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Hiking the Grand Canyon–Preparation

Hiking the Grand Canyon (North Rim to Phantom Ranch)


The most comfortable way to stay at the Grand Canyon is to plan twenty-three months in advance and get reservations to stay at the bottom at Phantom Ranch. You really can’t count on getting reservations closer to your travel plans because the reservations are almost impossible to obtain. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the organization that handles reservations, begins taking reservations one year and eleven months (to the day) ahead of time. If you don’t call on the first day of the month, first thing in the morning, you may not get accommodations!

The benefits of staying at Phantom Ranch versus camping are many. Phantom Ranch provides towels, showers, bedding, a roof over your head, heater, swamp cooler, and running water. This means you carry less down into the canyon on your back! If you desire, and I do recommend, Phantom Ranch will provide meals including breakfast, pack lunch and dinner.

When to Visit

My favorite time to visit the Grand Canyon is in May, but September and October have nice weather as well. Both sides of the canyon are wonderful; the North Rim is slightly less traveled because it is farther from civilization—perfect for getting away. The top of the canyon on the North side is closed in the winter. Due to the elevation changes from the top of the canyon to the bottom, the temperature changes can be severe. We needed a light jacket for the top and shorts for the bottom—consider taking hiking pants that convert to shorts (the legs zip off).

If you are able to get reservations, plan to stay down in the canyon three nights. The first day will be for recovery and the second day for walking around and seeing the sights. If you stay only one night and have suffered from blisters, sore muscles or other complications, hiking the fourteen miles back out is going to be very difficult and may be impossible.

It is illegal to be in the canyon overnight without a reservation or camping permit and there are rangers checking. Make their job easier; be prepared and only go in if you have made plans to stay.

Having Phantom Ranch supply meals means you carry less. The breakfast is hearty and served at 5:00 a.m. if you are hiking out of the canyon that day and at 6:30 a.m. if you are staying down in the canyon. Dinner is either steak served at 5:00 p.m. or stew at 6:30 p.m. Lunch is a pack lunch that includes such items as fruit, granola, bagel, and sausage.

Both times I hiked, I took enough of my own food to cover lunch. Reserve your meals in advance—everything in the canyon must be transported up and down by mule or human so while you may be able to buy a pack lunch, you probably can’t buy any of the other meals. Vegetarian meals are also available. Breakfast is approximately $17.00 per person; steak dinner ~$30.00; stew dinner ~$20.00.

Phantom Ranch prices change every year and even though you pay in advance, you are still required to pay any difference in fees as your time for arrival gets closer. On our last trip, September 2001, I had the reservations two years in advance and the price went up twice; I had to pay the difference.

That said, the rates are very reasonable. In 2001 a dormitory style bed ran about twenty-five a night, and the hiker cabin (much harder to reserve) was about $100 a night, but sleeps four people. All prices are subject to change so call for the latest pricing.

Training for the Hike
Hiking the Grand Canyon is an exceptional journey, but it is not an easy hike regardless of whether you chose to travel the south side or the north. Many hikers go down one side and out the other, but this takes planning because you’ll have to leave a vehicle at the opposite side or arrange for shuttle service.

The drive from the South Rim to the North Rim is between four and five hours long. Because of the larger number of day hikers and mule trains on the south side, I preferred going in and out the north side.

The North Kaibab Trail into the canyon is fourteen miles one way. The Bright Angel Trail on the south side is ten miles. The elevation changes are extreme in any case so expect switchbacks and steep hiking either direction.

To prepare for this hike, you should be training at least six months in advance and carry a pack during training in order to acclimate yourself to the weight. I walked two to four miles every day and did several six and nine-mile practice hikes on the weekends. In Austin, St. Edward’s Park provides some good elevation hiking. If not there, find somewhere that contains some steep ups and downs to get in shape. Don’t try this hike unless you are in good shape.

Emergency rescue in the canyon is expensive and sometimes, due to high winds, helicopters cannot land, so be responsible and be prepared.

What to Take
The Kaibab website and the have a lot of good information. Read through some of the trip reports, pay attention to the time of the year and in general take plenty of food and water. You can live without a lot of other things. Some useful things to have along that aren’t always talked about:

Moleskin found in the foot care section of stores such as Wal-Mart or pharmacies. Moleskin is a must-have if you get blisters. It attaches to the blister or sore skin and acts as a protective covering and is much more effective protection than a band-aide.
Sports drink such as Powerade or Gatorade. Both of these can be found in powered mix form and the powder is lighter to carry. You can mix what you need whenever replenishing your water supply.

If you’re staying at Phantom Ranch, the dormitory style showers have all-purpose shower soap. The showers are locked so you must be a guest at the Ranch to use them!
Take lots of snacks. Jerky, summer sausage, crackers, cookies, and granola are good examples.

There is a pay phone at Phantom Ranch.

Take a decent camera, film, and extra batteries, but unless you want all the extra weight, leave multiple lenses at home.

Knife, flashlight, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, light jacket, nail clippers, earplugs, handkerchief (dusty trails when mule packs come down); map if you want one (try Trails Illustrated), personal medications, and first aide items for headaches, diarrhea, constipation; potassium supplement in case of mineral depletion; water bottles with screw on caps (the snap on ones tend to leak); a change of clothes (hand wash and dry a set so that you only have to carry two sets) and toothbrush and toothpaste!

First aide items can be purchased at Phantom Ranch as well as beverages and some snacks.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts reservations: (303) 297-2757

Time Stands Still
The Grand Canyon is a spectacular place to hike, whether just for the day or overnight. It is the only place that I know of that you can walk all day, getting farther and farther from civilization, and end up in a pretty darn comfortable “hotel.” Only so many visitors are allowed in the canyon each day so you share your experience with a minimum of people. It’s isolated, beautiful and special.

