Start Early: Except in the dead of Winter, hiking at Grand Canyon
gets very hot (even in Spring and Fall). The solution is to start
early–aim for 60 minutes before first light. An added benefit to an
early start is the trail will not be crowded, meaning less time spent
yielding and more serenity. But starting early means you will depart
before the restaurants open, leading to the second tip:
Bring Your Own Breakfast and Some Extra Coffee: The Bright Angel and El Tovar Restaurants open at 6:
30am, the Bright Angel Bar (called the Canyon Coffee House at the early hour) opens at 6:00am but serves only
coffee and pastry. Sunrise on April 1 is at 6:16 a.m.. With a headlight, you can start hiking 60 minutes earlier (5:16
a.m.), meaning that if you want a hearty hiker’s breakfast, you need to bring your own. Most rooms at Grand
Canyon have a refrigerator and Kuerig Coffee Maker. The hotel provides only two caffeinated “K-cups” of coffee
and one caffeinated and one decaffeinated tea. If you like more coffee in the morning, bring a few extra “K-cups,”
available for about fifty cents each at your local grocery store. My favorite hiking breakfast? Some fresh fruit in
Expect Weather Extremes: Most of Bright Angel
Trail is heavily shaded and you can expect ice near
the top of the trail in Winter as well as Spring and
Fall. South Kaibab Trail ices as well, but usually
not as much as Bright Angel. In general, the
weather on the Rim is similar to Flagstaff, Arizona,
while the weather at the river is more like Phoenix,
Arizona. Take an exploratory trip down the trail
the day before you hike to determine if you need
traction devices like crampons. No matter what the
season, you can expect temperature extremes on your hike. At the start of my April 1 hike, it was freezing (32F, 0C)
with packed ice on the trail, but reached 82 degrees (28C) at 10:30 a.m. at Indian Garden, the last place I saw a
thermometer. That means down by the river, it was over 90F (32C). On May 3, it was 34 degrees (1C) when I left,
but near 100 degrees (38C) at the river. Which leads to the next tip:
Dress Lightly: Although you may leave the rim in freezing temperatures, both you and the weather (especially as
you drop in altitude) will warm quickly. I see many people who overdress and end up lugging Winter clothes through
the whole hike. I prefer to wear only a long-sleeve shirt and T-shirt at the start of the hike. It may be cool at first, but
within 45 minutes, I am down to the T-shirt, which is what I wear for the balance of the day. A corollary to the dress
lightly recommendation is to wear light colors if you expect it to be hot. Black seems to be a popular color for young
hikers, but when climbing the canyon in 90 degree (32C) heat, it makes a lot more sense to wear a white or light-
colored shirt and a similarly pale hat and pants.
Consider Specialized Hiking Pants: I tend to wear jeans and a cotton T-shirt almost everywhere–including hiking
to the river and back. In the heat, the jeans get soaked with sweat and seem to weigh ten pounds by the end of the
day. Experienced hikers wear synthetic hiking pants that only weigh a few ounces. The synthetic pants breathe
better and dry more quickly than cotton. Further, on my most recent hike, I got caught in a thunderstorm. The
temperature dropped from near 100 (38C) to the 50's (10C), and my wet cotton clothes provided lots of weight but
no warmth. I have now switched to specialized hiking pants for my Grand Canyon adventures.
Pack Light: Hiking from South Rim to the river involves a descent of about 4,380 feet (1,335m) then a return to the
top, an altitude change of 8,760 feet (2,670m), or about 1.66 miles (2.67km). That’s about 45,000 steps over more
than 16 miles (26km). You must carry everything on your body and in your pack every step of the way. With this in
mind, you should be motivated to travel light. First, leave your wallet in the trunk of your car (Grand Canyon is
relatively secure). Stuff a 20-dollar bill in your pocket in case you make it to Phantom Ranch for a snack, and hook
your car keys (again, leave the house keys in the car) in your day pack. Do not carry excess clothes. Do not carry
change in your pocket. Consider each item in your day pack carefully. Eliminate everything that is unnecessary.
Also, consider the excess weight you may carry in the form of body fat. If you are looking for a free, simple way to
lose weight, try The Simply Fit Diet.
Choose Water over Food: The Park Service recommends snacking every time you drink and every time you take
a break. At first, I carried a lot of food–both down the trail and up. After a hearty breakfast, I find that I am not too
hungry, especially when hiking uphill. My hiking food is not especially healthy, but I like Mint Milano cookies, granola
bars, beef jerky and M&Ms or chocolate as snacks. For lunch I have a couple of hard-boiled eggs with chilli sauce
(carried in a miniature glycine bag). That’s it. If you start early, you will be back mid-afternoon and have time for a
late lunch at one of the rim-side restaurants. The only thing I have consistently underestimated is the amount of
water I drink.
