The Ultimate Grand Canyon Trip-Planning Guide

For the past few months I’ve been living and working at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, explaining activities, hikes, and transportation options to the guests that pour in every day from all over the world. I’ve got to say, I think I have the best job in the entire park. The guests that come to my desk are typically adventurers in some capacity or another - backpackers, mule riders, rafters, badass retirees living out their bucket list items, kids no taller than five feet who can hike 17 miles (do you think you could have done Phantom Ranch and back as a kid? I know I couldn’t have). The questions range from the mundane (where’s the restroom?) to the highly specific (is there water at Manzanita?), and over time I’ve come to understand the most important elements that go into planning a South Rim trip depending on what type of traveler you are. Families, hikers, and day trippers all have different concerns, and I hope to round them up for you all here.


Table of Contents

Orienting Yourself

Getting Into The Park

Driving and Parking
Railroad
Shuttle

Getting Around The Park

Internal Shuttles
Taxi
Places Only Accessible By Car

South Rim Activites

Bus Tours
Mule Rides
Rafting Trips
Helicopters
Jeep Tours
iMax Movie
Railroad Express
Horseback Rides
Ranger Talks
Trekking Guides

Hiking

Getting to the Colorado River
Bright Angel Day Hikes
South Kaibab Day Hikes
Unmaintained Trails
North Rim Trails
Safety Notes
Camping Below Rim
Hiking Above Rim

Historical Buildings and Restaurants

Tips No One Ever Tells You


First Thing’s First: Orientation

When speaking about the South Rim and North Rim, we’re talking about Grand Canyon National Park territory. The “Grand Canyon” actually stretches much farther north and west, but those areas are not designated as overseen by the park service. In a 2.5 hour drive to the north, Glen Canyon Recreation Area begins the canyonlands. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam, and Horseshoe Bend in the city of Page, AZ are popular sightseeing locations and a starting point for rafters on the Colorado River, but sailing south you don’t actually hit the official northern bounds of the national park until Lee’s Ferry, 3 hours rafting. To the west of the South and North Rims, the Grand Canyon stretches on for many unmaintained and largely unexplored miles, until it reaches Hualapai and Havasupai Indian Reservation territory. These reservations are the “West Rim”. Hualapai reservation is where you’ll find the popular Skywalk tourist destination, and Havasupai Reservation is where hundreds of hikers go every year to hike down to the gorgeous Havasu Falls. To hike Havasu Falls you need a permit from the Reservation. These go on sale once a year on February 1st via a competitive lottery queue at havasupaireservations.com. A lot of people show up on the South Rim looking for these West Rim locations, but you’d need to drive four hours west of the South Rim village, or if you’re already coming from California or Vegas, they should be your first stop on your way east before you reach the national park. Everything there is completely overseen by the Indian Reservations; do not expect to need your national park pass. You may need to pay a separate entrance fee depending on where you’re going. 

*Note - Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water”, and you can see why once you discover Havasu Falls! Hualapai means “people of the tall pines”, referring to the Ponderosa trees. 

When you’re talking about booking activities or taking shuttles on the South Rim, you’ll often hear the terms “East Rim” and “West Rim” thrown around. East Rim is easy - that’s just Desert View Drive, and is usually mentioned in reference to the Desert View Watchtower or the Canyon Vista mule ride that treks daily from Yaki Point. West Rim in this context is usually not referring to the actual West Rim of the Havasupai or Hualapai territories; when people on the South Rim say “west rim”, they’re probably referring to Hermit Road. Hermit Road is the farthest western section of the south rim, and there’s a shuttle that will bring you to all the viewpoints along this route. 

The North Rim is a four hour drive from the South Rim. It is only open from May 15th to October 15th because they are 1000 feet higher in elevation and still have snow on the ground later in the season, whereas the South Rim is open year-around. To get from one rim to the other in the summer, you can take the Trans-Canyon Shuttle for $90 one-way. Hikers doing a Rim-to-Rim hike often take this shuttle. 

Other drive times from the South Rim:

Tusayan: 20 minutes
Williams: 1 hour
Flagstaff: 1.5 hours
Sedona: 2 hours
Phoenix: 4 hours

Geographical Distances:

Length of Canyon: 277 river miles
Width of Canyon: 10 miles on average, but as much as 18 miles
Depth of Canyon: 1 mile deep

Getting Into The Park

There are three main ways to get into the park: driving, taking the train, and shuttling.

Driving and Parking

There is a southern entrance to the park, which drivers are more likely to enter through if they are coming from Phoenix, Flagstaff, Sedona, or western states like California or Nevada (we get a lot of people from Vegas). Those drivers will usually have to go through the town of Williams an hour south of the South Rim (I say “usually” because there is a shortcut from Flagstaff to Valle that skips Williams; in the winter time I hate this shortcut because it goes right through Snowbowl, a higher elevation ski area near Flagstaff where blizzards are common), then Valle (where the famous Flintstones motel is located, but not much else), and lastly the gateway town of Tusayan just 20 minutes south of the national park entrance.

There is also an eastern entrance to the park, often referred to as the Desert View entrance. Drivers coming from Utah, Colorado, or other eastern states often opt for this entrance. The town of Cameron is the last stop before entering the park - if you go this way, make sure to stop by the Cameron Trading Post! It’s a huge native gift shop with a restaurant in the back that sells authentic Navajo Tacos. 

Unless you already have an annual park pass, when you come through either entrance to the national park you’ll need to pay a $35 entrance fee to the National Park Service. This provides you with a 7-day park pass. If you arrive after hours when no ranger is at the gate, you pay at a self-service automated kiosk. 

