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The Grand Canyon Bucket List Float Trip: 23 Tips To Do It Right

A boater commits fully to a flaming land shark in the Grand Canyon. Nate Ross photo.

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and a crew of nine others set out on one of the greatest American adventures of all time. A one-armed veteran of the Civil War, Powell was no stranger to danger and hardship, but little could have prepared him or his crew for the sufferfest that they were about to undertake.

Starting their voyage in Green River City, Wyoming, by the time the Powell Expedition made it to the Grand Canyon, they had already survived capsized boats, awful swims, long portages, spoiling provisions, and many other horrors.

Way back in 1869, these guys invented the junk show.

But even in the face of mutiny, J. Dubs refused to quit, and by means of his steadfast leadership, he and some of his party survived to tell the tale to a curious, emerging America.

A lot has changed since J. Dubs and his crew pushed through that first harrowing expedition. Gear, technology, safety... the list of ways we have it better is endless.

These days, boating the Grand Canyon has become less about survival and more about recreational enjoyment. With that in mind, here is a checklist of 23 ways to enhance your own Grand Canyon boating experience.

Please note, this is by no means a definitive list—the amount of stuff to do and check out on this trip is never-ending—but it is a great primer to get you and your homies started on the expedition of a lifetime.

#1: Pack the Martin/Whitis Guide

The book (pictured bottom right) is indispensable. Jeremy Wall photo

This might sound dorky, but it's nice to have topo lines that you can compare to your surroundings to figure out where you are. The Tom Martin/Duwain Whitis guide is a waterproof, tearproof field manual that has topo maps over every section you'll be boating, plus step-by-step beta on rapids, camps, hikes, and other features of note. Some days you can put it away and just float into mystery, but it's always nice to have a reference to come back to.

QUICK TIP: The authors' description of rapids is pretty dead-on, but anytime you read about a hike being 'fair' it can run the gamut from pleasant to excruciating. Be warned.

#2: Become a Geologist

Tapeats Sandstone reaches down to kiss the river somewhere in the depths of the GC. Jeremy Wall photo

Limestone, sandstone, schist and shale, not to mention the granite. It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from—the GC will pique your intellectual curiosity. You float through so many layers, each one representing a geological epoch, that it becomes impossible to not care about the history of the place.

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You go so deep, that around the end of Marble Canyon, you actually begin cutting into the mantle of the Earth, exposing Zoroaster Granite and Vishnu Schist. And that happens three separate times. If you let it, the GC will blow your mind.

QUICK TIP: Around Nankoweep, go create memories of the whites and purples of Bright Angel Shale.

#3: Wear Costumes

A GC group exemplifying what "teamwork" looks like on the river. Nate Ross photo

The wilderness is a big place, and there’s just something about being in the middle of nowhere that begs for a costume party. Most of the time an excuse to cross-dress, the tradition of wearing costumes on the river transcends well past the walls of the GC, and is part of most fun-spirited river trips. If you’re going on your first river trip, definitely bring a costume, because ultimately, there’s nothing funnier than a giant Gumby suit in the middle of the desert.

QUICK TIPS: Tights, props, strap-ons, fluorescents—it all goes.

#4: Do The Up and Over

Thunder Falls erupts straight from the canyon wall, yielding an oasis of green to contrast the red sand- limestone. Nate Ross photo

The up-and-over hike is raw adventure. Assuming some folks in your party will skip the hike and take the boats downstream, Tapeats Creek is officially time to pack a bag, grab some goodies, and say goodbye to the river for a while.

Beginning at Tapeats Creek, this epic climbs precariously toward Thunder Falls (an enormous spring blasting straight out of a canyon wall) before crossing a high desert plain. After about a mile or two of flat walking, the path drops off sharply into Deer Creek wash. Some steep down-climbing later, the path crosses the Throne Room (another set of verdant springs) before winding into the uber-photogenic Deer Creek Narrows.

In the past, canyoneering this slot canyon was immensely popular, but in recent years has been outlawed. Just a short jaunt along a path through the narrows will take you to an overlook where, if all has gone according to plan, your boats are visible like little mirages way down by the river’s edge hundreds of feet below.

QUICK TIP: Bring a means of treating water in case something goes wrong; you're pretty exposed and on your own.

