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Grand Canyon Hiking and Backpacking Logistics


Susan Dragoo

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The Grand Canyon captivates many of those who penetrate its depths, and I am one of them. Living nearly a thousand miles from the South Rim means I visit the canyon, at most, once or twice a year, so I try to make each visit count. In April of 2024, I completed my fourth hike to the canyon floor. Each of my hikes has been very different.

Logistics - Hiking and Backpacking the Grand Canyon

When it comes to hiking in the Grand Canyon, those looking for expansive views and rugged terrain won't be disappointed.

Backpacking the Grand Canyon

The first was a backpacking trip on the Hermit Trail, a difficult descent into one of the most magical places I have ever experienced, camping on Hermit Creek and walking spellbound through the narrows to the Colorado River. It’s a place I hope to visit again, although a different route to Hermit Creek is in the works, taking a few days to backpack down the Bright Angel Trail and across the Tonto platform to Hermit Creek.

My second was also a backpacking trip, descending the Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa, then down to Cottonwood Creek where we camped for two nights. A day hike to the Colorado River on the Old Grandview Trail was memorable but daunting, and something I have no desire to repeat. Deciding to get out of the canyon a day early because of concerns about the weather, we doubled our mileage on the last day, traversing east on the Tonto Trail along the foot of Horseshoe Mesa and climbing out on tired legs at Grandview Point. You can read more about that trip here in Issue 54.

Grand Canyon Hiking Trail

All of my hikes required careful planning and each configuration had its logistical idiosyncrasies. The reason I did Hermit and Grandview first was that backcountry permits for their relatively off-the-beaten-path campsites were easier to obtain than those in “The Corridor” at the time I wanted to go. The Corridor encompasses the maintained trails which cross the canyon north to south in the most developed area of the national park and include North Kaibab Trail, South Kaibab Trail, and Bright Angel Trail.

Although you do not need a permit to hike these trails, you must have one if you plan to camp along any of them. There are three campgrounds: Havasupai Gardens on Bright Angel Trail; Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon; and Cottonwood Campground on the North Kaibab Trail. The park uses a lottery system to award preference for permits; it is a somewhat complex process I will not try to explain, but you can find all the details here.

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Suffice it to say you must start planning early, and the odds of getting a campsite in the Corridor through this process are slim. If, however, you are a seasoned hiker and want to backpack, seeking a campsite in areas outside the Corridor improves your chances considerably. I had no difficulty obtaining permits for sites on the Hermit and Grandview Trails during spring and fall. There are simply fewer people wanting to go to these less-developed areas.

Day Hiking the Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim and Beyond

Although the first two trips were amazing, the third was truly a charm. It was a Rim-to-Rim day hike with my oldest son, Mark, on my sixty-fifth birthday and just after his fortieth. We started on the North Kaibab Trail and finished on Bright Angel, with the requisite side trip to Ribbon Falls. It was everything I had hoped for, and a wonderful way to commemorate our big personal milestones.

Most recently, I completed a Rim-to-River-to-Rim hike from the South Rim, the shortest of my Grand Canyon hikes but no less respectable an achievement. Logistically, however, it was certainly the easiest.

Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim and More

As previously mentioned, obtaining Corridor camping permits can be difficult. If you want to avoid the permitting process completely, day hiking is a good alternative, although the National Park Service does not endorse day hikes either across the canyon, i.e. Rim to Rim, or to the river and back, better known as Rim to River to Rim. It’s easy to understand their position given that rangers are constantly having to assist or rescue hikers who attempt these feats without proper preparation. They recently released a YouTube video attempting to get the message across, on top of the multiple warnings they issue in many other ways, but some people just don’t get the message.

Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

Although the hike itself is straightforward, logistics for a Rim-to-Rim day hike are a bit of a challenge. First, unless you are prepared to do Rim to Rim to Rim, you must go when the North Rim is open, between May 15 and October 15 (there is some wiggle room on this date, depending on what services you require at the North Rim). Our itinerary involved arriving to Flagstaff, spending a night there (booked in advance), driving the next day to the South Rim, parking in the Backcountry Information Center parking lot, catching a shuttle (booked in advance) to the North Rim, a process which took most of the day, having dinner (booked in advance) in the North Rim Lodge, staying the night in a cabin (booked in advance) at the North Rim Lodge, catching a shuttle the next morning to the North Kaibab Trailhead (arranged the night before), hiking our hike across the canyon, walking to our car from the Bright Angel Trailhead, and staying that night at a hotel in Tusayan (booked, of course, in advance). Whew! It was, by the way, totally worth it.

