A Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon

In this clip from Discovery's "Fearless Planet" series, Will has some fun with the crew while filming the Grand Canyon episode.
Discovery

When we think of Arizona's Grand Canyon, most of us imagine it as a piece of Americana, a family vacation destination to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But the Grand Canyon isn't just a curiosity or a bucket-list item for the American traveler: It's also a world-class hiking and adventure destination, with rich diversity in climate, ecology, flora and fauna, some of which is specific to the region.

A hike down into the Canyon is an exciting change of pace for mountain climbers: After all, you can almost think of it as a mountain in reverse! The Grand Canyon is 277 miles (446 kilometers) long, an average of 10 miles (16 kilometers) across and 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) deep, with the Colorado River at the bottom [source: State Parks: Arizona].

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For the most rugged among us, a trip down one rim of the Grand Canyon and up the other means sights and challenges you won't find anywhere else on the planet, and which most of us will never experience. But that diversity also means you can find a Grand Canyon trip or adventure for almost any taste and skill level. Whether you've got young children or older members in the party, whether you're an avid hiker or just interested in neat-looking rocks, the Canyon's big enough to serve every single hiker's need. In this article, we'll be looking at the many ways you can enjoy the Grand Canyon, from week-long treks to half-day hikes, and all the information you'll need to know to make them a memorable and fantastic success.

Grand Canyon Hiking: Popular Routes

Of the Canyon's 4.5 million yearly visitors, 90 percent treat themselves to the gorgeous views of the South Rim, while the remaining 10 percent focus their attention on the Canyon's North Rim. [source: National Park Service]. The South Rim is maintained and better suited for the casual vacationer, although both rims have their areas of interest. The South Rim is open year-round for visitors, while the North Rim pretty much shuts down, thanks to snow and inclement weather, during the winter. Neither rim provides a road to the bottom, which is where the hiking part comes in.

The most important thing to know, up front, is that the hike to the bottom of the Canyon is incredibly strenuous. While plenty of people have survived the trek, it presents a unique set of circumstances that challenge experienced hikers. Dehydration, fatigue and the change in elevation, as well as the intense dry heat, all contribute to an experience that is not for the faint of heart. It's expert-level hiking, make no mistake. This, plus the park's limits on visitors and use of resources, means planning ahead is extremely important.

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From the South Rim, the "corridor" trails are the most-used and user-friendly routes, whether you're looking for a fun day hike or intend to make it all the way to the bottom. While both major trails are difficult, with switchbacks and infrequent rest stops, Bright Angel is known as slightly more forgiving than the South Kaibab Trail. The former is a bit longer, but has better stops and a less steep grade, while South Kaibab offers little water and very little shade. On the North Rim side, your journey can only descend via the North Kaibab Trail. All major trails meet at the bottom of the Canyon, where the Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground cater to every possible level of comfort, from "roughing it"-style camping to bed-and-breakfast delights.

Tourism, Tourists and the Busy Season

The Skywalk juts out over the canyon and has a glass floor, so visitors get a spectacular view of the Colorado River.
The Skywalk juts out over the canyon and has a glass floor, so visitors get a spectacular view of the Colorado River.
©David McNew/Getty Images

Even for such a warm locale, the park's traffic increases dramatically in the summer. Like most destinations of its kind, the educational and scientific aspects -- as well as the breathtaking natural beauty, of course -- mean a lot of family vacations, as well as the sojourns of hikers, rafters, and outdoor types, will include stops at the Grand Canyon.

The majority of casual visitors, year round, tend to cluster around the South Rim's famous vistas and the West Canyon's tourist attractions, such as the Skywalk owned by the Hualapai Reservation. Families with children don't tend to take the trails too far down into the Canyon, of course, so you can expect the crowds to thin out fairly quickly on your descent, but the midsummer tourist season is alive and well up above the rim.

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For those taking the trails down to the bottom, or even just half-way (a popular way to do it) into the canyon itself, the good news is that solitude reigns. Until you meet up with all the other hikers at the bottom, where the major trails all meet, your hiking party could very well spend the day's trek interrupted by only a few encounters.

If the park's emphasis on solitude is what appeals to you, just remember the guidelines for safe hours to hike during the day. Landmarks and waystations along the path include posted suggestions about the best times to make each segment of your journey, and park rangers are an amazing resource. Don't be shy about asking questions -- they know you're there to have a personal experience, and they have the know-how to tell you the best way to make it perfect.

