Paddleboard Through the Canyons of the Colorado River (No Permit Required)

 Draper White / Getty Images

The 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River in Arizona between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry serves up much of the same 1,000-foot sandstone canyon scenery of the Grand Canyon itself, with none of the rapids, making it an ideal weekend SUP trip. The best part? You don't need to get in the lottery system that can have you waiting for years to take on the whitewater downstream. Here's your gameplan.

Day 1: Lake Powel to Horseshoe Bend

Pack your overnight camping gear into a dry bag. Pick up your paddleboard, paddle, and PFD (personal floatation device) at Lake Powell Paddleboards & Kayaks in Page, Arizona. ($40 per day; reservation required). If you can’t fit the board — a bombproof 11-foot Pau Hana Big EZ Ricochet — into your ride, Lake Powell Paddleboards will throw in a roof rack rental for free.

Drive 50 minutes to Lees Ferry, the traditional launch point for kayaking and rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Make sure you park in the overnight parking section, not the day use area in front of the beach. At the dock on the beach, you’ll meet Colorado River Discovery (look for the big blue motor raft) for your 11:00 a.m. back haul up the Colorado River to your starting point just below Glen Canyon Dam ($25 for you, $22 for your board; advanced reservations required). The back haul takes just over an hour. Along the way, you can scout out the six campsites, as well as slot canyon hikes and petroglyph locations. Be sure to ask your boat captain for beta.

Shortly after you start paddling, look for a waterfall on the canyon wall to your right, at about chest height. You can paddle up to it and take a drink — the water is pristine, filtered through hundreds of feet of sandstone rock. Further down, also on the right, a small crescent-shaped beach hugging a hanging garden makes for a spectacular photo stop.

Just before the river winds its way through Horseshoe Bend, an iconic 270-degree meander that’s a popular tourist destination some 1,000 feet above on the canyon rim, paddle across the river to the campsite on your left known as Ferry Swale. Be careful to park your board high enough on the beach that the small waves generated by passing motor rafts won’t pull it back into the river. Walk a quarter mile to see the petroglyphs on the canyon wall, an ancient display of some of the animals that live in the canyon, like big-horned sheep.

Back on the board, continue through Horseshoe Bend and select your campsite for the evening. Nine-Mile Camp, 8-Mile Camp, and 7 ½-Mile Camp all appear, one after the other, on the right side of the river. You don’t need to be picky — they’re all spectacular, and include bathroom facilities and soft sand beaches. It’s considered more courteous to select an empty one, so as not to intrude on another group’s experience of solitude. There is no fee, and no permit required. Sites are first come, first serve.

Day 2: Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry.

The current flows more slowly on the second half of this stretch of river, so expect to paddle almost twice as long as on Day 1. The canyon scenery keeps getting better, if you can believe that, with even steeper, narrower walls. Stick to the right side of the river, so there are no misunderstandings with motor rafts making their way up to Glen Canyon Dam. If you happen to reach about the two-thirds point of the trip in the late afternoon, after the sun has moved all the way across the sky and begins to drop, you’ll get the mesmerizing effect of the canyon walls and sky reflected in the water. Bonus: If there’s no wind, expect a complete glass-off, where the reflection of the sky in the water is so clear that it’s almost disorienting.

Save some energy for a two-mile out-and-back hike through the last slot canyon (on your left). It’s the best hike on the whole 15-mile stretch with dramatic rock cliffs and smooth water-carved sandstone formations. Once you reach Lees Ferry, spend the night at one of the campsites along the river there ($18; first come, first served), or head into Page for dinner and then snag a camping spot at Lake Powell on Lone Rock Beach ($14; first come, first served).

What to Pack:

  • Trail running shoes. Trust us. They are lighter and faster-drying than hiking boots, and the water is too cold to be barefoot (or in Chaco’s) while on the board.
  • Sleeping bag rated to 40 degrees. (It can get cold in the canyon at night, even in the summer.)
  • Sleeping pad.
  • Tent. (You could go without a tent if there is no rain in the forecast, so long as you’re not freaked out by scorpions.)
  • Puffy or other insulation layer.
  • Change of socks for campsite. (No one likes hanging out in wet socks.)

How to Get There:

Fly into either Phoenix or Las Vegas, both are about a four-hour drive to Page, Arizona. Alternately, you can fly to Page from Phoenix on one of several daily prop plane flights offered by Great Lakes.