Nearly everyone who visits the Grand Canyon spends time at either the north or south rim. The canyon rims are reasonably cool and dry places, hanging above the canyon itself, with cool-scented pines and crisp summer mornings. From either rim, you can gaze upon the world's most beautiful sunsets with no real sense of the summer inferno that lies below, the inner canyon. How can one do the great hikes of the Grand Canyon in summer?
From May to September, hikers entering the canyon need to be prepared for desert heat. Real, nasty, dry, suffocating heat. Blinding sunshine reflects off rock walls all day long and can cook you like a microwave. Without common sense and some planning, hiking in the canyon in summer can become a dangerous proposition. Ailing hikers are pulled out of the canyon by the National Park Service nearly every day. More people are rescued each year at the Grand Canyon than at any other park in the US. Hiking in extreme heat can be deceptive - its impact creeps up on your body. One minute you can be feeling pretty warm, and a couple of minutes later you can become nauseous, debilitated, sick, dizzy and miserable. It comes on fast, and it can take hours or days to recover. Respect for desert heat is something I have learned the hard way.
So you want to hike in the Grand Canyon in summer? You take what nature gives you. Hike at night. Avoid the sun. Keep hydrated with a good water management strategy. Listen to your body, and anticipate its needs. Follow those simple rules and you can safely explore the canyon all year round.
Hiking Rim to Rim in the Summer
Hiking from rim to rim is a dream of many hikers, and for good reason. To hike from one rim of the canyon to the opposite side is a physical challenge, and a whirlwind tour of climates, botany, geology, colors, deserts, wilderness, erosion, the space and span of time, and that rare jewel, a magnificent river gushing through a desert. It is a 21 mile hike if you take the shortest route possible (connecting North Kaibab and South Kaibab trails), and includes 11000 vertical feet of elevation change. In the warm months, even for strong hikers, it isn't feasible to get it done in the daylight without putting yourself through some significant heat stress. But if you do a significant chunk of the hike while it is dark, then many options open up, and the canyon is yours to explore.
On my most recent hike in the canyon, we had plans to hike from rim to rim with 4 people. The only weekend that worked for us was in mid-June - the hottest time of the year in Arizona. We knew we would hike at night, and decided the best approach was to take a shuttle from the south rim to the north rim in the early afternoon. We would start hiking about 6 pm, and hike through the night. We hoped to get back to the south rim in the early morning. A long rest was planned at the river when we arrived there in the wee hours. That rest on the cool beach would be our flame - drawing us like moths, through the dark and heat, to the river. After plenty of food and drink, and maybe a short nap, we would start our hike up to the south rim, hoping to get up onto the Tonto Plateau before sunrise. This overnight strategy lets you see the sunset and sunrise, which are frequently spectacular. But you won't see much of the bottom of the canyon, as it will be dark as you navigate the lower trails.
There are a couple of commercial shuttle services (we used Trans Canyon Shuttle) that will shuttle you from the north to south rim, or vice versa. The shuttles run a couple of times per day, and charge $85 per person (in 2013). The shuttle will drop you at the North Kaibab trailhead, or take you to the village at the north rim (about 2 miles from the trailhead). On the south rim, they will drop you at the Bright Angel Lodge (near the Bright Angel trailhead).
We reached the north rim trailhead at 5:45 pm, following a pleasant 4 and a half hour trip from the south rim. After unloading the vans, packing up our stuff, and taking a few photos we headed down the trail at 6:20. Hiking downhill at that time of day from the north rim is cool and pleasant - we were in the shade the entire time, and dropped through dense forest getting good views of the canyon. Our group of 4 consisted of myself and my wife Karen, and our friends Sharon and Bob. All of us were in decent shape and had been in the canyon many times. But we were also all over 50. We knew it would be a long night, with no need to hurry. We took our time enjoying the sunset.
From the north rim, most of the drop in elevation occurs in the first seven miles, followed by seven more miles of hot, almost flat desert walking in Bright Angel Canyon before the trail reaches Phantom Ranch and the Colorado. We reached Roaring Springs just after dark and took our first break. Roaring Springs is 5 miles from the trailhead at the foot of Roaring Springs Canyon. Already we could feel the heat of the desert. It was 95 degrees or more at 8:30 pm. We took a break to drink and eat, and top off our water (Roaring Springs was the second water source we had passed). From there, we had 9 more miles of gently downhill hiking, past Cottonwood Spring and down into the Box. The Box is a narrow, 3 mile long section of Bright Angel Canyon. In summer it is notable because it is the hottest part of the hike. The rocks radiate heat all night, and the wind barely moves the air. The heat encouraged us to keep moving, knowing the cool river was not too far ahead. As the clock ticked past midnight, we all began to feel a little tired.
At 1:30 am we arrived at the river, ready for a drink and a rest. After again topping off our water, we strolled over to Boat Beach, where one can lay on cool smooth sand and stare at the infinite sky. The cold river creates a bubble of humid, crisp air right along the water line. The now moonless night and deep canyon brought the night sky to life. For me, much of the appeal of hiking at night through the canyon is this respite on the beach.
As Karen, Sharon and Bob enjoyed some food and a rest, I spent 30 minutes or so experimenting with my camera, trying to capture the feel of laying on the beach. It was fun, but I needed a rest too. We decided to part ways here, as Karen and I would hike up the South Kaibab Trail, and Sharon and Bob planned to hike up the Bright Angel Trail. I wanted to get up on the Tonto Plateau by sunrise, so we could see the full beauty of the canyon as the new day emerged, and also so that we could reach the rim before the day became uncomfortably warm. We were back on the trail at 3 am. Only steps from the beach, reality hit us like a suddenly opened oven door. It seemed hotter than before. There are no water sources on the South Kaibab trail, so we carried 6 liters of water as we headed uphill. We had 90 minutes of steep, dark, sweaty walking ahead before we would emerge out of the inner canyon and be able to see the breadth of the canyon once again. Despite the rest, this was the tough part of the hike. Sleepy and hot, we toiled away, occasionally shining our lights back and forth to Sharon and Bob, who rested on the beach below, invisible in the darkness. The promise of cooler temperatures kept us going. Oddly, a few clouds formed and it sprinkled for a few minutes. We hadn't seen rain in Arizona since April. At one point, I had an almost irresistible urge to lie down and go to sleep. I sprawled out on a boulder, and after Karen's urging, I moved on, soon feeling more awake as the sky began to light up.
Sunrise in the canyon is a long process. At least it seems long when you see the whole thing and are attuned to the slightest change in light. As the light finally became full enough to turn off our headlamps, we emerged on the Tonto plateau soaked in sweat. A light desert breeze and steadily cooler air refreshed us as we continued climbing. All that was left was to keep moving and watch the canyon come to life.
Tips for Hiking in Hot Weather
- Avoid the sun. Hike at night and in the very early morning. During the day, try to spend your time near water, where the micro climate will be cool and you can be in the shade.
- Plan your water strategy. Always know where your next reliable water source will be. Carry extra water while hiking in case you get delayed.
- Drink a lot, and not just water. Stay hydrated during the day. Use sports drink mixes that will help keep your electrolytes in balance. Pay attention to how you feel while walking. Stop and drink frequently. Don't wait until you feel parched to start drinking.
- Know Yourself. Build up to longer hikes by doing some short hot weather hikes. Get a feel for what it is like in conditions that aren't committing. Learn how you do in hot weather, and when to stop and rest. Learning your limits, and self discipline to care for yourself are two skills that are vital to success whenever you are straying a bit outside your comfort zone.