The Grand Canyon is one of the most widely-recognised landmarks in the USA.
Carved out by the Colorado River, the canyon is 446 kilometres in length, 29 kilometres wide and 1,800 metres deep in parts. To put that into perspective, the canyon covers 3,060 square kilometres and the entire state of Delaware is 3,140 square kilometres.
With such a vast expanse of space, comes great opportunities for adventure and exploration.
Over 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, thousands of which come to hike its trails. Many of the trails intertwine with one another, making it possible to combine into a longer trek around the canyon’s powerful and inspiring landscape.
Although it is a key tourist attraction, any plans to trek through the canyon should not be taken lightly. There are dangers that people don’t consider and the National Park Service has to rescue over 250 people from the canyon each year.
The National Park is split into two sections – the South Rim and the North Rim, located more than four hours apart by car.
The South Rim is the most visited part of the Grand Canyon thanks to its expansive views of the canyon’s depth, a wider range of lodging options, hiking trails and activities like river rafting. The North Rim is quieter and more heavily forested, with undisturbed wildlife and pristine trails.
There are numerous hiking options but to help you find your way we have selected some of the most popular options – the Rim-to-Rim, Bright Angel and the North and South Kaibib trails.
- Take in the architecture and sheer scale of the canyon from different points along the trails.
- Escape the crowds and traverse the canyon’s bottom.
The two main airports near to the Grand Canyon are Phoenix and Las Vegas – both with international flights and rental car and shuttle options. If you’d prefer to land closer to the canyon, consider flying into Pulliam Airport in Flagstaff Arizona, about 90 minutes drive from the South Rim. If you are visiting the North Rim you can fly into Salt Lake City.
No matter where you land you will need to rent a car or pre-book a transfer as public transport is surprisingly limited.
On arrival at the Grand Canyon, you can park and take one of the shuttle buses to get around. A shuttle service makes the 4.5-hour trip between the North and South Rims, which works well for rim-to-rim hikers.
A fun alternative is to take the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs from the town of Williams into the heart of the park.
The Rim-to-Rim trek is a 71 kilometre round trip, which takes up to five days to complete. If hiking one way it can be done in a day for extremely athletic hikers, but should be split over two. It is a strenuous hike and takes a lot of endurance either way.
The South Kaibab Trail is 11 kilometres to Bright Angel Campground in the base of the canyon and the Bright Angel Trail is closer to 15 kilometres. Either trail will take most hikers between four and five hours to get to the campground with the return hike taking up to twice as long. This is due to the tough ascent coming out of the canyon.
The National Park Service states that it does not recommend hiking from the rim to the river and back in one day, regardless of the route chosen.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
There are plenty of short walks around the rim of the canyon that are doable by people of any age and physical ability.
If you choose to tackle one of the routes down into the canyon then you will need to be physically prepared. Hundreds of people are rescued from the canyon each year and being unprepared can have catastrophic results. The ascents and descents involved in hiking to the canyon’s floor are steep and prolonged with some loose terrain underfoot.
The depth of the canyon is like hiking almost four Empire State Buildings, so just take it slowly and make sure to balance food and water intake whilst doing your best to stay cool.
The South Rim is located at 2,100 metres above sea level and the North Rim is at nearly 2,500 metres, meaning that some hikers may experience fatigue, headaches or other symptoms of altitude sickness.
Most people are not accustomed to trekking in desert environments and the heat can be deadly. Be sure to complete a number of practice walks before setting off, ideally in similar temperatures.
Pack plenty of water as well as salty snacks and start hiking early in the morning to avoid the midday sun.
The Grand Canyon park entrance fee is $35 per vehicle or $30 per motorcycle, with additional permits if you’re heading into the backcountry.
Permits are not required for non-commercial day hikes but a backcountry permit is required for all overnight hikes and camping at rim sites other than the developed campgrounds. A backcountry permit is not required for overnight stays at the dormitories or cabins at Phantom Ranch.
