Beyond the Rim – How To Explore the Depths of the Grand Canyon

Do you want to do what the vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon don’t do?  Nearly five million tourists visit one of the United States’ most popular national parks annually.  Many barely exit the car, while most will take a leisurely walk around the rim to get a glimpse of the awe-inspiring, mile deep canyon.  This is a guide for those wanting to see more, for those with a sense of adventure, and for those who want to see the canyon from a different perspective -from the bottom looking up.

It’s nearly impossible to describe the vastness and power of the Grand Canyon with mere words.  It’s even difficult to get a good perspective of the enormity of it from photos.  The canyon is something you just have to see to truly experience and understand.  It’s nearly impossible to fathom that this naturally made, enormous hole in the ground even exists.  Walking up to the rim of the canyon for the first time is an unforgettable experience.  Once you experience that, ponder what it looks like from down below.

The following stages will guide you through what is necessary to plan for a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  There are so many options for hiking and accommodations that if I tried to cover them all, a book would be necessary.  This guide will focus on the South Rim, the more popular and accessible place to begin and end your hike.  It will also focus on budget travel and the two most popular and accessible trails.  Even if you like a bit more luxury, don’t worry, there will be plenty of information and links to guide you, too.

If you want to get away from the crowds a little more, then you may want to do more research on the North Rim or the various Indian Reservations within the park.  The North Rim is ten miles directly across the Canyon, 1000 feet higher, and is closed from late October to mid-May because of snow and inclement weather.  It is about 220 miles by car to get from the South Rim to the North Rim.  Alternatively, you can hike rim to rim, which is about 21 miles.

If the Havasupai, Hualapai, or Navajo Indian Reservations interest you, you are welcome to visit as well.  Tribal permits are necessary and all three are outside the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  The Hualapai Reservation is in Grand Canyon West, which is home to the skywalk, a glass-bottomed structure that goes 70 feet over the Canyon Rim and is 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.

Planning stage one: Getting your permit

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If hiking down to the bottom of the Canyon is something that interests you, then start planning now.  This isn’t an activity for those of you who like to fly by the seat of your pants while traveling.  It is something you have to plan.  Permits are a necessity for those planning to hike to and camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  You aren’t allowed to do so without one.

The National Park Service receives approximately 30,000 permit requests each year yet only issues about 13,000.  It’s essential to plan ahead if you want to hike to the bottom on a certain date or in a certain month, especially if you want to do it during the summer.

In order to get a backcountry permit (which you need for any overnight hike, horseback riding, or camping at rim sites other than developed campgrounds), you must apply for it.   You can apply for a permit four months prior to the month you plan on hiking.  You can do so on the first of that month starting at midnight, and many people are faxing their permit (the advised method) request form right as the clock strikes midnight on the first of that month.

Go to the National Parks website to print out your request form, fill it out completely and follow all directions, and then fax it in on the first day of the fourth month prior to your hike (for example, if you plan on hiking in May, you need to fax in your request on January 1).  You will hear a response back through US Mail only.

Planning stage two: Accommodation

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If hiking to the bottom, staying in Grand Canyon National Park for at least two nights is necessary as experts advise strongly against trying to make it to the bottom and back up again in one day.  If I had to do it over again, I’d plan for four nights (I’ll get into trails and logistics in more detail later).

Staying at the rim the night prior to the hike is also advisable as you’ll want to get a really early start, particularly if you’re hiking in the summer.  You have several options for lodging, but if you want to stay in a room rather than camp, again, you’ll have to plan in advance as rooms fill up much quicker than campgrounds.

The easiest and cheapest option for accommodation is camping.  There is one campground, Mather Campground, on the South Rim of the Canyon.  Reservations can be made up to six months in advance.  It is a large campground, but if you’re planning your trip for the summer months, book it as soon as you know when you want to go.  You can make reservations here or by calling 1-877-444-6777.  The cost is $18/night for up to two vehicles, six people, and three tents.  If you have an RV, Trailer Village is right next to Mather Campground and has full hook ups.

Mather Campground is just a short walk to Grand Canyon Village, which has a variety of accommodation and dining options for people with all budgets.  You can live the life of luxury by paying up to $425/night for a room, or you can go budget with rooms as cheap as $69/night.  Again, booking well in advance is necessary if you’re planning on coming in the summer months.

