Rafting the Grand Canyon is A Powerful Experience

I still work as a commercial raft guide in Grand Canyon National Park every year. I don’t get paid much, and I’m so tired at the end of the day that I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow. My day starts between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and ends after dark. In between, I cook, clean, load gear, entertain, unload gear and hike. But I’m doing something that revitalizes my soul in one of the world’s most inspiring places.

I’ve seen the big sights rafting the Grand Canyon, or the “Big Ditch” as veteran river guides call it, almost three-dozen times. Most of them are as beautiful as the first time I saw them more than 20 years ago. Nowadays, though, the beauty is magnified when I can show it to others for the very first time.

Taking guests from the East Coast, who have never seen the desert or hiked in “that much sand,” up a narrow canyon is exciting. Watching their faces as they round the last corner to see a beautiful clear pool of water in the middle of a desert heat wave is worth every step. As they jump into the water, their whole world is changed.

The list of beautiful, jaw-dropping sites is almost endless and sometimes hard to imagine: water shooting out of a rock 100 feet in the air, million-year-old Nautiloid fossils in the rock or thousand-year-old granaries. While you’ve seen them in photographs, it doesn’t matter because you are seeing them for the first time with your own eyes. And you realize that no photograph can show the breadth of the color or truly document them any better.

This sequence of awe-inspiring locations interspersed with monster whitewater rapids is repeated each day in the Grand Canyon. You witness the 100-foot waterfall at Deer Creek Falls, thousands of gallons of water shooting out of the rock at Thunder River, the crystal blue waterfalls at Havasu and more. They all roll into your mind and become a part of your soul each day.

Intermixed in between these amazing sights and roaring rapids are games of horseshoes or volleyball on the beach, swimming in turquoise water as the Little Colorado River enters into the main channel of the Colorado River, enjoying five-course dinners and sharing beers with other guests from all over the world.

At night, you fall asleep looking at more stars than you ever imagined you could see. With no external light, even the canyon walls cannot diminish the fact that you are looking at millions of stars…and for once seeing them.

When a guide explains how a billion years of rock has disappeared between two layers of rock, the great unconformity sort of puzzles your brain, maybe even fries it. But standing in the shake of Blacktail Canyon, with the canyon walls undulating all around, you feel big and small. Big, in that you can understand a little more about your existence on the third rock from the sun. Small, because your existence on this rock circling the sun, is just a microscopic speck in the timeline of the rock in front of you.

One aspect of the Grand Canyon not promoted in brochures, but everyone eventually realizes, is you are cut off from the world. After about three days, you realize the priorities you kept close and valued in the “other world” no longer matter. “Did you sleep well?” changes to “How great did you sleep?” Keeping up with the Joneses means you are not too far behind, and even then, it doesn’t matter. How your day was evolves into what a fantastic day you had, with a guide chiming in, “Wait till tomorrow!”

Your social network is now comprised of the 15 other clients and guides on the trip. Connecting is easy and everyone is a friend.

In a place so vast that makes me feel so small, it magnifies how important caring is. My joy in sharing the Grand Canon with others is matched for my care for them. We are a tribe for 15 days and I need them as much as they need me. My joy in showing a lizard under a rock, hiding from the noonday heat, is repaid when they join me to help wash dishes and just share each experience.

Eventually, the trip ends, and as it draws to a close, you start to realize all the emails and phone calls that have piled up since you left. You distract yourself with the hard work of de-rigging rafts and loading trucks to take your mind off those issues. And, you also start to think about when you can return to the Grand again.

I don’t necessarily think a trip down the Grand Canyon changes your life, but it does give it purpose. Since my first trip, I’ve worked hard at getting back every year. I talk a lot about the Grand Canyon. I post my photographs and have a stupid grin on my face when people ask me to talk about it. Well, maybe it has changed my life. I do know what the Grand Canyon has done for me. It takes the concept of a bucket list and makes you realize a list is not important, but that living is.

James H. “Jim” Moss is an attorney, professor, speaker and writer, specializing in human-powered recreation law. When he’s not practicing law or writing, he works as a river guide for commercial whitewater rafting companies. His website is http://www.recreation-law.com/.

Traveler’s Notebook


Types of Trips

Grand Canyon National Park offers various river trip opportunities:

  • 1-Day Commercial River Trips – Half-day and full-day whitewater and smooth water trips on the Colorado River.
  • 2- to 5-Day Noncommercial River Trips – Permits are available to the public starting one year in advance and are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek River Trips – Motorized and non-motorized whitewater rafting trips (commercial or noncommercial).
  • 3- to 18-Day Commercial River Trips – Professionally guided raft trips, often reserved a year or two in advance.
  • 12- to 25-day Noncommercial River Trips – Self-guided raft trips, also referred to as private river trips. Permits for these trips are made available to the public through a weighted lottery.

Commercial Outfitter

O.A.R.S. was the first exclusively oar-powered rafting company permitted to operate trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It has been rowing people through the Grand Canyon longer than any other outfitter. For trip details and pricing, visit www.oars.com.

Noncommercial Trip Permit Lottery

Each year in February a main lottery is held to assigned launch dates for river trips occurring the next year. Follow-up lotteries are then held as needed throughout the remainder of the year to reassign cancelled or leftover trips river trips. Click here for more details.


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Robin Black September 27, 2011 Reply

Great article! My trip last year sure changed my life and this is as close as I could ever get to explaining it to someone that hasn’t been!

Danielle Kunkle July 4, 2012 Reply

Hi James,
I recently got back from my 2nd trip rafting the Grand Canyon, and both times, the experience has been so wonderful in every way that you said. I’m finding my self looking up real estate and cost of living prices for Utah and Arizona because having seen that beauty, I now that I’m destined to live there. Like you, I plan to get back there every chance I can, but today I was missing the canyon a bit and punched in a few words into my browser to see if anyone else felt the same, and was glad to read your article. Good for you that you’ve brought the Canyon permanently into your life by doing some river guiding. Maybe see on the rapids one day. Thanks for the great article!

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