Roughly 6 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park in a year, but fewer than 100,000 of them spend a night in the park's backcountry.
My wife and adventuring buddy of more than 30 years had never seen the Grand Canyon, so we figured, why not really visit the place. My wife's brother, a physician from Iowa, joined us with his good humor and roomy van that eased the marathon commute to Arizona.
To venture below the canyon's rim, visitors must walk, raft or ride a mule. We chose the first option. Starting at the South Kaibab Trailhead, a few miles east of the touristy Grand Canyon Village via shuttle bus, the trail drops close to 5,000 feet during almost seven miles of descent into panoramic vistas. The deeper you hike, the greater the visual rewards. But even a casual walker can scamper just short of a mile to Ooh Aah Point for a stunning view.
Within the national park's massive, silent beauty, humanity seems insignificant compared with time and nature. On the other hand, every step you take is a testament to human drive, innovation and hard work. The trail was literally cut into the cliffs nearly 100 years ago, largely with manual tools. The heavy cables holding up bridges far below were once carried down on the shoulders of Native Americans.
"It's a spiritual place," said Bruce Rawlings, a veteran Grand Canyon hiker from Calumet City, Ill. The professor has been coming here — often with rookie friends in tow — for nearly two decades. We bumped into him while waiting for the free Hiker's Express shuttle bus to the trailhead.
Despite the canyon's visual and spiritual wonders, hikers will find plenty of time to curse the trail, the sun, their legs, feet, boots and the person who convinced them this was a good idea.
Young and healthy backpackers might be able to crank down to the Colorado River in four to five hours — faster yet if a mule carries their gear. But even in late October, the trek to the bottom was hot and dry, taking our party seven hours. When you finally catch a glimpse of the river, it's still many steps away.
Most first-time hikers' goal is to get to the confluence of the Colorado River and rumbling Bright Angel Creek. There lies an oasis that includes the bustling Bright Angel Campground and the rustic but comfortable Phantom Ranch, with its small cabins, communal bunkhouses and a common dining room. The remote, natural setting turns this otherwise simple lodge into an indulgent luxury. (Reservations are available via an online lottery system up to 13 months in advance; details at grandcanyonlodges.com or 1-888-297-2757.)
Phantom offers meals, prepaid, by reservation, but it's also a popular spot to buy lemonade, beer, snacks and souvenirs. River rafters on weeks-long float trips often stop at Boat Beach and hike the quarter-mile to the ranch for cold beer and mule-delivered mail before tackling more rapids.
To get a backcountry camping permit, apply through the park's backcountry office four months in advance. We snail-mailed our fees ($82 for three people, three nights) and preferred dates at the end of May for an October trip. We received confirmation — for our third choice of dates — in June.
A few essentials I'd recommend bringing: freeze-dried food, bug spray, sleeping bag and pad, flashlight and first-aid kit. In spring and fall, some seasoned canyon hikers count on the temperate weather and skip the tent. We weren't that brave. The most vital thing you'll need to carry is water. On a hot day, you might guzzle a gallon.
Hiking down the canyon
Because the area is so scenic, it's also in high demand. Campsites are stacked like spawning salmon. Be prepared for an experience more like car camping, with chatty predawn neighbors and plenty of light pollution from headlamps. Despite such drawbacks, the once-in-a-lifetime trip to the depths of the canyon is well worth it. Eventually, though, you have to head back up.
We chose the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail for our ascent. One of the nation's most heavily traveled backcountry trails, it's better maintained and generally gentler than its neighboring South Kaibab Trail.
After crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado, we followed the river to Pipe Creek Beach before turning up toward Indian Garden Campground, our home for the night. Just as on the South Kaibab, the trail has composting toilets along the way — an almost unheard-of backcountry luxury.
Hardy hikers can climb back to the rim in one day, but bucolic Indian Garden is a welcome way station and a bit less hectic than the canyon bottom. It's worth dropping by the ranger station to enjoy the view from an easy chair on the front porch. If you're lucky, Ranger Betsy may have some snacks or fresh fruit to share.
The gradual ascent out of Indian Garden eased us into the next day, but steep climbs loomed ahead on the way to the rim 3,040 feet above. By the time we reached Three-Mile Resthouse, we started to share the trail with day hikers who'd hit the trail early with lofty goals.
Farther up, the trail got distinctly steeper. Even so, we started to pass hordes of casual hikers in less-than-sensible shoes carrying coffee cups and smelling of exotic soaps and shampoos. We were a bit of an anomaly, attracting wide-eyed questions about our hike, unsolicited congratulations and even a sense of awe of the "you must be crazy" variety.
At the top, we were belched into the throng of everyday visitors. We'd returned to the land of souvenir shops, ice cream stands, traffic, buses and trains.
If you've ever done true wilderness camping, you may miss that solitude on a trip to the canyon. But you'll have seen one of the world's most stunning natural features — right down to its guts.
Some people come to conquer the canyon with rim-to-rim runs or multiday backpacking challenges. But when we passed Rawlings, the frequent canyon hiker, as he rested on a rock along the trail, he summed up the key to a visit: "I'm just taking in the view."