GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Nearly 5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, but many do not get far below its limestone rim. Even fewer head to the bottom.
Why? The simple answer is: It’s hard.
The hike down to the banks of the chalky green Colorado River, and especially back up, is challenging, even grueling. Even if you’ve trained on stair climbers and hills with a 30-pound backpack, hiking the Grand Canyon will test your endurance and your ability to remain hydrated.
But the sweat and sore muscles are worth the experience as you gaze at the red-hued rock formations from the South Kaibab trail, cross the steel bridge over the fast-moving river and dip your hat in the cool waters of the Bright Angel Creek.
Here are some tips for making the most of your Grand Canyon hiking and camping experience.
Trying to hike from the rim to the river (or farther) in one day is possible, but extremely difficult. Even in spring and fall, the blazing Arizona sun can quickly turn dangerous, even deadly. Signs around the park and on corridor trails warn visitors not to hike too far down in a day for a reason.
Planning ahead will allow you to reserve a spot at the Bright Angel Campground or the rustic Phantom Ranch lodge at the bottom. For the campground, you should aim to get a backcountry camping permit several months in advance and plan to make reservations for Phantom Ranch even farther in advance.
Getting a permit and setting dates for the hike also will help with mapping out a training schedule so you can spend more time enjoying the hike instead of suffering through it.
If you have access to hiking trails, particularly in hilly locations, start walking there as soon as possible. On average, hiking down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel (the most common route) takes four to six hours down and five to eight hours back up. And if you’re camping at the bottom, you will need to carry all of your equipment with you, so do some training while wearing a 20- to 30-pound backpack.
Other good options are stair-climbing machines.
Though your adrenaline will be pumping as you descend the switchbacks of the South Kaibab trail, stop every so often to soak it in and take some photos. The views on this trail are magnificent, but the excitement of getting to the bottom can propel you too quickly.
On the way back up, remember slow and steady is the way to go. Though you’ll be tired, remember to pause not only to get your camera out but to eat and drink. And don’t dismiss the first couple of miles of the Bright Angel trail, which is fairly level along the Colorado River. This part has its own rugged beauty but can be overlooked in the eagerness to get to the top.
Both South Kaibab and Bright Angel have natural stopping points, including some where the parks service has installed bathrooms, and on Bright Angel, potable water (there is no water on South Kaibab). Take breaks about once an hour, eat salty foods like nuts and jerky and drink water and electrolyte drinks. Another rest tip: Elevate your feet each time you take a break to give them a rest and reduce inflammation.
You must pack essentials like enough food and water, along with a wide-brimmed hat, but don’t overload your backpack.
You can weigh your pack at the national park’s Backcountry Information Center on the South Rim before you head off. Aim for about 20 to 30 pounds.
Water will likely be the heaviest thing you carry. Aim to bring all the water you need for the hike down. South Kaibab doesn’t have any water and your next water stop will be at the Bright Angel Campground.
On the way up, there is a shady resting area at Indian Gardens, which also has water year-round. If you do the hike in the warmer months, there’s water every 1.5 miles beginning at Indian Gardens on your way up. But, it also will be incredibly hot — 90 plus degrees — in the late spring, summer and early fall, so consider doing this type of hike in the cooler months.
Chat with fellow hikers at rest stops, soak your tired feet in the crisp Bright Angel Creek after setting up camp, and unwind at the canteen at Phantom Ranch after dark while writing postcards (the cards travel by mule to the top), playing cards and drinking a beer (the canteen sells beer, wine, other beverages and snacks). Though strenuous, the Grand Canyon experience has plenty of opportunities to relax and most importantly, have fun.
If you go
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK: Permits are required for overnight camping trips but not for day hikes.