Once the decision is made on where to stay on the rim before the hike, the next decision is camping or staying at Phantom Ranch down at the bottom.  Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch are on the same grounds at the end of both trails that will be covered, the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail.  They are both across the Colorado River near Bright Angel Creek, which is a wonderful place to relax and cool off after a hot day’s hike.

The campground accommodates up to 90 people, and the sites are first come first served.  The only thing you need is your backcountry permit that you already applied for.  The cost is $10 for the permit and $5/person/night for camping below the rim.  The campgrounds are basic with toilets and sinks, but no showers.

If staying at Phantom Ranch is what you want to do, then planning way ahead is a necessity (are you noticing a theme here?).  The Ranch is the only accommodation below the rim, and it fills up quickly.  A backcountry permit is unnecessary if staying at Phantom Ranch; however, it accepts reservations up to thirteen months in advance.  Just like the backcountry permits, if you want to stay at Phantom Ranch, you need to be on top of things and try to make reservations on the first of the month thirteen months prior (if you apply on June 1, 2010, you can make reservations up to June 30, 2011).  The Ranch offers both dorms and cabins, some with private toilets but all with communal showers.

Another great thing about Phantom Ranch is the Canteen that serves meals and snacks.  They can be pricey, but after a long day’s hike, a nice, hot meal cooked for you can be a Godsend.  Beer is also served, which can be even better than a hot meal.  Even if you’re camping, you can eat at the Ranch, but guess what, advance reservations are required.  All information is luckily in one place, and all reservations, for cabins, dorm rooms, and meals are located here.

Planning stage three: What trails to hike

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Decisions, decisions, decisions.  One has to make so many decisions when hiking the Canyon.  There are fifteen marked, easily followed routes that take you inside the Canyon.  There are also countless other routes to the bottom, but be careful and be prepared if taking your own route.

There are many dangerous areas and drop-offs in the Canyon, and having to be airlifted out because of an arrogant mistake can be quite costly (around 250 people are rescued from the Canyon each year).  The two most popular trails to the bottom are the South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail, and I will focus on those in this guide.

When we hiked the canyon, we decided to take the South Kaibab Trail down and the Bright Angel Trail back up.  This gave us two completely different perspectives of the canyon and are two completely different trails each offering unique vantage points.

If staying at Mather Campground or at any of the hotels or cabins near Grand Canyon Village, you have to take a shuttle to the Kaibab trailhead; no cars are allowed.  The first shuttle leaves at 4am in the summer months.  This trail is a little under seven miles long, compared with the nine and a half mile long Bright Angel Trail.  That means it is really steep, and it offers a bone jarring descent that will take a toll on your legs, feet, and knees in particular.  One essential thing to know about this trail is that it has no water.  Plan ahead (more tips will be provided in the final section of this guide) and make sure you bring enough water for the hike down.  Once you reach the bottom, there will be water available.

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The Bright Angel Trail begins near Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village.  If hiking down the Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel, then simply follow signs from Phantom Ranch to the Bright Angel trailhead.  This trail is a few miles longer, but not nearly as steep, making the ascent a little easier than if you did the route in the opposite direction.  There is water at a few locations along this trail along with a ranger station.  It is still essential to take plenty of water, especially at the beginning as it will probably take much longer to ascend than most people anticipate.

One of the coolest things about going up the Bright Angel Trail is nearing the top and seeing the day hikers and rim walkers as you stumble up exhausted and dirty.  So many were amazed that we came all the way from the bottom (it looks so far from up there), and it really makes you feel like a rock star.

Tips for hiking the Grand Canyon

Hiking in a canyon, even if you’re an avid hiker, can be difficult and challenging.  Mountain hiking is completely different as you expend much more energy at the beginning of the hike getting to the top.  Hiking a canyon is obviously opposite, and you will already be sore and tired before the most challenging part of the hike, the ascent.

