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13 Grand Canyon Hiking Tips Your Guide Won't Tell You

Although a faster route to the bottom of the Canyon, South Kaibab Trail is filled with steep plunging ridgeline switchbacks like this. Water and emergency phones are not available on this trail, and rangers and shady areas are rare.
Although a faster route to the bottom of the Canyon, South Kaibab Trail is filled with steep plunging ridgeline switchbacks like this. Water and emergency phones are not available on this trail, and rangers and shady areas are rare. NPS Photo by Michael Quinn/Flickr Creative Commons

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Hikers file into the Canteen at Phantom Ranch. Located at the bottom of the Grand Cayon, it's an oasis come to life after a long day's hike. - NPS PHOTO BY MICHAEL QUINN/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
Hikers file into the Canteen at Phantom Ranch. Located at the bottom of the Grand Cayon, it's an oasis come to life after a long day's hike.
NPS photo by Michael Quinn/Flickr Creative Commons
You Too Can Sleep at Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch is a rustic, charming historic lodge with understandably off-again, on-again plumbing, and after a three-to-five-hour hike down the Canyon, it’s Disney World. Reservations book up one year in advance.

The other advantage of arriving a day early is that you might nab a last-minute reservation at the Ranch. Call the transportation desk at Bright Angel Lodge the morning before your hike to see if any beds have opened up, because they often do. Once you get there, visit the desk in person. Two of the two times I showed up, beds opened up. Those are great odds.

Alternately, you can reserve a spot at Bright Angel Campground four months in advance. Located at the bottom of the Canyon approximately one mile away from Phantom Ranch, the camp is shaded by cottonwood trees and flanks a creek to cool off in. There’s also bathrooms, drinking water, emergency phones, and picnic tables. Don't stay without a permit, because park rangers check every last soul for a tag and they’re ruthless about marching those that don’t have a golden ticket back up the Canyon.

Let Them Eat Steak
A camping permit or room reservation is not required to eat well at the bottom of the Canyon, but make reservations in advance because meals always, I repeat, always sell out. You'll prepay $43.65 for a steak dinner, $26.45 for a vegetarian or stew dinner, $19.11 for breakfast, and $14 for a sack lunch. There's usually some guy who holds up the Canteen line while I wait to buy summer sausage and M&Ms because he didn't preorder a meal. Don't be that guy.

Snacks and beers (you read that right) are sold on a first-come, first-served basis at the Phantom Ranch Canteen between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 to 10 p.m. daily. Every day right around 3 p.m., sweaty, weary hikers fresh off the trail crowd its picnic tables to guzzle down a few cold ones before the Canteen closes for dinner. It's the happiest hour on earth.

Pack (Pretty Much) Nothing
If you want to carry a huge pack 20 or so miles simply to prove you can, be my guest, but otherwise you’ll regret every unnecessary ounce. Duffels can go down on a donkey, but in my experience, the service is perpetually sold out, expensive, and complicated.

There’s a long list of things guides tell you to bring, but here’s what works for me: water, sunglasses, paper, a pencil, my compass-whistle-mirror-combo-gadget, snacks, lunch, my cell phone with emergency contacts labeled "ICE," a portable charger, headphones, a headlamp, sunscreen, a first-aid kit, sanitizer, extra contacts, a dime-store poncho, a few business cards, and lots of electrolyte hydration pills. My feet don’t blister, but if yours do, pre-tape them. Duct tape your pack or water bottle so you don't have to bring an entire roll.

Overnighters shouldn't bother with anything else other than one — skimpy — change of clothes and a toothbrush pre-topped with toothpaste. Campers should bring the lightest tent possible and leave pads and sleeping bags home. It’s hot at the bottom, especially in a tent, so you won’t need it.

A circa 1965 Silver Bridge over the Colorado River. You'll cross this wobbly footbridge from Bright Angel Trail to get to the amenities at the bottom of the Canyon. It scares the snot out of me every time. - NPS PHOTO BY DAN COCKRUM/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
A circa 1965 Silver Bridge over the Colorado River. You'll cross this wobbly footbridge from Bright Angel Trail to get to the amenities at the bottom of the Canyon. It scares the snot out of me every time.
NPS Photo by Dan Cockrum/Flickr Creative Commons
Many Fitness Levels Can Hit the Trail
Sure, consult your doctor before taking on this trail, but you don't need to become a marathon runner to hike the Grand Canyon. I have seen many fitness types and body shapes make their way up and down Bright Angel Trail. Before you go, hike regularly to break in your legs and shoes and to learn your endurance and rhythm.

Pace Yourself
Speaking of stride, you’ll want to find it. Most people fall into three categories:

1.
Stoppers: People who go slow or fast and stop every 30 minutes or so.

2. Turtles
: People who almost never stop, and walk moderate and steady paces.

3.
Bunnies: Ultra-marathon, triathlete types that leave you in the dust.

Know your style and prepare accordingly.

Load Up on Laughs
There’s no cell reception, so be sure to download lots of music. Comedy shows are my go-to in the last two miles on the way up. Ironically, it's the toughest part of the journey which comes at the very end when you're beat-tired, so you'll need to engage your sense of humor.

If you want to camp, forgo Indian Garden for Bright Angel Campground. Here you can catch a refreshing breeze and take a dip in Bright Angel Creek. - NPS PHOTO BY MICHAEL QUINN/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
If you want to camp, forgo Indian Garden for Bright Angel Campground. Here you can catch a refreshing breeze and take a dip in Bright Angel Creek.
NPS photo by Michael Quinn/Flickr Creative Commons
Open Trails Are Not Safe Trails
Although the South Rim is open year-round, you don’t want to hike November through March, because the trails are icy, snowy, or muddy, nor from May through early September because it's too hot. The Park does not close the trails when they are dangerous, even though an average of one perfectly healthy person dies a month from a slip, a fall, heat exhaustion, or dehydration.

If you insist on hiking during these months, the Park advises you to avoid the trail between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., which would mean you'll hike in the dark. Which sure doesn't sound safe.

Here's a brighter idea: Start no later than say, 9 a.m and walk one and a half miles down Bright Angel Trail to the first seasonal water spigot, which will get you up-close and personal with the Canyon. I promise that you will see the bulk of what there is to see.

So when are the trails safe to hike the Grand Canyon? They're never foolproof, but it's best to hike mid-April through the end of the month, and anytime in October. During that slim timeframe, I sing happy Bright Angel trails to you.
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Lara is a freelance journalist working on her first novel. She's based in Phoenix.
Contact: Lara Piu