It's a natural wonder of the world, a magnet for visitors from around the globe, and Arizona’s most distinguishing feature. Still, most people who visit the Grand Canyon get just one perspective of the geological phenomenon: from the top down.
Park surveys have shown that a vast majority of the more than 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park spend just a few hours there, driving along the rim road and gazing briefly into the vast chasm from one of the convenient overlooks.
But the small percentage of visitors who stay to explore a little deeper find that there is a whole different perspective available: a multilayered view from the bottom up.
Step below the rim of the canyon, and you will be in for close encounters with rugged red buttes, tantalizing far-off vistas of the mighty Colorado River, and occasional sightings of soaring condors.
It’s an exhilarating experience, but it’s also arduous. The Grand Canyon’s website doesn’t mince words: “Warning: There are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon!”
Regardless of the hike you choose, one thing is certain: You will never see the Grand Canyon in quite the same way again.
Here are 10 tips to keep in mind to make the most of this iconic Arizona hike.
1. Know Your Limits And Plan Accordingly
Remember: Hiking the Grand Canyon can be challenging even for those who are physically fit.
Combine the elevation (6,800 feet at the South Rim and 8,300 feet at the North Rim) with extreme summer temperatures (average highs exceeding 100 degrees) and rugged, rocky terrain, and the Grand Canyon makes for one of the toughest hikes around.
While most healthy people can navigate the fairly flat Rim Trails that run along the top edge of the canyon at the South and North Rims, venturing onto the Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, or North Kaibab Trail takes a different level of stamina.
If your goal is to hike into the canyon to one of several spectacular lookout points below the rim, it is best to do some conditioning before you arrive.
Test yourself beforehand on steep hikes with stretches of 10 percent incline or more and total elevation gains of upwards of 1,000 feet. As you prepare, always keep in mind the 4,460-foot elevation drop from the top of the South Rim to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon.
2. First-Timers: Opt For A Day Hike
If it’s your first time hiking the Grand Canyon, or if you have any concerns about your fitness, plan for a shorter hike -- maybe the 0.9-mile trek to the South Kaibab’s Ooh-Aah Point, which, as the name implies, offers mouth-droppingly gorgeous views.
Or continue for another half mile or so on the South Kaibab to the windswept Cedar Ridge, another perfect spot to take in the sweeping Inner Canyon views. Despite the relatively short distances, both hikes will still require a hefty climb out, and hikers should expect to take twice as long going back up as they did heading down.
The National Park Service says that both Ooh-Aah Point and Cedar Ridge are good day hikes for first-time Grand Canyon hikers. Restrooms are available at Cedar Ridge, but there are no water sources anywhere along the South Kaibab Trail, so carrying plenty of water is a must.
The nearby Bright Angel Trail has several stellar day-hike options as well. Although its views are known to be slightly less awe-inspiring than those on the South Kaibab, the Bright Angel comes with the major benefit of water availability.
At regular intervals along the Bright Angel, hikers will find water spigots where they can replenish their water bottles. The National Park Service reminds hikers that water is available seasonally (during the warm-weather months) at the 1.5-mile rest house and the 3-mile rest house and is available year-round at Indian Garden.
3. Don’t Skimp On The Water
Despite the availability of water stops on some trails, hikers should never attempt a Grand Canyon hike without bringing plenty of water of their own.
The amount of water you’ll need to carry will vary based on the season, but the National Park Service advises that hikers carry and drink about a gallon of water per day during the warmer months.
4. Consider The Heat
For visitors to Arizona, the summer heat can come as a shock. Even though both rims of the Grand Canyon are at fairly high elevations, a descent on the various trails will entail rapidly decreasing elevation -- and accompanying warmer temperatures.
Grand Canyon experts remind hikers, “It gets hotter as you go down.” Expect a 3-degree temperature gain for every 1,000 feet of elevation drop. If it’s a comfortable 85 degrees at the top of the South Rim when you depart, the temperature at the floor of the canyon could be approaching 100 degrees when you arrive.
5. Dress Appropriately
To combat the summer heat, veteran hikers recommend wearing white, not black. Darker colors will absorb the heat of the unrelenting sun and make for an uncomfortable day. Long sleeves are also advisable to shield against the sun.
For similar reasons, hikers should never venture below the rim without a hat or a cap. Bandanas will also come in handy to shield against the sun and to dip into the cool water of the creek at Indian Garden. With shade at a premium in the Grand Canyon, an umbrella can also bring some needed relief.
Winter hiking is a whole different matter in the Grand Canyon, and the National Park Service advises anyone considering it to be well versed in the weather and route conditions. For those who do decide to head out in the winter, gear essentials include hiking poles to help with footing on icy trails, over-the-shoe traction devices, and warm, weatherproof clothing.
6. Pack The Essential Gadgets
No one wants to weigh down their packs with unnecessary items, but there are a few hiking gadgets that can be lifesavers -- literally.
Among them is a headlamp. If you’re setting out on the trail before sunrise, or if you’re planning a long day hike that could last until after sundown, having a light source is crucial. A headlamp is the handiest option because you wear it on your head, leaving your hands free, but a flashlight would also work in a pinch.
A few other handy items: a spray bottle for quick cool-downs, maps, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, and basic first-aid items.
7. Bring Plenty Of Salty Snacks
Even on a quick day hike, it is important for hikers to stay energized with high-energy, salty snacks. This is your chance to indulge in junk foods like potato chips, cheese crackers, and pretzels.
The National Park Service advises taking along easy-to-eat snacks as well as meals to eat along the way. “The hike out is much easier when you provide your body with enough calories to support the extreme physical activity you are engaged in,” says the department’s website.
8. Hike Early And Late
To avoid the midday heat, Grand Canyon hikers should plan to get out on the trail early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Especially during the summer, hikers should plan to be off the trail between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “Take a break near shade and water to avoid the worst heat of the day. Enjoy a predawn start and a late-afternoon finish,” the National Park Service advises.
During June, July, and August, the Grand Canyon’s average high temperatures range from 101 to 106 degrees, making for brutal hiking conditions. For milder temperatures, but still warm and sunny conditions, plan a late-September or early-October hike. April and May can also be great times for a Grand Canyon hike.
9. Listen To The Rangers
If you encounter a Grand Canyon ranger along the trail, it’s best to heed their advice. Many are longtime volunteers who are experienced in assessing hikers’ capabilities.
Often, the rangers will ask where you’re headed. Don’t take it personally; it’s their responsibility to make sure you stay safe. If they feel that your destination is too far, too hot, or too difficult, they might suggest a shorter hike. And remember that if you do have trouble along the trail, the rangers can offer assistance in getting you out safely.
10. Don’t Forget To Take It All In
As with any vaunted physical feat, hiking the Grand Canyon can become a bit of an obstacle course for some. The point, it seems, is to get to their destination -- the river, the other side, back to the rim -- as fast as they can.
But that defeats the purpose of the journey. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime excursion, so enjoy it! Take photos, wade in the creek, marvel at the towering rock walls. And when you do make it back to the rim, don’t hesitate to reward yourself. You’ve earned that ice cream cone!
Planning a trip to Arizona? See our other articles on the Grand Canyon State to learn more about the hiking trails, parks, petroglyphs, and natural wonders the area has to offer.