Mara here. Last year I was extremely fortunate to score backcountry permits to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was the trip of a lifetime. This post is my trip report, and how to score the coveted permits.
Grand Canyon National Park was not high on my “must-see” list, but after an impromptu trip this spring, I am in love with the park.
One of my best friends, Lagena, and I travel a lot together. We are both in our mid-30s, are not married, nor have children, so we spend our time traveling. I love planning trips, so I’m usually the one who says, “Hey, this place looks cool. Let’s go here!” But I wanted Lagena to pick a place out so that she was getting to see places she wanted to. She picked the Painted Desert in Arizona.
In our, umm, well my planning, I suggested since we were going to be so close to the Grand Canyon, we might as well spend a day there to see it. The more I planned the trip, the more intrigued I became about Grand Canyon National Park.
Lagena and I love backpacking. I love exploring parts of national parks that only a handful of people can see. I asked Lagena if she would rather explore the park leisurely or just do one backpacking trip. By this time we had decided to spend at least two days in the park. She replied, “How is backpacking not exploring the park?” Very true.
Securing backcountry permits
So I started to look into backcountry permits. The problem is they are highly coveted. And because this was an impromptu trip, our chances of securing permits were almost zero.
In order for us to get them by reservation, we would have to mail or fax a request about four months before our hike. And then it is a lottery to get permits. Because we were going in mid-March, we should have mailed our request in at the first of October. We didn’t really start planning until mid-February. So we decided against backpacking at the Grand Canyon.
I was really bummed because in my research, I also discovered there was no way to get to the river without an overnight trip. I really wanted to see the canyon from the rim and the river.
The Grand Canyon National Park does not have a great deal of backcountry campgrounds, and only one campground on the river. With it being an extremely popular park, the demand is much greater than the supply.
But most national parks do have some backcountry permits reserved for walk-ins. So there was a little hope.
However, getting up at the crack of dawn to stand in line on the off chance they had some extra didn’t sound that appealing.
On the park’s website, they give a scenario on how the walk-ins can work. It sounded a little doable, but we still didn’t want to get our hopes up. The scenario also involved standing in line several days. Basically, the first day you just get a number to come back the next day. If all the permits have been given out before they get to your number, you can exchange that number for a higher number and come back the next day.
Lagena and I had car camping reservations for Sunday through Tuesday nights at the Mather Campground in the park. We decided to play the rest of the week by ear and see if we could get permits. But if not, we had several other plans so we wouldn’t be too disappointed.
On the Monday morning, I got up early. I almost didn’t go stand in line at the backcountry office, because I didn’t have any hope. But I thought I would just try. If we decided after seeing the Grand Canyon that we wanted to backpack down it, we would at least have a start on getting permits.
I got to the backcountry office at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after they open. We were number nine. We were hoping for Wednesday night, so we knew we had a little better chance because when we went back on Tuesday, we were not trying for Tuesday night. But number nine wasn’t sounding that great.
On Tuesday, we got to the backcountry office at 7:45 a.m., and it was already packed. The backcountry officer came out and said they had 18 people come in the day before and request a number. They were already very full, and Tuesday night was already completely booked.
As they called the numbers, several were no shows, which was good for us. When number nine was called, they had permits left for us. We were very fortunate.
Hiking rim to river
I was super stoked to be able to hike down to the river, especially since I was going to be seeing views not many people get to see. I was also super scared. It is not an easy hike.
We chose the easiest of the epic treks for down and back up – the Bright Angel Trail. There are other ways to hike down or ways you can loop it (the Grand Canyon has awesome free shuttles), but because of our time constraints and Lagena’s fear of heights, we did an out and back to Bright Angel Campground via the Bright Angel Trail.
It is 9.3 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead to the campground. It is also 4,300 feet. We chose to hike down in one day, and for the second day hike halfway and camp at Indian Garden Campground. For our third and final day we hiked from Indian Garden back to the trailhead.
The backcountry officer actually misunderstood me and planned our trip this way. But we were both very grateful. Because I did not think we could get permits, I did not research it and did not realize you could camp half way. Splitting the climb to the rim into two days made it much easier.
The first half of the Bright Angel Trail is steep. It is all incline from Indian Garden, however the trail is built well. On our climb up from Indian Garden to the rim, I had a mantra in my head, “slow and steady wins the race.” Lagena hiked ahead of me and would take period breaks while I caught up. I always thought I would need a break, but I when I reached her, I was good to keep going.
We did take one long break; we had a granola bar, watched a squirrel steel our trash, and chased the squirrel to get it back.
One thing I liked about the Bright Angel Trail is that there are restrooms and rest houses (for shade) along the way. The first one is called Mile and Half Rest House. The second is called Three Mile Rest House.
There is also a place for shade, restrooms and potable water at Indian Garden. A rest house, restrooms, and an emergency telephone are also located along Bright Angel Trail at the river.
Because of the creek and water supply, from Indian Garden to the river you are treated to lush green vegetation. This stretch was probably my favorite part of the trail.
We passed through a narrow valley with waterfalls and shoots in the creek. Then we came to what is known as the Devil’s Corkscrew. And this part of the trail is just as gnarly as it sounds. But again it is a well-built trail and you hardly notice the change in elevation going down or up on the trail.
At the bottom of the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail is pretty much even in elevation with the river. The trail goes through another tight valley along a creek, before the creek empties into the Colorado River.
On our trip down, we took a quick break at the river. I was so exhausted. I never knew downhill could make me that tired.
From where the Bright Angel Trail meets the river, the trail then parallels the river and turns into the River Trail. It is about one and half miles from the that intersection to Bright Angel Campground.
The river trail follows the river providing you with spectacular views. It then crosses the river via a suspension bridge called the Silver Bridge. It was pretty awesome looking down and seeing the water rushing past. You also don’t realize how wide the river is until you cross it.
After crossing the river, it’s not too much farther to the Bright Angel Campground. About a third of mile past the campground is Phantom Ranch, which has a cantina. I really wanted a beer, but we were too exhausted to make the short distance. So we just got in our tent and went to bed.
This hike back to the rim was actually much easier on my body. I was afraid after how tired the hike to the bottom the hike to the top was going to be miserable, but it actually was easier. Go figure. I don’t know why.