Hikes, Grand Canyon National Park
NOTE: Please read “Know your limits” under my Warnings and Dangers reviews before attempting one of these!
I’ve covered some nice treks above the chasm in my Rim Trail and Paths Less Traveled reviews but you can, properly prepared, venture into it as well. Other than a small bit of Bright Angel, my own down-under adventures have been restricted to the North Rim but here’s the skinny on trails at the South.
As stressed in the “Know your limits” review, hiking from rim to the river and back in a day should never be attempted so don’t make that your destination, OK? Overnight camping is only allowed with a backcountry permit: if you’re interested in multi-day treks, reference this page:
This is the easiest, most popular, and therefore the most crowded of the maintained corridor routes to the bottom. It starts near Bright Angel Lodge, and hikers share the trail with mules carrying overnighters to Phantom Ranch so it will be, er, fragrant on a hot day. Day-hike distances here range from .36 miles (first tunnel) to 12 miles (Plateau Point) round trip, and everything in between. Good suggestions for turn-around points can be found here:
Uphill hikers and mules have right-of-way on this one so stay to the inside of the trail going down, and to the far inside of the trail coming up if encountering a mule train. Stand still until the train has passed, and follow any orders issued by the driver.
Hikers also share this maintained corridor trail with mule trains so the same rules - and smelliness- apply as Bright Angel. This one is a lot steeper than B.A. so day hikes beyond 3 miles RT in summer are not recommended, or 6 miles at cooler times of the year. The trailhead is 1.2 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, and is served by free park shuttle.
Two more difficult but less populated routes are Hermit and Grandview. Both of these unmaintained threshold trails are considered very strenuous, and not for beginners but conditioned desert hikers are likely to find some welcome solitude. Grandview trailhead (12 miles east of the Village) is only accessed via your own vehicle, and shuttle is only available to Hermit trailhead (8 miles west of the village) from March - December. From Dec 1 - Feb. 28, you’ll need your own wheels.
Other corridor, threshold and primitive trails are bad ideas for inexperienced desert and/or day hikers.
It’s amusing - if not a little alarming - to see what sorts of tourists attempt these trails. Climbing back up my last little foray down Bright Angel, I passed one very unhappy, very large purse-carrying female in a fussy outfit and dainty sandals:
(screaming at husband)
“Why the (expletive) are you making me go DOWN this thing? How the (expletive) are we going to get back UP?”
“OMG! There’s POOP here! There’s (expletive) POOP and it (expletive) STINKS!”
“You’re going to make me walk ALL THE WAY UP this (expletive) thing again in (expletive) POOP??”
“I (expletive) HATE THIS!!!”
As I said in that Warnings and Dangers review: know your limits.
While the North Rim doesn’t have the amount of below-the-rim hiking that that South does, there are nice topside treks from very short walks to longer tramps, and from paved paths to shady, forested trails. Here are a few of the better ones we’ve done:
Roosevelt Point: very easy .2 mile RT walk to a terrific viewpoint. Trailhead is on Cape Royal Road.
Cape Royal: a flat, easy, paved trail with panoramic views of the canyon and Angel’s Window, this .5 mile RT trail is also handicap accessible
Bright Angel Point: easy, paved .5 RT walk from the lodge onto a narrow peninsula with views of Bright Angel Canyon, Roaring Springs and The Transept. This is a good one at sunset!
Transept Trail: easy 3-mile RT run along the forested rim of The Transept - a side spur of Bright Angel Canyon - from the lodge to the North Rim campground and General Store. You can also cut over to the Bridle Trail from this one to access North Kaibab, Uncle Jim and Ken Patrick Trails - which we did.
Cape Final: this is an easy 4-mile RT ramble through quiet woodlands to a lovely panoramic viewpoint. The trailhead/parking area is on Cape Royal Road.
Uncle Jim: a nice 5-mile loop, through forest with occasional glimpses of the canyon, to an overlook with expansive views. An initial section of the trail is shared with the longer Ken Patrick route, which heads off at a junction before the beginning of the loop. Parking is at the North Kaibab Trail lot - northeast of the campgrounds - and this trail is also used for mule trains so watch where you step!
There are others as well so reference the full list here:
A map can be found here:
NOTE: Please read “Know your limits” under my Warnings and Dangers reviews before attempting one of these!
