Grand Canyon Backpacking – Rim to River and Back Again

October 10 – 14, 2014. Post by Ravi.

After a sunburned and sand scrubbed four days in Joshua Tree National Park, we made our way across the desert to Phoenix to visit Alison’s Grandma, and then up to Sedona, AZ for a few nights to explore that quirky little town full of crystal shops and mysterious energy vortex’s.

Our next destination, and one we have looked forward to since finishing the John Muir Trail, was the Grand Canyon. We decided to do another backpacking trip here, from the rim of the southern edge down to the Colorado River and back again in three days.

There was a dog kennel within the National Park itself, with very affordable rates ($10/night/dog) and we checked it out to ensure it was clean and safe before dropping off Duke and Spike. The workers there were very nice, and the place was tidy. It helped that we travelled late in the season, when the weather was cool and tolerable but the crowds were slightly less than crazy (and the kennel had lots of room).

The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited parks in the world, but only 1% ever make it below the rim, and only a fraction of 1% make it all the way down to the Colorado River. Doing such a thing requires about 5000 feet of elevation loss on the way out, and an equal gain (or possibly more if you hike out on the northern side of the canyon) while hiking out.

Seeing the Grand Canyon from down into the carved river valley is a very different experience. The weather is much hotter, and what looks like sheer walls turns out to be much more interesting curved and carved rock. The play of light during sunrise and sunset also adds another dimension.

The campsites down in the canyon are also stellar, very clean, with running water and well-kept toilets (they even flush at the valley floor, Bright Angel Campground!). However, there are a ton of people camping every night, and the spots aren’t super spacious, so expect noise and company.

On a future hiking trip to the Grand Canyon, we would venture off the beaten path and “Cowboy Camp” (find a remote campsite with no amenities) for solitude.

However, a first timer would be amiss to not stay at these established campgrounds. The views are stellar and you will meet interesting people for sure. There is even a ranch near the valley floor that has rustic cabin accommodations (book far ahead if you want to stay here!) and a cafe that serves up breakfast foods, burgers, snacks, cold beer, lemonade, sodas and even proper dinner (if your idea of proper dinner is a big slab of meat and some sides).

With our ultralight backpacking gear, and our post-JMT fitness, the hike was not hard at all. We hiked down to the bottom of the canyon in one day (about 8 miles) and then hiked half-way up and out of the canyon via a different trail on the second day, and the rest of the way up on the third day. Both our packs weighed in under 25 pounds when we started the hike, since there was no water on the way down to the bottom of the canyon (via the South Kaibab Trail) and we carried a ton of it. However hiking up along the Bright Angel Trail, there was plenty of water along the way (filtered, not via a stream), so we carried less and our packs weighed closer to 20 pounds.

If we go back to the Grand Canyon, we will probably trail run the thing in a single day. It has become the cool thing to do lately, and we saw plenty of people plodding along down and up in a single day, some doing so from the south rim and back to south rim (12-14 miles), others doing it from the north rim to south rim (22 miles) and a few doing south to north AND BACK in a single day (44 miles). Aside from a few stretches where the trail is sandy, steep and slippery…the trail is totally runnable. The gradient isn’t that bad.

I’m saying that now from the comfort of a motel while I type this post!

Pics of this adventure below.

Driving to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff, AZ.
Driving to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff, AZ.

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The Grand Canyon campground was full, so we snagged a 100% free camping spot in the national forest about 5 miles away. There were no toilets (you dig a hole in the ground) and no water (we always travel with 3-5 gallons of water with us), but it was pretty quiet and we had plenty of space.
The Grand Canyon campground was full, so we snagged a 100% free camping spot in the national forest about 5 miles away. There were no toilets (you dig a hole in the ground) and no water (we always travel with 3-5 gallons of water with us), but it was pretty quiet and we had plenty of space.
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The view in the other direction from our campsite.
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Our packs, post weight in. We caught a shuttle bus to the trailhead. We didn’t have a permit when we arrived (you need one to stay in a campsite below the rim), so we stood in line the day before and got one. Make sure you get a number from the permit office two days before you plan to hike, and the next day  just show up when the office opens and they will call you up in number order to see what spots are available for camping. We were number 7 in line and got what we needed.
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The trail we took down to the bottom. It is steeper than the other option (Bright Option) and has no water along the way, but the views are better.
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Lots of people do this. There are warning all over the Grand Canyon about people perishing from falls, dehydration or exertion.
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First views of the rim. Prior to the hike, I (Ravi) purposely avoided looking at the canyon from the park roads when we drove around. I wanted it to be a surprise for the hike. Alison, however, did a full 13 mile run along the southern rim trail the day before we hiked.
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Tons of switchbacks….the trail was steep at the start, but then dropped to a pretty manageable gradient.
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Every single beer, burger and piece of trash that goes down to the ranch at the bottom of the canyon and back up…does so on a mule. These are cross-bred mule/horses….super strong and sturdy. They occasionally carried people as well. Some pay to do a “pack trip” (where you ride a horse down and up) and they also carry people who are injured. I would be scared to death riding a horse down or up out of the canyon. The scared to death look afflicted several people I saw riding them!
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They have two of these massive steel bridges down there.

