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Summer Hiking in Grand Canyon: Stay Safe, Have Fun
Hiking Into the Canyon Can Be Like Hiking Into an Oven
But I'm not suggesting you don't go. Just go very prepared and know what you're getting into.
The (pretty obvious) thing about hiking in Grand Canyon that's different from many other hikes is that you go DOWN before you go back up. And as you go down, things get hotter. Then you have to do the much harder work of getting back out, so, even in cooler weather, people get into pickles because down is so easy, and they end up going down farther than they really should.
In the summer, though, those pickles get a LOT hotter and even more dangerous, with temperatures at the bottom of the Canyon often 20 to 25 degrees (Fahrenheit) higher than on the South Rim. That difference can stretch to 30 degrees or more compared to the North Rim, which is another thousand feet higher.
And with all that added heat comes more things to think about and plan for before you start your hike.
Having hiked in Grand Canyon many times myself, as a recreational trekker and on several Search & Rescue missions over the years, and working there as a guide, I wanted to share my suggestions for things to consider before going below the rim in summer, so you can make the most of hiking into that amazing natural wonder and get back out safely.
The Grand Canyon Temperature Gradient
Generally, figure on a 10-degree Fahrenheit difference for every 2,000 feet of elevation change.
So, the temperature on the South Rim (7,200 feet above sea level) may be a dry 80 degrees with a breeze, but at the same time at Phantom Ranch (2,400 feet) it can be a blazing, breezeless 120 ... or more!
Your Grand Canyon Hiking Experience - A Visitor Poll
Have you hiked below the rim? If yes, have you hiked in the summer?
When To Hike During the Hottest Months
Nighttime can be a great time for hiking below the rim, especially during the summer. In the desert, we don't usually have much humidity floating around to hold in the heat of the day, so the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures can often be 20, 30 degrees or more. I've experienced a number of 40-plus degree differences between the time the sun was overhead and when the moon appeared.
So, if you're planning to hike into the Grand Canyon during the months of June through August, consider waiting till the sun is about to set before starting your descent and especially your climb.
Sometimes you don't even need a headlamp if the moon is full, although moon shadows can hide ankle-breakers and face-planters if you aren't careful. (Trekking poles are a good idea.)
If night-hiking isn't your thing, try to hike early and hike late, before and after the sun is at its most intense. As a general rule, do your hiking before 10am and after 4pm.
Where To Hike
Not all Grand Canyon trails are created equal
And that's a great thing! Sure, two trails may go from top to bottom, but no two trails are at all the same when it comes to the views, the footpath itself, or what I call the "personality" of the trail.
The trails in Grand Canyon are also different when it comes to the best times to hike in summer. That's partly because of the location of the sun versus the "exposure" of the trail -- South Rim trails have a northern exposure; North Rim trails a southern exposure; and trails on the Tonto Platform and Esplanade are basically out there in the open all the time.
Another difference is that some trails are ridge trails while others tend to follow faults and side canyons. So the availability of shade is a big factor.
South Rim Trails
Facing the north, trails that descend the south side of the canyon are in the shade (or at least out of the direct sun) for longer on summer mornings than their counterparts on the north side of the canyon. Still, even if you start hiking at first light, it won't be long before things really start to heat up, especially on a trail like the South Kaibab, one of the two most popular "corridor" trails from rim to river.
The South Kaibab Trail essentially has no shade, unless you count crawling into a crevice or under a rock. There's little vegetation large enough to rest under, and the trail follows a ridge which is fully exposed to the sun.
And keep in mind there is NO WATER on the South Kaibab.
The Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail, by contrast, follows a fault for much of its 9.3 miles to the bottom of the canyon, so there's much more shade along the way and for more hours of the day. Also, this most heavily used trail in the Park has more vegetation, two rest houses en route to the halfway point at the oasis known as Indian Garden, and another rest house between there and the river.
