An epic 280-mile, self-support run of the Grand Canyon is a perfect way to humble your spirit and marvel at the vastness of one of our world’s greatest wonders. The question is: how do you get on the river without the wait?
Every year 8,000 rafters, kayakers and open boaters run the river, accounting for just one percent of total Grand Canyon visitation. In the off-season, regulations limit launches to one trip per day; in peak season, launches alternate between one and two trips per day. This includes both commercial and private trips. Still, in November 2011, our group put onto the mighty, 24,000 CFS Colorado River after waiting just three months for a permit.
Your best odds for a Grand Canyon self-support launch ticket are the supplemental lotteries for canceled permits. Plan to go in the winter months—October to March—when the weather is nippy but there are inevitably more open dates. If you can go on short notice, your odds are even higher. Supplemental lotteries are held five to seven times a year; get on the Park Service’s email list to be notified in advance of each lottery. Look at the stats for the most popular dates, and then avoid these when you enter your bid.
The lottery is weighted to give more points to those who have never been on the river or have not won a trip in at least five years. Find a trip leader who has never been down before, as he or she gets five bonus points for the targeted launch date. Each person in your group should independently submit bids for the same launch date. If you can organize 16 people (the maximum group size), each with five points, to submit for the same date, then the trip will have 80 chances of winning—almost a sure thing for a winter launch date.
Be careful with this system if you plan on running the river again in the next five years. A winning bid that you don’t use goes straight back to the bottom of the barrel and reduces your chances in the future.
It is crucial to know that the winning trip leader (TL) must go on the trip. If for any reason the TL doesn’t make it to Lees Ferry on the appointed date, your launch is canceled. Not all is lost if this occurs, Las Vegas is only five hours away.
List a few alternative trip leaders (ATLs) on the application. If the TL cannot make it, an ATL may be substituted as the permit holder and life floats on. One important caveat—the TL and all ATLs should hold the same number of points; if the TL has five points and one ATL has one point, the application is given a weight of one point. Good luck!
Learn more about Grand Canyon trips and permits here: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm