My name is Kristyn and in this article I would love to share with you my experiences on my six day Grand Canyon hike. This really is the ultimate backcountry adventure in America and it will challenge and delight you in many ways. Before I get started, allow me to introduce myself.
I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Eventually, I left to get my degree in Cognitive Science from the University of California, Berkeley before moving back to Green Bay. I met my husband (who grew up outside of Manhattan) at Berkeley. He moved with me back to Green Bay after college.
Although I was a bookworm growing up, I started running in my late twenties to stay in shape. This had a domino effect. I then transitioned into hiking and trail running for better scenery, which led to national park trips. We took day trips at first but soon transitioned to camping and trekking. I have always loved photography, so I soon became enamored with how you can get an amazing workout and capture great photos at the same time!
25 Days and 215 Miles of Hiking at the Grand Canyon
My first time visiting the Grand Canyon was in February 2020 right before the pandemic hit. On that visit, I did a two day hike on the Tanner Trail to the Colorado River and back. It was amazing! I loved how challenging the hike was but also I had been training specifically for hiking with lots of elevation (think stair master and incline treadmill with a weighted vest) – so I felt accomplished with how well the hike went.
Since that trip, I have now hiked/trekked 25 days below the rim of the Grand Canyon – a total of 215 miles. The COVID-19 pandemic definitely had a massive impact on this. Because international travel was on hold, I had to cancel trips to hike the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland and the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland, as well as non-hiking trips to Turkey and Bali.
Our choices were limited, so my husband and I decided to immerse ourselves in the national parks of the United States. We focused on the Grand Canyon during the fall and winter as we like to avoid the hottest times in the canyon. One of the most incredible things about this national park is that there is a lot of opportunity for solitude once you get away from the rim trail or the most popular rim to river trail, Bright Angel Trail.
What Keeps Drawing me Back to the Grand Canyon
What has kept drawing me back to the Grand Canyon so many times in the past year plus is that I love being physically challenged. I always want some sort of big goal planned to keep me motivated to stay fit. It’s hard for me to stay as motivated when I don’t have something to strive towards.
I feel like the Grand Canyon is completely unique. I love mountains, but there are many choices and parks that have gorgeous mountains. When you hike down into this huge canyon that is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the gorgeous scenery spreads out around you as far as the eye can see and makes you feel truly small and humble but at peace.
In addition, heading into the backcountry is one of the only ways that I can escape regular life for a break. You used to be able to travel to countries and not be “available”. But in modern times, it’s not often possible to not have cell reception even in third world countries. When I head into the backcountry, I love how my world decreases to only my adventure, what effort I need to make, self-care like nutrition, and the beauty around me.
Various Hiking Trails at Grand Canyon National Park
One amazing thing about the Grand Canyon is there are so many trails and they have an interesting ranking system. Only three of the trails below the rim are what they call “maintained”. Below this level are threshold trails. Park Services will only maintain things that occur on these trails if it’s major damage, like rock fall wiping out a large portion of the trail.
Then there are primitive trails at the Grand Canyon. These are often trails that were historically used for various reasons but Park Services haven’t maintained them in many years, so over time they obviously degrade. They tend to be more steep with lots of loose gravel and exposed narrow ledges.
And finally they have trails called “routes”. Oftentimes large sections aren’t even a trail at all and require a lot of navigation skills amongst the other difficulties. I love how you can work your way towards the more difficult trails over time to challenge yourself and build your backcountry skills!
After I fell in love with the Grand Canyon on my first trip, it was easy to plan a lot of related bucket list items – particularly as I am turning 40 this summer. I’m feeling very inspired to make fitness goals in beautiful places and achieve them! Some of the things that I wanted to do were to hike from the rim to the river and back on a day hike as a physical challenge.
I also wanted to do the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) which refers to starting at the south rim and hiking down to the Colorado River and then up the north rim from there and then back the same route to the south rim. And finally, my husband and I made a goal to complete all the named trails below the rim and have now completed 15 trails in both directions so far.
My Experiences on my First Six Day Grand Canyon Hike
My first six day Grand Canyon hike was designed to cross off the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) challenge as well as to complete three different trails in both directions. We started out by hiking the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River. We stopped at the popular Bright Angel Campground only to fill up an extra bladder with water before we headed to Clear Creek Trail.
This trail is on the north side of the river and climbs for two miles before running parallel along the river. There is no water access on this trail except at the creek at the end and the trail is about 11 miles long. That is why we had to carry extra water to camp. We hiked three miles of this trail before we set up camp as a storm was coming – so it was time to get in our tent!
