The National Park Service warns, “There are no easy hikes below the rim.” Rim-to-river trails are steep and exposed to the sun, with sheer drop-offs and other potential hazards. If you’re looking for a simple walk or stroll, try sections of the scenic Rim Trail or wander around the village area.
If you decide to enter the realm below the rim, don’t let the ease of traveling downhill lure you into hiking farther than you have water, time, or energy for. As a rule of thumb, it takes twice as long for the return trip.
Novice hikers should stick to the South Rim’s corridor trails, Bright Angel and South Kaibab, before attempting wilderness trails. The maintained and patrolled corridor trails are easy to follow and so popular that help usually isn’t far away, should you need it. Even getting to the trailheads is easy. If you’re staying at Bright Angel Lodge, Bright Angel Trail is practically on your doorstep.
But hiking in Grand Canyon isn’t for the spontaneous. Careful planning is important, even for an autumn or spring day hike on a corridor trail. Wilderness trails may have steep drop-offs and obstacles, and they often require route-finding skills (the ability to read both a map and the landscape to locate an obscure trail). Icy winter conditions and extreme summer heat can turn a hike into a dangerous, even life-threatening, ordeal.
South Rim trails are open year-round, though upper sections, often reaching halfway into the canyon, may be snow-packed and icy for days or weeks after a winter storm. Crampons, which you can rent or buy at the General Store, are a must to help prevent a serious fall. The plus side to winter hiking is that there are fewer people on the trails, backcountry permits are relatively easy to get, and inner canyon temperatures are pleasant.
In the summer, heat requires an entire set of strategies encompassing timing, water, and sun protection:
- Wait for shade. During hot months, plan to hike before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid intense midday sun. Some people hike at night, but because of narrow trails and steep drops, this can be dangerous. Carry a flashlight or headlamp, just in case you get caught after dark.
- Get wet. A lot of technical gear is designed to wick away perspiration. This is helpful in cooler months or climes. But on a hot Arizona summer day, when the relative humidity is 10–15 percent, cotton keeps you cooler. A light cotton shirt, cap, or bandana can be soaked with water — the evaporative effect will keep you cool much longer than synthetics.
- Rest often. You’ll use water more efficiently if you sip a little at a time and have a light snack every so often. Besides, a short break gives you time to enjoy your surroundings.
- Use your nose. Panting or breathing so hard that you can’t speak are both signs that you’re using more oxygen than you can take in. Besides, mouth breathing wastes moisture and doesn’t filter out dust as efficiently. Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy can help keep your mouth moist and remind you to keep it closed.
- Be humble. The canyon is bigger and older and meaner than you. Don’t be stubborn about turning around if you find you’re out of your depth.
The South Kaibab Trail, in particular, is shadeless and dry. From July to mid-September, afternoon thunderstorms are possible, bringing the danger of lightning strikes and flash floods. Spring and fall are ideal times to hike, although the weather is unpredictable.
All warnings aside, hiking in Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring. The views, of course, are amazing, but so is the feeling of walking through the ages as you descend through rock layers and vegetation zones.
Rim hikes and corridor trails are listed first. Wilderness trails are listed west to east:
© Kathleen Bryant from Moon Grand Canyon, 5th Edition