Bring Lots of Water: Except in the Summer months, Bright Angel Trail only has water at Indian Garden (May
through September, there is also water available at the 1.5 [2.41km] and 3 Mile [4.82km] Rest Houses.) Year round,
South Kaibab Trail only has water at the trail head and at Phantom Ranch. It is likely you will drink way more water
than you expect. A light pack like a Camelbak works well. If you are hiking with a friend, you can take one pack, but
with some extra water, and trade off portage duties while hiking.
Bring Your Medications: Be sure to bring along any prescription medication, as well as your favorite NSAID like
aspirin, and an antihistamine/decongestant. Don’t bring a whole bottle, just put a few pills into the coin pocket of
Wear Boots: In preparing to hike Grand Canyon I bought three pairs of shoes: trail runners, low-cut hiking boots
and high-top hiking boots. I have seen people hiking in a wide range of footwear, from sandals to five toed shoes,
running shoes and hiking boots. I have worn the high-top boots every time and have been glad I did. Past Indian
Garden, both to Plateau Point and the river, the trail becomes particularly uneven. South Kaibab Trail is even
rougher. On every hike the high-top boot saved me from turning an ankle. Also the high-top boots keep the water
out in the several places on the Bright Angel Trail you cross a stream on the way to the river. Older hikers in
particular should carefully consider their footwear and use the more protective high-top boots.
Wear a Hat and Sunscreen: A floppy hat with a wide brim and sunscreen will help to keep you cool and avoid
uncomfortable sunburn. Bring a small tube of sunscreen along with you to replace the protection you sweat off in
the hot sun.
Bring an Extra Pair of Socks: I am a fan of wool socks, but when hiking the Canyon I find they are slippery, and I
prefer to wear cotton socks. The problem with cotton socks is that they get wet. On a hot day my cotton socks are
so wet it looks like I have been walking in a river. It is a great luxury to put on dry socks at Indian Garden as you hike
back to the rim.
Cut Your Toenails Before Hiking: The declines on the trail are severe and you should expect your toes to hit the
front of your shoes or boots. Trim your nails a few days before the hike. Also, do not wear tight shoes. It is highly
likely your feet will swell in the course of the hike. Wear a boot large enough to accommodate the swelling.
Pack Ice: I like to fill my Camelbak pack with ice from the hotel ice machine before leaving. This provides a cold
stream of water for most of the hike. It also helps to keep your food cold (hard-boiled eggs, for example) and may
make the pack a bit cooler on your back.
Yield to Uphill Hikers: This is a rule of the road at Grand Canyon, and it makes sense. Uphill hikers are the most
tired and sometimes need to keep up their pace. You will (hopefully) be one of them soon–and you don’t want to
mess with a tired, cranky uphill hiker. Further, step to the right to yield (some people from right-hand drive countries
tend to do the opposite, but in the U.S., yield to the right.) Also, remember using hiking poles does not give you the
right of way. Pull them aside and let the uphill hikers pass.
Use Logic in Calculating Your Uphill Speed: The Park Service suggests that it takes you twice as long to hike
uphill as it does down. As a friendly hiker, I have talked with many first-time hikers who seem quite concerned about
this. Personally, I hike uphill 5-10% faster than I hike downhill. Perhaps I am very cautious with foot placement on
the way down and go slow. Nonetheless, the uphill trip is faster for me than the downhill trip. You should allow for
the possibility that you will hike uphill as fast, or faster than, you hike down.
Don’t Be Surprised to Get a Sore Neck: On many of my hikes, my neck got sore. At first, I could not figure this
out. Then it occurred to me that I had been craning my neck forward to watch every foot placement. Over time, that
made my neck sore. As an older hiker, a twisted ankle would be a disaster. Watching each footfall is a way to avoid
injury, but sometimes you pay a price for the effort.
Wear a Watch: In the era of smart phones, wristwatches are less common. I gave up wearing a watch in 2001,
when I retired. But on your hike you will want to monitor your progress against the mileage markers (1.5 Mile Rest
House, 3 Mile Rest House, Indian Garden and the river), and you will find it handy to have the time on your wrist, not
in your pocket or pack.
Don’t Expect Flush Toilets: The Park Service provides composting (non-flush)
toilets at approximately one hour intervals on Bright Angel and South Kaibab
Trails. Most male hikers find outdoor rest stops, while most women use the
official stops. First time hikers may be pleased to find the toilets are surprisingly
clean and odor free. The condition of the rest facilities should not discourage
you from hiking Grand Canyon.
