Grand Canyon River Run

“Pee in the River!” If you’ve spent any time at all on wild and scenic rivers, this expression is probably not new to you … even though it seems a wee bit counterintuitive. This was the first order of business after meeting our talented (and entertaining) Hatch river guides and learning important whitewater safety measures. Naturally, we obeyed, which meant we quickly had to learn how to pee in the river! No kidding – that’s what you do on a river trip. (Almost any woman you ask will say that this is a much easier task for the men in the group;) At first, I thought how odd? Wouldn’t that pollute the river? But, they say it’s a much better option than tinkling in the sand for keeping the beaches and land in and around the Grand Canyon pristine! And, the good news is that the campsites are beautifully clean! You never really quite get used to it, but it’s definitely worth it for such an amazing, once-in-a lifetime experience. (We won’t even talk about the groover — you can experience that one for yourself!)

Anyway, Courts and I always love a good mother-daughter adventure, and this one proved to be a great one. Six days rafting down the Colorado River was just about as much fun as you can possibly imagine! We met so many fun new friends and with shared memories like this, we’ll have stories to tell for a lifetime! Breathtaking scenery, exhilarating rapids, amazing hikes, awesome food, history lessons and fun in the sun were all elements of this exciting, 89-mile, Upper Grand Canyon excursion.

Courts and Suz near the Cliff Dwellers Lodge in Marble Canyon the day before we put in at Lees Ferry. The hotel is named for the Vermillion Cliffs nearby.

Hatch River Company is one of the oldest river guiding operations in the Grand Canyon, dating all the way back to 1929, and has been in the family for three generations. They run both motor and oar-powered boat trips, and we opted for the oar boats, so we’d be close to the water and experience the rapids first hand. They really know how to run an excellent trip. Our guides (K8, Zach, Katy, Nicky, Jimmy, Blair and Holden) were all very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the geologic formations along the canyon walls as well as the history and folklore surrounding the various rapids, trails, caves, fossils, petroglyphs and other items of intrigue that you encounter along the journey. There isn’t a story they don’t know! And, it turns out, they are very good cooks! Since we are food bloggers, we especially loved that part of the trip. The food was great and especially so when you consider they had to assemble a new camping kitchen every single day!

Our awesome Hatch river guides. From left: Blair, K8, Nicky, Katy, Jimmy, Zach, and Holden
Courtsie all set to go at Lees Ferry. One thing is for sure … rafting excursions are very colorful!

The Grand Canyon river trip starts at Lees Ferry in the Marble Canyon, and in very short order the guides loaded our gear onto the boats with about a million straps: dozens of dry bags for clothes and sleeping gear, paco sleeping pads for every guest, coolers, day bags and the all-important bar cache, where we stored our libations for the trip. There was a LOT of gear on these boats and still, they managed to stay afloat with no trouble at all!

Loading up for the river, our friends Erin and Kathy (who invited us to join this trip) are ready to go at Lees Ferry on Day 1 of the trip!
You cannot believe how much gear they fit on these 16-foot boats, not to mention 5 or 6 people on each raft, as well! All of this stuff comes off the boat in the evening and gets reloaded in the morning, all in a rather organized fashion!
The Old (1929) and New Navajo (1995) bridges, one of the few river crossings in the Grand Canyon. Our lead guide, K8, took us through the first day of our journey and these bridges are one of the first noteworthy landmarks of the trip. The bridges were built to provide a vital transportation link over the Grand Canyon between southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Aside from the folklore and stories, we really enjoyed getting to know each of our guides. All distinctly different personalities, but all so talented, interesting and fun! Most of our group opted to pick a different guide each day, which always kept things fresh and new. We had a whole day on the river to learn about them and to share about ourselves, too. We loved that aspect of the trip. As we set off each day on the boats, we buckled in for white water (which our guides seamlessly navigated), geology lessons and personal stories. By the end of each day, we felt as though we had made a treasured new friend! After tying off the boats for the evening, we all formed a fire line to offload the gear, then headed off in search of our own little slice of camping paradise before gathering back near the kitchen for appetizers and dinner.