#5: Bring Enough Beer

This might seem like a lot of beer, but it's actually just for one person. Jeremy Wall photo

It’s been said that a safe bet is 12 beers, per person, per day. That may sound like a lot, but do you want to run out on day 17? There are few experiences more humbling than explaining to your swamper that you planned irresponsibly and that you’d like to purchase, borrow and/or steal a 30-rack. If you like craft beer, a good ratio is about 2/3 cheap beer, with about 1/3 making up your stash of the good stuff. In the hot desert sun, the cheaper and colder a beer is, the better it tastes.

QUICK TIP: Don’t forget the booze or more illicit materials!

#6: Stop at Redwall Cavern

Redwall Cavern against the enormous backdrop of Marble Canyon's inner sanctum. Nate Ross photo.

For eons, high water floods in the GC have dug out this cavern — it's big enough to accommodate any type of game you’d want to play. If your schedule permits, take a long afternoon at the Cavern to eat, drink, smoke, play games, sing songs, take a nap; whatever suits your fancy.

A climber earns a pump while sessioning the recesses of Redwall Cavern. Monica Danger photo.

QUICK TIP: Don’t stay! Camping at the Redwall Cavern is illegal, and if an NPS group finds you and your party doing so, there will be big fines.

#7: Penetrate Matkatamiba

Seductive in an otherworldly way, Matkat pulls you in like tractor beam. Nate Ross photo.

Matkatamiba is one of the most gorgeous slot canyons you’ll find in the GC. Unassuming at its confluence with the Colorado, Matkat follows a trickling creek up over several mini pour-overs, until it hits a mandatory climb-out. This hand-over-hand scramble is easy enough, but should not be attempted in a heavily intoxicated state. This short scramble takes you out of the slot and square into one of the most verdantly paradisical canyons you can imagine.

QUICK TIP: Take your time, and bring a kit of goodies.

#8: Get Wet at Elves Chasm

An elf pees on an innocent boater at Elves Chasm. Nate Ross photo.

The GC is full of famous side hikes, and Elves Chasm might be one of the most notorious. After a short uphill jaunt, an emerald pool comes into view, yielding the perfect reprieve from the oppressive canyon heat. Bring your water wings and lap up the bliss of this canyon gem. If you crawl through the cavern behind the pool, you can stem your way up the cave-like chamber and reach a jumping ledge above the pool.

QUICK TIP: No diving, that shit’s only 3 feet deep!

#9: Make Time for Sexy Time

GQ in the GC–these two boaters pierce the soul with their sensual gazes. Monica Danger photo.

They say the GC is 95% boredom complimented by 5% sheer terror. The 95% comes in the way of flat water that runs for long stretches between the big drops. Of course, deep in the GC, you’re never really bored, but finding ways to pass the long flat miles isn’t a bad idea. If you and that special someone find yourselves trapped in an eddy or a little separated from the group, why not get naked and have some river sex? Build some character and make a memory.

QUICK TIP: Sex through drysuit zippers can be very tricky. Take care of your body; it would suck to have to get medical attention because you zipped yourself up like Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary!

#10: Take Communion at Blacktail

The Great Unconformity, pictured above, represents over a billion years of missing geological time. Flickr Creative Commons photo.

Blacktail is one of those special places that makes a lasting impression. A deep slot canyon that extends back several hundred meters, this area is one of the best chances you'll get to see the Great Unconformity. This geological feature is comprised of 550 million year old Tapeats Sandstone that sits directly on top of Vishnu Schist that is over 1.6 billion years old. It is possible to reach out and span over a billion years from one hand to the other. This is a place of tranquility and quiet contemplation, hardly the zone for your next game of horseshoes.

QUICK TIP: Take a solo walk and really reflect. If you or someone in your party is musically inclined, make sure to hold an impromptu symphony in Blacktail slot—the acoustics are unbelievable.

#11: Do a Psychedelic Layover

A mix of glow toys, red rock, and stars make for quite an eyeful! Nate Ross photo.

There is no single way to do this. Many prefer to float flat river miles while enjoying their psychedelics, but many favor setting up shop, popping glow sticks, and doing a stay-cation. This decision will of course depend on you and your group's temperament, the quality of your camp, and what river day you happen to be on.

