Which Half Is Better, the Upper or the Lower? Why You Should Choose the Full Canyon!
by Sharon Hester
“Should I do the upper or lower trip, which half is better?” This is a common question regarding our Classic and All Paddle Adventures. It’s like choosing between a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a slice of hot cherry pie. Both are good, but they are so much better together! To learn more, read on.
Both our Classic and All Paddle Adventures take 2 weeks for the rafts to get through the Grand Canyon, but on most trips, we allow participants to hike in or out of those trips. This “Interchange Day” occurs standardly on day 6 for the upper section with a hike out of the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. If you are doing the lower 9-day section, you start with hiking into the trip on the trail that Interchange Day. Some early spring and late fall trips will be a 7-day upper trip and 10-day lower trip, as those trips are 16-days to raft the full canyon.
We recommend reserving a full canyon rafting trip, if possible, but we understand that it does not work for everyone. So we have complied a comparison of the two sections at https://azraft.com/grand-canyon-rafting-adventures-upper-vs-lower/ to help you with your decision.
We would also like to add a few more anecdotes and observations regarding the partial canyon trips to consider, before making your decision.
Upper Section Observations
We estimate that over 75% of the folks who raft the Upper section will return to complete the trip by doing the lower half or a full canyon trip at a later date.
This is how that typically occurs.
On about day 4 or 5 of a trip, participants have just settled into the trip routine. They have finally learned how to pack their dry bags effectively. They have adjusted to break of dawn starts, constant clothing changes and weather challenges. They are adjusting to this novel experience and love the daily adventure. New best friends have been made with the other participants and guides. They are now a team on a grand adventure together!
Suddenly it hits them, they are hiking out of the trip soon and they will be leaving their new teammates and besties behind! The guides and other participants doing the full canyon will continue their adventure downstream together rafting another 137 miles of river and exploring more amazing side canyons, and THEY are hiking out and are going to miss all that!
The hike out of the trip on the Bright Angel Trail is an adventure and a major accomplishment. Something to be rightfully proud of doing, but there is still the nagging feeling you have missed out. You decide then and there (or soon after) you will be back to do the remaining half or the full canyon soon! It has happened that folks have called the AzRA office, in tears, at first cell phone signal, to rebook on the lower or the full canyon trip as soon as possible!
Lower Section Observations
The lower half participants begin their trip at 5am with the strenuous hike down the Bright Angel Trail and arrive about midday at the waiting rafts moored to shore. Often, they are exhausted and overwhelmed by this strenuous hike. Next, a whirlwind of activity ensues to get on the river. This can be a complete sensory overload for some folks! First, they meet the other guests and guides who have already been on the river for 6 days. On average, most trips about half the folks are doing the full canyon and have formed a team. The full trippers are nice and friendly as they introduce themselves, but you get the feeling they are the “old hands”, and you are the “green rookies”. You struggle to learn their names as you recover from being overheated, in the sparse shade near the river. Then an important safety talk commences. You try and pay attention, but it is a lot to remember in your worn-out state. You also grapple with repacking your backpack contents into the empty dry bags. Lunch is served shortly afterwards and there is clearly the need to get on the rafts soon to cover some river miles to camp.
On the river, Horn Creek rapid and some of the biggest rapids on the river occur immediately after this hike in. You probably have mostly recovered from your hike and are now sitting comfortably in your raft with refreshingly cold waves hitting your face, but you are still dog-tired from your hike down. More huge rapids await that afternoon and the next day!
The next morning you awake, painfully aware that you are not able to flex your calf muscles. Doing the “Bright Angel Shuffle”, you hobble into the kitchen to get a cuppa’Joe and commiserate with your fellow hikers about how painful your legs are! You wonder if you can make it to the “Groover” up the hill behind camp for your morning salutations.
That day on the first side hike, your calves let you know they are not happy; you may even opt out of the 1st few hikes, because your muscles are so sore. But after 2 to 3 days, your legs have probably recovered. You figure out the daily routine, and start adjusting to the extremes of weather. You are becoming an old hand yourself as you form a tight team with old hands already on the trip. You are having so much fun you forget about the previous aches and pains of the hike in.
After 9 (or 10) days of adventure you end your trip as close friends with your rafting companions. Usually, people don’t feel like they missed out, but you might hear about the enormous Redwall Cavern, beautiful vistas at the Nankoweap Anazasi ruins, swimming turquoise waters at the Little Colorado River, and other amazing side hikes on the first portion of the trip that you missed. You wonder if you should have done the full length rafting trip yourself!
Some folks have shared with us that they could not recall that first day on the adventure, even though they rafted some of the largest rapids on the trip, simply because they were so overwhelmed with exhaustion and the sensory overload of that first whirlwind day hiking in! They rebooked a full canyon trip just so they could raft those rapids again and remember the experience!
Can you do the Full Canyon?
Overall, we estimate less folks doing the lower half come back to do the upper or the whole canyon, but it is still a considerable number that do. Perhaps about 40-50% return. They do not have the feeling, as much as the folks hiking out, that they missed out, but many do, and they come back to see what they missed.
In summary, having guaranteed return customers works well for AzRA! However, if they had chosen the full canyon initially, they would have saved money overall. Now they must plan another trip out to Arizona in the future with all the associated costs. Also, per day, the cost is less for a full canyon trip and the travel logistics are less complicated and expensive than a partial upper or lower trip. The hike in or out is also a serious endeavor, not to be taken lightly. Although AzRA makes more money by allowing partial canyon participants, we feel that the full canyon is the best choice for our guests! Please take these observations into consideration and save your money by taking our suggestion of doing a full canyon trip to start with if you can!