A Week in Grand Canyon: What’s the Value of Recreation?

Arizona River Runners guide Erica Fareio leads the trip of a lifetime. (Amy Kober photos)


The Colorado River is possibly the most written about, talked about, litigated river basin in the country, maybe even the world. So many competing uses depend on it – 30 million people draw on the river for water, and the river irrigates four million acres of farmland. The river is plumbed and diverted and managed beyond belief – its infrastructure system includes the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. and the longest irrigation canal in the world.

But after spending a week floating the upper stretch of the Grand Canyon, from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch with Arizona River Runners, I’m focused on the recreation value – usually the “use” that has the least amount of clout. I’m focused on how we measure and communicate that value so that recreation is seen not as a luxury, but as a real need for our health, well-being, and economy.

There’s something about a river trip that’s magic, no matter where you are.  You can find it on a day trip, but the magic grows in direct correlation to the length of the float — the more nights you camp, the deeper you go into rivertime.  I’ve felt it on the Salmon in Idaho, the Rogue in Oregon, the Copper in Alaska.  But nothing compares to Grand Canyon. What is it about this place that causes such bliss, turns us inside out, changes our lives?

What’s the value in protecting this place for “recreation”?

The business coalition Protect the Flows commissioned a study by Southwick Associates that found the Colorado River and its tributaries support a recreation economy worth $26 billion, supporting a quarter million jobs. It’s not surprising, given the 5.36 million people who raft, fish, hike, and camp in the basin.

The Outdoor Industry Association took a region-wide look. They found that each year in the West, Americans spend $256 billion on outdoor recreation, directly employing 2.3 million people and generating nearly $31 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

Nationally, Americans spend $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation. OIA notes that this is nearly double what Americans spend on pharmaceuticals annually ($331 billion).

But that’s just what people spend on gear, travel, permits, and licenses. How about the associated benefits to our physical and mental health, our relationships, feeling refreshed and more productive in our jobs and communities when we come home?

Amy Kober of American Rivers and Arizona River Runners guide Zach Fitzgerald
Amy Kober of American Rivers and Arizona River Runners guide Zach Fitzgerald.


Reading back through the journal I kept in the canyon, I wonder about these intangibles. I wonder about the things you just can’t put a price tag on:

  • Like feeling my heartbeat in the perfectly still moment before entering Hance rapid, then hitting the big wave head on in Chelsea’s oar boat, laughing all the way. And seeing the vulnerability of a ladybug riding with us on the bow rope in our paddle raft.
  • Like the California condors at the Navajo Bridges and the lizards and beavers and bighorn sheep and scorpions and herons. And the ravens that are always watching, who know how to unzip tent doors and unclip dry bags.
  • Like feeling my bare feet in the cool sand, watching shooting star after shooting star.
  • Like being humbled by a swim through cold waves, shivering in the canyon shade, then finding delicious hot sun to bake my skin dry.
  • Like finding circles and spirals in the currents and constellations and the petroglyphs at Tanner. The ringtail cat tracks in the sand next to our sleeping bags. The reflection of water and sunlight rippling on Redwall Cavern.
  • Like walking up Nankoweap and drinking fresh water from a spring bubbling out of the rock.
  • Like the ability to slow down, discovering layer after layer, flowing deeper and deeper through a different kind of time.

It’s a big step forward to have numbers quantifying the value of recreation. And we’ll keep advocating for recreation’s place at the table, as river managers negotiate the basin’s many uses and needs. We’ll come armed with our statistics and dollar amounts. But hopefully we’ll also begin to do a better job articulating the non-dollar values of places like Grand Canyon, and of wild, free-flowing rivers. Hopefully we’ll become better storytellers so that we can get the decision makers to understand.  Maybe one day we can get them all out on the river so they can see it, experience it, and feel it for themselves.

Picture of Grand Canyon and Colorado River
The Grand Canyon continues to inspire generations of Americans.


Amy Kober is the senior communications director for American Rivers, a national non-profit river conservation organization. She lives in Portland, OR.
  • Naveen Adusumilli

    Amy, I couldn’t agree more on your point on the value of intangibles. I’m currently working on a project to evaluate the recreational benefits and it is true that there is so much more that one cannot place a dollar value. And it is really disappointing that value of the ecosystem services are solely based on dollar values and little to no weight is given to intangibles and the associated benefits.

  • Tom Martin

    This article misses a very important and major aspect of river recreation, that of do-it-yourself river running. This important group of river runners powers the regional and national economy with retail sales of river gear, while the guided river companies buy wholesale. And, when it comes to empowerment and skill building that river running gives to ordinary American’s, the do-it-yourself river runners come out way ahead of the guided groups. Do-it-yourself river runners, willing to attempt the huge logistical work involved to run such rivers as the Colorado in Grand Canyon, in small groups of friends doing the river themselves, is priceless. This American spirit of the do-it-yourself river runner adds tremendously to the fabric of our society.

  • Saundra Stehlin

    Been there, done that, felt the same way. My Mom has been to all 7 continents, all 50 US States, and 40 foreign countries and she still says the Grand Canyon trip was the most awesome. I think our country would have a different philosophy toward nature and what we spend our money on, if everyone took a week going down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

  • JW Stephens

    Like entering an ecosystem that is not centered on you. Where things you know about and things you may not know about surround you. Like being part of a web of life that you can feel, but not communicate with. Like going from an indoor centric life to being part of the overwhelming outdoors.

  • Mike Little

    I’m just back from a week long backpacking trip in SE Utah. My friends and I spent about $750 each on this trip, some of it in small towns in the Four Corners area. Ours was a do-it-yourself trip so it was relatively low-budget but the money we left behind was surely welcome, and we’ll all be back again and again.


    Great post and love the picks…hope to ride a river like that one day. Have a great day on purpose!

  • Walt Garrison

    The comment above by Tom Martin is very typical of what I have seen and read by him.Of course doing a private trip in Grand Canyon is a great experience.But being on both sides,he seems to not point out about what people like Amy and the group she brought down(I was blessed to be part of the crew),were able to get out of the trip by the knowledge and understanding that a guided trip provides.Many private trips(or as Tom says”self guided”) are alot of times just a huge party and a social affair.They do not focus on the history,geography,etc.that comes on a guided trip.Another thing Tom,what happens on a private trip and there is a medical emergency?.I don’t know how many times we have had to help out the privates because nobody has any first aid experience what so ever!

  • Tom Martin

    Hi Walt, thanks for your comment. Everyone who travels through Grand Canyon, for one week or three, has the potential to take away a lot from the trip. My point is that the author missed out even one mention about the folks doing it themselves, fueling the regional economy while skill building and empowering themselves. Walt, I am sure you have seen (I know I have) your fair share of “huge party and a social affair” concessionaire trips. Many self-guided trips not only focus on the history and geography, but ecology and river ecosystem education as well. You would be amazed at the knowledgeable folks on self-guided trips. I know I have been and still am! When there is a medical emergency, the doctor, or nurse, or EMT on the self-guided trip deals with the situation, and if no one on the trip has advanced medical knowhow, the folks with the most knowledge do what they can to sort the situation out. That most certainly would include asking another trip for assistance if they were around. But anecdotal safety evidence apart, a 10 year study of river runner injuries in Grand Canyon by Becker, Myers and Stevens (Fateful Journey, Red Lake Books 1999) notes self-guided river trips were the safest of all river trips (Figure 13.1, pg 111). Please don’t shoot the messenger Walt, all the best, Tom

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