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Riding the Wild Colorado
Strategies for taking America's ultimate river trip By John Annerino

Photo: Boaters explore a side canyon at Havasu Creek.
Boaters explore a side canyon at Havasu Creek.

Each year, roughly 22,000 people spend between a few days and three weeks running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The hard part is choosing your craft—rubber paddle rafts, oar-powered wooden dories, and luxury motorized rafts all ply the storied waters. The fun part? Endless rapids through endless beauty.

The most exciting way to run the canyon's legendary big drops, rapids, riffles, and whirlpools is on a 14-day trip in an 18-foot (5.5-meter) rubber paddle raft. Before launching from the Lees Ferry put-in at river mile zero, your paddle captain will instruct your six-person crew in the fundamentals of safety, paddling, white-water swimming, and self-rescue. After your day-two plunge through a ten-mile stretch of Marble Canyon rapids known as the Roaring Twenties, you'll be ready to navigate your first big drop: river mile 77's Hance Rapid, at Upper Granite Gorge. Nothing, however, will prepare you for the stomach-churning view of Crystal Rapid at river mile 98. Created in 1966, when biblical rains and flash floods lashed the North Rim with 14 inches (36 centimeters) of rain and deposited car-size boulders in the main stem of the Colorado River, Crystal Rapid is perhaps the most thrilling falls of the trip.

The rival candidate: Lava Falls, the canyon's biggest, located 81 miles (130 kilometers) farther downstream. Lava Falls pours over an infamous boat-eating ledge-hole, dropping 13 feet (33 centimeters) and creating a maelstrom of ten-foot waves. It's the last big drop before the Diamond Creek take-out at river mile 225.

Book a trip with Arizona Raft Adventures (800 786 7238, U.S. and Canada only; www.azraft.com) or contact the river permit office for a complete list of outfitters (800 959 9164; www.nps.gov/grca/river).

To run the river with less physical exertion (and on a tighter schedule), sign up for a six-day trip on a 37-foot (11-meter), 20-passenger motorized J-Rig. Or choose the slower but more thrilling option, a 19-day trip on a guide-powered wooden dory.

Contact Western River Expeditions (800 453 7450, U.S. and Canada only; www.westernriver.com) or Grand Canyon Dories (800 877 3679, U.S. and Canada only; www.oars.com).

Very, very patient—to secure a permit to paddle the river on your own. As of December, the park put a hold on adding new names to its 8,000-person noncommercial permit waiting list while options for improving the system are considered. (The average captain who launches in 2004 will have been on the waiting list for 12 years.)

To monitor developments, visit www.nps.gov/grca/crmp.

For Adventure's full Big-Ditch coverage—including a fact-packed mega-map—pick up the March issue.

Online Extra
Four million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but you can have the great gorge all to yourself by downloading our Grand Canyon desktop image. Download image >>

From the print edition, March 2004

The Grand Canyon Tool Kit: Essential strategies for doing the canyon right
Hiking the Grand Canyon: Three ways to hoof the hole
Rafting the Grand Canyon: The best way to run the Colorado
Canyon Legends: Three unsolved mysteries
High Holy Days: Cleansing your karma on Tibet's Mount Kailas
The Adventures of Tim Cahill: Why a little bird is picking on a whale
Special Report: Wreck diving's deep frontier, on the S.S. Aleutian

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Related Web Sites

Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets. An IMAX Film

Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets
Experience the thrills of the great gorge with a preview of the IMAX film Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets

Grand Canyon Maps
For the maps you need to explore every inch of the Grand Canyon—including Trails Illustrated's new topographic version—visit National Geographic Maps.

Grand Canyon Quest
While prolific author David Quammen kayaked the Colorado in September of 2001, the whole world changed—except the Grand Canyon. Check out photos and audio dispatches from his trip.

Grand Canyon Travel Guide Online
Get in-depth information from National Geographic, including historic sites, driving tours, photographs, links, maps, and more online.

Grand Canyon National Park
For more tips on traversing the Grand Canyon, consult the National Park Service.

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*Trails Illustrated Map Catalog


March 2004

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