If you’re driving, be aware that parking is in short supply. It’s first-come first-serve, so you’re technically allowed to park anywhere in the village that isn’t marked handicapped or employees only. Popular options to make sure you’re centrally located would be in the Bright Angel Lodge parking lot, Maswik Lodge, the Backcountry Information Center, or Verkamps Visitor Center by El Tovar. You can also parallel park on Village Loop Drive. Of these options, the Bright Angel parking lot is going to be the most centrally located to all the historical buildings and activities you want to do in the village, but that’s also the most difficult place to luck out and find a spot. Your best option is Parking Lot D at the Backcountry Information Center; their lot is much bigger and just a 15 minute walk from the village. Another popular option is parking at the main Visitor Center where there is tons of space, but the caveat with that is you’d need to take the shuttle or walk the Rim Trail about three miles to get to the village from there. You also can’t leave your car there overnight like you can at the above-mentioned locations. Hikers should note that you cannot park at the South Kaibab Trailhead (more on that below under “Hiker’s Express”).

Railroad

The historic Grand Canyon Railway was built in the late 1800s after much prodding from the legendary Buckey O’Neill (who’s cabin is still the oldest building standing on the South Rim today; you can stay in it!), who wanted to transport goods from his mines on the South Rim to the town of Williams, but also saw the potential for tourism. It was completed in 1901, which was after his death fighting for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, unfortunately.

Today the train comes into the park every day at 11:30am and 12:30pm, and departs again at 3:30pm and 4:30pm. Many day trippers come in on the train in the morning, explore the village or do a bus tour, then leave in the afternoon. These train tickets are booked with the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. If you’d like to experience the train ride but plan to return to the park, you’d have to take one of the afternoon outbounds, stay the night in Williams, then return on one of the morning inbounds. For this reason, Xanterra offers the “Railroad Express” - a shuttle service from the park to the town of Williams early in the morning so that you can catch the train ride back into the park. This saves you having to stay overnight and is something you need to reserve in advance with the Bright Angel Transportation Desk.

This ride is mainly a form of transportation, as it’s not particularly scenic. You go through the desert and the Kaibab National Forest, but you don’t get canyon views. It’s more about the experience of taking the historic train ride; before boarding you can watch a wild west show, a cowboy singer will walk through the train cars to play some music, and you’ll learn a bit of history from the steward/stewardess. 

Shuttle

Many people book hotels in the town of Tusayan just outside the southern entrance to the park instead of opting into lodging on the rim. You could always just drive from your Tusayan hotel into the park, but because of the difficult parking situation, it’s a smart idea to take the Purple Shuttle from Tusayan into the park. It’s free, runs every 20 minutes, and drops you off at the Visitor Center where you can hop on one of the other shuttle lines to get you to the village or other points of interest. Note that the Purple Route doesn’t operate year-around; it begins in March and ends in September. The first one picks up at 8am at the National Geographic Visitor Center in Tusayan, and the last one departs the Grand Canyon Visitor Center inside the park at 9:30pm. Always double check seasonal shuttle schedules to be sure. 

There is no shuttle into the eastern entrance from Cameron. 

Groome Transportation is a private “shuttle” service that will drive guests into the park from as far as Flagstaff, Sedona, and Phoenix. Make reservations in advance here.

Getting Around The Park

Because of the shuttle system on the South Rim, you can get almost anywhere you need to without a car. The three main shuttle routes are the Blue/Village Route, the Red/Hermit’s Route, and the Orange/Kaibab Route. All three are free and run every 15 minutes, and you don’t need to flash any kind of pass to get on - just hop-on/hop-off. 

Find a PDF version of the South Rim Village map and shuttle system  HERE .

Find a PDF version of the South Rim Village map and shuttle system HERE.

Blue/Village Route

Round-trip without getting off: 60 min

This line will take you around all the main hotels, restaurants, and historical buildings in the village. To explore Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Kolb Studio, or Verkamps Visitor Center, you can get off at the Train Depot stop or the Bright Angel stop. Maswik Lodge and Backcountry Information Center are also blue route stops, as well as Market Plaza (where there’s a full grocery store and camp store, post office, bank, and Yavapai Lodge) and the main Visitor Center (where you can see ranger chats, a short movie about the park, some exhibits on local flora/fauna, rent a bike at Bright Angel Bicycles, or check out the gorgeous canyon viewpoint in their backyard called Mather Point). At the Visitor Center is where you can transfer to the orange or purple routes.

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Orange/Kaibab Route

Round-trip without getting off: 20 minutes for westbound; 20 minutes for eastbound

From the Visitor Center, you can take the westbound orange bus to the Geology Museum, or the eastbound orange bus to Pipe Creek Vista, Yaki Point (cannot park at this viewpoint), or everyone’s favorite: South Kaibab Trailhead (cannot park here). More on that in a bit.

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Red/Hermit’s Route

Round-trip without getting off: 80 minutes

You could walk to the first red route pickup stop from the main village pretty quickly, as it’s only about a 5-8 minute walk from Bright Angel Lodge, or if you’re on the blue bus you get off at Hermit Transfer stop and get on the red from there. Private cars are not allowed to drive on Hermit Road during busy season (March 1 - November 30), so your only options for seeing the beautiful viewpoints on Hermit Road are to take this free shuttle or walk the Rim Trail. From the start of Hermit Road all the way to the end, where you’ll find a historic Mary Colter building called Hermit’s Rest, is 7 miles, so it’s quite a walk. Some of the most famous viewpoints are along the red route, including Hopi Point and Mohave Point.

Hiker’s Express

Round-trip without getting off: 30 minutes.

