Hiking in the Grand Canyon Where Few People Can Go

January 27, 2021   1 Comment »

“I am attaching a document to help you train for your hike into the canyon,” the email said. I was a bit shocked – a training plan? I know I wasn’t supposed to take hiking in the Grand Canyon lightly, but I had never before had a tour operator be so thorough and serious about pre-hike training before.

It immediately gave me a feeling of seriousness about hiking in the Grand Canyon. I knew I couldn’t take the Grand Canyon for granted as I often do when I do hiking around the world. I normally just assume that I’m in ok shape and the rest I can grit my way through. However, that theory doesn’t quite work as well once you turn 50!

Adventure Travel Needs to Be Taken Seriously

Even though this was a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, part of the daily activities was hiking from the river into the canyon. However, first you had to get down into the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail. You might think that hiking down is easy – and to some extent it is at least from a cardiovascular perspective. However, hiking down for 9 miles is no joke; it takes a toll on your body (especially the knees and quads!).

hiking in the Grand Canyon

OARS Rafting wanted to make sure their clients were prepared physically for being in the remote canyon for 10 days and could enjoy the hikes reduce risk for injury and emergency evacuations. It honestly was very responsible of them as an adventure tour operator to ensure their clients had the proper fitness to take the trip and enjoy it.

I actually wish more adventure tour operators would do this. I think travelers like to believe they are in good enough shape to do these epic trips and adventures, but many times they are not. We romanticize or trivialize everything thinking that ‘it can’t be that hard else they wouldn’t have us do it”. We don’t think about the fact that we gained weight, got older, might not be as nimble as we once were (um… hello too many hours sitting in front of screens). I know that I’ve been guilty of that thinking in the past. However, when OARS sent me a training plan, I perked up. I downloaded the document and made a plan to start training in Colorado for my Bright Angel Trail Grand Canyon downhill hiking.

How to train for Hiking

Check out my article about training for long hikes from Trainer Becky Rupp. It includes a 6 week downloable training plan!

What to Expect When Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Let me just start with, the Grand Canyon is immense. Hence…the name. Its average depth is 4,000 feet for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep (over one mile) at its deepest point, and 18 miles at its widest point. It is remote, in fact it’s one of the more remote places in the US.

Temperatures and weather can vary wildly from the top to the bottom of the canyon. And when you are in the bottom of the canyon, there are no easy ways to get out.

Also know that because the region is so remote, there is no cell phone or radio coverage the whole time you go through the canyon.

Hiking Difficulty in the Grand Canyon

In general, the Grand Canyon has no easy hikes. And certainly, there were no easy hikes while we were rafting and hiking. The hikes are on steep, rugged, desert trails. And as you might guess, there’s very few flat areas in the Grand Canyon.

Slot Canyons

slot canyon hiking grand canyon

Each hike involved quite a bit of scrambling over rocks big and small. You have to be ready to use your hands in the Grand Canyon. Many of the scrambling hikes were found in the slot canyons. You could tell that powerful floods of water had moved these rocks around in the canyon!

Waterfalls

grand canyon waterfalls

Many of the hikes from the river also included waterfalls. The ‘trails’ were carved out by tributaries flowing into the Colorado River, therefore many of the hikes had incredible waterfalls. This also meant that we had a few hikes that took us through river crossings (sometimes thigh deep) requiring water shoes and a strong balance.

Hikers in the Grand Canyon

Exposure

I learned a new hiking term on this trip – “Exposure”. Our guides would use it to describe a hike as in “This hike has a high degree of exposure,” Cliff often said.
Meaning – you may find yourself on a narrow 12 in. wide ledge with a sheer drop off to one side. You will be hiking up and down steep narrow sections with nothing to hold onto.

Meaning – I won’t be hiking this.

I can deal with most situations hiking, however my fear of heights – specifically narrow ledges and big drop offs are nearly debilitating for me. Like ‘have a panic attack’ debilitating.

