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Hiking the Grand Canyon

The American West is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and within it lies one of the world’s greatest wonders: the Grand Canyon.

Stretching 277 miles and cutting a trench 6,000 feet deep, the Grand Canyon is one of the United States‘ most popular tourist destinations and natural wonders. Taking millennia to form, the rocks at the base of the canyon itself are actually dated to be over 2 billion years old.

While the canyon is popular, of the 6.25 million annual visitors, 99% go to the Grand Canyon for less than four hours. Of that time, only spend 20 minutes is spent at the actual canyon. Surprisingly, only 1% of visitors actually walk down into the canyon, and only about half of that percent hike down to the bottom.

That’s means I’m in a small minority of adventurers who have gone to its base.

And you should be too!

Hiking the Grand Canyon is really hard. It’s a sweaty, steep hike that is incredibly exhausting. But it’s worth it. There is much more to the canyon than just the views overlooking the rim, yet so few people actually venture down to see what else is there.

Arriving at the canyon, my first thought was, “Holy $%%^! Look at this!” I’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories, but nothing could have prepared me for just how huge it was. In front of me, stretching far and wide, were red and orange peaks and valleys, jutting and falling into the ground. I took in the view, trapped by its magnificence before I broke free and began to hike down.

Hiking down, you see all the desert animals, the intricacies of the ridges, the mountains, the streams, and the cliffs that aren’t noticeable from above. You see the color changes in the rocks up close, touching them, and enjoy the peacefulness of this place away from the crowds. I immediately knew this was somewhere I wanted to see again, and I regretted only spending one night.

If you ever visit the Grand Canyon, hike down, even if just for a few hours. Hiking the Grand Canyon, you’ll get to experience the canyon in detail, and it gives you way more perspective than just looking out over the rim and going “ooohh” and “ahhh.”

You’ll see the Colorado River up close as it cuts its way through the canyon, flowing fast and furiously as it sketches one of nature’s greatest paintings. The river itself is cold and rapid. Don’t get caught in the current!

From the bottom, the canyon takes on a totally new shape. The vast canyon disappears, and all you can see is this little valley the river has cut. I spent the night at the Bright Angel campground near the creek that bears its name, hiking around the river, talking to hikers, listening to a ranger talk, and trying to avoid the scorpions.

After spending the night at the bottom, I awoke, my legs already sore. Yet I was still in for another 9.6-mile hike back up the canyon through hot, steep terrain. Hiking up was a lot tougher than hiking down, even when taking the flatter Bright Angel trail. The trail originates at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, descending 4,380 feet to the Colorado River before continuing another 1.9 miles to the Bright Angel Campground. Even though the South Kaibab trail we took down was steeper, climbing back up proved a continuous challenge.

My companion (a Brit also named Matt) and I moved slowly in order to take advantage of the shade, to visit the off-trail waterfalls, and to talk with other hikers. The hardest part for me was the steep ascent back up; the high altitude and steep rock faces made for a challenge.

After six hours of hiking, we made it out.

Hiking the Grand Canyon was one of my major life goals, and I’d done it. Once over the top, all the pain, fatigue, and heat disappeared, giving way to sheer joy. I had mastered the canyon. I had done what few do. I felt like Rocky after he climbed those stairs.

I celebrated by watching the sunset over the canyon. There were tons of people taking pictures, but I mostly just sat back and enjoyed the light show reflecting off the canyon walls.

It was the perfect relaxing end to two wonderful days in the Grand Canyon.

Tips for Hiking the Grand Canyon

  • Bring lots of water – This should go without saying, but if you’re planning to hike to the bottom you’re going to get thirsty. I’d suggest a water bottle as well as something like a CamelBak to keep you hydrated.

  • Skip the restaurants – Bring a lunch with you and have a picnic on the rim. Restaurant prices anywhere near the canyon will be excessive, so bring your own food and enjoy a picnic with the view.

  • Walk slowly – If you’re hiking down to the bottom, take your time. Set a slow, easy pace. Make sure you give yourself lots of time so you don’t have to rush. Rushing will see you get exhausted sooner and go through your water quicker.

  • Skip the bus tour – Tours from nearby cities like Las Vegas are a common way to see the canyon. They can even be cheap. What they aren’t is enjoyable because you’re rushed and don’t get to enjoy the trip. Rent a car or find a rideshare. You’ll have a much better experience.

  • Visit during the shoulder season – Summers at the canyon are busy. Even if you get there early you’ll still find a crowd, so consider visiting in the shoulder season. That way you won’t get the sweltering heat or the bustling crowds.

  • Pick the right hike – If you don’t have a lot of time but want to hike, choose the Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (3 miles).

  • Get there early – The park gets busy around sunset, with many visitors wanting to get the perfect shot. Get their early so you can get the best view without having a mob of people in your way

Suggested Hiking Trails

If you’re looking to stretch your legs, here are a few hikes you can do:

  • Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (3 miles roundtrip)

  • Kaibab Trail Skeleton Point (6 miles roundtrip)

  • Grandview Trail to the first overlook (2.5 miles roundtrip, but more difficult)

  • Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point (12.2 miles roundtrip)

How to Visit the Grand Canyon

The South Rim is the most popular part of the canyon to visit and see the most tourists each year. It has an airport, train service, and is a 90-minute drive from nearby Flagstaff. If you’re coming on a day trip from Las Vegas it’s around a 4.5-hour drive to the South Rim.

The North Rim is located on the Utah side of the Grand Canyon and the entrance station is 30 miles south of Jacob Lake on Highway 67. The North Rim village may only be reached by road. There won’t be nearly as many tourists here, but it arguably doesn’t have as great of a view.

This could change, but admission to the Grand Canyon is $35 for a vehicle permit or $20 for an individual (say if you’re coming by bus or bicycle.) Permits last seven days and can be bought online or in person. Cash and credit card are accepted.

For a more unique (and expensive) trip, you can also take a helicopter tour of the canyon. Tours last around an hour and cost at least $299 per person.

If you’re looking to sleep in the canyon at the bottom, you’ll need to apply for lodging at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging in the actual canyon. As of 2019, they will be using a lottery system to determine who gets the limited space. You usually need to book 1 year in advance for this. A 2-peson cabin is 155 USD per night.

If you want to camp below the rim, you’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit. Permits are 10 USD per person.

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