Backpacking Overview: Grand Canyon National Park

Gorp.com
Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon, Arizona

  • Hiking conditions can come as a surprise for newcomers, even hikers who have a lot of experience in other parts of the world. The maintained corridor trails—Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab—are recommended for first-time hikers.
  • Spring offers prime conditions—long days, wildflowers blooming, and comfortable temperatures. Plan well ahead as backcountry permits can be tough to get at this time. Note that some trailheads on the North Rim still might be closed.
  • The North Kaibab Trail cannot be beat for variety, interesting side trips, and spectacular scenery. It takes you from alpine forests of the North Rim at 8,250 feet to desert riparian vegetation along the Colorado River at 2,480 feet.
  • To plan your trip, start with the Backcountry Permit Planner, available on the park’s website and by mail. The guide has many tips for an enjoyable trip, and it tells you how to obtain a backcountry permit, required for all overnight camping excursions.
  • The Tonto Trail weaves in and out of side canyons as it follows the Tonto Platform for 92 miles. Few people hike all the way, but instead they use it to connect with South Rim trails for many loop possibilities.
  • The South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails connect the South Rim with the Colorado River but have very different characters. Many hikers prefer to descend the steeper South Kaibab, overnight, and then ascend the relatively gentle grades of the Bright Angel.

Best Backpacking: South Rim

Bright Angel Trail
This trail—the least difficult into the canyon from the South Rim—is wide, well maintained, regularly patrolled, and easy to follow. It also has sources for drinking water (seasonally). Though crowded, it's very pretty, following natural routes from rim to river and traveling along lush creekbeds at its lower elevations. Hikers can break up the trip from rim to river by staying overnight at Indian Garden Campground, then continuing to the river and the Bright Angel Campground (via the River Trail).

South Kaibab Trail
Because it's steeper, more exposed to the elements, and lacks drinking water, this trail is more challenging than the Bright Angel Trail. However, it's well maintained and easy to follow, and the park bills it as the second "least difficult" canyon trail off the South Rim. The trail crosses two saddles with striking views 1,000 feet down to the Tonto Platform on either side. After dropping onto the Tonto platform, the trail reaches the top of the black, sheer rocks of the Vishnu Formation. From there it pinballs downhill toward the river and, eventually, the bridge to the Bright Angel Campground.

Hermit Trail
During the 1910s, this wilderness trail was considered the best route into the canyon. Its upper section, which receives warm late-afternoon sun, travels on crumbling cobblestones left from its heyday. Its upper sections have views down into the brick-red rocks of Hermit Gorge, a drainage of Grand Canyon proper. After passing Santa Maria spring the trail becomes considerably more rugged, crossing numerous rockfalls and eventually plummeting through a boulder-strewn break in the Redwall. The trail also passes the foundations of the old Hermit Camp, where tourists once stayed in heavy-duty tents with windows, wood-burning stoves, and Indian rugs. Not far past the camp, a small primitive campground borders the cool waters of Hermit Creek. Hikers with extra energy can walk an additional 1.5 miles down the creek to the Colorado River.

Grandview Trail
For a short, relatively manageable backpack, hike the three miles on the Grandview Trail from the rim to Horseshoe Mesa. There, you'll find designated campsites and pit toilets amid the pinyon pine and juniper trees. More challenging trails descend from the mesa onto the Tonto Platform, eventually linking up with the Tonto Trail.

Tanner, New Hance Trails
These rugged wilderness trails have much in common. Steep and rocky, they're among the most challenging descents into the canyon. They journey north from rim to river, eventually reaching the river by traveling down creekbeds. And they pass through the pastel-colored rocks of the Grand Canyon Supergroup. Sandwiched between the pre-Cambrian Vishnu Formation and the Cambrian Tapeats Sandstone, these rocks do not appear in most other parts of the canyon.

Tonto Trail
By meandering across the Tonto Platform for 95 miles in Grand Canyon, this trail links many rim-to-river trails and makes loop hikes possible. Covered with scrubby vegetation such as barrel cactus, brittlebush, and blackbrush, the trail has little shade, and its water sources are few, far apart, and often ephemeral. All of which combines to make the trail especially risky during summer. In places the Tonto Trail is exceedingly beautiful, traveling between the canyon's immense monuments and cliffs overlooking the Colorado River.

Canyon Trails: North Rim

North Kaibab Trail
Although this wide, well-maintained trail is easy to walk on, it's 14.4 miles long and drops a whopping 5,850 vertical feet from rim to river. Smart backpackers break up the walk by staying 6.8 miles from the trailhead at Cottonwood Campground before continuing on to the Colorado River. This gives them extra time and energy to enjoy scenic Ribbon Falls, the unusual geology along Bright Angel Fault, and the narrows formed where Bright Angel Creek carved through the black rocks of the Vishnu Formation.

Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River Trail
This 12-mile trip from rim to river has a very dry upper section, crossing the barren, pocked rocks of a terrace known as the Esplanade and the sun-baked, cactus-flecked terrain in Surprise Valley before reaching a real surprise-the aptly named Thunder Falls, which tumbles 100 feet from an opening in the limestone. The water from Thunder Falls promptly enters Tapeats Creek, which the trail follows to the Colorado River. The Deer Creek Trail, which leads to stunning, fluted narrows and Anasazi pictographs, branches off the Thunder River Trail in Surprise Valley.


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