Thunder falls hike grand canyon

I’m not sure why I didn’t consider that hikes in the Grand Canyon would come with a high degree of exposure but I didn’t. Duh. This led to some pretty tense moments for me, and some pretty severe mental battles. Which in turn lead to a bit of disappointment on my part when I knew I couldn’t mentally do the hike.

The main trails from the rim (like the Bright Angel Trail) don’t have as much exposure, it’s the more remote ones from the bottom of the canyon up that are challenging for those afraid of heights or ledges like me.

Be Prepared Hiking in the Grand Canyon

There are a few things that you absolutely need to be prepared for when you are doing any hikes in the Grand Canyon.

Temperatures/Weather

The weather and temperature can be drastic as you move through the canyon – especially as you move to different altitudes. Make sure you consult the National Weather Service’s NOAA weather radio or the official National Weather Service website (https://www.weather.gov/) before you hike in the Grand Canyon.

In addition, I highly recommend these items for sun protection:

Bring a Hat

The wider the brim the better. I love the Wallaroo hats that already have SPF protection in them.

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For more sun protection bring sunscreen and a shirt. A long sleeve, lightweight shirt: I know that sounds sorta sucky when the temps are reaching 100F, but it will help tremendously with sun protection. While rafting or if you are on the water I recommend a lightweight cotton shirt. If you are hiking a wicking long sleeve shirt is great.

Water

It’s so important, I’m listing this as a separate item! You will want plenty of water when hiking anywhere in the Canyon. I recommend a good water bladder that holds 3 liters. I love this one by Osprey. Electrolyte powders are also recommended. There is fresh water on the Bright Angel Trail, but not on other trails which on longer hikes you will want to filter water so you can refill. While rafting, they filtered water for us en masse, but if you are on your own check out this Lifesaver filter or Grayl filter bottle.

Hiking Poles

I hesitated putting this on the list. If you are doing one of the big trails in/out of the Canyon – poles are GREAT. I don’t know what I wouldn’t done without them going down the Bright Angel Trail for 9 miles. They take the strain off your knees and who doesn’t want that?!

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02/11/2021 09:32 pm GMT

However, on the trails at the bottom of the canyon from the river are normally scrambles where you have to use your hands and feet to get over boulders, etc. For those, hiking poles will hinder you. I just used my poles for the hike down into the Canyon, but then just stored them on the raft the rest of the time and never used them again.

Compression Socks

compresesion socks for hiking

I’m a big fan of Vim & Vigr compression socks for hiking – especially on the Bright Angel trail where you descend for 9 miles. They help increase blood flow in the lower legs to increase performance. They also help recovery. I used them for every hike I did in the canyon because honestly the hikes were tough and I could use any help I could get!

Grand Canyon Rafting Hikes

I will be covering the hikes I did while on my 10-day rafting trip. Most of these all start at the river and go up. A multi-day rafting trip isn’t just about rafting, it’s equally about hiking. This list of hikes should provide a good idea of what a rafting trip is like.

Bright Angel Trail

This trail intimidated me. Well…it intimidated my knees. However, it’s also a trail that I’ve always wanted to hike ever since I saw the Grand Canyon the first time. So when the opportunity to do a Grand Canyon rafting trip gave me the chance to simply hike down the Bright Angel Trail and not have to come back up it – it seemed like perfection! It was one of my ‘selling points’ to doing the rafting.

We started at 5:30AM at the top of the south rim in the dark. Our headlights were on and we all huddled together in the cold, knowing that soon enough we’d warm up as we made our way down the canyon and the sun came up.

It was weird to start the hike in the dark. It made the sunrise this incredible ‘reveal’ where you slowly were aware of this incredible trail you were on. The first 4 miles of the trail descend switchbacks (so many switchbacks!) along the Bight Angel Fault to Indian Garden where things start to flatten out a bit. Within the first 5 minutes of hiking in the dark, I encountered a mountain goat on the trail! The trail takes you through little tunnels and provides incredible views. As you descend, it feels like the earth is swallowing you up.

