How to Backpack the Grand Canyon
More than 5,000,000 people visit the Grand Canyon every year! For the most part, many of us will be the onlookers gazing from atop the rim aimlessly gawking in awe into the grandest of grand canyons.
The sheer size and pure majestic beauty it beholds will leave an ever-lasting impression. We snap the perfect photo to post on Instagram, check in on Facebook, snag a few goodies from the gift shop and as life will have it, we will go on our merry way. The obligatory bucket list check mark has been crossed off. We have all done it, me included.
What if you had the opportunity to go for a backpacking trip into the canyon?
Not just a day hike but an actual backpacking trip of 3, 5, 7 days or more of pure backcountry bliss. Would you do it? Could you do it? Of course! The question is, how would you do it?
It’s one of the most common questions asked across all the online groups and there’s a huge misnomer that you can just go hike down and camp in the canyon whenever you feel like it. If you are going to camp below the rim you must have a permit from the backcountry office.
Let’s start by keeping it simple. For anyone wanting to backpack into the Grand Canyon you must pick up a copy of these two books. It is a mandatory reading assignment! I will administer a full comprehensive exam at the end.
- Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers
- Grand Obsession by Harvey Butchart
Seriously, you must read the above two books, and don’t worry the exam was a joke on my part. There are plenty of other wonderful books out there, however these two set the bar for the adventure of a lifetime!
Now that you’ve had a few days to digest what you read, remember:
- You can get seriously hurt or even die in the Grand Canyon.
- You will become absolutely obsessed with anything and everything related to the Grand Canyon.
Let’s move on to the actual planning. Go ahead and bookmark the following links for future reference.
- The Grand Canyon Backcountry Office: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm
- Backcountry Permits: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm
- Backcountry Rules and Regulations: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-regs.htm
- Grand Canyon Association: https://www.grandcanyon.org/
- Grand Canyon Hiking Kit Maps: https://shop.grandcanyon.org/products/grand-canyon-hiking-kit (I use the Grand Canyon National Park Sky Terrain Trail Map for planning)
- Hike Smart – Summer Hiking: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-smart.htm
- Visit the Backcountry Permit Page: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm and scroll down to the application dates for your hikes. Follow the submittal rules exactly. If you have questions, call the Backcountry Office, the Rangers are AMAZING!
- Fill out your application.
- Submit your application during the appropriate window for your hike.
- Patiently wait, it could take up to three weeks or more depending on the amount of applications they receive.
- When you receive the good news email, fist pump the air! That’s what I do.
- Get your gear all in order and go for some practice hikes, even if it’s just around your neighborhood. Remember, this isn’t the Four Seasons. Come prepared, hike smart and what you pack in must be packed out! Don’t forget your Oboz Sawtooth!
Figure out how many days/nights you have for backpacking. Based on your answer, that’s how you’re going to plan your backpacking trip. Print out a few copies of the Backcountry Permit (link above) along with a map of the canyon that lays out the different trails, campgrounds and backcountry use areas.
More than likely you’ll want to hit a corridor trail as your first trip. The primary corridor trails for the Grand Canyon are Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab (North Rim). Just for fun, let’s lay out a five-night/six-day itinerary going below the rim via one of the main corridors.
Day One/Night One
Begin your hike in on the Bright Angel Trail.
Your destination will be Indian Garden Campground (CIG).
A pleasant five-mile downhill hike. Once you set up camp, chill your feet and legs in Garden Creek or head out on a three mile in and out hike to Plateau Point (cover image), it’s a must-do hike.
If you do it during the evening there’s a good chance, you’ll share the trail with mule deer and catch an amazing sunset over the South Rim. Did I mention the views? You will see it all and quite frankly it makes you realize just how miniscule we all are on this great earth.
Day Two/Night Two
Pack up camp and head back out on the Bright Angel Trail with your destination being the Bright Angel Campground (CBG) just outside of the famous Phantom Ranch.
This hike will be just over five miles with plenty of sightseeing. Keep an open eye as you leave Indian Garden about a mile or so out there are ruins to both your left and right on the trail.
A good place to take a break will be right before you drop into Devils Cork-Screw.
You may be able to catch a glimpse of the waterfalls from Garden Creek. Then it’s all downhill on the switchbacks until you reach the Colorado River as you hike along the River Trail to Silver Bridge to cross over the mighty Colorado to the Bright Angel Campground.
There’s so much to see on this stretch that you may not catch it all. Just enjoy every minute of it and go get a beer or lemonade up at Phantom Ranch and mail a postcard or two off to family and friends.
Day Three/Night Three
Are you ready for a long, steady 8-mile uphill climb? It’s not that bad, until you reach Asinine Hill (I warned you). Day three will be a long amazing day heading up the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground (CCG).
You’ll notice fewer people on your hike. Make sure to stop at Ribbon Falls, it’s right off the trail after you get to the top of Asinine Hill.
If time permits, or if you stay an extra night (if it’s in your permit) do a day hike to Upper Ribbon Falls. You can thank me later.
Day Four/Night Four
Time to pack it up and head back down to Bright Angel Campground (CBG). This downhill trek is a breeze.
If you want a side adventure, check out the Box in Phantom Canyon or cruise around Phantom Ranch for the rest of the day. There’s plenty to see and do down by the beach. Just make sure you are taking it all in because what initially felt like forever is quickly coming to an end.
Day Five/Night Five
It’s all uphill from here. Remember as the signage states, “Going down is optional, going up is mandatory!” You’ll be leaving Bright Angel Campground and heading up to Indian Garden. Yes, it is backtracking, but everything has a different perspective when you’re hiking up. You’ll see things you missed before and you’ll be hating the Devil’s Cork-Screw, maybe. To pass time, count the switchbacks. I think it’s 16, maybe 22 I can’t remember the exact number.
Time to pack it all up and out. This is the last haul, once you reach the top you will have just finished your first 40-mile +/- backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon! Congratulations.
Did you have fun? Are you ready to do it again? Of course! Now that you’ve seen an example itinerary. Let’s get you ready.
No matter what trail you choose to take in your Grand Canyon adventure, you will experience everything she has to offer. For some it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. For others it becomes a way of life. I simply became obsessed and cannot get enough. In fact, I just received my permit to go down during the hottest time of year, July!
Cameron Davison is a newish hiker/backpacker who has finally gained an appreciation for the great outdoors of Arizona. If he only listened to his wife decades ago. Better late than never! From desolate deserts to pine covered mountains you can find him strolling around on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and occasionally, his blog.
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