Hiking Grand Canyon
Hiking is wonderful way to experience the Grand Canyon’s rich natural beauty and immense size. The canyon offers some of the most challenging hiking and backpacking found anywhere in North America. Steep trails, intense heat, fast changing weather, and elusive water and shade combine to make for harsh conditions — even on a good day.
The reward for those willing to make the effort, a mere fraction of the visiting public, is a chance to marvel at the unfolding beauty of the Inner Canyon. For those that are capable it is truly an experience not to be missed.
With few exceptions the 1.2 million acre national park is fair game for foot traffic. Due to the difficult terrain the vast majority of the backcountry is only accessible by experienced off-trail hikers or uphill forays from rafting trips. To assist the rest of us there are approximately two dozen established trails that provide access to some of the park's most remarkable destinations.
Trails begin on the North or South Rim and eventually make their way to the rock bottom of the Canyon a vertical mile below. The trails vary in length and difficulty (see the table on the Day Hikes tab). Day hikers are not required to obtain a permit from the park service. A backcountry permit is required for all overnight camping below the Rim. Find out more about securing a permit here.
The South Rim
Begin from any viewpoint in the Grand Canyon Village or along Hermit Road. The Rim Trail extends from Mather Point in the Village west to Hermits Rest. It offers excellent walking for quiet views of the inner canyon and for visitors who desire an easy hike.
BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL
The trail begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge. It is well-maintained and follows switchbacks to the Indian Garden Campground and Inner Gorge. After Indian Garden, the trail heads east along the river to the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge and on to Phantom Ranch. The roundtrip length of the Bright Angel Trail is 19 miles and descends 4,400 feet. Leave No Trace
SOUTH KAIBAB TRAIL
This trail begins south of Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road. It is 12.6 miles roundtrip and is steep, dropping 5,000 feet in 6.3 miles. The trail follows ridge lines rather than side canyons. It goes to the Inner Gorge where it meets with the Kaibab Suspension Bridge on the way to Phantom Ranch.
Caution is required as this trail is unmaintained, steep, and very strenuous. It begins at Grandview Point on Desert View Drive 12 miles east of Grand Canyon Village. The 6 mile roundtrip trail descends to Horseshoe Mesa.
Hermit Trail begins 500 feet west of Hermits Rest which is 8 miles west of Grand Canyon Village. It is unmaintained, steep, and very strenuous. The 17 mile roundtrip leads from the canyon rim to the Colorado River. Sights include Hermit Gorge, The Supai Formation, Santa Maria Spring, and the Redwall Formation.
The North Rim
The trail can be reach by leaving Grand Canyon Lodge and going 2.7 miles north on the highway, then turn left one mile on a dirt road; the turnoff is 0.3 mile south of the Cape Royal turnoff. This is a relatively easy hike with great canyon views. It skirts the head of Transept Canyon and across a plateau with ponderosa pine to an overlook near Widforss Point. Below the trail's end is Haunted Canyon flanked by the Colorado River on the right and Many Temple and Budda Temple on the left. The trail is 10 miles roundtrip and is frequented by mule deer.
KEN PATRICK TRAIL
The 19.8 roundtrip trail starts at Point Imperial and goes along the rim to Cape Royal Road. Then it continues through forest to the North Kaibab trailhead. Great hiking through the forest with views across the headwaters of Nankoweap Creek.
UNCLE JIM TRAIL
The first mile of the trail is along the Ken Patrick Trail and then breaks off to Uncle Jim Point. It is 5 miles roundtrip and has views of Roaring Springs Canyon and North Kaibab Trail.
For further reading you may want to purchase the Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon which features all the Grand Canyon trails as well as giving tips on packing, permitting, and safety. This book is published by the Grand Canyon Association (GCA) and can be purchased online at grandcanyon.org.
Outdoor enthusiasts may want to hook up with a professional backpacking guide to lead them on a multi-night hiking trip down into the Grand Canyon. The benefit of doing a backpacking trip with a pro is that all of the equipment, meal planning and logistics are taken care of for you. If you're doing a rim-to-rim trip, the guides will arrange one-way transportation back to your starting point, and professionals also manage the entire backcountry permit process. Listed below are a number of commercial guiding companies that can be hired for backpacking or day hiking.
For another kind of guided backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, consider joining an educational outing with the Grand Canyon Association's field seminar program, the Grand Canyon Field Institute (grandcanyon.org).
