We were looking for a challenging outdoor adventure, but we knew we didn’t exactly have the experience to do it safely on our own. Once we decided on our destination, the Grand Canyon, we began researching guided hikes and camping.
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a World Heritage Site which encompasses 1,218,375 acres and lies on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern Arizona. Our goal was to experience the Canyon to the fullest; that can only be done by hiking to the very bottom.
The Grand Canyon National Park offers a variety of choices to experience the inside of the Canyon; guided tours, mule trips, river trips, hiking and camping. If you are interested in backpacking and camping on your own, you must acquire a backcountry permit. The permits are very challenging to obtain due to the volume of requests, but the organizations conducting the guided hikes all have access to those permits.
Grand Canyon Field Institute
Our research led us to the Grand Canyon Field Institute, a program of the Grand Canyon Association (GCA), which focuses on educating park visitors about the cultural and natural history of the Grand Canyon. The classes specialize in various topics such as cultural education, photography, wilderness, women, family classes and much more. The term class is used to emphasize education, but this is unlike any class you have taken before. There is a class for everyone; from beginner backpackers to experienced outdoor enthusiasts. The institute was easily accessible via phone and email, and was very courteous while assisting us to choose the class that was best suited for us. We decided on Introductory Backpacking: Colorado River. It was exactly what we were looking for; adventurous, educational, and challenging.
South Rim Lodging
After arriving at Phoenix Airport on a Wednesday evening, we rented the smallest, cheapest car available and drove 3.5 hours up to the Grand Canyon Park that same night. Since we had arrived in the evening we weren’t able to see anything along the unlit highway; however we could easily feel the change in altitude and temperature during our ascent. With complete darkness surrounding us the foot might have been a little heavy on the throttle, because we soon found flashing lights behind us. The officer advised us to slow down so we are able spot the sleeping elk in the middle of the road. That is important information you may want to consider when driving to the Grand Canyon.
Luckily we didn’t see any elk sleeping on the highway, but once we arrived at Maswik Lodge on the Canyon Rim, we did have to maneuver our way around them roaming on the local streets. Maswik Lodge was reasonably priced (about $90USD-$120 per night) considering it is located inside the park and only a 5 minute walk to the South Rim. It was clean and comfortable, but far from a luxury lodge or hotel.
The next morning we were scheduled to be at the Grand Canyon Field Institute at 8:00am for an all-day Introductory Backpacking class. Our instructor and tour guide, Melanie Miles, was perfect for the job. Not only does she have many years of wilderness experience, but she is very familiar with the ecological history of the Grand Canyon’s formation and shared many hidden treasures with us throughout the trails.
The class was made up of four diverse students. Everyone was new to backpacking and we all socialized rather easily despite our age differences (two classmates were retirees.) During our 1-day course we learned about the history and geological splendor of the Grand Canyon, how to pack minimally and strategically, appropriate clothing, adequate food, water rationing, and a few safety precautions. The most informative was the actual packing list review. As first timers, we brought too much stuff than we needed or could fit in our packs. Not only was there too much, but it would have added unnecessary weight; a topic that is most important when backpacking. The instructor spent time with each person reviewing what items to bring and what items are not practical for the trip. Each student weighed their pack to make sure it was manageable for the duration of the entire trip. The institute also provides equipment rental. Aracely and I both rented hiking sticks and Aracely even rented a backpack that was more than suitable. After downsizing our packing list several times our final pack weight including food was: Jason 42lbs, Aracely 36lbs. It’s important to note that as a couple we were able to minimize our pack weight by distributing a single tent and camping stove between the two of us. After the classroom instruction, the group was led to a beautiful scenic view, Schoscone Point, along the South Rim. We all looked in awe and took pictures of what we were soon about to conquer.
Camping on the South Rim
That evening we chose less expensive accommodations by utilizing the park’s campgrounds. At only $18USD per campsite, we saved compared to the lodge costs. During sunset, we set up our tent in a reasonably sized site, near the public wash house. This provided us a short walk to access restrooms and sinks, making the night’s tasks a bit easier. The temperature on the Rim was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Somewhat chilly, but you must remember you are 7,000 feet above sea level. In the evenings the temperature drops significantly. We cooked dinner, washed up and laid our heads to rest, for we knew the challenge ahead. That night, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, we were encased in sleeping bags fit to withstand those temperatures.
