Vacations

Hiking in the Grand Canyon while on a Rafting Trip


“I am attaching a document to help you train for your hike into the canyon,” the email said. I was a bit shocked – a training plan? I know I wasn’t supposed to take hiking in the Grand Canyon lightly, but I had never before had a tour operator be so thorough and serious about pre-hike training before.

It immediately gave me a feeling of seriousness about hiking in the Grand Canyon. I knew I couldn’t take the Grand Canyon for granted as I often do when I do hiking around the world. I normally just assume that I’m in ok shape and the rest I can grit my way through. However, that theory doesn’t quite work as well once you turn 50!

Adventure Travel Needs to Be Taken Seriously

Even though this was a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, part of the daily activities was hiking from the river into the canyon. However, first you had to get down into the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail. You might think that hiking down is easy – and to some extent it is at least from a cardiovascular perspective. However, hiking down for 9 miles is no joke; it takes a toll on your body (especially the knees and quads!).

OARS Rafting wanted to make sure their clients were prepared physically for being in the remote canyon for 10 days and could enjoy the hikes reduce risk for injury and emergency evacuations. It honestly was very responsible of them as an adventure tour operator to ensure their clients had the proper fitness to take the trip and enjoy it.

I actually wish more adventure tour operators would do this. I think travelers like to believe they are in good enough shape to do these epic trips and adventures, but many times they are not. We romanticize or trivialize everything thinking that ‘it can’t be that hard else they wouldn’t have us do it”. We don’t think about the fact that we gained weight, got older, might not be as nimble as we once were (um… hello too many hours sitting in front of screens). I know that I’ve been guilty of that thinking in the past. However, when OARS sent me a training plan, I perked up. I downloaded the document and made a plan to start training in Colorado for my Bright Angel Trail Grand Canyon downhill hiking.

How to train for Hiking

Check out my article about training for long hikes from Trainer Becky Rupp. It includes a 6 week downloable training plan!

What to Expect When Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Let me just start with, the Grand Canyon is immense. Hence…the name. Its average depth is 4,000 feet for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep (over one mile) at its deepest point, and 18 miles at its widest point. It is remote, in fact it’s one of the more remote places in the US.

Temperatures and weather can vary wildly from the top to the bottom of the canyon. And when you are in the bottom of the canyon, there are no easy ways to get out.

Also know that because the region is so remote, there is no cell phone or radio coverage the whole time you go through the canyon.

Hiking Difficulty in the Grand Canyon

In general, the Grand Canyon has no easy hikes. And certainly, there were no easy hikes while we were rafting and hiking. The hikes are on steep, rugged, desert trails. And as you might guess, there’s very few flat areas in the Grand Canyon.

Slot Canyons

slot canyon hiking grand canyon

Each hike involved quite a bit of scrambling over rocks big and small. You have to be ready to use your hands in the Grand Canyon. Many of the scrambling hikes were found in the slot canyons. You could tell that powerful floods of water had moved these rocks around in the canyon!

Waterfalls

grand canyon waterfalls

Many of the hikes from the river also included waterfalls. The ‘trails’ were carved out by tributaries flowing into the Colorado River, therefore many of the hikes had incredible waterfalls. This also meant that we had a few hikes that took us through river crossings (sometimes thigh deep) requiring water shoes and a strong balance.

Hikers in the Grand Canyon

Exposure

I learned a new hiking term on this trip – “Exposure”. Our guides would use it to describe a hike as in “This hike has a high degree of exposure,” Cliff often said.
Meaning – you may find yourself on a narrow 12 in. wide ledge with a sheer drop off to one side. You will be hiking up and down steep narrow sections with nothing to hold onto.

Meaning – I won’t be hiking this.

I can deal with most situations hiking, however my fear of heights – specifically narrow ledges and big drop offs are nearly debilitating for me. Like ‘have a panic attack’ debilitating.

Thunder falls hike grand canyon

I’m not sure why I didn’t consider that hikes in the Grand Canyon would come with a high degree of exposure but I didn’t. Duh. This led to some pretty tense moments for me, and some pretty severe mental battles. Which in turn lead to a bit of disappointment on my part when I knew I couldn’t mentally do the hike.

The main trails from the rim (like the Bright Angel Trail) don’t have as much exposure, it’s the more remote ones from the bottom of the canyon up that are challenging for those afraid of heights or ledges like me.

