Seeing the Grand Canyon vs. Experiencing the Grand Canyon
Nearly 5 million tourists visit the rim of the Grand Canyon each summer, to look over the edge and witness how immense it is, take a few photos, visit a gift shop or two, then grab an ice cream cone and wander away to some other viewpoint. Seeing the Grand Canyon is a very popular thing to do. It’s the iconic American Road Trip to the Grand Canyon! But there's more to it than that.
Once you’re seeing the Grand Canyon in person, it’s hard to comprehend it. After all, it IS a baffling experience to see the immensity of that amazing canyon. The brain just wants to try and understand. There is a universal allure to the canyon that makes you want to know what’s down there, what around that next bend that you can’t see beyond. But the place is HUGE. Some feel up for hiking down into the canyon to get another perspective and quickly realize it’s much larger than they thought - some get in over their heads without proper drinking water, etc. and the Park Service makes it abundantly clear that you need to not overestimate your hiking abilities or level of preparation for hiking into Grand Canyon. But there are better ways to immerse yourself into the experience of Grand Canyon.
It may not be obvious to everyone observing from the rim, but there really is a river down there in the bottom of the canyon! Yes, you can go white water rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon! On the river, you'll get a perspective that only an elite group of people experience and know about - places you never would have guessed are down there deep in the canyon like hidden waterfall grottoes you never would have guessed were there, and of course there’s the white water rapids to experience! The difference between seeing the Grand Canyon and experiencing the Grand Canyon is obvious once you try interacting with it. You can try hiking down into the canyon, but you’ll quickly realize there’s more to it than just a casual stroll!
The ultimate Grand Canyon vacation is white water rafting through the Grand Canyon!
How to Choose the Best Rafting Experience and Outfitter in the Grand Canyon
1. How many days Vs. How many miles down the canyon?
The Grand Canyon is nearly 300 miles long and, for river rafting purposes, is divided into three parts named, somewhat confusingly: Upper, Lower (actually middle), and Western Grand Canyon (or the actual lower Grand Canyon). Western River Expeditions combines the upper two thirds (Upper AND Lower/middle) into one 6 or 7 day expedition from Lee's Ferry (mile 0) to the helicopter pad at Whitmore Wash (mile 188). The final third of the canyon (approximately the last 100 miles) lies to the west, and sometimes is referred to as "western Grand Canyon". Western's 3 or 4 day expeditions traverse this final, lower, or "western" end of Grand Canyon. Western is actually one of the few outfitters that runs trips with guests through this "Lower Granite Gorge" section of Grand Canyon.
It is important to understand how different rafting companies access different parts of the Canyon. There are 16 different rafting outfitters in the Grand Canyon, and they each have different itineraries, or ways of dividing up the canyon into a variety of trip lengths. The key to understanding how each company refers to "upper" or "lower" hinges on whether their trips end/begin at a place called Phantom Ranch where a hike out or in is required. All rafts are launched for their Grand Canyon journey where there is easy road access at Lee's Ferry, Arizona (mile 0) and may only travel 88 miles (to Phantom Ranch) over the course of 5 or 6 days. Several companies have an "exchange of guests" at Phantom Ranch - meaning that some guests hike out while new guests hike in to start their Grand Canyon rafting trip at Phantom Ranch (mile 88). Western does not hike guests in/out at Phantom Ranch.
Here’s why this is important as you shop for a Grand Canyon rafting trip: It would be a shame to book a week long Grand Canyon rafting trip and find out that you may only be traveling half of the canyon and hiking at least 8 miles in or out of the canyon at Phantom Ranch. Which section of that magnificent canyon are you willing to sacrifice at the cost of that hike in or out at Phantom Ranch? That's a hard choice! Western River's 6 or 7 day expedition allows guests to choose a week long "ultimate Grand Canyon vacation" through the first two-thirds of the Grand Canyon.
Full Upper & Lower Grand Canyon = Western's 6 or 7 Day expedition extends 188 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Whitmore Wash.
Grand Canyon 6 or 7 Day Expedition
Lower (or Western) Grand Canyon = Western's 3 or 4 Day expedition begins at Whitmore Wash and travels nearly 100 miles through the remainder of Grand Canyon's length.