Trail Signs in the Grand Canyon

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon

The Rim to River to Rim Hike

Probably the easiest (logistically) and most flexible major hike is the Rim-to-River-to-Rim. You can do it any time of year, and you do not need a permit, it is very doable in one day for a prepared hiker, and you can camp on the rim or stay elsewhere, it’s all up to you. Our group of four drove in from Oklahoma and stayed in Tusayan, driving into the park early on the day of the hike to catch the 6 a.m. shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead (no parking is allowed at the trailhead). We were on the trail about 6:15. The most popular route is down South Kaibab to the river, then up Bright Angel back to the South Rim. Although longer, Bright Angel is more gradual than South Kaibab and under normal circumstances has spigots with potable water every few miles. South Kaibab offers no water. When we did the hike in April of 2024, however, we used South Kaibab for both descent and ascent because Bright Angel was closed for the waterline project then underway.

It took us just under five hours to descend the 4,300 feet and 6 ½ miles on South Kaibab Trail, with one long wait for a mule train to take a rest before we could pass. The weather was pleasant, meaning it was 32 degrees at the rim when we started around sunrise, and by the time we reached Phantom Ranch for our lunch stop the temperature had risen to 90 degrees. Starting back up after lunch and lemonade with three liters of water since none would be available on the climb, we dreaded the steep ascent on a path we understood to be fully exposed, with no shade. Thankfully, it was much better than expected. Shade does actually exist in the nooks and crannies of the canyon walls on South Kaibab and we had a nice breeze as the temperatures became cooler the higher we rose. Reaching the top after about six hours was exhilarating and emotional. We caught the shuttle back to our car at the visitor center and celebrated our accomplishment with dinner that night in Tusayan.

Grand Canyon Hiking Strategy and Backpacking Options

The Grand Canyon offers exploration opportunities ranging from extended backpacking trips, to marathon or easy day hikes.

Easier Grand Canyon Day Hikes

Of course, there are other hiking options at the Grand Canyon, shorter ones and certainly easier ones. First and foremost, the Rim Trail on the South Rim is mostly flat, mostly paved and runs about thirteen miles from Hermit’s Rest to the South Kaibab Trailhead, with multiple shuttle bus stops along the way so you can hop off and on as you wish. Along the way you can access numerous canyon viewpoints and, on the western end, walk the Trail of Time, an interpretive segment of the Rim Trail which helps visitors consider the magnitude of geologic time and the stories told by the canyon’s rock layers.

All of the South Rim trails offer the option to descend a short distance and return to the rim. Some popular choices are hiking to Santa Maria Springs on the Hermit Trail (5 miles round trip), to Horseshoe Mesa on the Grandview Trail (6.5 miles round trip), and to Ooh-Ah Point (1.8 miles round trip and a great place to catch the sunrise) or Cedar Ridge (3 miles round trip) on the South Kaibab Trail. The Bright Angel Trail also offers multiple opportunities for day hikes. There are many hiking options on the North Rim as well, including hiking to Coconino Overlook (1.5 miles round trip) or Supai Tunnel (4 miles round trip) on the North Kaibab Trail. Keep in mind, the only truly easy trails at the Grand Canyon are the flat, paved ones on the rims!

Grand Canyon Sunrise View - Rim to River to Rim

Grand Canyon sunrise views

More Information

Aside from logistics, complete preparation for any of these hikes requires a high level of physical conditioning, proper clothing and footwear, and appropriate nutrition, hydration, et cetera. The heat in the inner canyon in summer is dangerous, so pick a more optimal season for your visit. Late March to early April and late September to early October are my favorite times to go.

The Grand Canyon National Park website is an excellent choice for detailed information on any of these hikes. For additional trip ideas and information, see all of our past TrailGroove articles here on our TrailFinder Page and more can be found with a search here for “Grand Canyon”. The Grand Canyon Hiker Dude Show is a podcast that has been a great resource. I have also found the Falcon Guide on Hiking the Grand Canyon very useful as well as the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon maps. For easier day hikes, Best Easy Day Hikes Grand Canyon is worth a look. For getting to and from trailheads, as well as for exploring other destinations in the state, the Arizona Delorme Atlas is a great mapping resource to have on hand.

I hope you will get out there and give it a try – properly prepared and well informed, of course. But be careful, you may just find yourself addicted, like me!

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