Courtney setting up camp on our first night at “19.4 Mile” Campground. We had our own private little beach of sorts!
Courtsie setting up camp at “Nankoweap” Campground, just below the ancient Nankoweap Canyon and the ancient Puebloan granaries. The hike up to the granaries offers one of the most expansive and incredible views of the river and canyons.
Bar’s open! 🍸 That was the call to come fetch your liquor after the boats were unloaded and the kitchen was set up! Jimmy, one of our awesome guides, just might have a side gig in Tito’s commercials one of these days. Look for that soon:) We live in Austin … just might be able to make that happen!

Mile 17.1 House Rock Rapid was our first big rapid of the trip and we ran it towards the end of Day One. Our guide, K8, made it seem like child’s play as she gracefully plowed over the whitewater, keeping all of us in tact and in the boat, albeit a little wetter than earlier in the day! None of it kept me from getting a sunny little nap on the back of the boat after we made it through the rapid!

A little sunbath on the back of the boat. All of those dry bags make pretty comfy cushions!

The Roaring 20’s Rapids

Some of our very favorite rapids were the Roaring 20’s, where there are about 10 rapids covering the stretch from mile 20.7 to mile 29.4. This made for a really fun day of boating with pretty continuous whitewater and with Nicky as our guide that day. Just as an aside, Nicky is a swift water rescue instructor, so we felt incredibly safe despite all of the roiling water. (To be fair, we felt very safe with all of the guides on our trip, but swift water rescue instructor? That’s amazing.)

Our guide, Nicky, taking us through the Roaring 20s, a series of ten fun rapids on Day 2 of our adventure. Don’t tell anyone, but we were lucky enough to have “Nicky’s grandmother’s famous cheesecake”i for dessert one night!😉

Part of the Roaring 20’s includes Georgie’s Rapid at mile 24.4. This rapid is named after Georgie White, who was an early explorer and guide, said to have been the first woman to run the Colorado River as a commercial endeavor. She kept her operation afloat (no pun intended) for some 45 years from the early 1950s to her last trip in 1991. Featured in Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated and on The Tonight Show, her claim to fame, aside from being an innovative and entertaining river guide, was that she always wore a leopard leotard or swimsuit on the river. I’m guessing she got pretty cold at times with 50+ degree water temperatures!

Mile 33: Redwall Cavern – a spectacular lunch stop!

Red Wall Cavern is a like huge amphitheater, carved into the Grand Canyon’s limestone walls by high river flows. As you approach it from the water, it looks deceptively small, but once you get out of the boat and walk into it, you realize its huge expanse. You could probably play a game of baseball or tag football, or twenty simultaneous games of Spikeball (our favorite beach game) in this enormous space.

Mile 53.3 Puebloan Granaries

There are so many highlights from the trip, but one that stood out for us was a fairly steep three-mile round-trip hike up to the ancient Puebloan granaries. The granaries are storage units, built by ancestral Puebloan farmers almost 1,000 years ago, for the purpose of keeping units of grain, seeds and corn dry and protected from rodents and other animals. The view at the top of the trail from just below the granary openings is magnificent with a virtual panorama both up and down river.

Courts and Suz near the ancient Puebloan granaries with a magnificent panoramic view both up and downstream.
Photo credit: Zoe Bisk
Here is Zach guiding some of our new friends from the trip! Unfortunately, we never had a chance to ride with him on this trip, but we’re counting on it next time, right Zach? Photo Credit: David Rutledge

Mile 61. 5 The Little Colorado River

In our book the absolute best part of the trip was our day hike to the Little Colorado River, a tributary that joins the main Colorado River at mile 61.5. The water is an incredible Caribbean blue color, as a result of dissolved calcium carbonate picked up along the river’s journey. The Little Colorado is a sacred place to the Hopi Indian tribe as the place where they believe life began. and the place where they believe all life comes from.

We had a fun little time of it body surfing the waves in this magical place, but were mostly inspired and in awe of the incredible color of the water and the sacred dispostion of the place.

