A backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And with the park turning 100 years old in 2019, there’s no better time to take the plunge.
Centennial events planned throughout 2019 will guarantee plenty to do–but you can expect the crowds to be much larger than usual as well. In a normal year, the park gets more than 6.25 million visitors in all, so it’s always hopping. But don’t let that deter you from your hiking adventure–most guests never move beyond Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
There, you can find scenic overlooks, self-guided tours, the visitor center–and plenty of camping supplies, in case you forgot anything. Once you’ve moved onto the park’s 358 miles of breathtaking trails, you’ll have plenty of space to yourself.
Here’s how to make the most of your time in this astonishing destination:
Things To Know
The Grand Canyon is split into three distinct areas: The South Rim, the North Rim, and the West Rim. The West Rim is technically on Hualapai Indian land and is not part of the park, therefore it requires a separate entrance fee.
With its sweeping views, a wide variety of guest services, and nearby lodging, the South Rim is by far the most popular Grand Canyon destination–but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best. Many visitors prefer the more heavily-wooded North Rim for its undisturbed nature and pristine trails, while others want to experience the West Rim’s popular SkyWalk.
No matter what, it’s important to remember that the Grand Canyon is in the desert. As such, a trip during the summer months can be deathly hot. While it tends to be cooler at the top, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon typically exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit between the months of June and August. If you absolutely must take your trip during the hottest season of the year, head to the North Rim, where it’s roughly ten degrees cooler than the South Rim.
It is also worth noting that all park amenities on the North Rim are closed from November through April, and the road into the park closes in December. If you plan on visiting during that time, you will need to hike, snowshoe, or otherwise manually transport yourself in.
No matter when you plan your trip, be prepared to fill out some paperwork. Like many of the nation’s more popular parks, Grand Canyon National Park is notorious for making it difficult to secure the proper permits–and sometimes it doesn’t even matter how much you prepare. Many adventures, such as camping in the backcountry or spending the night at the Phantom Ranch at the canyon’s bottom, require winning a lottery to get a permit–so once you’ve entered, it’s all up to chance.
The Camping Basics
Camping anywhere below the rim requires a backcountry permit. To apply for one, you need to fill out an application form. Officials will want to know your desired route, estimated daily hiking milages, and nightly campsites. The National Park Service recommends submitting your application no later than the first of the month that is four months prior to your desired start date. The cost is $10 per permit, plus $8 per person per night in the canyon.
These permits are, again, issued lottery-style–so submitting one does not guarantee that you’ll get your desired camping spot (or any spot). In addition, the park service says to allow up to three weeks for processing, so don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back right away.
There’s also the chance that the park service may contact you asking for more information. If you’re a solo hiker, officials will want to know your emergency contacts, the color, and style of your gear, and your desert hiking experience. They may also try to dissuade you–especially if you apply for a camping permit during the summer months.
What happens if you don’t get your permit?
If you don’t get chosen in the lottery, or you just forget to submit your application on time, there are several things you can do:
- Show up at the park’s backcountry office. There’s always the chance that another camper had to cancel and their permit is now up for grabs. If you show up at the park’s office, you may be able to snag one. Unfortunately, for those who have to travel a long distance to get to the canyon, this is often not an option.
- Get on the waitlist. If you show up at the backcountry office and there aren’t any permits available, the rangers can give you a waitlist number. The next morning, they will start issuing permits at 8 am, starting with #1 on the list, until they run out. If your number doesn’t get called, you can get back on the list for the following day, with a lower number.
- Take a day hike. Hiking the Grand Canyon for a day may not be your dream trip, but it’s still an amazing experience. If you can snag a hotel room nearby, stay for a few days and choose a different route each morning.
Hiking The Grand Canyon
If you’re planning a day hike and want to avoid the crowds, check out the Cape Final Trail on the North Rim. Due to the trail’s remote location crowds are sparse, and it offers some of the best views on that side of the canyon. At only four miles roundtrip, it should only take about two hours total, even for a hiking novice. Fun fact: it is possible to camp on the Cape Final Trail, but officials only offer one permit per night! If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on it, you’ll have the whole trail to yourself for the evening!
