Backpacking Grand Canyon National Park

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After Greg and I took 10 and 13 year breaks, respectively, from the grandest canyon on the planet, we went to bask in her presence again, “before it gets too hot”. Joke’s on us, it started snowing outside of Flagstaff and by the time we got to the South Rim it was 30°. The date… was May 2, 2018.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but the Grand Canyon really is one of the most amazing places on the planet. And it’s right here in America. Every American in the country owes it to him/herself to see it, and what better way than by strapping on a pack and hiking to the bottom?

The Grand Canyon has lots of trails you can choose from, from super easy paved trails along the rims, to super hard hike all day without any water or shade trails deep down into her belly. The most popular trails make up what is known as ‘The Corridor’- Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, and North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim. Lots and lots of people hike The Corridor, and with good reason. I’m not saying either trail is ‘easy’, but they were built with the general public in mind, and we think great options for beginners. Who don’t mind 4000-5000 ft in elevation change.

We hiked in from the South Rim, so that’s what we know and what I’m going to share with you here. Grab your pack, let’s go.   

Backpacking into the Grand Canyon

 

Backcountry Permits

You can find everything you need regarding backcountry permits here, including Corridor Availability, and a Permit Request Form.

You can reserve Grand Canyon backcountry sites in advance for a non-refundable $10 booking fee + refundable (in the form of backcountry credit) $8 pp/night. When we first came to Tucson I made a reservation for us by piecing together dates for the trip we wanted according to the Corridor Availability, then printing out the application form and mailing it, along with a $74 ($10 fee + $8/pp/night) check, to the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center (BIC). You can also fax in your request, but Greg’s dad is a rural mailman so we support the United States Postal Service. I submitted two different sets of dates for the same itinerary, and got the later dates, which was around the 28th of June.

A couple of weeks later I received an email from the BIC notifying us our trip been awarded, and that temperatures at the end of June can reach around 120° in the shade at the bottom of the Canyon. Hmmm. As a nurse I can work six days on and take eight off without missing any shifts, so for our week off in May we packed up all our gear, along with suitcases with real clothes in case none of our adventures worked out and we had to go to Vegas for a few days instead, and drove north to try our luck at some walk-in campsites with the intention of canceling our trip at the end of June should we get some walk-ins.

Our original reservation was: Night 1 Indian Garden campground, nights 2,3 Bright Angel campground, night 4 Indian Garden campground. That’s a very cushy itinerary, but the first time I backpacked to the river I only spent 1 night at Bright Angel, and when Greg went he spent 1 night at Bright Angel and 1 night at Indian Garden, so we wanted some time to actually enjoy the hike, and the bottom.

 

Where to stay at the South Rim

Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim is a huge community and full of people, at least the times I’ve been. Xanterra offers four different lodges at the Rim, as well a a full-service RV park. NPS runs the Mather Campground and reservations can be made at one of my favorite websites of all time recreation.gov.

Just outside the park’s southern entrance is the small town of Tusayan. It’s got more hotels to choose from, as well as a few popular restaurants but be aware the McD’s there will cost you upwards of $15/person. Save your willpower and wait until you get to Williams or Flagstaff if you simply cannot live without a 20 piece.

But if you’re on a Warcken budget, there’s a much, much cheaper lodging option than all of those. The South Rim is surrounded by Kaibab National Forest, and you know what that means… You can pretty well camp wherever you want for free. We drove into the area as it was getting dark but had no trouble pulling off on a NF road and finding a flat spot where others had obviously camped.

But back to those walk-in campsites. According to the GrCa website, walk-in backcountry reservations work like this:

 

Last Minute Permit for Corridor Campgrounds

A limited number of last minute walk-up permits are available at the South Rim and/or North Rim Backcountry Information Center for Corridor Campgrounds (Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood Campgrounds). These permits are issued in person only, are for one or two consecutive nights, and cannot be purchased more than one day prior to the start of a hike.

Last minute permits are issued by the Backcountry Information Center, located inside the park on both the South Rim and the North Rim. The South Rim Backcountry Information Center is open daily, year round, for walk-in visitors from 8 am to noon and 1-5 pm Mountain Standard Time. The North Rim Backcountry Information Center (located in the administrative building) is open daily mid-May to mid-October for walk-in visitors from 8 am to noon and 1-5 pm Mountain Standard Time.

