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Trip Report Grand Canyon Rafting/Vegas Trip Report

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Thanks for everyone's help on Fodor's for planning this. I got a very late start (May/June) in planning a vacation this year and had thought that a Grand Canyon rafting trip would be out of the question as I had heard you may need reservations up to a year in advance. But a Fodor's poster pointed me to riversandoceans.com which was a godsend. I gave them a two-week window in July for an Upper Canyon tour and they sent me back a list of all companies with openings within an hour or two. There were probably 5-6 choices available. So if anyone else is planning such a trip, know that there are plenty of openings even at the last minute. In fact, the trip I ended up taking was less than half full. So on to the trip report and how it went:

Day 1:
We (myself, DH, and DS who is 17) flew from NC to Phoenix early on July 14th. Because the timing worked out best, we had ended up going with an Upper Canyon motor raft tour with Hatch River Expeditions leaving on July 15th from Lee's Ferry. Hatch puts you up at the Cliff Dweller's Lodge in Marble Canyon a few miles away from Lee's Ferry. This was a definite plus for Hatch. No 2 to 5 hour early morning shuttle to get to the launch point as some companies do with transports from Flagstaff or Vegas.

We drove from Phoenix to Marble Canyon and stopped at Montezuma's castle, Sunset Crater, and the pueblos on the way....all interesting and worthwhile stops. We had never been in Arizona before so the stark landscape was very interesting. The contrasting temperature/terrain in Flagstaff vs. the rest of the route was also interesting as it was much cooler and greener. When we got out at Sunset Crater at about 5:00, it was only 71 degrees compared to close to 100 in Phoenix.

We arrived at Cliff Dwellers' Lodge at about 8PM. It's a simple hotel in the middle of nowhere but has a lot of character...with a nice restaurant, store, and gas pumps. After leaving the pueblos, we had hoped to stop on the road to Cliff Dwellers and get dinner but there is nothing between Flagstaff and Marble Canyon. About an hour from Marble Canyon, there was a sign for a McDonalds 1 1/2 miles to the right but we figured there'd have to be something on this main route so we kept going. We were wrong. However, luckily, the restaurant at Cliff Dwellers was still open. It's mainly an open air porch restaurant but the menu was quite varied and reasonably price and the food quite good.

It now being about midnight EST, we then called it an early night.

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    Day 2:
    We set the iphone for 6:45 and it went off at 5:45 (something that happened to some of our raft mates also)...evidently this area is on Mountain time but not daylight savings time and the iphone gps/time app does not know this.

    While DH and DS went back to sleep, I walked over to some rock formations next to the hotel that I had noticed on the way in the night before. Turns out they were very small houses made of stacked stones built around huge fallen rocks and a small group of folks actually lived here in the 1930's. These were presumably the "cliff dwellers" that the hotel took their name from.

    We then ate a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant..again great food, price, service. Hatch picked us up at 8:30 in front of the hotel, gave us a brief intro, and then loaded everyone into their vans. We had made arrangements with River Runner Shuttles to leave our car at the Marble Canyon Lodge and have them shuttle it to the South Rim. It was $205 which was cheaper than it would have cost for a van to shuttle us either to Marble Canyon from the South Rim or vice versa.

    Hatch followed us to Marble Canyon Lodge just a few miles down the road en route to Lee's Ferry. We left our keys with the front desk there. Then on to Lee's Ferry and the boats.

    Here's where we got really lucky. Normally, a motorized raft trip consists of 2 boats with 32 people between them...29 passengers and 3 guides. We only had 12 passengers and 3 guides. All 12 were doing the Upper Canyon trip and hiking out at Bright Angel. However, Hatch had 29 people hiking down on the day we hiked out to take the Lower Canyon trip so we ended up with 15 folks altogether. Our family must have smelled bad also because when folks piled on the boats, 9 piled on the first boat with 2 guides and we 3 on the second one with a guide. During the whole trip, no one moved boats. For us, it was awesome! We still got plenty of socialization because we stopped for lunch, hikes, dinner, and camped overnight with everyone else. But when we were on the boat, we could move anywhere we wanted at whim...the chicken coop, the bathtub, the tubes. To be continued...

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    I always manage to get my times all screwed up in AZ and UT. Plus the Navajo Reservation is different time too. Imagine going on a weekend when the time changes.

    Looking forward to the rest of your trip.

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    The National Park Service Ranger is there at the launch to make sure that everyone's life jacket is hooked up properly...and TIGHTLY. Even being a less-endowed person, my tatas still complained every time I put on the jacket! But ultimately you get used to it.

    Off to the rapids. I have no idea how many there were on the first day but at least a dozen I'm sure. Not all are named. We sat in the bathtub for almost all of them...DH only because he was bowing to peer pressure. :-) The bathtub is 3 seats at the very front of the boat that face forward. They are awesome seats because they have backrests and give you a beautiful view of the river and canyon as you're going down it. But as the name implies you usually get a pretty good dousing of 45 degree water during every rapid.

    They say the Lower Canyon rapids are better than the Upper Canyon but the Upper Canyon ones were a ton of fun too. We whooped and hollered our way through every one and stayed pretty much soaked. Sometimes we would move back and sit on the tubes to warm up and our guide would give us some interesting information/stories about the canyon. Even though it was probably close to 100 degrees out, the cold water and the breeze from the moving boat made you never feel hot. However, we loaded up on the sunscreen and you could tell at the end of the day who on the other boat had done the same and who hadn't. One girl got so sunburnt the first day that she had to wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt for the last two days of rafting and the hike out. So just a word of caution. The motor on the raft is not very loud as we're probably going 6 miles an hour max with the current...but in the bathtub, you can't hear the motor at all which is another plus.

    Onboard the boat, they had fresh fruit, water, and gatorade you could help yourself to at any time. For lunch, we stopped at a rock outcropping and had sandwiches, fruit, and munchies. We had two folks on the trip who ate gluten-free diets and they accommodated them well.

    After lunch, we stopped at this small cave. I'll not remember the names of any of these places so hope to just give everyone an idea of the types of side trips they take. You had to hoist yourself up into this narrow slot by putting one foot on a foothold near your chin and the other one near your waist and pull yourself up by holding onto rock outcroppings the width of pencils. Ok...probably a little exaggeration here...but to get me up there, I had to have a lot of help from a fellow 25-year-old man pulling from above and my husband pushing from below. I'm sure it would have made a good picture. Then once up there you crawl through a dark level, head-hitting piece of cave (with flashlights) and then have to descend again using some Twister-esque moves which I accomplished far better than the ascending moves.

    Onward to more rapids through the "Roaring 20's" and we stopped at our overnight camp at about mile 30. We all help unload the boat and while the guides start cooking dinner, we set up our camps. Most of us set up tents although we planned to sleep outside...and the tent was just a safeguard. We and another couple set up on the beach while everyone else set up on a higher outcropping.

    Chairs are provided for everyone and everyone usually ate dinner in a circle talking. Dinner the first night was steak, mashed potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce, salad, and "cowboy pudding" for dessert. The latter tasted like brownies with nuts and M&Ms and as it was eaten piping hot was to die for. They also set out hors d'oeuvres before dinner but these tended to be a little fancier than the football fare type we might serve at home. Things like oysters, pickled okra, cream cheese with worchestershire sauce on crackers, artichoke hearts, etc.

    They cook about 1 1/2 times as much as the group could ever hope to eat so you don't have to worry about eating too much or taking more than your share.

    Water and gatorade is provided free and you drink out of a mug that they give you the first day. Although you could bring other beverages onboard like soda and alcohol and they would store them for you. We didn't do this but wished we had. A drink would have been very relaxing while you're waiting about 1 1/2 hours for dinner.

    A note on logistics. You have to pee in the river which is fine and dandy for the men but awkward and cold for the women. The other facilities are laid out in a secluded area with a life cushion used to mark the facilities as being "in use" or not.

    More socializing after dinner and then off to bed...probably about 8:30. At 9:00, it starts to rain; we all grab our stuff (pad, sleeping bag, and pillow) and pile into the tent. The tent says that it sleeps 2-3...it forgot to say 2-3 midgets. DS slept fine because he can sleep through anything. The rain stopped within an hour and I crawled back outside to sleep to be able to stretch out. Tons of stars visible...very beautiful. However, I probably only slept about 2 hours the first night with the sound of the rapids, and the waves lapping the beach. The waves actually ended up coming up about an inch from our tent...and our neighbors had to move their tent. We also found out the anomaly that although sand feels soft and squishy when you're walking through it, it turns into concrete when you're laying on it and the pads don't do much to help.

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    Day 3: Up at first light at about 5 AM. Got to watch the bats flying around overhead for awhile. Everyone comes to life while the crew cooks breakfast...eggs made to order, bacon, grilled English muffins, cereal, fruit, yogurt, coffee and tea.

    Yesterday the river water was clear. There must have been some big storm up north because the river now resembles the Willy Wonka chocolate river.

    We pack up and are on our way. Today is almost all totally calm water with just a few mud-splashing rapids but the canyon is still gorgeous to boat through and we make up for the lack of excitement on the river by doing 4 side trips.

