No visit to the canyon is complete without journeying below the rim on one of the park’s hiking trails. While the views don’t necessarily get any better than they are from the top, they do change considerably. Gazing up at all those thousands of feet of vertical rock walls provides a very different perspective from that atop the rim. Below the rim, you may also see fossils, old mines, petroglyphs, wildflowers, and wildlife. The one thing you won’t find on the park’s main hiking trails is solitude.
That said, there is no better way to see the canyon than on foot (my apologies to the mules). If you’re in good physical condition and have strong legs and knees, you can simply head down the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trail. Keep in mind, though, that these are the two busiest trails, with hundreds of hikers per day. If you want to see fewer other hikers and are in good shape, consider the Grandview Trail or the Hermit Trail instead. If you just want an easy, relatively level walk, take the Rim Trail/Greenway Trail.
The Grand Canyon offers some of the most rugged and strenuous hiking in the United States; anyone attempting even a short walk should be well prepared. Each year, injuries and fatalities are suffered by day hikers who set out without sturdy footgear, or without food and adequate amounts of water. Even a 30-minute hike in summer can dehydrate you, and a long hike in the heat can require drinking more than a gallon of water.
If you go for a day hike in the summer, carry and drink at least 2 quarts of water and a couple quarts of Gatorade or other electrolyte-supplement drink. And do not even think about hiking from the rim to the Colorado River and back in the same day. Although a few very fit individuals have managed this grueling feat, there are also plenty who have tried and died. Finally, remember that mules have the right of way.
Hikers tend to gravitate to loop trails, but here on the South Rim, there are no such trails—all hikes are out-and-back. The good news is that the vastly different scenery in every direction makes the route back look entirely different from the route out. The bad news is that most of these out-and-back trails are the reverse of what you usually find: Instead of starting out by toiling up a steep mountain, gravity assists you in hiking down into the canyon. There are few natural turnarounds, and it’s easy to hike farther than you realize, only to face an arduous slog coming back, when you’re already tired. Here’s a rule of thumb: Expect to take 2 hours climbing back for every hour spent going down. Know your limits and turn around before you become tired.
For an easy, flat hike, your main option is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13 miles from the South Kaibab trail head east of Grand Canyon Village to Hermit’s Rest, 8 miles west of the village. Most of this trail is paved; the portion that passes through Grand Canyon Village is always the most crowded stretch of trail in the park. From Powell Point west, it becomes a dirt path for about 3 miles; most of this stretch follows Hermit Road, which means you’ll have traffic noise (although only from shuttle buses for most of the year). The last 2.8 miles is part of the paved Greenway Trail. To avoid crowds and get the most enjoyment out of a Rim Trail hike, head out as early in the morning as you can, taking the shuttle to the Abyss. From here it’s a 4-mile hike to Hermit’s Rest; for more than half of this distance, the trail isn’t as close to the road as it is around Grand Canyon Village. Hermit’s Rest makes a great place to rest, and from here you can catch a shuttle back to the village. Alternatively, take the shuttle all the way to Hermit’s Rest and then hike east, catching a shuttle back whenever you start to feel tired.
The Bright Angel Trail, which starts just west of Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village, is the most popular trail into the canyon, mostly because it starts right where the greatest number of park visitors tend to congregate (near the ice-cream parlor and the hotels). It’s also the route traditionally used for mule rides into the canyon. Bear in mind that this trail follows a narrow side canyon for several miles, and thus has somewhat limited views. On the other hand, it’s the only maintained South Rim trail into the canyon that has potable water, and it has some good turnaround points. 1 1/2 Mile Resthouse (1,131 ft. below the rim) and 3 Mile Resthouse (2,112 ft. below the rim) have water except in winter, when the water is turned off. These rest houses are named for their distance from the rim; if you hike to 3 Mile Resthouse, you will have a 3-mile hike back up. Destinations for longer day hikes include Indian Garden (9 miles round-trip) and Plateau Point (12 miles round-trip), which are both slightly more than 3,000 feet below the rim. There is year-round water at Indian Garden.
Beginning near Yaki Point, east of Grand Canyon Village, the South Kaibab Trail is the preferred route down to Phantom Ranch. This trail offers the best views of any of the trails into the canyon; if you have time for only one day hike, make it the South Kaibab Trail. From the trail head, it’s 3 miles round-trip to Cedar Ridge and 6 miles round-trip to Skeleton Point. The hike is strenuous, and there’s no water available along the trail.
