60 Years of River Permitting in Grand Canyon National Park

In the 60th year of permitting river trips in Grand Canyon, the National Park Service will open the main 2016 river season lottery for self-guided river trips through Grand Canyon on February 1, 2015. The lottery will remain open for most of the month of February.

In 2014, there were over 4,200 do-it-yourself applications for the 460 Grand Canyon river trip opportunities throughout the entire year of 2015. While 9 dates in December and January had no applicants in the initial lottery, these dates were awarded in follow-up lotteries. The most sought after launch date continues to be just after September 15, the last day of the year concessions companies launch motorized tour boats. There were 359 applications for the first trip launching after September 15, 2015.

While thousands of do-it-yourself river runners vie for a handful of coveted permits in today’s lotteries, the first permit program to regulate float trips through Grand Canyon was initiated in 1955. At that time, less than three hundred people had made the trip from Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, to Pearce Ferry at the headwaters of Lake Mead.

In 1955, there were four do-it-yourself trips through Grand Canyon, and three commercial trips. It was the last time summer do-it-yourself trips would outnumber commercial trips on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.

With very few exceptions, from 1955 to 1979, permits to raft the Colorado River in the Park were only awarded to river runners who had already made the journey. Commercial river running trips greatly increased during this period. Do-it-yourself river runners with no prior Grand Canyon experience were turned away and encouraged to use a commercial river company to access the river.

Under the 1955 restriction, while do-it-yourself demand increased, very few permits for do-it-yourself launches were issued. By 1973, the National Park Service had identified 22 river concessionaires to lead commercial river trips in Grand Canyon. At that time, the concessionaires had no limit to the number of river trips they could launch per day.

In 1979, 43 do-it-yourself trips were allowed to launch while the river concessionaires launched 497 summer trips.

A very contentious river management plan in 1979 was overturned in 1980 when the river concessionaires used congressional pressure to override the 1979 public comment generated river plan. The 1979 plan called for wilderness protection of the Colorado River, eliminating motorized tour boat use and increasing the number of both concessions and do-it-yourself river trips. The 1980 political end run allowed the river concessions to keep the increase in river use and their motorized tour boats.

The 1981 river management numbers increased the number of year round do-it-yourself river trips to 222. By 2000, the do-it-yourself trips totaled 253, 129 of which were in the summer. This was in comparison to the concessions trips which had increased to 640 in 2000, 534 of which were in the summer.

Today, do-it-yourself lottery applicants vie for 185 summer launches while the river concessions launch 476 trips in the same time period.

River Runners for Wilderness continues to offer an online guide to navigating the complex 2015 Grand lottery at: https://www.rrfw.org/lotteryguide

The lottery is strictly online based. The National Park Service (NPS) will not allow applications via fax, mail or phone. Winners are notified solely through email.

Applications for the 2016 river lottery will be accepted on the Grand Canyon National Park’s lottery website at beginning February 1, 2015, at https://npspermits.us/grandcanyon/river/login.cfm

Lottery applicants must first establish a profile by visiting https://npspermits.us. During the application process river runners must update their last river trip information, as the Park does not supply this data and will collect $400 if the lottery applicant wins the lottery without updating this information. In addition, all fees will be forfeited and the permit will be revoked.

Unlike lotteries that award participants extra points for participating in the lottery and losing, this lottery gives up to five additional points to do-it-yourself river running applicants for every year the river runner has stayed away from participation in any self- guided or concession river trip in Grand Canyon. River runners who purchase yearly access to the river through the authorized river concessionaires face no parallel obstacles and are free to purchase a trip year after year.

All self-guided river runners are required to show photo identification to National Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers at the start of their river trip. No such enforcement is required for concessions passengers. River Runners for Wilderness continues to hear anecdotal reports of passengers who participate on two or more concessions river trips per year.

The Park Service charges a non-refundable $25 application fee to be able to play the lottery. This is the highest lottery fee of any federal land river application lottery in the country. Last year’s main February lottery alone generated $105,300.

Unlike other river lotteries, Grand Canyon’s lottery requires a substantial up-front financial commitment for winners, and possible forfeiture of those funds. Winners will have to pay a $400 trip deposit for the standard sized trip of 16 people maximum, and $200 for the small trip of 8 people maximum. This deposit goes toward the $100 per person river running fee.

The Park also encourages applicants to list at least one Potential Alternate Trip Leader (PATL) on their lottery application. This is important because PATLs cannot be added after a trip date has been awarded. The number of chances an application has with a PATL listed is determined by the most recent trip of all the application’s listed members. RRFW would like to remind applicants to carefully select a PATL that will likely be able to go if the permittee cannot, to avoid fee forfeiture and disappointed participants.

By the lottery rules, listing at least one PATL on an application is the only way the permit holder can protect trip participants against a cancelled trip if for some reason the permit holder is unable to make the trip. To this date, the NPS notes 20% of do-it-yourself trips list PATL’s but the NPS has provided no data to show how often a trip is turned over to a PATL.