Experienced river runners wait eagerly for a chance to challenge the canyon’s rapids themselves, choosing their own pace and campsites. If you have your own gear, a private (noncommercial) trip costs a fraction of the price of a guided commercial trip. The hallmark of a private trip is that all participants (maximum 16) contribute, and no one gets paid a fee.
But private trips have been hard to score on a river with strict limits on the number of annual visitors. In order to keep a sense of the wild in this wilderness and protect the canyon’s fragile environments, the National Park Service doles out a certain number of private-trip permits each year. The most coveted are for 12-25-day trips from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. In 2008, more than 2,000 people applied.
It’s easier to get a permit for 2-5-day trips through the Lower Granite Gorge, launching from Diamond Creek. “Diamond-Down”  trips navigate about 15 miles of white water on a 54-mile length to Lake Mead’s South Cove. The Park Service issues permits for two trips per day of up to 16 people each.
Applications are available online or from the River Permits Office (P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 800/959-9164, fax 928/638-7844, grca_riv [at] nps [dot] gov) and can be submitted up to a year in advance. The Park Service doesn’t charge for permits, but arrangements and fees must be handled with the Hualapai River Running Department (P.O. Box 246, Peach Springs, AZ 86434, 928/769-2210 or 800/622-4409) prior to the trip’s launch date.
Due to an ever-growing waiting list for permits (upward of 20 years out), the Park Service switched to a weighted lottery system for granting permits to noncommercial 12-25-day river trips launching from Lees Ferry. The weighted system increases the odds for those who haven’t been on a river trip during the past five years.
Lottery applications can be submitted a year in advance. Unlike commercial trips, which have a limited season, private river trips launch all year. Winter months are less popular, and you may increase your lottery chances if you apply for a winter launch date.
The main lottery is held in February, with smaller lotteries throughout the year to fill cancellations or leftover trips. The application fee is $25, and you can be listed on only one application per year. If you win the lottery, a $400 deposit holds your reservation.
Applications are available on the park’s website (https://npspermits.us ). You must complete an online profile to apply for the lottery. The Park Service has compiled a helpful list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the permit lottery system, available on the park’s main website (www.nps.gov/grca ).
Before applying, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the regulations and issues surrounding a private trip. Grand Canyon National Park has published a 28-page booklet called Noncommercial River Trip Regulations, available on the park’s website as a PDF file. The booklet addresses everything from watercraft requirements to waste management. The website will also link you to a free podcast of the park’s River Orientation Video.
Even if you decide that you aren’t ready to apply for a trip permit, you can set up a profile and register online. There’s no charge, and you’ll receive periodic announcements via email regarding future launch dates and other river news.
Another option for getting on a private trip is to fill an opening on an existing reservation. The Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association (www.gcpba.org ), a group of experienced river runners, shares information on its website, including occasional announcements about trip openings.
The biggest drawback of planning a private trip is, well, the planning—about 300 hours’ worth. It takes a lot of river savvy not only to navigate the canyon’s rapids but also to keep groceries fresh down to the last ice block. Private trip leaders must have experience. If you’re leading a trip, you’ll want your passengers to have experience too. On a private trip, everybody works.
You can turn over a lot of the pretrip logistics to a pro. Several companies specialize in outfitting private Grand Canyon trips , offering everything from equipment rental to menu planning and shopping. Most private-trip outfitters are based in Flagstaff, and shuttles to and from the river are available.
Among the rewards of putting together a private trip are being able to gear the experience to the interests of you and your companions, perhaps planning layovers around longer hikes or technical climbs, stopping for photography or filming, or bringing old photos and journal entries to retrace the footsteps of a historic expedition. You can camp somewhere new and interesting every night, or spend more time on a single beach, pretending that you’re castaways living off the land (or off that enormous cooler stocked with everything from apples to zin). Whatever the theme, your journey will be memorable.