Wildland Trekking shares the best day hikes to do in Grand Canyon National Park. Find more hiking advice at www.wildlandtrekking.com.
The Grand Canyon is a place that must be experienced to be understood. And there are layers of potential experience to choose from, much like the rock layers that form the canyon’s walls. The top layer of experience is standing on the rim, gazing into the canyon’s incredible depths. For the majority of Grand Canyon visitors, this is as far as they - and their experiential understanding of the canyon - go. There is much to be gained from standing on the rim and contemplating this phenomenal landscape!
The next layer is going on a day hike below the rim, and there are many micro-layers to this option: one-hour hikes, six-hour hikes, full-day hikes, popular trails, remote trails and so on. And lastly, there is the option of a multi-day backpacking or rafting trip to explore in-depth the intimate details of the world’s most famous canyon.
Our focus in this piece is the middle option - a one-day hiking experience in the Grand Canyon. A day hike can be a phenomenally enriching, and in some cases, even life-changing, experience for people. While it’s not the end-all of possible adventures, it is an extremely worthwhile way to make the most of your visit to Grand Canyon National Park.
1. Hike South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point
The South Kaibab Trail is the number one must-do trail in the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. If you have one day, and you want to make the most of it, this is the hike to do.
The South Kaibab Trail was blasted out of the canyon’s walls by the National Park Service in the 1920s. It is an unlikely trail snaking down an exposed ridge that wows even the most cynical of visitors.
The trail begins with stunning views and steep switchbacks down a section called “The Chimney.” (In the winter this section can be icy and treacherous, so be sure to have trekking crampons.) The Chimney is in the Kaibab limestone layer, which is approximately 250 million years old. It is extremely hard rock, which is why the descent is so steep.
Below the Chimney, the trail begins a long, snaking traverse through softer, sedimentary layers that include sandstone and shale. Keep an eye out for subtle, rippled designs in the sandstone, which tell the story of ancient, wind-blown dunes from 265 million years ago.
After roughly 9/10 of a mile from the trailhead, hikers come to Ooh Aah Point, a tight switchback where giant blocks rest above a dizzying drop-off. This is an excellent spot for a snack, drink of water and to shoot some breathtaking photos.
Below Ooh Aah Point, the trail continues to drop, at times steeply down switchbacks, and at other times more gradually across exposed ridges and side slopes. At one point, the trail runs along the spine of a ridge, with abrupt drop-offs on both sides, creating the illusion of a trail meandering to the end of the Earth.
A half-mile past Ooh Aah Point is Cedar Ridge: a broad, open saddle with scraggly cedar trees, mule posts, and a bathroom. This is an excellent turnaround point for folks not wanting to push it too far, as the most dramatic scenery is behind you, and the way up is much more difficult than the way down.
If you continue, a very long traversing section of the trail takes you through layers of red shale and mudstone, past saddles with jaw-dropping views into the Pipe Creek Drainage, eventually coming to Skeleton Point. This perfect turnaround point is almost exactly three miles from the trailhead and offers tremendous views of the surrounding cliffs, pinnacles, buttes and side canyons. It’s a fantastic place to enjoy a picnic lunch before turning around and ascending back up the South Kaibab Trail.
Please be aware that this trail has no water and very little shade. If you hike it in the summer, be sure to get a very early morning start and bring plenty of water and food.
2. Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa
The justly named Grandview Trail was built by famous Grand Canyon miner Pete Barry in the late 1800s to access his copper mine at Horseshoe Mesa. In places, the trail is composed of hand-cobbled stones that Barry laboriously set one-by-one well over 100 years ago.
The trail begins like most South Rim trails, with steep switchbacks through the sheer Kaibab limestone layer. This section of the trail can be intimidating for people with a fear of heights, as the trail is narrow, exposed and at one point it’s pinched off with a rock jutting out.
The Grandview Trail then begins switchbacking steeply down the canyon walls to a pine-shaded saddle called Coconino Saddle, which provides an amazing view into the side canyon to the east of the trail. This is an excellent spot for a snack and relaxing break.
With the South Rim becoming farther and farther away up above, the trail continues down through geologic layer after layer. Eventually, after three miles, is Horseshoe Mesa. The mesa is a huge, flat platform extending out into the space of the canyon. Pete Barry’s copper mine and rock cabin ruins are still evident on the south side of the mesa. For ambitious hikers, heading out to the edge of the mesa to gaze down onto the Tonto Plateau is well worth it!
The hike out is back up the Grandview Trail, which - beware! - is much more difficult than on the way down. Be sure to save enough food, water, and energy to make it back to the South Rim. Again, in the summer, this hike should started very, very early in the morning.
3. Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point
The Bright Angel Trail is the Grand Canyon’s most popular trail, and for good reason - it boasts spectacular views as well as shade, water and bathrooms on average every 1.5 miles. It’s an excellent choice for families and for people doing their very first foray into the Canyon’s depths.
You can turn around anywhere you like, so this hike can be as easy or as difficult as you’d like. This write-up however, is about hiking to Plateau Point and back, which is 12 miles round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. It’s a big day, so be prepared. It's not recommended by park officials in the heat of the summer as heat hazards can make it especially hazardous.
The Bright Angel Trail begins with long, gradual switchbacks that pinch down through a narrow break in the 150-feet tall Coconino sandstone layer, then descend through steeper switchbacks famously known as “The Elevator Shaft.” Unrelentingly, the trail zig-zags back and forth, dropping quickly. Many people at this point think “hiking the Grand Canyon doesn’t feel that hard to me!” But they haven’t gotten back to the rim yet…
One-and-a-half miles down the Bright Angel Trail is 1.5 Mile Resthouse which has water (sometime in the winter the water is disconnected), a bathroom and shade. After three miles is 3 Mile Resthouse with the same amenities. A half mile below 3 Mile Resthouse, the switchbacks level off and straighten out down to Indian Garden, a wonderful Cottonwood-shaded oasis fed by a gushing, clear spring. Water, shade and bathrooms are available here as well.
After resting and having something to eat at Indian Garden, you’ll break off on the Plateau Point Trail to the west. This trail rolls out over sagebrush-laden hills to the precipitous edge of the Tonto Plateau.
Plateau Point is one of the most dramatic viewpoints in all of Grand Canyon National Park. Fifteen-hundred feet above the bottom of the canyon, and almost directly over it, you are gazing down on the blue-green (or brown some times of the year) waters of the Colorado River. Surrounding the river is the Inner Gorge, a chaotic, mashed up tangle of ancient rocks, contrasting dramatically with the neat, horizontal layers above it. You can see up and down the canyon, and across into the Bright Angel drainage. Zoroaster Temple soars into the sky above, a beacon to all who know the Grand Canyon well.
The return is back up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, where you first started the day. Be prepared for a long, arduous hike out.
If you need a park map to get a sense for where everything is and to map out your hiking routes, you can purchase one of three Trails Illustrated maps covering different areas of Grand Canyon National Park at REI.com.