Think you know the Grand Canyon? Perhaps you hiked some of the Bright Angel Trail. Or maybe you’ve ridden a mule down to Phantom Ranch and spent the night. Or caught a sunrise from the Cape Royal viewpoint on the North Rim. We hate to break it to you, but thinking you know the canyon after any of these experiences is like thinking you know Paris having only been to the Eiffel Tower.

There’s no doubt hiking, riding and scenic drives are great ways to see the canyon, but to really know the canyon you’ve got to meet the river that created it. You’ve got to raft the Colorado.

Jump in

National Geographic Adventure magazine declared Grand Canyon rafting one of the greatest adventures of a lifetime. Even though they were specifically talking about a dory trip down the entirety of the river’s 280-mile course and through all of the 80-some whitewater rapids from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead – which takes up to three weeks – a shorter rafting trip still promises plenty of adventure and a lifetime of memories.

“All of us here at O.A.R.S. and Grand Canyon Dories agree the full canyon is the way to go,” says Steve Markle, director of marketing at O.A.R.S./GCD, one of the first companies to offer commercial Grand Canyon rafting trips. (They started guiding the river in 1969.) “But people are obviously limited by vacation time and financial resources. You’ve got to do what you can do.”

Whether you’ve got the time to see it all, have just a single day or have something in between, you’ve got options, including, for experienced boaters, getting a permit on your own.

The full Monty

“O.A.R.S. offers trips on rivers all over the world, but the Grand Canyon is unique in that it completely removes you from the outside world,” Markle says. There isn’t a single bar of cell phone service anywhere in the canyon. “Three weeks away from the hectic pace of everyday life is a wonderful and extremely rare gift to yourself.”

If you care more about seeing the scenery than escaping the world, it is possible to cover the entire distance and all the rapids in eight days aboard a motorized pontoon raft. Moki Mac, a Salt Lake City-based outfitter, has 35-foot pontoon rafts that carry 12 passengers each.

All full-canyon rafting trips require some serious pre-planning. Expect tour companies to be completely booked by September or October the year prior to the trip. The expeditions run between April and October and start around $2,500 per person.

Middle ground

If you can only spare a week to 12 days for your adventure, consider beginning or ending your trip at Phantom Ranch. Most outfitters, including O.A.R.S. and Moki Mac, allow rafters to jump on or off at this mid-point. Keep in mind this option requires hiking into or out of Phantom Ranch – 5,000 feet and nearly eight miles below the South Rim.

O.A.R.S. also offers four- and five-day options that cover a section of the lower canyon.

These middle-distance floats all include technical whitewater, and trips start at $1,500 per person.

Just a teaser

gcrr2.pngYou’ve got two options – one at either end of the canyon – for one-day trips. March through October, Hualapai River Runners in Peach Springs take eight-person high-speed motorized rafts through nine major rapids as well as over sections of calm water along a 42-mile stretch. Trips end with a helicopter ride back up to the canyon rim.

Colorado River Discovery in Page covers the 15 miles of flat water between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry. This outfitter, which runs trips every day March through November, allows children as young as four.

One-day trips can be reliably reserved as little as one month in advance. Oftentimes, a week is even sufficient. Prices start around $150 per person.

Self-sufficient

Thanks to a major revamping of the National Park Service’s permitting system for Grand Canyon rafting trips in 2006, there’s no longer a decade-long wait for private parties hoping to raft the river.

But don’t blow up that raft quite yet. Permits are now issued by a weighted lottery. The main lottery for each year is held in February the year prior. For the 2011 calendar year there were 3,726 applications…274 permits were awarded. Obviously, rafting the Colorado on a private trip requires a bit of luck as well as technical know-how.

Learn more about what you’ll experience on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.