The Grand Canyon

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Park Service warning sign

When I posted here on Behind the Black that Diane and I were on our way to the Grand Canyon for our annual hike to the bottom, one of my readers, Keith Douglas, commented that he and his family would be there about the same time. In trying unsuccessfully to meet up, at one point Keith mentioned that his two kids, aged 24 and 23, were proposing they hike into the canyon. Keith emailed me to ask, “From what I read, hiking into the canyon and out is not recommended for a one day activity. What about halfway and back up? Can that be done in an afternoon? It seems pretty hot.” I responded,

Though one can hike down and up in one day, this is not recommended for most. Usually you need to be in very good condition and young. It also helps if you are a long distance runner. Hiking down to Indian Gardens [about two thirds of the way down] can be done as a day trip, but if you don’t hike a lot it will be an intense and long experience. Also, having the right pack and gear is essential! People who go carrying a one liter bottle of water and no hat are guaranteed to suffer.

I didn’t tell them they couldn’t do it, or that they shouldn’t, or that it wasn’t possible. I simply outlined some of the basics for doing it, and let them decide what to do.

Keith answered, with humor, “Thanks for helping me talk my kids out of a hike down.” He later added, “I read a hiking guide on the nps website. It seems to be designed to discourage canyon hiking rather than prepare novice hikers.”

In one sentence Keith encapsulated the problem with almost all of the advice the Park Service gives about the Grand Canyon.

It is why no one trusts what they write, since they only really say “Don’t do it!” Though the Park Service warning sign above, posted on the most south rim trails, is entirely accurate and correct, it doesn’t provide any good information on how to really hike the trail properly, only stern warnings on the disaster that awaits you if you try. I can also add, from personal experience in discussing hiking with Park Rangers, that if you are a novice and you should take the sign’s advice and ask for guidance at the Backcountry Information Center, you will find that they will mostly tell you that hiking into the Canyon is a bad idea. “Don’t do it! You’ll die!” (an actual quote one time from a park ranger to me ).

The Park Service is wrong, however. It is a bad idea for novices to hike into the canyon, if they are unprepared. If you prepare them properly, however, there is absolutely no reason novices shouldn’t do it. In fact, if they want to, and are willing to make the effort to prepare properly (which by the way is not that difficult or challenging), than the best thing to do is to provide them the right information. Not only will they have fewer problems, most will have a much more enjoyable experience, and will want to come back and try again.

And if you tell people what they really need to hike safely (as I explained to Keith and his kids), and they aren’t able to meet that criteria, they will almost always then decide, on their own, not to go (as did Keith and his kids). The result will be fewer unprepared people on the trails, not more.

My short email correspondence with Keith, combined with my experience on this trip and others (where I once again helped some first timers enjoy their hike by giving them some basic but essential advice) gave me an inspiration. Initially I was planning on writing up some of these suggestions for hiking in the Grand Canyon for Behind the Black. I realize now it makes more sense to write this up as another hiking guidebook available to the general public, like my first hiking guidebook, Circuit Hikes of Southern Arizona. The goal would be to provide novice tourists good advice about the right way to enter the canyon. Rather than simply discourage them as the Park Service does (which accomplishes nothing), I would give them the information they need to do it right. The result will be that those who can’t meet that advice are more likely not to try, much like Keith and his college-aged kids.

What happens now, however, is that large numbers of the unprepared public, lacking any solid advice on how to do it properly, swarm down Bright Angel trail every day. Many go without hats. Many carry no water. Many are dressed poorly for the conditions.

Most get back to the rim with no problems. Many however suffer unnecessarily, when had they known what to do they would have instead had a great time!

Anyway, this weekend’s hike for Diane and I was our shortest Grand Canyon trip ever. For the first time, we simply went down one day and came out the next, rather than spend a day or two inside the Canyon. Even so, we hiked out in seven hours, one of our fastest times. (For most hikers this is probably about average, with the young and fit often doing it in about five and the less prepared taking from nine to twelve hours.)

We have another trip already scheduled for next April. I can’t wait to get back.


  • Garry

    That’s a pretty good illustration of why “nanny state” is such a good description. A nanny is paid to take care of children, not raise them. Thinking, conscientious parents want to prepare their children for life and expose them to good experiences that help them grow and enrich their lives, whereas nannies just want to make sure nothing bad happens on their watch.

  • Rodney

    The people who run the mule rides don’t want any people hiking down into the Canyon.
    1–They get in the mule’s way
    2–They are not paying to ride on the mules.
    I’m not saying that there is a quid pro quo between the mule ride providers and the park service

  • Rodney: The Park Service’s effort to discourage hiking in the Grand Canyon has little to do with the mule companies. If the Park Service had its way, it would eliminate the mule rides as well. What they really want is to ban all human traffic into the canyon to protect it as their little plaything.

  • Robert Pratt

    That anyone would do such without a hat and water adds to my cynicism about general intelligence!

  • Robert Pratt: You obviously have never been to the canyon, because the number of people that start down without hat or water is quite astonishing.

  • Keith

    Checking in here to let you know we survived our SHORT hike part way in and back out. We went maybe 1.5 miles and turned back. I saw others without water, wearing flip flops and many with no hats. One guy was bare footed!

    The altitude at the Grand Canyon has to be considered. I had headaches and nose bleeding that got worse after the altitude changes on our hike.

    This hike was within our abilities, although I must admit that I was the limiting factor in our three some. Thanks to Bob for helping us make our hiking choice.

    We did enjoy our trip. My son is planning to return sometime with his friends for some more canyon adventures. I plan only to enjoy looking at the pictures he brings back.

  • Keith wrote: “I had headaches and nose bleeding that got worse after the altitude changes on our hike.”

    The headaches were almost certainly not from the altitude but from insufficient water. Most people do not realize how much water they lose and must drink in this desert climate. Similarly, the nose bleed was likely due to the dryness of the desert air. When Diane and I first moved west from Maryland we found that when we blew our noses we would often blow out dried blood. With time and a realization that we have to drink more this has faded as an issue.

    The elevation at the south rim is about 7200 feet, which really isn’t enough to cause most people problems.

  • Kirk

    What was your route, Bob? Did you hike down the South Kaibab (thus avoiding the mule piss) and back up the Bright Angel (allowing for a pit stop at Indian Gardens)?

  • Kirk: On this trip we did the traditional route, down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel. We’ve done this before in a number of other ways. For example, last year we went down South Kaibab to the Tonto Plateau, took the Tonto trail across to Bright Angel and went down that the rest of the way. We then exited up Bright Angel.

    On the way up Bright Angel, we only stop three times, at Indian Gardens, at the 3 mile rest house, and at the 1.5 mile rest house.

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