By Michael Lanza
All three of us have hiked this footpath before, and even still, our first steps down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail leave us with hanging jaws. It’s early morning under clear skies, with the low-angle sunlight bringing the vastness of this chasm into sharp clarity—every inconceivably towering monolith, bottomless abyss, and sheer precipice—and we’re sputtering silly superlatives about the vista unfurling before us.
This is, after all, the world’s grandest canyon. It does that to people, even hardened veteran backpackers like us.
Joined by two friends who’ve taken many trips with me, Todd Arndt and Mark Fenton, I have returned to the Grand Canyon (yet again) to backpack a six-day, 74-mile, point-to-point traverse off the South Rim that will take us down to campsites on the Colorado River and then, of course, back up to the rim.
Besides the fact that hiking down the South Kaibab shortly after dawn comprises one of the absolute best hikes and most inspiring sensory experiences in the entire National Park System, our early start gets us ahead of the hundreds of dayhikers that will venture partway down and back up this trail today.
We are also getting underway ahead of the worst of the rapidly advancing heat: The temperature at the South Rim when we stepped outside at 6 a.m. on this morning in late April was 68° F—and that’s at the coolest time of day at the highest and coolest elevation of our trip. With us seeing virtually no shade all day, the sun conducts its slow but insidious work of wilting us like two-day-old rose petals left in a vase without water.
Our hike will show us many diverse personalities of the canyon, from one of its most scenic and popular trails, the South Kaibab, to one of its most remote and primitive paths, the Escalante Route. We will see sharp contrasts, including some of the highest levels of solitude I’ve ever had on Grand Canyon trails—hiking for hours without encountering another person, and having little company even at three of our four campsites—to spending a fun evening with a very friendly rafting party that graciously feeds us. We’ll also take an optional, long dayhike from one of our camps on a trail that, even for this place, will surprise us in both its difficulty and its beauty.
Our route choice came as a tip to me from someone who knows this canyon better than all but maybe a few living people, and possibly better than anyone. A backcountry ranger I know who has hiked every named trail in the park—many of them undoubtedly countless times—described this route in an email to me as “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.”
With a recommendation like that, I couldn’t imagine not taking this trip.
Tonto Trail East
Nearly four-and-a-half miles and 3,200 vertical feet down the South Kaibab, we reach the Tonto Plateau at a spot called the Tipoff, where the South Kaibab Trail plunges another 1,500 feet in two-and-a-half miles to the Colorado River. Here, our hike undergoes its first dramatic personality change.
We turn onto the Tonto Trail eastbound and immediately leave behind dozens of dayhikers and backpackers, following a path so narrow that we couldn’t even pick it out amid the sparse desert vegetation when looking down from just above it on the South Kaibab.
Lizards dart across the trail in front of us. A rattlesnake issues its distinctive warning when we pass the trailside bush it’s hiding under. Peering at it from a safe distance, we see that it’s a little guy—not more than a foot long. We stop for lunch in a strip of shade some eight feet long and two feet wide below an overhanging rock ledge—the only patch of shade substantial enough to shield all three of us that we find before evening.
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By afternoon, drifting cotton-ball clouds create dappled light that flows like a river over the canyon. A sheer wall of stone at least a thousand feet tall transforms before our eyes, revealing that what looks at first like one wall is actually three separate formations that had blended together in direct sunlight, but are actually separated by large horizontal distances—and one stands across the Colorado River from the other two.
We follow the meandering Tonto Trail around the rims of tributary canyons of the Colorado—some of them a thousand feet or more deep and several miles long. On the map, it looks like someone drew the trail by tracing around the splayed fingers of a hand—we’re constantly weaving in and out, covering more lateral than forward distance. The biggest side canyon we see today, at Grapevine Creek, we walk halfway around to tonight’s campsite by early evening, and will continue around its opposite rim tomorrow morning—realizing after completing it that getting around this one large tributary canyon took us three hours to make about a quarter-mile of actual forward progress.
The scale of the Grand Canyon is hard to wrap your brain around—and probably the best argument for backpacking or even dayhiking into it.
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Almost 19 miles and 11 hours after we commenced hiking, much of it in withering heat, we drop our packs near the slender but steady trickle of Grapevine Creek. Over the more than 14 trail miles from the South Kaibab Trail, we saw only three other people: two backpackers at Lone Tree Canyon and one guy hiking solo who’s camped near us at Grapevine.
Soaring canyon walls finally gift us with shade in the evening, when we watch the sunlight slowly fade to a sky shot through with stars. The choir of bullfrogs and crickets who’ve staked claims in this tiny stream grows to such a cacophony at times that we have to raise our voices to hear each other over it.
‘The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon’
Hiking away from Grapevine Creek shortly after 7 a.m. on our second morning, within five minutes we’ve climbed steeply onto the Tonto Plateau and stepped back into direct sunlight. Like yesterday, a steady breeze offers meager though cherished relief; but it’s hot by 8 a.m., as the temperature marches again toward a high around 90° F.