North Kaibab Trail is the only maintained corridor on the North Rim to the inner canyon, and it’s a full 14 miles from trailhead to Phantom Ranch: a trek which should only be attempted by experienced, overnight backpackers with permits. That aside, day hikes of several lengths are entirely possible with good shoes, plenty of water and snacks, and physical ability to handle the altitude (8,241 feet on the rim) and steep, knee-punishing climb back up:
Coconino Overlook: 1.5 miles RT
Supai Tunnel: 4 miles RT
Roaring Springs: 9.4 miles RT, and the furthest point on the trail the NPS recommends for day hiking.
The trailhead drops into a series of steep switchbacks, with lots of uneven step-downs, to the bottom of Bright Angel Canyon/Roaring Springs with the most rapid of total trail elevation loss occurring in this section. From here it continues on another 9+ miles to the inner gorge. We ended up somewhere just beyond Supai Tunnel and were glad we’d turned around there as it was considerably hotter than on the rim, and up usually involves more effort than down! This is also the route for half-day mule trains to Supai Tunnel, and the heat made all those 'road apples' smell mighty fragrant. Phew.
Glad we did it, though. If you’re up to giving this one a shot, even as far as Coconino Overlook will do: it's a sweet spot with a really nice view, and a great turnaround point for families and beginning hikers.
Trail description here:
And here as well:
This is my favorite ramble at the canyon, and boy has it changed since our first visit! This 13-mile route along the rim used to be 3 miles shorter, and more of that a scuff through the dirt than it is now. I preferred it when it was a little less civilized but the new (to me) pavement makes it more accessible to baby strollers and people with mobility challenges so there ya go.
The Rim Trail stretches east about 5 miles from Grand Canyon Village to the South Kaibab Trailhead, and 8 miles west of the Village to Hermit’s Rest. All but a three-mile section on the west side, from Powell Point to Monument Creek Vista, is now paved, and there are excellent views and photo ops all along the way. I’ve covered the entire length - not all at one time as a nasty storm threw a wrench in that plan - and highly recommend it for anyone able to put one foot in front of the other even for just a mile or two. Some, but not all, sections may also be biked.
The best time to begin from any point is in the early morning so you can watch the light change over the buttes and “temples” as the sun rises but if you’re not an Early Bird, a few hours before sunset will work too. Park shuttles serve all of the designated overlooks on both sides so if your feet give out before the trail does, just hop one of those at the nearest stop. There are restrooms here and there but it can be a long way between them on the west side: plan accordingly. The eastern route is fully handicap accessible but the west is little more challenging so choose to explore just the Greenway section from Hermit’s Rest to Monument Creek Vista if you’re mobility challenged.
A note about the shuttles: they stop at all 8 of the overlooks heading west from the Village to Hermit’s Rest but only 3 of them heading east of Hermit’s back to the Village. If you are not wanting to ride all the way to Hermit’s, you’ll need to catch an eastbound bus at one of those overlooks (Pima, Mohave or Powell Points).
Download this guide before you go, and bring a picnic!
Complete map here:
On the south rim, to hike into the GC you must take the Bright Angel trail or the Kaibab trail. We did the Kaibab trail, it's the trail that the mule tours use as well. Kaibab is also much steeper than the Bright Angel. Either trail provides amazing views, which is a totally different perspective than just the views at the top of the rim. It feels spiritual. The rim trails also have much to offer, they have stellar look out points and the Red shuttle line hikes provide glimpses of the Colorado River.
I've never stood behind a waterfall before - not one this tall and majestic and isolated. We woke up at Phantom Ranch in the morning after hiking down the Grand Canyon the day before. And while we're not that old, we were feeling every ache and pain in our bodies! Everyone at camp was raving about a hike up to Ribbon Falls at breakfast that morning. But it was 6 miles one way to get there. That's a 12.1 (that .1 counts) mile roundtrip hike for the day. And I've never hiked that far and had no intention of doing such an activity in between a huge accomplishment of getting into the canyon, knowing the next day I have to get myself out of the canyon. (Sign posted: Hiking down - optional. Hiking out - mandatory). So hello! What were we thinking?? We knew we needed to stretch our legs a little bit and everyone said it was more of a flat walk than a hike, so sure enough, we set off to see this magical place. The walk was easy and the destination well worth the effort! If you are in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, check it out!! Words cannot describe the majestic, enchanted ambience. And we saw only 2 people in the entire 6 hour round trip journey. The canyon was ours and it was incredible...
Going all the way to the floor of the Canyon along a ridge, and having dozens of switchbacks along the steep canyon wall, the Kaibab trail is a popular trail for both mules and hiking. There is no water along the trail, and there is sometimes (but not in winter) water available at the South Kaibab trailhead at the top of the Canyon wall.
Watch for loose rock, as it is awfully easy to trip and go over the edge, and there is a long way down on the other side of that edge in places.
Don't try to go all the way to the bottom of the Canyon and back up in one day. The top rim of the Canyon is at fairly high elevation, and most anyone will get tired here. Every year they have several people killed due to their underestimation of the altitude effects, and their overestimation of their physical ability. Don't be one of those.
At the bottom of the Canyon, the trail connects to several other trails, allowing for a complete loop to Bright Angel, or to climb the north rim of the Canyon, or various other destinations. Bring a trail map!
This was an easy 1/2 mile round trip hike to the point and great overlook views. Some of the best views of being right next to the edge and looking down are here. It gets me a bit tipsy and try not to have both feet close to edge at once.
This was a very pleasant hike to an area in a canyon that has a spring right under a rock ledge. The hike in was relatively easy, and only 1 mile round trip. Getting to the end, the wind blows through the canyon at speeds 40-70 MPH; no kidding. You get sand/grit in the eyes. A Ranger was there and she said that happens a lot because it is a box canyon and no place for the wind to dissipate of go up over the rock cliffs. It is about 1/2 mile north of Cap Royal and on the left side heading north. Look for roadside sign (small as it is)
These two trails are right near the visitor center and lodge. The Bright Angel Point is hiking out onto a real point on a rock ledge overlooking the canyon. It is only 3/4 mile walk, but the wobbly legs of mine being so high got that strange sensation of vertigo. It is 8225 feet high. This is a place where two canyons converge. You can see the Humphries mountain range 50 miles away.
This is 5 mile round trip down to Supai Tunnel and it is not as easy as what you read. The descent, and then ascent is 1400 feet. That wears a guy out. I did the hike and went a little further to make it 6 miles in 2 hours to try and find out if I could breath normal afterword. At 1.5 miles there is an overlook onto Coconino Forests. The trail then takes a more steep approach form there. The issue was not the feet decline, but the loose dirt/sand and rock. That makes you lose footing and the drop off is steep for sure.
Hike to Ribbon Falls. Ok, this is NOT a day hike. You would have to be quite the stud to do this in one day and it would be termed more a mountain marathon than a hike. It's 11 miles round trip from the Bright Angel Campground with about 300 feet elevation pickup. So, if you did this from the South Rim, it would be an additional 13 miles round trip down the shorter South Kaibab Trail. So, 24 miles and don't forget the 5000 feet of elevation change either. Suffice to say, it's best to camp on the canyon floor or stay at Phantom Ranch if you are considering this hike.
It starts off through a beautiful gorge on exiting the Phantom Ranch area but soon turns into a dry flat affair where you'll be glad you started early in the morning. We were luck as the prickly pear cacti were in bloom but even with the beauty, it's a long, dry walk. It forks at one point with the right trail going to the North Rim and the left heading to the falls. The trail to the falls is an up and down slog as you pass a few watery patches. I imagine this can be quite wet at certain times of the year.
The falls area is amazing. It's not a torrent of water coming down but it's quite high and the mist makes for a rainbow effect with the right light. The lack of water actually comes in handy when you want to cool off. It's a lot more water than it seems once you get under it! You can walk up behind the falls on an unmarked climb to the left of the falls for some cool Tarzan-like pictures. We had it to ourselves for a short time before a group of Japanese tourist showed up to snap a few shots of me showing off for Jane under the falls. You'd think this is too remote for such things but with mule trips to Phantom Ranch and this being, well the Grand Canyon, just about anything is possible.
The Grand Canyon offers some of the finest backpacking anywhere in the world. Don't expect solitude or a true wilderness experience. It's just too popular for that. But if you love great scenery, groomed trails, some pretty nice amenities, and a fairly safe environment to backpack, then Grand Canyon is the place for you. The trails are in great shape and very well marked. You should never backpack without a topographical map but if you're going to do it, this is one place you can get away with it.