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The Colorado River! It moves very swiftly. Not a good idea to swim in it…aside from aircraft crashes (helicopters and scenic planes), more Grand Canyon deaths have occurred in the Colorado River….rafting or swimming…than any other way.

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Approaching our campground at Bright Angel. The scenery at the bottom of the canyon is very different than the top. It is much hotter (10-20 degrees hotter with less wind) and there are a few creeks where big cottonwoods grow). There are also a ton of deer down there (and they all look emaciated). There is not a ton to eat down in the canyon. The park service monitors the deer and if straights get too dire, they have been known to cull their numbers (i.e. shoot them). Poor things.
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Our site! All the sites were neatly arranged along a creek, with plenty of shade and sandy platforms. The bathroom even had flush toilets, running water and there was a cafe 1/2 mile away serving snacks and cold beer!
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The stream was cool, but nothing compared to the snowmelt along the JMT.
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Grand Canyon Beer and some Indian hot mix snacks we brought from home.
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If you look closely you will see a telephone line that is up on the hill, and is still in use. It is a historic item now…built in the early 1900s and running all the way from the rim to the bottom.

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Bright Angel campsites all lined up neatly in a row.
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Coffee in bed.
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Walking to the cafe for a beer! The lemonade was also amazing.

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On the second day, we hiked just 4 miles to our next campground, gaining about 1500 feet. Along the way we saw this little stream, an oddity in the dry terrain and hot weather.
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As we approach the Indian Garden Campground, our home for the second night, we look up and see the southern rim of the canyon.

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We did a flat hike out to Plateau Point after dropping our gear at Indian Garden Campground. It was supposed to be one of the best sunset spots in the park. It surely was, but out camera was not that good and all the pics were washed out. If you have a good camera, or are content with just looking at it instead of capturing it, it is worth visiting here for sunset.
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Ballerina clouds… 

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Too bright!!!
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Much better!
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The view from Plateau Point.
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The view from Plateau Point.
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Waiting for the sun to go down.

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The final day, hiking up 3000 feet and 4-5 miles to the southern rim. It went by quickly.

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Back on top at the Bright Angel Trailhead.

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7 thoughts on “Grand Canyon Backpacking – Rim to River and Back Again

  1. I love your blog and that place looks amazing! We get that same Bhuja mix brand in New Zealand supermarkets by the way, ha! I was wondering about Alison’s boots, which look quite interesting…or are those mini-gaiters she’s got on them? What kind of boots are those?

  2. Hi! Irene here, from Santa Fe, NM. Planning our hike into the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground, going down Bright Angel Trail, in June this year. I was checking for photos that might give us an idea of what to expect, and ran across your photos, which are awesome! Really enjoyed reading your blog. This is so cool, since I have now an idea of what we will see and the arrangements of the camping area. We will be camping one night at Indian Garden, two nights at Bright Angel and final night at Indian Garden again. Best wishes on your journey, and will keep reading your blog!

    1. I wanted to add that in July, 2013, my adopted son, his son and my son, took a trip to the Canyon and hiked down to the 1.5 mile rest house (1.6 miles), and did rather well. July, mid-morning heat…yes, we did amazingly well. Adopted son was/is an Eagle Scout with experience, and my son has a lot of hiking/camping experience. We monitored water and snacks, lunch, and had an awesome time. As we’ve been in preparation for our hike, we’ve read that the rangers suggest a first-time hike to the 1.5 mile rest house to see how things go. Was pleased that is what we did, not knowing of the suggestion. Anyway, we are so looking forward to this hike!

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