Grand Canyon Hiking: Training and Conditioning

For those hardy few who want to make the full hike, the physical and mental demands are intense. Travel down into the Canyon is the "easy" part -- the opposite of a mountain ascent, of course -- but it means a lot of punishment for your knees and legs, as well as the possibility of heatstroke and other hiking mishaps. The most prepared and experienced hikers train months for the hike ahead of time, often for as long as eight months to a year.

The Canyon, though cold at night and on the northern side, works like an oven during the daytime, and Arizona's dry heat means you won't even notice your sweat instantly evaporating. While most of us can easily imagine the physical punishment -- or think we can -- these qualities specific to the canyon need to be factored in as well.

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Along with planning the details of your overnight stays, which we'll discuss later, you also need to consider these details when planning what to bring: A gallon of water per person per day, food to eat that won't slow you down or make you sick, changes of clothes and first aid needs, and balance all of it against the fact that you'll be carrying everything with you. While the Grand Canyon's famous mules can be rented by the day, taking off a bit of the pressure, you're still going to need to be very clear with yourself about the demands this adventure will make on your body. It's a workout for your muscles, your mind, your vascular system and every other part of you.

At the end of this article, you'll find links to several personal accounts of rim-to-rim hiking trips that will help you imagine the physical challenges you'll find in the canyon. Note the amount of blisters, vomit attacks and tears. Reading these accounts should help you be realistic with yourself about your capabilities, and keep you from being one of the 250 people that needs rescuing every year [source: National Parks Service].

Grand Canyon Hiking: Trail Maps

A hiking trip at the Grand Canyon will reward with incredible views, but if you don't prepare properly by planning your route and bringing along essentials, the outlook won't be so rosy.
A hiking trip at the Grand Canyon will reward with incredible views, but if you don't prepare properly by planning your route and bringing along essentials, the outlook won't be so rosy.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

While the Corridor Trails are well-traveled and well-marked, you'll need to stop by the Visitor's Center (located on either rim) for "The Guide," which contains maps and tips, as well as updates about current conditions. Planning a route ahead of time, for a lot of people, is part of the thrill. Visit the National Parks Service site to sketch out the best route for your needs.

While the park is free and open, it's easy to get turned around and lose your way, so a map and compass are key. It can be easier than you may recognize, from the safety of your living room, to mistake one offshoot or minor trail for the main route, and keeping track of your location is an important part of the journey. Likewise, understanding the progression of milestones and distance markers in theory can help you recognize them in practice, and keep your descent on track instead of stranding you in the wilderness.

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There is no cellular reception in the Grand Canyon, and while park rangers patrol the corridor trails regularly, emergency call stations are few and far between. By considering your route in terms of segments, moving from landmark to landmark, you can take in the beauty of your surroundings without getting lost in them. This is an especially important part of planning your descent, as the difficulty of the hike itself can distract you from remembering your direction or goals: Do the work ahead of time, as part of your preparedness, and you can take some of the hassle out of an already high-pressure adventure.

Along with maps, you'll also need a gallon of water per day per person; food -- eat something every time you stop for water to avoid medical complications -- with a good mix of protein, carbs and salt; protection from the sun for your eyes, face and skin; a knife and mirror, and just in case, a flashlight. For overnight stays, you'll want to bring a water filter or iodine tablets, toilet paper and a trowel, bags to pack out your trash, bathing supplies, and bug spray. It's not advised that you sleep under the stars -- snakes and scorpions, in particular, abound -- so you'll need some night protection as well. Use your hiking know-how! If you're making this very advanced trip, it's to be assumed you already know what else you're going to need.

Grand Canyon Hiking: Trekking Your Way to the Bottom

Rule No. 1 for a full descent into Grand Canyon is to cast off the idea of making the journey down and back in one day. While people have survived this foolhardy attempt, it's strongly discouraged by experts and by the Parks Service itself. Arrange for a stay at the bottom, reserving space in the Campgrounds or at Phantom Ranch.

In fact, it's strongly suggested that you plan for at least a two-day sojourn at the bottom of the canyon: one day to recover from the arduous journey down, and another to actually enjoy the experience of being somewhere so few people will ever see. There's a lot to enjoy on the canyon floor, and you'll need all your wits and strength to make the trip back up.

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For a hike of any length down into the canyon, you should assume the return will take twice as long. Even experienced hikers can find this reversal of priorities a little hard to get their heads around, so take that rule of thumb very seriously, and think hard about what it means for your schedule.

