The majority of Grand Canyon visitors stay for only a few hours, rarely getting closer to the canyon than peering over its rim. But the best way to experience the canyon’s vast reaches is to venture within them.
Exploration has its risks: sheer cliff edges, hyperthermia or hypothermia (depending on the season), dehydration, rock falls, lightning strikes, flash floods, drowning, and unpleasant critter encounters. Park rangers rescue an average of 400 people in the canyon’s backcountry each year. Most have failed to prepare adequately or have overestimated their abilities.
But if you’ve done your homework, the canyon will reward you with inspiring views that change at every turn in the trail, and up-close encounters with geology, history, and desert life.
If you’ve never hiked before, don’t let that stop you from hiking at Grand Canyon. Yes, the canyon is intimidating, but a guided ranger walk or a rim hike is a great way to get your feet dusty. If you’re a hiker but you’ve never hiked Grand Canyon before, start with one of the popular, maintained, and patrolled trails in the central corridor of the canyon: Bright Angel , South Kaibab , or North Kaibab Trails .
Sufficient water and sun protection are critical. So is determining the “point of must return.” Hiking guides, rangers, and even the kiosks in the plaza outside the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Visitors Center can help you choose an appropriate day-hike destination. Keep in mind that it will take you roughly twice as long to hike back up to the rim as it did to hike down.
You don’t need a permit for a day hike, but your preparations might include dropping a quarter into one of the metal trailside containers for an informative brochure. The brochures are available for the North Rim’s Bright Angel Point , Walhalla Glades , and Widforss Trail , and the Rim Trail  on the South Rim. The Grand Canyon Association (GCA) publishes inexpensive booklets for a number of trails, including the Bright Angel , South Kaibab , and Hermit Trails , available at visitors centers and GCA bookstores. Learning a little bit about geology, plants, animals, and history before or during your hike will add to your experience.
Be respectful of other hikers by doing your part to maintain natural quiet. Don’t throw rocks into the canyon, a highly dangerous impulse. The traditional rule of the trail is to yield to hikers going uphill, but use common sense. Sometimes uphill hikers welcome a break, and sometimes they’ll want you just to get out of their way. Always yield to mules by stepping off the trail on the inside.
Many Grand Canyon trails are historic and even prehistoric, used by pioneers and ancients. Structures, rock art, artifacts like pottery shards and lithic scatters, and less obvious evidence like roasting pits are fascinating reminders that humans have traveled the canyon for millennia. Treat these reminders as though you were in an outdoor museum—feel free to look, but leave them in place. Even the thin layer of oils on your fingertips can damage rock art.
Federal and state laws protect all archaeological and historic sites, including artifacts, on federal lands. Violators are subject to fines and imprisonment. If you witness theft or vandalism, contact the park’s Silent Witness Program (928/638-7767).
Help prevent erosion by staying on trails. Don’t shortcut switchbacks. Watch for cryptobiotic soils—lumpy, grayish-black crusts that protect soil by retaining moisture and preventing wind erosion. “Crypto” is a symbiotic community of bacteria, lichens, and mosses. It takes decades to form and only a footstep to destroy.
For your own safety and for the health of the animals, do not disturb or feed wildlife. Pack out all trash, including food scraps. If you see a condor, mountain lion, or feral burro, report the sighting to a ranger.
Hiking to the river or a scenic tributary and spending the night inside the canyon are magical experiences. If you’re lucky, you may feel completely in sync with nature, as though you’ve stumbled across your very own private Eden. But chances are, you won’t be alone. Nearly 40,000 people camp in Grand Canyon’s backcountry each year. In an effort to keep this wilderness as wild as possible, the park has instituted a permit system limiting the number and location of campsites.
If you want to spend the night in the canyon, you’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit . Keep your permit in a visible location, such as attached to the outside of your trip leader’s pack. In camp, the permit must be in plain view, such as attached to a tent, so that patrolling backcountry rangers can check it.
The same safety issues that concern day hikers are magnified for backpackers, and careful preparation is a must. Most canyon backpackers train for a trip, acclimating to elevation, distance, terrain, and load with aerobic conditioning, strength training, and endurance work. Attitude is as important as physical condition: being able to focus and concentrate, setting and achieving goals, and keeping a positive outlook.
Planning requires attention to detail, from packing enough of the right kind of food to researching water availability along your route. Good maps and trail guides can help you locate routes and water sources. The online bulletin board managed by Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association (www.gchba.org ) is another helpful resource.
Aside from clothing, personal items, a tent (optional in summer), and a sleeping bag and pad, things to pack include: water, a filtration system, iodine tablets, electrolyte replacement, a backpacking stove (though in the summer, you may wish to pack foods that don’t require cooking), hand sanitizer, animal-proof food storage containers, matches, a pocketknife, a flashlight or headlamp, sun protection, a first aid kit (including blister treatment), extra socks, a signaling device (a mirror and/or whistle), a repair kit (duct tape, safety pins, needle and thread), and 20–30 feet of nylon rope. You’ll also need to deal with sanitation: Bring a trowel for digging a cat hole and ziplock bags for carrying out used toilet paper.
To protect the canyon and respect other backcountry users, all backpackers should practice “leave no trace” ethics:
· Stay on trails and camp in designated areas. Don’t trench, dig, or rearrange Mother Nature to build a tent site—use an established site.
· Open fires are not allowed in the backcountry. Use a backpacking stove or bring food that doesn’t require cooking.
· Pack out all trash. Leave campsites in the same condition as you found them (or better). Even the tiniest crumbs can attract rodents and ants. Discard dishwater at least 200 feet from small water sources, and strain food particles from the dishwater.
· Use biodegradable soap. Do not contaminate water pockets or small streams, which may be needed by wildlife or other backpackers. If you are camped at the Colorado River, discard strained dishwater or urinate into the water, as the river’s volume is adequate for dilution.
· Bury solid human waste 200 feet from all water sources (including dry washes), camps, and trails. Dig a cat hole at least 4-6 inches deep. Look for organic soil; do not use sand or dunes. Pack out used toilet paper. The park is studying the use of “wag bags” in some backcountry areas, and waste disposal guidelines will likely be updated in the future.
To fish inside the park , you’ll need an Arizona fishing license and a trout stamp. At the South Rim , you can buy a license at the General Store . If you’re traveling to the North Rim , you’ll need to stop and pick up a license at Jacob Lake Inn  or Marble Canyon Lodge, not far from Lees Ferry, a popular fly-fishing area. For more information, contact the Arizona Game & Fish Department (602/942-3000, www.azgfd.gov ) before your trip.