You can stop by the Backcountry Information Center at any time during open hours and request a waitlist number. This number is valid for the following morning and will be used to determine priority of service. At 8:00 a.m. Backcountry Information Center staff will call waitlist numbers. When your turn comes you can request a permit, exchange your number for a new waitlist number good for the following day, or simply ask questions. You may participate in the waitlist for as many consecutive days as is convenient.

Last minute permit in layman’s terms

Backcountry permits for the Corridor Campgrounds are limited to the following two consecutive nights, so go to the BIC the morning before you want to start hiking to try for a spot. If you’re already in the area you can go to the BIC the day before the morning before you want to try for a permit to get a waitlist number. So if you want to start hiking on Wednesday, for example:

  • Go to the BIC on Monday and get a waitlist number.
  • Show up to the BIC on Tuesday morning and get in line with all the other waitlisters.
  • If there is space available at the campsites you want for Wednesday and Thursday nights, great. Book them. If not, take a waitlist number for Tuesday morning and try again.

We got into the area too late to try that night, but got to the BIC about an hour before they opened to get in line. Nothing makes old lady Warcken crazier than competitive national park camping, but we really lucked out with a few open sites at both Bright Angel (BA) campground (cg) at the bottom and Indian Garden (IG) cg halfway up/down the Bright Angel Trail.

We initially booked our first night at BA and our second at IG, but we quickly reconsidered having a lazy day at the river, and resigned ourselves to a 10 mile hike out our last day and booked two nights at Bright Angel. We asked about getting a third night but were told the reservation system wouldn’t allow them to book it, but Greg had been through this before and knew what to do. We booked our two nights at Bright Angel and took a waitlist number for the following morning, then had the whole day to enjoy the South Rim.

Booking three last-minute nights in a row

Now… the trick to getting three nights in a row is to have everything packed and ready to go the morning you are to start your hike. In our case we booked our trip on Thursday to start hiking on Friday. We packed Thursday night and on Friday morning we went back to the BIC as we would’ve anyway because that’s where you leave your vehicle for the duration of your hike. But instead of jumping on a hiker shuttle we went inside to see about adding a night to our trip. Since we were starting that day, according to the rules, we could reserve a site for the following two nights. As luck would have it there, there was a space available at Indian Garden on Sunday night so we were able to add it to our itinerary with the hiker credit we had leftover from our original late-June reservation.  

Success! We gathered up all our loose ends and jumped on the next hiker shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. I nagged G.Hammer all morning about drink-drink-drinking his water as there is no water available on the South Kaibab Trail until you get to the river. As we were nearing the shuttle transfer center at the Visitor Center I reached for my CamelBak and realized I’d left it in the back of the truck. Wah wah wahhhhhhh. Back to the BIC. I asked the bus driver to kindly wait for me as it would only take a moment to run to the truck to grab it, and we were running out of cool hiking temps. When we pulled into the BIC he announced on the overhead “We’re just going to wait here for a minute. This young lady forgot her water.” Thank you, sir.

Keep in mind, even though it seems weird, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon are much, much warmer than at the top. The Bright Angel and South Kaibab trailheads are over 7000 ft, while the river is about 3000 ft. So it can be snowing on the rim- like the 6 inches they got they day we arrived- and be in the 90s at the bottom. And like I mentioned, the South Kaibab Trail does not have any water along the way. We each had a 32 oz Nalgene, but I am a chronic over-preparer and I was not running the risk of hiking down with just one liter per person. If you think that’s a bright idea, pick up a copy of Death in Grand Canyon and enjoy an informative read. Don’t forget your NatGeo Grand Canyon Trails Map!

We wanted to take the South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel campground because Greg had never been that way and it’s a much, much easier hike down than it is up. The South Kaibab Trail is 7 miles down, down, down stair step, after stair step, after stair step without a lick of shade and again, no water. But it is an absolute marvel of trail engineering, and worth seeing just for the trail work.

Our hike 

Thanks to our delay we didn’t start actually hiking until 11:00 (Well if it isn’t the afternoon hike club!), but there were tons of people getting even later starts than us so I didn’t feel so bad. We fell in with a couple in their 60s, hiking down to stay two nights at BA while their daughter trail-ran Rim to Rim to Rim in one day. Bright Angel trailhead to North Kaibab trailhead to Bright Angel trailhead all in one day. That’s over 46 miles and over 21,000 ft elevation change. We loved that they were going down to cheer her on, briefly, as she passed a couple of times. #lifegoals

Bright Angel Creek runs along about half of the North Kaibab Trail and into the Colorado just past the camping area. A bit further upstream is Phantom Ranch, the only tourist facility at the bottom of the Canyon. You can stay the night, or have dinner, or just go in for a lemonade. 

