River rats used to have two options for floating the Grand: fork over a small fortune for a commercial trip or wait in line for decades to score a DIY permit. But the park recently overhauled its permit system, limiting the preferential treatment given to those who've been waiting years and adding 250 new slots. Which means you now have a decent shot of self-guiding the greatest river excursion in the United States. (Tip: shoot for a late-fall launch date—last year, those who applied for November 9 had a 31 percent chance of winning.) To float the Grand, you should be comfortable in Class III whitewater, and one trip member should be a wilderness first responder. But you don't need your own equipment. Once you score a permit ($25 to enter the lottery, $100 per person if you win; npspermits.us), call Flagstaff-based outfitter Moenkopi Riverworks. That's what I did when my buddy's number came up last October. Moenkopi met 16 of us at Lees Ferry with everything we needed: four 18-foot rafts, kitchen equipment, food, and beer ($1,500 per person for a 21-day trip; moenkopiriverworks.com). Then it was up to us. We passed guidebooks between boats like cash, ticked off a canyoneering route in Silver Grotto, saw thousand-year-old ruins at Nankoweap Mesa, and dove into frigid pools in Olo Canyon. One thing we didn't do: hike National Canyon, where a river-guide buddy told me he'd hidden my birthday gift. That's OK. With a little luck, I'll be back before too long.
BONUS: To explore by foot, sign on for Just Roughin' It Adventures' new Grand Canyon trek, which takes you from rim to rim in six days on the 22-mile Bass Trail. Plan on bivying (legally) in non-designated campsites and, at mile 13, crossing a flatwater section below the Class II Bass Rapids in a packraft. $1,650; two departures in October; justroughinit.com
Alert: Mule Madness
Grand Canyon National Park is allowing 2,613 more mule rides this year, bringing the total to 10,000. The animals will largely be limited to the canyon's rim, and there will be only ten mule rides per day on the popular Bright Angel Trail—down from 40 last year.