Hiking in the Grand Canyon: An Insider’s Guide
Seeing the Grand Canyon is a bucket-list dream for many people, but truly experiencing the overwhelming landscape means more than standing at an overlook on the rim. You must take the next step, leave the pavement, and actually enter the canyon.
Day hiking is the most popular and safest way to do this, though overnight backpacking trips are an exciting endeavor for experienced hikers. The variety of trails and scenery in the national park make day hiking possible for people of all abilities, and some are even ADA accessible.
Hikes Along the Rim
North Rim has the most options for hikes along the rim, granting phenomenal views without the rigorous descent into the canyon. The easiest is the paved Cape Royal Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip with interpretive signs along the way. It packs wide views of the canyon and the Colorado River into its short distance. Point Imperial Trail overlooks Mt. Hayden’s rock spire and the photogenic Nankoweap Mesa area. It is an easy 4-mile round trip, but it is exposed to summer heat and thunderstorms. There are other rim trails in this north half of the park as well. Pick up a free map at the entrance station to find the route right for you.
The Rim Trail is the South Rim’s only option for staying above the drop off. It is partly paved and partly dirt, and connects many iconic overlooks. Because the trail roughly parallels park roads, you can easily customize your hiking distance by hopping on the free shuttle where it stops.
Hikes Below the Rim
Out of the nearly 5 million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, fewer than half venture below the rim. The only way is on foot, which is difficult and can be treacherous. Some pay money to do it by mule, but the free and rewarding route is under your own power.
Numerous trails descend from South Rim into the depths of the canyon. The South Kaibab Trail offers the biggest vistas and is the shortest route to the river. The Bright Angel Trail is a more comfortable option, however, because it’s less steep, shadier, and has water spigots at places, while South Kaibab has no water until the very bottom.
For an especially scenic journey, drive around to the North Rim and take North Kaibab Trail, which pleases with a crisp creek, waterfalls, and rock caves. Though there is drinking water and shade along the way, its length, elevation, and southern exposure make North Kaibab the most difficult of these three, which are known as the “corridor” trails.
All three converge near the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River, a verdant oasis in the bottom of the canyon. Historic Phantom Ranch has cabins and a dining hall (lodging and meals must be reserved in advance), and Bright Angel Campground has many pleasant tent sites.
Other trails in the park are just as spectacular, but they are unmaintained. This makes them more rugged and challenging. To test yourself apart from the crowds, check out Hermit, Grandview, or Tonto trails.
Packing and Preparation
In the Grand Canyon, the most important thing to remember is that going down requires coming back up. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how steep the trails are, or how hot it is outside, until you try to return uphill. Plan on taking twice as long to come up as to go down.
Weather here can be extreme, so come prepared for anything. Many tourists arrive and are unpleasantly surprised at the temperature. Generally, winter is very cold and summer is very hot, but conditions are often unpredictable. Another factor to consider when hiking is dramatic elevation difference. It may be breezy and cool on the rim, but dangerously hot at the bottom.
In general, you should eat and drink twice as much as you would on a normal day. Pack plenty of water, and know ahead of time where you can fill up (consult park maps and trail descriptions). Eat plenty of nutritious and salty snacks. Along with water, you must fuel your body with calories and electrolytes. Just as dangerous as dehydration is a condition called hyponatremia, when the body loses too much sodium.
Keeping your load light will certainly help, but you don’t want to be caught without the essentials. The bulk of your pack’s weight should be water, followed by food. Be sure to also bring sun protection, an extra clothing layer, a small first aid kit, and a headlamp. Wear comfortable clothes and durable shoes. It may be tempting to bring heavy camera equipment, but try to keep it minimal.
Grand Canyon hikes deserve every bit of their reputation for difficulty, but you can achieve your dream of hiking the canyon by using your head and listening to your body. Here are a few final tips before you set out: Hiking rim to river and back in a day is the ultimate goal for many people, but this is not recommended unless you are extremely fit and have hiked in the canyon before. Instead of setting a target distance, set a turnaround time and stick to it. Any amount of hiking in the Grand Canyon is rewarding, so rather than testing your limits, just stay safe and take time to enjoy it.