If you plan on taking South Kaibab Trail into the canyon for a hike, unfortunately you cannot park at the trailhead. If you’re only doing a day hike, you could park at the Visitor Center and take the orange shuttle two stops to the trailhead, but if you’re doing an overnight hike, you’re not allowed to leave your car overnight at the Visitor Center. For most people who are staying in one of the main lodges, like Bright Angel, El Tovar, or Maswik, the best option is to leave the car at their lodge (this is allowed overnight) and take the Hiker’s Express shuttle. It picks up at Bright Angel Lodge every morning at 5am, 6am, and 7am, or at the Backcountry Office at 5:05am, 6:05am, and 7:05am. In the summer these times will be even earlier, since hikers want to get on the trail well before the afternoon sun. For hikers coming from outside of the park, I usually advise them to plan on picking this shuttle up at the Backcountry Office because it will be easier to park the car there at Parking Lot D. Since most hikers ascend Bright Angel Trail coming back up, it would be nice if your car is just waiting for you right at the Bright Angel Trailhead, but if that’s not possible then walking another 10 minutes to get the car from Backcountry isn’t so bad. The Hiker’s Express shuttle will get you to the South Kaibab Trailhead in about 30 minutes. If you miss the express times, you can still take the regular shuttle system by hopping the blue line to the Visitor Center, then getting off and transferring to the orange eastbound bus for two more stops, but that would take about an hour. Right now during spring season, though, some people are ok with doing this because the regular shuttles begin at 4:30am; if you want to get on the trail really early, that would be your option - or calling a taxi. If you’re staying at Yavapai Lodge, taking the blue to the Visitor Center is only a couple stops, and the hiker express doesn’t pick up anywhere near you, so you might as well take the regular blue shuttle and do the transfer to the orange. 

Taxi Service:

You can call a taxi 24/7 as-needed, but you can’t reserve a taxi ride in advance. Just call when you’re ready for them to come get you; they usually only take about 10 minutes to show up. It’s cash only. 

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Places Only Accessible By Car:

The shuttles only go as far east at Yaki Point. Past that, Desert View Drive continues to stretch on for 26 miles and features viewpoints like Navajo Point, Lipan Point, and Grandview, plus the Tusayan Ruins Museum and my favorite spot - the Desert View Watchtower, another historical Mary Colter building. Besides driving yourself, to get there you could call a taxi or pay for one of Xanterra’s narrated bus tours. There is no walking trail connecting these points. 






South Rim Activities (Good for Families)

Bus Tours

Fossils at Hopi Point

Xanterra offers four interpretive, narrated bus tours you can take along the east and west sides of the South Rim. Your driver will tell you about the history of the canyon, the flora and fauna, and stop at three or four points of interest to let everyone off the bus for 15-20 minutes to take pictures. Even though three of the bus tours hit locations you can get to on the free shuttle, the narration really is invaluable. I’d been to Hopi Point by myself a dozen times, but when I took the Hermit’s Rest Bus Tour, my driver pointed out some billion-year-old fossils in a rock that’s just sitting out in the open that I’d never noticed before. He also pointed out where the condor cave was, and not five minutes later two condors flew overhead! They were high enough above us that if I had been alone, I’d probably think they were ravens. Because he was there and knew the difference, I recognized the significance of the moment. 

All four bus tours depart from either Bright Angel Lodge or Maswik Lodge; whichever pickup spot you use is your choice. The departure times I’ve listed below change by the week or the month based on the path of the sun in the sky, so make sure to double check seasonal departure times.

Sunrise Tour: west rim, 1.5 hours, $27.50, free for kids 16 and under, departs around 5:30am
You’ll watch the sunrise at a viewpoint along Hermit Road, then hit 2 or 3 other viewpoints before returning back to the village. 

Sunset Tour: west rim, 1.5 - 2 hours, $27.50, free for kids 16 and under, departs around 5:30pm
You’ll hit two or three viewpoints along Hermit Road, ultimately ending up at a good sunset spot before returning to the village. 

Hermit’s Rest Tour: west rim, 2 hours, $36, free for kids 16 and under, departs around 9am.
Hermit’s Rest is a Mary Colter building at the very end of Hermit Road that was named for Louis Boucher. It has a massive, neat fireplace inside, a gift shop, and a snack bar. It’s a good resting point for hikers taking the Hermit Trail; the trailhead is just a bit further behind the building. There are restrooms and a water refill station here too.

Desert View Tour: east rim, 3.5 - 4 hours, $65, free for kids 16 and under, departs around 9am.
The Desert View Watchtower is a Mary Colter building erected with the help of local native cultures, so inside you’ll find native artifacts, pottery, and artwork. It’s 70 feet tall and the tallest point on the South Rim, and once you’re on the top floor you’ll have 360 degree views of not just the canyon, but also the Vermillion Cliffs, the Painted Desert, and Humphreys Peak. There’s also a gas station, general store, deli, and ice creams shop here. No free shuttles reach this landmark, so you need to either drive your own car, take a taxi, or take this paid bus tour. 

*Note: if you purchase the Desert View tour, you can add any west rim tour for only $15 instead of their usual price. 

Mule Rides

There are two mule rides that take place in the national park; one is an overnight trip that goes to the bottom of the canyon, and one is a short day trip that stays on the rim. Lots of folks ask if there’s still a day trip that goes down into the canyon, because years ago we had one that went to Plateau Point. There isn’t.

Canyon Vista Mule Ride, $142.83
The day trip is a three hour trip that goes every day at 8am or at 12pm (those are current seasonal times - there is only one trip a day during winter, at 9am). You meet at the mule barn in the village, get shuttled over to the other mule barn at Yaki Point where you do a safety orientation and get in the saddle, then you ride for about four miles, or two hours. Afterwards you’re shuttled back to the village. On average you’re about 8 feet from the edge, but you do come as close at 3 feet at some points. The mule trail is a special trail that no hikers or drivers have access to.

Requirements: at least 9 years old, 4 foot 9 inches tall, under 225 pounds, not afraid of heights or large animals, not pregnant, able to speak english. 

Phantom Ranch Mule Ride, $640
The overnight ride is a package that include your mule ride down Bright Angel Trail, your cabin accommodations at Phantom Ranch (the lodging at the bottom of the canyon), all your meals including a steak dinner and a big breakfast spread, and your mule ride back up the second day on South Kaibab Trail. It is booked up 15 months in advance via a lottery system at PhantomRanchLottery.com. You apply in the beginning of the month for the dates you want 15 months in the future, then they do a random drawing and alert you as to whether you won the dates or not. If you did, at that time you can pay and make requests about what meals you want. If not, you try again the next month and the next until you win. 12 to 2 months out from the date you want to ride, you can try calling Central Reservations to see if you can grab any dates that potentially didn’t book up in the lottery, or perhaps someone who won ended up cancelling and you can re-purchase their spot. The day before the ride, you can get on a waitlist at Bright Angel Transportation Desk in case any riders cancel extremely last-minute, but this is very rare. 

