Everyone that visits the Grand Canyon for the first time has the same reaction. If going to the Grand Canyon South Rim from Flagstaff, you drive through a generally nondescript countryside, enter the Grand Canyon National Park, get out of the car, and walk up to the Grand Canyon overlook. A breathless “WOW” is the most common response.
The Grand Canyon presents an overwhelming visual, and for most of us, our minds can’t quite absorb what our eyes are telling us. As absolutely stunning as the view of the canyon is from the top, you get a much more complete picture by rafting it.
This was my second time to do it. Back in 2007 I rafted the Grand Canyon with a group of friends, and had a great time. I always wanted my son Trey to do it with me, so we spent about a year planning the trip. Trey and I work together at EMA Drives and Automation. Layne Weeks, one of the people on the first trip wanted to take his son Brian as well, and Trey’s best friend, Kevin Lamb and his dad, Edwin, completed our group. Edwin is the founder of Lakeside Data Systems and Kevin is a Gwinnett County fireman and rescue responder. Layne is a retired from Delta Airlines and Brian is an account executive with Federal Express.
I did a considerable amount of research back in 2007 to determine the best company to use for rafting the Grand Canyon. From that research, I selected OARS and had my selection confirmed for me almost instantly in Flagstaff. We were eating in a restaurant, and were asked by the waiter why we were there. When we told him we’d be rafting the canyon, he asked which rafting company we were using. We told him OARS and his response was “man, that is the Cadillac of Grand Canyon raft companies. Everyone wants to work for them.”
We could not have been more pleased with them, and in fact, both Layne and I, along with my Dad, rafted the American River in California with them a few years later.
Along with which rafting company to use, I also researched the best time, and decided on early October. That turned out to be another great decision. The Grand Canyon can be hot, unbelievably hot in the summer, but is very pleasant in the fall.
What we elected to do, was to begin at Lee’s Ferry, just below the Glen Canyon Dam. Raft to Phantom Ranch, and then hike the roughly 10 miles out from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim. That’s another reason to avoid the summer; the hike out is much more pleasant in the fall.
The Bright Angel trail is no joke. I read a blog once that described it as “either the most beautiful hike you’ve ever taken, or a descent into hell, completely dependent on what kind of shape you’re in.” I echo that sentiment. You don’t have to be a marathoner or a star athlete, but you do need to prepare and be in reasonable shape.
Edwin and I hiked up Stone Mountain here in the Atlanta area every morning for several months prior to the trip. Many times, we’d make more than one trip as part of our training. It paid off, and I suggest that as good training for anyone in Atlanta planning to hike the Bright Angel.
The elevation at the South Rim is around 7,000 feet, so anyone concerned about hiking out should consider that as well. One way to avoid an issue with the elevation, is to arrive a few days early, spend time hiking the South (and North) Rim, and allow your body to acclimate. Not to mention that you’re just spending more time in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
We thoroughly enjoyed the hike out, and in fact, its a big part of the overall experience. There’s just something special about a view that you have to sweat a little for. So, if you’re planning to do the hike, do a little training and enjoy it.
OARS, as their name implies, uses rafts and dories propelled by oars. They don’t use motor craft, and another advantage of rafting the Colorado in October is that motorized boats are not allowed. The canyon and river are also considerably less crowded than in the summer months.
Each raft carries 4 passengers and a boatman. This boatman’s name is Rio, in the front are Joel and Kathy from Pennsylvania. Taking it easy in the back are Layne and Brian Weeks. Layne is from Alabama, and Brian lives in Georgia. You’ll note the supplies and bags packed in the middle. Our group consisted of 4 of these rafts, plus two supply rafts.
Often, the first question I get asked when telling someone that I rafted and camped in the Grand Canyon is “how do you go to the bathroom?”
It’s a fair question, and is probably the thing that generates the most negative reaction to the trip. Here’s the short answer: you urinate in the river (and ONLY in the river), and do bowel movements in a field toilet that consists of a toilet seat over a bucket. Those that know me, know that I’m generally a very private person about such matters, but for whatever reason, it just ceases to be an issue for anyone after a day or two.
Yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable at first to come out from behind the bush shielding the toilet, hand the toilet paper to a waiting female rafter, and begin washing your hands. But, as awkward as that sounds, and again, I’m normally a very private person, it really does become very routine after about a day, and no one thinks much of it. There’s no question that males have a bit of an advantage in river urination, but, again it all seems to become routine after a bit. One thing is for sure, the views from the toilet are much nicer than anything in your house. (See the image)
(For those that want to know.. the rafting companies are required to take out all solid waste; it’s secured and put on the supply rafts every morning) As our trip leader explained the first day.. “listen, everybody poops, so just get over it.”
IF rustic bathroom talk really interests you, then read my account of the toilet facilities in Mali West Africa by clicking HERE. (note.. this is a large PDF file; be patient, and go get a cup of coffee while it downloads)
Here’s a bit about our OARS crew…
Our aforementioned trip leader was Judd Ballard. Judd was actually a boatman on the Grand Canyon rafting trip that Layne and I took with OARS earlier, and I remembered him as friendly and competent. Judd has been professionally rafting the canyon for years, and is not only talented in the specific details of river craft, but has terrific leadership skills. He took great pains not only to see to the well being and safety of the group, but did so with humor and grace. I liked him before, but was even more impressed this time. He’s a great person to lead a Grand Canyon rafting trip.
The term boatman in the Grand Canyon is evidently applied to both males and females. (we were told by one of them that they spell it “boatmun” but we’re not certain about that) Heather Solee was another of our boatmen. Our first day on the Colorado River was spent with her, and she gave everyone the first “bathroom talk.” I didn’t really take notes, but I do remember her asking that we avoid being “creepy” by staring when someone in the group was urinating. (I’ve generally found that to be pretty good advice, and not just while rafting. I remember telling Trey as a little boy.. “the guy standing at the urinal next to you doesn’t want to talk” )
Heather guides primarily on rivers in Idaho, and is in the process of writing a book entitled “A Tribute to Lost Places.” Heather is knowledgeable and passionate about the wilderness, and we enjoyed our discussions with her.
Like all the boatmen, Heather was not only skilled at her job, but a lot of fun to be around.
Then there was Chelsea Arndt. Chelsea is from Laramie, Wyoming, and is sort of a mixture between Annie Oakley and Dale Evans. Grand Canyon boatmen in general are tough, and Chelsea certainly fits that bill. Tough, but still good looking. (I wouldn’t want her mad at me) We really enjoyed her; she had probably the most smart alec sense of humor of anyone there. She also played a little guitar and sang for us.
One thing that endeared her to us southerners, is that Chelsea cooked up a batch of biscuits and gravy for breakfast one morning. She told us that she specifically put that on the menu when she saw where we were from. (and, I guess figured we’d be the stereotypical fat rednecks that would appreciate it)
Rio Harburger is a very interesting character, that spends about 300 days per year guiding. He was on his way to Chile to guide after our trip ended. Rio is originally from Arkansas, and has been unable to shake the Ozark Mountain accent. Probably the most prolific story teller on the trip, and certainly the teller of the tallest tales. Not only a great boatman, but a lot of fun. Rio is also musically talented, singing and playing both mandolin and guitar. Judd would accompany him on percussion.
Rio is the one squatting on the right telling us about the boat in the foreground. That boat belonged to Bert Loper, a Grand Canyon pioneer who died in it at 24 mile rapid in 1949. It (and Rio) are remarkably well preserved. (Bert was 79 when he died)
In addition to the primary boatmen, we had Chad Smith, Russell Schubert, and Haley Ergstrum rowing the two supply boats. All of them were great company, friendly and funny. I broke my sunglasses, and Haley gave me a pair of bright pink ones to wear. They looked ridiculous, but they did the job.
The Colorado River was flowing at about 8000 CFM while we were there. That’s very low water, and consequently, we were a bit disappointed in the rapids. Per what Judd told me, that last trip I took was at a 12,000 CFM flow, and the rapids were much better. Per the other boatmen, rapids get really enjoyable at around 20,000 CFM.
