At Grand Canyon National Park, there are a ton of things to do along the park’s South Rim without ever stepping foot inside the canyon. But if you’re fit enough, the best part about going to Grand Canyon National Park is actually getting into the canyon. Your views change from switchback to switchback, and the deeper you get, the more varied the scenery. By the time you get to Indian Garden five miles down, you’re surrounded by a green oasis of trees, a small river and a campground, a sight you can’t imagine when you’re standing on the rim looking into the canyon. Four more miles down is the Colorado River, a marvel in its own right. We’ve put together the three best things to do for those who are physically fit and looking for adventure, on Grand Canyon’s South Rim, including two ways to get deep into the canyon.
1. Backpack to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon’s most historic trail is Bright Angel Trail, and it is a fantastic trail to backpack. It was used by Indigenous tribes like the Havasupai for centuries before being used by miners and later park tourists, wanting to experience the inner world of the Grand Canyon. It leads all the way down to the Colorado River where you can camp and explore Phantom Ranch, which is a 10-minute walk from the Bright Angel Campground.
At Phantom Ranch, you’ll discover a collection of cottages, a dining hall, general store and a small visitor center. Make dinner reservations at the Phantom Ranch Canteen immediately after you receive your permit. You’ll enjoy a fantastic community-style meal while you’re camped near the Colorado River. Phantom Ranch even offers mail service, so you can purchase a postcard, which will be postmarked from the bottom of the Grand Canyon before being carried up to the South Rim by mules.
Note: Because of work on the waste water treatment for Phantom Ranch, the ranch and its services will be severely limited in 2022. Check for updates at www.nps.gov/grca/learn/news/phantom-ranch-wastewater-treatment-plant-construction-begins.htm.
Backpacking along Bright Angel Trail, which starts just west of the Bright Angel Lodge, is a fantastic route to get to the Colorado River and back for several reasons. First, it has water along the trail, which you can use to fill up your water bottles, and it offers some shade along the way unlike the South Kaibab Trail, which offers no shade nor water.
While it is longer than the South Kaibab Trail, the Bright Angel Trail also has the iconic Indian Garden campground halfway down to the Colorado River, which makes for the perfect overnight resting spot. There is no camping along the South Kaibab Trail, so if you choose South Kaibab, you need to do the hike in one day.
When you’re planning your trip, a 9-mile day backpacking along Bright Angel Trail down to the Colorado River may not seem overly strenuous, but it can be. Because the trail is literally downhill the entire time, the sheer loss in elevation, combined with the weight of your backpack, means you’ll feel soreness in the muscles in your calves and thighs you never knew existed. Plus, there isn’t much shade for long portions of the trail, which means the longer you’re out on the trail, the more you expose yourself to potential heat-related illnesses. Resting at the halfway point makes the adventure fun instead of a slog. In addition, Indian Garden is an absolutely beautiful place to spend time.
We recommend spending four nights in the canyon, two at Indian Garden on the way down and back up and two nights near the Colorado River at the Bright Angel Campground. The Bright Angel Campground is nestled against a rock formation set back from the Colorado River and offers some shade during different times of the day. For planning purposes, you should know that camping in designated campsites or campgrounds in the park is limited to two nights (consecutive or nonconsecutive) per campsite or campground per hike. For a detailed itinerary and description of this trip, check out my personal piece on backpacking into the Grand Canyon called Into the Deep on the Bright Angel Trail.
But first, you need to apply for a backcountry permit from the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm). You can apply for your permit four months before your trip, and you’ll need to include your proposed night-by-night itinerary with dates for each night, plus an alternative itinerary.
2. Bike Hermit Road in Grand Canyon National Park
Hermit Road is a less-traveled gem at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Explore this 8-mile, one-way stretch of road on your bike from Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest. Only park shuttle buses, bikers and pedestrians are allowed on this section of the road for the majority of the year (it opens to traffic in winter), so you don’t have to worry about traffic or congestion as you bike past nine scenic overlooks. Plus, the road was resurfaced in 2020, so it’s in great condition.
