If you want to raft the Grand Canyon, prepare to sign up far in advance

Travelers interested in rafting the Grand Canyon may need to begin planning their trip sooner than ever before. Outfitters say they are experiencing an unusual demand for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, including a lengthy waitlist for popular departure dates in June and July. 

For the first time in over 50 years of business, Western River Expeditions reports that the 2018 calendar sold out quickly and that there has been a surge in requests for 2019 trips. Hopeful travelers interested in a 2018 rafting trip are currently being added to a waitlist (cancellations do occur). When reservations for the 2019 season opened on Nov. 15, Western River Expeditions already had 1,000 names on the waitlist for popular dates.  

“The 2018 season is booked solid,” said Brandon Lake, chief marketing officer of Western River Expeditions. “2018 booked earlier and faster than any year before.”  

The National Park Service restricts the number of departures, leaving rafting outfitters with high demand for limited inventory. “We operate in a controlled environment,” Lake said. “The NPS approves all pricing and departure dates.” Regulation extends to travelers as well; individuals are limited to one trip per season.  

Outfitters attribute several reasons for the increase in demand. “The National Park Service centennial in 2016 may play a role in the recent surge of popularity in outdoor recreation,” said Steve Markle, vice president of sales and marketing at the rafting outfitter OARS. Markle reports a waitlist of 650 people for 2019 Grand Canyon rafting trips and recommends travelers get in touch 18 months in advance if they want to secure a specific date.  

The increase in demand may also reflect a larger trend involving personal priorities. “People are spending more on experiences and less on things,” Lake said. “We’re seeing an increase in multigenerational trips with families traveling together.” (The minimum age can vary depending on the section of the canyon that will be traveled. For upper canyon trips, Western River Expeditions requires rafters to be 12 years old; for lower canyon trips, the minimum age is 9.)  

A lack of availability gives prime dates a feeling of exclusivity and travelers are reacting by planning far in advance. Customers who contacted Western River Expeditions for the 2018 sold-out June and July departure dates often made immediate requests for similar dates in 2019. These travelers are added to the waitlist and will be contacted first for reservations before 2019 dates open to the general public.  

How to increase your chances of rafting the Grand Canyon in 2018? Flexibility is key. “There are always last-minute cancellations,” said Sarah Owen of Grand Canyon Whitewater. “If folks are flexible with their dates, can go relatively last minute and their group isn’t too large, it’s reasonable to expect to be able to raft in the Grand Canyon the same season you book your trip,” she said. In addition to adding your name to a waitlist or email list, outfitters also recommend picking up the phone and speaking directly with them. “Call us, chat with us, we probably have a few options for you,” Owen said. “We want to get you down there on the river.”  

Planning ahead is most important for travelers with large groups or those set on peak dates in June and July. Researching individual outfitters and when they release dates may help to increase chances of securing premium departures. “We open our bookings as soon as we get an approved calendar from the National Park Service,” said Lori Yadon, reservations manager for the rafting company Tour West. “Bookings are up, but we do still have some space in 2018.”  

While rafting in the Grand Canyon has name recognition, lesser-known alternatives can provide a comparable experience and often have more availability. “You can raft the same Colorado River in Cataract Canyon,” Lake said. “We call it the Grand Canyon’s little sister.” This alternative ticks many of the same boxes: an exciting river journey with white water and quality hikes.  

“The Grand Canyon isn’t always the best experience for younger children,” Lake said. “My personal favorite family trip is Desolation Canyon.” A five-day trip that covers 88 miles on the Green River in Utah, this expedition includes smaller rapids, warmer water and scenic beaches. “It’s still that classic Southwestern scenery,” he said. “It’s unique from rafting anywhere else in the world.”

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