Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A four-day hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail
By Michael Lanza
Hiking down the snow- and ice-covered Grandview Trail into the world’s most famous canyon, I’m thinking about time. It’s not such an odd thing to think about when you’re walking on rock that’s 270 million years old, while looking out at geologic layers that make the stone under your feet seem adolescent. But I’m thinking about a much, much shorter period of time: 11 years, actually.
That’s how much time has passed since I last backpacked into the Grand Canyon. How did I let that happen? Not for falling out of backpacking, which I’m fortunate to be able to do several times a year; nor, certainly, for the absence of desire to return here. Funny how time seems to dash ahead of us even when we think we’re keeping up just fine.
Being back here again after so long feels like arriving late at a party that’s clearly been rockin’ for several hours—glad I made it, but wish I’d gotten my ass moving a little sooner. And if that sentiment strikes a chord with you, then you should do something about it very soon. I’ll explain why below.
From high up the Grandview Trail, one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring and incomprehensible landscapes sprawls before us, a vastness of deep chasms and soaring towers, of sheer walls and steep, crumbling slopes stacked in layers of red, orange, white, brown, and black, with green daubs of sparse vegetation.
Six of us—including my wife, Penny, our nine-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex, and friends Jeff Wilhelm and his 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine—have come to the canyon in the last days of March to backpack off the South Rim. Over four days, we’ll hike 29.2 miles from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead.
We’re two or three weeks ahead of the nearest thing there is to an ideal time of year to backpack in the canyon. With so much vertical relief here, picking dates inevitably requires choosing between the risk of cold temps and possible snow and ice on the rims or unbearable heat in the canyon. As it is, we start out on treacherously icy conditions on the upper Grandview Trail—which feels a bit sketchy with young kids, though we get through it fine, if very slowly—but spend most of our trip hiking in T-shirts and shorts and hardly breaking a sweat.
On our first afternoon, we drop a steep 3,500 feet in less than five miles to a campsite on Cottonwood Creek, beneath a horseshoe of red cliffs and a night sky riddled with stars. Then we follow the Tonto Trail’s serpentine course westward across the broad, cacti-studded Tonto Plateau for more than two days, walking the brink of cliffs that plunge more than a thousand feet to the Colorado River. The kids play in each of the few creeks we pass, doggedly building rock dams that will be swept away by the next heavy rainstorm. We pitch tents on sagebrush flats and gaze out at an endless parade of stone castles and amphitheaters spreading out beneath the snow-dappled South and North rims.
It really is kind of mind-boggling. As Jeff summarizes, simply but completely: “It doesn’t look real.”
John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and legendary Western explorer who led the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, once said, “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”
Okay, the guy had a point there. But he didn’t exactly have a desk job. For those who can’t quite wangle, say, six months of sabbatical to toil through the labyrinths, a hike of four or five days in this majestic place can go a long way toward purging your head of the toxins of civilization, among various mentally healthful benefits.
Many of the park’s trails are remote and difficult, so most backpackers stick to some combination of the only three trails that are maintained and regularly patrolled by rangers, the South Kaibab, Bright Angel, and North Kaibab trails. Competition for backcountry campsites along those three trails is fierce. The most popular multi-day hike in the park that’s not entirely on one of those three “corridor” trails goes from Hermits Rest on the South Rim to the Bright Angel Trailhead; it’s 27.2 miles if you make the 2.4-mile out-and-back hike to Hermit Creek (where most hikers camp their first night). So permits for that trip get snapped up quickly, too.
But the hike I describe above (with more details in The Itinerary below) is easily accessible, off the South Rim, and not hugely popular. Like basically any trek in the canyon, the 29.2 miles from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead delivers scenery that assure it will rank as one of the best trips of your life—but without crowds, except on the very busy South Kaibab Trail. Between Horseshoe Mesa and the Tonto Trail-South Kaibab Trail junction, we see just only one or two parties a day.
If, like me, too many years have passed since you last hiked into the Big Ditch—or if you never have—now is the time to do something about it. The first date you can apply for a wilderness permit for a trip beginning in April is Dec. 1; for May, it’s Jan. 1. (See Permit below.)