Requirements: at least 9 years old, 4 foot 9 inches tall, under 200 pounds, not afraid of heights or large animals, not pregnant, able to speak english.

*Note: we use mules because they are sure-footed. They are a cross between a female horse and a male donkey, and are therefore stronger than both animals, have more heat tolerance, and because their eyes are further back on their head they can see both their back feet and front feet. In 100 years the mules have a perfect record - we have not had a guest fall into the canyon while riding a mule. Hikers are another story; they take selfies and make fatal mistakes. The book “Death In the Grand Canyon” chronicles a lot of them. 

Rafting Trips

Whitewater rafting trips are done via third party companies outside of Xanterra. You’ll need to do your own research and booking for this (start here), but most of them depart from Page, AZ and last anywhere between 3- to 18-days. I’ve heard of a 21-day trip too. 

The package we offer to help book is done through Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines. It’s a full day trip where you get either shuttled or take a scenic air flight from the Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan up to Page, AZ, then do a walking tour through Antelope Canyon with Navajo Tours, then do a smooth water rafting trip with Wilderness River Adventures for three hours from Glen Canyon Dam down to Lee’s Ferry. You actually sail around Horseshoe Bend which is pretty cool, since most people just see it from the top, and you’ll dock at one island to check out ancient petroglyphs. The water is extremely calm, you don’t get wet. Then you’ll be bussed back to the South Rim (with a stop at the Cameron Trading Post). All together both packages are a whole day; you’ll start just before 7am and get back to the national park by 5pm or 6pm. The shuttle to Page option is called the Smooth Water Rafting Trip, and is $219 per person. If you take the scenic airline flight to Page, it’s called the Canyon River Adventure and is $439.

Helicopters

There are two companies we recommend for helicopter tours: Maverick and Papillon. I’ve done the Maverick tour and absolutely adored it; they have a short route that goes over the west and north rims, or a longer route for only $30 more that also goes over the east rim. Seven people can fit in the Maverick helicopters; they’re all forward-facing seats, and everyone gets a headset to chat with each other and the pilot. You can even get a DVD of the views from your exact flight afterwards. Maverick has a perfect safety record.

Both companies fly from the Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan, but you can get picked up from inside the park if you don’t have a car. 

Jeep Tours

Jeep tours are all run by third party companies based in the town of Tusayan. The most popular are Pink Jeep Tours and Buckwild. I’ve never done these because I believe they hit many of the same viewpoints I’ve seen on our internal bus tours, but it does seem fun to ride in the jeeps with a smaller group! I believe they might also combine both east and west rim viewpoints, whereas our bus tours only go on west rim or east rim. 

iMax Movie

Many people think the iMax movie is within the national park, but it’s actually just outside in the town of Tusayan at the National Geographic Visitor Center. It shows every hour on the half hour between 8:30am and 8:30pm (check for seasonal showtime changes). It’s about a 40 minute movie and includes cool drone perspectives of the canyon, plus they recreated different moments throughout history like John Wesley Powell’s rafting expedition of the length of the Colorado River. 

Railroad Express

See Above for information on the railway day trip.

Horseback Rides

There are no horseback rides that take place in the park. Just outside the park in Tusayan, you can book horse rides through the Kaibab National Forest with Apache Stables. In peak seasons they’re open 7 days a week, 9am-5pm. 

Ranger Talks

Right now there are free ranger talks three times a day:

1:30pm at Tusayan Ruins Museum: a walk through the Ancestral Puebloan Ruins. You can do this as a self-guided walk too, but the ranger explains a lot of good historical facts. Only way to get here is by car or taxi.

2:00pm at the Geology Museum: the geology chat. You can get here by driving and parking at the museum, taking the orange shuttle bus, or walking the rim trail.

4:00pm at the Visitor Center: the critter chat. This is about the condors, elk, etc. You can get here by driving and parking at the museum, taking the orange shuttle bus, or walking the rim trail.

In the summertime there will be more ranger chats, particularly the sunset evening chat and some star parties. 

Trekking/Guided Hikes

Xanterra and the National Park Service do not offer any hiking guides to take you down the trails in the canyon. You can just get out there and start hiking yourself without paying any kind of fee or alerting anyone to your plans, technically. But if you’re interested in a guided hike, there are a number of third party companies that will take you; the most popular are Wildland Trekking, OARS, Four Season, and the Grand Canyon Institute

Hiking

The most popular maintained trail from the North Rim is North Kaibab, and the main trails from the South Rim are South Kaibab and Bright Angel.

Download a PDF hiking map of North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel Trails  HERE .

Download a PDF hiking map of North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel Trails HERE.

South Kaibab and Bright Angel Overnight Hike

The most popular introductory Grand Canyon hike, if you’re heavy into hiking and looking for more than a day trip, is to the Colorado River. It is not recommended to do this as a day trip; you should try to do an overnight. To get there, most hikers go down South Kaibab Trail (7 steep miles) in an average of 4-6 hours, pitch a tent at Bright Angel Campground (you need a camping permit from the Backcountry Office) or get a reservation for a dorm or cabin at Phantom Ranch (not expensive but fills up fast; enter the lottery 15 months in advance at PhantomRanchLottery.com, call Central Reservations (888-297-2757) between 12-2 months out to scoop up any leftover dates not booked via the lottery, or get on the waitlist the day before you want to go at the Bright Angel Transportation Desk in case of last minute cancellations. Last minute hiker cancellations are much more common than mule riders cancelling last minute, so you do have a shot). The second day you hike up Bright Angel Trail, which is 10 miles long but has a more gradual grade and a water refill station halfway up at Indian Garden. In the summer months there will also be water at 3 Mile Resthouse and 1.5 Mile Resthouse. There’s no water on South Kaibab and there’s no shade from the sun, so it’s not a good route for the uphill trek; that’s why people prefer to take BA up, plus it’s just some good variation of scenery. 

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Keep in mind it is always 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter at the bottom of the canyon than on the rim. In the summer this means scorching temperatures, so hikers get started early in the morning before the sun comes up to beat the afternoon heat. In winter and spring you only need to pack about two liters of water, considering you can refill at Phantom or Bright Angel Campground and also at Indian Garden, but in the summer pack at least a gallon. 

See above for information about the Hiker Express shuttle to get you to the South Kaibab trailhead. If you do the hike backwards and take Bright Angel down and South Kaibab up (why?), you can get to the Bright Angel Trailhead without much effort. It’s just behind the Bright Angel Lodge.

Phantom Ranch lemonade: the Elixir of Life

Phantom Ranch lemonade: the Elixir of Life

Notes on Phantom Ranch: nearly everything is already provided there, so you shouldn’t need to pack much if you’ve got a Phantom reservation. They have bedding, linens, towels, soap, shampoo, and a canteen where you can buy first aid equipment, postage stamps and postcards (you can mail a postcard from there; it will arrive at it’s destination marked “mailed by mule” since the mules take it up in a duffel!), meals, and snacks. Meals should be reserved in advance - there’s a steak dinner, stew dinner, vegetarian chili, early breakfast, late breakfast, and sack lunch (you can still reserve meals at Phantom Ranch even if you’re not staying there, for instance, if you’re camping at Bright Angel Campground). Snacks can be purchased easily on-site like any convenience store. They have trail mix, bagels, protein bars, lemonade, etc. They have restrooms and showers. They even have a bookshelf with interesting canyon- and hiking-related literature. All you really need to pack is a change of clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, deoderant, and any personal items you prefer. If you bring any of your own food, you should still make sure to pack it Leave No Trace style; critters will get into the cabins and dorms looking for easily accessible goodies, and may dig through your pack if you’re not careful (there are lock boxes for your food in the dorms and cabins). My favorite thing to do at Phantom is dip my feet in Bright Angel Creek or the Colorado River! But don’t go for a full swim in the Colorado - it can take you away in the current.

If you are a hiker who has a lot of stuff and you don’t feel like backpacking it all down, you can pay $74 for the duffel inbound service to take your belongings to Phantom Ranch for you via mule. To pack it back out on the duffel outbound service is another $74. There are duffel weight and size requirements and windows of time you must abide by for claiming your bags afterwards, so make sure to read up on the regulations. 

Bright Angel Day Hikes

There are day hikes on both of the main Corridor trails. The most popular is to hike down to Indian Garden and back on Bright Angel Trail, which would be 9 miles round trip. Indian Garden was an actual agricultural site for natives, and is a lush green oasis with a creek running through. It’s pretty crazy to witness, considering the canyon sometimes looks dry and dead when you’re looking at it from the rim. There’s a ranger station, campsite (you would need a permit from the Backcountry Office), water refill station, restrooms, etc. This is also where the overnight mule riders stop for lunch and a rest when they’re headed down to Phantom Ranch.

My favorite day hike is another 1.5 miles past that, Plateau Point (12 miles round trip from the South Rim). You can see the Colorado River really well and when you look up you’ve got 360° canyon walls encompassing you all around. My coworkers have all seen condors there, although I didn’t on the day I went. To get here you split from the Bright Angel Trail at Indian Garden and take the Plateau Point Trail the rest of the way. That extra mile and a half is very flat and easy, so if you still have legs once you’ve reached Indian Garden, it’s not too strenuous to add another 3 miles out-and-back.

Other shorter day hikes on BA would be 1.5 Mile Resthouse (3 miles round trip) and 3 Mile Resthouse (6 round trip). There are restrooms and emergency phones at each of those (and water in the summertime) and you get a cool view of the gorge, but if you only go that far you don’t reach the prettiest vegetation. Keep in mind it’s the top 3 miles from the rim that are the steepest; it levels out the closer you get to Indian Garden. So that means the last 3 miles coming back up, you’re really huffing and puffing! Still, Bright Angel is the better option for into-the-canyon day hikes if you’ve got children or older people with you. 

South Kaibab Day Hikes

On SK the day hikes are Ooh Aah Point at 0.9 miles down (about 2 miles roundtrip) or Cedar Ridge at 1.5 miles (3 round trip). SK has really stunning canyon vista views, but because it’s so steep you don’t want to go too far lest the return hike back up wear you out. I wouldn’t want to go any farther than Skeleton Point at 3 miles (6 round trip). On both of the main Corridor trails, but especially SK, you probably want to bring trekking poles to take some pressure off your knees on the downhill.

Some people who want to go down SK but not up, or who just want to get a vibe for both SK and BA (but know they shouldn’t attempt a Rim to River and Back in a day), will take South Kaibab down to Tipoff Point, split off onto Tonto Trail across to where it meets up with Bright Angel Trail, then take BA up to the rim. That’s about 14 miles vs. the 17 miles of a Rim to River, but you’re saving yourself some elevation change and skipping the Devil’s Corkscrew on Bright Angel. 

Unmaintained Trails

Those are the maintained trails (meaning rangers keep them up), but there are other unmaintained trails. Hermit Trail and Grandview would be your next level options. 

Hermit trailhead is just behind Hermit’s Rest on the Red/Hermit Shuttle Route, and the endpoint of the hike is Hermit Creek (get a camping permit from the Backcountry Office if you plan to stay overnight, which I would - this trail is really steep and scrambly and quite a lot for out-and-back in a day) or Hermit Rapids. This is a Rim to River hike. The day hikes are Santa Maria Spring (5 miles round trip) or Dripping Springs (6 miles round trip). 

