Travel writer Lisa Sykes explains all you need to know for a trip to the US' phenomenal Grand Canyon
I eased off my hard boots and lay back on a foam mat to peer at the rim through silver trees with spring lime leaves. So that’s what a mile looks like, straight up. Later I sat outside the ranch house with a cold beer – this might be wilderness but it is still the USA – and watched the sun sinking on the rim and the light creeping away across the canyon walls.
I knew that 100,000 people a year make this trip to Bright Angel campground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but it still felt like a special place – a hidden valley. Bright Angel Creek is an oasis in a desert state; here was the lushest plant life and the most water I had seen in a two-week trip around Arizona. There were bushes, trees and birds. There must have been wildlife because the campsite was strewn with metal food containers, to stop critters raiding your supplies.
On the steep zig-zagged trail down from the rim I had seen buzzards soaring in the thermals rising from the hot red earth. Agave plants, ridiculous ungainly things that shoot their flowers high into the sky, were already wizened in March – their big spurt after the last rain was over. Even in spring it smelled hot down there – but not the molten tarmac smell of suburbia, a smell of hot desert rock.
The best thing about being down in the canyon was getting away from cars. In the USA you soon get lazy, you drive to the store and the diner and eat the huge portions with fries and sauces all over everything, drink too much bad coffee. Down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon it feels like a different planet. It isn’t of course – in fact it is under a flight path and every so often a white vapour trail reminds you of the real world.
The track descends through a geological textbook – it takes only four hours but during that journey you pass through rock that is older than birds, flowers or even dinosaurs. After trekking through the neat layers of sedimentary rocks you reach the desert and the greenish shales of the Tonto Platform. It is a barren desert without trees, an austere mid-point in the hike.
Further down, at Panorama Point you are right on top of the campground and you can see the river at last – flowing fast and free. The silence of the descent is gone as the sound of the green current rushing over the rapids accompanies you the rest of the way to the suspension bridge across the Colorado and the idyllic campground and ranch house beyond.
Way after dark the full moon finally appeared over the lip of the canyon, then it moved fast across the sky – I slept without the top sheet on the tent to see the midnight blue with tiny trees silhouetted far above. It would have been a perfect setting for a howling wolf on the edge of a cliff but sadly that was unlikely in this much-visited part of the USA. By 5am the sky was bright with moonlight, by 7am the canyon started to get light and half an hour later the first cracks of sunlight appeared. It was time for the long walk back.
You don’t have to be fit to get the most out of a visit to the Grand Canyon – but it helps. Five million people visit the big ditch every year, so if you want to avoid the crowds you have to walk.
The key to an action-packed adventure is preparation – there are travellers’ tales of year-long waiting lists for mule-riding and rafting, six-deep crowds at the popular sunset vantage points and nowhere to stay within 60 miles. All these are true. But if you choose carefully when and where to go, the Grand Canyon really can be a wonder of the world, not a spectacle tainted by tourists.
When to go: Spring or autumn. Avoid the summer when it is too hot and very busy due to the school vacation (mid-May to August).
The temperatures in the inner gorge tend to mirror those in Phoenix, Arizona’s big city in the desert. So it can be over 40C in the summer and not much cooler at night because the canyon holds the heat.
In March it was 24C at the bottom of the canyon, much warmer than at the rim. I started hiking down in thermals, woolly hat and a fleece but by the bottom had stripped to shorts, t-shirt and sun-hat.
The North Rim, which is higher at over 8,000ft above sea level, is snowbound from November to March, when the roads and lodges are closed. US holidays are busy and best avoided but after Labor Day in September there are few US visitors.
During the winter the weather can be extreme; expect snow and icy roads and trails. If there is a storm you probably won’t be able to see the canyon anyway.
How many days? Many visitors just come for a few hours to say they have done the Grand Canyon. They haven’t even come close. Most British visitors spend three to four days in the national park, as part of a two- or three-week trip in the southwest USA. Try to spend at least one night in the canyon.
Where to go: The Grand Canyon is vast; even five miles up it takes minutes to fly over the one-mile-deep and 277-mile-long giant gorge. There is a network of trails criss-crossing the canyon, some established by native Americans, others by 19th century prospectors and cattle men. These range from faint paths to well-maintained thoroughfares, but no trail is easy as they all involve a steep walk out again.