QUICK TIP: If laying over, choose your campsite wisely—you want it to have a strong hiking option. If floating, absolutely do not take hallucinogens if you have to run any significant drops!!

#12: Experience Nankoweep

An impromptu dance party erupts just below Nankoweep Granary. Nate Ross photo.x

Nankoweep Granary is one of the most photographed locales in all of the interior Grand Canyon. Everyone from Nat Geo to the common River Rat takes pictures at this place, and you should too. A short uphill hike from Nankoweep camp and debris fan, this 1000 year old structure was originally used to stockpile grain and as defense from rival tribes.

QUICK TIP: If your trip lines up right and a full moon is in the cards, get your ass up to the Granary under the moonlight for one of the most rewarding moon jaunts you’ll ever experience. For further information, refer to the aforementioned bullet item, Psychedelic Layover.

#13: Take a River Beatdown

A sadfaced boatmen takes his licks by shooting-the-boot. Monica Danger photo.

Sure, there are a couple rapids in the GC that are likelier to beat you down than the rest, but part of the fun of a high-volume run like the Grand Canyon is that the unexpected can happen almost anywhere.

To watch somebody violently get their ass kicked by Lava Falls, check out this video: 

If you've gotten your ass kicked by the river, the next step is to appease the river gods. Two common ways of attaining river redemption:

A) Shooting the Boot (pictured above), which involves filling a soiled river shoe or sneaker with booze and downing it, or...

B) A Flaming Land Shark (pictured at top). This one kind of speaks for itself...

QUICK TIP: If you're gonna get worked, get it on tape!

#14: Get Weird

Two drunken river pirates consummate their friendship during some belligerent beer-in-hand leap frog. Monica Danger photo

Human behavior, and what type is appropriate, is a largely subjective matter. In the GC, society’s rules, expectations and taboos are almost wholly stripped away–leaving you, the circumstantial deviant, to act however you want. This might mean many different things to different people, but in short, it means that the canyon is a great place to allow you to be you.

QUICK TIP: Bring a gag prop that will shock your party when it gets brought out. A blow-up doll is one example...

#15: Bring a River Bard

Kelsey girl, guitar in hand, toes in sand. Charlie Noone photo.

Every river crew needs a minstrel for those smoky nights under the stars. Most instruments will do, but if you nab yourself a talented guitar player, few other disciplines will be able to compete. When you go long stretches without music, as you do on a GC trip, finally hearing some can lift the spirits of an otherwise fatigued river party.

QUICK TIP: If you’re bringing an instrument, make sure to buy a specialized dry bag that's manufactured particularly for that purpose. They are worth the investment, and will protect your equipment from the harsh elements.

#16: Get the Right People

In the wilderness, sometimes gender just melts away. Nate Ross Photo.

Group dynamics are important on any river trip, which is why having the right names on an invite list is essential. Sometimes things go wrong, even with the best of friends. 24 days is a long time to spend with anybody in an isolated and sometimes stressful environment. If you are the TL (trip leader), and you’re putting together a list of people to invite, go with your gut.

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However, even with the best of intentions coupled to a thorough vetting process, some people won’t have the time, money, or both, meaning that the unknown ‘friend of a friend’ gets the nod and invite. Oftentimes, these unknowns are the wild cards and can turn out to be an enormous asset, or an enormous ass.

QUICK TIP: Try to balance testosterone and estrogen—this equal ratio can be a blessing for group dynamics. And remember, even the best of friends get into fights.

#17: Write/Adopt a Good Menu

PB&J again. For your own sanity, spare no expense; after all, you're trapped down there. Jeremy Wall photo.

It’s day 14, and you’re settling into yet another meal of beans and rice... fuck!

If you’ve been invited on a GC trip, or any river trip for that matter, make sure that you, the TL, and the rest of your group are on the same page about your food menu. Some people are totally okay with eating bland staples for weeks at a time, but c’mon, this is rafting, not backpacking… Bring the gourmet, and lots of it! One of the best parts about boating, and river trips in general, is that you don’t need to carry everything on your back. Load your boat up with the finest, and let the mighty Colorado River do the heavy lifting.

If your TL is insisting on a minimalist menu, and you’re having serious doubts about your caloric intake, get out before it’s too late. It won’t take many river miles for the Hangry to set in and start causing serious problems and group issues.