Be Prepared Hiking in the Grand Canyon

There are a few things that you absolutely need to be prepared for when you are doing any hikes in the Grand Canyon.

Temperatures/Weather

The weather and temperature can be drastic as you move through the canyon – especially as you move to different altitudes. Make sure you consult the National Weather Service’s NOAA weather radio or the official National Weather Service website (https://www.weather.gov/) before you hike in the Grand Canyon.

In addition, I highly recommend these items for sun protection:

Bring a Hat

The wider the brim the better. I love the Wallaroo hats that already have SPF protection in them.

For more sun protection bring sunscreen and a shirt. A long sleeve, lightweight shirt: I know that sounds sorta sucky when the temps are reaching 100F, but it will help tremendously with sun protection. While rafting or if you are on the water I recommend a lightweight cotton shirt. If you are hiking a wicking long sleeve shirt is great.

Water

It’s so important, I’m listing this as a separate item! You will want plenty of water when hiking anywhere in the Canyon. I recommend a good water bladder that holds 3 liters. I love this one by Osprey. Electrolyte powders are also recommended. There is fresh water on the Bright Angel Trail, but not on other trails which on longer hikes you will want to filter water so you can refill. While rafting, they filtered water for us en masse, but if you are on your own check out this Lifesaver filter or Grayl filter bottle.

Hiking Poles

I hesitated putting this on the list. If you are doing one of the big trails in/out of the Canyon – poles are GREAT. I don’t know what I wouldn’t done without them going down the Bright Angel Trail for 9 miles. They take the strain off your knees and who doesn’t want that?!

However, on the trails at the bottom of the canyon from the river are normally scrambles where you have to use your hands and feet to get over boulders, etc. For those, hiking poles will hinder you. I just used my poles for the hike down into the Canyon, but then just stored them on the raft the rest of the time and never used them again.

Compression Socks

compresesion socks for hiking

I’m a big fan of Vim & Vigr compression socks for hiking – especially on the Bright Angel trail where you descend for 9 miles. They help increase blood flow in the lower legs to increase performance. They also help recovery. I used them for every hike I did in the canyon because honestly the hikes were tough and I could use any help I could get!

Grand Canyon Rafting Hikes

I will be covering the hikes I did while on my 10-day rafting trip. Most of these all start at the river and go up. A multi-day rafting trip isn’t just about rafting, it’s equally about hiking. This list of hikes should provide a good idea of what a rafting trip is like.

Bright Angel Trail

This trail intimidated me. Well…it intimidated my knees. However, it’s also a trail that I’ve always wanted to hike ever since I saw the Grand Canyon the first time. So when the opportunity to do a Grand Canyon rafting trip gave me the chance to simply hike down the Bright Angel Trail and not have to come back up it – it seemed like perfection! It was one of my ‘selling points’ to doing the rafting.

We started at 5:30AM at the top of the south rim in the dark. Our headlights were on and we all huddled together in the cold, knowing that soon enough we’d warm up as we made our way down the canyon and the sun came up.

It was weird to start the hike in the dark. It made the sunrise this incredible ‘reveal’ where you slowly were aware of this incredible trail you were on. The first 4 miles of the trail descend switchbacks (so many switchbacks!) along the Bight Angel Fault to Indian Garden where things start to flatten out a bit. Within the first 5 minutes of hiking in the dark, I encountered a mountain goat on the trail! The trail takes you through little tunnels and provides incredible views. As you descend, it feels like the earth is swallowing you up.

Along this first section there are 3 resthouses where you can sit, there are basic bathroom facilities, and fresh water.

There’s a ranger station at the ‘lush’ Indian Garden; it a great place to rest and have some snacks. The trail after that was quite lovely – gentle, rolling, downhill along a stream with greenery surrounding it. It was such a different feel from the switchbacks and the first part of the descent. I actually thought I was about at the bottom until I turned a corner and suddenly saw the area they call Devil’s Corkscrew.

By this time we were well out of the shade and the sun was beating down. I had long forgotten about shivering at the top at 5:30AM. I had no idea that we were still that far from the bottom when I looked at the switchbacks of Devil’s Corkscrew. At this time my knees were starting to get stiff – but I still had about 2 miles to go.




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