Grand Canyon Rafting: 6 Side Hikes

After 10 years of trying, I finally won the lottery for a private, 16-person rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. Two weeks into our journey down the Colorado River, we were still craning our necks upward to gaze in wonder at rust-colored cliffs that loomed like castles. While the views from our rafts were stunning and never grew old, the terrain was equally amazing along the many side trails we hiked.

Whether you join a private rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, or go with a commercial outfitter, you’ll likely leave the boat occasionally to explore side canyons and nearby bluffs. While some hikes follow trails, others are more adventurous and require you to scale rock walls and swim through grotto pools. For the most part, the treks are a mile or less, but there are trails that wind for miles.

Of the dozen or so hikes we took, the following six were some of our favorites and cover a wide variety of features, from massive waterfalls to ancient granaries to cascading streams the color of turquoise.

* River mile marker is from the put-in at Lees Ferry


Grand Canyon Tunnel

Dam Test Tunnel (Mile 40)

While many Grand Canyon hikes visit exotic canyons and waterfalls, this short walk takes you back in time. On river left, a short approach trail hugs the canyon wall and leads to a small man-made tunnel that dates to the 1940s. Back then, there was a proposal to build a dam on the Colorado River in Marble Canyon for hydroelectric power, and engineers bored this tunnel to test the bedrock. Wearing a headlamp, you can walk comfortably through the rough stone passageway, which measures about 6 feet wide and 7 feet high. In spring or summer, the tunnel is noticeably cooler than outside temperatures, and water sometimes floods the floor. As you examine old sheets of metal and other implements left behind by workers, consider this: if Martin Litton and other Sierra Club members hadn’t successfully opposed the dam, much of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon would be nothing more than a trickle.



Nankoweap Granaries (Mile 52.4)

Nine hundred years ago, Pueblo Indians stored grain in the cliffs beside the Colorado River to protect it from animals and rival communities. To see one of these granaries up close, you can take a one-mile hike that begins at the large Nankoweap campsite. Beginning in the brush near the beach, a path climbs more than 500 feet to the base of a five-room granary that is remarkably well preserved. While people flock to this trail to see the granaries, they also hike it for the remarkable view of the river about two-thirds of the way up. From a rock outcrop high on the bluff, you can see straight down the canyon for several miles.

Little Colorado

Little Colorado River (Mile 61.7)

Among the many spectacular spots in the Grand Canyon, one of the most striking is the place where the Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado River around mile 61. When you exit your raft, you’ll walk a well-worn path that hugs the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado. Filled with high levels of calcium carbonate, the water takes on a milky-blue hue that seems otherworldly, and you can understand why the Hopi believe this is where people moved between the Earth and the spiritual realm. If you walk a quarter mile up the river, you’ll reach a shallow set of rapids where you can don your PFD like a diaper (for protection), and slide through the 70-degree water, slipping between boulders and finally floating in a large eddy. After you’ve gone solo, try it with a whole chain of fellow rafters.

Elves Chasm

Elves Chasm (Mile 117.2)

In spring and summer, the Grand Canyon is primarily a hot, dry place the color of rust. But, you’ll find cool, lush microclimates in some of the side canyons, such as Elves Chasm. From the bank of the river, you’ll walk about a mile, scrambling over boulders and slick travertine rock, as water tumbles through the drainage. Then, you’ll drop into a hallway that narrows and dead ends at a waterfall that slides down rocks draped with bright green foliage. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can enter a small cave at the base of the waterfall and scramble up through a dark shaft to reach a small platform of stone. From this perch you can leap into the shallow pool below.

Deer Creek Falls Area. RM 137

Deer Creek Falls & Deer Spring (Mile 136.9)

You don’t have to walk far to see one of the most impressive waterfalls in the canyon. Just yards from the beach, Deer Creek Falls drops 150 feet into an alcove, and you can easily access the base of the falls and snap an awesome picture. From here, a steep path crawls up the bluff and then hugs the rim of a slot canyon. As you follow the edge of the chasm, the trail seems dangerously narrow in spots, and jutting rocks force you to carefully shuffle ahead. However, the payoff at the end of the hike is worth it, as you’re greeted by a blue cascading stream that flows through a winding stone passageway. If you hop down into the stream and walk a few yards, you’ll reach a perfect picture spot where you can stand before boulders that frame a small waterfall in the background.


Havasu Creek (Mile 157.3)

From the get-go, the journey through Havasu Creek is impressive, as you park your boats at the mouth of a narrow canyon with chalky white walls and turquoise water. After wading through chest-deep water, you’ll climb a rock outcrop and begin a 4-mile hike to Beaver Falls. For most of the walk, you’ll skirt an iridescent blue stream that forms powerful cascades and plunges into large pools. Not far into the hike, you’ll scramble over boulders and climb up through a short rocky tunnel. Then the trail runs through high brush, thickets of trees and natural rock shelters, eventually crossing the stream several times. Near the 4-mile mark, you reach Beaver Falls, where water plows through a notch and drops into a vast pool.


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James Moss June 21, 2017 Reply

You can’t just see them once, you have to go back!

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