On the long hike up the South Kaibab Trail, walking in powerful, cold gusts that portend a storm bringing snow and rain tonight, I make a vow to not let another 11 years pass before I backpack here again.
That’s much too long.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Everglades National Park’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.]
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers with previous experience hiking in the desert; see Concerns below. First-time Grand Canyon backpackers may want to stick to the corridor trails (South Kaibab, Bright Angel, North Kaibab) unless they have a lot of experience, especially in the desert. While the trails on this route are generally easy to follow, the Grandview Trail is steep, rugged, often narrow, and very exposed—not a good choice for people uncomfortable with exposure. The Tonto Trail is gentler, and the South Kaibab Trail is excellent, but involves a long, relentless uphill climb. Everyone in the party should have good stamina for hiking with a heavy pack because of the need to carry extra water. See the park’s backcountry trip planner.
Make It Happen
Season April to May and mid-September to early November are the best times for backpacking. Snow and ice may cover trails at the rims until mid- to late April; the inner canyon may see daytime highs in the 90s by mid-May. Summer highs in the canyon frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., though morning temps are often comfortable. The summer monsoon season, from July through early September, brings regular, severe afternoon thunderstorms with lightning, hail, destructive winds, and flash floods.
The Itinerary Hike east to west, from the Grandview Trailhead to South Kaibab Trailhead: The Grandview Trail is steeper and more exposed than the South Kaibab, and you can find out from the Backcountry Information Center right before starting out whether it’s icy, rather than finishing on it days later without knowing what conditions you’ll encounter. The following itinerary takes five days, but you could shorten it to four or three days by carrying extra water and camping on the dry plateau between water sources, or combining the last two days into one big day.
Day one: Descend a rugged 3,500 feet and 4.5 to five miles to a choice of campsites on Cottonwood Creek.
Day two: Hike 5.5 miles to Grapevine Creek.
Day three: Hike 8.7 miles to Lone Tree Canyon.
Day four: Hike 4.5 miles to a nice (but waterless) campsite with a large overhang one mile west of Cremation Creek.
Day five: Hike 5.5 miles and nearly 4,000 feet uphill to South Kaibab Trailhead.
Getting There Grand Canyon Village on the park’s South Rim is located 60 miles north of Williams, via AZ 64 off I-40, and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, via US 180. You’ll have to shuttle vehicles between the hike’s start and the village, because there’s no parking at South Kaibab Trailhead. Park one vehicle at the Backcountry Information Center in the village, and then drive a second vehicle to the Grandview Trailhead, 12 miles east of Grand Canyon Village on Desert View Drive. Post-hike, catch a free park shuttle bus from the South Kaibab Trailhead back to the village.
Permit A permit is required for overnight camping in the backcountry. You can apply for one beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (e.g., on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April). A Grand Canyon backpacking permit is one of the hardest permits to get in the national park system. Fax in your application early in the morning on the first day you can submit it. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm for details and the application form.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon map no. 207, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• There are only four water sources along this route, and only Grapevine Creek flows reliably year-round. The other sources, Cottonwood Creek, Boulder Creek, and Lone Tree Creek, usually dry up by summer; the amount of water you must carry makes this trip much harder in fall than spring. Cremation Creek is dry year-round. Check with rangers for the latest reports. (For carrying extra water, I like the MSR 10-liter Dromedary, $45, because it’s bombproof and collapses to a fairly lightweight, small package when empty.)
• Spring weather can be quite variable through April; be prepared for a range of temperatures and conditions. Usually by May, temperatures on the rims are comfortable and the inner canyon can have afternoons so hot you’ll want to finish hiking by midday.
• The upper stretches of the South Kaibab Trail and Grandview Trail are often treacherously icy and snow-covered until sometime in April; the date the trails dry out varies greatly from year to year. Check trail conditions with the Backcountry Information Center before your trip, and if there’s any chance of encountering icy conditions, bring some form of traction device for your boots, like Kahtoola Microspikes.
• There’s little shade. Wear a sun hat, sunblock, and light, breathable clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
• Bring trekking poles for the steep ascents and descents on virtually any hike into the canyon.
Contact Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888, nps.gov/grca.