Grand Canyon 3 Day Expedition
2. Which part of the Grand Canyon is best to experience?
It can be confusing to compare trips in the Grand Canyon Every rafting outfitter in the Grand Canyon, and every guest who has ever done the whole 277 miles of Grand Canyon rafting will instantly agree that ALL of the Grand Canyon deserves exploring! But since you must choose, we will try to break it down mile-by mile for you.
Upper Grand Canyon = Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch (mile 0 to mile 88) In a nutshell, House Rock rapid, the Roaring 20’s rapids, swallows and swifts in the morning shadows of Marble Canyon, Vasey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, Nankoweap Anasazi Granaries, Little Colorado River, the Great Unconformity, Hance Rapid and more.
Lower (actually the middle) Grand Canyon = Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash (mile 88 to mile 188) In a nutshell, Phantom Ranch, Horn Creek rapid, Granite rapid, Hermit and Crystal Rapids, the Gem Series rapids, Shinumo Creek, Elves Chasm, Blacktail Canyon, Stone Creek Falls, Spectre, Bedrock and Dubendorf rapids, Thunder River, Deer Creek Falls and the Patio and Source, Matkatimiba, Havasu Creek, and Lava Falls.
Whitmore Wash (mile 188) to Grand Wash Cliffs (mile 277) In a nutshell, Travertine Falls, the Lower Granite Gorge (even blacker, deeper and amazingly more spectacular than the upper granite gorge near Phantom Ranch), and a few splashy-fun rapids that are not as intense as the ones in the upper 188 miles.
3. Motor or Human-Powered Rafts?
According to the data, motorized trips through the Grand Canyon are more popular than oar-powered, or human powered trips. Why? 1. Motor trips simply cover more miles through the canyon, and you will see more in a day (think side canyon attractions like Deer Creek, Elves Chasm and others) compared to non-motor trips. Western River has found, after almost six decades running our exclusive J-Rig rafts through the Grand Canyon, that this pace through the canyon is the ideal length of time in the canyon, and the ideal length of canyon to see within that time.
2. J-Rigs also offer the most variety, comfort, and whitewater action of any other boat in the canyon. Western's J-Rig raft offers one of the most thrilling white water experiences in the world with the 9 "tube seats" up front, as well as the "buckin' bench seats" atop the coolers. Amazingly, j-rigs simultaneously offer one of the safest ways to ride the enormous whitewater in Grand Canyon with the "chicken coop" or "cargo load" seats in the middle of the raft. In between each rapid you can stand up, walk around and stretch your legs to get a beverage or change out of rain gear, for example.
3. Motorized rigs provide more camp comforts like chairs and cots, charcoal grills and the variety of chilled foods we provide. Many of the oar-powered companies in the Grand Canyon include a motor support boat on their rowing and paddling trips to provide more camp comforts, variety of food, and support when smaller rafts overturn or run into trouble. Note that those “hybrid” trips still go down the canyon at human-powered pace; meaning that you may only get to half the canyon after five or six days, hiking out at Phantom Ranch. What about the difference in ride between the different boats in Grand Canyon? (Read one guide’s perspective or rowing, paddling, and motoring)
4. Hiking or Helicopter?
There are essentially only two ways to get out of the Grand Canyon besides floating a boat all the way through it: (1) Hiking out, or (2) Flying out by helicopter. Phantom Ranch, at mile 88 along the Colorado River is where some outfitters end their trips, asking their guests to finish a 5 or 6 day rafting expedition with a 8 or 18 mile hike up and out of the canyon (depending on which rim you hike towards). New guests arrive and begin their 5 or 6 day rafting expedition after an 8 or 18 mile hike into the canyon (depending on which rim they hiked in from). Are you willing to hike (at least 8 miles) into or out of the canyon to end or begin your trip at mile 88?
The alternative is to motor right past Phantom Ranch on the middle of day 3 and go another 100 miles to end with a helicopter ride up and out of the canyon.
