By Michael Lanza
The Grand Canyon’s appeal to backpackers may seem elusive. It’s hard, it’s dry, it’s often quite hot with little respite from the blazing sun. But while those aspects of hiking there are rarely out of mind, when I recall backpacking in the canyon, I conjure mental images of waterfalls, creeks, and intimate side canyons sheltering perennial streams that nurture lush oases in the desert. I think of wildflowers carpeting the ground for as far as the eye can see. I recall campsites on beaches by the Colorado River and on promontories overlooking a wide expanse of the canyon.
And, of course, I picture the endless vistas stretching for miles in every direction, where impossibly immense stone towers loom thousands of feet above an unfathomably vertiginous and complex landscape.
After several backpacking trips in the Big Ditch, I find that the more I go there, the more I need to go back again. This place really hooks you (see reason no. 5, below). And my perspective is shaped by more than three decades of backpacking all over the United States, including many years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog. I’ve taken many of the best multi-day hikes out there—some of them multiple times. (In fact, here’s my list of the 10 best backpacking trips in America—and yes, the Grand Canyon is on it.)
As I increasingly seek a certain type of experience in the wilderness—one with more solitude, challenge, and surprises above and beyond inspiring scenery—I feel drawn back to the canyon time and time again.
While it seems an act of hubris to attempt to fully communicate the many compelling reasons why every backpacker should explore the Grand Canyon, I will do so here. But there is no better proof than personal experience: Go there yourself and discover the canyon’s many elusive truths.
Keep in mind that a Grand Canyon backpacking permit is one of the hardest to get in the National Park System. Apply on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, by Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April. See my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Please share your thoughts on this article—or your favorite GC hikes—in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.
1. It’s Truly Like No Other Place
If you’re a person who reserves judgment until you see hard data, the Grand Canyon’s metrics speak to a physical scale not replicated in many places in nature. A World Heritage Site, the national park covers over 1.2 million acres and the canyon stretches for 277 miles along the Colorado River. It carves 6,000 feet into the earth at its deepest point and measures 18 miles from rim to rim at its widest. Forty perennial tributary rivers and creeks flow into the Grand Canyon, and at least one estimate places the number of ephemeral tributaries at 490.
Its rock preserves a record spanning three of the four eras of geological time, and its elevation range spans five of the seven life zones and three of North America’s four types of desert. The oldest exposed rock in the canyon dates back two billion years—roughly half the age of the planet.
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From either rim, the canyon boggles the mind. Hike down into it and you will frequently see for dozens of miles in any direction—little vegetation below the forested rims means nearly constant, sweeping panoramas of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders—and yet glimpse only a fraction of the whole.
As you hike mile after mile, the canyon seems to morph, with distant towers of rock appearing tiny initially, swelling as you approach them until they become so massive that you gape, almost unable to tear your gaze away; and then they slowly shrink and disappear into the larger landscape as you put them farther behind you. The Grand Canyon refines your sense of the vastness and grandeur of our world.
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2. No Two Trips are the Same
Backpackers with the impression that any multi-day hike into the canyon will basically resemble any other—that the canyon offers a fairly uniform experience regardless of where you go—have much to learn about this place.
After several backpacking trips and long dayhikes in the canyon, I would say each of those hikes features the vast panoramas that one associates with a place of such verticality, depth, breadth, and dearth of vegetation that might otherwise obstruct views. And there are always long stretches of sunbaked hiking and stark, waterless desert, as well as strenuous sections of trail.
But the differences far outnumber the similarities. Narrow, almost hidden side canyons surprise and delight with their anomalous oases of greenery. Waterfalls plunge from great heights, pour wide streams into narrow gorges, or burst explosively from the face of a sheer cliff. Wildflowers erupt profusely from the desiccated ground, painting color onto a seer landscape. Sandy beaches offer idyllic campsites beside the Colorado River, where all night you listen to the steady drone of rapids and look up at an inky sky riddled with stars.
The more you hike in the Grand Canyon, the more you realize how little you have seen.
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3. Unique Solitude
As in many major national parks, Grand Canyon’s management limits the number of backcountry permits issued to backpackers each day, and virtually all available permits get claimed during the peak seasons of March through May and September into November. Still, on all but the three popular corridor trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—backpackers can often enjoy hours of hiking with few encounters with other people.
During peak seasons on long stretches of the Escalante Route and Beamer and Tanner trails—on what is arguably the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon—as well as the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Royal Arch Loop, and even on sections of the popular and relatively accessible Tonto Trail, I’ve seen very few other backpackers (and occasional boating parties on the Colorado River).
Want deeper solitude? Follow tip no. 2 (“Go outside the peak season”) in my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking” and hike into the canyon between December and February—when the number of backcountry permits issued plummets. Sure, days are short and cold in December but lengthening by February—and you will need traction devices on your boots, like the Kahtoola Microspikes or Kahtoola KTS Crampon for snow and ice on the upper sections of trails descending off the South Rim (North Rim trailheads are inaccessible in winter).
But average winter temperatures in the inner canyon are similar to late summer and early fall in many mountain ranges, with highs in the 50s and 60s and lows in the 40s and 30s Fahrenheit. And snow at the rims only enhances the canyon’s beauty and sense of adventure.
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4. It’s Not Easy… And Yes, That’s Good
Truth is that any hike down into the canyon is strenuous. South Rim trails descend nearly a vertical mile within anywhere from seven to 9.5 miles from the trailhead to the Colorado River, a steep trail gradient of well over 600 feet per mile. Consider the park’s friendliest and most well-constructed trail, the Bright Angel: It has a very moderate trail gradient of 463 feet per mile over its 9.5 miles from trailhead to river—but it drops 637 feet per mile over the first 4.8 miles from the trailhead to the first possible camping at Indian Garden.
Beyond the park’s three popular corridor trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—backpackers will find rim-to-river trails that may redefine their notions of rugged, rocky, and strenuous paths. Quad-melting ledge drops off a foot or two are common. The scarcity of water and need to haul extra water weight often amplifies the difficulty of hiking here.
But for backpackers seeking a uniquely rugged and raw adventure, particularly fit, experienced desert backpackers capable of handling harder footpaths like the Escalante Route, the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, and the Royal Arch Loop, few places in the Lower 48—and arguably, none—offer the blend of excitement, challenge, surprises, and beauty of a long walk through the Grand Canyon.
Few destinations in the Southwest also offer the rare opportunity for extended backpacking trips—over 50 miles—especially on trails that are glorious every step of the way.
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5. Because It Will Hook You
Its big vistas never grow mundane. Its rugged topography never relents in the challenges posed to backpackers on virtually any trail. Its surprises never cease.
The heat may wilt you some days. The wind may pummel your tent loudly some nights. The stretches between water sources may force you to haul an unwieldy load of liquid nourishment on your back. The route may present you with obstacles that give even the most experienced backpacker pause enough for the words to slip out: “Can this be the route?”
And at the end of some long day on the trail, or the end of your trip, the difficulties will pale compared to the memories of the many transformative moments. That’s when you will realize that the time to return to the Grand Canyon has already arrived.
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In myriad ways, small and large, subtle and conspicuous, the Grand Canyon burrows into your heart and takes up permanent residence there.
Lastly, the only time of year when it’s all but impossible to backpack in the GC is summer, because of dangerously high heat. Think about that: The only time you can’t go there is the very season you want to be in the mountains, anyway. Thus, for nine months of the year when you can’t go to the mountains, you can backpack in the Grand Canyon.
That seems like a productive way to spend your off-season time.
Tell me what you think.
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