“My first river trip through Grand Canyon was a life-changing experience that permanently altered the way I looked at Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the American Southwest,” says James Kaiser. Kaiser, an outdoorsman and author, has written guidebooks to Acadia, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree, all of which have been the bestselling guidebooks to their respective national parks.
As we continue to celebrate 100 years of National Parks, we asked Kaiser to share with us an account of one of his favorite trips through a National Park, and how it can be re-created. Step one: Look a little bit deeper. “Yes, the natural beauty was stunning,” Kaiser said, “but it’s the story behind the scenery that truly captivated me.”
As stunning as the view is from the rim, the view from the river is even more spectacular. Flowing downstream from Lees Ferry (just south of the Utah/Arizona border), the Colorado enters the most scenic stretch of whitewater in America. As the river cascades down a series of thrilling rapids, sheer cliffs rise up thousands of feet on either side. Twisting deep into the heart of the Canyon, the river exposes a dazzling world filled with towering rock formations, sandy beaches, dark caverns and sparkling waterfalls. Side canyons spread out in all directions, channelling unlikely streams through parched terrain. As the Colorado flows around sharp bends, cool shadows mingle with shimmering river light.
From start to finish, the Colorado River passes through some of the most beautiful and varied terrain in North America. Born in the deep gorges of the upper Rocky Mountains, it plunges headfirst down pine-covered slopes to emerge in the desert Southwest. The river cuts through the wind-swept canyons of Utah, tears deep into Grand Canyon, and glides through the California desert. By the time it crosses the Mexican border to empty into the Gulf of California, the river has passed through seven western states and drained an area the size of Iraq.
The Colorado River is often referred to as the “Nile of America.” At first glance, this comparison seems appropriate. Both rivers pass through vast desert regions and both sustain vast desert civilizations along the way. But despite these two basic similarities, the rivers share little else in common. In terms of size, the Colorado is a much smaller river, draining a quarter of the land that the Nile drains. In terms of length, the Colorado’s 1,400 miles pales in comparison to the Nile’s 4,000.
Even in America, the Colorado lacks many impressive statistics. It’s not the longest river in America. Six other rivers are longer. It’s not the biggest river in America. In terms of annual flow, the Colorado doesn’t even rank in the top 25. But what the Colorado does have, and what makes it so remarkable, is the wildest and most terrifying elevation drop of any river in North America.
From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, the Colorado drops over 13,000 vertical feet. This steep drop, occurring over a relatively short distance, churns up a river that’s fast and furious, dropping an average of 7.7 feet per mile — 25 times steeper than the mighty Mississippi. Because a river’s erosive power increases exponentially with its speed, the Colorado would be a highly destructive river in any part of the world. But in the desert Southwest — a crumbling landscape filled with soft rocks and sparse vegetation — its erosive power is monumental.
As the Colorado enters the Southwest, it grinds away at the region’s barren rocks, picking up tiny particles of sediment along the way. The more sediment the river picks up, the more abrasive it becomes. The more abrasive it becomes, the more sediment it picks up. This vicious cycle feeds on itself until the Colorado is, quite literally, a river of liquid sandpaper. Before massive dams plugged the Colorado, the river’s sediment loads were phenomenal. Back then, the Colorado carried an average of 235,000 tons of sediment through the Grand Canyon each day. “Too thick to drink, too thin to plow,” was how one early explorer described it. The river’s composition was often two parts sediment to one part water, and because the sediment had a high concentration of iron-oxide, the virgin Colorado had a distinct reddish hue.
The virgin Colorado was also psychotically unpredictable. Early explorers often compared it to a bull. It was an “angry bull,” a “blooded bull,” and a “wild bull of destruction.” The Colorado’s flows in Grand Canyon varied anywhere between 3,000 and 200,000 cubic feet of water (90 to 6,000 tons) per second, sometimes within a matter of weeks. The largest flows occurred in the spring, when snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains set loose months of accumulated precipitation. In any given year, snowmelt accounts for over 70 percent of the Colorado River’s flow.
The Colorado’s spring floods were biblical in proportion. Roaring through the Southwest, they ripped out vegetation, eroded huge chunks of the riverbank, and tumbled 20-ton boulders like ice cubes. During these floods, the river carried its heaviest sediment loads, devouring the landscape at an astonishing rate. By winter, however, the Colorado would slow to a trickle and hover just above freezing — a stark contrast to summertime highs when the river often topped 80 degrees.
The Colorado River in Grand Canyon is on average 300 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Within the Canyon, the river is essentially a series of long pools interrupted by short, quick rapids. Although rapids only account for 10 percent of the Colorado’s 277-mile length in Grand Canyon, they account for nearly half of its 2,000-foot elevation drop, and the velocity of water in rapids is up to 10 times greater than the long pools in between. On most rivers, rapids form wherever the riverbed naturally drops, but in the Grand Canyon, rapids form next to side canyons where flash floods dumped debris into the Colorado. The debris constricts the river and backs it up, creating a steep drop-off that forms the rapid. Some of these rapids can drop up to 30 feet in a matter of seconds.
From Lees Ferry, where Grand Canyon river trips start, to Lake Mead, there are over three dozen substantial rapids. Even experienced river guides who’ve run Grand Canyon a hundred times or more are filled with adrenaline before dropping into the very biggest. The reward: some of North America’s most thrilling whitewater in one of the world’s most incredible landscapes. Only 20,000 people — less than half of one percent of all park visitors — are fortunate enough to experience a river trip through Grand Canyon.
How to Plan Your Trip
Over a dozen commercial outfitters offer guided river trips through Grand Canyon. Overnight trips range in length from three to 18 days, but due to their popularity many are booked up to a year in advance.
Commercial outfitters run trips with motorized and non-motorized boats. Motorized boats speed through the Canyon, allowing you to visit more sights in less time. While some find this convenient, I personally prefer non-motorized boats, which allow you to take in the Canyon’s epic scenery at the river’s pace.
There are two types of non-motorized boats: inflatable rafts and rigid dories. Inflatable rafts cushion the impact of the rapids, resulting in a smoother ride. Dories, piloted by skilled boatmen, offer a more exciting ride, but flipping is also more likely.
River season in Grand Canyon generally lasts from mid-April through early November. Summer is the most popular season, but it’s also the worst time to go due to heavy crowds and scorching temperatures. The best time for a river trip is in the spring or the fall, when temperatures are mild and the river is much less crowded. No matter when you go, however, you’ll enjoy the ultimate way to experience Grand Canyon.