5 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do
By Michael Lanza
This is, in a way, a story about addiction. Or a love affair. Or both. Because those are the best metaphors I can come up with for how the Grand Canyon consistently lures me back when I’m thinking about spring and fall hiking and backpacking trips. It is that rare kind of natural environment that exists on a scale of its own, like Alaska or the Himalaya. There’s something soul-stirring and hypnotic about its infinite vistas, the deceptive scale of the canyon walls and stone towers, and the way the foreground and background continually expand and shrink as you ascend and descend elevation gradients of a vertical mile or more—all of which validates enduring the wilting heat and trails that sometimes seem better suited to bighorn sheep than to bipedal primates.
I’m going to show you, in words and photos, why one or more of these Big Ditch backpacking trips deserves top priority as you’re planning for spring or fall trips.
Whenever I’m looking for a long, remote, incredibly beautiful, wilderness backpacking trip in the Southwest, the Grand Canyon seems to consistently emerge on top. Even though it lies a day’s journey from my home, I’ve been there numerous times, including four backpacking trips and long dayhikes in the past three years. And I have plans to return again both next spring and fall. It seems the more I go there, the more I want—or need—to go back, in spite of how hard it is (and maybe that’s one of the reasons I keep going back).
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Perhaps John Wesley Powell, who led the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, put it best when he wrote: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech nor by speech itself… 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, most of us don’t have months free. No worries: Each of the five trips described below can be hiked within a week. Each description has links to full feature stories about those trips at The Big Outside, which include many photos and my expert tips on planning and pulling them off—including how to acquire one of these hard-to-get permits. (Many of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside, which you can get for as little as $5.)
Any of these hikes will thrill and amaze you, I guarantee it—and just may inspire in you an urge to go back again, and again, and, yup, again.
I’d love to hear if you’ve done any of these trips or want to suggest others in the Grand Canyon. Please share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
If there’s an archetypal Grand Canyon hike, this baby is it. Crossing the canyon via the North Kaibab Trail combined with either the South Kaibab (one of prettiest of the 20 best national park dayhikes) or the Bright Angel Trail delivers the goods on epic scenery. You get views from both rims all the way down to the Colorado River, the canyon-spanning vistas of the South Kaibab, the Bright Angel’s huge panoramas and desert oases, a walk through the narrow, sheer-walled gorge of lower Bright Angel Creek, waterfalls, and airy sections where the North Kaibab was blasted from cliff faces.
Although most GC trails are quite rugged, these three so-called “corridor” trails, while quite strenuous for their vertical relief, have better footing, more reliable water availability at regular intervals, and much less of the loose terrain, quad-pounding ledge drops, and scary exposure of other canyon footpaths.
A one-way canyon traverse, typically backpacked in three days (in either direction), is 21 miles with 4,780 feet of descent and 5,761 feet of ascent via the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails, or 23.5 miles with 4,380 feet of descent and 5,761 feet of ascent via the Bright Angel and North Kaibab. Shuttles are available between the rims, and you can also double the trip by backpacking across and back.
Another excellent—and popular—itinerary, especially among first-timers here, is to forego the long ascent to the North Rim, and instead hike 16.5 miles rim to river to rim: down the South Kaibab and up the Bright Angel. Many backpackers take two or three days, with one night at Bright Angel Campground on the Colorado River and a possible second night at Indian Garden Campground along the Bright Angel Trail to break up the long climb back up from the river.
Do this trip smartly and safely. Get my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
A permit for backpacking the corridor trails on any itinerary in spring or fall is one of the hardest backcountry permits to get in the entire National Park System, with upwards of three-quarters of applications denied; apply for one on the first day the park starts accepting applications for your trip dates. Plus, growing numbers of uber-bit hikers and runners knock off a rim-to-rim (r2r) or a complete rim-to-rim-to-rim—across and back—(r2r2r) in a day. Consequently, in peak weather of mid-spring and mid-autumn, don’t expect the solitude you can find on some other canyon backpacking trips.
But if you want to take one of the most unique and spectacular treks in the world, without attempting any of the other significantly harder routes, this is the one.
See my “Photo Gallery: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim” and my feature story “A Grand Ambition, or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all of my stories about South Rim hikes and Ask Me posts about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
See my hard-earned advice on scoring a backcountry permit in popular parks like the Grand Canyon in my
Hermits Rest to Bright Angel
Outside the three corridor trails, the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead may be the park’s most popular, for many good reasons. Although it does not go all the way to the Colorado River—unless you take any of a few side trails off this route that descend to the river (each adding several miles round-trip)—this linkup of the Hermit, Tonto, and Bright Angel trails nonetheless offers an experience similar to a rim-to-river-to-rim hike that’s in many ways easier.
