Grandma in the Grand Canyon

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Heads up on selling travel to our national parks, because travel sales to U.S. wilderness areas should receive a significant boost when PBS rolls out its newest project, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Filmmaker Ken Burns, a household name in TV documentaries, spent the last 10 years creating a history of our national parks, and his efforts will debut in a 6-part series later this month.

Surely on view will be the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the nation’s most rugged wildernesses and the second most visited national park in our roster of national parks. Until last June, this writer had never been to the Grand Canyon, but adventure tour operators hit a common note in advising me that to see it in all its glory, you have to leave behind the comfort (and the crowds) of the rim, because the essence of the canyon lies in its depths. But, if you’re not into strenuous hiking, take a river trip.

So this senior citizen (with husband in tow) began looking into such a trip, one that included rafting down the Colorado River. No way were we fit or skilled enough to do the paddling ourselves, and camping out would need a bit of safari-style catering. However, there are a couple of companies that offer motorized raft travel, leaving the “driving” to someone else, coupled with the most special seats in the house for wet and wild adventures. The adventure company we chose was Western River Expeditions (WRE).

Adventure travel is no more exempt from the recession’s downturn than other kinds of travel to any part of the world. One exception, however, according to Brandon Lake, v.p. of Western River Expeditions, seems to be Grand Canyon rafting trips. “It’s a unique experience in a very high-profile place that people just want to do and they want to do it right. When they have a good experience, the word of mouth is a major factor in our continuing to sell what space we have.” Lake says that Grand Canyon rafting—from 3- to 7-day trips—is a product that is limited not by demand, but by the physical parameters of the Grand Canyon, the equipment available, the short season, and the park rules that open the experience to just a certain number of people every year. “We sell out almost every place, every year, so that bookings have to be made sometimes a year ahead for, say, the popular month of June,” Lake adds.

The growth the 40-year-old company has enjoyed in recent years has come from rafting in Utah and Idaho, on such rivers as the Green, the Salmon and the Snake, combined with stays at ranches and what Lake calls ranches-now-more-like-resorts. “Family travel in the last five years has shown enormous increases for these combined activities,” says Lake, “but at the same time, there is strong growth toward shorter vacations.” He laments that, “People are cramming more activities into less time, and it seems to me they don’t have time to relax, smell the flowers, and perhaps with all their activities, actually go home more stressed.”

the journey But smell the flowers is exactly what we did. For six days we floated along or plunged down between the Canyon’s majestic cliffs and went camping under the stars, in the care of one of the best adventure companies this writer has ever traveled with.

Grand Canyon rafting trips come in all sizes. Ours was the longest, with river-running a total of 188 miles through the most dramatic scenery anywhere, as we descended each day through the upper Canyon reaches and deeper into this famous multicolored gorge that the Colorado River has etched in a geologic time frame of about six million years. More than a mile deep at its most majestic, the Grand Canyon can drop the most jaded of admiring jaws.

This is a trip for nature lovers and camping enthusiasts, and without doubt, for families. Our group of 28 traveled in two J-Rig rafts, custom-designed by WRE and each with a capacity for 18 passengers. Our trip manifest was made up of couples, couples with kids, and fathers alone with sons or daughters out for a bonding experience. For Colorado River trips of longer than four days, Western River Expeditions only takes kids 12 and older, and our teens were tops, as they took off with crew members on special kayak runs, got better and better at rock-wall climbing, became better and better friends, and lent a hand at every turn.