How to go Big for the Grand Canyon
Winter paddlers demystify the path to America's most desired private paddling trip
BY ERIC ADSIT / PHOTOS BY SCOTT MARTIN
Flowing uninterrupted and uncrossed by anything but a few footbridges for over 200 miles, it’s no wonder the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is America’s most desired paddling trip. Typically done as a 12- to 25-day float trip and hosting over 150 named rapids, most paddlers agree the trip isn’t about the whitewater. In addition to the sandy beaches, soaring red walls, and occasional bighorn sheep or California condor sighting, the Grand Canyon offers hundreds of day-hikes through unique slot canyons, along tropical blue side-streams, and up through layer after layer of geologic time to spectacular overlooks.
So, why haven’t you done it yet? To preserve the resources of the canyon, especially the beaches used as campsites, the National Park Service has created a weighted lottery that only allows roughly 22,000 people down the river per year. While the permitting process is designed to maximize the opportunity for first-time users to get trips, there are a few tricks you can use to improve your odds even further.
First, understand the permitting process. The main lottery occurs in February and offers the widest range of choices for the next calendar year. Potential river users can find a list of available launch dates here, and apply during either the main lottery or follow-up lotteries that occur as previous winners cancel trips. First-time users enter the lottery with five points, while paddlers from the previous year enter with only one. Each person is only permitted to run the river once per year.
In addition to the $25 application fee, winners of the weighted lottery must pay a nonrefundable deposit of $400 for groups of eight or more people, and $200 for groups of seven or less. Everything you need to know can be found at the national parks page here. Late spring through early autumn are the hardest dates to acquire permits, due to the warm to downright hot temperatures in the canyon. First timers can greatly increase their odds of winning the lottery by committing to the cooler winter months from early November to late February. Those with flexible schedules will also benefit from paying close attention to cancellations; when a trip cancels, the launch date is re-entered in the lottery.
While spending two weeks or more winter camping isn’t for everyone, it certainly presents a unique way to enjoy the canyon—and greatly increases your odds of getting the opportunity. Average temperatures within the canyon range from a low of 36 degrees and high of 56 in January (generally 15 degrees warmer than at the rim), creating the surreal opportunity to lounge in boardshorts on a sandy beach while staring at snow dusting the canyon rim. The cooler temperatures also offer ideal hiking conditions, saving adventurers from the oppressive heat and leaving most rattlesnakes in relative hibernation.
The short days of winter prevent overeager rivergoers from burning out too quickly trying to explore as many side-hikes as possible, and the early onset of night allows them to take full advantage of driftwood season—the window where paddlers are allowed to collect and burn any driftwood below the high water mark. A warm fire does wonders for keeping groups tight-knit and sharing stories. Perhaps the greatest part about a winter trip through the canyon is the solitude. Encounters with other groups are rare and fleeting, leaving you to feel as though your group is the only one in the canyon. There’s no hassle when choosing a campsite, and no worries about missing the small eddies for especially popular side-hikes.
Now before you spam your company listserv with instructions on how to apply while naming you as trip leader, there are a few things to watch out for on a Grand Canyon trip:
The Commute. Lee’s Ferry, the put-in for the Grand Canyon, lies in northern Arizona, far from any other reliable whitewater. Chances are, you’re going to have to travel some ways to get to and from the river. Bring a reliable vehicle for shuttle, as the takeout road at Diamond Creek is less of a road and more of a creek, and taking an extra week to coax your burnt out transmission home is no fun. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Pick Teams. Sometimes, for no reason at all, your friends start to annoy you. Maybe it’s their laugh, or the way they say “like”, like, every other word. It’s fine in moderation, but on Day Five you’re ready to start filling the pockets of their PFD with rocks for the next time they take a swim. When you leave Lee’s Ferry, it’s the last time you’re going to spend a significant amount of time with anybody else for at least a week. The Grand Canyon probably isn’t the best place to test out your new relationship.
You Booze-Cruise, You Lose. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional adult beverage, spending half the day recovering from a hangover (or injury from a drunken night of debauchery) is not the way you want to travel through the canyon. Dehydration is a problem without alcohol, and booze is heavy, so save the partying for after the takeout.
Save Some for Later. Even though it seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, don’t worry about missing a hike or two. If you try to pack too much into a day, you won’t get to appreciate the special places for what they are, and you’ll be left ragged and struggling to make your miles the next day. No matter how fast you paddle, 25 river miles and three hour-plus hikes will not be a positive memorable experience.
The Grand Canyon is an incredible natural resource, melding classic desert canyon scenery with one of the longest unimpeded river corridors in the U.S. And there are openings right now. What are you waiting for?