What is a typical Grand Canyon Rafting Itinerary?
We get asked this question quite often, and the honest answer is: there is no itinerary on your Grand Canyon Raft Adventure. That’s one of the best parts!
Just like the Colorado River, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure is dynamic, fluid, and subject to change. Other than the launch day, take out day, and interchange day (if the trip has one, where some trips participants hike out or into their trip at river mile 89), there is no set schedule. Every day after launching offers a wide range of hikes and camps that may be done within a certain stretch of river, based on the expected average mileage per day. But even that can change drastically. The only daily itinerary you can expect on your rafting adventure is that every morning you will be up EARLY!
A Motor Adventure will average 25 miles a day, and a Classic or All-Paddle (non-Motor) Adventure will average 15 miles a day. Keep in mind that some days of a trip will see shorter mileages, and can vary from 0-40 miles per day! Every day offers a section of river where certain camping and hiking choices are more likely, but there are many choices of camps and hikes in most all river reaches. Below we explain a few of the many factors that can determine which hikes and camps are chosen.
About hiking time
Your experienced guides will base their choice of hikes in any expected reach of river per day on the trip participants’ hiking abilities/speed, weather (wind, rain, heat or cold can play a part in which hikes are chosen) that day/moment, and other groups in the vicinity. Another factor is river flow levels. Lower flows mean slower water speed and more time is required on the water to make the miles. One reason trips try to leave camp as early as possible is it allows for more hiking time. From the very beginning of a trip, your guides will be assessing your abilities and interests and choose hikes that will work best for the group. They will have a plan A, B and C for hikes, as your trip may arrive at a planned hike to find other groups already hiking at the “Plan A”, which may not be appropriate for multiple groups.
Additionally, the weather may turn from sunny and warm to stormy and rainy, making a hike in a narrow slot canyon less appealing. Your guides may then choose a different hike based on weather. Do not fret if you miss a hike you were expecting, as you now have more time later for other incredible side hikes downstream. There are always other options for hiking and the time saved not hiking one day will be spent hiking more on another day!
In the cooler shoulder months of April, early May, late September and October, the guides may choose some longer hikes that are more out in the open with dramatic vistas and lots of sunshine. Hikes that on a hot summer day would be a death march. A cool weather trip may forego some of the shady, waterfall hikes where in the summer, folks enjoy frolicking and playing in the cool shady pools, but on a colder day is not so appealing. Thus, hikes vary based on the time of year as well as weather at the moment.
About river time
Other variables affect the mileage covered each day. Upstream winds can make it feel as if each paddle or oar stroke is stuck in cement. You may ponder that being conscripted as a slave on a Viking longship might have been easier, as you struggle to gain inches of the mileage planned. Alternatively, strong downstream winds could have folks turning their rafts into a colorful flotilla of sarong sails, converting the rafts into a sailing regatta racing downstream, covering extra river miles at a joyful clip. Lower water flows mean slightly slower current speed. Alternatively, higher flows mean the river is faster. Some sections of river move faster no matter the flow, as the average river gradient in those sections is higher. Below Lava Falls, river mile 179, the river gradient increases due to faults crossing the river channel, thus the river current is faster. Because of this, expect to cover more mileage the last full day or two of your adventure. Keep in mind a motorized trip is less affected by both those factors.
Upstream from Lava Falls, there are longer hikes with water and shade versus below Lava Falls, so trips often cut down on the river mileage in those canyon sections to do more hiking, making up the lost mileage farther downstream. Below Lava Falls, the Grand Canyon is wider, more open and less deep, providing less morning and evening shade. Even the side canyons have less shade, so hikes are usually quite short in this section, if they are done at all. However, in the cooler shoulder season, a trip may make the choice to do more hiking in this same open sunnier area, that would usually be avoided in the hotter summer months.
About camp time
You’ll typically go to bed when the sun goes down, and you’ll generally wake up when the sun rises. Your day will start at dawn with the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting about camp. After breakfast, you’ll load everything onto the rafts, will embark on the chilly river sometime between 7:30 and 9am. Though most hikes are done as stops during the day, you could partake in a hike from camp, which would get you on the river later than this timeframe. Expect to arrive at camp between 4 and 5pm, unless your group is planning on hiking from camp that evening. Even still, all of these timelines vary a lot depending on the time of year! In the sizzling summer months, guides prefer getting to camp later in the day once the shade has arrived or is close to arriving. In the cooler spring and fall months, they often arrive at camp earlier when the sun rays are high, so folks can warm up after being on the cool river.
Just like hiking will have a Plan A, B and C, there are certain camps that are within a planned reach of river at the end of each day, but if your trip gets to “Plan A” camp and it is already taken by another group, your trip will just float down to the next camp. You will arrive at camp later than planned and comments from your raft mates, may take the form of: “we are a bigger group than them let’s take the beach by force” or “darn it’s going to be a late dinner now.” But guess what? You will now have more time for hiking the next day or two, as you are now covering more miles!
All the factors above, plus a few more not listed, are the reason Grand Canyon rafting trips have no set itinerary. Be flexible about your expectations on a trip, with the understanding that plans on a Grand Canyon rafting adventure are always subject to change. Just like the weather, the river and life.