Saturday, May 21, 2016

Grand Canyon Trip Planning

The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular places in the entire world -- a site everyone should see in their lifetime!  It is somewhat remote, but it's the second most-visited National Park, so it sees a lot of traffic.  The sheer size of the canyon itself is enough to take your breath away, but the vibrant colors of the many rock layers make it a picture far more beautiful than any human artist could create.

You can see the Grand Canyon from either the South Rim or the North Rim.  If you've never been before, I recommend going to the South Rim because the views of the canyon are better.  If you really prefer to view the canyon in a more peaceful, serene setting, away from the hoards of people, I recommend the North Rim.  Of course, if you have time, I highly recommend seeing it from both sides!  Regardless of which side you choose, refer to the NPS's Grand Canyon National Park site extensively, as it has additional detail beyond what I provide below.  Note that the site is so extensive, however, that it can sometimes be hard to find the information you're looking for.  I'll try to help you out in the sections below.

South Rim

General Orientation
The South Rim is located about an hour and a half northwest of Flagstaff, AZ and about an hour north of Williams, AZ.  Williams is on the historic Route 66 trail, so if the timing is right, stop in for a burger or shake at one of the town diners.

Route 66 Diner in Williams
The South Rim sees the majority of park visitors, and over the years has grown to adequately accommodate them.  In fact, there is an entire Grand Canyon Village that is much like a small town!  In addition to the Visitor Center and bookstore/souvenir shop you would find at any national park, the village also contains eateries (including a pizza pub that makes homemade brickoven pizza), a bank, post office, urgent care clinic, library, auto repair shop, dog kennel, and a general store that has groceries, a deli, gear, gear rental, and souvenirs.  Wifi is also available at several of those locations.  There are plenty of signs, but the Village is large and spread out across the South Rim, so be sure to ask for a map at the entrance station.

Things to Do
The Grand Canyon is best seen by backpacking down into the canyon, but there is still plenty to see for those that choose not to strap their worldly belongings onto their back and walk off into the wilderness.  For those remaining top-side or day-hiking, plan to spend at least a full day at the park.  A second day would provide time to do a longer day hike down into the canyon and back out.  (For those wishing to backpack, see my Backpacking section below.)

For starters, there are some good views right around Kolb Studio where the Bright Angel Trail begins.  Start there.  Then, take the 25-mile drive down Desert View Drive toward the east end of the park.  There are six viewpoints with spectacular views along the way, but the real attraction is the Desert View Watchtower at the end, a 70-foot stone tower constructed in the style of the ancient Anasazi watchtowers.  Climb to the top for magnificent views of the canyon.  Next, from the Village Route shuttle transfer station, catch the free shuttle bus for the Hermit Road scenic drive (this road does not allow cars except in winter).  The tour stops at nine different points along the way and ends at Hermit's Rest, near the Hermit Trailhead.

If you would like to take a day hike down into the canyon -- which I highly recommend -- the two most popular trails are the Bright Angel Trail (near Kolb Studio) and the South Kaibab Trail.  Both have excellent views, but the South Kaibab Trail has no water until you get to the Colorado River and the only toilets are 1.5 miles down the trail.  The Bright Angel Trail on the other hand has both water and toilets at the 1.5-mile and 3-mile marks, as well as Indian Garden campground at 4.5 miles, giving several options for out-and-back day hikes.

North Rim

General Orientation
The North Rim is much more remote.  From Flagstaff, it's another 2-3 hours past the South Rim, and there is nothing but even more wilderness to the north.  That certainly explains why the North Rim only sees 10% of the visitors the South Rim does.  For that reason and because it is a thousand feet higher elevation, it closes for 6-7 months of the year because of the snow.  The plateau in general is much prettier on the north side, though -- much greener.  There are fewer services on the North Rim, too -- no Grand Canyon Village here!  Beyond the Visitor Center, there is only a general store and a gas station.  On the up side, however, because it's more remote, it is much easier to appreciate the nature surrounding you, and you're more likely to see wildlife like deer or buffalo.