Grandview goes to Horseshoe Mesa. I haven’t done that one yet because it doesn’t get any sun and recently still had too much ice on the scrambly sections for my taste. I have crampons but it still looked sketchy. The trailhead is at Grandview Point along Desert View Drive on the east rim; no shuttle goes there, so you’d need to drive or taxi. 

After conquering those two, hikers start trying Boucher Trail, New Hance, other sections of Tonto, etc. 

There are also day hikes you can do from Phantom Ranch if you’ve got some time down there, like Clear Creek, Cheyava Falls, Ribbon Falls, etc. 

North Rim Trails

I’ve just completed a Rim to Rim to Rim backpacking trip where I started on the South Rim, hiked down South Kaibab then up North Kaibab Trail to summit on the North Rim, then back down and up Bright Angel Trail to ascend on the South Rim again. This was the perfect opportunity to learn about points of interest along North Kaibab, the main trail people frequent from the North Rim when services and lodges there are open between May 15 - October 15. A lot of people favor the north for the fact that it’s less populated, but unfortunately they’re not open year-around like the South Rim because they are at a higher elevation and have snow throughout more of the year. I was still able to do my R^3 because I didn’t care about having services, I just got to the North Kaibab trailhead and then turned back around (going in April made the northern section of my hike very secluded, I loved the peace!). This route was my only option, but once the North is open you can start on the North Rim and head South instead to complete a one-way “Rim-to-Rim”. If you want to do a one-way, you could take the Trans-Canyon Shuttle to get you to your starting point on the North Rim, or if you’re starting South and going North, the shuttle can take you back to the South Rim afterwards.

Day hikes on the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim would be Coconino Overlook, Supai Tunnel, Redwall Bridge, Roaring Springs (spectacular waterfalls), Manzanita Rest Stop, or Cottonwood Campground. There should be water at Supai Tunnel, Manzanita, and Cottonwood when the North Rim opens, but off-season I only had water at Manzanita, which was enough (in the winter the pipes would probably be frozen at Manzanita too, and there’d be too much snow in the north; I wouldn’t want to do it that time of year. Thankfully when I went in late April, I barely ran into any snow and never needed my crampons. My only issue was three sections of rock fall in the trail after Redwall Bridge that hadn’t been cleaned up yet; I had to put away my poles and climb over them with my hands, next to sheer drop-offs - a little freaky but doable!). Past Cottonwood you can continue on down to Ribbon Falls, although it was closed during my trip because the bridge to the falls had collapsed over winter. Ribbon Falls is a day hike from either Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground, or from Cottonwood Campground, though it’s a little far for a day hike from the North Rim. After that you go through the last landmark area of North Kaibab Trail called The Box (an enclosed gorge following Bright Angel Creek that traps humidity and heat in), and then arrive at Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground.

I’m not familiar yet with other North Rim trails, but some information on other options can be found here.

*Note about R^3 timing: I spread mine out into five days because I wanted some extended backpacking time below rim, but some people challenge themselves to do it quickly. Trail runners can go Rim to Rim to Rim in a day (all 45 miles)! As a backpacker during off-season I think I could have done it in three days comfortably. If the North Rim was open and I could camp up there, I could do it in 2 days (Rim to Rim on day one, Rim to Rim back again on day 2). As it stands, my route was like this:

Day One: Hike down SK and camp at Bright Angel Campground
Day Two: Hike to Cottonwood Campground via North Kaibab Trail
Day Three: Hike from Cottonwood to the North Kaibab Trailhead on the North Rim, then back down to Cottonwood
Day Four: Hike from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch; bailed on my Clear Creek permit in favor of a bunk
Day Five: Hiked out from Phantom to the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail

*Safety notes about hiking:

  • Again, it is 20 degrees hotter at the bottom of the canyon than at the top, so prepare accordingly. In the summer it’s brutal. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves and pants for protection from UV rays, and plenty of water are essential. Start hiking early morning, wait out the afternoon heat, and continue in the evening if you must. 

  • The South Rim is at 7,000 feet elevation, and the North Rim is at 8,000 feet. If you’re coming from sea level, you may experience nausea and altitude sickness. Take extra care if you have plans to hike to the bottom of the canyon, especially, which is at 2,000 feet. Drink lots of water and bring electrolyte tablets

  • If you’re here in winter, there will be ice and snow on the trails. Crampons or microspikes are essential, and hiking boots with good tread. I’ve seen people try to go down icy trails in sneakers and they function basically like snowboards. Traction devices are sold at the Bright Angel gift shop, Maswik gift shop, and General Store at Market Plaza for $25. My favorite are the Icetrekkers Diamond Grips. Coils break easily and spikes fall out.

  • Trekking poles help with joint pressure on the downhill. You can buy them at the Bright Angel or Maswik gift shops, but you’ll find more variety at the General Store at Market Plaza (that’s where I got my Leki poles). You can rent them from the General Store for $3 a day too.

  • Mountain lions are incredible rare. You’re more likely to see mule deer, elk, or bighorn sheep. They will mainly leave you alone, especially the deer, but elk and sheep have been known to kick if they’re caught off guard or have babies around. Do not try to interact or get too close to the animals. Smaller critters like the pink rattlesnake, gila monster, or various lizard and scorpion species could find their way underfoot - careful where you step. Lastly, do not feed the squirrels! There are signs everywhere but people still do it. Not only does it harm the squirrels in that they get too comfortable around people and stop foraging for food, but the number one canyon injury to humans is actually squirrel bites, and they can carry diseases. It is also illegal to feed them, it’s not just the park service trying to be tree-huggers. 

  • Remember that however far you go down, you still have to come back up, and the uphill will be harder. It’s the reverse of a mountain where the hard part comes first and the easy part later. Evaluate yourself as you go and make sure you’ll be up for backtracking as far as you’ve come. You can turn around at any point. 

  • Don’t swim in the Colorado, it can take you away in the current and there are some crazy rapids.

  • No campfires allowed below rim in the canyon.

  • Leave No Trace!

