The Grand Canyon is one of those places you have to visit to understand its scale. A picture or video will never do its beauty or its “grandness” justice. You have to be on the dusty trail as it goes down, down, down with the canyon walls rising up higher and higher next to you as you feel smaller and smaller.
If hiking, you’ll want to look up, not down at your feet, but you’ll need to make sure they don’t stray off the steep trail. You’ll see how often the mules—who do this hike weekly—rest, and you’ll realize this place is bigger than you imagined, even after you read this.
Below are tips to help you plan a trip to hike the Grand Canyon in late fall: getting there, where to stay, what to bring, and hiking the canyon.
Hiking down the Grand Canyon and staying at Phantom Ranch was about the only plan we had during a 10-day road-trip vacation. We flew into Denver, cross-country skied in Breckenridge, drove to Grand Junction to see friends, and then drove from there to the Grand Canyon. If you drive in that direction, you can stop for a hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
If you can, arrive during daylight to Grand Canyon National Park, or you will be negotiating hairpin curves in pitch black with a gaping abyss off to the side for many, many miles. We arrived at night and made it—but you have been warned!
Where to Stay
Above the Canyon
The night before your hike, stay in the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim of the canyon. A simple room with no shower but a private toilet, sink and double bed was perfect for us. You can pay less for a room if you forgo the private bathroom or pay more for a cabin.
[Note: If you were unable to get reservations to stay at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon or to reserve a meal at the ranch, the Bright Angel transportation desk within the lodge is where you check in to get on the waiting list. The morning you would like to hike down, be there in person at 7am.]
At the Bottom of the Canyon
There’s only one place to stay—the Phantom Ranch—and you can only get there by foot, mule or raft. But it is worth the trip! Phantom Ranch opens up reservations a year in advance. You can luck out and get reservations on shorter notice (we got ours a week in advance), but you have to keep calling to check in and see if someone cancelled.
We stayed in the men’s and women’s dorms. You can also camp or reserve a cabin.
Make sure to order a meal when you get your reservations because you will be hungry. The meals are served family-style at big tables in The Canteen. There is something about the people who get off the beaten path—more open, friendlier—and you will have fun talking to your table mates from all over the U.S. and world.
After all the dinner shifts are done, The Canteen opens up again for hanging out and you can have a Grand Canyon Brewery beer or play board games or cards. They also have souvenirs you can only get at the bottom of the canyon and snacks to keep you energized on your eventual walk up.
What to Bring
If you’re carrying your bag and not paying for duffel service, you don’t want to bring much more than the essentials (layered non-cotton clothing, hiking poles, high-calorie snacks, and lots of water), but here are a few things worth adding to your backpack.
Book: There is no cell service, so it may be worth it to hoof a book down the canyon.
Flashlight: In case you find yourself hiking in the dark, looking for the morning coffee (it can be found!) or reading your book in the dorm.
Earplugs: If you are a staying in the men’s dorm, these will help you get a good night’s sleep.
National Parks Passport Book: Don’t forget your passport to get the stamp you can only get at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Hiking the Canyon
You can choose to hike either the Bright Angel Trail (trailhead near the Bright Angel Lodge) or the South Kaibib Trail, which you need to take a shuttle to. The Bright Angel Trail is about 9.3 miles one-way. The South Kaibib is shorter at 6.8 miles, but steeper. We took the Bright Angel both ways. Here’s some FAQs from the National Park Service on hiking the canyon.
The hike to Phantom Ranch is not easy, even if you are a fit person. Consider staying two nights at Phantom Ranch so you don’t have to hike back up the next day. We only stayed one night, and when we reached the top of the canyon, we could barely walk our calf muscles were so sore. As sore as we were, we were proud of our accomplishment, as you will be!
We hobbled to our rental car and headed to Flagstaff for tacos, and then onward to Albuquerque for a Breaking Bad self-guided tour on Thanksgiving morning.
The highlight of our wandering road trip was definitely hiking down the Grand Canyon. From the gorgeous and challenging hike to the people you meet at the bottom, it is a trip you will always remember.
What’s on your adventure bucket list?