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. Should you venture far below the rim, you also stand a chance of seeing fossils, old mines, petroglyphs, wildflowers, and wildlife. However, with around four million people visiting the Grand Canyon annually, you can forget about finding any solitude on the park's main hiking trails.
That said, there is no better way to see the canyon than on foot (my apologies to the mules), and a hike down into the canyon will likely be the highlight of your visit. You can get away from most of the crowds simply by heading down the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trail for 2 to 3 miles. Keep in mind, though, that these are the two busiest trails below the canyon rim and can see hundreds of hikers per day. If you want to see fewer other hikers and are in good shape, consider heading down the Grandview Trail or the Hermit Trail instead. If you're just looking for an easy walk that doesn't involve hiking back up out of the canyon, the Rim Trail is for you.
The Grand Canyon offers some of the most rugged and strenuous hiking anywhere in the United States, and for this reason 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 necessitate drinking more than a gallon of water. So, carry and drink at least 2 quarts of water if you go for a day hike during the summer. Don't attempt to hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back in a day. Although there are very fit individuals who have managed the grueling hike to the bottom and back in a day, 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, you'll find no such trails. Thus, day hikers must reconcile themselves to out-and-back hikes. Still, the vastly different scenery in every direction makes out-and-back hikes here as interesting as any loop trail could be. The only problem is that the majority of the out-and-back trails are the reverse of what you'll find at most other places. Instead of starting out by slogging up a steep mountain, you let gravity assist you in hiking down into the canyon. With little negative reinforcement and few natural turnaround destinations, it is easy to hike so far that the return trip back up the trail becomes an arduous death march. Know your limits and turn around before you become tired. On the canyon rim, the only hiking trail is the Rim Trail/Greenway Trail, while the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, Grandview, and Hermit trails all head down into the canyon.
For an easy, flat hike, your main option is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13 miles from the South Kaibab Trailhead east of Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest, 8 miles west of the village. Around 8 1/2 miles of this trail are paved, and the portion that passes through Grand Canyon Village is always the most crowded stretch of trail in the park. To the west of the village, after the pavement ends, the Rim Trail leads another 5.8 miles out to Hermit's Rest. For most of this distance, the trail follows Hermit Road, which means you'll have to deal with traffic noise (although only from shuttle buses for most of the year). The last 2.8 miles of the Rim Trail is now part of the paved Greenway Trail. To avoid the crowds and get the most enjoyment out of a hike along the Rim Trail, I like to head out as early in the morning as possible and get off at the Abyss shuttle stop. 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 at the Grand Canyon Village end of the route. Plus, Hermit's Rest makes a great place to rest, and from here you can catch a shuttle bus back to the village. Alternatively, you could start hiking from Grand Canyon Village (it's right around 8 miles from the west end of the village to Hermit's Rest) or any of the seven shuttle-bus stops en route, or take the shuttle all the way to Hermit's Rest and then hike back.
"Now this is more like I pictured it," said a woman who walked up to the edge of the canyon just as I was leaving Shoshone Point on my first visit to this little known canyon overlook. At the time, she and her companion and I were the only people there despite huge crowds elsewhere in the park. If you, too, have dreamed of a Grand Canyon without the crowds of gawkers at all the scenic viewpoints, then you're a candidate for a hike to this hidden viewpoint. The route to this secluded overlook (actually a reservable group picnic area) is along a flat dirt access road that makes this a good bet for a family walk (just keep a tight rein on the kids once you get to the canyon rim since there are no fences here). There are no signs for Shoshone Point, so you'll just have to watch for the small dirt parking area and gate on the north side of the road at milepost 246. You can't drive in without a permit (permits are only for groups and cost $225), and if the gate is open, it usually means that a group is using the site. If this is the case, you'll probably want to skip this hike. You'll find the parking area 19 miles west of the Desert View entrance to the park and 2 1/3 miles east of the Grand Canyon Village end of Desert View Drive.
The Bright Angel Trail, which starts just west of Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village, is the most popular trail into the canyon because it starts right where the greatest number of park visitors tend to congregate (near the ice-cream parlor and the hotels). It is also the route traditionally used by mule riders headed down into the canyon. Bear in mind that this trail follows a narrow side canyon for several miles and thus has somewhat limited views. For these reasons, this trail is worth avoiding. On the other hand, it's the only maintained trail into the canyon that has potable water, and there are four destinations along the trail that make good turnaround points. Both 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). Keep in mind that these rest houses take their names from their distance from the rim; if you hike to 3 Mile Resthouse, you still 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.
