Grand Canyon National Park and nearby National Forest and Bureau of Land Management designated areas offer a plethora of hiking opportunities, at least a few of which should be included in any vacation itinerary to the park. But before venturing off road in the Grand Canyon, it is extremely important that a hike of any length not to be taken lightly, even on routinely maintained and patrolled trails. Grand Canyon National Park offers several hiking options reachable from the North and South Rims which are managed according to Backcountry Use Area: Corridor, Threshold, Primitive, and Wild. Each use area has a limited overnight capacity based on the size of the area, the number of suitable and available campsites, its ecological sensitivity, its management zoning, and its use history. Over 94% of the park is managed as wilderness, and all Threshold, Primitive, and Wild zones are entirely within the Grand Canyon Wilderness. Hiking in the Grand Canyon region offers untold opportunities for visitors to experience natural beauty and solitude, clean air and dark skies, boundless geological wonders, and a sense of freedom; but with the freedom to enjoy these treasures comes responsibility. To camp anywhere in the park, other than developed campgrounds on the North and South Rim, you must obtain a backcountry permit. Day hiking, an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, or hiking and camping on adjacent public lands does not require a permit (Phantom Ranch does require a reservation). Backcountry hikers must carry their permit, and once a campsite has been established, the permit must be displayed within easy view of a patrolling backcountry ranger. For general permit information, call the Backcountry Information Center, Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7875 Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Time. The South Rim Backcountry Information Center is open daily, year-round, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MT) and the North Rim Backcountry Information Center is open daily, mid-May to mid-October, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MT) for walk-in visitors to obtain a permit; however, know that in popular seasons, it is best to obtain a permit well in advance of your trip. For more information on how to obtain a backcountry permit online, visit: nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm.
The trails described in these Geological Hiking Trail Guides use a reference code that corresponds with the trails described on my website (such as Tr1A.2 for the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trail); the “Tr” denotes trail, the “1A” indicates the auto-touring route that the trail is associated with, and the “2” denotes that that trail is the 2nd one described in alphabetical order under that auto-touring route. There are three main rim-to-river trails within the Corridor use area, including the Bright Angel Trail, and the North and South Kaibab Trails, although the short Plateau Point and River Trails which connect with Corridor trail system also fall in this category. The Corridor Zone is recommended for hikers without previous Grand Canyon experience. The trails are well groomed and make for pleasant hiking, they receive routine maintenance and are consistently patrolled by rangers, and they boast purified water stations, toilets, signage, emergency phones, and ranger stations. The initial stretch of the Boucher Trail to Dripping Springs, the Grandview Trails to Horseshoe Mesa, the Hermit Trail, the short connecting trail to Dripping Springs (only accessed from the Boucher Trail), and the Tonto Trail between Hermit Creek and the South Kaibab Trail junction occur within Threshold use areas. Trails with a Threshold designation are recommended for hikers with previous Grand Canyon experience. These trails only receive occasional maintenance (if severely damaged) and are only irregularly patrolled. All other “trails” designated as such, fall within the Primitive Zone. Trails and routes within Primitive use areas are not maintained or patrolled and are recommended only for highly experience Grand Canyon hikers with proven route-finding skills. Hiking on trails in Primitive use areas is not recommended during the summer because of high temperatures and/or because they lack reliable water sources. Hiking in Wild use areas is not recommended except for those few with exceptional backcountry experience. There are no designated trails in this zone, although some routes have become quite popular.
During the preparation of these trail guides, I was keenly aware that my backcountry experiences are probably greater than average, and that my environmental ethics might be honed to a greater degree of sensitivity than average. Anyone who spends a significant time in the out-of-doors knows that doing so comes with a certain level of personal risk and potential environmental impact. Enjoy, but do so wisely and respectfully. My safety rules are simple. (1) Make sure someone knows approximately where you’ll be and when you’ll be there, so that the authorities can be notified if you fail to appear. If you get into trouble, stay put, stay warm, dry and hydrated, and someone will find you. (2) Don’t do anything that you don’t feel comfortable doing because in all likelihood, it falls outside your knowledge and skills, or it is inherently dangerous. Taking risks can be rewarding, but too much of a good thing can get you in harm’s way, and in the backcountry, this can be deadly. (3) Know what you are about when you head into the field, or take someone with you who does. While I have tried to describe each hiking route in detail, my hiking trail guides should not be considered a substitute for good map reading and route-finding skills. It is a good practice to carry original USGS 7.5-minute topographic maps covering each hiking trail, and know how to read them. And don’t be overly reliant on your hand-held GPS either, satellite signals can be poor in rough terrain, and batteries can fail. (4) Carry the right equipment. Traveling in out of the way places can be challenging, and rough weather or a wrong turn can make the proper gear a lifesaving prospect. The ten essentials you should have in your pack include: 1) drinking water; 2) extra food; 3) a first aid kit; 4) a flashlight or headlamp; 5) food storage containers; 6) rain gear; 7) a topographic map; 8) a compass; 9) a pocket-knife; and 10) a tent, emergency shelter, and/or extra clothing. A cell-phone didn’t make my list; cell-phone signals are spotty at best in much of Grand Canyon’s backcountry. Encounters with large wild animals are extremely rare; however, nuisance rodents are quite common. Rodents raiding your food can be avoided by using proper storage containers.
It is best to hike during the spring or fall hiking seasons when precipitation is minimal and temperatures within the canyon are cool, but not cold. Take appropriate precautions depending on seasonal variations in trail conditions. During the winter, the upper portions of many trails can become dangerously icy because the wintertime sun never reaches into the confines of the side canyons where most trails are found, and ice can remain on the trails long after a snowstorm passes. In- step crampons and trekking poles are recommended. Tranquil summer weather can be very misleading. From May through September, it is critical that hikers have the discipline to begin well before dawn, or in the late afternoon and early evening; heat exhaustion, over-exposure, and dehydration are constant threats! Plan to reach your destination or a shady place to take a break between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (average descent time from rim to river is between 4 and 6 hours); it is definitely not a good idea to hike between noon and 4 p.m. in hot weather. Unless you are greatly accustomed to the rigors of the backcountry, it is shear folly to attempt a rim-to-river-to-rim hike in a single day (I caution against out and back hikes of any kind that are more than 6-8 miles in length, unless you start very early and are a physically fit and speedy hiker).
Please minimize your impact when travelling in the backcountry by following the ethics of Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org): 1) plan ahead and prepare; 2) hike and camp on durable surfaces; 3) dispose of waste properly; 4) leave what you find; 5) minimize campfire and camping area impacts; 6) respect wildlife; and 7) be considerate of other visitors. Hike on established trails whenever possible, and do not shortcut switchbacks or “trail” around mud, standing water, or snow-covered patches. Where no established trails exist, avoid trammeling vegetation or cryptobiotic soils. Choose a campsite well away from trails and streams, preferably in an established location; and never on vegetation. Campfires are not legal within the canyon; cook with a camp stove and wash at least 100 feet from the water’s edge. Pack out your trash (even so-called “natural” material like orange peels can take years to decompose in the desert; and the “natives” don’t need to eat your leftovers). Consumption of edible plants is poor etiquette, and collecting plants is by permit only, and the collection of cultural artifacts is a crime on all federal lands.
Are you ready to get out there? Visit my website at intheplaygroundofgiants.com for more details on Grand Canyon geology, as well as auto-touring route and hiking trail descriptions; and don’t forget to pack your favorite geologic hiking trail guide. Please hike safely; brave the elements, work up a sweat, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s the only way to SEE the world!