QUICK TIP: If doing a food buy for an extended trip is intimidating, consider delegating your food menu to a third-party outfitter based in Flagstaff. Most of the time these guys are total pros, and won’t skimp on the goods or forget the details.

#18: Wash Your Hands

Poop, wash; wash, cook; wash, eat; repeat. Jeremy Wall photo.

This is straightforward, but people screw it up anyway. Wash after you’ve unloaded on the groover (toilet) and obviously before cooking and eating. It’s the desert, and it’s hot. Food poisoning in the middle of a wilderness area is extremely shitty, and it may affect your groups itinerary if you need to take an unexpected layover because said bro can’t wipe his ass properly.

QUICK TIP: Make the wash basin central and easy to access.

#19: Write Your Name on Everything

With hundreds of cam straps on your trip, you're gonna want to keep tabs on them. Sam Morse photo.

River trips, especially long ones, require a lot of gear. If you’re getting everything from an outfitter, than this doesn’t apply to you. But if you’re bringing the kit that you’ve been acquiring for most of your adult life, make sure to mark everything that is actually your possession. The big bag of cam straps that you own is going to get dispersed to at least ten different people, and all their shit looks the same as yours. Get a sharpie, and make a tag.

QUICK TIP: Another good way to go about this is to grab a roll of colored duct tape and apply a piece to everything that you’re bringing. That way, everyone knows that the gear with the fluorescent orange tape is yours. No questions.

#20: Take Time to Play

Sliding right into the fun during a sweaty layover day. Monica Danger photo.

Horseshoes, bocci ball, butt darts, frisbees, and slip ’n’ slides… in the Grand Canyon, you’re going to have a lot of beach time on your hands. Side hiking and stoically journaling can only take up so much of your time, so get to merry-making.

QUICK TIP: Bring tons of toys to facilitate your afternoon fun binge.

#21: Bring Fine Oils, Butters and Lotions

Few things feel better than gobs of shea butter around a desert campfire. Lucille Pine photo.

After a long day on the rio, there are a few things that you would expect to get passed around the campfire, but the uninitiated would never think that one of them would be moisturizer. Multiple weeks in the desert going wet to dry over and over again is brutal on your skin. Factor in all the sand, rope-tying and gear hauling, and your hands are gonna get fucked up—no doubt. Bring high-quality shea butters and lotions in excess; you’ll be happy you did. If you don’t take this seriously, your hands will start cracking, splitting, and then bleeding. A lot.

QUICK TIP: To go the extra healing mile before bed, saturate your hands with the lotion of your choosing, then put cotton socks on your hands like gloves and sleep with them on. The cotton will help your skin retain the moisture, and you’ll wake with healthier skin than when you went to sleep.

#22: Look Up

Millions of years of geological history can be a little distracting. Jeremy Wall photo.

One of the best parts of running the Grand is that at any given moment, you can elevate your gaze and be completely floored by what greets your eyes. Sometimes it can be distracting, but there is nothing better than cooking dinner in an outdoor kitchen, mixing a bowl of whatever, and then diverting your focus from that chore to the enormity and grandeur of your surroundings.

QUICK TIP: Enjoy every minute! The view takes things that in our everyday lives are menial and monotonous (pooping, cooking, cleaning) and puts them into an epic context. The GC is the best place to do dishes you’ll ever experience!

#23: Decompress in Vegas

Post GC, The Venetian's gawdy waterway is perhaps the fakest, shittiest thing you'll ever see. David Stanley photo.

After almost a month of tuning in to the vibration of the Earth, there is no reverse culture shock more terrifying, stimulating, and thought-provoking than heading straight to Vegas after taking out. “Normal” people will smell like shit (Axe body spray, perfume, deodorant), the level of unashamed gaudiness will make you want to vomit all over The Strip. Vegas will feel like a slap across the face.

QUICK TIP: Once you have your city bearings, and you’re ready, take a walk over to the Venetian, and watch fake boaters drive fake boats through a fake waterway. You’ll never feel so much in one moment.

From The Column: The Bucket List

wow, this is so amazing. I will plan something like this with my grand canyon university friends but need to check vacations date on gcu student login portal

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