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.

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Jeff Wilhelm on the Grandview Trail in the Grand Canyon.

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.”

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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.

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

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.

Note: See my stories “A Matter of Perspective: A Father-Daughter Hike in the Grand Canyon,” about backpacking from the New Hance Trailhead to the South Kaibab Trailhead with my 10-year-old daughter; “A Grand Ambition, or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim;” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside. I also write more about this trip and Grand Canyon 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.

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Campsite below Zoroaster Temple.

 

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11 thoughts on “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A four-day hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail”

  1. My boyfriend and I hiked the South Kaibab trail down to Colorado River and then came back up to the south rim via Bright Angel in just under 7 hours. It was absolutely amazing! I personally liked the South Kaibab better than Bright Angel…it was steeper but the views are breathtaking and the hike was just more interesting in my opinion. We took a shuttle from Bright Angel Lodge to the trailhead at 8:00 and it was 29 degrees out, but by the time we got to the bottom, it was about 70 degrees. I feel like you just can’t visit the Grand Canyon without checking this epic trail off of the list. Just don’t forget your trekking poles… they are a life-saver on this trail!

    Reply
  2. I recently finished this 4 day, 3 night backpack with my wife and three children (ages 17, 13 and 13). The trip was as beautiful, spectacular, uncrowded, and fulfilling as Michael describes in his essay. We departed on April 3 and finished on April 6. We had good weather, although storms passed through the area just before and just after our trip. At Mather Campground on the South Rim the nights got down to the mid-20s, but the upper Grandview and South Kaibab were clear of any ice and no microspikes were needed. Down on the Tonto it was warm but not hot during the day, and cool but not cold at night. We camped at Cottonwood, Grapevine and Lone Tree. The relatively short days gave us plenty of time to take in the magic of the canyon. Plenty of water in Cottonwood and Grapevine, and just enough water in Lone Tree. No water near the trail at Boulder Creek or Cremation. Thanks again Michael for the inspiration.

    Reply
  3. I will be following this itinerary May 9-15 with a layover at Cremation Canyon so we can hike down to the river (fgure we’ll reload with h2o there). The maps you have listed enough- will that and a compass suffice, or is there need for gps or additional maps as well? First time to the canyon- very excited and want to make sure I’m well prepared!
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi KK, that’s a good time of year, though it can get hot by midday. You might even have time on your layover day hike to the river to hike partway up the North Kaibab Trail and back; it’s in a narrow gorge for a few miles, with a beautiful stream, and may give you nice shade. Yes, the Trails Illustrated map is fine, the trail is good, you don’t need a GPS. Just a few minutes’ walk west of Cremation Creek is one of the best campsites I’ve seen in the canyon, with a natural rock overhang that provides a shaded kitchen area. You’ve picked a great baptismal hike for the Grand Canyon, have fun. I’ll be doing another canyon trip a little later in May, actually, and looking forward to it. The place is magical.

      Reply
  4. Beautiful pictures and hike description! I love that you’re doing all these wonderful hikes as a family. Me and my pop did something similar over multiple summers when I was a kid. Keep trekking!

    Reply
  5. What a beautiful location. This definitely goes on my list of hikes i want to try before i die. I can definitely agree with the ‘It doesn’t look real’ sentiment, just too beautiful.

    Reply

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