Ask Me: Where Should Our Family Backpack in the Grand Canyon?
My wife and I take our kids to Ketchum, Idaho, every summer and became fans of your site by finding your great recommendations and tips for the White Cloud Mountains. We are now planning a trip with our kids to the Grand Canyon. Our kids are 13 and 14 and are accustomed to multi-day backcountry hikes in the White Clouds and Sawtooths, with 2000+-foot elevation gains. We were seriously considering your suggested four-day trip east to west from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail, but I just noticed that you have also recommended that to someone else in your Ask Me section in response to a request for a “big dayhike.” We don’t want to kill ourselves with an unreasonable pace, but I don’t want to allocate four days for a trip that my kids could reasonably do in two or three. Do you have any advice for what might be the best way to do this, or whether there is an alternate route you would suggest?
Thanks for writing and for your nice words about The Big Outside. We also get over to Ketchum and the White Clouds and Sawtooths as often as we can.
I think backpacking from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab in the Grand Canyon would be a great trip for your family, given your kids’ ages and experience. It’s just over 29 miles, and you may be fine doing it in three days instead of four, although that would create at least one pretty big day, as you can see by looking at the details under The Itinerary near the bottom of my story about that trip.
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My kids were nine and barely seven when we backpacked it in four days, and it was certainly challenging but doable for them then. It depends partly on not only your kids’ stamina, but how much weight they can carry. There are only four water sources along the entire hike, and they are often all flowing in spring, but that’s not certain, and some are dry in fall. How much water you carry each day is dictated by where you camp each night, and shortening the trip from four to three days makes it more difficult in the sense of forcing you to either carry more water for more hours, or make it to the next water source to camp.
The people to whom I recommended that route as a big dayhike are friends who have done big dayhikes with me before, so I know they’re capable of doing that in a day. But it’s a huge day, and really only appropriate for very fit and experienced hikers. My teenage kids are strong hikers, but I think doing that trip even in two days would be pushing their limits.
I don’t know whether you’ve hiked in the Grand Canyon before, but I always caution people against underestimating the ruggedness and difficulty of it. The descent of about five miles and 3,500 feet on the Grandview Trail to a potential first campsite on Cottonwood Creek is surprisingly hard for the distance. The Tonto Trail is gently undulating and much easier, and the ascent of the South Kaibab Trail is tough (although it’s a good trail and lots of people do it).
So to maximize everyone’s enjoyment and allow plenty of time for picture-taking and just soaking up views, as well as exploring areas around your campsites, I recommend you take three days minimum, and seriously consider allowing four days. With an early start on the first day, you could make it to Grapevine Creek, a beautiful spot to camp your first night; but I’d only recommend that if everyone has good endurance and wants to hike a long day.
I’ve also backpacked from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trail, a trip similar in distance (25 miles), difficulty, and scenery as Grandview Point to the South Kaibab. It’s also probably the most popular backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, other than the corridor trails (South Kaibab, Bright Angel, and North Kaibab), so it’s harder to get a permit for it. Both are great hikes. See this story, with many photos, about my dayhike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead.
Another alternative is going down to the river on the South Kaibab and returning via the Bright Angel, potentially spending a night at Indian Garden to break up the big climb out of the canyon. If you can add another day, spend two nights at Bright Angel Campground and dayhike out and back up the North Kaibab Trail, which is just as stunning as the South Kaibab, in my opinion, but more varied. If you can take five to six days, then on day two backpack up the North Kaibab to spend the night at Cottonwood campground; on day three, dayhike up toward the North Rim, passing through the spectacular Roaring Springs Canyon section of the upper North Kaibab; then on day four, backpack back to Bright Angel Campground, day five to Indian Garden, then make the last day’s hike up to the rim.
Hike all of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
It’s feasible to combine a couple of those days—for example, dayhiking to Roaring Springs Canyon on your third morning, then backpacking to Bright Angel Campground that afternoon, which is seven gently downhill miles—but that creates a big day. You can read about that hike and see pictures from it in this story at my blog about dayhiking the canyon from rim to rim to rim.
Lastly, make sure you read my story about backpacking with my then-10-year-old daughter a year ago from the New Hance Trailhead to the South Kaibab—also a beautiful trip, but understand that the New Hance Trail is rated primitive and probably the hardest trail descending into the canyon from the South Rim.
A full traverse of the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails to the North Rim, returning via shuttle bus to the South Rim, becomes possible once the North Rim opens in mid-May. If you dayhike from Cottonwood up toward the North Rim in April, you will hit snow at some point, which may be a good spot to turn around.
In early spring, partly depending what the weather has been like right before your trip, you may need traction devices, like Kahtoola Microspikes, for ice on the upper sections of trails at the South Rim. You can find out shortly before you leave about conditions and the weather forecast. The ice typically melts away by mid-April, but that can vary year to year.
As you may know, you can apply for a backcountry permit 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. Submit your application early in the morning on the first day possible. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm for details and the application form.
Thanks again for writing. I hope that’s helpful. I’d love to hear how your trip goes for you. Good luck.
Thank you SO MUCH for your very fast and very comprehensive response. We used it to tie up our plans last weekend. We are now anxiously awaiting the process of requesting the permit. Since it allows for several plans, we will probably submit a request for the Hermit loop as a backup, though from what we’ve read on your site, seems that is probably going to be even more popular so the permit even harder to get. Crossing our fingers!!
You have an incredibly helpful site.
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