If you don’t have your bike with you, you can rent at Bright Angel Bicycles in the Visitor Center Plaza. (bikegrandcanyon.com) And while the South Rim may seem flat, there are some steep uphill climbs on Hermit Road, so be sure to bring a lot of water and snacks with you. Along the way, stop at various viewpoints. At Powell Point, you’ll find a memorial to John Wesley Powell and his crews’ 1869 and 1871-72 exploratory trips down the Colorado River. At Hopi Point, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Colorado River snaking through the canyon. And if you look carefully at the Abyss scenic viewpoint, you can peer into the drainage that leads to where rafters camp on a beach near Granite Rapid on the Colorado River. At mile 8, you’ll reach Hermits Rest where you can stop at the visitor center, use the restrooms and get some food. This is the half-way point for those doing the round-trip 16-mile bike ride.
A free public park shuttle (red route) goes between Grand Canyon Village and Hermits Rest, stopping at every overlook point on the way out to Hermits Rest and only at four stops (Hermits Rest, Pima, Mohave, and Powell points) on the way back. The great news is you can load your bicycle onto the shuttle at Hermits Rest or other designated stops, if you’re interested in a one-way bike adventure.
If not, continue back to Grand Canyon Village from Hermits Rest, clocking in 16 miles roundtrip. When you’re biking on Hermit Road, the park rule is that you should find a safe place to pull over and dismount off your bike as the shuttle approaches you.
If you have friends or relatives with you who do not want to bike, have them take the shuttle bus to Hermits Rest and meet you before they board again for their return trip. Round-trip travel time to Hermits Rest and back (without getting off the bus) is approximately 80 minutes. To find out up-to-date schedules on how often the shuttles run, visit the park shuttle site at www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hermit-red-route.htm.
3. Hike Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon
Hiking between the South Rim and the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is one of those bucket list items that attracts those who love endurance sports, enjoy hikes with incredible swings in elevation gains and losses and are fit enough to cover 21-24 miles.
While some people spend several days backpacking from one side to the other, others will hike or run it in one day. It’s a grueling task that could take even the fittest athletes between 10-15 hours because you’ll spend the first half of your hike losing about 5,000 feet of elevation and you’ll spend the second half climbing about 5,000 feet of elevation.
However, there is a slightly more luxurious option to keep in mind. If you want to do this hike in multiple days but do not want to carry a huge backpack, you can make reservations at Phantom Ranch about a quarter of a mile from the Colorado River. Hike down to Phantom Ranch from either rim and spend a night in a cottage or hikers dorm with dinner at the Phantom Ranch Canteen before waking up the next day and finishing your hike.
Arrange for a shuttle to meet you on the other side to drive you back to where you started your hike, or use two vehicles with one vehicle dropped off at your ending point. Note that the 215-mile drive between the two rims takes about 5 hours.
Read our guide to rim-to-rim hiking to learn which trail routes to take, whether to start your adventure on the South Rim or the North Rim, and the best time to do this trip.
4. Raft the Colorado River
Rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a spectacular way to fully experience the beauty, solitude and unique environment of this natural wonder. Along your rafting trip, you’ll have opportunities to stop and do hikes to Ancestral Puebloan sites, see waterfalls, swim in turquoise waters and spot wildlife like bighorn sheep. The Colorado River extends for 279 miles through Grand Canyon and attracts approximately 22,000 visitors per year, mostly on commercial raft trips.
To raft the entire Grand Canyon, you’ll put in your boats at Lee’s Ferry, which is located 42 miles south of the Glenn Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz. You’ll finish your trip at Pearce Ferry at Lake Mead.
Depending on how fast the river is running, how many stops you make to camp alongside this 279-mile stretch of river and if you have motorized rafts or oar boats, rafting the entire Grand Canyon can take anywhere from 7-18 days.
A permit is included in all guided commercial trips, so if you signed up to go on a guided trip, you don’t need to worry about the getting a permit. For private groups, rafting the Grand Canyon is only allowed by permit obtained through the National Park Service or, on the lower section, via the Hualapai tribe since 109.4 miles of the lower section is on their land where the Hualapai Nation meets the Colorado River.
Read our insiders guide to rafting the Grand Canyon to decide whether to go on a commercially guided trip or go it on your own, plus learn the best time for rafting and how much a rafting trip costs.