Tip #1 – Stay an extra night at the bottom

If you’re taking the better part of a year to plan this trip, then why only stay at the bottom of the canyon for one night?  We made that mistake, and when we do it again, we will definitely stay two nights at the bottom.  There are many trails and tons to explore at the bottom, and you’re so exhausted from getting down that all you want to do is rest and chill that first day.  Give yourself an extra day to explore and recover before hiking back out.  Besides, how often do you find yourself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Tip #2 – Bring plenty of water and food

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If you’re hiking in the summer, it will be really hot and really dry.  I’m from the Midwest, land of humidity in the summer, so dry weather was new to me.  At one point on our hike, I took my shirt off and completely soaked it in water and put it back on without wringing it out.   Within fifteen minutes it was bone dry again.  If you’re not used to it, it can be deceivingly dangerous.

You don’t realize how hot you are because your sweat evaporates almost immediately, keeping you dry the entire time.  But you are losing tons of water, so bring plenty and drink plenty.  Also make sure to bring plenty of food and snacks, particularly anything salty, to replenish what you’re losing by sweating so much.  There has to be a balance of salt and water or your body can go into water intoxication, which can be fatal.

Tip #3 – Take your time

Slow down.  Take a seat.  Get out your camera and take plenty of pictures.  This isn’t a race, and who knows if you’ll ever do this again.  Enjoy yourself and really take it all in.  It’s a powerful thing to take a seat and just observe the beauty around you.  The vastness of the Grand Canyon is captivating and sitting for fifteen or twenty minutes to realize where it is you are and what it is you’re doing can be some of the best moments of a hike like this.

Tip #4 – Leave early

If you’re hiking in the summer, leave as early as you can.  Get on that 4am shuttle and get started.  Once the sun comes up, there is little shade and the heat is brutal.  Finishing up before lunch affords you to miss the heat of the day and will also give you the time to explore and rest at the bottom.  When hiking back up, do the same.  It will take longer, possibly as much as twice as long, to hike out as it did to hike down.  So get started before dawn.  You don’t get many experiences in life like watching the sun come up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Final tip – Be prepared and organized

When traveling, some just like to go and wing it.  Look, I love doing that as well, but this is not the trip for making decisions on the fly.  Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a challenging endeavor, and you must be prepared in order to fully enjoy it and get the most out of it.

Do your research, get organized, be prepared, and don’t slack on the details.  Organization on a trip like this can make or break it.  I promise that if you follow this guide to hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, you will enjoy one of the natural wonders of the world in the most enjoyable way.

There is so much information out there and so many options for hiking into the Grand Canyon.  There’s much more to know in order to plan the best trip, so if there’s anything I didn’t hit on, ask away in the comments.

Photos by: B Rosen, Al_Hikes AZ, StormeTX, dan.danowski, Al_HikesAZ

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Older comments on Beyond the Rim – How To Explore the Depths of the Grand Canyon

Kevin Evans
14 May 2010

For my honeymoon we did a 7 day white water rafting expedition of the upper canyon (89 miles) which was probably the best back country expedition I have ever done. We used a fab rafting company, Canyon Exploration ( http://canyonx.com ) starting off at Lees Ferry in a flotilla of 6 rafts and 2 kayaks and ending with a hike up Bright Angel trail to the main tourist area. You can also join the expedition there and do the lower canyon, or do the whole shebang (14 days!). Rapids are small at first and then get HUGE (Hance rapid is the best!!!). Geology is amazing, and there are lots of side excursions to indian ruins, caves and waterfalls. Brilliant.

At TheTravelEditor.com, one of our flora and fauna experts was blown away by a helicopter trip into the canyon. You can read about it here http://www.thetraveleditor.com/article/2670/Things_to_do_The_great_outdoors_National_Parks_Chasm_of_Wonder_Grand_Canyon_Arizona.html

Littlemustard
19 May 2010

I have been to the Grand Canyon so many times but I have never been long enough to do any real hikes! I have always wanted to hike to the bottom! Thanks so much for the article Adam – it has tons of great info. I never would’ve known that you had to apply for the permit 4 months in advance!

Amiee Maxwell
13 April 2011

I got lucky with a walk-in permit a few years back. I walked into the ranger station to inquire about the permit process since I had heard it takes months to get a permit and the ranger asked if I wanted to go tomorrow. If you have some flexibility with your travel plans you can try to get a walk-in permit. These permits are only available the day before the hike begins and you don’t really get to choose where you camp – but it is a great option for us non-planners.