Like most families, we first saw the Grand Canyon from the crowded visitor center on the South Rim. Gazing down at the vast expanse of massive, ragged cliffs dropping to the Colorado River below, I found it spectacular — but also, unsatisfying. I knew we were glimpsing only a small slice of the 277-mile-long canyon, and it all looked so out of reach.
“I want to go down and around there,” I told my husband while gesturing to the chasm’s crevices. “Let’s come back and do it right.”
Fast forward four years, and my 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are shrieking with glee while clutching the sides of a raft as we plunge through mud-brown Colorado River water, midway through an eight-day rafting trip through the whole canyon with Grand Canyon Expeditions.
We’re with 22 other guests and four guides divided between two motorized inflatable rafts. The group includes a handful of teenage boys who happily shout, “Dude, no way!” and, “That’s sick!” They’re as engaged and enthralled as if playing the new release of Assassin’s Creed, but during this week, we’re all completely unplugged from media and devices, and immersed in nature, while living below the canyon’s rim.
One minute, I could be lying on my back snoozing on the raft’s side, the gentle current lulling me to sleep as if on a train; the next, I’d be hunkered down in the center of the raft, clutching straps and screaming as if on a roller coaster as we hit rapids.
The adventure, beauty, learning opportunities and always-changing riverscape make a Grand Canyon rafting and camping trip possibly the best summertime trip for families with preteens and teens — especially those who suffer “nature deficit disorder.” Just be ready to get dirty and work with your hands, as everyone does heavy lifting to break down and set up camp daily.
After thoroughly researching the options for a family trip here, I decided to go with Grand Canyon Expeditions (which is now accepting bookings for summer 2015 trips) on their eight-day excursion. Other outfitters do a similar trip for a similar price—but in six or seven days. Stretching it to eight days allows more time for stopping and exploring.
It also makes sense for families to go on a motorized raft trip rather than rowing. Rafts or dories (wooden boats) that are rowed take about twice as long, which I think is a pace that would try the patience of most kids and teens. The engines on our motorized rafts were quiet and did not disturb the natural ambiance, as I feared they might.
At least once or twice daily, we’d get off the rafts to swim and dive around waterfalls and hike remote ravines. Then we’d get back on the raft for more peaceful hours of floating and studying the canyon’s spectacular sides, which feature the millennia of geologic history etched in multihued rock.
Every afternoon, we all pitched in to set up camp. We slept on comfortable cots—under dazzling stars most nights, but occasionally we dove into our tent to escape a downpour. Summertime weather in the canyon can change daily from blistering heat to pelting hailstorms.
Our wonderful guides made delectable meals, which we enjoyed as a group, and we filtered river water to drink.
Occasionally, a colorful, non-venomous snake or tiny toad would slither or hop past our tent. From the raft, we spotted numerous desert bighorn sheep clinging to the cliff walls.
I recommend waiting until your youngest is 11 or 12 years old. Outfitters allow younger kids (Grand Canyon Expeditions’ age minimum is 8), but I’m glad we waited until my son turned 12 and that our group did not include any kids under 10. It takes a certain level of maturity and dexterity to be safe on the raft through the rapids, and to handle the rigors of setting up camp daily.
Also, I also strongly recommend a trip that goes all the way from Lee’s Ferry (just below Glen Canyon Dam) to Pearce Ferry (just above Lake Mead). Some river trips start at a halfway point down the river and involve an arduous hike up or down from the rim to the river. You and your family probably don’t want to suffer through that hike in summer heat, and also, you’d miss seeing half the canyon’s length.
Finally, in preparation, be sure to read these two books: before you go, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko, a page-turner I couldn’t put down; then, take with you Belknap’s Waterproof Grand Canyon River Guide—an indispensible guide that I kept within arm’s reach every day on the raft.
Watch this video of our raft hitting a rapid, and keep an eye on the man on the right-hand side in the brown hat — that’s my husband who gets drenched!
Head to the Grand Canyon Expeditions website or call 1-800-544-2691.
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Editor’s Note: Sarah Lavender Smith lives with her family in Piedmont, California, and blogs about travel and trail running on her site The Runner’s Trip. She last wrote for Ciao Bambino about her family’s weeklong tour of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Photos by Morgan C. Smith. Grand Canyon Expeditions compensated us to publish a review of the Smith family experience on Ciao Bambino.
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