Regardless, the water is freezing, you get plenty wet, and it’s loads of fun. Plus the simple fact, that you are rafting the Grand Canyon, makes staying disappointed in anything very difficult. Not one person on our trip was sorry they came, low water or not.
By the way, the boatmen will allow you to row the boats if you wish, and it’s a nice break at times from just sitting in the raft. They’ll even share a bit of their boat handling expertise with you, and it’s interesting to hear how a professional views a rapid, versus how someone like me views it. Some of the conversations go “so, Eddie, how would you go through this rapid?” “Well, I’d go right down the middle” “Well, then you would hit that big rock just under the surface and rip the bottom out of the raft” “Oh”
You get the drift.
Our dinner the first night was grilled wild salmon with asparagus and rice, with chocolate cake for dessert. All cooked by the boatmen. Absolutely outstanding food served on real dishes, not paper, and eaten with metal forks, spoons, and knives. Layne and I already knew what to expect from OARS from our first Grand Canyon trip, so we weren’t surprised. But, we were still impressed.
After dinner you sit in chairs, sometimes around a fire, and just enjoy getting to know the folks you’re traveling with. There could be musical performances by the crew, great comedic stories, or just visiting.
Sometimes there were horseshoes, and ball. All of it in an idyllic setting, that very few people ever get to experience.
For lunch every day, we pulled up to a beach, and were served fresh fruit, great sandwiches, hummus, salads, and for those with duller pallets, there was always a jar of peanut butter and jelly.
Our group rented all camping gear from OARS, which I strongly advise. You’re given a tent, a tarp, a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, a sheet, and a pillow. We elected to forgo the tent, and sleep outside under the stars every evening but one.
It’s a great experience to wake up in the wee hours of the morning, and see the milky way and millions of other stars and planets over your head. Every evening we saw shooting stars and satellites.
On our last night camping, I woke up about 3 AM, and it was so beautiful that I just sat up on my sleeping pad and looked at the sky above the cliffs that surrounded us. I looked over to my left, and Edwin was sitting up doing the same thing. It honestly is overwhelming. I think of Psalms 8
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?”
I know its perhaps a bit trite to say that being in such a beautiful place is a spiritual experience, but in fact, it is.
In the desert climate, there is little humidity, so dew isn’t an issue like it would be sleeping out in the Southeast. You can see our sleeping arrangement in the image on the right. One advantage of sleeping right next to the river, is that it’s a short walk to the bathroom!
Every morning, just after daybreak, someone in the crew would yell “Coffee” and that meant the coffee was ready. The coffee that OARS serves is roasted especially for them, and it’s delicious. Trey is a bit of a coffee snob, and it even gained his seal of approval. Usually about 30 minutes or so after that breakfast would be ready, and then we’d break camp, load up, and be on the river. Breakfast, like all the other meals, was terrific. After the first day, we all became very efficient at both setting up camp, and breaking it down.
You don’t spend all of your time in a raft. The side hikes are optional, you can just sit and enjoy the view if you wish, but its a great way to explore the Grand Canyon. Since the lowest point is always the river, all hikes go up!
Some hikes involve climbing up to slot canyons, some waterfalls, some to native American ruins, and some just for incredible views. Almost everyone went on the hikes, it was rare for any to stay behind.
Needless to say, having the ability to enjoy the hikes is another reason to spend a little time getting in shape. You could certainly enjoy the view from the river, but it enhances your tip to invest a bit of sweat as well.
One of the most enjoyable little side trips was where the Little Colorado joins the Colorado River. The Little Colorado flows with a beautiful aqua color. It’s also considerably warmer than the main river, so its great for swimming.
We took a short hike up to a sliding rock, and most of us got in the water. Because there are a few bumps, you put your life jacket on upside down to shield your bottom. It looks silly, but it works.
In addition to just sliding through the rapid on your own, several of our group formed a “train” and rode it through. Great fun, and this again, is something not available without either rafting, or doing a considerable amount of hiking.
Our Traveling Companions..
