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COVID-19 Impacts on the Grand Canyon (AZ)

Posted: 02/03/2021
By: Kestrel Kunz

Last winter, like every other year, boaters who were lucky enough to pull permits for the 2020 Grand Canyon river season were planning and gearing up for their spring trips. Trip leaders and their groups were preparing all of the gear, travel plans, menus, rental equipment, and itineraries that make a trip down the Grand Canyon possible. However, this year was different. COVID-19 cases were rising at an alarming rate in late winter and when the river was closed to trips on March 24th, the U.S. was seeing over 10,000 new cases and over 150 related deaths reported each day. Indigenous peoples and rural communities, many of which surround the Grand Canyon, have been disproportionately affected by the virus and are located on travel routes frequented by visitors driving to the Park from out of state. Opening back up June 14, this closure was the longest the Park has ever been closed to all river trips. 


Between March and June, up to 1600 self-guided trip participants had faced trip cancellations and were left with months of planning down the drain. This greatly impacted the local economy, Park operations, and permit holders. American Whitewater’s Affiliate Club and the primary advocate for non-commercial boating in the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association (GCPBA), worked closely with the National Park Service to improve COVID-19 related management and to increase opportunities for self-guided trips. With guidance from GCPBA, the Park created the following set of provisions for trips cancelled during the pandemic closure and for additional permit opportunities through 2023: 


• Rescheduled Trips: All non-commercial Colorado River trips cancelled by the NPS due to COVID-19 have been rescheduled to the same launch date within calendar year 2022. This is the first available year as launch dates in 2021 have already been booked.


• Trip Participant Costs: NPS will be refunding the trip participant costs for canceled trips (excluding trip deposit); trip participant costs for the new trips will be due 90 days prior to the launch.


• Potential Alternative Trip Leaders (PATL): For rescheduled trips, the NPS allowed a change of PATL to help improve trip success. All qualifying trip participants listed on the 2020 river permit application could be added as PATLs for the rescheduled trip. To qualify, the individual should meet the same requirements a PATL would have had to meet at the time the lottery application was submitted.


• Option for an Earlier Launch Date: Calendar 2021 launches are already claimed, however cancellations are likely. A permittee may be considered for a 2021 cancellation in lieu of the 2022 launch date. Permittee needs to contact for this option.


• Addition of small 8-person (or fewer) trips every other day in March and October for 2021, 2022, and 2023. The March 2021 dates were included in the follow up lottery that ran on October 27, 2020. 


If you had a trip that was cancelled due to COVID-19 this spring, you should have already confirmed your desired option with the Park Service. Otherwise, you should keep a look out for additional permits becoming available over the next year. If you applied for a permit in the 2020 lottery then you should be signed up for email alerts announcing cancelled and additional permits. American Whitewater will continue to track the permit situation and will provide updates on any significant developments. 


We are very pleased to report that due to the proactive Park closure in the spring and the detailed phased reopening, there have been no documented COVID-19 cases on Grand Canyon rivers trips and only 25 confirmed cases in Grand Canyon National Park. While this is great news, COVID-19 cases across the nation are still on the rise and we encourage the paddling community to be more diligent than ever. Whether you make it to the Grand Canyon or not this coming year, please remember to recreate and travel responsibly. American Whitewater has created guidelines for paddling in the pandemic that are located on our website here. You can also read up on COVID-19 trip precautions for Grand Canyon river trips at this link.


Photo Credit: Tom O'Keefe

Kestrel Kunz

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