There’s a fantastic deal on National Geographic Interactive Topographical maps of the Grand Canyon available at Sierra Trading Post. I have this software and have found it invaluable when planning GC hikes. Sierra Trading Post is a very reputable a company from whom I’ve bought lots of stuff over the years. STP is a great source for discounted hiking and backpacking gear. Check them out.
Robert wrote to ask: “Is it possible to get to the North Rim in March or is it always closed until May?”
Yes, it is possible to get to the North Rim in March. One could Ski or Snow machine down from Jackob Lake. Or, one could hike over from the South Rim. The access road is not plowed and no services are available in March. Only the winter caretaker would be in residence.
Ralph Carabetta shares his experience hiking the Royal Arch Route. Here’s a tasty excerpt:
THE LEDGE is Scary. Adrenaline overdose with the shakes. Sour stomach. First attempt gets both feet on the ledge, then a quick turnaround and a leap back. Better luck next time. If you look at it for long it ain’t gonna happen. How the hell can you do this with a pack on? Belayed (such as it was) everyone else across and roped the packs. Nervous, almost hysterical laughter when all are safe on the other side.
Read the whole thing.
Water - it’s the single most important issue when planning a hike in the Grand Canyon.
A trail may have a name, it may be a line on the official USGS Quad, the distances may sound doable, the trailhead accessible and lots of people may have done it before. But you still may not be able to get there from here.
And finally, just getting a permit doesn’t mean you should attempt the hike.
Time and again the success or failure of a hike in the Grand Canyon hinges on JUST one thing - WATER. When it gets right down to it - hiking the Grand Canyon would be a walk in the park - IF only the National Park Sevice would install water fountains along the way.
There are four possible sources of water in the Grand Canyon - potholes, springs, streams and the Colorado River. Plan on treating ALL water to avoid illness.
Potholes are temporary pools of water that form after a rain. Expert Grand Canyon hikers with considerable experience and reports of current conditions have used potholes as a source of water. For the rest of us, if you are using or depending on potholes as a source of water — you have made a SERIOUS mistake in planning.
Occasionally springs have considerable flow - but the ones I’ve seen in the Grand Canyon could more adequately be described as “seeps”. Perennial springs on established trails usually have some means of collecting and retaining even the smallest trickle into a pool. A spring on a map is no guarantee that it exists, that it is flowing, or (especially) that you can find it. Historical springs have been known to dry up permanently after earthquakes or for no apparent reason.
Streams can be a good source of water and a few on the South Rim are perennial. Even perennial streams can disappear below the surface during times of low flow. In this case you may have to search up or down the streambed to find water. Some streams may have contaminants that can’t be filtered out - an example is Horn Creek where radioactive minerals have been found dissolved in the water.
Finally there’s the ever present Colorado river. But it is certainly a classic case of “…you can’t get there from here…”. Hikes in the Grand Canyon don’t go along the Colorado river. There are occasional stretches where you can travel along the river’s banks - but these stretches come up short when shear walls of the inner gorge disappear into the river - leaving no place to walk. One additional problem, water from the Colorado can be filled with silt - which requires an extra step when treating.
To date, my findings about water on the South Bass are bleak.
The only source for water on the South Bass is the Colorado River. There is the possibility of pot holes on the Esplanade (roughly half-way down) - if it’s been raining.
Water on the Tonto is limited too. Perennial water sources are reported at Slate, Boucher, and Hermit. Then there’s the Colorado - you can hike down Serpentine, the first canyon east of Serpentine, and Ruby.
Hiking out on the Hermit, water is not a problem. You can tank up at Hermit Creek and then at Santa Maria Spring on the way up Hermit trail.
The stretch between South Bass (at the river) and Slate Canyon is worrisome - that’s a long distance where the only perennial source is the Colorado.
Hiking down a side canyon to access the Colorado may seem simple enough - but…it’s not. The route is never certain and the change in elevation is about 1,200 feet.
An example of the difficulties you might encounter is right at the end of the South Bass trail. The trail just ends at a shear drop off above the Colorado. Hikers have been known to panic at this point and climb out - never reaching the Colorado. You have to look for a cairn to find your way down to the river.
That’s it for Water 101 - I’m not finished planning the water part of this hike - but I’ve got some ideas. I’ll be consulting some people that have done the hike for advice.
