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.
I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
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.
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See all of my stories about the Grand Canyon, including my feature stories “A Matter of Perspective: A Father-Daughter Hike in the Grand Canyon,” “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail,” “A Grand Ambition or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all of my Ask Me posts covering the Grand Canyon.
See also my stories “Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs,” “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier,” and all of my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside.
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). Hiking west to east (from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead), you’ll descend nearly 4,000 feet on the Hermit Trail, which is quite rugged in places. Crossing the canyon of Monument Creek involves some descent and ascent. The Tonto Trail is easier, largely following a mostly flat, mid-canyon plateau. From its junction with the Tonto Trail, the Bright Angel Trail climbs nearly 4,000 feet in about five miles on a good footpath. The entire route is well marked and obvious, so it doesn’t present any navigational challenges to anyone capable of reading a map.
Make It Happen
Season April to May and mid-September to early November are the best times for backpacking. Snow and ice may cover trails at the rims until mid- to late April; the inner canyon may see daytime highs in the 90s by mid-May. Summer highs in the canyon frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., though morning temps are often comfortable. The summer monsoon season, from July through early September, brings regular, severe afternoon thunderstorms with lightning, hail, strong winds, and flash floods.
The Itinerary While the hike can be done in either direction, we hiked from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead—via the Hermit, Tonto, and Bright Angel trails—so that we could finish where our vehicle was parked and not have to worry about catching a park shuttle bus at the end of the hike. Hiking in the opposite direction and starting early would put you on the very popular (and often crowded) Bright Angel Trail ahead of most other hikers. Backpackers normally take three to four days to hike this route.
Getting There Park near the Bright Angel Trailhead in Grand Canyon Village and catch a free park shuttle bus out to Hermits Rest at the end of Hermit Road, where the Hermit Trail begins.
Lodging There are several lodging options in Grand Canyon Village managed by Grand Canyon Lodges (grandcanyonlodges.com), and more in the town of Tusayan, outside the park entrance on the South Rim.
Permit No permit is required for dayhiking in the park, but a permit is required for camping in the backcountry. You can apply for one 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. Fax in your application early in the morning on the first day you can submit it. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm for details and the application form. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon East map no. 262, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Much of the Tonto Trail has a scarcity of water, but the 24.8 miles between Hermits Rest and the Bright Angel Trailhead has the unusual benefit of three reliable water sources (partly explaining the popularity of this hike among backpackers), at Hermit Creek (requiring a one-mile detour off of this route), Monument Creek, and Indian Garden.
• In the Grand Canyon, heat is a killer. On a sunny, hot day, plan your water carefully (a gallon per day per person), and rest in the few shady spots you’ll find. Wear a wide-brim hat, sunblock, and light, breathable clothing that covers as much skin as possible; wear a cotton T-shirt when it’s really hot and soak it in creeks—the wet fabric will help keep you cooler. In extreme heat, hike in the cooler hours of early morning and evening.
• Unlike other areas of the Grand Canyon, on the stretch of the Tonto Trail between Hermit Creek and Indian Garden, backcountry camping is allowed only in designated campsites, of which there are eight (all marked on maps). See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Tonto-Bright_Angel_to_Hermit.pdf for more information.
Contact Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888, nps.gov/grca.