Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s only natural to want to descend to its bottom. Hiking all the way to the Colorado River can be a challenge though, even for seasoned adult climbers, let alone a family.
Here’s what you need to know to ensure a fun and safe trip when the park reopens and families can venture on those long-awaited national park trips:
Know Before You Go
The vertical distance from the South Rim to the river is 4,500 feet and from the North Rim to the river is 5,800 feet. In addition to the elevation change, temperatures can vary wildly from the rim to the river, and the National Park Service discourages even the fittest adults from hiking to the bottom and back in one day, meaning you’ll spend the night at Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch, if you can get a reservation.
Before you plan to hike to the bottom, honestly assess your family’s hiking abilities. If you don’t hike on a regular basis, you will need to train as a family to get into shape. Everyone should be able to hike steep inclines for extended periods, walk on uneven terrain and carry their own water and supplies by the time you hit the trail. Plan on hiking progressively more challenging hikes with elevation changes to prepare.
Also, consider your child’s age and enthusiasm. Because you’ll need to carry water and supplies, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to carry infants or toddlers on your way down. Once kids reach grade-school age, enthusiasm is a better indicator of whether they can make the hike.
Planning the Hike
Of all the trails into the canyon, Bright Angel Trail is the best option for most hikers — it has water, shade and a rest area, Indian Wells, approximately hallway down. (Indian Wells is a great turning point for families who want to day hike into the canyon.) While the South Kaibab Trail is the shortest route (6.9 miles to Phantom Ranch versus 9.8 via the Bright Angel Trail), it has little shade and no water.
It takes most hikers four–five hours to get to the river no matter which trail they choose. On average, it takes seven–eight hours to get back out, double the amount of time it took to get down. Add even more time if your family needs frequent breaks or hikes slowly.
Assuming you plan to overnight in the canyon, you’ll need to make reservations through an online lottery for Phantom Ranch five months in advance or obtain a backcountry permit for the campground up to four months before you go. If camping, pack a sleeping bag, a wet bag to store dirty and wet clothes and one gallon of water per day. (Most hikers spend one day at the bottom recuperating before heading back up.)
Other Hiking Options
You don’t have to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to experience it from a new perspective. Many visitors hike just a short distance down Bright Angel Trail and turn around when they feel tired. Others hike to Indian Wells before turning back. If you have family members who physically can’t hike or don’t want to, a good alternative is to hike along the rim and appreciate the canyon from different angles.
Whatever option you choose, pack plenty of water (again, one gallon per day, especially during the summer) and bring snacks like trail mix. And, don’t forget the camera. The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular hikes you’ll ever take.
In the meantime, check out some virtual experiences and stay up to date on park openings here.
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