by Chris Townsend

"An impossible, breath-taking gap in the face of the earth."
Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time.

I thought I was prepared for the Grand Canyon. I'd seen photographs, read books, studied maps. I didn't expect to be unmoved. What would be the point in going if I was? But I knew how I felt on first seeing spectacular scenery - after all, I'd been to Yosemite Valley, walked through the Canadian Rockies, seen the vast granite walls of south-west Greenland, trekked in the Himalayas - and that was how I expected to respond to my first sight of the Grand Canyon. But it wasn't like that at all.

After a long drive through flat wooded country the bus from Flagstaff dumped me outside a rustic building labelled Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Tourists wandered everywhere and a large car park dominated the view. With darkness less than an hour away my main concern was in finding the campground. But first I'd take a quick glance at the canyon. I ambled towards a low parapet aware that an empty space lay beyond it and then, suddenly, too suddenly really, there it was; overwhelming and mystifying.

Beyond the neat wall chaos reigned. The ground fell away into a confusion of glowing multi-coloured rock towers, buttresses and terraces that dropped into the dark hidden depths to rise again in an even greater tangle to the dark tree covered far rim - a long, long way away. To either side the contorted chasm disappeared into the hazy horizon, a twisting slash in the flat, forested plateau.

Unable to comprehend the scale, I stared down and tried to understand what I was seeing. I felt overawed and not a little nervous. Was I really to spend two weeks walking in that alien world? Retreating into the forest I sought the campground. The next morning I went back. It was still there - only now it seemed bigger and more dominant. For the next two days I prepared for my walk; buying food, checking water sources, arranging for a food drop at the bottom of the canyon. Every so often I went back to the rim and stared into the wild world below. Slowly the swirling shapes formed themselves into peaks and cliffs. Faint pale lines were identified as trails. This didn't help my morale. The scale seemed even vaster than before.

The Grand Canyon is indeed huge. The statistics are hard to grasp. The length is about 280 miles while the width varies from 4 to 16 miles. The South Rim, where I first looked into the Canyon, ranges in height from 6,000 to 7,500 feet, the North Rim from 7,500 to 8,500. The Colorado River, which cut the canyon, lies from 3,500 to 6,000 feet below. Inside this massive gorge there are side canyons that would be major landmarks in their own right elsewhere and mountains that soar 4-5,000 feet above the Colorado yet still aren't as high as the rim. Happily this stupendous wilderness is protected in a national park though plans for damming the canyon are still put forward every so often as happened to Glen Canyon not far upstream.

The overwhelming nature of the canyon, its incredible presence, inspired one visitor last century, a geologist named Clarence Dutton, to name the many towers and buttes after eastern religious deities. Thus I was to walk below the Tower of Set, Isis Temple, Cheops Pyramid, Buddha Temple and, most impressive looking of all, Zoroaster Temple. These names, which would seem out of place elsewhere, somehow seem totally appropriate in the Grand Canyon.

Walking in the canyon is like hill walking in reverse. You start in the cool forests of the rims then descend through the steep tiers of rock, up to a dozen different ones in places, to the hot desert below. Then at the end of the trip, whether it's a day or a month in length, you climb back up to the flatlands above. Inside the canyon it isn't all steep rock however. Indeed, the topography is just about ideal for long walks as a wide band of gently sloping shale lies about two-thirds of the way down into the canyon. This forms a terrace known as the Tonto Platform along which you can walk easily for miles. Steep red and yellow cliffs rise above while dark, sombre crags lie below, rimming the narrow Inner Gorge. Stream beds and gullies break up these cliffs and it is mostly down these that ways can be found in and out of the canyon and down to the river. Often passable sections are linked by narrow terraces that run dramatically across the cliffs to the next place where a descent or ascent can be made.

There are many paths in the Grand Canyon but only a few are maintained, the popular Corridor Trails that link the North and South Rims. Most paths are crude and narrow in places with scrambling required at times. Rock slides and dense vegetation may hide the paths in places too. However, the biggest problem in the canyon is water - or rather lack of it. There are only a few streams and some of these are seasonal. There is the Colorado of course but this can only be reached in a few places.

I had 12 days to spend wandering in the Canyon. To fully experience the walking available my plan was to descend the rough but fairly popular Hermit Trail to the Tonto Platform which I would walk along for several days. At one point I would drop down for a night beside the Colorado, then cross the river by one of the only two bridges and head up to the North Rim. Here I would spend a few days before returning to the South Rim via the North Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails - both Corridor Routes.

After breakfasting on a litre of water and a muffin I set off down the Hermit Trail carrying three litres of liquid and feeling more nervous than I'm used to at the start of a backpacking trip. This felt a very strange place. My previous experiences didn't give me anything I could relate to this. "Everything so new I can't judge it", I wrote in my journal. Steep switchbacks led down to tree-dotted but waterless Hermit Basin where the trail levelled off. The Hermit Gorge is inaccessible at this point so I followed the trail on a long traverse high on the side of the canyon through the red Supai cliffs, a breathtaking walk along a series of narrow terraces. Below lay the major barrier of the Redwall, a very steep 500 plus foot high limestone cliff stained red by seepage from the rocks above. A series of tight, steep switchbacks known as the Cathedral Stairs eventually descended a break in the cliffs. This descent takes you onto the Tonto Platform and into a different world. So far, I was very aware I was descending steep cliffs into what looked a vast but still narrow and closed-in canyon.

Once on the Tonto Platform this impression vanished. This gently sloping terrace, dotted with pale green desert plants, is wide enough to give a feeling of space just like being on a high mountain plateau. The sense of being in a canyon disappears. There are indeed cliffs all around but, rather than two confining walls, these make up separate mountains and ridges split by deep side valleys. Whilst I knew that beyond the farthest, highest tree-topped cliffs lay flat woodland, I couldn't see this and my belief in it was purely rational. My emotions responded to the world I was in, a complex, exciting, colourful mountain world. My body however responded to the temperature. Although mid-October it was hot...very hot.

I spent four days wandering along the Tonto Platform from Boucher Creek to Lonetree Canyon; following its sinuous course in and out of the many side canyons, camping beside the few trickling creeks in the shade of spiny Catclaw Acacia trees and thickets of Tamarisk bushes, and revelling in the hot desert air and the sharp purity of the dry terrain. The massive cliffs, rising all around, changed continually in the detail of their shape and colouring. Yet in general form they were always the same and clearly part of a huge pattern.

Occasionally, far below, the winding green line of the Colorado River could be seen, walled by the steep dark foreboding cliffs of the Inner Gorge. There are a few breaks in this barrier and I followed one, the canyon of Monument Creek, down to the river where I camped on gravel banks beside the roaring surge of Granite Rapids. That the river could have created the vastness of the Grand Canyon doesn't seem so unlikely when you stand and stare at the raging water.

From the Tonto I descended the lower part of the South Kaibab Trail, one of the Corridor Routes and therefore popular with mule trains and overnight hikers - descending one day and climbing out the next. The trail leads to one of the only two bridges across the Colorado, both of them close to the confluence with Bright Angel Creek. These bridges make this such a popular spot that on the north side of the river there's a campground, where I pitched my tent, and a lodge with bar and dining room called Phantom Ranch. There's a ranger station too and it was here that my supplies were waiting me for the second half of my walk.

Two days took me from Phantom Ranch up the long North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. At first the path winds through a narrow gorge called TheBox, then follows Bright Angel Creek through a wide valley to Roaring Springs Canyon where it begins to climb and curve round the cliffs on narrow terraces before switchbacking steeply up to the forested rim. En route a side trip leads to pretty Ribbon Falls where the lime-rich waters of Ribbon Creek have built up a moss-covered cone of soft travertine rock below the cascade.

The North Rim is little visited compared to the south and by lateOctober all the facilities have closed for the season. My four nights here, on two sites right on the edge of the canyon, were spent alone. During the days I wandered along the rim watching the canyon below and observing the wildlife such as the beautiful Kaibab Squirrel with it's bushy white tail. On one day I descended the rough, little used Old Bright Angel Trail and was surprised at how much bushwhacking through dense, thorny bushes was needed. Although most of the canyon is a desert whenever you are near water there is much plant life.

My last two days were spent crossing the canyon from rim to rim in dull, rainy weather, a sign of the winter to come. On the first day I descended the 14 miles and 5,750 feet to the river then on the second the 9 miles and 5,500 feet back to the South Rim. By now I felt comfortable in the canyon, felt I understood what backpacking here involved, even felt that I fleetingly grasped a little of the reality that is the Grand Canyon. The feeling of awe hadn't dimmed though. Nor, many months later, has it done so yet. The Grand Canyon remains perhaps the most incredible place I have been. One day I must return.


Getting There

Phoenix is the main airport for Arizona. From there Nava-Hopi buses run to Flagstaff and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

When To Go

Summer is hot - very hot. Shade temperatures at the Colorado River usually exceed 38C and can be over 46. Spring and autumn are cooler with temperatures at river-level around 25-30C. Winters are even cooler of course, though there may be snow and ice on the top section of trails. The higher North Rim is closed from late October until spring due to snow.

Permits & National Park Information

Permits are needed for camping in the Grand Canyon but not for day walks. Because camp sites are limited permits should be applied for several months in advance, especially for the popular trails. Details of how to do this are found in the Backcountry Trip Planner available from the Backcountry Office, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, U.S.A.


Warm and sunny weather is the norm. The lowest overnight temperature in the tent on my trip was 0C. That was on the North Rim. In the Canyon +5 was the lowest and most nights were above +10. I found my 24 oz Mountain Equipment Dewline down sleeping bag fine on all but the coldest nights when I wore long johns and a microfleece top in it. Some canyon campers don't bother with a tent, just using a tarp or bivvy bag. In summer that's all I would carry. Late autumn can see stormy weather however, especially on the Rims, so I took the 1.7kg Hilleberg Akto. I did sleep out on several nights but the tent was needed in the rain of the last few days and I used it against wind on other nights.

Most of the time I walked in shorts, synthetic shirt and peaked sun hat. For warmwear I had a Lowe Alpine microfleece top and a North Face down vest. The latter was only needed on the North Rim. For wet weather I had an old Peter Storm smock which I took because of the low weight of 11 ounces. It proved adequate during the rain of the last few days. Other clothing, worn occasionally in camp, consisted of microfibre long pants, long johns and a fleece hat. Because of the heat I did most of the walk in Reebok Amazone sports sandals. I also took Five.Ten shoes which I wore in the cooler, damper weather on the North Rim and during the storms of the last two days. A pair of Kohla trekking poles were very useful for stability and taking the strain off my knees on the steep rough trails.

You can't take stove fuel on planes so it must be bought at the Grand Canyon. The stores on the South Rim stock both Epigas style and Camping Gaz resealable cartridges and Coleman Fuel. To keep the weight down I used a Coleman Epigas Micro stove and MSR isobutane cartridges. These are unavailable in Britain so I was unsure of how many I'd need. Being cautious I bought six cartridges. I only used 3 however. Because two gallons of water may have to be carried at times more water containers than usual are needed. Several smaller ones are easier to pack and also unlikely to all leak at once, a danger with a large jerrican. I took litre size Nalgene and Liquipak bottles and a gallon size Ortlieb Water Bag and bought two litre bottles of Gatorade, an electrolyte replacement drink, at the South Rim. I drank the last on the first day then used the bottles for the rest of the trip.

There is an excellent choice of foods suitable for backpacking in the USA so I'd suggest buying supplies out there. Freeze-dried food is available in the outdoor store at the South Rim but I bought my supplies at the supermarket to keep costs down. All my gear fitted easily into an 80 litre Lowe Alpine Alpamayo pack which proved very stable and comfortable. The weight was around 30lbs without food, water or camera gear - I had nearly 10lbs of the latter- but including clothing and footwear worn. At one point I carried 2 gallons of water and five days food which gave a total pack weight of about 60lbs.


Trails Illustrated 1:73,530 Grand Canyon map covers the heart of the area and contains much detail of use to backpackers. The scale is a little small for off-trail travel however. Better for that are the 1:24,000 USGS topo maps though these only cover small areas. The 1:48,000 Earthwalk Press Grand Canyon Hiking Map & Guide is also useful though it doesn't cover as large an areas as the Trails Illustrated one. All these are stocked by the South Rim stores.

Additional Reading

Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino, Sierra Club Books.
An informative pack size guide covering all the trails as well as many details of off-trail routes. Includes a pull-out trail map.

Grand Canyon Loop Hikes I & II, by George Steck, Chockstone Press. Entertaining guide to cross-country routes below the North Rim.

Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon, by Scott Thybony, Grand Canyon Natural History Association. Pack size guide to the main trails.

A Field Guide to the Grand Canyon, by Stephen Whitney, Quill. Comprehensive natural history guide.

The Man Who Walked Through Time, by Colin Fletcher, Vintage Books. The story of the first walk along the length of the Grand Canyon and one of the best backpacking books ever written. Sadly it's never been published in Britain. If you find a copy buy it!

Running Wild: Through the Grand Canyon on the Ancient Path, by John Annerino, Harbinger House. Astonishing tales of running the Grand Canyon from end to end.

USA The Rough Guide, edited by Greg Ward, Rough Guides. If you've not been to the States before this is an excellent general guide. There's plenty of info for those who think they know the USA as well.

The Backpacker's Handbook, by Chris Townsend, Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill. Wilderness backpacking manual, particularly useful for walks in Western North America.