Reaching Cottonwood Creek by mid-morning, we spend a couple of hours refilling our bodies’ water tanks, eating, cooling off under a small waterfall—and simply basking in the rare pleasure of shade beneath the cottonwood trees. We’re hiking about five hours today, so we’re in no rush, and there’s little shade ahead of us until evening descends on our next campsite at Hance Creek. In the canyon, you often plan the day’s travel around taking advantage of the rare oases of water and shade.
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I’ll confess to a growing obsession with backpacking in the Grand Canyon—despite how hard it is due to both the arduous character of most trails and the sometimes-crushing heat that can feel like the sun reaching down to lean with increasing weight on your shoulders. And you’ll find few refuges of water and shade.
Truth is, in about 95 percent of the Grand Canyon, it’s easier to die than it is to live.
Nonetheless, each of the several multi-day hikes I’ve taken here has only amplified my appetite to explore more of the canyon. (Scroll down to Grand Canyon on this page for a menu of my stories about those trips.) I suppose part of the motivation is that I relish the myriad challenges the canyon throws at you. If you seek to push yourself physically and mentally in the wilderness, few environments will accommodate your wish as thoroughly and relentlessly as the Grand Canyon—and probably in more ways than anticipated.
To me, though, suffering without some payoff is a fool’s errand. But the Grand Canyon always pays back more than your investment of sweat and toil in it. The vastness, depth, and breadth of it confounds the brain’s capacity to interpret its scale. Natural features lying at a distance we can’t accurately estimate appear tiny, balloon to unfathomable size as we approach, and then somehow slowly shrink until they fade into their surroundings—as if they evaporated in the heat. Very few natural environments on the planet—and I assert this having seen a fair number of the best places—match the canyon’s topographical and ecological complexity, sheer relief, or constant stream of grandeur.
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The inevitable effect of hiking through the canyon is a sustained state of awe. It’s the drug without a hangover or other physical side effects. Well, except for the pain that not infrequently accompanies the hiking.
Coming into this hike from that perspective, the promise of “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon” sounded like either impossibly optimistic hyperbole or, just maybe, the prospect of experiencing one of the very finest of innumerable wilderness strolls I’ve taken over three decades.
At the least, it seemed worth investigating.
Hot afternoon gusts blow me off balance a few times on our more than two-hour hike from Cottonwood to Hance Creek. The Tonto Trail rolls over the plateau circling around Horseshoe Mesa, then traces the west rim of the deep canyon of Hance Creek. Like other canyon trails, the Tonto sometimes sends us clambering across shattered rocks and crumbling ledges, or over dry pour-offs that transform into temporary waterfalls during rainstorms.
Mark says, “On a lot of these trails here, you’re always looking down at your feet because the footing’s so difficult. You have to remind yourself to stop and look around so you don’t miss all this unbelievable scenery.”
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And it is unbelievable, quite literally almost every step of the way. On the Tonto, our panoramas reach from both distant rims and the chaotic canyon-scape in between, to overlooks from a thousand feet or more above the Colorado River. And we have apparently arrived during a super bloom of wildflowers of the sort that may occur only once in a handful of years: Everywhere, flowering prickly-pear cacti and other brilliant flora carpet the ground in a rainbow of colors.
At Hance Creek, we find a long, flat slickrock ledge under an overhang that throws a huge shadow by early evening, and lay out our pads and bags there for the night. Other than some recent fallen rock at one end of the ledge—which we maintain some distance from, in case there’s more loose rock overhead—and tiny, desiccated turds of uncertain origin, it’s a beautiful spot looking across the rocky creek bottom at tall, vividly red cliffs. Waking briefly during the night, I gaze up at a grandly starry sky.
The Escalante Route
“This can’t be a route for backpackers.”
Those skeptical words emerge from my mouth as we stand on unnervingly shaky boulders at the bottom of a dangerously loose pile of rocks in all sizes, from baseballs to watermelons to large furniture, that rises steeply beyond sight above us. On our third morning, Mark, Todd, and I have reached the mouth of Papago Canyon, at the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route, and the trail has slammed right up against this small mountain of rockslide debris—leaving us wondering where to go.
Cloudy skies, strong gusts of wind, and pleasantly milder temps greeted us this morning and will accompany us all day—all of it, including the off-and-on light rain, a welcome respite from the heat of the past two days. We left our camp at Hance Creek at 6 a.m., vaguely anticipating that our planned 15-mile day—much of it on the infamously rugged Escalante Route—could consume many hours.
We were more right about that than we realized.
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Gear Tips Trekking poles are indispensable for this route’s steep descents and ascents. See my reviews of 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. See my favorite ultralight daypacks in my review of the Black Diamond Trail Blitz 12 and REI Flash 18.
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Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my “10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of the 10 tricks here and the lightweight backpacking guide here without having a paid membership.
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