Float the Grand Canyon on an Overnight River Trip

With stargazing and campfire meals along the way.

Not a ton of people can say they’ve seen the Grand Canyon from the bottom. Even fewer can say they’ve seen the majestic natural wonder while cruising down the Colorado River, floating on the water that cuts its way through the canyon walls and carved out the national park in the first place.

Because of professional adventurers like Grand Canyon Expeditions, riding a motorized raft through the canyon is easier and more accessible than ever. This multi-day excursion will have you traveling through the national park via boat, with campfire meals and stargazing along the way.

A journey down the river isn’t exactly what you’d call a luxury vacation, even though it is all-inclusive. You have to be equal parts adventurous, gritty, and unflappable. Like, so calm you can do your business in a portable toilet and sleep outside, ideally with no tent at all. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a once-in-a-lifetime type of place.

This kind of trip is not for everyone, and hey, there’s always the option to join 5 million visitors up top at the rim instead. But if you’re ready for a more unique and immersive perspective, here’s what to know about rafting through the Grand Canyon.

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Be thankful you’re not on a wooden raft in the 1800s

People have been doing this wild running of the Colorado River for over a century, and in wooden boats, no less.

The first to document it was John Wesley Powell. In 1869, Powell and a crew of 10 launched from Wyoming territory in timber rafts for a 1,000-mile journey.

Despite the difficulties of rowing uncharted waters, rapids bigger than their boats, and diminishing provisions, Powell came back to do the whole thing again a few years later.

This time, with support from the Smithsonian, the expedition lasted months and Powell documented everything meticulously. His notes were published with pictures and maps and later became a field guide for adventure-types.

Clearly a lot has changed since then. Today’s river runners have traded in the wooden boats for motorized rafts that can carry several hundred pounds of ice, provisions, and up to 14 passengers—no rowing required. You just have to be cool with sleeping outdoors, not showering, physical exertion (loading things on-and-off the raft), and you know, using a portable toilet for just over a week.

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Get off raft to splash through turquoise rivers and waterfalls

On a typical day, you’ll spend about four to five hours on the water leisurely cruising around riverbends and rocking through 200 whitewater rapids, including beasts like Soap Creek, Gance, Sockdolager, Hermit, Crystal, and Lava Falls.

When you’re not white knuckling the raft ropes or riding the horn, you’ll have the opportunity to get off-raft and stretch your legs.

There are hundreds of side canyons and drainages within the Grand Canyon. Saddle Canyon is one of the most impressive. All the work you put in scrambling and wading through water will be worth it when you come up on the remote waterfalls at the end.

Pumpkin Springs is another fun side excursion, and when you see it, the reason for the name becomes pretty obvious. The orangy geothermal hot spring looks like an oversized gourd. Though tempting, these waters are not for soaking—too many weird minerals. Instead, cannonball from the jump rock into the Colorado River.

Aim to eat one of your meals at Redwall Cavern. Carved by high river flows, the enormous natural amphitheater is a deliciously cool resting spot that’s embedded with fossils.

Personally, the most memorable part of the trip was the approach to the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River. The bright turquoise water is unreal. If you stop here, you can hike along the Little Colorado River and jump in for a swim, heading toward Beaver Falls.

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Eat warm, wood-fired meals and dutch oven dishes

You’re probably wondering what’s on the menu when you’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was one of my first questions, too. The meals, yes plural, did not disappoint.

Your boatmen have an entire kitchen setup stashed on the raft. Seriously, kitchen sink and all. The GCE crews go all out to prepare three meals a day, starting with a full breakfast spread like apple cinnamon pancakes, crispy bacon, real scrambled eggs, fruit, and coffee in the morning. Lunch was the most casual meal and included build-your-own sandwiches and other snacky things with cold drinks on standby. For dinner, we dined on sizzly fajitas, stir fry and egg rolls, and spaghetti with meatballs, just to name a few. And of course, the unforgettable Dutch oven desserts. I’m still thinking about that warm apple cinnamon cobbler.

Grand Canyon Expeditions Co.
Grand Canyon Expeditions Co.

Sleep in the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is among the best places in America for stargazing. Sure, sleeping in a tent is an option, but you’d be missing out. After all, bugs are pretty minimal in the desert. Most of us slept without one to take in the night sky.

If you sleep like we did, your bedtime setup consists of a cot, Paco pad, and sleeping bag. At camp, you choose where you put your cot. Everyone wants to be close to the riverbank, but that prime sleeping real estate comes with some risk. Our group was a little too close to the edge one night and woke up to water under our cots in the morning. No biggie, but you’ll be bummed if the river takes your water sandals while you’re sleeping.

Start and end in Las Vegas

The meet-up point of the excursion is based in Las Vegas. Round-trip transportation to-and-from Vegas is included in the cost of the Grand Canyon Expeditions package.

GCE’s hotel partner is Residence Inn by Marriott Las Vegas Hughes Center, but you can stay anywhere, really. The hotel is the shuttle pickup and pre-trip meeting location, so it makes sense to stay here, or nearby.

From the city, you’re shuttled to Lees Ferry in Grand Canyon National Park, where the adventure begins. Your trip ends eight days (and around 277 river miles) later at Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead.

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What to pack for a rafting trip

As a serial overpacker myself, I get wanting to be prepared for anything. But trust me, you don’t want to be lugging around a ton of useless stuff that won’t ever leave the dry bag. The GCE boatmen say to pack light, and they know what they’re talking about.

Aim to keep what you bring to about 20-pounds. This includes clothing like socks, quick-dry shirts and shorts, sleepwear and camp clothes, two swimsuits, and two pairs of shoes—think hiking shoes and sporty water sandals.

Bring everyday essentials like medications, contact lenses and glasses, hygiene items, toothbrush and paste, lip balm, and sunscreen. A large water bottle, quick-dry towel, a couple hats, small backpack, headlamp, sunglasses, and a gallon-size plastic bag to store your personal trash are nice creature comforts to have within reach when you’re on the water or in camp.

GCE covers PFDs, cots, camp chairs, tents, sleeping bags, Paco sleeping pads, ground tarps, and waterproof gear bags. Grand Canyon Expeditions also provides a handy-dandy packing list.

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The uncertain future of river running and the Colorado River Basin

April kicks off the start of the 2023 river running season, which runs through September. But without expanded conservation efforts, that could change.

The Nature Conservancy calls the Colorado River Basin “ground zero” for climate change in America. Over the last century, the Colorado River’s flow has declined by 20%. And leading scientists speculate that the river flow could shrink by 31% by 2050.

What can be done? Strategies that include investing in modernizing outdated infrastructure; improving river, stream, and forest heath; and reducing water use can help protect the Colorado River Basin.

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Lauren Topor is a culture and food reporter, artist, and photographer living and creating in Phoenix, Arizona. She has a background in nutrition science, takes her coffee iced, and frankly has too many hobbies to list here in this bio. Go behind the lens with Lauren on Instagram, @goodkarma.photo.