Along this first section there are 3 resthouses where you can sit, there are basic bathroom facilities, and fresh water.

There’s a ranger station at the ‘lush’ Indian Garden; it a great place to rest and have some snacks. The trail after that was quite lovely – gentle, rolling, downhill along a stream with greenery surrounding it. It was such a different feel from the switchbacks and the first part of the descent. I actually thought I was about at the bottom until I turned a corner and suddenly saw the area they call Devil’s Corkscrew.

By this time we were well out of the shade and the sun was beating down. I had long forgotten about shivering at the top at 5:30AM. I had no idea that we were still that far from the bottom when I looked at the switchbacks of Devil’s Corkscrew. At this time my knees were starting to get stiff – but I still had about 2 miles to go.

After spending all morning going down into the Canyon, it was incredible to get a first glimpse of the Colorado River. I saw the swift moving green river and a smile formed across my face. I was even happier when I took off my socks and boots and stood knee deep in the cold, cold river to give my legs a rest!

Stone Creek Hike

Found at mile 132 along the river. This is a lovely, scenic out and back hike to 3 waterfalls – about 3 to 3.5 miles one way. You can go as far as you’d like and stop at any of the waterfalls and turn around. The first waterfall isn’t too far from the riverbank. However, much more beauty is found as you follow the creek further up and into the canyon. The hike also gets quite a bit steeper at that point.

The great thing about this hike is that any time you are hot, you can just hop in a waterfall and that will cool you down! I decided to stop at the 2nd waterfall where I dangled my feet in the water and read a book in this gorgeous setting!

The 3rd waterfall was up even higher and a bit of a steep, exposed climb, so I skipped it due to my fear of heights!

Lower Tapeats to Thunder River Trail

This is actually a backpacking trail that you can do from the top of the Grand Canyon for 3 days into the canyon. However, since we were rafting, we did this hike from Racetrack Camp, up and over to Lower Tapeats camp and then up to Thunder River Falls. Our guide, Cliff, told us this was one of the hardest hikes in the canyon – and I believe it.

Not only was it exposed with steep climbs, narrow ledges, and drop-offs; we also had a couple of river crossings with very strong currents and water up to our thighs. The goal was to get to Thunder River Falls, where the river erupts from a canyon wall with a powerful force. After the river erupts from the cave it flows less than a mile before merging with Tapeats Creek, which makes it the shortest river in the world according to Waterfalls of the Grand Canyon

I was really excited about this hike as it seemed like a good challenge. However, my mind had other plans. As we started off from the Racetrack camp we had to go up and over one ridge to get back in the valley where the Lower Tapeats trail started. I was fine climbing just following people, and then suddenly I must have looked up or at the river and noticed just how steep and narrow of trail we were on. At that point I started slowly having a panic attack. My breathing was uneasy, my legs became wobbly and I was pretty freaked out.

exposed hiking grand canyon

That moment threw me for the rest of the hike – which was full of steep, narrow switchbacks and ledges with mind boggling drops. I gritted through about half but I was so far in the back (with a few other people who didn’t handle heights well) that I knew I wasn’t going to make it all the way to the Thunder Falls.

It was hard to concede for me, but I decided to stop by one of the river crossings and try to calm down and find some peace. When you are terrified – hiking isn’t very fun. I needed a break. I read by the river and then after a couple of hours went down with the rest of the slow crew back to Racetrack camp. Going back down wasn’t too easy either, but I was in a bit of a better mental space by that time.

I didn’t make it to Thunder Falls, but the hike I did was pretty incredible…when I could actually look and enjoy it!

Deer Creek Falls

The only way to access Deer Creek Falls is via boat or an intense backcountry hike – maybe that’s what makes it so special. This 180 feet waterfall lies just past mile 136. It falls with such immense power, you can barely stand next to it without it ‘blowing’ you over.