Walking along the Little Colorado River. How incredible is the color of that water? The color is derived from dissolved calcium carbonate in the water.
Courts and Suz hanging out at the Little Colorado River. Such a glorious spot! Photo Credit: David Rutledge
Courts body surfing down the Little Colorado River before it joins the main Colorado, This little detour was especially fun!
Blair, our guide for Day 4, hiking along the Little Colorado River. Blair has been down the Colorado River so many times, he’s surely lost count by now!
Our lead guide, K8, (right) and two of our fabulous new friends, Zoe and Kylie! Photo Credit: David Rutledge

Mile 69 Tanner Rapid

This rapid wasn’t so noteworthy, except for the story that went along with it. And, while it’s super gory, if true, it was also highly entertaining. Holden, who was our guide that day, brilliantly took us through a series of exciting rapids, but this one had the most alarming tale! The story has it that Seth Tanner, who was pioneer and early Arizona settler, was also a horse thief who got away with his craft for quite some time. Eventually his luck ran out. According to the legend, he was finally captured, had his tongue and eyes cut out, and then was left to his own devices. Most likely, he never stole another horse, but I do wonder how he survived the punishment These are just a few of the tales we heard and we’re not quite sure of the truth, but this one will forever keep us from stealing anyone’s horse … that’s for sure!

Anyway, besides Tanner, we ran several tumultuous rapids that day — all within about a five-mile stretch, including Unkar, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine and Zoroaster. Since my GoPro and I are not exactly fine-tuned companions yet, my video sort so blends them all together, but you may recognize which is which if you’ve been down this river before!

I believe this is a combo reel including parts of Unkar, Sockdolager, Grapevine and Zoroaster, but to be honest, I’m not exactly sure which is which. All I know is that there was a lot of really cold water splashing in our faces and our new friend had some hilarious sound effects! Holden did a stellar job guiding us through this uproarious day on the river!
Katy rowing the gear! She had the longest boat of all at 18 feet and she managed it like she’d done this a thousand times already! Photo Credit: David Rutledge

Besides all of the wonderful hikes and rapids and stories and sun and folklore, another highlight, was when our friend Kathy was putting her sleeping gear in the dry bag in the morning, and as she shook out her tarp, a giant, four-inch scorpion climbed out from under it! That was quite a shock to all of us, and as the creature climbed up on the nearby rock wall, we all took advantage to snap some photos. It’s a shame that such a beautiful critter could be so scary! But, they are! Luckily, my sister never told me until after our trip that when she did the Grand Canyon river run, they had black lights which make scorpions show up in the dark due to the hyaline layer, a very thin but super tough coating in a part of the scorpion’s exoskeleton. She told me they saw scorpions everywhere with those black lights! OMG!!! This would definitely make me think twice about sleeping in the open air. Tents were available, but since we had no idea about the scorpions, we opted for open-air every night. And, it was really amazing sleeping under the moon and the stars! Hmmmm … a toss up, I guess. Stars or scorpions? We’ll leave that decision for another day.

Kathy’s morning visitor! YIKES! This scorpion crawled out from under her plastic sleeping tarp one morning.
Photo credit: Kathy Albright

The end of our journey: Bright Angel Trail

Our river adventure ended with a short raft ride from our last campground at Upper Cremation to the Bright Angel Trail and that’s where our work began! The hike was gorgeous and strenuous, but we managed to make it 9.1 miles straight up (a 4900+ elevation climb) to the top of the trail in just 4 hours. Phewf! It was nip and tuck that I could make it with my brand new knee replacement, and I told my husband, that if I couldn’t make it out, he’d have to come visit me in the depths of the Grand Canyon every so often! In the end, that proved to be unnecessary, thank goodness!

Towards the top of the trail, we spotted a very handsome bighorn ram taking a little rest on a ledge just about the trail. Although we’d seen plenty of female big horn sheep and even some brand new babies along the river’s edge, this was the first ram we had seen on this trip.

Big Daddy bighorn sheep near the top of the Bright Angel Trail. He was just so chill sitting there on his perch!
Photo credit: Courtney Iventosch

The final hurrah! We made the steep climb out of the canyon and were so happy to have a wonderfully cloudy day for our hike! There are so many incredible views from this trail as it switches back and forth along the climb. The trail is also beautifully maintained, which makes the hike slightly less difficult than it otherwise would be!

We made it to the top of the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail, a bit dirty and a little worse for the wear. But, we loved every minute of our Hatch Upper Canyon River Expedition! Now, we’ll have to start planning for the lower Grand Canyon run. Photo Credit: Erin Bawol

Thanks to Hatch River Expeditions, for all of the great teamwork, from the office staff to our river guides, for making our first Grand Canyon river adventure so wonderfully memorable. And a special thanks to David Rutledge for his amazing photography! We’ll be back and we hope to see all of you again someday. In the meantime, happy trails. 🏞

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