Starting at the North Rim, you see the grandeur of the canyon and drink in its vastness. It’s hard to imagine hiking it when you’re standing at the top. The North Rim is heavily forested and sits at 8200 feet above sea level. The air is cool in the early mornings, and the surrounding vegetation provides a hospitable home to turkeys, deer, elk and other abundant wildlife.

As you hike down the canyon, the cliff walls are arranged before you in spectacular layers of white, red and browns that contrast with the green forest. Depending on the time of year and rainfall, there are many spots where you can see water running down the face of the cliffs.

When you leave the towering cliffs behind, the desert begins to insert itself. One world replaces another; the trees become more stunted and yucca, century plants and other cacti can easily be spotted, especially if blooming. This first five miles is steep and filled with downhill switchbacks.

At approximately 4800 feet above sea level, things level off a tad, and you’ve arrived at Roaring Springs. You’ll see a waterfall thundering into the creek, and moments later you arrive at the caretaker’s dwelling and pump station. This is a private residence, but there is a water pump and a rough picnic table. This makes for a good spot to rest, eat lunch and check for blisters! You’re not quite halfway, but the most brutal downhill stretches are behind you.

The North Kaibab trail begins by following Bright Angel Creek, and you’re now in a riparian environment, with mountains of rocky terrain visible in every direction and the towering cliffs seen off in the distance. The swallows in May dashed along Bright Angel, swooping and showing off their green-colored backs. Cottonwood Camp is about two miles from the private residence and is at about 4000 feet above sea level. The good news for your legs is that the remaining seven miles is a gradual decline to 2400 feet where the Colorado River carves out the bottom of the canyon.

Cottonwood Camp is another good spot for lunch if you didn’t stop earlier. There are tables, trees and drinkable water if the pumps are working. The rest of the hike to the Colorado is not difficult, but it is long.

Once past the campground, about a mile south, is a trail leading to Ribbon Falls. Ribbon Falls is well worth a side trip, but if you take this diversion, you are adding about a mile round trip to your fourteen-mile hike. It is a delightful resting place though, and the moss-covered cliffs that house the falls are magical and cooling. Soak your feet and climb behind the falls before heading back out to the main trail.

The trail soon leads to Box Canyon, and while Bright Angel Creek still winds at your feet, the canyon walls are now narrow and dark. Picturesque footbridges span the creek when crossing is required; sometimes the wall of the canyon comes right to the river and there is no way to continue except to cross to the other side. In the summer, Box Canyon can get extremely hot. When we hiked in May it was easily upwards of 100 degrees. Make sure you have plenty of water for this stretch and if you get overheated, douse yourself with water if necessary. This part of the canyon is like a fantasy trip to another planet. There is but one way to walk and the walls are watching you.

Once Box Canyon recedes, you will soon find yourself, with great relief, at Phantom Ranch. If there is time before your scheduled dinner, don’t hesitate to leap into Bright Angel Creek and let the natural pounding of the water be a whirlpool for sore muscles. I recommend jumping in dirty clothes and all since the ones you’re wearing will require washing anyway! The river is delightful and the view is made of all things still and peaceful.

After dinner, spend some time sitting outside. If you’re still able to walk, consider making a mile trip in time for a spectacular sunset at the Colorado River. Stand on one of two bridges that span the river and watch for river rafts making their way through the canyon. On your way back to Phantom Ranch, you are quite likely to see numerous bats flitting about. They are astounding to watch and quite entertaining.

During your days down in the canyon, there are numerous day hikes. Hike partway out the south side on South Bright Angel Trail or South Kaibab Trail. You could also make a day trip back to Ribbon Falls if you missed seeing it on the way down. There are other trails available, as well as Indian ruins and the beach area at the Colorado River. The rangers typically have informative sessions during the evenings to tell you about the geology, the trails, and the wildlife.

When you hike out, take your time. You have all day to get to the top and you’ll want to save your energy for the last few miles because they are the steepest and the most difficult. There are mule trains that come down both the south and north trails; carefully step to the inside of the trail and let them pass. Stop often and have the time of your life.

For travelogues on hiking the Grand Canyon:
North Side to Phantom
Rim to Rim

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Posted: July 22, 2006
Filed in Hiking the Grand Canyon


  1. Wow. That sounds very hard but worthwhile. My only problem would be trying to remember to reserve the ranch two years in advance. I don’t think we even planned our Costa Rica trip that far ahead.

    Comment by Carla — June 26, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  2. Hi Carla!

    They used to take reservations a year in advance. I’m not sure why they went to two years, but I can say doing the reservations is worth it. Otherwise you end up on a waiting list and I’ve heard it’s impossible to get more than one night down in the canyon. There are people at the south rim, WAITING to hike down each morning–in the hopes that someone doesn’t show. I’ve heard that as many as 25 people are waiting at times.

    It really paid to do the reservations. You can cancel and get a refund if life gets in the way. It’s a lot of money upfront (especially when they keep raising prices on you!) but it made life a lot smoother to have them. With travel to and from the canyon, you need about a week and a half–staying at the north side in the cabins is well worth it also. There are some awesome views and hikes along the rim. If we do this trip again (and I can’t even believe I’m contemplating it!) we’d stay at the top for a couple of nights and do a few of the hikes up top. The wildlife there is incredible. Just driving in we saw elk, turkey, deer, birds and heard about mountain goats. Really wanted to see those big ole rams.

    In the canyon we saw snakes (there’s a rattlesnake that is kind of pink–it is only found down in the canyon) lots and lots of bats, birds, raptors, fish, deer–it’s a trip that I don’t think can be matched anywhere else in the world.


    Comment by Maria — June 26, 2007 @ 10:22 am

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