As for the best route, it's generally suggested that South Rim hikers take the harsher South Kaibab Trail down into the Canyon, and Bright Angel on your return. (North Rim hikers only have the one main option, so you're weighing the possibility of a less crowded adventure against the more narrow set of options returning.) For any trail, hikers find it takes about 4 to 5 hours on the descent, and up to 8 hours average getting back to the rim -- but again, the challenging nature of the journey renders those averages much less important in your plans than the overall time the full trip will take, including rest periods.

Grand Canyon Hiking: Trekking From Rim to Rim

Hiking from one side of the canyon to the other is no small feat. To make the most of it, make sure you plan rest time on the canyon floor.
Hiking from one side of the canyon to the other is no small feat. To make the most of it, make sure you plan rest time on the canyon floor.
©Getty Images/Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

The rim-to-rim trip is, of course, the fullest experience a hiker can have in the Grand Canyon, coming into contact with every ecological zone and seeing every possible kind of sight available. It's a tough trek, but a rewarding one, and not something that very many people will ever experience. Keep in mind that the North Rim is only safe to hike during the mid-May to October season -- officially, the North Rim closes at the first snow each year. If you choose to take a rim-to-rim hike, it's probably best to start on the North Rim for your descent hike and take one of the South Rim trails back up.

The canyon's three major trails -- Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab -- mean you have several options, should you take on this challenge. Between the free shuttles each morning and the variety of lodging available on both sides of the rim, and depending on the time of year, you can mix and match the trails however you like.

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Rim-to-rim is, of necessity, also the longest amount of time you're likely to spend in the Canyon. Even after a regular South Rim trip to the bottom, it's important to treat yourself, on non-hiking days, to some relaxation among the canyon floor's attractions and amenities. You don't want to be so consumed with the activity of the descent and climb that you forget to look around! Choosing such a serious route is admirable, but don't let it overshadow the reason you've come to the park in the first place.

The Backcountry Permit

You'll need a permit for all overnight use of the backcountry -- which is to say, anywhere besides the dorms and cabins at Phantom Ranch -- which is one of the first hurdles you'll be clearing as you plan your trip. They can be tough to get, requiring you to apply three months in advance (there's a last-minute walk-in waiting list for backcountry permits, but the parks service warns that could take up to three days of applying in person, so don't chance it) -- this trip is one you should really plan at least a year beforehand.

Because of the necessity for protecting the rich canyon environment, these permits come with a host of caveats and rules. You can't deviate from the itinerary you've been allowed, because the permits themselves are granted with an eye toward balancing use of various areas within the park. Behind the scenes, park administrators make these decisions based on group size, timing and available resources. There's a lot of work that goes into providing hikers with access to this gorgeous natural wonder, and not all of it is immediately apparent.

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Unlicensed use of the park, off-itinerary overnights, or trying to cheat the system by splitting into smaller groups and reconvening later all come with fines, penalties, court appearances and possibly being escorted from the park by rangers, so understand the rules and make sure you follow them. After all that effort and preparation, the last thing you want to do is have the trip ruined over a simple mistake or careless oversight.

Waterfalls and Other Non-Hiking Attractions

You may not think of the Grand Canyon as a great place to see waterfalls, but Havasu Falls is just one of several contained within the Grand Canyon National Park.
You may not think of the Grand Canyon as a great place to see waterfalls, but Havasu Falls is just one of several contained within the Grand Canyon National Park.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Criss-crossing the Corridor Trails are smaller paths and routes that you can use to make your experience even more special. While both Bright Angel and South Kaibab include waterfalls, Anasazi ruins, plants and animals specific to the region -- not to mention the layers and layers of 2 billion years of geological history -- you should include in your plans the opportunity to see more of whatever interests you most.

Some side-trips and trails at the bottom of the canyon, for example, can lead you through waterfalls and rich oases, while trips outside the park itself can give you the chance to learn about American history and current culture in another way: by visiting the Havasupai, Hualapai or Navajo reservations nearby. You'll need to get tribal permits to do so, and you'll be outside the National Park's jurisdiction, but tourism and tourist dollars are a key to these nations' survival.