The South Kaibab Trail begins near Yaki Point east of Grand Canyon Village and is the preferred route down to Phantom Ranch. This trail also offers the best views of any of the trails into the canyon, so should you have time for only 1 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 very strenuous, and no water is available along the trail.
If you're looking to escape the crowds and are 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 on a trail that loses almost all of its elevation (1,600-1,700 ft.) in the first 1.5 miles. Beyond Santa Maria Spring, the Hermit Trail descends to the Colorado River, but it is a 17-mile hike, one-way, from the trail head. Alternatively, you can do 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 boiling for at least 10 minutes, so you're better off just carrying sufficient water for your hike. March through November, Hermit Road is closed to private vehicles, so during these months, you'll need to take the free shuttle bus out 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 and unmaintained trail that's a good choice for physically fit hikers. A strenuous 6-mile round-trip hike leads down to Horseshoe Mesa, 2,600 feet below the trail head. No water is available, so carry at least 2 quarts. 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.
There's one other trail I have to tell you about, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else. This trail is so secret that the National Park Service doesn't mark it on the maps it hands out to park visitors. It's called the Tanner Trail, and it starts just downhill from the beginning of the parking lot at Lipan Point near the east end of Desert View Drive. The Tanner Trail started out as a trail used by horse thieves to move stolen horses between Utah and Arizona. This is one of the shortest, steepest, and most challenging trails down into the canyon, and it is probably for good reason that the park service doesn't want you to know about it. They don't want to have to rescue you when you collapse from dehydration hiking back up.
Now that you are suitably warned, let me tell you about the single best day-hiking experience I've ever had in the Grand Canyon. The Tanner Trail is so unknown that I hiked the upper section of it twice in 2 days and saw only one other hiker. He was sitting at the top of the trail dripping with sweat after having hiked all the way to the Colorado River and back (this is an activity that the park service works hard to discourage people from attempting). Therein lies the beauty of this trail -- you can have it all to yourself even when the park is packed with tourists! Of course, there is a cost. This trail is not for everyone. You must be in excellent shape, with good knees and strong quadriceps. Don't even think of setting foot on this trail unless you are wearing very sturdy boots with excellent ankle support. Take lots of water and drink it. Finally, remember that it will take you considerably longer to hike back up than it took you to hike down. So 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, from which you get 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 are content to 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 one of the cabins or a dormitory.
Because a limited number of hikers are allowed into the canyon on any given day, it's important to make permit requests as soon as it is possible to do so. Permit requests are taken in person, by mail, by fax (but not by phone), and online. Contact the Backcountry Information Center, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 (tel. 928/638-7875 Mon-Fri 1-5pm for information; fax 928/638-2125; www.nps.gov/grca). The office begins accepting written permit requests on the first of every month for the following 5 months. In-person, verbal permit requests can be made only for the following 4 months. Holiday periods are the most popular -- if you want to hike over the Labor Day weekend, be sure you make your reservation on May 1. If you show up without a hiking permit, go to the Backcountry Information Center (daily 8am-noon and 1-5pm), adjacent to Maswik Lodge, 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 this itinerary. Backpacking fees include a nonrefundable $10 backcountry permit fee and a $5 per-person per-night backcountry camping fee. Keep in mind that you'll still have to pay the park entry fee when you arrive at the Grand Canyon.
There are campgrounds at Indian Garden, Bright Angel Campground (near Phantom Ranch), and Cottonwood, but hikers are limited to 2 nights per trip at each of these campgrounds (except Nov 15-Feb 28, when 4 nights are allowed at each campground). Other nights can be spent camping at undesignated sites in certain regions of the park.
The Grand Canyon Trip Planner contains information to help you plan your itinerary. It's available through the Backcountry Information Center. Maps are available through the Grand Canyon Association, P.O. Box 399, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 (tel. 800/858-2808 or 928/638-2481; www.grandcanyon.org), and at bookstores and gift shops within the national park, including Grand Canyon Visitor Center, Verkamp's Visitor Center, Kolb Studio, Desert View Information Center, Yavapai Observation Station, Tusayan Museum, and, on the North Rim, Grand Canyon Lodge.
The best times of year to backpack are spring and fall. In summer, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon are frequently above 100°F (38°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, and preferably 1 gallon, of water whenever backpacking in the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is an unforgiving landscape and, as such, many people might want a professional guide while backpacking through this rugged corner of the Southwest. To arrange a guided backpacking trip into the canyon, contact Discovery Treks, 28248 N. Tatum Blvd., Ste. B1-414, Cave Creek, AZ 85331 (tel. 888/256-8731 or 480/247-9266; www.discoverytreks.com), which offers 2- to 5-day all-inclusive hikes into the canyon with rates starting at $695 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.