Another summer benefit to the Bright Angel is that there's potable water along the way, at the Mile-and-a-half and Three-mile rest houses and at Indian Garden, 4.6 miles from the rim and an equal distance from the Colorado River. Between there and the river, Garden Creek and Pipe Creek flow year-round but must be treated before drinking. There's also water available at another rest house, piped from the Colorado River.
The Bright Angel trail is longer than the South Kaibab by a couple of miles, but unless you're hiking at night or very early in the morning for just a few hours, I'd recommend not using the S. Kaibab during the summer. At least, not for an ascent from river to rim. Climb the Bright Angel Trail instead.
There are other South Rim Trails of course, including the Hermit Trail (There's water at Santa Maria Spring at 2.5 miles and Dripping Spring at 3.5 miles below the rim, but both should be treated); Grandview Trail (no water), Tanner Trail (no water), and South Bass Trail (remote trailhead, no water), but these are unmaintained, much more rugged and steeper trails. If you're new to hiking in Grand Canyon, I'd get some experience on the corridor trails before tackling the others ... at any time of year.
North Rim Trails
Being more remote (a much longer drive from populated areas), the North Rim sees a lot less visitation than the South, as does its trails. The road to the North Rim is also closed for half the year, from mid-October to mid-May, due to the amount of snowfall. So, the North Rim really is a summer destination.
The most heavily used trail from the North Rim to the river is the 14-mile North Kaibab Trail, with an elevation gain (or loss) of 5,700 feet. So, you might begin a descent wearing a jacket, but you'll soon be feeling the heat.
With a southern exposure, North Rim trails see the sun sooner than those on the south side of the canyon, but there are more trees on the upper reaches of the trails, and the North Kaibab follows the other side of the Bright Angel fault, so there's a decent amount of shade from the topography.
During the summer, you'll find potable water from a spigot 2 miles below the rim at Supai
Tunnel, and then the next water is at Roaring Spring, which is another 4 miles down canyon. There's also water at Cottonwood Camp, and then, if you have a filter or other way to purify, you can fill up from Bright Angel Creek, which follows alongside the trail (but is sometimes difficult to access).
Hiking the entire N. Kaibab Trail in a day during the summer really isn't the best idea, because its length and level of difficulty -- particularly going up -- mean that you won't be able to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day ... unless you start late and hike during the night.
See Frommers.com for information on other North Rim Trails.
PLEASE NOTE: It's advisable that you check with the backcountry office or a park ranger before you begin your hike, to find out if there's been any pipeline breaks, which can cause the potable water to be turned off. This does happen occasionally and can be a big problem for you if you're relying on those sources.
Taking a break in the shade of a rest house on the Bright Angel Trail
Water, Water, Water
And plenty of salt and sugar too
It goes without saying that you need to drink a lot of water when you're hiking, especially in extreme heat. But if you've heard the standard "gallon of water per day per person," I'd double that in the summer in Grand Canyon, especially if a good portion of that day will be spent actually walking, in particular hiking back to the rim or on the very exposed Tonto Platform, for example.
Beware of Hyponatremia
While pretty much everyone knows something of dehydration and what it means -- and that it can be deadly -- many aren't as aware, if at all, that too much water can also make you very ill and be equally as lethal.
Drinking too much water without enough electrolytes to go along with it can lead to water intoxication and hyponatremia, which results from the dilution of sodium in the body. This is basically like drowning by drinking. In the process, it can cause irregular heartbeat, fluid in the lungs, fluttering eyelids, seizures, coma and ultimately death unless water intake is restricted and a hypertonic saline (salt) solution is administered.
Yeah ... not good. So be sure to drink relatively small amounts of water frequently -- from 1/2 to 1 quart of fluids each hour that you are hiking -- and balance the fluid with food by snacking throughout the day, and alternate between plain water and some type of sports drink with electrolytes.