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For an absolutely impossible view, try the Skywalk. Located in the Hualapai Reservation on the west end of the canyon, it's a glass-bottomed structure owned and part-benefiting the reservation itself, which stretches out 70 feet (21 meters) over the rim and ends up 4,000 feet (1219 meters) above the Colorado River. While it's removed from the experiences of getting your hands (or your feet) dirty by hiking the canyon, you can't deny it's a unique perspective on the canyon's true majesty. Why not include a little Skywalk time in your trip? It's not every day you get to consider something as large as the Grand Canyon from such an immediate and dramatic angle.

Flora and Fauna

Whether you're day-hiking on a partial trip down one of the many beautiful paths in the Park, heading all the way to the bottom or even making your trek rim-to-rim, you'll be treated to a wealth of flora and fauna, some of it specific to the region. In fact, you can even sample checklists of all the fascinating wildlife at the National Parks site. All in all, the Park contains 89 species of mammal, 355 different birds, and 56 amphibian and reptile species. Of course, you should never approach wild animals, and make sure you don't feed them, either by your own hand or by accidentally leaving food or trash where they can get at it. These animals can sometimes get used to humans, which means they could be aggressive when you don't expect it, so be smart. They're a big part of the wonderful experience you're aiming to have, so it's important to respect their place in it.

Ponderosa and pinyon pine forests grow on both rims of the canyon, while the springs and water in the walls preserve 11 percent of the Grand Canyon's plant species, which have many fascinating qualities specific to the region. For example, plants on the south wall receive only about one-third of normal sunlight down in the canyon, so they have developed in ways usually found at higher elevations and more northern latitudes. On the opposite wall, the plants are closer to what you might find in the Sonoran desert. In terms of fauna, the South Rim includes the famously delicate Sonoran mule deer, bighorn sheep, gray fox and rock squirrels -- the Abert squirrel in particular has a distinctive coloration pattern to look out for. You can find mountain lions and northern goshawks along the North Rim. The Kaibab squirrel is found only here, with its bushy white tail, and because it's unique to the area it's actually been designated a National Landmark -- although one that moves more quickly than most.

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Author's Note

Growing up in the American Southwest, I never really thought about the Grand Canyon. I've seen Royal Gorge, and a ton of other sites in Colorado and New Mexico, but despite spending most of my childhood in Phoenix, I didn't get to explore very much of it. It certainly wouldn't have occurred to me to hike down the Grand Canyon, even for a day trip, until researching this article. The idea of "reverse hiking" appeals to me, as well as the Skywalk, and I've already started putting together a fantasy itinerary for next summer that could end up becoming a real trip.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Hiking Trails & Gear. "Cross Grand Canyon Hiking Off Your To Do List." Hiking Trails & Gear. 2011. (June 15, 2012) http://www.hiking-trails-and-gear.com/grand-canyon-hiking.html
  • ibid. "Where to Find Easy Grand Canyon Hikes that Astound." Hiking Trails & Gear, 2011. (June 15, 2012) http://www.hiking-trails-and-gear.com/easy-grand-canyon.html
  • Jacobs, Irene. "Hiking The Grand Canyon Rim-To-Rim, A Guide For First Timers." The Backpacker.com. (June 15, 2012) http://www.thebackpacker.com/articles/tipsandhow/art196.php
  • National Parks Service. "Animals." Updated 7 June 2012. (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grca/naturescience/animals.htm
  • ibid. "Grand Canyon National Park to celebrate 90th Anniversary." Feb 2009. (June 15, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grca/parknews/2009-02-02_90th.htm
  • Natural Born Hikers "South Rim to River to South Rim via South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail." (June 15, 2012) http://www.naturalbornhikers.com/Grandcanyon/GrandCanyon.htm
  • Ribokas, Bob. "Planning Is Everything." Kaibab.org. 2004. (June 15, 2012) http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/planning.htm
  • Salvage, Jeff. "Grand Canyon, Rim to River to Rim." 2011. (June 15, 2012) http://www.greattreks.com/greattreks/TopTen/GrandCanyonHome.asp
  • Seper, Adam. "10 Awesome Treks that (Almost) Anyone Can Do." Boots & All. Sept. 27, 2010. (June 15, 2012) http://www.bootsnall.com/articles/10-09/10-awesome-treks-that-almost-anyone-can-do.html
  • ibid. "Beyond the Rim – How To Explore the Depths of the Grand Canyon." Boots & All. May 13, 2010. (June 15, 2012) http://www.bootsnall.com/articles/10-05/beyond-the-rim-how-to-explore-the-depths-of-the-grand-canyon.html