By Michael Lanza
First-time backpackers in the Grand Canyon quickly absorb two lessons about this one-of-a-kind place: Its infinite vistas and deceptive scale, the beauty of desert oases and wildflower blooms, the peacefulness and quietude of some of the best campsites you will ever enjoy—all of these qualities will hook you forever.
And you learn how difficult it can be to get a permit for backpacking there.
In fact, so many people apply for Grand Canyon backcountry permits that high percentages of them get denied every year—including up to 75 percent of applications for the three most popular trails, the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab.
This story will explain how to obtain a Grand Canyon backpacking permit through reserving one in advance or getting a walk-in permit and share the specific strategies I have used to secure permits for several multi-day hikes in the Big Ditch—which I’ve revisited many times over more than three decades of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
And if you want to reserve a permit in advance to backpack in the Grand Canyon you must submit an application by the first of the month four months in advance of the month you’d like to go in—for instance, by Dec. 1 for a trip anytime in April or June 1 for October.
Please share your questions or experiences about backpacking in the Grand Canyon in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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.”
Decide Where You Want to Hike
First step: Research your route in advance, including how far you will hike each day and where you’d like to camp. A Grand Canyon permit requires specifying a camp location for each night, identified by the location name (such as a creek) and either a specific campground code or backcountry camping zone code shown on the interactive map at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/useAreaMap.pdf.
The backcountry permit application form allows you to list a first choice itinerary and one or more alternate itineraries.
Keep in mind that many of the canyon’s trails are rugged and feature significant elevation gain and loss; many people find their hiking speed slower here than in other places, especially anytime you have to carry extra water weight, and hot days can force you to hike very early and late and hunker down in shade during the heat of the day. Plan daily distances that make sense for your group.
Know where to find water sources, which are scarce and sometimes seasonal.
Find descriptions of the park’s Backcountry Trails and Use Areas, including water sources, at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/campsite-information.htm.
See all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside (which require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my planning tips for each trip) and check out my downloadable e-guides to some of America’s best backpacking trips, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.” Those contain detailed hiking itineraries, expert planning and gear advice, on-the-ground knowledge, tips specific to getting a permit, and myriad other details relevant to taking a trip into the canyon.
See also my story “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and all stories with expert backpacking and outdoor skills tips at The Big Outside.
Want my expert help custom planning your trip to ensure it’s as good as it can be? See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you.
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Know When to Apply
Especially if you’re traveling a long distance for the trip, to avoid the disappointment of failing to get a permit, it’s best to reserve a permit in advance. Apply by the first of the month, or beginning on the 20th of the preceding month, four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1 for a hike starting anytime in April.
The application form must be submitted via fax (recommended), mail, or in person and a response can take a few weeks. The fee is $10 per permit plus $8 per person (or stock animal) per night.
Find more information, including a chart outlining dates to apply for a permit, at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm, and the backcountry permit request form at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/permit-request.pdf.
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Submit Multiple Itineraries and a Range of Dates
As I suggest in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” if you want to backpack in the Grand Canyon during its peak seasons of spring and fall, the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit is to include at least two itinerary choices and a range of starting date options spanning a week or more. Consider starting midweek instead of on a weekend and selecting a less-popular or remote or difficult route for your first or second choice.
You can also improve your chances by checking the boxes indicating you would accept similar or nearby campsites, reversing your itinerary, or a flexible itinerary, and providing a minimum group size that’s smaller than your first choice for group size.
In the Grand Canyon, some 75 percent of people who apply for a permit to backpack some combination the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab trails are denied. But you will find it easier to get a permit for the 29-mile hike from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Grandview Point, the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, or any much more rugged and remote trip, like the 15-mile hike from New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, the 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, and the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop.
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Try For a Walk-In Permit
If all else fails, show up at the park at least two hours before the backcountry office opens and try to get a front spot in line for a first-come or walk-in permit. A limited number of walk-in permits are issued in person, no more than one day in advance, and that often involves returning the next morning if you fail the first time.
See my e-guides “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside, and “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”