These regulations are enforced by park rangers and violations may result in fines
Guided or Self-Guided
The Grand Canyon National Park is one of the easiest parks to tour by yourself. The routes are marked and there is plenty of information available online and from the tourist centres.
For those that would prefer to have the hassle of planning, accommodation reservations and safety taken out of the equation, there are plenty of organised tours on offer.
Mid-May to June and September until the end of November are the prime windows for trekking. In the height of summer the canyon floor becomes a furnace, with temperatures reaching 49 degrees and in winter there is no access to the North Rim at all.
The South Rim is open year-round, with the most pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds in the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn). Consider visiting in autumn when the Kaibab National Forest erupts in vibrant colours.
Summer is the busiest time of year due to school holidays, pushing up lodging prices and bringing in crowds to smother the main viewpoints.
Below is an overview of the most popular mid and long distance trails.
The North Kaibab Trail
This trail begins on the North Rim at the head of Roaring Springs Canyon and descends to the Colorado River, dropping 1,780 metres over the course of a 30 kilometre trail.
South Kaibab Trail
This day hike begins on the South Rim and descends 1,480 metres to the Colorado River.
The 10.1 kilometre route is fairly steep and due to the unavailability of water, rangers recommend hiking down this trail only. It is a well defined and maintained dirt trail that offers spectacular views of the park but with little shade.
Bright Angel Trail
This trail also starts on the South Rim, descending 1,360 metres to the river over 12.6 kilometres.
Passing through the stunning Indian Garden it provides access to two campsites and is also the most popular route out of the canyon as it is less steep.
This is one of the longest hikes in the Grand Canyon.
It is a 70 kilometre round-trip, strenuous in its nature and takes up to five days. Most people prefer to trek just one way and then catch the shuttle back to the start point.
If hiking the Rim-to-Rim trail for the first time, the best option is to hike it from North Rim to South Rim via the North Kaibab Trail (mostly a descent) and then the Bright Angel Trail (mostly an ascent) which works out around 38 kilometres one way.
You can hike these trails in either order but by hiking down North Kaibab and up Bright Angel you eliminate a chunk of climbing from the hike.
The simplest long-distance option at the Grand Canyon is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 20 kilometres along the top of the South Rim and is mostly flat.
The majority of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and it is possible to enter and leave the path at any viewpoint.
Depending on whether you are doing a multi-day hike or want to trek various trails over consecutive days, the most convenient lodging options will be in and around the national park. However, these options tend to book up quickly, often months in advance.
Phantom Ranch, which lies at the bottom of the Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails, is the most sought after and competitive option as it means you don’t have to carry camping equipment. Reservations are made through their lottery, with submissions made 13 months in advance.
The South Rim section of the park offers several lodges and an RV park near the main visitor centre, along with two campgrounds. The North Rim has just two places to stay inside the park, so again the competition is fierce.
If you’re really stuck, nearby Tusayan, Flagstaff and Williams all have a range of hostels, hotels and motels and are just over an hour from the park entrance gates.
When planning your trip to the Grand Canyon, be sure to tag on a few days for activities besides hiking. If your legs are all tired out you can take a mule ride into the canyon or along the rim.
For something a little more high octane, take a rafting trip along the Colorado River or jump on a scenic helicopter tour for a bird’s eye view of the canyon.
One of the key draws at Grand Canyon West is the Skywalk. This glass bridge extends 20 metres over the canyon, with stomach-dropping views on all sides, as well as beneath you.
Grand Canyon West is the closest part of the canyon to Las Vegas, making it a good part-way stop if you are planning to head on to the glittering city and try your hand in one of the casinos or relax at a swish hotel.
|Difficulty||2/5 - 3/5|
|Starts at||Grand Canyon, Arizona 86444, USA|
|Finishes at||Grand Canyon, Arizona 86444, USA|
|Length of route||2 - 20Km|
|Average time to complete||1 - 2 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||2500 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, walking boots|
|Countries visited||United States|