From the North Kaibab Trail

Not far inside the North Rim Entrance Station

Things to Do
Unfortunately, there is little to see around the Visitor Center.  After getting information from the park rangers and shopping for souvenirs, head off on the scenic driving tour to Point Imperial and Cape Royal.  The road initially heads to both locations but then splits partway there.  Making it to both locations will take you about a half-day.  These roads offer several pullouts with stunning views of the canyon.  For views of the Colorado River, however, be sure to go all the way to Cape Royal, and, of course, the best time of day is either sunrise or sunset because it further exaggerates the color differences in the rock layers.

A View of the Canyon from Cape Royal on the North Rim
If you want to hike down into the canyon on a day hike, I suggest the North Kaibab Trail (click here for day hike info on all North Rim trails).  It's well-marked and beautiful.  At 1.8 miles, you reach the Supai Tunnel (a small doorway in the trail through the rock formation), which has water available for most of the North Rim's season.  For an extended day hike, you can take the 4.7-mile (one-way) hike down to Roaring Springs, a majestic waterfall down the canyon wall.  An alternative day hike is the Bill Hall/Thunder River Trail.  It's an unmaintained trail in fairly good condition, but there is no water availability until you get to Thunder Creek at 9.5 miles, too long for a day hike in all but the mildest seasons and only for those in extremely good shape.

Roaring Springs


Trip Planning and Permits
Planning a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon is kind of like playing Bridge:  All the hard work is done on the front end.  There are way more people that want to backpack it than they have permits, and it takes some planning to navigate the permit process successfully.  Be advised that camping inside the canyon without a permit is strictly not allowed.

There is a lot of information on the Backcountry Hiking page of the Grand Canyon National Park website, but this is one of those areas, where it's almost too much information in too many places with all of the sub-pages, and you'll likely find yourself trying to find a specific piece of information and can't remember which page it's on.  Start with familiarizing yourself with the permit application itself, as well as the park's Backcountry Permit page.  That will get you started on a list of things you need to plan for and will likely generate more questions you need to research:  Which trail(s) are you going to hike?  What is water availability like on those trails?  Does that impact how long you hike each day or which campsites you want to camp at?  Are you hiking rim-to-rim?  If so, how will you get from one rim to the other once you exit the canyon?

Navigating the permit process is an adventure in itself.  Here are a few tips:

1)  Permits cannot be requested any farther than the first of the month 4 months prior to your hike month.  For example, if you want to hike any time in April, your permit cannot be submitted any earlier than December 1st.  On the flip side, if you want a permit, I highly recommend submitting it on the 1st since they will begin assigning permits the next day.  It's not first-come, first-served, but they will do a lottery from all permit applications received on the 1st, so if it arrives on the 2nd, you will only get a permit if the campsites you request weren't filled up by those submitting on the 1st.

2)  Permits ultimately are for scheduling campsites, not trails.  For all intents and purposes, the Park Service doesn't care which trail you hike -- only where you sleep each night of your trip.

3)  Grab your DeLorean and head back to the 90s because your best option is to fax in your permit application (you can also mail it in, but I have low confidence in it getting there within the window that the Park Service accepts them).

4)  Campsites are designated at each of the campgrounds as either small (1-6 people) or large (7-11 people).  Note that there are very few large campsites, however, and they are all at the Corridor campgrounds (Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Garden).  Even the "at large" camping areas in the remoter areas of the canyon are limited on the number of people that can camp there.

5)  Plan your itinerary carefully.  Once you get your permit dictating the campsite you will be at each night, your only option is to get there.  Switching campsites or camping outside of an established camping area is not allowed.