There is also a short hike here at Deer Creek Falls for those that are not afraid of heights or exposed hikes! The Upper Deer Creek hike traverses’ ledges in carved narrows of Tapeats Sandstone. They told me that some of the ledges were only a few inches wide. That was enough for me to decide to pass on the upper hike and just enjoy my time at the beautiful falls below!

Blacktail Canyon Hike

Near mile 120 you’ll find Blacktail Canyon – an incredible slot canyon you can hike through. It started off pretty simple, but the further we went back, the narrower the canyon became and the more scrambling over rocks and boulders we had to do. I followed the canyon all the way to the end where there was a beautiful turquoise pool.

This canyon is known as a great place to see the layers of billions of years of rock. Our guide Cliff gave us the background on all of the layers of rock and the various geology. It was mind blowing. He showed us the geological phenomenon known as the Great Unconformity, in which 250 million-year-old rock strata lie back-to-back with 1.2 billion-year-old rocks. What happened during the hundreds of millions of years between those layers?
(queue creepy music…) No one really knows, it remains largely a mystery.

However, then we had another special moment in Blacktail Canyon when Cliff got out his guitar and serenaded us with his vocal skills! The acoustics inside the canyon were beautiful!

Hiker in the Grand Canyon

Elves Chasm Hike

This is a popular stop for rafters in the Grand Canyon. A short scramble up to a stunning emerald grotto is worth the effort. The hike is probably less than a mile, but there are some boulders you have to scramble up/down.

This is a great little swimming hole with warmer water than the river. In addition, there’s a way to climb up through a little slippery cave and take a leap from the top of the small waterfall. However – it’s only recommended to do with the help of an experienced guide.

Elves Chasm Grand Canyon
Elves Chasm Grand Canyon jump

Shinumo Creek Walk

This was one of our waterfall stops near mile 109.2, and it was really just a short walk rather than a hike. Wear water shoes as you’ll walk through the warm water knee deep and then can enjoy some floating in the pool and time under the water fall. There is also a natural slide there that you can slip down too!

grand canyon waterfall

Tuckup Canyon Hike

Before we left Tuckup campsite along the river, we took a short scramble up Tuckup Canyon. It was a beautiful canyon that you could tell had powerful water flowing through at some point…hopefully not now! The canyon walls were high and became narrower as we went further in. A great start to the morning of rafting!

Hikers in the Grand Canyon

Cove Canyon Hike

Another short scramble from the rivers edge through a beautiful slot canyon. One of the coolest things towards the back of the canyon was organic formations. Upon closer look it was ferns and other plants covered in a hard crust. All of the plants on the walls were being mineralized by calcium carbonate rich water flowing over the surface of the plants. It was a crazy site!

Pumpkin Springs Hike

We got out of the rafts at mile 213, scrambled up the ledge, and then hiked along a beautiful flat (and rare!) ledge in the canyon and along the cliffs edge until we came to the famous Pumpkin Springs. It looked like a beautiful place to take a soak – like a hot tub poised perfectly over the river however this is not a place you want to lounge. Pumpkin spring is basically a spring of arsenic! According to research, this pool is travertine, a form of limestone that is deposited by hot springs and also has traces of arsenic in it in addition to lead, zinc, and copper. It builds up and eventually forms a weird shape. The water was green and it dripped over the outside which had an orange, hard crust; hence the name Pumpkin Spring.

Just above Pumpkin Spring there is also a place to do a minor cliff jump into the river – under the watchful eye of guides of course!

pumpkin springs jump

The hikes in the Grand Canyon are really one-of-a-kind. They will amaze and delight you, and some may scare you! It’s one of the best places to hike slot canyons, see waterfalls, and see a perspective of the Grand Canyon few get to experience.

Don’t Leave Without This Essential Hiking Gear

I’ve hiked all around the world and have found some key gear that I take on every hike for every kind of weather.  From backpacks to socks, check out  my list of the best hiking gear out there!



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