Ask Me: What Backpacking Trips Do You Suggest In the Grand Canyon and Southern Utah?
I recently found your blog while planning a trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and have devoured it in its entirety over the past few months. While reading I mainly lamented living in the mostly boring Midwest, with poor access to the prime backpacking spots you describe. Well, as luck would have it my partner just got a job in Phoenix, AZ, so we two flatlanders will now be a short drive from the Grand Canyon, and accessible to Canyonlands, Arches, and much more. My question for you: what backpacking trips would you most recommend as first priorities for two reasonably fit, decently equipped people new to the Phoenix area?
Our itineraries in the past have been determined by what we could cram into a road trip, but now we’ve got the chance to do weekend trips all over the West and Southwest, and we are overwhelmed by the options. Neither of us has really ever set foot in the desert before, so any advice would be much appreciated.
Thanks for the wonderful blog!
Congrats on moving to a beautiful part of the country. Given that you’re just a few hours’ drive from the Grand Canyon, it’s hard for me to recommend anywhere else for your first trip. Have you seen this story of mine about backpacking four days from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead? It’s accessible, quite varied, definitely rugged on the first and last days, and not as popular (or as difficult to get a permit for) as some other trips in the canyon.
Comparable and more popular is the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim, traversing a really scenic section of the Tonto Trail. I backpacked it some years ago and more recently dayhiked it; it’s beautiful every step of the way, and quite varied because you get into some side canyons that feel more intimate and remote, as well as getting many of those expansive views for which the Grand Canyon is best known.
If you’re looking for a longer trip on the best-maintained trails in the canyon, you should consider hiking from the South Rim to the North Rim via the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails. I wrote this article about doing it across and back in a day, but it’s a classic multi-day backpacking trip. You can go across and back, or just across to the North Rim (normally three days), spend a night in the lodge there, and catch a shuttle bus back to the South Rim.
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Another alternative is hiking down the South Kaibab to the Colorado River, staying at the campground just across the river or the nearby Phantom Ranch lodge, then returning to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail, with the option of splitting the climb from the river back to the South Rim over two days by camping a night at Indian Garden.
Depending on how many days you have, spend your first night at Bright Angel, then second and third nights at Cottonwood, and on your third day take a dayhike up toward the North Rim (as far as you can make it), the scenery and trail in the upper stretch before you hit the forest is incredible—the trail hugs a cliff face (but it’s a wide trail). Then on day four, you might make it from Cottonwood to Indian Garden.
In fact, if you can reserve a permit for that last option, which is very popular, grab it. It’s a great introduction to desert hiking and backpacking. Note my trip-planning details at the end of the Grand Canyon stories I linked above, with tips on reserving a Grand Canyon permit. It’s one of the hardest to get in the National Parks System.
I’ve also written in my blog about backpacking with my daughter the 15 very rugged miles from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point off the canyon’s South Rim. (The lead photo at the top of this story shows her atop Horseshoe Mesa on that trip.) And I’ll post a feature story later about backpacking the Royal Arch Loop, considered the most difficult of the established hiking routes on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
If you click on “Utah parks” or “Southern Utah hiking backpacking” in the cloud tag in the left sidebar of The Big Outside, you’ll find many posts about trips in southern Utah. There are so many great backpacking trips there that it’s hard to go wrong, and many I still want to do. But some are more challenging for the lack of water. If I were to recommend two trips that should take top priority, I’d say backpacking the north-south traverse of Zion National Park (the closest to you), which as my story describes, allows you options for shorter versions; and backpacking Coyote Gulch, because it’s incredibly scenic but also has year-round water flowing through the canyon, which has two benefits: adding green to the red landscape and relieving you of having to carry a lot of water.
Eventually, perhaps after cutting your teeth on a couple of desert hikes, you have to go do Paria Canyon, a tributary of the Grand Canyon that straddles the Utah-Arizona border, one of the top, multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest. And I’ll say the same about one of the truly classic backpacking trips in the National Park System, The Narrows in Zion.
Wow, these are incredibly helpful recommendations—just what we needed! Thank you so much for getting us started with some priority itineraries. I’m hoping to explore Utah on some weekend trips, perhaps re-reading Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire along the way. I will definitely let you know how it goes. Looking forward to reading the story of your trip with your daughter soon.
