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Backcountry in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Guide Grand Canyon Camping

The Grand Canyon brings to mind expansive vistas of tawny stone, mule trains and moonlit sunsets, but hordes of travelers rarely invade the stereotype. Unfortunately, as the Grand Canyon is one of the top ten most visited National Parks in America, a visitor will likely be assured that views of the canyon will be spattered with people. While most visitors stay along the rim in a drive-up campground or in one of the several hotels in the park, for the traveler seeking a less human landscape, backcountry is the way to go.

Grand Canyon hiking is different from hiking in other terrain because one’s body can be overwhelmed with the dry heat, direct sunlight, elevation change, and distance traveled. The South Kaibab and the Bright Angel Trail are considered the “canyon highways,” known for their iconic vistas and historical significance. The Bright Angel Trail is the oldest in the park, originating as a privately-owned trade route in 1891 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1928. Although the South Kaibab is shorter (6.3 miles from rim to river), it is much steeper than the 8.1 mile Bright Angel. For this reason, many backcountry explorers opt to descend the South Kaibab and climb out on the Bright Angel. Both of these trails are within a mile of the two Colorado River crossings between the south and north rims.

Grand Canyon Guide Grand Canyon TrailThere are three types of backcountry camping: the three established campgrounds with water sources and paved trails; designated sites off scarcely-marked trails with minimal water; and at-large areas with no water sources off unmarked gravel washes. At-large areas are not delineated by any kind of border and are determinable through the use of a topography map available for purchase at the backcountry office. There are 32 use areas in the park – space permissible for backcountry camping – and they are categorized by four difficulty levels (see sidebar). All three established campgrounds have the difficulty level of “corridor,” while at-large sites rank from “threshold” to “primitive” to “wild.” All use areas follow a ‘Leave No Trace’ policy, and so all food trash, toilet paper, and garbage must be packed out. Though there are a few scattered restrooms along the trails, there are no waste facilities anywhere off the rim.

Designations should be taken seriously – areas delineated “wild” are recommended only for experienced Grand-Canyon hikers. Few places in the park are as wild as the Utah Flats. The wind is fierce atop the Flats, but its howl whipping across red rock and painted canyon is the only sound. The Flats consist of sweeping pancake-like red rocks that burgeon from fallen boulders (deemed Piano Alley) in the Phantom Creek use area of the Grand Canyon. Though only a mile from an established campground along the Colorado River, the area is ranked “wild,” because of the unmarked gravel trail scaling 1,500 feet to the Flats. Vegetation tapers toward the summit, though yellow desert flowers climb through tumbleweeds scattered on the stone. Animals make their nests in the several caves carved into mountainside. Water sources atop the Flats are non-existent after March; before then sources are only small puddles that can be purified. There is no sign of human life, save tourist helicopters that are occasionally seen overhead, and the ant-looking dots that scale trails winding up the canyon in the distance.

Unlike most national parks where backcountry permits are issued from a ranger’s station or visitor’s center, permits for the Grand Canyon must be attained from the backcountry office. Permits can be downloaded online, but must be sent to the office via snail-mail or fax. Day of  walk-in permits are no longer issued at the office as of February 10, 2010 – submit in writing four months in advance. Campers can apply for permits in advance – four months before you’re planning on camping – and because accommodation books quickly in peak season, advance reservations are recommended. For example, if your trip begins June 1, you can apply for a permit beginning February 1. Peak season at the canyon begins in mid-March and traffic is heavy throughout the summer. The park receives over 30,000 requests for permits each year, and issues about 13,000. All requests will be answered by mail, not fax, whether the application is approved or denied. If a request is denied, a camper can attempt to obtain a permit that may be available due to a cancellation at the office. For in-canyon camping, permits are $10 with an additional fee of $5 per person per night. ED Note: As of February 1, 2010, all backcountry permits must be submitted in writing by fax, mail or hand delivery four months in advance. In person applications will no longer be accepted day of. For more info, visit the NPS website.

A limited number of permits are issued for any backcountry site, and the number varies depending on use area. For example, of the average 13,000 visitors in the Canyon on any given night, only 90 permits are issued for the Bright Angel Campground – the most popular backcountry use area. In some at-large areas, only a couple of permits are issued per night. This is to preserve the natural habitat as much as to give travelers the experience of true canyon solitude. Naturally, the least number of permits given out per night are for accommodation in “wild” areas. Grand Canyon Guide Grand Canyon River

Although critter control isn’t necessarily a problem in at-large areas, wind can be. Tents, obviously, can’t be staked into stone; it’s strongly advised that a camper is prepared to anchor her tent to rocks with rope that must be packed in. A knot guide is a good thing to review. Water is not available year round in most at-large areas, and so meals and water must be planned accordingly. Potato flakes and dried fruit make good meals, but campers must be cautious to plan enough food for both their stay at the bottom and the grueling hike out.

The backcountry office is swamped during peak season; consequently, it’s difficult to get a live person on the phone. Travelers are urged to visit the National Park Service Grand Canyon website and click on the Backcountry Planner PDF to get a better idea of trails and terrain. A camper is much more likely to get personalized attention from the rangers if he has done some trip research beforehand.

Use Area Ranking Levels

Corridor: Maintained trails with delineated boundaries. Trails have signs, toilet facilities, emergency phones and ranger stations. Roads to trailheads are paved. Purified drinking water available on most trails, though some taps are turned off during off-season months. Horses and mules allowed when specified on permit. Recommended for first time Grand Canyon hikers. Example: Bright Angel Campground.

Threshold: Trails are not maintained. Few water sources, signs, pit toilet facilities; no ranger stations. Horses and mules allowed only on Whitmore Trail when specified on permit. Most roads to trailheads are dirt roads. Campsites are a mix of designated sites and camping at-large. Recommended for experienced Grand Canyon hikers. Example: Clear Creek (at-large), Cedar Spring (designated sites.)

Primitive: Non-maintained trails and suggested routes. Occasional signs, no toilet or purified water facilities. Roads to trailheads require four-wheel drive. All campsites are at-large areas. Recommended for experienced Grand Canyon hikers and campers with experience in route-finding. Example: Cottonwood Creek.

Wild: Trails are non-existent, some routes shaped only by previous foot traffic. Routes require advanced ability to follow topography maps and find paths. Hikes to use areas are steep and grueling. No purified water sources; non-purified water sources are scarce – even scarcer in summer months. No horses or mules are allowed. Campsites are all at-large. Recommended only for experienced Grand Canyon hikers with extensive backcountry experience. Example: Phantom Creek (where the Utah Flats are).

Please note: Wild and Primitive zones are not recommended for use during summer months.

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