By Michael Lanza
After descending seven miles and over 4,800 feet on the Grand Canyon’s always-stunning South Kaibab Trail and crossing the footbridge to the north side of the Colorado River, we follow the path through the Bright Angel backpacker campground to its end. There, not marked by any sign and not obvious to anyone unaware of it, a faint path leads through low bushes. Within moments, it turns and runs straight up a steep canyon wall of cacti and other desert flora, loose scree, and boulders, ascending about 1,500 vertical feet in the first mile, beyond what we can see from the bottom of it.
Gazing up with a volatile mix of excitement and trepidation, we start a long uphill grind.
My friends Pam Solon, David Gordon, Mark Fenton, Todd Arndt and I are backpacking the Utah Flats Route, an unmaintained, off-trail route known to canyon cognoscenti but largely unheard-of by most backpackers. Beginning in the canyon’s basement, the route climbs at an insanely steep angle, involves some scrambling through a long gully choked with gargantuan boulders, then traverses a rolling plateau high above the north bank of the Colorado River. Finally, it ends at the only reliable water anywhere on the route, a perennial creek flowing down an obscure tributary canyon in the shadow of the Cheops Pyramid.
But Utah Flats constitutes just the first half of our trip.
Over six days out here, we will experience two very different faces of the Grand Canyon. We’ll hike its two busiest trails (and a small piece of its third-busiest trail) and pass through the park’s two busiest backcountry campgrounds without staying in either of them. Paradoxically, we’ll also explore two routes—this off-trail one and another on a good trail—that, despite their proximity to those enormously popular paths, see very few backpackers.
For three of the five nights we will sleep in the backcountry, we’ll have camps entirely to ourselves, with no other people within miles. On more than half the 40-plus miles we’ll hike this week, we will see no one else.
You could say we’re out here seeking a wilderness experience that almost simulates what it would have been like to journey through this canyon before the first Europeans to lay eyes on it—a group of Spanish soldiers led by García López de Cárdenas and under the command of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, whose army searched in vain for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold—stood at the canyon’s rim in 1540 and, from a vertical mile above the Colorado, estimated that the river spanned no more than six feet across.
Utah Flats Route
The faint but often-visible use trail wriggles upward at a relentless and severe angle toward what looks, from below, like impassable cliffs. Under an April sun that bakes this canyon wall—where we have hardly a speck of shade—we slog patiently upward, sweat dripping onto sunglasses, trying to avoid sliding backward on scree and loose rocks.
Hearing Pam curse behind me, I turn around to see blood trickling down both of her shins, wounds from a double stabbing by a banana yucca, a plant that grows numerous long, firm leaves with needle-like tips that inflict remarkably painful jabs. She calls it a name that, while apropos, I will decline to share here.
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We scramble slowly through the boulder-choked gully known as Piano Alley, emerging from it onto the plateau. Afternoon light sharpens the colors of the geologic layers in the towering monuments of rock visible in every direction. Some of them have begun growing shadows across the terrain.
After crossing the plateau for what seems like farther than we expected, the faint path turns sharply, dropping several hundred feet down another loose, very steep canyon wall. It deposits us beside the clear, hurried current of Phantom Creek, which waters an oasis of cottonwood trees and other flora.
We find a large, established campsite on a shelf just above the debris marking the creek’s floodplain and at the base of an overhanging cliff which will gift us with the most valued commodity in the Grand Canyon (besides water): hard shade for all but about three hours in the afternoon.
We will have this campsite to ourselves for both of our nights here.
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On our second morning, having planned a layover day and another night at this camp, we explore up the canyon of Phantom Creek. We alternate between walking sandy, open ground and along the sandstone ledges flanking the creek, repeatedly crossing the creek and its zone of flash-flood debris: randomly deposited rocks and tree trunks, giant balls of tangled and bark-stripped branches wrapped around standing trees, and vertical banks of crumbling earth. The vibrant creek tumbles over tiny waterfalls into swirling pools that look perfect for a soak—which we’ll do by this afternoon.
We follow the creek up to a prominent red prow of rock several hundred feet tall where Phantom canyon forks—a spot marked as Haunted Canyon on maps—continue up the left fork until that creek dwindles to a small stream, then backtrack to investigate the right fork. But it’s more overgrown and we don’t go far before turning back for camp.
By early afternoon, under the hot sun, we’re all immersing ourselves in pools of cool water carved into the rock by the creek, then sitting on creekside ledges in the hot sun, imagining a Grand Canyon with no other people around—and realizing we’re in that canyon right now.
The Thing About the Grand Canyon…
As I’ve written in other stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon, I feel drawn back here time and time again in part because 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.
But even more pertinent to any backpacker descending into the canyon, no two trips are the same—and the trails you choose will shape your experience in myriad ways from strenuousness, water availability, and the character of your campsites to solitude.
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While the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel “corridor” trails are the most accessible year-round, best-maintained, and most hiker-friendly paths into the canyon, they are also the busiest and the campgrounds along them the hardest to reserve on a permit due to huge demand.
Virtually every other trail in the park ranges from difficult to extremely difficult. And the canyon’s definition of “difficult” is not limited to the raw numbers of total miles and elevation gain and loss (the latter approaching a vertical mile for all trails from the South Rim to the Colorado River and exceeding a vertical mile for North Rim-to-river trails). Many feature countless ledge drops, or big steps up or down; some present technical obstacles, like a steep rockslide or a cliff to rappel or scramble. A trail tread consisting of loose stones of all sizes poised to tumble upon contact from a boot is par for the course, as is a dearth of reliable water sources.
