Hiking the Grand Canyon has been one of the highlights of my year and it’s truly an experience I will never forgot. I agreed to go with my mom on a hiking trip to Grand Canyon National Park on a whim. I didn’t have any hiking experience and I knew it would be tough and I’d have to do a lot of training. Considering my complete lack of hiking experience I’d say I did pretty well on the trails. Although it was hard I still had an amazing time and I managed to make it to the bottom of the Canyon and back up in one piece. I’ve already written a little Grand Canyon travel guide that talks a bit about visiting the National Park in general but this post will focus specifically on the hiking trails and Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. Although it’s really just an excuse for me to share some photos.
We hiked the Canyon at the beginning of April since we didn’t want to go when it was too hot in the summer or too cold earlier in the spring. Because of the high elevation temperatures can be unpredictable and extreme, also it’s 10 degrees warmer at the bottom of the Canyon than at the Rim. We ended up with perfect weather, around 15 degrees but it was extremely windy which made the hike down a bit more challenging. However, even though the beginning of April was perfect for us earlier this year it did snow a bunch at the beginning of May this year too and then when my mom did the same hike around the same time in April two years ago it was 30 degrees, so like I said, weather is unpredictable. But when you’ve reserved over a year in advance you kind of have no choice but to do the hike so it’s important to prepare for all types of weather.
As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Grand Canyon, we stayed at Maswik Lodge on the South Rim for our stay before and after the hike. At the bottom of the Canyon we stayed at Phantom Ranch which you can only reserve via their new lottery system. Bookings open 16 months in advance and if you don’t get in for the time you want then you can check online 13 months in advance for availability. Alternatively you can also try booking at spot at Bright Angel Campground, bookings open 8 months in advance. When you book Phantom Ranch you need to specify is you are a hiker or a mule rider and then you have the option of booking cabins or dorms. Cabins book up first and dorms are divided between male and female and they sleep 10 people each. You also need to reserve your dinner, breakfast and if you want a sack lunch for the hike up when making your reservation.
For the actual hike I recommend hiking down South Kaibab Trail (take the shuttle from the Backcountry Office) and hike back up Bright Angel that ends right at Bright Angel Lodge and is walking distance back to all the hotels. I will get into more detail for each trail in this post. You don’t need a permit for hiking any of the trials, only for camping. Also regardless of whether or not you actually do the full hike down to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch you should always bring plenty of water, salty snacks, wear proper footwear, clothing and sun protection. Even though the trails are pretty straightforward and you can’t really get lost I would recommend downloading the All Trails app that I talked about in my Sedona Travel Guide since you can record your hike and track your progress on the app even without cell service as long as you download the map offline ahead of time.
This trail is really a show stopper. The views are amazing and constantly changing. This is one of the reasons I recommend going down South Kaibab Trail since you are always looking forward at the amazing views instead of trying to look behind you. In comparison, Bright Angel Trail has a pretty similar view for most of the way up. Also there is no water on South Kaibab Trail at any time of the year and it’s pretty steep all the way down, so it’s better to hike down it rather than trying to hike up. There is also very little shade. When you start down you can’t see the bottom until you’re more than halfway at Skeleton Point. Even then once you see the Colorado River there is a long way to go. The trail is about 12 km long with a change in elevation of about 4700 ft. We got on the trail at about 9 am and it took us 5.5 hours to get to Phantom Ranch. You can choose to do a day hike on South Kaibab Trail but not many people do. However, if you do decide to then it’s not advised to go past Skeleton Point and even that is pretty far since it’s much harder and longer going up.
Phantom Ranch feels like a little oasis in the middle of the wilderness. It’s so peaceful and quaint with the little cabins, stone corral for the mules and the creek running through this isolated area in the vast Canyon. Phantom Ranch is definitely rustic but comfortable. The food is decent but you don’t really care after an exhausting hike down. If you spend more than one night at the bottom you can take a day hike over to Cottonwood and Ribbon Falls on the North Kaibab Trail. One of my favourite things about staying down at Phantom Ranch was listening to the Ranger talk. It was so interesting to learn about the Grand Canyon from a Park Ranger down at the bottom and it gave me a much greater appreciation for this wonder of nature and it’s ancient history.
Hiking up Bright Angel Trail feels really daunting. You can’t see anywhere close to the top from the bottom and even when you think you’re close it’s deceiving. It wasn’t until I was able to see the Kolb Studio at the trail head in the last kilometer that I knew I was almost there. Bright Angel Trail is much shadier, especially in the first part of the trail until Indian Garden Campground. There is also a creek that runs along the trail that we had to cross several times, luckily it wasn’t too deep or wide and there were rocks but I was happy to have hiking poles to steady myself while crossing. Once you arrive at Indian Garden there is a place to get water (unless there is an issue so you should never count on there being water, always bring enough for the entire hike). It’s a great place to relax and eat lunch before continuing on to the toughest part of the hike where most of the elevation is. The trail is about 15 km long with a change in elevation of about 4340 ft. We got on the trail at about 8 am and it took us about 6 hours to get to the top. Bright Angel Trail is often done as a day hike and the trail is much busier, especially when you get up past Indian Garden Campground. If you do a day hike it is not advised to go further than Indian Garden.
Hiking Gear & Tips
Some of the hiking gear I used that I really loved was my REI Co-op Traverse 35 Pack for women. I loved this backpack, it was super comfy and had lots of nice features. These Smartwool ankle socks and Injinji sock liners were the best and made the hike a lot more comfortable for me feet along with my Keen Gypsyum II Waterproof Light Trail Shoes. Another great item was my Mountain Warehouse waterproof jacket and light fleece that were lifesavers since it was a bit cold and windy, especially down at Phantom Ranch. The jacket packs up small into a bag so it barely took up any space. This Platyus water bottle is one of my favourite things and I still use it all the time and this Skratch Lab electrolyte mix is an essential for any hike. If you do the hike you’ll also need a water pack like this 3 L Hydrapak Resevoir.
I may have looked ridiculous while wearing it but the Cotton Carrier CCS G3 Grey Harness-1, essentially a camera vest, was one of the best things I’ve ever bought! It made carrying my Sony Alpha A7R II camera and Sony EF 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS Lens down the Canyon so much easier and comfortable!. Also these Zeiss Lens Cleaning Wipes are a photography essential for anyone hiking in the desert where there is always dust.
It’s important on a busy trail to follow trail etiquette. When hiking always give right of way to the person going up and always move to the inside wall and let them pass on the outside. This was a real annoyance of the trail since the majority of people day hiking did not follow this rule, which was honestly quite dangerous since it is easier to knock someone off the trail if you try passing on the inside.
It’s important when hiking the Grand Canyon to drink lots of water through out the hike and I’d recommend adding electrolytes such as this Skratch Labs mix. Salty snacks and carbs like pretzels, cookies and chips are the best kind of snacks for hiking since your body won’t be able to digest proteins as well while hiking and you need to manage your salt intake. Add in some trail mix with nuts for a little protein boost though. Since the climate is dry you often don’t realize how much you’re sweating, another reason why electrolyte supplements are important. Taking frequent breaks to stop and have a snack and some water is ideal. We made lots of little snack baggies with 100 – 200 calories to eat about every hour and carried 4 liters of water.