Heddwin and Amber (pronounced Hethwin) live in Calgary and Heddwin was dubbed by Kevin and Trey as the real “most interesting man in the world.” (We decided the dude selling beer is a poser) Amber is originally from England, and Heddwin from Wales. They met in Africa while serving in the Peace Corps, and when they had to leave due to political unrest, they elected to tour the world instead of going home. If you can name an interesting place, they’ve been there. I spent about an hour one evening talking with Amber, and told her afterwards that I’d always considered myself fairly well read and traveled. But, after meeting them, I’ve been nowhere. Very nice enjoyable people, and truly interesting. (and Amber has the most beautiful British accent I’ve ever heard)
Joel and Kathy… Joel is a physical therapist and Kathy is an electrical engineer. (which gave Edwin and I someone to talk techie stuff with) They live in Pennsylvania, and Joel is a triathlete. One of the boatman suffered a slight arm sprain, and Joel was kind enough to offer some assistance. Very interesting and friendly travel companions. (although Joel embarrassed us on the hikes.. never hike uphill with a triathlete)
Sue and Harold.. I termed her “Seattle Sue” in order to remember her name, and needless to say, they live in Seattle. Harold (and I’m using the American spelling because I can’t remember the right way) is originally from Norway. He travels to Africa and studies HIV issues. Harold has a great sense of humor, and told us a lot of jokes. I don’t think the jokes would have been very funny, EXCEPT his accent and delivery made them so. That’s the mark of a true comedian! (That’s Harold and Sue seated on the far right)
Harold and Sue are great people with wonderful attitudes that would be enjoyable in any situation.
Kerry and Shannon.. Honestly, two of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met. Kerry and Shannon live in Pennsylvania. I think both of them worried about me making it on some of the hikes (could have been my lying on the ground and gasping for help, but I’m not sure) and they kept encouraging me.
AND, I appreciated it! Interestingly, Shannon has an advanced degree in Theology, although she works with Google. Very interesting person to talk with. Kerry works with a startup biomedical company, specializing in stem cell research. This picture is at Indian Gardens about halfway from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim, taken during our hike out.
Meera and Michael..
Meera works as a geneticist and Michael works from their home. They have a 9 year old daughter, and Michael plays the banjo. As with the other travelers, both were sweet, kind people that were a joy to be around. For some reason, they seemed more organized than the rest of us, so naturally, we resented it. However, I was afraid Meera would modify my DNA in some way, so I just kept it to myself. Otherwise, I would have messed up their campsite a bit to normalize them. They live in the Philadelphia area.
Meera and Michael and Heddwin and Amber were going all the way through the canyon, which is a 17 day trip. The rest of us got off the river at Phantom Ranch. There were six others that were joining the trip at Phantom, having hiked down from the South Rim.
We truly did hate saying goodbye. I couldn’t have picked a better group to raft the Grand Canyon with. There wasn’t a single bad attitude, selfish act, or a snarly word said by anyone. Everyone was not only kind, but helpful and interested in each others’ story. It really made a great trip better.
I didn’t stay at Phantom Ranch on my previous trip. We camped just above it the last night. This time, OARS had reserved spots for us there, and in fact, had one of their representatives, a young lady named Margeaux meet us there.
IF you’re hiking the Bright Angel trail out, OARS will arrange for you to ship one 30 lb duffel bag out by mule. The weight limits are strict, and anything that doesn’t go on the mule, goes out on you. So careful packing before the trip is essential.
The Phantom Ranch is roughly 1/2 mile from the Colorado River, and while it’s rustic, it does have flush toilets, hot water, and showers. Which after a week camping, doesn’t seem all that rustic. It is a beautiful spot, and we were assigned coed dorm rooms for the evening. Dinner was a great beef stew.
After dinner and before going to bed, Layne and I walked down to visit with the mules. Two of them came out to talk with us. I guess they assumed we were kindred spirits. After we talked and petted the mules a bit, we went back up tot the main camp, where Trey, Kevin, and Edwin were playing cards.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at 5 AM, then got on the trail at about 5:30. It was still dark, and we used our headlamps to light the way. About the time we turned away from the river, it began to get light. It was clear and cool; perfect hiking weather. By leaving that early, we were hiking in the shade most of the day.