The major exception is the Tonto Trail, which traverses the gently rolling Tonto Plateau, at roughly 3,600 feet in elevation between the South Rim and the Colorado, providing a linkage between South Rim trails that allows planning more moderate trips that don’t drop all the way to the river and climb back out again.
Our six-day itinerary will carry us not only from the South Rim to the river and back but will also climb up onto and descend off the topographical equivalent of the Tonto Plateau on the river’s north side—twice—and allow us to explore a pair of tributary canyons that would be major natural attractions in all 49 other states and yet remain largely unknown here.
And I’ve planned this trip’s itinerary to avoid the backcountry campgrounds with the highest demand—helping to ensure I got this permit.
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We straggle out of our camp on Phantom Creek between 6:30 and 7 a.m. to make most of the steep climb up the canyon wall in shade and milder temps and hopefully get across Utah Flats and down to Bright Angel Canyon by late morning. Our strategy buys us shade for almost an hour. But once the rising sun finds us, the air feels instantly 10 degrees hotter.
Still, today’s temperatures will remain relatively comfortable while a steady wind will help keep us cooler—at least until afternoon.
The low sun brightens the edges of the prickly-pear cacti carpeting the rocky ground and backlights the stone towers in the near distance ahead of us, rendering them as darkly shadowed monoliths. We move quickly, with just a few moments of confusion trying to follow the Utah Flats Route—a faint but often visible footpath until it disappears at the plateau’s ragged edge, where the earth turns inside-out, leaving us standing at the brink of short precipices in search of the way around them.
We pick our way through the boulder-strewn gully of Piano Alley and then walk with short, cautious steps down the canyon wall’s steep, gravelly path, slipping now and then but avoiding any bad falls—somehow making the return trip on the Utah Flats Route in three hours, an hour faster than we hiked out on it two days ago, even though going down seemed not much easier or faster than up.
After not seeing any other people for the past two days, we stroll into Phantom Ranch in Bright Angel Canyon, mixing with the backpackers and ranch guests while resting in the glorious shade of trees, chugging water and scarfing snacks bought at the canteen—entertaining the possibility that these may be the best potato chips and peanut M&Ms we’ve ever had. Then we pack up, each carrying enough water for the nearly nine-mile hike to Clear Creek, walk a short distance up the North Kaibab Trail, and turn onto the Clear Creek Trail. The last remnants of shade on this side of the canyon bring pleasant relief as we quickly ascend that well-built trail—which feels like a casual stroll after the Utah Flats Route.
After the Grand Canyon, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
As we rise hundreds of feet above Bright Angel Canyon, the scenery gets us spinning around to drink it all in. The South Rim pops into view, much higher above us and miles away. At a bend, a very short spur trail leads to a breathtaking overlook of the Colorado. The Clear Creek Trail then traces the base of short cliffs where we’re looking straight up the canyon’s Inner Gorge, our prospect spanning from the river to the South Rim.
The cliffs beside us mark the Great Unconformity, which might be called “the thing that cannot be seen in the Grand Canyon,” a gap in the geologic history of the planet of as much as 1.2 to 1.6 billion years—meaning that two adjoining lower layers in the canyon’s nearly 40 geologic layers were deposited over one billion years apart. Chew on that for a minute.
The trail scurries through a break in the cliff band, then meanders across the plateau. The afternoon grows steadily hotter, probably over 80° F with almost no shelter from the wilting sun. We duck underneath a long, overhanging rock shelf to sit and eat lunch in its shade.
The miles seem to drag in the heat and desiccating wind as the trail brings us along the rims of dry tributaries before finally descending to campsites in the green bottom of Clear Creek Canyon; we arrive there by mid-afternoon, happy just to take off our boots and packs and immerse ourselves completely in the creek’s cold water. Like Phantom Creek, it strikes a perfect temp of cold enough to feel refreshing and therapeutic for tired muscles without being so frigid that it’s impossible to stay in it.
Although there are several established campsites by Clear Creek, as with our two nights on Phantom Creek, we have this tributary canyon all to ourselves tonight.
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We awaken from the coolest night of the trip to a low in the 40s with a cool breeze flowing down Clear Creek Canyon. It feels like a gift to pull on a puffy jacket, wool hat, and pants, even if only until the sun reaches our camp—when we quickly strip down to shorts and t-shirts again.
Four of us take a short morning hike up along Clear Creek, following a frequently visible use trail winding up the initially narrow canyon, which remains mostly shaded into late morning. The creek’s debris-filled bed tells the story of past flash floods that have carved sheer banks several feet tall and deposited all sizes of rocks and dead trees. Less than a quarter-mile upstream, the canyon broadens greatly—and like Phantom Creek Canyon, this obscure tributary of the Colorado thrusts tall, multi-layered walls into the sky. Cairns occasionally mark the route through overgrown grasses and cacti.
Gear Tips Trekking poles are indispensable for this route’s steep descents and ascents. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.” In dry, hot conditions, wear supportive but lightweight boots or shoes that breathe well (not waterproof); see all of my reviews of hiking shoes and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.” Carry a reliable headlamp with fresh batteries or a full charge in case you’re hiking in the dark for the cooler temperatures; see my review of the five best headlamps.
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“Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist”
“The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
“The Best Ultralight Packs”
“The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents”
“The Best Ultralight Hiking and Running Jackets”
“24 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories”
“The Best Base Layers for Hiking, Running, and Training”
“The 10 Best Down Jackets” (for this trip, see the lightest models)
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”