There are three categories of trail – the most popular are the maintained and patrolled ‘corridor’ trails – the Bright Angel and the North and South Kaibab – which form the cross-canyon corridor from South Rim to North Rim. The further down the trail you go from the rim, the fewer people you will come across, because day trippers can’t walk to the Colorado river and back in a day. In fact, no one except very fit and experienced hikers and runners even attempt to do it in a day. Expect to take about four hours for the walk down and eight for the walk back up.
The recommended route down is the steep South Kaibab Trail (7.3 miles) and the longer, but less severe Bright Angel Trail back up (9.3 miles). Rim to rim is a one-way, three-day journey for most. The difficulty is transport, as it is a five-hour drive of 215 miles to get from South Rim to North Rim even though they are just ten miles as the crow flies.
However the best way to avoid the crowds is to go to the North Rim – only 10% of visitors go there – which you can reach from Las Vegas to the west or from southern Utah to the north.
Wilderness trails are not regularly maintained and are patrolled less frequently; they tend to be narrower and rougher, with occasional scrambling necessary. You need to take a map and plenty of water but the reward is a solitary stroll through one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
I did a day hike down the Hermit Trail, a wilderness trail that follows a side canyon at the extreme west of the popular Rim Drive. It was beautifully silent – I saw just 12 people in total. The trail was built in 1912 and you can still see some of the original cobbles poking through, as well as the fossilised tracks of animals on the giant sandstone slabs. The gnarled old trees and rocks eroded into conical shapes are too intricate to seem natural. It is easy to get carried away and walk just a little further, but look up; the rim already seems a long way back up when you are just an hour’s walk down the trail.
Hikers can follow the third type of trail – off-trail routes – but they are often difficult to follow without a guide or experienced canyon hiker.
Safety: The Grand Canyon is different from mountain hikes because you do the easy bit first by walking down into the canyon. Which means tackling the hard upward part when you are tired. Remember to allow double the time to get back up the trail.
You can buy food and water at the general store and the rule is to take more than you think you will ever need. Start early in the morning; I began climbing out of the canyon while it was still in shade and the air was cool. I had time to notice the rushes growing in the banks of the creeks, follow the narrows to see a waterfall and take it slowly up the tortuous switchbacks of Jacob’s Ladder and the Devil’s Corkscrew before it was too hot. However, be warned, none of this preparation avoided the inevitable post-canyon stiffness – they call it the Kaibab shuffle around those parts.
Riding a mule down the Grand Canyon is one of the classic tours. There is a stand-by list for the following day’s rides at Bright Angel Lodge transportation desk, and if you are flexible and have funds you can usually find a place, particularly in the winter and spring. You do not need riding experience.
There are more than a dozen rafting companies taking trips of three to 16 nights down the canyon. You need to book in advance.
If you want to learn more about the canyon’s history, ecology or geology as well as explore it, opt for a trip with the Grand Canyon Field Institute, which has everything from hands-on archaeology hikes to back-country medicine backpacking. There are also free interpretive walks and talks with rangers on the rim. Details can be found in the visitor centre.
Permits and Passes: It costs $20 per vehicle entrance fee into the park but this is valid for seven days. You also need a permit to camp below the rim – at spring breaks, holidays and weekends, there is a high demand for limited places but you can reserve them up to four months in advance and have them posted to you at home. You have to declare your intended route and camping locations and stick to them. It costs $20 per permit, plus $4 additional fee per person per night.
One ranger told me they will refuse permits to those who don't appear to be fit enough or know what they are doing.
“If you look like an asshole and you ask where the petroglyphs are they'll not tell you in case you take 'em.”
Permits are available from the Backcountry Office, Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023; www.thecanyon.com.
Guides: Forget the coffee table books and glossy pictures – you can see the real thing. The essential items to pick up are copies of The Guide, a seasonal advice newspaper and a Trip Planner, with official park information. Both are available online at www.thecanyon.com/nps. There are invaluable pocket trail/field guides that tell you what you are passing, for around $3 each from Kolb Studio and bookstore in Grand Canyon Village.
Transport: By 2011 11 million visitors are expected to visit the Grand Canyon annually. The plan is to stop cars moving around in the park. There will be free shuttles all year an more trains to the station inside the park. Currently there is one train a day from Williams (www.thetrain.com). The park service has already stopped cars on the West Rim Drive in the summer. A new visitor centre that will be the hub of the park will be an essential stopping-off point so more people pick up information before they see the canyon.
1. Walk a few hundred metres down from the trailhead at sunset.
2. Avoid the one-mile stretch of the South Rim
3. Go to the North Rim
4. Take a Field Institute guided off-trail trip
5. Do a day hike down a side canyon