Finding my stride on a 21-day river trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park
As an avid trail runner and hiker, taking my first river trip down the Grand Canyon intimidated me in many ways. With minimal whitewater experience, I felt trepidation about riding through the notoriously large rapids of the Colorado River in 45-degree water. The truth is that my biggest fear heading into the trip was quite pedestrian — I hate sitting still. I typically gravitate towards adventures powered by my own two feet, but my role on this voyage would be that of a passenger. However, the Grand Canyon boasts spectacular hiking that can only be accessed from the river, which ultimately convinced me to go.
Within the first day of this three-week odyssey, I realized that time spent sitting on the boat could fluctuate from beautiful and soothing to torturous rapids, depending on weather conditions and even my mood that day. As it turned out, I was not a very good passenger, and though I was moving through one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, my own personal inertia made me feel stir crazy. After freezing my way through the inner-gorge, I honestly contemplated hiking out the South Kaibab Trail because I was craving the warm-up that would come with sun exposed vertical relief.
Of course, bailing was not an option, so I employed another tactic. I pulled out the river guide and started looking for each and every hiking option available that correlated with our group’s campsites. As I adjusted to the ratio of sitting on the boat to walking on the land, I came to anticipate and appreciate the opportunities to explore new canyons afoot that would not have ever been accessible to me had I not set myself afloat.
Somewhere between the abrupt jolt of Horn Rapid and our next warm campsite with hiking options, it dawned on me that many people who feel conflicted about this kind of adventure simply might not go on such a long river trip. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow endurance athletes, lower body extremists, dry land lovers and adrenaline anti-junkies! Below are my takeaways after three weeks living on a boat in the middle of one of the world’s Seven Wonders, the Grand Canyon. I’m here to pass along the beta from my own trip, from one timidly brave soul to another, that may give you the courage to untether yourself and try something new!
This is fairly straightforward, but I knew going into a 21-day float trip that this would be more of a recovery period than one of getting super fit. Unlike the capable rowers who would be exerting themselves around the clock during daylight hours, I’d be spending a significant portion of my day sitting down and simply hanging on. Embracing this as a fun way to take some down time is the best possible way to approach it, and something I wish I had contemplated prior to the trip. I’ve been benched from injuries for longer, all while staying home and being bored and frustrated. Personally, if I ever need a time out again to chill or let my body rejuvenate, I’d prefer a front row seat on a raft to a sofa and Netflix.
River trips are a group effort. Period. While this is pretty obvious as far as the day-to-day set-up, rigging and meal times, the same goes for off-the-boat activities. If time on land and hiking are super important to you, make sure to discuss it with trip leaders ahead of time to make sure it can be built into the schedule. You likely won’t be the only person in the group excited to go hiking, and chatting about the next opportunities around the fire is a great way to bring the crew together.
KNOW YOUR CAMPSITES
Campsite selection is perhaps one of the most paramount things to have dialed to maximize hiking. Aside from planned stops to hike, opt to camp at beaches that have hiking route access to get some movement in before bedtime or in the morning before you launch. Again, talk about this with group leaders. Most folks are more than happy to pull out at a spot that allows for a variety of activities and can keep the bocce ball, campfire baking and hiking crowds pleased.
HIDDEN PHYSICAL CHALLENGES
Despite all of the down time, much of it was deceptive. I noticed my hands, forearms and core muscles were all being engaged while I held on tight going through the larger rapids. Hauling heavy gear on and off the boat two to three times a day through sand was like a weightlifting regime. River trips are a great reminder that fitness was once gained through the tasks of daily living. You really don’t need to go to the gym to get a workout when you are living outside and doing things the old fashioned way!
Unlike backpacking, river trips allow for the ultimate floating buffet of real food. I found myself giddy with excitement to pack my hiking pack with leftover tamales and even chocolate cake from the dinner before rather than a standard PB&J or energy bar. Best of all, when I returned from a long day on the trail I got to enjoy a beautiful remote camp spot and a fancy dinner like steak with a glass of red wine. The ratio of backcountry adventure to gourmet meals is at its prime on a trip like this, so indulge yourself as you remember all the smashed cold food you’ve eaten on big trail runs.
Much of the Grand Canyon’s most spectacular hiking is best accessed from the river. Two of my favorites include Thunder River and The Tabernacle.
Thunder River starts at Tapeats Creek. This 14 mile (round trip) hike takes you to a half-mile long underground river that unleashes itself from a towering canyon wall as a spectacular waterfall. It also happens to have a good amount of vertical climbing if you are craving that.
The Tabernacle is known for the stunning panoramic views. Let your legs and lungs appreciate the type of climb you can squeeze in before Happy Hour while still feeling like you got in a great workout. A well-traveled 3.7 mile (out and back) trail will get you to the top of this 4,757 foot butte overlooking the river on the verge of the Inner Gorge.
Grand Canyon lottery permits can be a once in a lifetime opportunity, so even if you don’t consider yourself a river rat (yet), this rarity itself is the best reason to hitch a ride on a raft and experience a slice of the earth that can be traveled no other way.
MORGAN SJOGREN runs wild with words around the Colorado Plateau. With a background in competitive running, Sjogren relishes the challenge of trying new adventures. Still, she never goes anywhere without her running shoes. Follow her on Instagram at @running_bum_.