Hiker Snack Suggestions
I know, it doesn't take any knowledge of hiking in Grand Canyon to come up with food for the trail, but ... anyway, these are some of the snacks I like to take along when I'm hiking in that hot canyon in the summer. I love Snickers and Payday bars, but they end up as chocolate soup before long. So I go with less melty munchies. Such as....
- Salted pretzels (the kind with the peanut butter in the middle are yummy)
- Mini Ritz crackers (although they do get smashed pretty easily)
- Pringles (the can helps keep them intact)
- Beef or Turkey Jerky
- Bagel with peanut butter
- Dried mango (my favorite) and other dried fruit
- Banana chips
- Mixed nuts, salted
- Gummy Bears (my weakness)
- The old standby: granola bars and things like Luna bars, Powerbars, etc.
And here's my staple: trail mix....
M&Ms (fairly good melt resistance), white chocolate chips, peanuts, almonds, shelled sunflower seeds, golden raisins, dried cranberries, banana chips, dried mango, prunes, and papaya. I sometimes add coconut if I'm making a batch for my husband too.
I always keep some snacks in my pockets, so that I can munch while I walk, which encourages me to eat more, rather than always waiting for sit-down breaks.
One of the warning signs posted at Grand Canyon trailheads
Signs like the one above were posted at trailheads following the 2004 death of a young, accomplished marathon runner who died of dehydration in Grand Canyon. These signs hopefully cause people to stop and think about what they're doing and how well prepared--or not--they are for venturing into the canyon ... perhaps long enough to save lives.
What to Wear
Summer doesn't necessarily mean it's time to go short
Short sleeves or pants, that is. Which isn't to say I haven't done plenty of Grand Canyon hiking in t-shirts or sleeveless tops and shorts, but (now that I'm a little older and wiser) I tend to go with long, especially on top.
You may have heard the common hiker idiom "cotton kills." And that can certainly be true, especially in the mountains and cooler, damper climates. That's because cotton doesn't dry very quickly when it gets wet -- from rain, snow, sweat, or walking through water sources -- and may not dry at all if you can't stop, take it off, and lay it out in the sun. So cotton can really speed up the hypothermic process, and hypothermia can be deadly.
I always bring, if not start out wearing, a cotton shirt when I hike in Grand Canyon in summer. And that's for the very reason that cotton can otherwise kill. I can soak the shirt, put it on, and enjoy the cooling effect for a long time.
A wet cotton bandana around your neck, or a drenched cotton cap or sunhat, is also a great way to cool down when hiking in the Canyon.
Sure, you can wear full-on leather boots with steel shanks for hiking in Grand Canyon if that's what you're used to and prefer, but I think Gortex is just too hot. And big, clunky boots really aren't necessary. I recommend something lighter, especially in the summer, like breathable, mesh-lined ankle-high boots or trail runners.
I wouldn't recommend hiking in sandals, though, even Tevas, in the Grand Canyon. You'll probably see people wearing them, but I just don't think they have the support you really need or the protection from jamming your toes into rocks, cactus, etc. If you do wear them, I'd at least wear socks.
Cover Your Head
I can't stress what a big difference this makes. Take it from me, who usually doesn't wear hats. In the canyon, though, I always do in the heat. A ball cap works, but a wide-brimmed sun hat is even better. When I can, I drench the hat and put it back on.
And don't forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. Just don't put the sunscreen on your forehead, where the sweat will drip it into your eyes. Ouch! Let the brim of your hat take care of that part.
Dress for Summer Grand Canyon Hiking - From head to toe
Stick a cotton tee and a bandana or two in your pack, and put on some clothing and footwear like these.....
Shade for your Head and Face
Really any wide-brimmed hat will do, but this one is particularly nice because it's got built-in UPF 50 sun protection, a wicking sweatband and mesh in the design. The hat, for men or women, is made of nylon.
More Sun Protection
You want to wear a long-sleeve shirt that's MADE for hot-weather hiking, like this one from a popular maker of outdoor gear and clothing. This shirt has a collar that you can flip up for added sun protection, mesh side panels and at the center of the back for ventilation, and seams that are rotated away from pressure points so it's comfortable under a pack. This shirt, which is made of "desert cloth" with an antimicrobial finish, comes in a variety of colors, but I'd go with light for desert hiking.