Camping Below The Rim:

I’ve glossed over the process for securing campground permits. You apply for these with the Backcountry Information Center, which is run by the National Park Service (not Xanterra, who handles Phantom Ranch reservations). Applications are 3- to 4-months in advance of the date you want to camp. You can also chat with the rangers closer to your date and ask if they’ve had any cancellations so you can scoop up a permit a little more last-minute. They also have a waitlist, like we do at Xanterra, but theirs works a little differently. You go in and ask for a waitlist number, then return the next morning to see if they’ve had any spots open up. Usually only one or two might open, so if your waitlist number is 16, your chances are incredibly slim. But, at that time you could trade your number in for a closer number. Maybe on the second day, you trade number 16 in for number 12. The next morning you come in again and do the same process, and eventually you might be number 1, 2, or 3 and be able to grab a permit. It’s kind of a numbers game and for the best results you start playing about a week in advance. If you’re coming from out of town and don’t have time for all that, you’re better off guaranteeing a spot by applying farther in advance for the exact dates you need.

If you’re caught camping without a permit or without Phantom reservations, you can be fined and exiled from all national parks. It’s not worth the risk. Just play by the rules.

If you can’t snag a permit for the main campgrounds (Bright Angel, Indian Garden, Cottonwood), you can try to get the less maintained dispersed camp spots instead like at Clear Creek, Utah Flats, Horn Creek, Cremation, etc. These will add a few extra miles to your hike, but it’s better than nothing! These are also great destinations in and of themselves if you’re looking to branch out from the corridor.

I’ve also seen some people check at the Transportation Desk for last minute Phantom spots, have no luck, start hiking down anyway, call us from the phones at the trail rest stops to check again, and be able to grab a spot at that time. This is not good practice if you want a guaranteed spot, and god forbid you get down there and still nothing has become available and now you’re at the bottom of the canyon without a place to stay, but super duper last-minute bunks or cabins do become available from time to time. Some hikers with reservations get started on their hike, twist an ankle, can’t make it down, and have to cancel just 3 hours before they were meant to check in (when I was on my Rim to Rim to Rim, the last night I had a Clear Creek camping permit, but I swung by Phantom before setting up my tent to check for a last-minute bunk and got one! Stayed there instead and had a nice stew dinner). This is also why, if you’re already at Phantom, you may be able to add on an extra night to your stay if someone who was supposed to be checking in after you ended up being a no-show. 

Another way people have gotten creative has to do with the setup of the Phantom Ranch cabins. There are two-person cabins, four-person cabins, and ten-person cabins (in addition to the two ten-bunk female dorms and the two ten-bunk male dorms). We will not book multiple parties to share a cabin, so your group will have one privately to themselves. Sometimes a party of two books a 10-person cabin because it’s all that’s available. I heard about one couple that did this, but then sold the remaining 8 beds in their cabin to campers at Bright Angel Campground who had wanted a bed but couldn’t get one. If you book it, it’s yours to do with what you please, so as long as those 8 new friends know the name on the reservation and can say they’re with that party, it’s fine. 

Hiking Above-Rim

If you want to hike but not down into the canyon, you can take the Rim Trail. It follows the length of the South Rim and has great canyon views the whole way, but most of it is paved and flat. This is good for families or ADA. Going east from Bright Angel Lodge to the Geology Museum is 2 miles. That section is called “The Trail Of Time” because they’ve set it up so that every step you take represents a million years, and there will be information about what happened to form the canyon during that time. They’ve also brought rocks up from the bottom of the canyon so you can touch and feel what the Vishnu Schist or Coconino Sandstone feels like. From the Geology Museum you could choose to go on another mile to Mather Point, a beautiful viewpoint behind the Visitor Center, and then another mile to the end of the Rim Trail which is at South Kaibab trailhead. You could walk back again the way you came, or you could hop on the free shuttles at the Geology Museum, Visitor Center, or South Kaibab trailhead to find your way back to the village. 

West from Bright Angel Lodge is 7 miles of Rim Trail along Hermit Road. These are gorgeous views, but this part of the trail has some elevation gain and a few unpaved sections. You can go as far as you want and then walk back or take the Red/Hermit Route shuttle back to the village. 

Historical Buildings and Restaurants

Within the village, you can explore a handful of legendary buildings without having to walk too far. In close proximity are:

Dessert at El Tovar 😍 I’m not gluten-free, but their gluten-free chocolate cake is to die for

El Tovar: Originally built as the luxury lodging option in 1905, it was designed by Charles Whittlesey to appeal to European tastes that were popular among the elite at the time. There is a gourmet restaurant that requires reservations for dinner. At the nearby cocktail lounge they serve drinks, boozy coffees, desserts, and appetizers - no reservation needed and it’s open later.

Bright Angel Lodge: Designed in 1935 by Mary Colter to resonate a rustic charm. There is a History Room here where you can learn about the Fred Harvey company, Colter, and the Harvey Girls. That’s where you’ll also find Colter’s “geologic” fireplace, featuring all the rock layers of the canyon. Outside the main lodge are also cabin accommodations, one of which is the Buckey O’Neill cabin. There are two restaurants at Bright Angel: the Harvey House Cafe, which is the more casual dining option that has wraps, sandwiches, burgers, etc, and the Arizona Room, which is technically a steakhouse but features foods local to Arizona, like Elk Burger, locally crafted beer, and a protein bowl with squash and corn. Reservations are not required at either restaurant, but they are recommended for the Arizona Room. Also in the Bright Angel Lodge you’ll find a bar, and a grab-and-go food spot called The Fountain where you can get ice cream, pastries and coffee in the morning, hot dogs, etc. The Bright Angel Transportation Desk is also located in the lobby of Bright Angel Lodge, right next to the front desk. You can buy bus tour and mule ride tickets here, in addition to the Maswik Transportation Desk.

Hopi House: Built my Mary Colter with the help of local indigenous cultures. Here you’ll find native pottery, weaving, jewelry, and artwork for sale. Sometimes they have cultural demonstrations where the artists come discuss or practice their craft. Some artists of the Hopi tribe actually lived here at one time.