On our second day, we left our camp and hiked 16 miles to the creek at the end of the trail (picking up more water) and then back to camp. On the third day, we broke down camp and started heading up North Kaibab Trail towards the North Rim. North Kaibab is about 14 miles long and we stayed at Cottonwood Campground which is in the middle of the trail.
On our fourth day, we left our camp at Cottonwood and hiked 14 miles to the North Rim and back. On our fifth day, we broke camp and headed down to Bright Angel Campground. The following day we hiked back to the South Rim again on the South Kaibab Trail to complete the R2R2R!
During this six day hike, we always camped. As I mentioned, when possible we love to set up a camp and day hike to some viewpoint and back. We always stay at Yavapai Lodge the night before we start our backcountry efforts in the Grand Canyon as it’s located conveniently inside the park and is often the most reasonable of those lodges.
I did this adventure with my husband. We met in college and have been together for 20 years now. I love everything about doing these kinds of adventures together! It’s so bonding, not just when we are out in nature but also in the preparation and training that these endeavors require.
Highlight of our Six Day Grand Canyon Hike
For me, the highlight was on the fourth day when we hiked to the North Rim and back to camp. The night before we started this hike, there was another big storm. At our camp, it rained, hailed and snowed all night long. We talked to another couple who was at the same campsite with us and who had hiked to the North Rim the day before us. They told us there was a couple of inches of snow on the trail for the last two of the seven miles.
The day we hiked there was so much new snow that five of the seven miles of the trail were covered with four inches of snow. As we approached the rim and the last two miles, the snow was about 10 inches deep. Although the large amount of snow increased the physical challenge as we were the first to break trail, it also greatly increased the beauty around us!
As we hiked, there was a lot of precipitation still coming down at times including hail! We had the perfect gear, so it was amazing being out in the elements and seeing the majesty all around us. Personally, I think the North Rim is even more breathtaking than the more popular South Rim.
Biggest Challenge of this Six Day Adventure
One of the most challenging aspects of a six day Grand Canyon hike is food and water management. When you start, you either have to carry all your food for all six days or plan some sort of cache. We carried our food with us and obviously six days of food is a lot heavier than two or three!
Also, since we prefer camps that are in “at large” areas which means you can camp in any appropriate place within a zone versus having to stay at a specific group campsite, we elected to head right to Clear Creek on our first day. This trail climbs 2000 feet over the first two miles. So carrying eight extra liters of water means carrying an extra 18 pounds up a trail.
But the extra effort was definitely worth it as we didn’t see a single other person during our time on Clear Creek at camp or hiking and enjoyed incredible solitude. It felt like we had this whole huge national park all to ourselves! Those types of feelings are always worth working hard for.
Permits Required for Backcountry Camping in the Grand Canyon
You definitely need a permit for every night you spend in the backcountry camping in the Grand Canyon. After doing the six day trip I am speaking about in this article, we went on to do another six day trip of some harder trails and routes and we actually saw a ranger in a very remote part of a route checking on permits. You can secure permits in two different ways.
There is a form on Grand Canyon’s website to fill out and fax in with your desired camping permits. They accept these applications up to four months before your desired trip. I definitely recommend doing this three or four months in advance to get your desired campsites, plus they will not accept permits in this way if it’s less than a month from your starting date. But not to worry, you will need these extra months to train for your goal!
The other way to get a backcountry permit is to walk into the backcountry office and inquire when you arrive. They had some different protocols during the pandemic, but normally if your desired permit is left, you can walk in and buy it. However, the Grand Canyon is popular and campsites sell out. So if you are going this route, you will need to be flexible and have ideas of trails and camps before you head in to talk to a ranger.
Need to Know Before you Go
The best tips I can offer if anyone wants to do the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) challenge or any six day backcountry trip in the Grand Canyon is to be prepared. The more you prepare, the better your experience will be. By preparing, I do mean training for the physical challenge of the endeavor so that you feel good and can have fun while you are doing it.
And by preparing I also mean to really dial in your nutrition. You want food that is nutrient dense for how much it weighs. I think the most common mistake is that people bring too much food and then end up carrying a lot more weight than necessary. We dial in our nutrition by having meals for breakfast and dinner but during our physical efforts hiking, we consume various endurance products from Hammer Nutrition.
I also suggest doing the hike in the winter or early spring. In the summer, temperatures by the river can reach 120 degrees in the shade. I’m continually confused as to why it’s so much busier than in the winter. I would much rather deal with snow on the trails at times or temperatures of 35-50 at night than extreme heat. Plus it will be easier to acquire permits and you will likely enjoy more solitude if that is important to you.
Another tip is to get your gear dialed in so that you have all the necessities without carrying too many “luxury items”. Anything you don’t end up using will haunt you as you carry it back out of the canyon. Thanks for reading and I hope you have a wonderful experience in the Grand Canyon!