In early June 2003, we took a 5 day trip into the bottom of the Grand Canyon with our two daughters, then aged 13 and 9. Hiking in the Grand Canyon in summer, especially with kids, is all about heat and water. Temperatures are extreme at the bottom of the canyon, and the heat can quickly turn a fun hike into a serious venture. We planned the hike around water sources and hiked mostly at night or in the early morning. We are desert lovers, and our kids were experienced hikers and familiar with the risks of hot weather. Hiking at night added a little bit of adventure, and along with a little serendipity, turned a fairly simple trip into one of our most memorable family backpacking trips.
I would encourage anyone with a desire to get a little bit off the beaten path to try this route. Don't be afraid to go in summer. Respect the heat and take the desert on its own terms. You will be rewarded. You will sweat too.
We wanted a route that had access to water in summer, and was off the heavily trafficked corridor routes along the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails. After working through the reservation system within Grand Canyon National Park, we settled on a 5 day trip that would take us down the Hermit Trail to Hermit Creek, then off trail and cross country to explore down to the Colorado River at Granite Rapids. We'd return up the side canyon back to Monument Creek. The hottest and driest section would cross the shadeless and waterless Tonto Plateau for 11 miles, joining the Bright Angel Trail at Indian Gardens. Finally, we would ascend up the crowded Bright Angel trail back to the south rim. It is not a difficult hike, but daytime temperatures at the bottom of the canyon were predicted to be 105 to 110 degrees Farenheit. We left the rim early in the morning with a mix of excitement and a little caution, which is just the way it ought to be.
Route Description. Day 1: Hermit Trail down to Hermit Creek. The hike down to Hermit Creek from Hermit's Rest can be done in early morning. It starts out at high elevation, and is all downhill. No need to start in the dark on the first day. Hermit Creek is a great place to hang out on a hot day. The only drawback is that there is little shade, and most campsites here are exposed to the sun all day. Try to get one of the shady spots under a small alcove. Otherwise, the superheated ground will radiate crazy amounts of heat all night, and you will feel as though you are sleeping on a hot griddle. That is exactly what happened to us. It was a night to remember, though we laughed about it most of the night.
Day 2: Hermit Creek to Granite Rapids. Hike only a few miles along the trail to near Monument Creek, and then off trail down a side canyon to reach the beach. The beach above Granite Rapids is large, shady and at least in 2003, had some excellent sandbars. You couldn't hope for a better place to spend the day. If your schedule allows it, consider spending two nights here.
Day 3: Granite Rapids to Monument Creek. This is a short walk, so take your time. There is a nice shady alcove at Monument Creek, and good water. There are some small slot canyons here too, but be careful exploring them.
Day 4: Monument Creek to Indian Gardens. This section is about 11 miles, and has no shade and no good water source. We started hiking about 2 am, and reached Indian Gardens about 730 am. Nice flat hiking and excellent sunrise views. Be careful to stay on the trail if hiking at night. In the dark, it's easy to mistake small drainages for the trail. Once at Indian Gardens, you will be back among the masses. There are many huge Cottonwood trees here and excellent shady spots to relax along Garden Creek.
Day 5: Indian Gardens to the South Rim. An easy hike back up to the rim. Get an early start if it is warm.
A note about camping along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. When we arrived at Granite Rapids beach on our second day it was early in the morning and the beach was empty. We were thrilled to find a huge, gorgeous beach, with fine white sand and plenty of shade. We sat on the cool, slightly damp sand and watched the morning shadows on the river. A couple of hours after we arrived a small group of rafters came floating down the river and pulled over at the beach to scout the rapids below. They asked for our permission to land on the beach, and left after a few minutes to head downriver. Another hour later a larger, commercial group of rafters came down, and again asked very politely if they could land on "our beach". They planned to eat lunch before continuing on. They came over to our girls and asked if they wanted anything - anything they could dream of. Amy jokingly said she wanted a chocolate milk and some Cheetos. Within a couple of minutes an ice cold chocolate milk and Cheetos arrived, along with a few beers for Karen and I. The look on Amy's face when these gifts were offered was priceless. They also shared some delicious cold fruit. The group was surprised to see the young girls at this fairly remote beach, and we all enjoyed each other's company.
We started to understand that on the river the first group to occupy a beach or campsite becomes the default "owner" for the duration of their stay. Another party will not share your beach, and if they need to stop they will ask permission. That's standard river etiquette, and it keeps groups isolated at least during their major stops and at night for camping.
After the lunch group departed, we realized that we were in an unusual position. We were camped on a huge gorgeous beach, at least 300 feet long. There was room in the trees for at least 50 people to camp without getting cramped at all. But since the 4 of us were already camped here, this was our beach for the day. If anyone wanted to eat dinner or camp on our huge beach, they would need our permission. We were happy to share. We spend a pleasant afternoon napping in the shade and playing on the sandbars.
Sure enough, about 5 pm two very large motorized rafts came down the river, occupied by only two people. They were scouts for a large group, looking for a place to eat and camp. They steered slowly toward us. The kids were thrilled, knowing that this likely meant good food for the evening. Very politely again, without even landing on the beach, they floated offshore and asked if we might have room on the beach for a group of 20 or so. Before we could say yes, they said they would feed us dinner and breakfast and share anything we needed. Sure, come ashore. And so we shared a fun evening with great food, lots of compliments to our kids, and and unlimited steamy cups of coffee in the morning. We hadn't expected a social experience, nor all that fresh food. That made it all the better and easier to head back into the searing desert, after a day on "our" beach.