Rafting the Grand Canyon
By Greg Niemann
Another wave clobbered the eight of us, soaking me so thoroughly my skin shivered despite the 100+ degree air temperature. The Colorado River rapids had raised my adrenalin level to euphoric heights, but the water felt cold trapped under my life vest. Continually getting drenched, I was relieved my expensive hearing aid was secured in a plastic bag. Scratch another adventure from my bucket list.
Rafting the rapids of the Grand Canyon had always demanded a commitment of too much time (and money). When I learned about the one-day Grand Canyon West rafting trip, I signed up immediately, booking two nights at the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs, AZ
From southern California to that heart of the Hualapai Reservation I drove through Kingman where I picked up the iconic Route 66.
The Hualapai Lodge is clean and comfortable with amenities that include free wi-fi and a salt-water pool. However, the Santa Fe trains rumble by all night, blasting their horn every 15 minutes or so. The front desk can supply ear plugs.
The entire hotel/rafting operation is run by members of the Hualapai tribe, one of whom drove us in a small bus down the rocky Diamond Creek road (only road to canyon's bottom), descending 4,000 feet in over an hour. Seven rafts awaited where we met the swift-moving, muddy Colorado River at Mile 225. The guides secured our life vests and we were off.
Hitting the Rapids
The rafts are motorized, built upon large inflatable pontoons coated with high-strength material. Seeking the thrill, I initially sat in front. After striking good sized riffles where the river quickly dropped 25 feet, I was the first to get soaked. Guide Joe advised me to sit back and leave the bow for the younger set. After all, at age 72, I was obviously the oldest.
They say the rapids are rated from 3-7 (On a scale of 1-10), and while there was a lot of water going over our bow, there were no jutting rocks, or split-second decisions that had to choose the optimum channel like some rivers demand. The toughest rapids had big haystacks with erratic wave trains which insured the bow would plow into at least several wave faces. Would have been hell for a canoe or kayak however.
We stopped at Travertine Canyon to explore a picturesque waterfall within canyon walls so narrow it seemed like a cave. The Hualapai guides helped us up the rocky terrain with ropes, rope ladders, and strong hands.
Back on the river we immediately hit the 231 Mile Rapid (rated 4-7) which dropped 12 feet. Another knarly one (4-7) was at Mile 232 with a seven foot drop. We ran rapids until stopping for lunch at Separation Canyon where the first river runners in 1869 finally split up, with three members leaving Major John Wesley Powell’s group to perish on their way out. Had they only known what we did: the rapids were behind us!
The second half of our 36 mile river adventure was less thrilling, yet more spectacular. Vertical canyon walls with colorful rocks overpowered one’s senses. The incredible geology was in-your-face: dark chocolate boulders yielded upward to pink shale, bright limestone, and caramel-colored cliffs, topped by creamy, even white citadels of rock. We passed great blue herons returning to their nests. We passed small canyons with waterfalls that have fed the mighty river for millennia.
As we sped up to make our rendezvous, fine spray continued to assault us. The helicopter landing zone on a bluff at Mile 261 was an active place with helicopters steadily coming and going, shuttling various adventurers in groups of five and six people from the two landing pads. Finally, the Sundance pilot lifted us up and hugged the canyon walls in his ascent.
Up top, Grand Canyon West has helicopter pads, an air strip, gift shops, and a bus station. The famous Skywalk is at the end of the plateau, and some visit it for a two-day adventure. A large tour bus took us back to Peach Springs where we arrived by 7 p.m.
While you're there
Hualapai Tourism has numerous packages to experience Grand Canyon West. Along with the rafting and Skywalk, there’s jeep exploring, horseback riding, wagon rides, helicopter rides and boat rides, something for almost every budget.
The price for my trip was about $350.00, including lunch and helicopter shuttle. The hotel offers $80.00 room rates which includes breakfast. So for about $500, and only three days invested, it’s a real doable adventure.
To continue the Grand Canyon experience, you can head farther east to Grand Canyon National Park, where the natural wonder is at its widest and most colorful.
Other area options include Grand Canyon Caverns, 12 miles past Peach Springs on Route 66. There an elevator drops you 21 floors beneath the earth to one of the largest dry caverns in the United States. Lodging is available.
Or if you're into nostalgia, you'll enjoy the Route 66 experience. That former main highway between Chicago and Los Angeles has become a major destination itself. Almost every business in nearby Seligman, AZ has "66" in its name, and hours can be spent browsing all the memorabilia shops and museums. Hackberry and Oatman, AZ are also living testimonials to the "Mother Road."
Kingman is the largest town in the area with numerous lodging options, and one could stay there and drive the 30-40 minutes to Peach Springs.
Heading home, I stopped by Lake Havasu to make sure that "London Bridge" had not fallen down. It was still there, straddling tranquil, clear blue water, making it hard to believe it was the same river that churned its rust-colored rapids through the Grand Canyon.
If You Go
Hualapai Tourism, (888) 868-9378 www.hualapaitourism.com or
Grand Canyon West, (888) 868-9378 http://www.grandcanyonwest.com/
Grand Canyon Caverns, (928) 422-3223 http://www.gccaverns.com/
(Greg Niemann is a travel writer and author of several books including Palm Springs Legends, Baja Legends, Big Brown, and Las Vegas Legends. Visit www.gregniemann.com.)