6)  Related, do your research first and anticipate your limits, erring on the conservative side.  Water is fairly abundant on the Corridor trails, but elsewhere it can be dicey, especially outside of early-to-mid-Spring when snowmelt replenishes streams.  Also realize that if you plan to go all the way to the Colorado River, you will have covered a total elevation change of approximately 5,000 feet (or 1 mile)!  After hearing all the warnings, I was actually pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as difficult as I expected.  BUT...Many people each year fail to admit to their own limits, especially when coupled with the high temperatures inside the canyon and a potential lack of water, and they wind up in a dangerous situation.

Trail Options
If you have never backpacked the Grand Canyon before, consider planning a trip on the Corridor trails (North/South Kaibab and/or Bright Angel Trails).  A rim-to-rim hike spread out over a few days provides beautiful scenery, ample opportunity for water, and several opportunities for side trips, such as Plateau Point just down from Indian Garden off the Bright Angel Trail or the Clear Creek Trail just north of the Colorado River off the North Kaibab Trail.  Just remember to account for transportation between the North and South Rims.  There is a shuttle that runs between the two, but it takes the better part of the day to transit, so be sure to research departure times.

As an alternative, or if you have hiked the Canyon before, consider going down the Hermit Trail to the Hermit Creek campsite, then traversing out to the Hermit Creek Rapids and/or the Boucher campsite.  Yet another option is to make the long loop starting down the Hermit Trail and across the Tonto Trail to the Bright Angel Trail.  Be aware, however, that water on the eastern portion of the Tonto Trail is not considered safe to drink due to radioactive contamination.  Therefore, plan to fill up with water either at Monument Creek or Granite Rapids or, seasonally, at Cedar Creek and make it all the way to Indian Garden.

Where to Stay

South Rim
If roughing it really isn't your thing, the South Rim has six different hotels, with rooms ranging from no-frills shared-bathroom rooms to suites to rustic (and expensive) cabins, from nestled in the ponderosa pine forest to overlooking the Canyon itself.  Price varies considerably, too, from around $100/night to well over $400/night.  There are also several more traditional options located just a few miles away in Tusayan.  Be sure to make reservations early because rooms fill up quick!

The El Tovar Hotel

If you like to camp, there are several options.  Mather campground is huge and offers over 300 campsites for RVs (less than 30 feet and no hookups) or tents.  The tent sites are nice allowing a modicum of seclusion between sites.  The campground also has running water and restrooms throughout the campground and shower and laundry facilities on site.  If you need hookups or a site for a larger RV, Trailer Village RV Park is adjacent to Mather.  Farther afield is Desert View Campground, out by the Desert View Watchtower.  It has 50 sites that are first-come, first-served, and there are restrooms and water spigots available at the campground.

Our campsite at Mather Campground

North Rim
As with activities and services, lodging options are also limited at the North Rim.  The Grand Canyon Lodge has both hotel rooms in a historic lodge and rustic cabins, all with private baths.  The cabins sleep anywhere from 3 to 6 people.  Just outside the park is the Jacob Lake Inn.  Similar to the Grand Canyon Lodge, they have a range of options from modern hotel rooms with TV, phone, and air conditioning, to more primitive hotel rooms without those amenities, to quaint and cozy cabins with a rustic feel.

Cabin at Jacob Lake Inn.  This one held seven people.
The North Rim Campground inside the park is similar to Mather Campground but smaller.  It has less than 100 sites but has restrooms, drinking water, showers, and laundry facilities (but no RV hookups).  DeMotte Campground and Jacob Lake Campground are run by the Forest Service and are just a few miles north of the North Rim entrance station.  The campgrounds have 38 and 51 sites, respectively, with drinking water and vault toilets on site. 

A trip to the Grand Canyon is sure to be a memorable one.  There is no way I can cover every possibility because it would take too long and your interests may vary widely from mine.  With some quality time planning up front, though, you're certain to have a memorable experience at one of the world's most amazing natural landmarks!  If you do have questions, feel free to post a comment, and I'll try to answer it or point you in the right direction. 

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