Bring a Bandanna: A Bandanna can be very useful on your hike. You can tuck it under your hat to protect your
neck from the sun. You can use it to wipe sweat or clean a wound. In an emergency it could support an ankle or
dress a wound.
Take Photos on the Way Up: If you make a round-trip hike, consider taking photos on the way up only. This will
allow you to make the quickest progress on the way down and to take more frequent breaks on the way up. You can
then leave your camera or smart phone in your pack for half the hike and keep it in your pocket for frequent shots
on your way back–when you will need the rest anyway.
Expect Crowds: Bright Angel Trail is very well traveled and sometimes quite crowded near the rim. South Kaibab
trail is also surprisingly busy. Further down the trail, you will meet batches of hikers who stayed at Phantom Ranch
and maintain a similar pace after leaving. You will also likely pass or be passed by at least one mule train. I have
never been concerned about personal safety on the trail. I do not carry a cell phone (although I have seen people
using cell phones at Indian Garden and the rim). I do not hike alone, but I see many solo hikers of all ages who
seem quite comfortable. During the daylight hours, you will probably not feel lonely on the trail.
Be Friendly: The people at Grand Canyon are part of the fun. Depending on the season, as many as 50% of the
visitors are from other countries. Help make their stay more pleasant. Strike up conversations. Offer helpful
information. When you are friendly, the majority of people are friendly back, and the others provide good
Expect Dust (and Worse): Except when the trail is wet or frozen, it is very dusty.
You can tell how far a hiker has gone by the dust on his shoes and clothes. Anyone
who has hiked to the river and back will have dust up to their knees. It is amazing how
many clean pairs of new, expensive hiking shoes you see on the rim. Most of them
never get dusty. Further, both Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trail are shared with
mules. There is not a square inch of trail surface that has not been saturated with
mule urine and feces. You will be walking in this dust all day long. If that grosses you
out, you should skip the trip. When you finish, your nose will likely be coated in dust.
If you use a nose wash, after the hike would be a good time to use it. I have never
suffered any negative consequences from breathing the dust (other than a dry throat),
but you should be ready for it. However, I do get a mysterious "Grand Canyon Hiker's
Rash" on my lower legs on just about every hike.
Have a Room at the Top of the Trail When You Are Done: One of the greatest
rewards of a good hike is to hop into the shower and take a nap when you are done.
If you stay at the Bright Angel Cabins, Bright Angel Trail ends a few hundred feet from
your room. There are costs to being an older hiker, but one of the rewards is the
ability to stay on the rim. Reward yourself and have a room waiting.
Stroll to Trailview Overlook after Your Hike: After my first rim to river to rim hike, I walked around the rim for a
few more hours. I paid for this mistake with excess soreness. After the hike, I recommend a hot bath, a good dinner
and some TV or a DVD movie. However, after an early dinner (Bright Angel Restaurant starts serving dinner at 4:
30pm), a stroll to Trailview Overlook is rewarding. Trailview Overlook is only 3/4 of a mile (1.2km) along the Rim Trail
toward Hermit’s Rest (you can take the red shuttle bus if you are really wiped out). From there, you can see the
Bright Angel Trail including the 1.5 and 3 Mile Rest Houses, Indian Garden, Plateau Point, and Bright Angel Trail
until it turns off near the Devil’s Corkscrew. It is a great way to review your hike and look at the landmarks with new
To me, Grand Canyon is one of the most interesting places on earth. First, there is the splendor of the color and
size of the canyon. Second, there is the incredible passage of time the geological features demonstrate. I never tire
of looking at the Canyon. Finally there is the feeling of focus and accomplishment I get from completing a hike.
When I hike the troubles of the world disappear and there is nothing but the Canyon and the progress.
In honesty, the views of the Canyon are better from the rim, but to me, nothing compares with the feeling of
accomplishment and increased understanding of the Canyon that comes from a challenging hike below the rim.
The National Park Service issues this stern warning:
“Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each
year. The difference between a great adventure in
Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is
up to YOU. DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to
the river and back in one day, especially during the
months of May to September.”
|Grand Canyon South Rim as seen from Indian Garden.
|Click map for PDF of Bright Angel and Kaibab.
|A rare sight: Early in the morning the
Bright Angel Trailhead is deserted.
|A fast moving thunderstorm retreats North as seen from
near the Three Mile Resthouse on Bright Angel Trail.
|The composting toilets are
surprisingly clean and odor free.
|Hikers share the Bright Angel
Trail with mules and the
waste they leave behind.