The Hike out..
The Bright Angel Trail is actually the remnants of what was at one time a toll path into the canyon. It’s well marked. There are warning signs everywhere telling visitors to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon not to attempt hiking to the river and back in one day. In the hot summer months especially, that would be a dangerous undertaking for most people.
There’s a sign there telling of a world class marathoner that died trying to do just that. As I said earlier, the Bright Angel Trail is no joke. It’s used daily by mule trains carrying passengers into the canyon, and by the way, mules have the right of way on the Bright Angel!
Going down the trail, is for most people, a lot easier than going up. In fact, the rule of thumb is one step down equals two steps up. That fact catches a lot of casual hikers off guard, and they end up with a lot more than they bargained for when they began strolling down the trail, and then have to turn around and start back up.
It is beautiful. As you reach the River from Phantom, you walk across a swinging bridge across the Colorado, and then walk a surprising distance downstream before turning away from the river. As you leave the river, you walk along a stream bed, which is considerably wetter and cooler than one might expect. I hear of people that hurry as quick as they can to get up, but I advise against that. This is a trail that rewards those that take the time to be observant.
All along the trail are scenic views that you do not want to miss. About half way up is Indian Gardens. This is a great spot to refill water bottles, use the bathroom facilities, and eat lunch. And we did exactly that.
Just past Indian Garden is where the trail begins to take a significant uphill grade, and the worst part of the trail is the last three miles. The park service now has water and rest stops in 1.5 mile increments, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of them.
Staying hydrated is important at all times in the desert, but especially while hiking up hill. A number of people have died from dehydration while hiking in the Grand Canyon. While water is usually available at Indian Gardens, and at both the 1.5 mile rest stops, there can be interruptions. Check with the ranger stations before betting your life on finding water at these locations.
The Bright Angel Trail is a great walk, in fact, one of the best hikes you could ever take, but it requires preparation and common sense. All of us that hiked it thought the rewards of the hike far exceeded the rigors.
As you begin to get within a couple of miles or so of the top, we began to notice a lot more “casual” hikers. These were people carrying soft drinks in lieu of water, and obviously unprepared for a desert hike. In fact, I remember the last time, we ran into a very obese lady lumbering down the trail, carrying a can of soft drink, and very near the 1.5 mile marker. We actually stopped her, and advised strongly that she turn around and start back up immediately. We saw her later at the top, looking like she was about to pass out.
Around noon, we arrived at the South Rim. Could we have gotten up sooner? Most certainly, but why? We think that hiking in the Grand Canyon is incredible, and we were in no hurry to end it.
I want to thank all the members of our local group. Enjoyed traveling with my wife’s cousin, and my good friend Layne Weeks and his son Brian. This is mine and Layne’s 3rd major rafting trip together. Layne left on a motorcycle trip to the Smokey Mountains shortly after our return. He may be the oldest member of our group, but he may also be the toughest.
My son Trey and Kevin have been best buddies since kindergarten; Kevin’s dad Edwin and I are good friends and hiking buddies, and that made this a very special trip.
I originally planned this trip to be with Trey. Trey and I had always talked about driving to Alaska together after he got out of the Navy, but along the way, he fell in love with my favorite daughter in law, Kelly, and those plans were shelved.
Although Trey and I work together, we don’t see each other as much you one might think. This trip was a great time to reconnect with him, and gives me the opportunity to consider again what a terrific man, husband, and father he’s become.
I’m certain that Edwin feels exactly the same way about Kevin, who is also a wonderful man, husband, and father.
Would I do it again? Heck yes.. just fyi, the Park Service only allows you to raft the Grand Canyon once per year, so it won’t be soon.
If the Lord allows, I’d like to one day take my grandkids on a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. IF you have questions that I can answer for you, put them in the comments section below, OR, if you prefer, click the contact icon at the top right of this page and send me a note. (just put my name in the body of the email and I’ll see it).
IF you’ve hiked or rafted the Grand Canyon as well, and have something to add, then please add your input to the comments. This is a business website, and consequently, all comments have to be approved before published, but that usually only takes a few minutes.