In 2007, Joanna Grimes saw the Grand Canyon the way many of its 4.5 million annual visitors do: She stood at the edge of the spectacular chasm for a few minutes while on a bus tour.
Two years later, though, she joined a close friend on a guided four-day backpacking trip that took them from the remote North Rim, across the Canyon and over the mighty Colorado River, to the South Rim. Immersed in the intensity of the dramatic landscape, Grimes found the environment not only physically challenging, but “heaven” for stargazing, and soul nourishing, too.
“Nothing could compare to a hiker’s view of the Canyon,” says Grimes, a 33-year-old senior enterprise network technician from Scotia, N.Y. “It made my problems seem miniscule and gave me a greater appreciation of the beauty and majesty of our natural world.”
One of the country’s oldest national parks, the Grand Canyon has left countless visitors awestruck by its sheer magnitude: 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. Even more mind-boggling is its geological history: Nearly 2 billion years of erosion, continental drift and volcanism have shaped its pinnacles and ridges.
Such a vast wilderness demands more than a drive-by visit. “When you step over the rim, you get a strong sense of stepping through a doorway into a whole other world,” says Lon Ayers, the park’s wilderness visitor-use assistant. “It’s really the difference between sitting poolside and actually jumping in.”
And there are plenty of outfitters happy to provide the gear and guidance to help you experience the Canyon beneath its rims. From relatively simple day hikes to multiday treks from rim to rim, there’s an adventure waiting for anyone willing to take up the challenge.
The Lay of the Land
Situated in the northwest corner of Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is divided into the North and South Rims. The South Rim, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, is the one you’ve seen in the movies or on postcards. Attracting 90 percent of the park’s visitors, it’s open year-round and is closer to the Colorado River, making it a good choice for shorter hikes.
Closed mid-October through mid-May because of snow, the remote North Rim sits about 8,000 feet above sea level and sees very few tourists. Visitors who do venture there choose it for its solitude, the alpine scenery of firs and aspens, its abandoned system of fire roads that lead to stunning overlook campsites, and the intense physical challenge.
Despite the Grand Canyon’s popularity, only 10 percent of visitors actually venture below the rim, says Debbie Hendricks, owner of Just Roughin’ It (JRI), an Arizona adventure company whose guides lead three- to six-day rim-to-rim trips for those who want to experience both sides of the Canyon.
Michelle Santi Wutt, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mom from Rumson, N.J., has made the trek twice. “The cliffs and buttes are beyond a scale that your mind can imagine,” she says. “The colors of red, orange, brown, green and silver roll together to paint an unimaginable picture, and the amount of stars in the night sky is innumerable and awesome. Photographs and pictures cannot possibly do justice to the Canyon.”
Day Hikes and Overnights
Of course, you don’t have to hike from one rim to the other to have an extraordinary Grand Canyon experience. A vast network of trails wriggles throughout the park, and most outfitters offer a range of trips for every level of adventure, from short day hikes to much longer expeditions. Arizona-based Discovery Treks, for example, leads a six-mile round-trip day hike on the popular Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, where participants view Anasazi petroglyphs and petrified snow on the Redwall Limestone.
On multiday trips, camping in the Grand Canyon gives hikers exclusive views: sunrises and sunsets painting the walls orange, pink and red; gray foxes, ringtail cats and other wildlife; the bright stars of the Milky Way against a pitch-black sky.
“The sight of the mighty river at the bottom of the Canyon, waterfalls, beautiful cacti and flower blossoms — it is deep, hot, rigorous hiking, full of life and sounds of nature,” recalls Jennifer Moore, a 39-year-old yoga instructor from Santa Monica, Calif., who joined a Grand Canyon backpacking trip with REI Adventures in 2008. “For almost a full 48 hours there wasn’t another soul around, so I felt like it was just our group and the Canyon, which was peaceful and inspiring.”
If camping isn’t your thing, consider an outfitter such as Vermont-based Country Walkers, which houses guests in inns and lodges, but still leads them to lesser-traveled areas. Guide Tim Smith spends his spare time seeking out hidden gems like Cliff Springs off the North Rim. “It is a remote, serene and beautiful natural setting,” he says. “I can imagine at one time, long ago, the inhabitants of the area stopping here to fill their clay pots with water.”
