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Grand Tours of the Grand Canyon

Whether you have 30 minutes for a helicopter ride or two weeks for a rafting trip, there’s a canyon tour bound to suit you.

 

The enormous scale of Grand Canyon National Park presents some novel challenges to visitors. It simply isn’t possible to hike the entire expanse of the canyon in a few days or even a few weeks—and the steep terrain and punishing desert weather make hiking in and out daunting, regardless of the time available.

If all this walking just isn’t for you, tours of the Grand Canyon organized by several vendors licensed to operate in and around the park, offer an entertaining variety of options that will help you make the most of your Grand Canyon vacation. As is the case with many of the best Grand Canyon tours, getting there really is half the fun.

Guests can relax in comfort aboard luxury buses that tour the rim, feel the wind in their faces on Jeep tours, experience the Old West in style aboard the Grand Canyon Train (which makes roundtrips to the South Rim from Williams, Ariz.), and board small airplanes that fly over the top of the canyon and follow the winding path of the Colorado River. But for real adventure, check out these three most popular Grand Canyon tours.

Mule Trains

Perhaps the best-known option for touring the canyon is with mule trips, aka donkey tours, a wildly popular tour that, for South Rim departures, are often booked up to 13 months in advance. Guests can opt for a day trip or an overnighter.

Plateau Point Tour

Seven-hour Plateau Point day trips depart from Stone Corral, located at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. The mule train stops every half hour or so to allow guests to take pictures—but riders are not allowed to disembark. This makes for some serious saddle soreness for those not accustomed to riding. There is a bathroom break about three hours into the trail, and a boxed lunch is provided. Costs are around $153 per person.

Overnight South Rim Tour

For a longer experience—and to get to the bottom of the canyon on someone else’s hoof power—consider an overnight trek from the South Rim, which includes a stay at the fabulous Phantom Ranch. [Read about Grand Canyon lodging.] A highlight of this longer tour is a rickety crossing of the suspension bridge that spans the Colorado River. The ride down is close to six hours long, and it’s a little less than five hours back up. (The mules head out a different route, which ensures one-way traffic on the trails and offers guests new scenery both days of the tour.) Costs are $420 per person (which includes meals).

South Rim Bright Angel Lodge Waitlist

Since South Rim Grand Canyon mule tours are so popular, it’s vital to get reservations as early as possible. However, if you decide in the spur of the moment to take a tour, you can place your name on a waitlist at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village. Although you shouldn’t count on securing a spot at the last minute (especially in the spring and summer), cancellations do occur occasionally.

North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge Tours

There are also summertime mule trains departing from the North Rim, although these do not journey as deeply into the canyon (they do not reach the river), and as a result are much less popular than South Rim departures. This is good news for procrastinators like me, because hour-long and half-day trips are usually available without reservations. They are also a relative bargain. Catch a shuttle bus to the trailhead from the Grand Canyon Lodge. Costs start at $30 per person.

Before You Go

No matter the length of the trip or the route, this mode of transportation is surprisingly safe (the mule train has an impeccable safety record)—but a mule ride isn’t for everyone. Riders must:

  • be at least 7 years old for one-hour trips,
  • be 10 years old for half-day trips,
  • be 12 years old for daylong trips,
  • weigh less than 200 pounds when fully outfitted (yes, they will make you climb on a scale to prove you’re eligible),
  • be at least 4-foot 7-inches tall and
  • speak English well enough to follow simple commands.

In addition, pregnant women are not allowed, and if you are at all frightened of heights, forget about it: The mules walk the outside of extremely narrow trails that look over precipitous drops. Although the animals are more sure-footed than any human, it takes a certain fortitude to turn over your fate to a four-legged creature. Also note that groups are broken up in the mule train, so that children ride first, closest to the wranglers, then women followed by men.

The climate is fierce here all year long, but especially so in summer, when temperatures can top out at more than 100 degrees (even more on the canyon floor). Be sure to wear sunscreen and bring a wide-brimmed hat that can be tied under your chin. You must wear long pants and closed-toed shoes (cowboy shoes with slightly pointy toes fit best into the stirrups). Be aware that severe weather will result in the cancellation of all trips.

Grand Canyon Rafting, the Colorado River

Over the course of millions of years, the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon, so it makes sense that you might want to raft these powerful waters to make the most of your trip. Most park visitors never make it farther than a few yards past the rim, but there are sights to be seen—hidden grottos, turquoise pools, astonishing waterfalls, polished cliff walls, colorful side canyons—that are visible only from the Colorado River. There are two options for rafting the Colorado River: Gentle, relaxing float trips which are appropriate for most guests, regardless of athletic ability, and wild and wooly white-water rafting.

Smooth Water Tours

Visitors ages 4 and up may catch a daylong float trip along the Colorado from Page, from the Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell (transportation is included from the South Rim). Motorized pontoon rafts make their way through 15 scenic miles of calm river, and the raft pulls out briefly to allow guests to take breaks on the banks (guests are discouraged from swimming because the water is frigid all year long). The trip ends at Lees Ferry, where you catch a bus back to the South Rim by early evening.

Note that the total trip lasts about 12 hours, beginning with a somewhat tedious three-hour bus ride—the time actually spent on the river is about four hours. Float trips operate during warm months only. Costs are $184 for adults, $164 for children ages 4 to 11.

White-Water Tours

For a wilder ride—and to see much more of the canyon—check out professionally guided white-water raft trips, which last from three days to three weeks. The canyon offers world-class rapids (up to Class IV), and outfitters are experienced and provide top-of-the-line equipment. Reservations are recommended at least a year in advance (and are accepted by many vendors up to two years before). Many motorized and nonmotorized rafting trips launch from Lees Ferry and end at Diamond Creek. A full trip requires at least seven days, but half-day trips are available for those who want to hike in and out of Phantom Ranch.

There are more than a dozen commercial outfitters that are licensed to take Grand Canyon rafting tours through the national park. Tour details and costs vary, but expect to pay about $2,000 per person, per week. Overnight raft trips include all food and drinks, including hot breakfasts, picnic lunches and hot dinners (expect steak, fish, stew, and even desserts like Dutch-oven fruit cobblers and cakes). Some tours allow guests to bring their own liquor.

Boats usually pull in by late afternoon, and depending on the tour, crew will make up camp or guests pitch in themselves. Camping equipment is provided, and generally (but not always) includes a tent, a freshly washed sleeping bag, a sleeping pad (foam or inflatable—either way, insufficient to provide much cushion!), waterproof can or bag to bring along personal items, camp chairs and a life jacket, which must be worn by everyone at all times on the river. Be sure to bring along your own pillow (inflatable travel pillows take up the least space).

Most outfitters set up bathroom tents onshore, equipped with chemical toilets and outfitted with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A quick warning for parents traveling with children: Something about all that natural beauty inspires many rafters to ride the rapids sans clothing. Beware passengers of passing rafts exposing more skin than you might want your youngsters to witness. When booking overnight trips with kids, look for tours that cater to families, to ensure members of your own tour aren’t tempted to explore their inner nudist.

Next: Tours Above the Grand Canyon

Tours Above the Canyon

If you want to get to the bottom of the canyon but don’t have time for a hike, float, or mule ride, Grand Canyon helicopter tours are an easy option that is accessible to people of almost any fitness level, and offer unparalleled birds’ eye views of the canyon and Colorado River below. Heli-tours fly over some of the loveliest sites visible by air. Deluxe air tours of the canyon can also feature views of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the nearby Black Mountains.

Land and air packages also offer the opportunity to land on the canyon floor. One of the most appealing air tours is through the Havasupai Reservation for hiking and swimming at the stunning Havasupai waterfalls, accessible otherwise only via a daylong hike. The waters of these ethereal falls are impossibly blue, and travertine shelves below the falls make up mini pools that are ideal for relaxing in the sun.

Costs for heli-tours vary wildly, from $200 per person for shorter trips to $500 per person for longer flights. Flights depart from the Grand Canyon Airport on the South Rim, as well as from small airports as far away as Las Vegas.

Note: Tours are operated both within the park and outside of it, by a number of tour operators. For a list of vendors, go to the National Park Web site at www.nps.gov/grca


Destinations: Grand Canyon National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Camping, Rafting, Sightseeing, Swimming


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