The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations attracting over 5 million visitors a year, many of them American. The Colorado river carves its way through the plateau exposing two billion years of geological history. The Grand Canyon National Park has fascinated all that visit with its awe inspiring vastness, and intimidating depths, as well as its immense and powerful beauty, and diverse micro-climates.
The canyon can be over 2km deep at points, and spans a length of 446km, with a width of nearly 30km, making it one of the largest canyons in the world. The Grand Canyon sits in the desert in the state of Arizona, and is still inhabited by tribes and Native American people to this day. With such a rich cultural background, a display of geological splendor, and a unique sprawl of scenery that can only be seen in one place in the world, it is little wonder why the canyon pulls in the crowds.
Many visitors of the park are satisfied with seeing the Canyon with a shuttle bus ride, or by parking their car at overlooks along the South Rim, which can be accessed relatively easily. The North Rim is far less accessible; 345km round the canyon by car, or 34km by foot on the North and South Kaibab Trail. For those who want a more adventurous experience, nothing can beat a hike into the canyons, to give a real sense of the scale and immensity of the area. Although hiking can be an exciting way to explore the Grand Canyon, there are several things you will need to know before embarking.
If you are planning a day walk there are many options available, and no permit is needed. The Grand Canyon National Park boasts many trail routes, some of them well maintained and others very rugged. Some of the trails and sections are suitable for day trip excursions, without the need to camp out. South Rim walks range from the easy Rim Trail walk, which is easily lengthened or shortened by using the shuttle bus, to the very steep Grandview Trail.
There are also many North Rim day hikes suitable for casual walks, ranging from the 30 minute Bright Angel Point Trail, to the 8 hour strenuous walk to the Roaring Springs on the North Kaibab Trail. You will need to plan your day walk to suit your ability; it is better to take on less and have an enjoyable experience, than to risk danger by taking on a hike that is not suitable to be done in a day.
To see more of the canyon an overnight hike, or a several day excursion, might open up more options. The Corridor Zone trails are the most well maintained in the Grand Canyon and are recommended for first time hikers. They often have more abundant supplies of purified water, ranger stations, and some basic facilities like toilets. Subsequent zones increase in difficulty from the threshold zone, for experienced hikers, and the primitive and wild zones for only proven navigators, and trained desert hikers. Choose a zone and a trail wisely, and be totally honest. Have concern for your safety and you will have a most enjoyable time hiking. Whatever trail route you chose it is never clever to wander off the beat and track in an area as inhospitable as the Grand Canyon.
Obtaining a Permit
For most excursions longer than a day it will be necessary to obtain a permit, which can be applied for from Backcountry Information Centre. There are some developed campsites where hikers can rest without a permit, but to have access to all available camping options a permit will be necessary. They cost around $10, plus an extra $5 a night for every night camping in the park. Permits must be displayed on tents for rangers to see easily. The park has many designated camping grounds that vary in facilities. If you plan on using a horse or a mule this should also be stated when applying for a permit.
Water, or the Lack of It
The trail routes and campsites in the Grand Canyon National Park may or may not have a decent supply of drinking water. You will need to plan ahead and understand the availability of water for the time of year. Whilst some of the more popular trails have regular water stations, some of the less maintained ones will have no drinking water, especially in hotter, dryer months.
Hikers may sometimes need to purify water from rivers and streams, or carry an abundance for a certain section. It is important therefore, when a trail hike has been picked, to check how much water will be available and how much should be carried. Whilst walking, it is recommended to drink at least quarter a liter an hour, more on a hot day. Do not risk dehydration; take plenty of water, do some research, and get some advice if unsure.
Apart from water, you will also need to carry enough food. There are not any restaurants once you descend into the canyon, and so taking more than enough food, and some emergency rations will be imperative. This is not a list for hiking gear but other considerations will include clothes, tent, and sleeping bags at the least. Have enough protection from the sun, enough warmth for when the temperature dips at night, and a good enough tent to withstand the elements. Wear good hiking boots on tougher trails, and take good maps, guide books, and navigational equipment for tougher trails.
It is very important to understand the climate of the Grand Canyon, or to at least be aware of how it may affect your hike. Because of the intricacies, and large changes of gradients in the canyons, many micro-climates can be found there. For example, the coldest and wettest weather station at Bright Angel Rancher, North Rim, is located only 8 miles from the driest and hottest one, Phantom Ranch. The coldest temperature recorded at Bright Angel was -22 degrees F, and the hottest at Phantom 120 degrees F.
The deeper you descend into the canyon, the hotter the temperature, by around 5.5 degrees F per 1000 meters. It is therefore wise to be prepared for all extremes, for extreme hot and cold. The Grand Canyon is mostly a desert sort of climate, although the canyons are subject to the occasional storm, and lightning strikes. Temperature changes can be extreme, even swinging during a day by as much as 30 degrees. Be prepared for hot, dry daytimes, and cold nights.
Snow can arrive high up on the Rims of the canyon, especially the North Rim, and towards the end of summer monsoon season hits briefly. Research the climate, and check the weather forecast for the canyon. Get some information that correlates to the time of year that is is, and the specific areas you will be hiking.
Hiking in the canyon is not hugely dangerous if these considerations are met. With a bit of preparation and responsibility, the epic views of the canyons can be enjoyed with a tailor made hiking experience. Chose wisely and reap the benefits that the tourists in the car park on South Rim will simply never understand!