For even more solitude, outfitters can design custom trips, or you and your friends can hike on your own. Joe Hudson is one of the “Grand Canyon Junkies,” a group of friends that have been backpacking in the park’s wilderness since 1972. The camaraderie, along with views of the plunging Colorado River and the sounds of a single raven cawing, are what keep him returning to the Canyon.
“It’s a fabulous way to just get away from civilization for a spell,” says Hudson, a 55-year-old newspaper editor from Denver, Colo. “You end up focusing on simple things like getting water and making shelter, but your surroundings also move you to ponder the great mysteries of time and space.” Hudson adds that he enjoys the physical and mental challenges that backpacking in the Canyon throws at him. “You look down from the rim or up from the bottom, and it looks impossible, and you wonder, ‘How am I ever going to make it down and up there?’” he says. “Somehow, you do it.”
Physical Demands, Personal Rewards
One of the perks of Canyon trekking with an outfitter is that most supply the key pieces of equipment so that you don’t have to buy a tent or travel with a sleeping bag and air mattress. Discovery Treks, for example, includes everything but flights and clothes on its Grand Canyon adventures. (Don’t worry — they wash the gear each time!)
Even with guides to help shoulder some of the gear, both day hikers and backpackers should be prepared for a serious physical challenge. “It was super intense in that the hiking days were long, and it was very hot,” says Moore. “The terrain was extremely steep going down and up, which made for a strenuous workout.”
But the physical demands of the Grand Canyon lead to multiple rewards — mental, physical and otherwise. What may seem from the rims to be a barren “big hole” turns out to be a primitive playground of riverbanks, creeks, trees and animals. Country Walkers hiker Kim Brown, 52, of Bedford, Texas, remembers the colors: pale greens and grays and rust as the shadows fell across the Canyon. Wutt, meanwhile, raves about the creeks and waterfalls that support rich botanical life.
In addition to all the sights and sounds, there’s plenty of time for those increasingly elusive vacation treats: Days begin early to avoid the heat, and long evenings are devoted to reading, playing Uno, conversation and self-discovery.
After her REI Adventures trip to the Canyon’s blue-green Havasu Falls, Sheri Fisher of Seattle canceled her cable TV and joined a local hiking club. “The REI guides knew my abilities and encouraged me to push myself,” she says.
Many hikers, like Nancy Holloway of Kansas City, vow to go back for another, longer hike, or a rafting trip on the Colorado River. “There is something special about getting to experience the Canyon below the rim, away from the majority of tourists,” says Holloway. “Getting to hike the Grand Canyon has changed my life for the positive, helping me to put things in perspective.”
Whether it’s that soul-satisfying moment, the rainbow of colors on the walls, the hurts-so-good sensation of hard exercise or simply the fresh air, hiking the Canyon is grand indeed. “You can get the big views from the rim overlooks, but there are so many beautiful, magnificent, magical things that you perceive as you walk down the trail,” says Ayers. “So go down — you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of what this place is truly all about.”
Grand Canyon Dos and Don'ts
What you should and shouldn't do on a below-the-rim trek in the Grand Canyon.
Do know your and your family’s abilities and choose the right hike — a park ranger or outfitter can help you narrow down your choices.
Do train ahead of time. Debbie Hendricks of Arizona-based outfitter Just Roughin’ It suggests increasing your cardio and adding strength-training exercises like lunges and squats to your regimen. She also recommends trekking poles for additional support.
Do let your doctor know about the physical activity that you'll be doing and get your him or her to sign off, if necessary. A physician’s release is often required for more intense trips.
Do break in your hiking shoes ahead of time to avoid blisters and sore feet.
Do plan to spend one-third of your time descending into the canyon and two-thirds ascending out.
Don’t hike alone. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
Don’t overpack. Hendricks suggests limiting backpacks to 25 percent of your body weight; the heaviest items in your pack should be food and water.
Don’t forget to consume salty snacks and plenty of water or sports drinks to maintain a healthy level of electrolytes. At least one-half quart of water is recommended for every hour of outdoor activity, especially when it’s really hot (inner canyon temperatures are typically 23 to 30 degrees hotter than on the rims).