The sun was still blazing when we got to camp at 4:00pm but Greg found a site that would quickly be in shade and we set up shop then went to Phantom Creek to soak our aching tootsies. It was heaven. Bright Angel Campground is busy and popular, but don’t let that deter you- it is a wonderful campground and we loved it.

For our day off at the bottom we had big dreams of hiking 6.4 miles up to Ribbon Falls, but that would’ve required a 6.4 mile hike back and we were feeling pretty lethargic. Instead we enjoyed a slow morning at camp, drinking our coffee and reading in the sunshine. I’ve never felt more contented in my life. Then we packed up some snacks and headed up the Clear Creek Trail to see what there was to see.

It was HOT by the time we got back to Phantom Ranch and we popped our heads in to see what a frosty cold lemonade would cost. $4.95 a (plastic) cup. We turned right around and marched out. We made our own powdered lemonade at camp and went again to soak our tootsies and read in the shade of the cottonwoods, cooling our drinks and a Snickers in the water. It’s so fun just to sit and watch the stragglers come into camp- dirty, exhausted, miserable. After dinner we took another short hike around the River Trail loop and saw a couple crossing the bridge, almost to camp. The gentleman had his pack on his back and hers on his front. She was practically crawling. We watched them with binoculars from afar and just laughed and laughed. We’ve been there, man. You’re going to get through this.

Another easy day of hiking- just 5.1 miles from Bright Angel to the Indian Garden campground with water and shade all along the way. I knew the couple from the night before was at the far end of the campground so when we left we went out of our way to nonchalantly assess the situation. She had a spring in her step and was even laughing. See? They got through it.

Hiking up we joined a string of rafters whose companies had dropped them off from the river and left them to get out of the Canyon on their own two feet. Now that’s a way to go. The hike to IG is an easy one, and beautiful. Like a dreamscape. We got to camp in 2.5 hours and had a whole day to while away under the trees, eating, reading, and watching the hikers go by. We made dinner at camp, then took it out to Plateau Point to read, and eat, and watch the sunset. Listen to me when I tell you- Plateau Point is incredible. You’re not at the bottom, but you’re not at the top. It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s a favorite hangout of California Condors. We didn’t see any, but I was comforted to know they’re there. The dayhike to Plateau Point would be long and challenging- 12 miles and about 6000 feet of elevation change- but one of the best we’ve ever experienced. Right up there with Glacier’s Iceberg Lake and Hawai’i Volcanoes active lava flow, wherever it might currently be.

Our last day was just 4.5 miles back up to the rim and we were on the trail by 6:45a. We didn’t want to get caught in the heat on our toughest day, but it ended up being cloudy and cool, we made it up in three hours. Success! And so much easier than when either of us did it in our 20s. We’re like a couple of Benjamin Buttons.

The Mather Campground has a bathhouse and you can get a coin-operated shower- eight minutes for $2 which was ample time to scrubadub. Note: when I showered there in my 20s I ran out of water and out of money and had to wait, soaped up and shivering, for my friend Micah to go scrounge a few quarters out of the console so I could rinse. This time I sudsed my hair and my kerchief (with body wash I got in the free bin) before starting the water, so I was ready to go and even turned the water off early. Take that, GCNP!

Grand Canyon National Park sign
Greg insists on a picture in front of every park sign. Someday I will make a collage.

Listen to me when I say you don’t need much to hike into the Canyon. If you stick to the Corridor, you’ll be hiking with plenty of other people on trails that are well-maintained and impossible to lose. There are water spouts (except on the S. Kaibab) and toilets along the way, and even a few emergency phones should you run into trouble. I never encourage the general public to do things that might get them killed, but I think with a bit of wits, and plenty of water, salty snacks, and sunscreen, anyone and everyone should be able to enjoy this canyon whether by boat, or from the back of a mule, or on your own two legs. In fact, every American should consider it a duty to do so. At the very least, an amazing privilege. Just remember: Going down is optional, coming back up is mandatory.

 

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