Lookout Studio: A really cool viewpoint over the canyon, centrally located in the village. Also a gift shop.

Lookout Studio in blizzard weather, February 2019

Lookout Studio in blizzard weather, February 2019

Kolb Studio: The home of the Kolb Brothers, some of the first people to photograph the canyon back in the early 1900s. They were adventurers who also built their own boat to sail the Colorado. On the bottom floor of the building is a mini museum where their boat and photographs are on display. You can get your national park passport stamped here.

Verkamps Visitor Center: Besides Fred Harvey, the Verkamps were one of the earliest families to get into the tourism game at the Grand Canyon. This is mainly a gift shop, and you can get your national park passport stamped here.

Kachina Lodge: cheaper rim lodging option located in between El Tovar and Bright Angel.

Thunderbird Lodge: cheaper rim lodging option located in between El Tovar and Bright Angel.

Other Lodges and Restaurants in the Park

Maswik Lodge: about a 12 minute walk from Bright Angel Lodge. It’s not located right on the Rim like the above lodges, but it’s cheaper, has more parking, has it’s own blue shuttle stop, and features a big food court cafeteria. This is a good dining option for families where everyone has different tastes; there’s an Italian food section, a Mexican food section, deli subs, homestyle cooking, etc. They’re also usually open much earlier than the other restaurants, so if you have to be up for a mule ride or something you could eat here first. They have a separate pizza pub too, which serves pizza, wings, and beer. Maswik also has a Transportation Desk where you can buy bus tour and mule ride tickets, just like at Bright Angel, but their hours are more limited (right now it’s 8am - 6pm, vs 6am - 8pm at Bright Angel). 

Yavapai Lodge: this lodge is operated by Delaware North, not Xanterra, so I’m not as familiar with it. It’s located at the Market Plaza stop on the blue shuttle, by the grocery store and post office. This is not walking distance from the rim, but it’s a short shuttle ride. They have their own restaurant too. 

Mather Campground: some times of the year spots are first-come first-serve, other times I believe you have to reserve in advance. Double check seasonal regulations online. Mather Campground is located near Market Plaza and Yavapai Lodge. This is not walking distance from the rim, but it’s a short shuttle ride.

You could also try Trailer Village RV Park

*Note - there is plenty of lodging just 20 minutes outside the park as well, in the town of Tusayan. From those hotels you could take the Purple Shuttle into the park, or drive. Options include Grand Hotel, Best Western, Red Feather Lodge, Camper Village, etc. 

Tips No-One Ever Tells You

There are a few things I explain to guests every day that constantly surprise them, and I’m always surprised myself that nobody disperses this information. Here I hope to clarify some details for you in advance so you won’t be caught off guard:

  • Cell Service is Terrible

There is one cell tower that services the park, and that is Verizon. If you have Verizon you’ll be pretty ok, otherwise you’re out of luck. Don’t plan on having cell service.

  • Wifi is Terrible 

You will see a “Xanterra WiFi” option on your phone, and by all means give it a shot. It will be painfully slow. I turn it off and just use my cell data instead, because I have Verizon.

  • Refillable Bottles Only!

We are green! We don’t sell plastic water bottles. We have water refill stations all throughout the park in various lodges and trailheads, so you can keep hydrated with your refillable thermos.

  • Bright Angel or Bright Angel?

There are a lot of locations called “Bright Angel” throughout the park. There’s Bright Angel Lodge, Bright Angel Trail, Bright Angel Campground, and Bright Angel Bicycles (not affiliated with Bright Angel Lodge). There are also geological features like Bright Angel Creek, Bright Angel Fault, and the Bright Angel Shale. Don’t get confused and end up in the wrong place!

  • How to Pronounce Stuff

Kaibab is like “Ky-Bab”, not “Kay-Bob”. 

Hopi is like “Hope-y”, not “Hoppy”.

Havasupai is “Have-uh-sue-pie”

Hualapai is “Wall-uh-pie”

Yavapai is “Yeah-vuh-pie”

  • Pets

Pets can hang out on the rim and go in the lodges and gift shops if they’re leashed, but not the restaurants, and they cannot hike with you down into the canyon. There is a kennel onsite for pets. You can bring your own horses to the park and even take them on the trails. If you do an overnight trip with them you need a permit. 

  • ADA

There are wheelchair ramps all around, and you can get a wheelchair from the front desk at the lodges. The train depot offers a complimentary shuttle to bring disabled guests to and from their train. You can request an ADA bus be used if you book one of our four Xanterra bus tours (Sunrise, Sunset, Desert View, and Hermit’s Rest) so that there’s more room in front for a wheelchair, but you need to ask in advance. 

  • Phantom is Rustic

Phantom Ranch is a relaxing respite for weary hikers and mule riders. It is a total privilege - it is at THE BOTTOM OF THE CANYON. How cool is it that there’s lodging down there at all? It is not luxury lodging. They have power and a lot of amenities, but conditions in the canyon sometimes cause issues where the power or pipeline can go out. Be prepared to swing with the punches. To make repairs, workers have to hike down the canyon with tools in hand. It might take a second. They get their resupplies for meals and canteen stock from pack mules. It’s a well-oiled machine but delays and weather events happen.

  • The Best Place To:
    See the sunrise: Hopi Point
    See the sunset: Mohave Point
    See the stars: viewpoints along Desert View Drive
    See condors: Hopi Point, or if you’re a hiker, Plateau Point
    See elk/mule deer: everywhere
    See mountain lions/bears: very rare, but bears have been spotted at Grandview and mountain lions at the cemetery


I hope this is a thorough introduction to the canyon for those wanting to plan a trip! I imagine I will continue to update this as I remember more tips. What else would you like to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park?

For more videos, pictures, and in-depth recaps of each of my trips throughout the canyon, check out my posts and stories over on Instagram:

 
 

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