Cool and Comfortable Convertible Pants
I rarely hike in anything but synthetic convertible pants that can be easily turned into shorts without taking them--or your shoes--off. I like that versatility. And a good pair is very comfortable (someone asked me if the zippers around your legs, above the knees, rub ... but, no, they don't) and they dry quickly.
This particular pair has built-in UPF 50 sun protection in the fabric, which is a textured nylon.
Moisture Wicking Socks
100% Cotton socks just don't cut it for any type of hiking at any time of year, if you ask me. These all-weather synthetic socks are made of 50% Coolmax polyester, 22% stretch nylon, 21% X2O Acrylic, and 7% cotton. They have a mesh instep and a "Y" heel pocket.
Sturdy Shoes with Ankle Support
I really like these medium height boots with a mesh lining and rubber toe. This is a brand I've worn a lot, and I find their style comfortable, durable, and they hold up really well with tough use.
Other Cautions and Suggestions
Tips for safe and enjoyable summer hiking in the desert
Venomous Creatures in Grand Canyon
When I was guiding at the Canyon, one of the most frequent questions I got, from both kids and adults, was, "How many people here have died from rattlesnake bites?" The answer (as of right now, anyway) is, "None." But that doesn't mean people haven't been bitten, so keep an eye -- and ear -- out.
During the summer, rattlers (and other snakes) are most active in the evening and at night. While they don't want to come after you, they will defend themselves if you step on them, walk too close, or mess with them. So, if you do see one, make as wide a berth as possible. And don't wander around camp barefoot. This is another reason why closed shoes or boots are a good idea, as well as long pants.
GrandCanyonTreks.org has a good article with lots of great photos of rattlers. See: Snakes in the Grand Canyon?.
Another critter to be aware and beware of is the scorpion, which is found mostly at the lower levels of the canyon, especially the inner canyon. In fact, the most venomous scorpion in the country -- the bark scorpion -- is a plentiful resident at Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. But no BIG worry, because the bark scorpion sting isn't lethal to humans. Still, it hurts like HECK, so that's another reason not to wander around barefoot or stick your hands into crevices and under rocks. If you're concerned about these buggers, ask a ranger, who'll be happy to tell you about them and probably find one for you to see. The rangers sometimes give an evening talk at Phantom Ranch about scorpions.
Read more about them on the NPS website in Ancient Assassin: The Life of a Bark Scorpion.
Getting Out of the Canyon
On one of my earliest hikes in Grand Canyon -- a rim to rim -- a ranger at Phantom Ranch made a suggestion that I took to heart ... and it really helped! She suggested that, on the climb out of the canyon, my hiking buddies and I stop at least once an hour, maybe even more frequently, and lay down and put our feet up for 15 minutes.
At times, it was hard to make ourselves stop, but we did, and even with those stops I'd say we got out of the canyon at least as fast as we would have had we not stopped, not to mention much more comfortably. Letting the lactic acid drain from our legs and resting meant we felt great when we reached the rim and weren't sore the next day. (Well, maybe just a little.)
So, I highly recommend this technique ... at any time of year.
Do you have other tips for summer hiking in Grand Canyon? (Or hiking anywhere it's really hot?) Please share them with us in the guestbook below.
More Information About Hiking in Grand Canyon - National Park Service links
- Grand Canyon National Park "Plan Your Visit" Home Page
Important notices and general information, with quick links to information on lodging, ranging programs, goods and services, food, visitor centers and more.
- Backcountry Permits - Grand Canyon National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
Obtain backcountry permits for overnight camping, as well as permits for weddings, research, and other special events.
- National Park Services's Grand Canyon hiking home page
Start here for more information on where you'd like to hike, as well as information on guided hikes, backcountry updates and closures, and more.
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury