As millions of people flock to the Grand Canyon to enjoy the expansive views and picture-worthy day hikes, it’s easy to wonder how a place so vast can feel so crowded. It’s unsurprising that one of the seven natural wonders of the world attracts visitors from all over the globe, yet few are privy to one of its most exclusive experiences: exploring the national park by raft.
This adventure, which spans almost 300 miles from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, can take up to 25 days to complete, depending on the pace of the group. Some days on the river are enjoyed while floating down calm stretches and marveling at the colorful rocks and textured formations, while others are spent holding on tightly to the raft as you drop through adrenaline-pumping whitewater rapids.
The shores of the Colorado River offer even more to explore. Trails lead to dramatic narrows, peaceful grottos, and rushing waterfalls, all of which are nearly impossible to reach without a boat. The river also provides access to thousands of archeological sites that remain to tell the story of Indigenous inhabitants, like the ancestral Puebloan granaries at Nankoweap that were used to store grain and seeds.
Permits for these non-commercial trips have been coveted for decades, and only in 2006 did the National Park Service (NPS) upend its existing waitlist system, which, reportedly, was backed up 25 years. Now, visitors have a shot through an annual lottery process.
Every February, thousands of people optimistically submit their names, hoping that this is the year they’ll finally be chosen for one of around 250 openings annually. While there’s no guarantee of receiving a permit, one way to increase the likelihood of rowing the Grand Canyon is to apply for dates that are less popular — specifically, in the winter.
Not only are winter visits easier to secure, but they also offer the most intimate connection to the canyon because commercial trips and motorized vessels are not permitted. This ensures quieter days and far fewer people on the river.
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However, avoiding the crowds doesn’t come without a price, as overnight temperatures often drop below freezing and snow is not uncommon. In early winter, the lack of daylight coupled with the high walls of the canyon limit direct sunshine to mere hours a day.
To stay warm during the day, adventurers dress like they’re going out on a ski adventure, layering long underwear with fleeces and puffy jackets. The top layer, though, is specific to the river — a dry suit made of nylon that keeps everything underneath perfectly dry.
The $1,000 dry suit is just one piece of equipment needed for the winter months. Not only does a cold-weather gear list include extra layers to stay warm, but it also features a few unexpected items that help provide comfort amid the chilly conditions.
While summer skincare revolves around avoiding sunburns, in the winter, dry hands are a boater’s worst enemy. After only a few days on the river, skin can begin to crack and shrivel, so boaters might want to layer copious amounts of moisturizer. Meanwhile, ice fishing boots are a heavy yet popular footwear option to keep feet both dry and warm when loading and unloading the boats at shore each night.
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So, is it worth it? Many will choose to stick with the crowds at the rim, or elect to go on a commercial whitewater rafting trip in the summer. But if you have the opportunity to spend weeks in the bottom of the Grand Canyon with few to no other people, it seems like a worthy trade-off for a little frost on your bag in the morning.
Sarah L. Knapp is a travel writer and the founder of Mappy Hour, a community of urban dwelling outdoor enthusiasts.