5. Which Month is the Best to Raft Grand Canyon?
APRIL - In the Grand Canyon it's true that "Feb/March showers... bring April flowers." April is best for witnessing the desert in brilliant cactus blooms. Rain and cooler temps are possible, but are generally done by the end of March. Verdant green canyon slopes rather than the dry yellow seen as early as June. Generally clear skies and clear streams.
MAY - Cactus blooms linger as temperatures rise. Generally clear skies and clear streams.
JUNE - Vegetation dries, wildflowers hide, and temperatures rise in June. Days get longer, but that doesn't necessarily equate to more hikes during the days, rather just more sunlight during in camp hours.
JULY - Summer days in the Grand Canyon get HOT in July, making a nice splash in rapids or a side stream dip all the more enjoyable.
AUGUST - Rapids! River flows from Glen Canyon Dam begin to increase in August, which generally means more punch per wave in Grand Canyon.
SEPTEMBER - Sunlight shifts and shadows make the canyon more pronounced than the direct sunlight of summer.
6. You Want your Guides and Outfitter to Pay Attention to Details (and you!)
The best rated Grand Canyon rafting companies will have new and updated equipment. You will experience guides that are well versed in canyon flora, fauna, history, can help you get over your fears in a tough spot on a hike, or patch up a certifiable boo-boo if needed. Well trained guides will care primarily about their guest’s experiences as they share a place they love, rather than feeling like the guests get in the way of their personal reasons for living in the canyon all summer. Good guides will exude a love their jobs from sun-up to sun-down. These individualized and genuinely magical experiences in the remote and vast wilderness areas of Grand Canyon (or Utah or anywhere else we run rivers) don’t come by accident. Not every company strives for, and instills the same dedicated guiding philosophy as Western River. Our guides are different! Learn More
7. Age Restrictions
Something a little more obvious to consider during the initial phases of planning which trip in Grand Canyon is best for you is the age restriction. These restrictions are in place for a reason and not negotiable. Upper canyon (from Lee’s Ferry to Whitmore Wash - below Lava Falls) holds some of the largest consistent whitewater rapids in North America. Even with the choice of sitting in a more protected seating option available on a larger pontoon raft, the experiences available in this upper canyon are a little too epic, perhaps, for younger aged kids. The age limit for these upper canyon trips is age 12. The lower canyon, or what some refer to as the “western canyon” has smaller rapids that are not as demanding. The age limit in the lower canyon is minimum age 9.
8. How Much Does it Cost to Go White Water Rafting in the Grand Canyon?
The bottom line for everyone considering a vacation is the cost, of course. For 3-4 days in the various sections of Grand Canyon, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1500 to $2,000. In the upper sections of Grand Canyon you can expect to pay between $2,500 - 3,000 for 5-7 days. Some non-motor (human -powered) trips can take as long as 21 days to row the 188 or 226, or 277 miles from trip beginning to trip end; at a cost upwards of $5,000 or more. The value of your time and money is the real question, so consider the length of canyon you want to experience (see above), what you want from that experience, and what you value most from your time and money. It may not be necessary to say, but we will anyway: Western River Expeditions has honed and carefully crafted the experience of rafting the Grand Canyon since 1961 into what we consider the very best way to maximize your time, the value, and the experience of a lifetime in the Grand Canyon.
9. Are there one day rafting trips in Grand Canyon?
The Hualapai Tribe operates a one day excursion from Diamond Creek through the lower gorge of the western (or lowest) part of Grand Canyon (mile 226 to 265). The Hualapai Tribe created the SkyWalk tourist attraction on the western rim of Grand Canyon, with helicopter tours as well.
A Western River Grand Canyon 3 or 4 day expedition includes this same section of canyon, but begins at mile 188 and includes two nights of camping on the river. This 3 or 4 day expedition begins at Bar Ten Ranch where a thrilling helicopter flight takes you from the north rim into the canyon to the rafts and guides awaiting at Whitmore Wash. The 3 and 4 day expedition ends with a speeding jetboat ride over Lake Mead to the air-conditioned bus waiting to take you past Hoover Dam and onward to Las Vegas.
Grand Canyon 4 Day Expedition