We all have our “bucket list” trips. My dream vacation involves an overwater bungalow at a luxury property in the South Pacific. My husband, however, sets his sights on more rugged adventures. For years — we joke since the day our second child was born — he’s wanted to raft the entire stretch of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with his kids. We checked that dream trip off the list earlier this month with our teens (ages 14 and 16) on a 6-night, 188-mile, motorized rafting trip with the fabulous Hatch River Expeditions, a family-owned outfitter that has been leading commercial trips on the river since 1929.
It was nothing short of extraordinary — on so many levels. Here’s the sort-of-brief scoop:
The Very Good
The 7-day, Motorized Trip: Rafting trips on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon come in many forms. You can apply for a permit via lottery and plan your own 2- to 25-day “private” (aka “self-guided” or “noncommercial”) trip via the National Park Service. Or, you can do what we did and book a scheduled commercial trip with an outfitter that does the vast bulk of the work! I highly, highly recommend this route, unless you’re traveling with someone who really knows the river (and has a raft and knows the ins and outs of navigating rapids and knows all the super-cool side hikes).
Hatch River Expeditions offers guided motorized and oar-powered trips. We went with the former because a) we really didn’t have the time (or desire) to spend 12 days on the river, covering the entire 188 miles on an oar-powered trip. And b) we wanted to sit back and just enjoy the rapids on a big raft (vs. going on smaller rafts and having to paddle ourselves). For folks with even shorter time frames, you can go on a 4-day “upper canyon” or 4-day “lower canyon” motorized trip, but that involves hiking either down or up (!) 9.5 miles on the Bright Angel trail from (or to) the canyon rim. No thank you. Trust me, if you are interested in rafting the Grand Canyon with your family just book the 7-day motorized trip.
The Guides: Our lead guide Scott and “swamper” (head chef) Sean were outstanding. These guys were highly knowledgeable about the river, having rafted it dozens of times. They were laid-back, but so professional and hard-working. And funny. Really funny. And supportive and encouraging — Sean led our daily optional side hikes, and when I freaked out at one narrow ledge over a steep canyon and said I couldn’t cross it, he talked me through the whole thing, showing me where to hold on to the rock, and encouraging me to just “butt walk” across the ledge, which I successfully did, with Sean’s guidance. I always felt very safe with these great guys on the river, and I trusted their judgement completely.
The Group: When you sign up for any group trip, you never know what sorts of fellow participants you might be traveling with. We got so lucky on our river adventure. Each motorized raft comfortably carries 16 people, and we had 15 total: our family of four; a family from London with three teenage boys; a 50-something fellow from Colorado traveling with a 18-year-old family friend; a 60-something mom from San Diego with her two grown sons (ages 30 and 32) from San Francisco; and a solo-traveling, 71-year-old retired professor. We were randomly thrown together on this particular itinerary, but boy did we get along well. Everyone was easygoing and had great senses of humor. The kids (and that includes the 30-somethings traveling with their mom) all played touch Nerf football, whenever we could find a sandy beach for lunch or camping overnight. They took turns sharing fishing rods and tossed a Frisbee. We all enjoyed getting to know each other over nightly happy hours and dinners gathered ’round in our camp chairs (a memorable stint of “Two Truths and a Lie” was particularly entertaining), and during hikes and on flat stretches of the river on the boat we had plenty to chat about then, too. While we could have had whiners or complainers, our group meshed seamlessly.
Side note: The youngest in our group was 13 years old. The minimum age for a motorized trip is actually only 8 years old. I highly recommend waiting until your kids are teens, or at least 12, to take this trip so your children will fully appreciate and participate in this type of Grand Canyon adventure. Every rafter, including each child, is expected to help load and unload the boat of supplies each night. Younger children just might do more complaining of the extremely hot and sunny weather or of feeling cold and wet after going through rapids. They might whine a bit more (than I did!) about rustic sleeping conditions. If you do choose to take a child under 13 on this rafting trip, just make sure your progeny is the type of kid who isn’t prone to crying, whining or complaining. You don’t want to damper the experience for the rest of the group.
The Rapids: Oh, how we laughed and laughed (and shrieked and screamed — okay, maybe just me) when we ran the rapids! Rapids on the Grand Canyon are classified 1 through 10, and we loved the 10s the most of all! Before the sets of waves, Scott would tell us their names and any history behind them. We could choose to sit at the front of the boat in the “bathtub,” where getting wet was a given, or to straddle the side pontoons and hold on tight to attached ropes. Side seats on the main part of the boat, or the more protected “tea room” near the boat driver were also options. No matter where you sat, the rapids typically provided a ton smiles.
