Grand Canyon Adventures: The Hualapai Lodge and Hualapai River Runners

The Hualapai Lodge
The Hualapai Lodge

This past weekend, my brother, my dad and I were on vacation. Our first stop was the Hualapai Lodge, a remote hotel in Peach Springs, AZ. The hotel itself was small and simple, but we had no real complaints. My dad spent a long time planning and organizing this trip, and in his search he booked the Hualapai Lodge because they are the only resort that offers a single day river rafting trip, with the Hualapai River Runners. Every other whitewater-rafting trip on the Colorado River is overnight, because you have to hike or ride burros to get into or out of the canyon. The Hualapai tribe owns a private dirt road that provides the only access for cars directly into the canyon. (Permits can be purchased to use the road or camp out on their land.) Forty-five minutes from the lodge on a very bumpy bus is all it takes to get into the canyon, a life vest, and a motored raft on the river.

It was my first time whitewater rafting, and I didn’t know at all what to expect. There were a lot of numbers being thrown around—“these rapids are rated from one to ten, this one is a four to five, today it’s a seven…” Really the numbers made absolutely no difference. A rapid rated five seemed as bad as the seven. And by bad, I mean good.

Essentially you’re sitting on a lightweight metal frame of an eight-person raft, holding on to a tiny bar underneath your seat, but you might as well be on a convertible submarine. It feels like you’re plunging into the water rather than plowing through it. The guides say “you will get wet” like its one of those water flume rides at the amusement parks, but from where I was sitting (towards the front of the raft) it was like someone saying “you will get wet” when you’re about to jump into a swimming pool. Do not take these words lightly.

Being completely soaked would have been nice if it had been 115 degrees as predicted, but thunderstorms hit a couple of days in advance of the weatherman’s forecast, so the cloud cover left us a little more than chilly. At certain points it started to rain but it was difficult to tell because we were already soaked. The waters of the Colorado River stay at a constant 45 degrees year round, but everything else about the day’s temperatures was completely erratic. One second hot air would be blowing on your like a hair dryer, the next second it would turn cold and make you shiver.

The trip was broken up so that there would be several opportunities to get out of the river and potentially dry off (knowing you would be getting soaked again). One stop we made involved a pretty simple climb up to a cave. The guides had rope ladders and tethers set up for certain parts of the climb because the rock was too steep and slippery, but even with my fear of ladders I was able to accomplish the climb fairly easily. The cave was open at the top so it was more like a mini-canyon, filled by a waterfall and its stream. We stood within a foot of it, and if it had been hot I would have been obliged to stand in it, but instead we just looked on in awe. The two other stops were less eventful. There was one at Hualapai sacred ground, where their tribe used to do Ghost Dances. It looked like any other flat ground in the canyon. Later we stopped to eat lunch by a raised manmade wall of piled rocks that was used as a fort by surveyors who worked in the canyon.

After lunch, there were no more rapids, and we had plenty of time to enjoy the views of the canyon, including its high rock walls featuring impressive formations, and, surprisingly, the river’s sandy inlets and islands. There was little wildlife to be seen, which I guessed was attributed to the harsh terrain. The only animals I saw on the entire trip included one wild burro and a rabbit on the bus ride down to the canyon, one blue crane and a raven along the river, and a tiny dead snake in the waterfall cave. This is excluding the insects, which were plentiful. The sound of cicadas permeated anyplace with dense enough shrubs, and there were many dragonflies and beetles to be seen. The most impressive bug I saw looked like a giant ant, maybe half an inch long and fat, with its body covered in thick, bright orange fuzz.

It seemed like a long time went by on the flat water, and we started to feel the aches and pains from the intense experience on the rapids. For a moment we thought we’d have to go an extra 30-40 miles on the river because the helicopters had stopped flying out on account of the rain. Luckily, the light rain had stopped by the time we reached the helipad. Unluckily, the temperature quickly escalated and we had to wait around an hour in unforgiving heat to finally board a helicopter and get to some form of civilization.

The helicopter ride was short and a bit terrifying/exciting, and the scenery was fantastic. We flew directly to a small heliport and gift shop near the Skywalk, a glass overhang that you can walk onto and look straight down into the canyon. We decided to avoid the Skywalk due to the price ($32) and our fear of heights.

The bus ride back was a solid two hours, and my entire party was dying for some rest, but the bus was as bumpy as ever, even though the roads were slightly less rugged. Needless to say, we were grateful to be back in one piece when we finally got to the hotel. It was an experience I will not soon forget.

For my continuing adventures in the Southwest, click here.

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