    We first stopped at this huge half frisbee shaped cave with a sand base where our group and another group from Canyoneers throw around frisbees for a while. We later stop and climb this cliff and go on a short hike to see nautoloid fossils. They look like big fat segmented worms about a foot or so in length and 4-5 inches in width and show up easily in the rocks when the crew pours water on them. We then stop for lunch..usual fare...and from the lunch site do a strenuous 1-2 hour hike to a cool slot canyon with a small waterfall. On the way back it starts to rain which actually felt refreshing in the heat. After lunch, we stop at an old dam exploration site which is kind of like a mine shaft in the wall of the canyon. All very cool.

    The crew was helpful and patient with everyone's capabilities helping folks climb the rocks and maneuver the hikes. One of our fellow rafters was 57 and had balance issues because of a brain tumor removed 30 years previously and so was slower and required special help for trickier areas. This didn't really impact us much. It meant we got to have an excuse to stop and rest sometimes on the hikes and we stayed probably a little longer at the final destination to allow her and her companion to catch up but it was always somewhere really pretty where hanging out was not a problem.

    We stopped again at about 5:30, at around mile 52, and a huge wide open campsite near the graineries with plenty of room for everyone to spread out.

    Dinner was grilled chicken, stewed tomatoes with zucchini/squash, rice, salad, and lemon cake. Clear night for sleeping outside and being exhausted, slept much better the second night.

    Day 4:
    Up at first light again. Breakfast of banana/apple pancakes, made-to-order eggs, sausage, cereal, yogurt, fruit, coffee.

    Before getting back on the river, we hiked up from our campsite to see the graineries...a place where the Indians used to store and protect their grain and supposedly giving the best view of the Colorado and the Canyon. Great photo op. This took about an hour there and back and was a fairly steep hike.

    Back on the river. Lots of mud-splattering rapids today and we spent most of them in the bathtub...resulting in just a little grit in the mouth. After lunch we stopped right next to this cliff face that we climbed. It was kind of slanted shale with lots of handholds so pretty easy going except for the fact that the shale was black and scalding hot to your hands. But once safely over this part, the trail was a flat trail back and forth through the water for a mile or so to a place with double waterfalls...one coming down and one shooting out from the side. Since it was clean water at a non-freezing temperature, we all took advantage of it to take an ad-hoc shower.

    Back to the boat and to our campsite for the night. This was right below Phantom Ranch and we shared the site with another group so sleeping space was fairly limited. We were lucky there were only 12 of us. Dinner of swordfish, garlic asparagus, salad, pesto pasta, and cheesecake. More conversation and off to bed. Clear night so we slept outside.

    Sleeping temperatures varied over the 3 days. Night 1 was pleasant outside the tent, muggy and hot inside it with a need to crawl into the sleeping bag only in the wee hours. Night 2 was cool and we snuggled tightly in our sleeping bags (which were sufficient to keep us warm). Night 2 came with a lot of dew so the sleeping bags in some places were fairly soaked when we woke up. Night 3 was hot but cooled off in the wee hours so that we used our sleeping bags a little.

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    Day 5: Up before first light (the crew crows) because they want to get our "mule bags" to Phantom Ranch before 6AM and us on the Bright Angel Trail as early as possible to avoid the heat. This is a huge plus and one you might want to look for when booking your trip. Our neighbor took an oar trip in July a few years ago with a different company and they didn't get started up the Bright Angel Trail until 9AM or so. At temperatures max'ing out at 100+ in the afternoon in July, avoiding the heat is a big deal.

    Also, the deal with the mules is that you can schedule a mule ahead of your trip to carry out the stuff you don't need for the hike out. I highly recommend this. It costs about $60 for 30 pounds of gear. Our gear weighed in at 27 pounds for all 3 of us and it was only that heavy because we brought a few extra things because we knew we wouldn't have to lug it out. So for $60, we saved carrying an extra 9 pounds each up-hill. Also, the only thing you have to do is take a piece of duct tape that they give you and put it on your bag with your name on it..then one boat takes these to Phantom Ranch...so it is 0 hassle.

    Breakfast is a cold one today as it has to be quick. Bagels with lox, cream cheese, jelly, fruit, cereal, and coffee. The night before we had packed lunches for today of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and granola bars. We pile into the other boat and it drops us off at a place called "Skip Creek" I think which is supposed to cut off about 1 1/2 miles of the flat hike from the Phantom Ranch to the Bright Angel Trail. Then up the trail. We had a family of 5 from Canada that said they were going to run up the trail (Mom excluded)...they headed out first. We had brought walking sticks with us and headed off at a more moderate pace. (You could have made it without walking sticks but I thought they helped me.) At 6AM, it was already warm. The Bright Angel Trail is wide and well groomed...not scary in the least...and while it is uphill obviously, it's a very steady uphill grade. It will give you a workout but anyone who does moderate exercise regularly should be able to do it. I run about 10 miles a week at a very competitive pace for an 80-year-old. However, being 50, it's just a very slow pace. So I am not uber-conditioned at all...and taking a "one foot after the other" approach, felt like we reached the top pretty easily. It took us about 5 hours. DS could have done it in about 3 I think but he would stop and wait for us.

    Near the top of the trail, we met up with another twosome from our group and hiked the rest of the way with them and aided each other in getting group pictures from the top.

    As far as water was concerned, we had 3-liter camelbak type bags. I drank about 2/3rds of mine on the way up..DS about the same...and DH about 1/2 of his. If you had smaller bags, you could have refilled them at various waystations on the way up also.

    Once at the top, we checked into the Kachina Lodge which we had prebooked (another thanks to riversandoceans.com for doing this). Fine, comfortable room. We got our stuff from the mule barn and checked at the Bright Angel Lodge for our car keys that River Runners Shuttle was supposed to have transported. No keys. We enjoyed a lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge and checked again. No keys. We are absolutely dying for a real shower after 3 days on the river but all of our clean clothes are in our car so we are forced to wait...and wait...and wait. The car shows up about 4PM. I was not a happy camper seeing that the company had 80 hours while we were on the river to transport our car what looked like 150 miles by the odometer. If we hadn't of had a hotel room and had planned to fly out that evening from Phoenix or something, we would have been hosed.

    Finally, the car arrives with clean clothes...we shower, have dinner, and off to sleep.

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    Day 6:
    Up at about 6:30 this morning to do about a 6-mile run on the Rim Trail. Although fairly flat in some places , it is very steep in others and is quite a workout at the altitude but quite a rave run. We headed off to the left away from the Visitors' Center and the trail that early was virtually empty of people. We went 3 miles and turned around but alternatively you could have gone 6 miles and caught a bus back (if you didn't mind being smelly on the bus. :-) ) From the Rim Trail, you get to a place where you can see the Colorado River you just rafted through.

    Back to the hotel to shower and then to the Bright Angel Lodge which is merely steps away from the Kachina for breakfast. There was a huge deer(elk?) munching on the grass in front of the Kachina hotel and DS enjoyed watching him for a long time. BTW, they also have a killer crow at one exit of the Kachina Lodge that likes to caw at you and dive-attack you. He was there for 24 hours so I assume he is always there.

    After breakfast, hit the road to drive to Vegas. We stopped at Hoover Dam and checked that out. They weren't giving tours but we saw the movie and the exhibit center. We all really liked it...especially DS. Temperature on the car meter read 117 at Hoover Dam!

    Onward to Vegas where we stayed at the Bellagio. DH had wanted to stay at this hotel since it was his favorite walking the strip the last time we were there. Nice hotel and location but a bit pricier than some other similar hotels and actually maybe a bit too fancy for us. No real "common people" restaurants. The real reason to stay here though is that it has a pastry shop called Palio's which is to die for.

    We had tickets to O booked for that night...retrieved those from Will Call and had dinner at Cabo Waco in Planet Hollywood across the street. Shower and to the show...which I hated. I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil before so didn't know what to expect. To me, it was like a bunch of kluged together acts from America's Got Talent...just not my thing.

    Off to bed.

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    Day 7:
    Breakfast at Palio's and then off to the Mirage to the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat which DS enjoyed immensely. He could have stayed there all day even though the lions and tigers were mostly sleeping. DS then wanted to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower (which they won't let you do) so we rode the elevator...DS was underwhelmed. Lunch at Margaritaville then we headed down to MGM trying to avoid the hot sun as much as possible. We wanted to show DS the lions at MGM and let him play at Gameworks...however, we found that the lions are no longer there and Gameworks is closed so we went across the street to NY, NY and rode the roller coaster...then DS played in their arcade for a long while and DH and I had a drink. Back to the hotel where we ordered pizza and pasta from room service.

    Then DH and I had tickets to see Garth Brooks at the Encore. We had never been in the Wynn (connected to the Encore) and it greatly impressed us...would be a fine place to stay. We loved the Garth Brooks concert. He only did about 50% of his own music but took you on a tour through his career and its influences and showed you what a spectacular singer he is by singing other folks' songs better than the originals. He was also very funny especially if you're middle-aged or older and can relate to the time periods he describes.

    Back to the Bellagio. Stopped in a bar to have a drink before bed and back to the hotel room where DS has already passed out.

    Day 8:
    Breakfast at Palio's then to the airport to catch the flight home. Connected in Dallas and had to wait in the (hot) airplane over an hour for repair crews to show up with a new seat belt for the 1st mate's seat. But ultimately made it home fine.

    I'll add some notes later on gear that was recommended by the company and if which I found valuable or unnecessary.

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