Best Day Hike — Bright Angel Trail
The best day hike for newcomers to the Grand Canyon is a descent of the Bright Angel Trail. This historic trail begins in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and tumbles seven miles to the Colorado River below. However, going to the river and back in a single day is strongly discouraged for any hiker on any day. The good news is that there are obvious places to change course and head back uphill including the rest houses (with treated drinking water during the hot summer months) that are found at 1.5 mile increments between the top and Indian Garden Campground which is half the distance to the bottom. Plan for twice as much time and effort to go up than it takes to go down.
As with all day hikes, get a reliable weather forecast and dress accordingly, wear sturdy shoes and a brimmed hat, and take a few quarts of water and salty snacks for each person in your party. All this same advice follows for the best day hike on the North Rim that can be found on the precipitous North Kaibab Trail.
Best Backpacking Destinations
INSIDE THE NATIONAL PARK
For first-time backpackers in Grand Canyon National Park the most popular itinerary is to spend a few nights at either Bright Angel or Indian Garden Campground. The Bright Angel Campground can be accessed by either the Bright Angel or the South Kaibab Trail (off the South Rim); Indian Garden by the Bright Angel Trail. A backcountry permit is required; apply up to four months in advance of your trip in writing. See our Grand Canyon Camping Guide for more details.
Both campgrounds have restrooms, treated drinking water, established campsites, individual food storage canisters (to thwart the critters), and are frequently staffed by helpful park rangers. Packing correctly will make or break your experience. For a list of backpacking gear, see the Packing List tab.
Once you've mastered the "easier" trails in Grand Canyon you can graduate to the next tier of more remote trails in the Hermit and Grandview Trails (South Rim). Also popular is Havasu Canyon including the waterfalls at Havasupai and Mooney Falls.
IN THE WESTERN RIM: HAVASUPAI
Havasu Canyon, home to the Havasupai Indians, is a paradise located in western Grand Canyon known worldwide for its towering waterfalls and beautifully sculpted rock. In this idyllic setting of lush side canyons and sun-splashed cliffs, a perennial desert stream tumbles over a series of five waterfalls on its journey to the Colorado River on the floor of the Grand Canyon.
Fee-based camping is offered year round. In addition to backpackers, visitors arrive by helicopter and horseback, some staying in the tribe's rustic lodge. Camping in Havasu Canyon requires a permit and reservations that can be obtained directly from the tribe. Learn more about Havasupai here, including tips on how to get there, trail descriptions, fees, how to make reservations and more.
Below, you'll find some ideas for what to pack for a multi-night backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. Remember to pack smart and keep things light. Condense, condense, condense! You don't want your backpack to weigh more than about 35-40 lbs. maximum.
Be honest with yourself about your physical condition. Hiking the Grand Canyon is a strenuous activity, and the better physical shape you're in, the more you will enjoy your trip. Therefore, it's wise to start training for your adventure as early as 9 months out in order to give you plenty of time to start slow and gradually work up to your peak physical condition. Starting slowly and increasing your endurance and strength over time will protect your joints, build muscle and strengthen your cardiovascular system; it's also key to minimizing soreness and keeping at your routine so you don't abandon your training program.
Train three times a week doing your choice of cardio workouts for at a minimum of one hour per day. Walking up and down hills, gradually carrying more and more weight — 35-40 lbs for a backpacking trip — is an ideal training exercise for hiking the Grand Canyon, but cycling, running, step-aerobics, stair-climbing and swimming are excellent options. Your endurance will build if you work out at least once a week for an hour straight; other days, your 60-minute workouts can be broken up into morning and evening sessions.
As with any exercise regimen, check with your doctor first to ensure you're well-suited to your training plan. Be aware that 7,000–8,000 ft elevation of the Rims' thinner air, plus steep, dry and hot conditions — which are present year-round in the Inner Canyon — will exacerbate asthma and any heart, joint or muscle conditions, so use caution and be sure to train and hike within your ability level. Finally, shop for and get fitted for a pair of sturdy hiking boots and a pair of trekking poles now and use them for your training; they must be well broken-in by the time you execute your Grand Canyon hike.
Over 250 visitors are evacuated from the Grand Canyon for medical emergencies by the park service Search and Rescue team each year. Proper planning and training is imperative. Choose your route carefully, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan on returning. Each year several day hikers become lost or disoriented in the Grand Canyon, and several perish as a result. Don't become a statistic. Do your homework, don't take any undue risks, and stay well within your known limits in terms of physical exertion.
Leave No Trace
On a final note, please remember that the Inner Canyon is a fragile desert ecosystem, and that the desert "grows by the inch and dies by the foot." A single careless boot print off the trail can last for decades in such an environment. Be sure to tread lightly, and leave the Canyon the way you found it. For more on Leave No Trace hiking and backpacking, visit lnt.org/programs.
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