If you’re an experienced mountain or desert hiker with good, sturdy boots, consider the unmaintained Hermit Trail, which begins at Hermit’s Rest, 8 miles west of Grand Canyon Village at the end of Hermit Road. It’s a 5-mile round-trip hike to Santa Maria Spring (the trail plunges 1,600–1,700 ft. in the first 1.5 miles) and a 7-mile round-trip hike to Dripping Springs. Water from these two springs must be treated with a water filter, iodine, or purification tablets, or by boiled for at least 10 minutes, so you’re better off just carrying sufficient water for your hike. Beyond Santa Maria Spring, the Hermit Trail descends to the Colorado River, a 17-mile hike from the trail head. Note that Hermit Road is closed to private vehicles March through November; during these months, you’ll need to take the shuttle bus to the trail head. If you take the first bus of the day, you’ll likely have the trail almost all to yourself.
The Grandview Trail, which begins at Grandview Point 12 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, is another steep, unmaintained trail that’s only for the most physically fit hikers. A strenuous 6-mile round-trip hike leads to Horseshoe Mesa, 2,600 feet below the trail head. No water is available, so carry at least a gallon. Just to give you an idea of how steep this trail is, you’ll lose more than 2,000 feet of elevation in the first .8 mile down to Coconino Saddle.
Even more challenging is the Tanner Trail, which starts just downhill from the parking lot at Lipan Point, near the east end of Desert View Drive. It’s so rarely used that the National Park Service doesn’t even mark it on the maps it hands out to park visitors (probably for good reason—the park service doesn’t want to have to rescue folks who might collapse from dehydration hiking back up). Once a trail used by horse thieves to move stolen horses between Utah and Arizona, it’s one of the shortest, steepest, and most challenging trails into the canyon. Passing through the hottest part of the canyon, it’s exposed to the sun most of the day; the trail is badly eroded, with a loose, slippery gravel section along the Redwall Limestone formation, raising the imminent risk of a serious, potentially deadly fall. You must be in excellent shape, with good knees and strong quadriceps, and don’t even think of setting foot on this trail unless you’re wearing very sturdy boots with excellent ankle support. Take lots of water and drink it. How far can you hike on this trail? Well, that’s up to you. It’s 3 miles and a 1,700-foot elevation drop to Escalante Butte, where there’s a good view of Marble Canyon, Hance Rapids, and the bottom of the canyon.
Backpacking the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience. Although most people simply hike down to Phantom Ranch and back, there are many miles of trails deep in the canyon. Keep in mind, however, that to backpack the canyon, you’ll need to do a lot of planning. A Backcountry Use Permit is required of all hikers planning to overnight in the canyon, unless you’ll be staying at Phantom Ranch in a cabin or dormitory. Only a limited number of overnight hikers are allowed into the canyon on any given day, so it’s important to make permit requests as soon as possible. You can submit permit requests in person, by mail, or by fax. Contact the Backcountry Information Center, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 (www.nps.gov/grca; tel. 928/638-7875 for information Monday–Friday 1–5pm MST; fax 928/638-2125). The office accepts written permit requests 5 months ahead, starting the first of every month. In person, verbal permit requests can be made only 4 months in advance. Holiday periods are the most popular—if you want to hike over the Labor Day weekend, be sure to make your reservation on May 1. If you show up without a hiking permit, go to the Backcountry Information Center adjacent to Maswik Lodge (daily 8am–noon and 1–5pm) and put your name on the waiting list. When applying for a permit, you must specify your exact itinerary, and once in the canyon you must stick to that itinerary. Backpacking fees include a nonrefundable $10 backcountry permit fee and a $8 per-person per-night backcountry camping fee, on top of the park entry fee you’ll pay when you arrive at the Grand Canyon.
There are campgrounds at Indian Garden, Bright Angel Campground (near Phantom Ranch), and Cottonwood; hikers are limited to 2 nights per trip at each of these campgrounds (except November 15–February 28, when 4 nights are allowed at each campground). Other nights can be spent camping at undesignated sites in certain regions of the park.
Maps are available through the Grand Canyon Association (www.grandcanyon.org; tel. 800/858-2808 or 928/638-2481) and at bookstores and gift shops within the national park.
The best times of year to backpack are spring and fall. In summer, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon are frequently above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), while in winter, ice and snow at higher elevations make footing on trails precarious (crampons are recommended). Plan to carry at least 2 quarts, preferably 1 gallon, of water whenever backpacking in the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is a rugged, unforgiving landscape, and many people might prefer to backpack with a professional guide. To arrange a guided backpacking trip into the canyon, contact Discovery Treks (www.discoverytreks.com; tel. 480/247-9266), which offers 3- to 5-day all-inclusive hikes with rates starting at $975 per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.