By Michael Lanza
There’s not another hiker in sight as my friend David Ports and I start down the Hermit Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, even though it’s nearly 8 a.m., hardly an early hour to hit the trail. And that’s just the first conspicuously unusual circumstance at the outset of our hike. The second obvious oddity this morning is that it’s overcast—a welcome sight here—and actually chilly enough that we’re wearing the light jackets we brought.
But most unusual aspect of this hike is that we’re only carrying light daypacks—and cruising along almost effortlessly—for a walk of nearly 25 miles, with some 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. That’s because we’ll do it all today.
David and I have set out to dayhike the 24.8 miles from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Descending the Hermit Trail, traversing the Tonto Trail for 13 miles across five major tributary canyons of the Colorado River, and then ascending the Bright Angel Trail, we’ll enjoy a grand, 11-hour tour that delivers a magnificent sampler of Grand Canyon hiking (which is why this is the most popular backpacking route in the canyon, after the corridor trails: Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab).
A number of years ago, I backpacked this route over four days with my wife, my mom (then in her 60s), and some friends. On that trip, also in May, we had more typical weather for this time of year: sunny days that grew oppressively hot by mid-morning. The exhaustion we felt from the heat was only exacerbated by our heavy backpacks. We’d rise before first light in order to hike in the cooler, morning hours, and finish each day’s mileage by midday, so we could relax (in shade whenever possible) through the stifling afternoons.
Ironically, today’s hike feels much less strenuous to me than that backpacking trip years ago because we’re traveling so much lighter.
A light rain shower begins to fall as David and I stop for a short lunch break at the bottom of the Hermit Trail. But the temperature has risen into the 60s and will reach the 70s today—a light rain actually feels great as we continue hiking east on the Tonto Trail.
I’m struck by how much more spectacular the hike is than I remember, especially sections like the lower Hermit Trail, which slices through the rugged Supai and Redwall layers, and the shattered inner gorge and soaring, burgundy cliffs of the canyon of Monument Creek, one of the hike’s many highlights (lead photo at top of story).
But there are stretches of this hike that conjure fond flashbacks. As we walk up the side canyon carved by Horn Creek, in a jaw-dropping amphitheater of red and white cliffs and castle-like towers, I vividly remember hunkering down in the shade of small trees there and sleeping under the stars on that mild, last night of our first backpacking trip here.
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Bright Angel Trail
Evening falls as David and I hike up the relentless switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail. Our legs are feeling the miles—not surprising especially considering that we’re out here a day after finishing a very tough, three-day, 34.5-mile backpacking trip on the canyon’s remote Royal Arch Loop.
By the time we reach the South Rim again, I’m quite ready to call it a day—an extraordinary day.
The Grand Canyon is not a place to embark on an overambitious hike—the severe climate and topography are unforgiving. But if you’re prepared for it, I can hardly think of a better place for a big dayhike than the Big Ditch.
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.”
See “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Grand Canyon,” “5 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” and all of my stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon, “Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs,” and all of my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside.
Take This Trip
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR experienced hikers in excellent physical condition (as a one-day hike), with intermediate to expert desert-backcountry experience and navigation skills, or backpackers in moderately good physical condition with some backpacking experience. This is a good choice for a first Grand Canyon backpacking trip. Any hike descending into the Grand Canyon is strenuous, but the unmaintained Hermit Trail is considerably more difficult than any of the three corridor trails (Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab). The entire route is well marked and obvious, so it doesn’t present any navigational challenges to anyone capable of reading a map.
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