The rigorous Hermit Trail—the hardest section of this hike—snakes through one of the dramatic tributary canyons of the Colorado River, below colorful, striated cliffs of the canyon’s Supai and Redwall layers. You’ll follow a 13-mile stretch of the Tonto Trail across the gently rolling Tonto Plateau, where prickly-pear cacti and other wildflowers bloom and the views span from the rims to the river. That stretch of the Tonto crosses five major tributary canyons of the Colorado River, including passing directly below the tall, slender rock spire and soaring burgundy cliffs in the canyon of Monument Creek, and the mind-boggling heights and three-dimensionality of the Inferno.
One more advantage of this hike: There are three reliable water sources along or a short distance off this route.
See my story “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon” about dayhiking Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead (a route I’ve also backpacked).
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Grandview Point to South Kaibab
Like Hermits Rest to Bright Angel, the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead provides backpackers with a full-immersion experience in the Big Ditch without as much elevation gain and loss as going all the way to the Colorado River. (In fact, this trip offers just one optional side hike to the river—down the South Kaibab Trail.)
Descending the South Kaibab Trail as the light of early morning streams across the Grand Canyon is one of the most sublime hiking experiences in America, if not the world. And the Grandview Trail offers constantly changing perspectives of the canyon spreading out before you. This hike also traverses a long stretch of the scenic Tonto Plateau, with views reaching to the South and North rims and the river, crossing a handful of tributary canyons like Grapevine Creek, which itself is staggeringly deep and broad. All along this route, some of the canyon’s most distinctive formations, like the towering Zoroaster Temple, seem to grow and shrink as you approach and move away from them.
You can combine this hike with the Hermits Rest to Bright Angel hike (above), or partly overlap the two—going from Hermits Rest to South Kaibab or Grandview Point to Bright Angel. There are four water sources along this route, but only one is perennial (Grapevine Creek), so it’s better done in spring, when the other three creeks usually have water.
See my feature story “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail” at The Big Outside.
I can help you plan these or any trips you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop
Accessible for shorter spring and fall seasons than most backpacking trips off the South Rim, the remote, 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim has become a prized destination for in-the-know backpackers and river-rafting parties taking side hikes, primarily for an unusual abundance of a rare element in the canyon: water.
The two fast-moving, perennial creeks and one river (in addition to the Colorado River) that backpackers hike along on this trip pour over some of the Grand Canyon’s prettiest waterfalls, course through spectacular narrows, and nurture oases of trees and vegetation. Your first sighting from above of the Thunder River can seem like a mirage, seeing it burst in a—yes—thunderous waterfall from the face of a cliff.
Although the upper parts of this loop are dry and nearly devoid of shade—they can be brutally hot—the vistas reach to the South Rim and for miles up and down the canyon, revealing its majestic breadth and depth.
This isn’t a trip for beginner backpackers or Grand Canyon first-timers: You’ll descend a vertical mile to the Colorado and climb back up again, on often-rugged trails, in heat that can push the edges of human tolerance. But backpackers ready to rise to the challenge will explore one of the most unique corners of the Grand Canyon.
See my feature story “Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop.”
Hike all of the “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Royal Arch Loop
I’ve saved the hardest hike on this list for last. Experienced, hard-core Grand Canyon backpackers ready to up their game will love the challenge and solitude of the very rugged, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop.
More remote and inaccessible than most backpacking trips off the South Rim, this trek from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up features just about every characteristic that makes backpacking in the Grand Canyon unique: sweeping views, intimate side canyons with lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, a high solitude quotient, and one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another—including one of the best in the entire canyon, below Royal Arch (one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites).
Read about how climate change is affecting the Grand Canyon and other parks in my book
Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
This hike isn’t for backpackers whose image of their own skills, experience, and nerve doesn’t sync with reality. The park’s website says it is “considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side hikes” and it “offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon”—including very difficult, off-trail scrambling where you may sometimes have to lower backpacks, and one mandatory, 20-foot rappel.
But if you’re ready for this caliber of adventure, I think you’ll consider it one of your best backpacking trips ever—and certainly one of the premier multi-day adventures in the Grand Canyon.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop” and all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park at The Big Outside.
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