The Grand Canyon’s Best Backpacking Trips—A Photo Gallery

By Michael Lanza

I returned to the Grand Canyon yet again in April, my seventh backpacking trip there in the past 15 years, which works out to roughly every other year. Any psychologist, behavioral scientist, or criminologist would describe that as an established pattern of behavior. I confess: I can’t get enough of that place. This time, five friends and I spent six days hiking about 60 miles from the South Bass Trailhead to the Hermit Trailhead off the South Rim, following what’s informally known as the canyon’s Gems Route (photo above and a couple more in the gallery, below) for the names of several tributary canyons you cross along this most remote section of the Tonto Trail.

And as usual in the canyon, superlatives seem to fall far short of describing this latest adventure there.

Looking for exceptional beauty? Well, the Grand Canyon always delivers on that. But as I’ve learned from numerous multi-day hikes and long dayhikes there over the years, while running this blog and previously as a field editor for Backpacker magazine for many years, including hiking rim-to-rim-to-rim a few times (see links to my stories about those trips below the photo gallery), each trip exhibits its own character. And this latest one proved just as unique for its distinctive side canyons, water features (although water sources are, not surprisingly, scarce), and outstanding plateau camps on this very lonely stretch of the Tonto Trail.


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Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click photo for my e-book “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

Yes, lonely. We went about three full days without seeing any other people along the Tonto Trail. Over the entire six days, we probably encountered about 40 other backpackers and dayhikers, half of them in the last two or three hours of the trip, while we ascended the Hermit Trail. Discount that concentration of hikers at the very tail end of our trip and we ran into an average of just over three people per day or one person every three miles. I don’t think I have ever experienced that much solitude backpacking in the Grand Canyon—an observation particularly shocking in that this occurred in the second week of April, a peak time of year to be there.

Watch for my upcoming story about backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Gems Route.

Every trip in the canyon delivers guaranteed characteristics of a hike in the canyon: mind-blowing scenery, wonderful campsites, and often more challenge and strenuousness than many people anticipate. But I’ve also found that each trip differs more from others than you might guess.

Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-books:
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.”

Backpackers and wildflowers along the Grand Canyon's Escalante Route.
Backpackers and wildflowers along the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

The popular “corridor” trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—while tough, are nonetheless the kindest to backpackers and dayhikers and constantly serve up vistas that inspire wonderment. The remote Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim goes from the bone-dry Esplanade to some of the best waterfalls and perennial streams in the entire Grand Canyon. The remote and adventurous Royal Arch Loop explores a tributary canyon with sometimes puzzling obstacles to scramble over and around and shockingly lush desert oases; it also requires one short rappel.

And the “best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon,” from the South Kaibab Trailhead to the Tanner Trailhead, basically throws every ingredient of a consummate multi-day canyon hike into the pot: the never-grows-mundane majesty of two rim-to-river trails, the South Kaibab and Tanner; the unique perspective of the Tonto Trail; side canyons that are vast and magnificent by themselves; the blessed relief of campsites by perennial creeks and to-die-for camps by the Colorado River; spicy route-finding and scrambling on the Escalante Route; and the surprising variety, beauty, and remoteness of the Beamer Trail.

If you’re thinking about taking any of these Grand Canyon backpacking trips this fall—an ideal time to visit—you should be looking into a backcountry permit right now for a trip anytime in October, because available permits for popular trails and campsites get claimed very quickly.

See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon.”

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A backpacker at a waterfall on the Deer Creek Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Jeff Wilhelm at a waterfall on the Deer Creek Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at The Big Outside.

In the words of John Wesley Powell: “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.”

You may not have months free to toil through the Grand Canyon’s labyrinths, but a few days or a week can give you a pretty good sampler of the place.

My gallery of photos below includes images from all of the backpacking trips and long dayhikes (routes normally done as backpacking trips) that I’ve taken in the Grand Canyon. See links below the gallery to my stories about those trips at The Big Outside.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

 

See my story “8 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” or scroll down to Grand Canyon on my All National Park Trips page for a menu of all stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” 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 “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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6 thoughts on “The Grand Canyon’s Best Backpacking Trips—A Photo Gallery”

  1. Inspiring shots of the Grand Canyon, Michael! I just returned 3 weeks ago from completing the Royal Arch Loop. The Arch and the pinnacle were overpowering and Elves Chasm was mesmerizing. RAC had significant pools scattered along the route that made navigating pretty challenging, but fun! Like you, I return to GC frequently – spring and fall – and each visit is as mind-blowing as the previous.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing that, Terrie, and of all the backpacking trips I’ve taken in the canyon, the Royal Arch Loop and Escalante Route are probably the two I’m most eager to repeat.

      Reply