South Rim Kaibab Trail
Early Friday morning we regrouped with Melanie and the others and began our descent into the Canyon via the Kaibab Trail from the South Rim. Our destination was Bright Angel Campground, which is located next to the Colorado River. The 7.5 miles of switchbacks, unforgiving terrain and breathtaking views took 7 hours to complete. Although the hike was physically challenging for both Aracely and I, it is still possible for many to accomplish. Our group included a female in her 60s who carried her own backpack and was able to cope with the difficult terrain. Our guide, Melanie, was very good at managing the different intensity levels of the team. Rest stops were made as needed, most often along designated areas with public restrooms that were surprisingly clean and adequate. One of the most amazing scenic rest stops is Ooh Aah Point, which is approximately 780 feet from the South Rim. Here, you can take wonderful photos sitting on a ledge overlooking the entire Canyon. As we continued to hike down, Melanie would explain the different vegetations we encountered and pointed out the different layers of rocks that make up the Grand Canyon’s walls. The further we descended the Kaibab Trail the more the temperature increased. Approximately every 1,000 feet in altitude the Grand Canyon weather temperature can change 3-6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is much more efficient to wear layers of clothes that can be easily removed as you become warmer.
Grand Canyon Weather
Carefully consider the time of year you plan your hike. A hike during the summer can begin in 75 degree Fahrenheit weather and finish at 110 degrees once you arrive at the bottom.
Throughout the trail you will encounter packs of mules making their way to or from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The mules carry passengers, luggage or even supplies from Phantom Ranch (located at the bottom of the Canyon.) Hikers have the option of a mule carrying their luggage, which will then be waiting for them when they reach Phantom Ranch. These individuals only need to carry enough water and food for the hike down. It was also shocking to see how these mules were able to safely carry passengers while remaining sure footed along the trail. The mule packs create large crevices along the trails that require constant maintenance. Melanie informed us that at one point the park had considered abolishing the mules from the trails, but it was decided that the mules played a significant role in the history of the Grand Canyon. Another fascinating encounter was with the adventure runners that run the trails from South Rim to North Rim across the entire Canyon in a single day.
Bright Angel Campground
When we arrived at Bright Angel Campground we were desperate to remove our bags and rest. The Grand Canyon weather was now a comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit. A thorough cleaning in the sink was well deserved to remove the coat of sand on our skin. Everyone set up their tents within a group campsite that provided benches and storage for our food. The storage containers were made of metal to prevent the mule deer from intruding.
Later that evening we visited the famous Phantom Ranch; the only lodging facility below the Canyon Rim. This place has a very cool backpacker atmosphere; everyone is very friendly and social. The grounds include dormitories and rustic cabins, which can be reserved while spending several days on the Canyon floor. Much of the lodging includes showers and restrooms. Also popular is the Phantom Ranch Canteen where meals, beverages, and snacks are available. With reservations, you can participate in family style dining in a log cabin setting. And yes, the beverages do include beer. Just remember the more you drink, the more weight the mules have to carry out. The Canyon floor can only be accessed by foot, mule or the river. Everything you eat and dispose of is transported out by way of mule. After some socializing, we retreated to our tents for a good night’s rest, one that would be considerably warmer than the previous night.
Indian Granary & Havasu Falls
The following morning we had an exploratory hike to a great lookout point above the river where we had lunch. We also went exploring to a 1,000 year old Native Indian granary. Melanie explained the different food storing techniques the Native Indians used. The group learned so much from Melanie during our hikes which combined education and adventure. Another option available to the group was a trek to Havasu Falls. These waterfalls are described as having a bluish green tint to the water and are located above the campgrounds.
South Rim Bright Angel Trail
After two nights of camping at Bright Angel, we began the hike ascending from the Canyon floor. This time we would climb out via the Bright Angel Trail.
Indian Gardens Campground
Four and half miles later we arrived at Indian Gardens Campground for one last night out in the wilderness.
A river runs through the campground which provided great scenery during the hike to the campsite. Indian Gardens also serves as a resting stop for the mule herds between Phantom Ranch and the South Rim.
That evening, we hiked another 1.5 miles to witness the panoramic views at Plateau Point. During our walk we encountered mule deer willing to pose for photos. The mule deer just couldn’t compare with the most brilliant sunset against the red rock of the Canyon. We stood in awe as the rock glowed with orange and red tints.
The Climb Out
On the last morning at 7:00am, we began our final hike back to the South Rim. The trail from Indian Gardens consists of endless switchbacks with steep stair-like rocks. It was the most strenuous leg of our hike. Determined to beat the class record, we left our group behind and pushed ourselves to climb 4.5 miles in under 2.5 hours. We felt exhausted, but extremely accomplished. It is advisable to hike at a pace that is manageable based on your physical condition. For Aracely and I, it was great a challenge, and an unforgettable experience.
After returning our equipment we began our drive back to Phoenix. Daylight provided us the opportunity to see the beauty of the landscape we missed on our initial drive to the Grand Canyon. Taking a photo next to a giant cactus was just another highlight of the trip and it was a perfect ending to our outdoor adventure.
Other great hikes you might enjoy from the Americas: