Grand Canyon Packrafting today

Back in 2007 Roman Dial started a discussion which led to packrafting being explicitly legal in Grand Canyon National Park for the first time.  He and his group, and many groups to follow, were able to do a proper packrafting trip (hiking in and out, running significant sections of river) by obtaining a conventional noncommercial river permit as well as a backcountry permit.  Before this plenty of packrafting had taken place, but it was either outlaw or so far in the past that the trips predated specific regulations.

Unfortunately, the most common and in many ways desirable kinds of packrafting trips are today not possible under current regulations; or at the very least are unnecessarily burdensome to plan.


Brendan and I getting ready to, inadvertantly, break the law back in March.  We were not informed of all the below rules even though our permit request clearly entailed violation.  Notification of fines can be sent to

The current Superintendents Compendium of Designations, Closures, Use and Activity Restrictions, Permit Requirements and Other Regulations governs packraft use on a plain backcountry permit (the sort you’d get for a backpacking trip).  On page 12 it lays out five rules, concerning “river crossings incidental to a backcountry hiking permit.”  To quote:

  • Only the minimal amount of river travel necessary to gain all the hiking terrain of the opposite shore is permitted.
  • Multiple crossings are approved if the permitted itinerary requires them.
  • Backcountry permits involving such crossings will only be issued for backcountry use areas that are immediately adjacent (across the river) from one another.
  • If proposed crossings for a given itinerary result in five or more miles of travel upon the water, a private river trip permit is required.
  • The five mile limit applies to same side, river-level hikes for which entry into the river is necessary in order to navigate around terrain which prohibits travel by foot.

What does this all mean?  The first four provisions are quite plain, in their intent to limit packrafting to five miles of travel “upon the water,” though exactly how that mileage is to be measured is ambiguous.  (Does a 100 yard horizontal crossing with minimal downriver drift count towards the total?)  The final provision, of which I was totally unaware this spring, is intended to prevent packrafting anything which cannot be walked (“entry into the river is necessary”). 

This final provision is excessively ambiguous and generally unconstructive.  There is a very large range of river-level walking to be found in the Grand Canyon, and most of it is pretty tough.  Some of it is rough to the point of calling emphatically into question how objective a term necessary can be.  1/4 mph talus and loose 4th classing around rock prows is quite possible for some, and stupidly unsafe for others.  My intent in highlighting these rules are to clarify them for future hikers (I had to change a permit last week due to #5, and my reluctance to break the rules again), and to get folks keyed up to comment on them when scoping on a new backcountry management plan begins, perhaps later this year.

I have a pretty big axe to grind on this one, as I take personal offense to how populated the river has been allowed to become in the Grand Canyon.  In my book it should be managed as wilderness, and doing so requires not allowing hundreds of thousands of user days which are begun and ended with motorized transport.  There is no way to do this without seriously angering a seriously large amount of serious people.  One solution would be to ban all commerical trips, while keeping noncommercial numbers static.  Another option would be to slash the numbers of both commercial and noncommercial trips.  A third, and the one I like best, is to make trips of both types far less accessible in hopes that a natural regulation of numbers will take place.  The easiest way to do this would be to remove the Lee’s Ferry access road entirely and require human-powered access to the river from the highway. 

All of that is irrelevant to the overly restrictive packrafting regulations currently in place.  The broad point is that adding more partial river trips to an already stressed river environment cannot be tolerated (read: hike in, packraft 50-100 miles of river, hike out).  Trips like Dial’s from 2008, where whitewater is the main focus, should continue to fall under the river management guidelines, which means the permit lottery.  River permits cost 100 dollars a person, not a burden to be placed lightly upon users.  Hiking trips which involve packrafting merit more inclusive regulations which reflect on-the-ground conditions and are not driven by paranoia.  A much more generous mileage cap would be one simple solution, such as 20 miles.  A more complex but still reasonable idea is to have zones along the river, built around probable access points, with their own mileage limits, or unlimited river travel within that zone only.  The ultimate goal is to not constrain user creativity, or turn the Grand Canyon backcountry office into big brother. 

Comments aren’t yet being officially accepted, but you can contact Superintendent Dave Uberuaga at PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ, 86023, if you think you have something to say which needs saying now.


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