A few years ago I came to the realization that I love multi-day trekking and with no plans for my winter holiday, I began searching for something to quench the need for a good long walk. What I found was a 46 mile rim-to-rim-to-rim trek of the Grand Canyon. This seemed perfect. I had never actually visited the canyon before and I could never endure the usual 100oF + temperatures in the summer. So I was delighted to discover that you can trek across the canyon during the winter season with far fewer people and far more moderate temperatures.
Since flights, car rental and hotels were cheaper, we decided to fly in/out of Las Vegas and drive 4.5 hours to/from the canyon with the reward of a couple of luxurious days in Vegas to pamper after the hard days of hiking. While many people will either take a mule ride or hike down and stay at the Phantom Ranch, we planned on camping at the designated backcountry campgrounds which required carrying all of our provisions. The plan was to spend 5 days hiking down the Bright Angel Trail, across the canyon to the North Rim, and then return via the South Kaibab Trail.
Images courtesy of the National Park Service
Day 1 – South Rim to Bright Angel Campground via the Bright Angel Trail (~9.5 miles)
The South Rim is about 7000 ft in elevation and winter temperatures can be frosty with snow and ice as hazards. So I was bundled for the 25oF windy day and equipped with crampons to prevent an unsavory slip down a sharp precipice. The trail descended for miles via a series of switchbacks, winding endlessly back and forth, lower and lower into the canyon and through several archways carved into the limestone. At 1.5 mile intervals, stone rest houses are positioned with drinkable water sources and composting toilets nearby. They made for a welcome respite and a chance to sit and soak in the views.
After another short rest at Indian Gardens Campground, we rounded a corner of the trail and came face to face with a small group of deer. They showed no fear of us and we enjoyed watching them eat the foliage within arms reach. For approximately 3 more miles we followed the trail along the creek leading to the Colorado River and a bridge crossing before reaching the Bright Angel campsite. Being ~4400 ft lower than the rim, the temperature at the campground was reasonable and fresh, and the campground itself was the most beautiful I have ever been to. It is nestled beside large cliffs along the Bright Angel Creek and each tent site is immaculately groomed with a soft sandy floor. After a long hard descent, the fresh breeze and whisper of the creek made for a very restful night.
Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Campground (~7 miles)
We arose at dawn and watched the sunlight slowly pour into camp, enjoying hot blueberry granola cereal and instant Starbuck’s coffee before setting out across the bridge and past Phantom Ranch on our way to Cottonwood Campground. Walking along the floor of the Grand Canyon is a treat. It allows you to get up close and personal and to see the canyon from many different angles. The terrain is relatively flat and for half the way the trail follows alongside the Bright Angel Creek, tightly settled between huge crags carved over the millennia. Approximately half way across the canyon, the trail proceeds into the open desert upland area. Temperatures now reached into the upper 60’s to lower 70’s and there was not a single puff of cloud in sight. Nor were there any other trekkers. We had been in complete isolation the entire way after passing Phantom Ranch, and I found it quite peaceful and serene being alone and totally disconnected from the “real” world. It slows down time and allows me to connect with my surroundings in a way that brings a sense of clarity like nothing else can.
Although water sources are generally turned off during the winter on the north end of the canyon, I was pleased to see the spout still flowing near the Ranger’s house at the entrance to the campsite. Like Bright Angel, Cottonwood campground is situated beside the creek and each tent site is immaculate. Since there was just 1 other camper we pretty much had the pick of the lot. I personally liked site #7 best, with its own path leading in and secluded within the cottonwood trees.
Day 3 – Cottonwood Campground to North Rim Campground (~7 miles)
Since we were facing 7 miles of incredibly steep uphill trekking ahead, we decided to lighten our loads by stashing unnecessary items in the food boxes at the last tent site before leaving the campground (we could retrieve them the next day). As expected, the trail was long and steep and all water sources had been shut off. But the north side of the canyon does offer some amazing views, and also a bit more precarious trekking since the trail is more narrow and not as protected along the drop off. Needless to say, I stuck close to the inside. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, there was a small section of the trail that had been damaged during the rains in September and was only about as wide as my foot. It had not yet been repaired but instead fixed with a rope to cling to. All I can say is that I am glad the snow and ice had not reached down this far.