If you’re on the South Rim, try the Hermit Trail. Conditions are tougher than some of the more popular trails, but you’re rewarded for your work with spectacular vista views and stops at not one, but two, natural springs. From the trailhead to Santa Maria Springs is 4.5 miles round trip, and from the trailhead to Dripping Spring is 6.5 miles.
For overnight trips, try the South Rim’s Kaibab Trail. As the most direct route to the canyon floor, it can get a little crowded, but it’s worth it. While most canyon trails follow inner canyons, Kaibab sticks to the ridgelines, offering incredible views. As you near the bottom, you’ll encounter the Kaibab Suspension Bridge–a great spot to stop for pictures and take in the splendor of the rushing Colorado River. The downside? There is little to no shade or water for the length of the trail, so you’ll have to pack a lot (or rent a mule).
Of course, the mother of all hikes is going rim to rim. That means hiking down own side, crossing the river, and climbing back up the other side. While it is possible to complete it in one day (the current record is 2 hours and 39 minutes), most people choose to stop overnight at least once. At a total of 21-miles, half of it uphill, it can be brutal on the knees if you try to do it all at once! Once you reach the other side, you’ll have to arrange for a friend to pick you up or grab a ride with the Trans-Canyon Shuttle for $90.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re interested in a guided hike, the Grand Canyon Field Institute offers several fantastic options. For many first-timers who aren’t familiar with desert hiking or the local environment, this is a great jumping-off point.
Camping In The Grand Canyon
There’s something to be said about getting away from city lights and spending a night under the stars. If you don’t camp at the Grand Canyon, you’re missing out on half the fun. After all, the colors that paint the sky at nighttime are breathtaking–and best experienced from a tent on a remote trail in the middle of nowhere. Even better? Snagging a permit for a weekend with a full moon.
Whether you’re staying on the South Rim or the North, there are plenty of great places to pitch a tent (or park a trailer). Here are just a few of the options:
- Mather Campground: Mather is the park’s largest campground and is open year-round. It’s centrally located near stores and museums in Grandy Canyon Village and offers easy access to lots of trails. As the park’s most popular campground, sites fill up fast–so be sure to book at least six months in advance.
- Desert View Campground: If you don’t want to be near the hustle and bustle of the Village, Desert View might be more your style. Located near the entrance and removed from all the commotion, it offers a more rustic camping experience. Sites are first come, first serve, so show up early if you want to grab a spot.
- Trailer Village: Trailer Village is the choice for RV campers who want hookups. The campground is concessioner-operated but located next to Mather in Grand Canyon Village. Sites can be reserved in advance.
- North Rim Campground: North Rim is the only campground located within the park on this side of the canyon. Sites are located close to the visitor center and hiking trails and offer plenty of amenities. Reservations are required.
- Jacob Lake Campground: This campground is run by the National Forest Service, but is not located within the park. Located just outside, sites are comfy and offer amenities. Some can be reserved in advance, others are first come, first serve.
- DeMotte Campground: Another National Forest campground, closer to the park entrance than Jacob Lake, but with fewer amenities. Some sites can be reserved.
If you want to camp in the backcountry, it’s a little more complicated. There are three main types of camping areas, including:
Corridor Use Area — The corridor use area is made up of three trails (Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, North Kaibab Trail) and three campgrounds (Indian Garden Campground, Bright Angel Campground, and Cottonwood Campground). These have facilities, like toilets, water spigots, and ranger stations. This area is recommended for campers without previous Grand Canyon experience.
Designated Sites — The slightly more remote use areas that are still well-traveled have “designated sites.” These have pit toilets and marked campsites.
At-Large Camping — Some use areas have “at-large camping.” These have no campsites or facilities. You choose where you camp, within the boundaries of the zone.
There really is no “best way” to hike the Grand Canyon. The trip you take will depend on your level of experience, who you’re traveling with, and your desired Grand Canyon experience. No matter how you do it, it’s a journey not to be missed.