Having hiked extensively and ridden mules (just enough to understand how wonderfully sure-footed they are) on both the North and South rims of the Grand Canyon, I thought I had seen it before. In fact, I thought I actually knew the canyon pretty well. Turns out I was pretty wrong. Within a few miles of pulling in at Lee’s Ferry for the start of my first Colorado River rafting experience, I’m seeing a Grand Canyon I’ve never seen before.

Rafting the Grand Canyon

Bobbing along, the canyon walls – a palette of pinkish limestone, nude sandstone and merlot-tinged shale – are even more impressive when you’re looking up rather than gaping down. The Colorado River is no longer a serene sliver of bluish-green winding through the canyon floor but, at least when we hit the first of the 80-some rapids along the river’s 280-mile course, a torrent of in-your-face, frothing water as thick as wet cement and as loud as a fighter jet. Hiking and riding in the Grand Canyon are fine for looking, but rafting is living it.

Through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River is home to some of the biggest whitewater in the U.S.

Adventure junkies will love Lava Falls, 179 miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, as well as Dubendorff, a maze of boulders that turns the river into a thunderous tornado. And Sockdolager. And Hermit, Bedrock, Upset and Waltenburg, to name but a few of the river’s mightier rapids.

Discovering Hidden Canyons and Waterfalls

But rafting the Colorado doesn’t have to be all about adrenaline and noise. In between rapids, we stop at hidden side canyons and hike to waterfalls where it’s easy to imagine we’re the first humans to set foot. We pull over in eddies and have lunch on soft sand beaches. We spend nights in tents on the shore, falling asleep to the sounds of rippling water and a guide singing off-key John Mayer and plucking away at his guitar.

Writer Kenneth Grahame was right on: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And there is no better place to mess around in boats than the Colorado River.

The Facts

Rafting the entirety of the Colorado from Lee’s Ferry through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead is a 21-day endeavor.

Commercial outfitters realize not everyone has three weeks to spare. From April 1 through September 30, Hualapai River Runners is the only outfitter permitted to do one-day rafting trips in the canyon. Native American river guides from the Hualapai Nation take eight-person motorized rafts through nine major rapids over 42 miles.

Boats leave from Diamond Creek and take an afternoon break for lunch – and to allow rafters time to explore a hidden side canyon. At the end of the trip, a helicopter transports rafters back to the canyon rim. The whole trip is about 10 hours.

If you’ve got more than a day and less than 21, Phantom Ranch is a good place to begin – or end – a trip with an outfitter. Trips from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch are six to seven days and from Phantom Ranch to Lake Mead around 12 days. O.A.R.S. also does Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead trips as well as three- and four-day trips. All O.A.R.S. trips are in non-motorized crafts, either rafts or dories. Learn more about rafting the canyon.