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 formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. I’ve taken many of the best multi-day hikes out there—some of them multiple times.
In fact, see my lists of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips,” “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips,” and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest”—and yes, the Grand Canyon is on all three lists.
As I increasingly seek a certain type of experience in the wilderness—one with more solitude, challenge, and even a few 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 attempt to 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 by 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 or June 1 for October. See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon” and “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Check out my e-guides “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can put together a completely customized plan for you to backpack in the Grand Canyon.
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.
See “7 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do.”
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.
Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”
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, Clear Creek Trail and Utah Flats Route, 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 Hiking 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, Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Royal Arch Loop, and certainly the Utah Flats Route, 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.
Hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim!
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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.
See my story See “7 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do” and scroll down to Arizona on my All Trips List for a menu of all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
12 thoughts on “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Grand Canyon”
Hiked almost every trail and also rafted the river. There is nothing like the Grand Canyon.
Got that right, John.
Totally agree. Hiking the Grand canyon is an amazing trip that I and my three oldest kids will remember forever. If you get the chance, go. I agree that it is not easy but the main corridor trails (we went down North Kaibab and up Bright Angel) are not overly strenuous—my seven-year-old made it just fine. Despite hiking that stretch at potentially peak season (mid-October) we did not encounter that many people except at the campgrounds. Most of the time there was no one else in sight. For example, on the side trip to Ribbon Falls we did briefly overlap with a few other hikers, but most of the time we spent at those falls it was just the 4 of us. That said, getting permits is hard—it took us three years to get one, although we were trying at probably the hardest time. I definitely plan to go again.
Thanks for sharing the details of your experience backpacking in the canyon—your story is a clear and common example of what many people experience: Our daughter was seven the first time we took a family backpacking trip (four days) in the canyon (on this route). You can hike for long stretches of relative solitude even on the busiest trails, although that depends on your dates and the time of day. And it’s probably not uncommon to apply for a permit three times before you get one for the corridor trails, although other trails in the canyon see significantly less demand.
If you’d like a personalized trip plan for your next Grand Canyon backpacking trip, I can help you with that. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.
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I never appreciated my many trips to the north and south of the canyon until I hiked down to Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood on 3 separate trips. It completely changed my perspective. I remember on my trips back to the rim, hearing the crowds several hundred vertical feet above me and wanting to stop in my tracks and head back down to the bottom again.
Ha! I can fully relate to all you say, Jerry.
Please forgive my digression. I must know how you are doing since your serious fall in Utah. I think of it every time I read your wonderful articles and pray you are well.
Nice to hear from you and thanks so much for your kind concern for me. While I’d be lying to suggest the recovery was not difficult and long, I’m now fully recovered and doing very well. I’ve been backpacking since last August (and recently returned from yet another great Grand Canyon trip), skied a few dozen days this winter, and I’ve returned to the climbing gym and look forward to climbing outside again. All is good. Thanks very much for asking.
Good morning Michael! This is a bittersweet story. Bitter because I will not get to visit and thoroughly enjoy the Grand Canyon this year. The COVID induced border closure is keeping me in the Rain Forest of Southwest BC. A wonderful place to live and hike but the last two years two November trips to the Canyon gobsmacked me and left me wanting more.
My first trip was South Kaibab to Cottonwood Creek and returning via Bright Angel Trail. Last year we hiked the Horseshoe Mesa, Tonto Trail, Escalante Route and out on the Tanner Trail. We spent the first night experiencing temperatures in the high teens but the remaining five nights Cowboy Camped waking to star-filled skies and watching comets streak across the dark sky.
As I have confided frequently, mountains are my sanctuary and favourite places. My favourite adventure was trekking into K2 via the Baltoro and Godwin Austen glaciers. The endless spectacular mountain peaks and the youthful rawness of the landscape were totally captivating. Being blessed with three days of clear weather to view the glory of K2 is an experience I will never forget.
So where am I going with this? Having trekked in many of the great mountain ranges on the planet the Grand Canyon ranks second only to my K2 experience for being special and grand. The Canyon is, as so named, grand. Hiking down to the Colorado River and spending several days and nights experiencing the ever-changing and captivating landscape and the spirituality of the place demands I return for more. Hopefully sooner than later.
John, I know you have seen many of the planet’s great natural wonders, and I’m not surprised you hold the Grand Canyon in such high esteem. You have enunciated exactly the point I wanted to communicate through this story. I know you will get back there eventually… and probably need to return yet again. Stay safe, my friend.