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Big Trip: Grand Canyon

Rafting the Grand Canyon

The Lottery:It pays big when you hit it. Photo: Cameron Marindell/

Cruising 226 river miles through the Grand Canyon is on every adventurer’s life list, but making it happen can seem overwhelming. Armed with a little perseverance and the following info, you can turn this dream into a reality.

Play the Lottery

The Colorado is a technical river with some of the biggest rapids in the lower 48, so if you have the skills and friends who are experienced river runners, then you can go for it on your own. That is, if you win the lottery.

In 2006, the Park Service did away with the waitlist system (which forced some people to wait up to 25 years!) and replaced it with a yearly weighted lottery that gives preference points to people based on the last time they floated the river. Every February, the main lottery opens to assign launch dates for the following year. If you want some of the action, get over to fast.

If you’re one of the lucky few to get a permit (in the 2012 main lottery, the Park Service received 3,755 applications for a mere 436 launch opportunities), then the real adventure begins. As a trip leader, you have to wrangle up boats and people who can row them through Class IV and V rapids (8-10 on the Grand Canyon scale) with ease and confidence. Then you’ve got to plan meals, coordinate travel and make sure everyone has all the right gear. All this planning finally feels worth it once you crack the first of many river beers as you push off from Lee’s Ferry.

Take it Easy

If the lottery sounds too daunting, do it the plush way and jump on a commercial, guided trip. Dozens of outfitters offer a variety of trips that last anywhere from three to 18 days. For a wilder experience, opt for a non-motorized trip via oar or paddle raft. There is no need to muddle through the permitting process or plan three weeks of meals. The guiding companies take care of it all—cooking meals, picking campsites, choosing hikes. This way, you can just enjoy the ride, but for a cost, of course. You will pony up anywhere from $1,700 to upwards of $4,000 depending on the length and type of trip. Options abound, so shop around to get the best price and to make sure you get exactly the trip you want. Here are a few possibilities: Canyon Explorations (, Arizona Raft Adventures ( and Hatch River Expeditions (

Either way, the Grand Canyon is more than a river trip. During the float, you’ll have access to some of the best hiking and climbing in the southwest, so be sure to plan enough time to enjoy both classic treks and hidden gems like Elves Chasm, the Little Colorado, the Tabernacle, North and South Bass trails and Thunder River.

Chris Kassar is Elevation Outdoors’ assistant editor and a river and mountain guide.

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