Thanks to Ken, from Washington State, for sharing the following trip report:
Trip Report Dec 17-23, 2005
Hermit’s Rest, Tonto Plateau, Bright Angel by way of Ribbon Falls.
Hermit’s Rest to Hermit Ck 7.8
to Monument Ck 3.8
to Horn Ck 8.2
to Bright Angel Camp 7.2
to Indian Garden 4.7
to South Rim 4.6
3 miles round trip to Plateau Point,
and 12 miles round trip to Ribbon Falls.
I got to the Grand Canyon Village on Friday, Dec 16th, and stayed at Bright Angel Lodge. A reasonable price of 56 dollars, and I share the shower rooms with other visitors. I went to the Backcountry Office and got my permit, to start the next day. In the off season, the permit seems to be readily available.
It was cold on the rim, but no snow, and the forecast was that the weather would improve as time went by.
The next morning, I had coffee and breakfast in the lodge, and got a ride to the Hermit’s Rest trailhead, since there aren’t shuttles there in the off season.
My Platypus tube was frozen everytime I got a drink, until some time past Santa Maria Springs. The tub at Santa Maria Springs was frozen, but the water was flowing into the tub.
The Hermit trail has some obstructions, from rock fall, along the way down to the Tonto Trail, but not real bad, and if being observant, I don’t see anyone missing the way through the jumbled rocks. This trail is said to be un-maintained, so be advised, if you are uncomfortable with trails in this condition.
I didn’t have anything uncommon happen the first day, except for the many moments of awe, when pausing to take in the view. This is what I had hoped this hike would be like for all the years I have wanted to hike it. Dropping down into the canyon, and seeing the color changes all around me is really a charge for my energy, when I ever wonder “Why am I here?”
Several places along the trail I dropped down quickly, and also got a great view of the cliffs above and the plateau below, with a taste of the Inner Gorge, that has the massive Colorado River hidden in it’s folds.
The junction with the Tonto Trail is very well marked and after trudging the rest of the way, I set up camp under an overhang, and well away from the NPS provided privy.
Camp was quiet, except for a few ‘voices’ enveloped in the wind, and a little Kangaroo Rat checking out my vestibule, it left when it found nothing to eat. I had expected to see other people here, but, was surprised to find I was unique in my interest of hiking here at this time of year. The creek was running well, and could picture summer time sun bathers, dipping into the water, but I chose not to bathe yet, even though I was alone, it was December. Read the rest of this entry »
A good start for planning any hike (outside of the Corridor Trails) in the Grand Canyon is National Geographic/Trails Illustrated trail map. You have to plan your hike around the Canyon itself (water, distances, existing trails) — then you have to overlay the NPS permit system and use requirements in hopes of maximizing the chance of getting your ‘Backcountry Permit’.
The NPS has divided the Grand Canyon into “Use Area Zones” and sets a “Use Limit” on each zone. Each “Use Area” has a “Camp Type” and a “Management Zone”.
Management Zones refer to the expected amount of use and level of maintenance an area can expect. As it works out these zones also relate to the level of experience a hiker should have to hike them.
There are 4 management zones: Corridor, Threshold, Primitive, and Wild.
Corridor zones have water, sanitation, lots of use, and people to help. The trails are like dirt staircases - and getting lost would take real effort. If hiking the Grand Canyon was a board game - there’d be an arrow pointing to the Corridor Trails saying “START HERE”.
Threshold zones have less certain water, fewer people, and no trail maintenance. Trails in these areas are generally pretty obvious - but at times will be completely obscured by rock slides, washouts, or lack of use. First time hikers shouldn’t hike in these areas.
Primitive zones have scarce to no water (seasonal - here today, gone tomorrow) and very occasional sightings of other people. Unmaintained trails and routes are the only way through these areas. Routes can require skilled route finding and occasionally luck to follow. Only HIGHLY experienced hikers have any business hiking in these areas. Getting lost on these trails is a real possibility.
Wild zones - just getting to a wild zone is difficult even for HIGHLY experienced hikers. You might say that if you ever see a Wild Zone in the Grand Canyon you are either in an airplane or lost.
There are 3 types of Camp Types: Designated Campground, Designated Campsites, and At Large.
Designating Campgrounds are on the Corridor Trails - they are Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Gardens.
Designated Campsites are in the relative high use Threshold areas. Hermit, Monument Creek, Horn Creek, Salt Creek, Cedar Spring, and Granite Rapids.
Finally is my favorite - At Large camping - which is anywhere in the Use Area.
So, with that in mind, lets look at the South Bass/Tonto/Hermit Loop.
Use Areas from Bass to Hermit: BQ9, BP9, BO9, BN9, BM7, BM8 - encompassing 9 canyons from beginning to end - frankly that’s a lot of canyons.
Use Area: BQ9
Main feature: Bass Trail
Use Limits: 1 group, 1 party, 24 campers
Camp Type: At large
Use Area: BP9
No main feature
Use Limts: 1 grp, 1 party, 32
Camp Type: At large
Use Area: BO9
No Main feature
Use limits: 1 grp, 1 party, 32
Camp Type: At Large
Use Area: BN9
Main feature: Boucher Trail
Use Limits: 1 grp, 1 party, 32
Camp type: At Large
Use Areas: BM7 BM8
Main Feature: Hermit Trail
BM7 — Hermit Creek
Use Limits: 1 grp, 3 parties, 40
BM8 — Hermit Rapids
Use Limits: 1 grp, 1 party, 24
(Parties are 1-8 people hiking together)
(Groups are 9-16 people hiking togther)
This is the basic information we’ll need for general planning. We’ll use the Use Area designators for the National Park Service permit request when we make it. For each canyon we’ll research the water sources and information about access to the Colorado River.
A parent emailed to ask:
What is the youngest age that you suggest for a son to walk the Angel Trail? Our son, who is 12 and in good shape, is planning to hike with us this summer. Is this OK?
As a father of an 11 and a 14 year old, I wouldn’t hesitate to take either down the Bright Angel trail. However, I’d never take them on such a hike in the summer. A nice cool season day hike would be down the Bright Angel to Indian Garden and possibly plateau point. If visiting the canyon in summer with my kids, I’d stick to the rim trail.
Ken has some additional reactions:
This is a tough one. Summer is a poor time to be on these trails for anyone - most of the search and rescue operations happen in the summer. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke (which can result in permanent disability) are common problems in the summer.
My impression is that children are more prone to dehydration and more likely to have heat related problems.
Still, people do it - but I’d be uncomfortable recommending it. But, hiking the Grand Canyon in the summer is like sunbathing in an oven — it can really take all the fun out of the trip.
You would be much better advised to do day hikes - in the SK to Cedar Ridge - maybe little beyond.
In the Bright Angel to Plateau point (in early and well on the way back out before 11AM. But never into the inner gorge where temps reach 110 degrees F +. And NEVER attempt a rim-to-river-to-rim in the same day.
Hope this is of some assistance in helping you to make plans.
Have a comment, Grand Canyon anecdote, or canyon hiking experience to share? To contribute, click the comment link below.
A recent request on our website was for information on the South Bass - Tonto - Hermit loop. She and five other people (including one “seasoned Grand Canyon hiker”) - are going in sometime this year. He must be pretty seasoned - frankly you couldn’t get me to lead a group of 5 other people on the Corridor trails - let alone this loop.
We (Rob and I) didn’t have any personal experience to offer - but reading up on it gave me the bug to get out there and do it.
I’m going to use this blog to keep track of my progress and planning.
1. Collating trail information from multiple sources (there are a lot of sources these days) - matching duplicate information and filling in the blanks about the loop will be quite a job in itself. But this is important, I was careless about this step the last time I hiked in the Canyon - and it almost got my best friend and I killed. More on that later.
2. Pack weight — last time in my pack was 50# — not much for some people — but something like having an anvil strapped to your back. It takes all the fun out of it. So this time it’s light - or I’ll forget the whole thing.
3. Physical conditioning — I’m pushing 59 this year — and I’ve been slacking off for months. Time to get my eyes on the prize. On my tape I recommend a Cooper Test of 1.5 miles — don’t know if I’ll come close to that but we’ll see. More on the Cooper Test later.
— A little thought on how to rate my progress –
Trail Info X Pack Weight X Condition
On a scale of 1 to 10 —
Trail Info -
1 = have topo, elevation change, and distance
10 = detailed current info including important intersections, distances, times, water sources, cairns, details on crossing obscure sections, rock slides, false trails
Pack Weight -
1 - 50#
10 — How light can you get?
1 - couch potato who shouldn’t even consider this
3 - about where I am
10 - could carry a 60# pack and match Butchart’s times (a Cooper of about 2.25 miles — or world class athelete)