The north side of the canyon tends to get more direct sun than the south so for most of the day it was fairly warm until we reached the Supai Tunnel. There appears to be a mysterious weather vortex here since the temperature dropped around 20 degrees from one side to the other, along with enough snow that we put on our crampons again. The higher we climbed the more ice, snow and cold there was and it was a relief to reach the Ranger station. Ordinarily it is closed during the winter, but we happened to get lucky. It was open, providing a respite from the cold and… running drinkable water!!! Had there been no water we would have had to resort to melting snow for our supply. The ranger also told us they had left campfire logs at a couple of sites. We never found them, but we did find a site near the rim (with a view) where we could pitch the tent on soft ground with no snow. Since it was getting dark and freezing, we rushed to erect the tent and cooked in the vestibule and went straight to sleep.
Day 4 – North Rim Campground to Bright Angel Campground (~14 miles)
I could see the twinkling lights from the South Rim 25 miles away, and as we headed out of camp we were awarded a slow beautiful sunrise. This was going to be the longest day in terms of miles. Twice as much in fact. In all honesty I was a little worried. Even the ranger put at the bottom of our permit a warning in big bold capital letters:
“NOTE: AGGRESSIVE ITINERARY! HIKER INSISTED ON ITINERARY”
Nevertheless, we barreled down the North Rim aiming to get to Cottonwood Campground early enough to kick back for a longer lunch break and time to pack up the stuff we left behind. I thought we were going at a pretty good pace until we ran into a trail runner bounding upward in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, an iPod, and a single small water bottle. He stopped a minute to chat and let us know he had come from the South Rim that morning and was planning to do the full rim-to-rim-rim in about 15 hours (give or take). The same rim-to-rim-to-rim that we were doing in 5 days! (these people are insane).
By the time we reached Cottonwood the sun had warmed the valley, enough so for me to take my boots off and soak it all in for a while. We returned to the same tent site to relax and have a cooked lunch before heading back out across the floor and back to Bright Angel. Since it was Christmas Eve and we both had a long and tiring day, we decided to stop in at Phantom Ranch for dinner. Normally, a reservation is required well in advance but luck was again on our side and they still had an opening for the first serving of their famous stew. I can think of no better way to spend the holiday than watch the sun rise atop the Grand Canyon, hike all day, and retire with home cooked stew, salad, cornbread, and wine, finished off with some rich chocolate cake. Perfection!
Day 5 – Bright Angel Campground to South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail (~7 miles)
We decided to take the South Kaibab Trail back out of the canyon since we had already taken the Bright Angel Trail down (it was also shorter mileage). Not far out of camp there is a bridge crossing over the Colorado River that leads through a deep dark tunnel before ascending up the first series of steep switchbacks. As we hiked up the trail we could see Bright Angel Creek split off from the Colorado River and the campground nestled alongside. Fortunately, the trail is conveniently broken up into ~1.5 mile milestones that made it more manageable and gave us an opportunity to enjoy the views. In my opinion, the South Kaibab Trail is more beautiful, with multiple scenic overlooks. However, you do have to contend with the mule trains (which really means a minefield of mule shit and sometimes deep puddles of urine) transporting tourists or supplies for Phantom Ranch.
When we reached the Tip Off we decided to take a break and had a chance encounter with the Grand Canyon Santa. He was a guy named Brian who was a seasoned trekker, carrying an ancient pack with the old aluminum framework and boasting about his custom-made leather boots he’d been wearing (and resoling) for the past 25 years. This was his 15th Christmas in the canyon and he had a system – mini Christmas tree atop the pack with battery operated lights and stereo speakers fixed to either side at ear level blasting out Christmas tunes. After a bit of chatting he turned around and told us to dig into the Christmas stocking that was filled with mint flavored candies.
Christmas day was to be our last in the Grand Canyon. By now I had reached pack nirvana (when the pack is no longer a burden) and was really looking forward to a holiday dinner with a brandy and getting to Las Vegas!
If you are considering this trek:
Best time to go: March to May and October to November is most recommended since inner canyon temps from June to September are often above 100oF. I would personally recommended November to January to take advantage of the low season and fine weather.
Backcountry Permits: Permits are required for any overnight trip in the canyon. Applications are available at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm and can be faxed to (928) 638-2125. Although we got lucky last minute, early application is recommended as the NPS issues a limited number of permits.
Map/book: The NPS provides a comprehensive list of useful materials on their website at http://www.grandcanyon.org/shop/online-store/maps-and-guides.
Water Sources: There are drinkable water sources year round between the South Rim and Bright Angel Campground along the Bright Angel Trail. Generally, the water sources at Cottonwood and the North Rim are turned off during the winter, and there are no water sources along the South Kaibab trail.