The Scenery: I’m so glad we did the full 7-day (as opposed to a partial 4-day) stretch of the river, so we could see the variety of rocky scenery throughout 188 miles. It was always different throughout each day with the changing light. As we motored along, we admired rock colors ranging from crystal white to sandstone red to deep purple. Spotted along the way were deer, several bighorn sheep, at least one red-tailed hawk and many heron.
The Food: We never, ever went hungry on this trip. And we never lifted a finger to prepare any food on the portable charcoal grill and propane stovetop. That was by far a big highlight of our entire week! Sean took charge of the camp kitchen, and he worked tirelessly to make us a variety of good food. Breakfast often consisted of eggs cooked to order, with bacon, sausage or ham. Throughout the week during our morning meals we also had yummy hashbrowns, plenty of fruit, and blueberry/banana pancakes. And coffee; all the coffee we wanted to drink. We’d eat lunch while on the river for the day, “parked” at an ideal lunch spot — with a good place for our picnic table filled with sandwich fixings, chips, cookies, and nuts. Dinners were awesome: grilled steaks, salmon, chicken and pork chops, as well as make-your-own burritos and spaghetti with delicious meat sauce. Desserts included chocolate cake and brownies baked in a Dutch oven — superb! Jugs of water and Gatorade were always full and cold and on hand, and we were able to bring our own drinks, including beer, wine and spirits, so nightly happy hour at our campsite (with accompanying provided hors d’oeuvres) was always a treat, too.
The Hikes: Rafting the Grand Canyon is a multi-sport trip. That’s because you also have the opportunity to hike, jump into waterfalls, and swim in some (mellow) rapids while wearing a life-jacket “diaper” (oh, yes, many laughs there, too). I absolutely loved our side trips; we had the option to participate in at least one daily for 5 of the 6 full days on the river. The treks were typically moderately strenuous, sometimes hair-raising (i.e. the aforementioned “butt walk” ledge), and always rewarding — especially when the hike led us to a cool swimming hole.
The Lack of Cell Service: Yes, this was a good thing. Actually, a great thing. After the first morning, when I woke with an urge to check my phone, I truly forgot about the outside world. I didn’t care about missed emails. And I certainly didn’t care about missing any political news. Sure, I was happy (okay, very happy) to download emails and read Facebook updates when we got back to Vegas after our trip, but until then, I was perfectly delighted to be away from “real life.”
The Arrival and Departure: Rafters with Hatch River Expeditions overnight at the rustic Cliff Dwellers Lodge the night prior to the start of the trip, since the lodge is a quick 15-minute drive to our put-in spot at Lee’s Ferry. Instead of driving to the Cliff Dwellers Lodge at the start of our trip, it was easier for us to fly from our Colorado home to Las Vegas and then take a tiny 9-seater plane (Hatch helped us arranged this) to a landing strip near Cliff Dwellers. Though I’m not a big fan of small planes, I was distracted by the scenery below, including the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. When our raft trip was over, we camped right at the site of a helipad on the banks of the river, and we helicoptered out of the Canyon to Bar M Ranch, where we were able to relax, enjoy air-conditioning, use flush toilets (joy!) and even shower at no cost before our flight (again on a 9-passenger plane) to Las Vegas. Transportation was convenient — and fun!
Sleeping on Cots: Sleeping under the stars is indeed pretty cool; though tents were available, none of us used them on the advice of our guides, since they just become saunas in the steamy summer temperatures (see below). However, I can’t say that six nights of sleeping on a cot inches above the ground is really pleasurable. Each rafter is given a “sleep kit” consisting of a ground tarp, a sheet and sleeping bag, as well as a cot we have to put together and pull apart each night. Building our beds isn’t that big of a deal. But, I simply much, much prefer a mattress. In my house or hotel room. I don’t think I could handle the longer oar-powered trips, simply because I didn’t sleep that great over six nights. I can’t imagine camping for 24 nights.
The Weather: The elements in the Grand Canyon weather are extreme — within seconds, you can go to sweating hot while standing in sun to freezing cold after jumping in the river. Indeed, the weather is extremely hot in the summer months. Like 110 degrees Fahrenheit hot. When there is no cloud cover, that makes sitting on the raft uncomfortable, and even after the sun goes down, it can make sleeping uncomfortable. One night was particularly bad; I spent the night sweating more than I did sleeping. Cloud cover was our friend on a few days. And, thankfully, we always had an easy way to cool off: the 52-degree river! We’d get drenched by rapids just as the heat was getting unbearable, or we could soak a bandana in the water and wring it all over our body and tie it around our neck to cool down. Guides also suggested wetting a T-shirt to wear right before bed; I did this on the final night, when my husband and I weren’t sleeping next to the river. It felt about 10 degrees cooler in campsites by the river vs. campsites away from the river and next to heat-retaining rock. During our trip, we also experienced some rain — not totally unwelcome. We were lucky to only have one torrential downpour while we were rafting on the river (and only a few sprinkles one night). Another night brought strong winds and sandstorms. That morning, we all woke up feeling rather exfoliated.
The Critters: This is low on my list of “bad” things about our trip, but we did have to deal with red ants crawling on the sand at most of our campsites. I was never bitten, but they sure did like to scamper on my feet while we were gathered for a meal. Spiders also made their homes at our campsites, and we were told rattlesnakes lurked, but we never saw one. I was stung by a bee during one little side hike. We also spotted tiny scorpions on a hike; I never saw any at our campsites. Alas, I did not snap a photo of any creepy crawlies. I hope you understand.
The Lack of Bathing: I brought along shampoo, conditioner, soap, a razor and a washcloth to attempt to wash up nightly in the river. Some campsites had better bathing pools on the banks than others (i.e. the water just looked clearer, there was a rock to set stuff on, I could wade in just enough so it wasn’t to shallow nor to deep for rinsing hair). River bathing really didn’t work that well, but I managed to feel a little refreshed before taking off a wet bathing suit and putting on dry clothes for the night. We managed to score the most coveted campsite on the river one night (that is, another rafting group didn’t settle in before us), and it featured not only a series wide rock ledges to set up our cots on (read: no sandy feet!), but also… wait for it… an on-site waterfall that served as an awesome freshwater shower. You’d have thought we’d arrived at The Ritz-Carlton, when we snagged this killer camping location. And, yes, I enjoyed that shower. For a long time.
The Downright Ugly
The Thunder Box: Also known as “the crapper” or “the groover,” the Thunder Box is where we took care of our #2 toileting. It was so named by one of the Brits on the trip, and the moniker stuck (truly, I highly doubt any other trips will dub the metal box a “Thunder Box,” but, boy, did we get a kick out of the “TB” term). At each campsite, our guide Scott would put the TB in a secluded spot not far down a short trail. There was an orange-bucket hand-washing station at the start of the trail and a plastic container of toilet paper. If the plastic container was missing, you’d know someone was on the TB. The TB had a bona fide toilet seat on top, but when it was time to move it onto the boat (yes, it traveled with us; couldn’t smell a thing), Scott would twist on a metal lid to secure the contents. I believe we went through three TBs on the trip (a new one every two nights or so). There’s not much good you can say about the TB, other than the throne was placed in spots that afforded particularly nice views of the canyon walls and river below. (For #1, we just peed in the river.)
Still, despite the Thunder Box, despite sleeping terribly 4 out of 6 nights, extremely hot temperatures, and a film of red grit all over my body for seven days, this trip was well worth the expense, effort and “hardship.” The extraordinary beauty of the Grand Canyon, as seen from below, is something relatively few visitors to the canyon experience. Most importantly, time spent with my family, without technology, was heavenly. No teens checking phones for Snapchats or texts, or incessently scrolling through Instagram feeds. No scooting to the home-office computer to respond to “just one email.” No work-emergency calls stressing anyone out. Instead, we had a week of uninterrupted time together, laughing, talking and making memories among ourselves and with new friends.
On our last night on the banks of the river, our “Hatch Tribe” went around the camp circle sharing our favorite parts of the trip. Hitting our first rapids, sleeping under the stars, and frolicking in scenic waterfalls were top contenders. Then my teenage son shared his favorite part: “Jumping off a cliff into the river with my mom.”
Cue heart melting.
That, my friends, is the stuff of which vacation dreams are made. This trip was indeed one for the books. And one I highly recommend to any adventurous, outdoors-loving, nature-seeking families with teens.
Got questions? I’m so happy to answer them about our experience with Hatch River Expeditions. Just ask away in the comments below!