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Grand Canyon: New Moves on the Colorado

Pack up the raft and lash down the bedroll—it's time to mount your own Grand Canyon expedition. This summer the rules have changed, and running the nation's single greatest river is easier than ever.
Text by Dan Duane   Photograph by Corey Rich

Photo: Paddlers on raft in rapids

WAVE ACTION: Paddlers brace for the F.M. Brown Rapid on the Colorado River. It's time to mount your own Grand Canyon expedition.

See more Grand Canyon photos >>

So it goes like this: You strap a few weeks' worth of supplies into a little rubber raft; you seal your topographical maps, top-shelf GPS unit, and emergency satellite phone into a waterproof case; you make a last-minute call from a dusty telephone booth on a deserted highway, telling your loved ones that you're not really sure when they'll hear from you again because even satellite phones don't always work where you're going. Then you shove off into a truly gargantuan river for a 226-mile (364-kilometer) ride through one of the world's deepest and most rugged canyons. And there's no turning back.

50 National Park Adventures  |  More Grand Canyon Photos

What sort of expedition requires such complete preparation, such utter commitment? Mongolia's Hovd River? A source-to-sea descent of the Amazon? Try someplace a little closer to home. Try the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

Few folks think of the Big Ditch as such an undertaking, but this is a landscape so rough and remote that it was still a blank spot on the map 70 years after California became a state. It's also the place where in 1869 Major John Wesley Powell led one of the most harrowing expeditions in the annals of exploration, completing the first confirmed descent of the Colorado with two of his four boats lost and three of his nine men killed by Paiute Indians. To this day the canyon remains one of the wildest regions in the country, 277 miles (446 kilometers) long, 18 miles (29 kilometers) wide at some points, and without a single road crossing.

Yet in recent years the perception of the Grand Canyon, and particularly that of a Colorado River trip, has changed. It has become the territory of guided dories and motorized rafts, of four-day to two-week outfitted odysseys that define the American summer vacation. And that's a good thing—great, even. We're going to tell you how to do all that and more. But that's not our primary purpose here. Instead, just for a moment, we'd like you to envision the Colorado as Powell did, as one of the great wildernesses on the planet, and ask that you consider running it the way he did: unguided, full of wonder and fear.

Imagine three weeks with no schedule and with companions whom you choose. See yourself drifting in daydreams as hot winds blow from some down-canyon oven, or spending hours jogging up dry drainages to sit in abject silence among Anasazi ruins, or watching bighorn sheep graze among the tamarisk trees. Then feel how your pulse spikes when the roar of a churning rapid sounds off like an approaching A-10 Warthog. And now you're scrambling, running up the bank to scout water so big it looks like it's falling off a cliff. Sweaty-palmed, you push off from the bank, carving your own line through the white water—not following the directions of some all-knowing oarsman—and, by God, you make it through.

That's not just an adventure. To run the Grand Canyon on your own is one of the world's genuine once-in-a-lifetime trips, a voyage that's not only the best in our national parks—by a long mile—but also on par with walking the Inca Trail, trekking to Everest Base Camp, motorcycling across the Sahara, and sailing the South Pacific.

So why aren't there scores of folks doing it, clogging up the river like plaque in an artery? The answer is all too bureaucratic to detail here, but for the past 26 years the National Park Service has favored guided trips, leaving a paltry few spots for those who'd go the river on their own. To run the Colorado unsupported you once had to go on a waiting list that, at its worst, was 25 years long.

Those dark days are gone. In January the Park Service installed a new permit lottery, part of the grandly named Colorado River Management Plan, which gives a lot more clout to independent paddlers. You still have to put your name on a list, but instead of waiting two and a half decades, you could be floating the Colorado within a year.

So you'd better get on it. There are skills to be learned and logistics to be planned. To come up to speed as a Grand Canyon river runner is no small task, but we're determined to get you there. We've plumbed more than 140 years of collective guiding experience—and who knows how many river runs—to whip you into white-water shape and prep you for every type of Colorado River trip imaginable, whether unsupported, semisupported, or fully outfitted. What follows is not just a guide, it's a launchpad for a dream that won't be fulfilled until you've shoved your raft from Lees Ferry, drifted into the Colorado current, and opened your eyes to the very meaning of adventure.

50 National Park Adventures  |  More Grand Canyon Photos

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