I think we will apply for the following itinerary for a big Thanksgiving trip, per your recommendation:
Wednesday – arrive early and hike down to Bright Angel
Thursday – up to cottonwood, Thanksgiving freezer bag feast
Friday – go as high up the north rim as we can (we’ve got microspikes in case of bad trail conditions, but maybe they’re not worth the weight?)
Saturday – hike to Indian Garden
Sunday – hike out, drive to Phoenix
I’ve been reading lots of reports of trouble with critters snagging food at campsites. I know there are ammo boxes provided, but it seems like many people bring rat sacks or similar devices, anyway. What’s your food protection protocol in corridor campgrounds?
Thanks again for your advice. We are looking forward to exploring the Southwest together starting this fall!
That late in the year, you don’t get many hours of direct sunlight in the canyon, so if snow has fallen, it can linger up high, and thaw and freeze daily and nightly, forming solid ice. I’m not sure how high you’ll get up the North Kaibab Trail before encountering snow or ice; that can vary a lot.
But based on my early-April experience on that trail, and an early-November hike from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point off the South Rim, I think you’re likely to see moderate temps in the canyon bottom and freezing overnight temps closer to the rims. You might find ice across the trail as you get up high in Roaring Springs Canyon, where the trail traverses sheer cliffs that may receive little or no sunlight at that time of year. I remember one spot where a small waterfall pouring down from above the trail had formed a solid sheet of ice that was precarious to cross without microspikes, though we did it. But November will often be much drier than April, so you may not see any ice there, and you might not even get that far on a dayhike from Cottonwood, anyway. In early April, we were hiking atop snow once above Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab, but there’s not much exposure on the trail up there, so we didn’t feel a need for microspikes.
Actually, the place you’re more likely to need microspikes is the upper part of the South Kaibab Trail, and maybe the upper Bright Angel Trail. But you would know before you start the hike whether the upper parts of either trail are icy; you can go look at them or ask at the backcountry desk. And the forecast will tell you whether there’s any chance of snow and sustained freezing temps that could create icy conditions while you’re on your trip. The rangers may also have a recent report about ice and snow conditions on the upper North Kaibab Trail, too.
So should you bring the microspikes? If there’s no need for them on the South Rim, I think your choice partly depends on how badly you want to reach the North Rim, or whether you’d happily just turn around if you hit unsafe ice and don’t want to bother carrying the spikes. Call the backcountry desk right before your trip and ask about South Rim and North Rim trail conditions and the weather forecast. That will help you decide whether to pack the microspikes just in case or leave them at home. I was weighing that decision for a trip in the first week of last November, because we were going to ascend the Grandview Trail, which gets narrow in spots and can be dangerously icy. But based on a report that it was dry and the forecast showed clear skies and mild temps, I left them at home and we never needed them, the trail was completely dry.
I haven’t camped at Bright Angel, Cottonwood or Indian Garden, but I’ve hiked through all of them; given the people traffic, I imagine they’re all good places to find food if you’re a rodent. I’m not sure why ammo boxes wouldn’t be adequate for food storage, unless there aren’t quite enough of them and they get filled up. You should be able to hang food in any of those camps. But that’s a good question to put to backcountry rangers.
Have fun. I’d love to hear how it goes.
I wanted to send you thanks for all your help planning our Grand Canyon trip. It was a huge success. We had excellent weather (no need for microspikes or rain gear), uncrowded trails, and easy walking.
We ended up hiking down South Kaibab to Bright Angel Campground on night one, heading up to Cottonwood Campground and then day hiking to Ribbon Falls and up to Roaring Spring on day 2, then back to Bright Angel the next day for an easy day with a side hike partway down the Clear Creek Trail. We took it slow and stayed at Indian Garden for one night on the way out so we could catch sunset from Plateau Point. If I had it to do again, I’d do two nights at Cottonwood so we’d have enough daylight to dayhike all the way to the North Rim. We found the hiking mainly easier than we anticipated, and had plenty of time to relax, nap, and catch fish in Bright Angel Creek. It was a perfect Thanksgiving! Places like the Grand Canyon generate such superlatives that it seems they could never live up to the hype, but this trip was even better than we expected.
Next up is Joshua Tree, after which we’ll head for Zion, Canyonlands, and Arches for long weekends, and then a two-week stint on the John Muir Trail this summer. Your blog has been a great help in planning our trips and especially in getting my partner excited for each of them—your photos are a great tool for backpacking sales pitches!
Thanks again for all your help.
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