The Bright Angel Trail even has rest stops that provide shade, toilets, and running drinking water. There are toilets at the campgrounds and at Phantom Ranch, you can even buy food/beverages. But do not expect a Disney experience in entirety. It is true there is water at designated spots on the Bright Angel Trail but it does break down occasionally. The day we hiked out one of the pipes burst so was not working at one of the stops. We were glad we'd filled our bottles at Indian Gardens campground. We were carrying water purification methods with us but the problem is, on the ascent, there just isn't any water of any kind. There are no streams or idyllic little lakes. Desert conditions should be expected. It's hot and very dry so hiking in the early part of the day is essential. You can make your trip easier by ordering meals at Phantom Ranch if you are camping at Bright Angel Campground but you'll still need to carry snacks for the hike down. This will add considerable cost to your trip and you may as well stay at Phantom Ranch or do the mule trip.
In general, plan on carrying everything you need for the duration of your stay on the canyon floor. It is a lot of work but it's an experience you will never forget. Nothing beats staying at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and there is no feeling like doing it under your own power. You literally feel on top of the world when you see Bright Angel Lodge after a few days of backpacking. And no, it's not just the promise of a shower and restaurant cooked meal. It's the feeling of accomplishment.
No matter what time of year you attempt to hike to the Canyon floor, you should start early. This is especially important during the hot summer months when it's actually a bit crazy to do in the first place. The spring and fall months are best for hiking at the Grand Canyon. Winter can be good if the weather cooperates but remember even the south Rim is at 7000 feet so it can be icy or packed with snow.
The first time I came to Grand Canyon it was in late October of 1994. I had fully expected to hike in and out in a day but was disappointed to find the trails iced over and crampons recommended for the hike. Also, the later in the year, the shorter amount of daylight you have so generally not the best time for a potentially long day hike like this. I returned the next year in September and tried to start the hike at 4:30 AM in twilight. I got a half hour into the canyon only to find I'd left my camera on top of the car! So, I actually started at 5:30 AM. I was in great shape and rushed not only down the trail but back up. I only spent a short time at Phantom Ranch as I feared how long it might take me to get back to the top. I'd read all the warnings about day hiking into the canyon and since I was hiking alone, I didn't want to take any chances. I was back on top by 1:30 PM! It was a great feeling but I'd wished I'd spent more time on the bottom and swore if ever back in the park, I'd do an overnight trip.
So, it can be done but certainly not by everyone. Be sure you are in excellent shape and I mean hiking shape, not just gym shape. Do ample practice hikes of similar distances and elevation change. Remember also that this is a desert hike. It's very dry and hot. There is generally little shade, especially on the ascent. You will sweat out a lot of minerals without even realizing it. Carry plenty of food and water. They will be your only fuel to get out of there. You wouldn't drive into the desert on an empty tank. Don't do the same at Grand Canyon or you'll regret it.
Feeling a little more energetic? You can't beat hiking into the canyon. You don't have to go all the way to the bottom either. You get a different perspective as soon as you go down a few hundred feet. Even better is you escape 70% of the rest of the Grand Canyon Visitors, maybe more. The further you hike down, the better and the more people you leave behind.
One great day hike is Plateau Point. It's a little over 12 miles round trip but the tough part is it drops 3000 feet to Indian Gardens. The views of the Colorado River are well worth the effort but don't expect solitude. This is probably the most popular real hike in the park so there will always be a nice little crowd there. You will be hiking down the Bright Angel Trail which doubles as the main path for mules into the canyon so expect mule poop along the way. One bonus is there are shelters and toilets along the trail and water is even available at some of them, making it unnecessary to carry enough water for the whole day. Be sure to check before starting that the water is indeed on!
You'll get to see a backcountry campground at Indian Gardens before heading across a flat exposed section to Plateau Point. Bring plenty of snacks to consume not only at the viewpoint but also along the trail as it's a tough 3000 foot climb back up to the top. You'll need all the energy you can get. This is a great warm up hike if doing a multi-day trip to the canyon floor later in your stay. It helped us build up our stamina and gave our knees a test which gave us more confidence to tackle the big hike.