet boat with our personal gear. The jet boat would speed us down the length of Lake Mead to Pearce Ferry where our transport back to Las Vegas would be waiting. Re-entry into the mechanical and real world was a rude event, but we were all so tired from the rigors of the trip it didn't sink in right away. One stop for newspapers and ice cream was all that was needed before we returned at about 4:00pm to our hotel in Las Vegas.
We celebrated our time on the river at a fine dinner in a civilized, big city restaurant that evening.
10 Until Next Year
A few people were up late the last night enjoying all that Las Vegas has to offer. Most preferred to enjoy the comfort of their hotel room after dinner. The next morning, cleaned up and rinsed of the mud, we enjoyed our parting salutes to one another.
More about this trip
* The trip overview tells what's included, dates, and prices for Splash!
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