Clear Creek Trail
A rarity. Very few trails in the Inner Gorge traverse the north bank of the river. Well-looked after, Clear Creek remains a deliciously lonely place off-season. 10 hours and about 17.5 miles round trip, some guidebooks rate the trail as difficult. I didn’t find it so. You’ll be well compensated by views of Zoroaster and Brahma Temples. With a backcountry permit, you can spend the night under the cottonwoods at the creek or do a day hike and return to Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch. But start early and pack your own water. There’s none on the trail. Pick up Clear Creek Trail 1/3 of a mile north of Phantom Ranch along the North Kaibab Trail.
South Kaibab Trail
Why do I like this trail? It’s quicker and less crowded than Bright Angel. A faster trip down to the river, South Kaibab, which begins off Yaki Point Road, is 4.5 miles east of Grand Canyon Village. It’s also steeper and less shady than its companion corridor trial, the Bright Angel. So bring sunscreen, plenty of water, and have good knees. Because it follows the ridge lines, South Kaibab also offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the Park. If you’re using it for a day hike, be warned to turn around at Cedar Ridge. Owing to its steep grade and lack of shade and water, South Kaibab can be dangerous for the less seasoned.
Rim to Rim hike
This multiple day trip is worth the effort. You can begin the adventure on either rim. From south to north, take either corridor trail (South Kaibab or Bright Angel) to Bright Angel Canyon. With reservations, you’ll spend the night at either Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch. Then follow North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. Reverse the route if you go north to south. But how do you get back when the road distance between rims is 200 miles? You could walk. Or you could take the Trans-Canyon Shuttle (928-638-2820, PO Box 348, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023). It operates between mid-May and mid-October, and for a rim-to-rim, you shouldn’t operate any later in the year than that either.
Bright Angel Campground
I don’t think anyone can become truly intimate with the Grand Canyon unless they immerse themselves in it. In order to do that, one must go to the bottom. Going to the bottom means overnighting there since (unless you’ve climbed Everest) it’s not a good idea to attempt the Colorado River and back in the same day. For this reason, I recommend Bright Angel Campground, across Bright Angel Creek from Phantom Ranch. Water and toilets are available. It’s close to the luxuriant sand of the boat beach and Phantom and yet far enough away to escape the hubbub. Hear Ranger’s give presentations at night just across the creek.
Kaibab National Forest
Whether you’re approaching the North Rim or the South Rim, you’ll have to get through the national forests that sew in the Canyon. As you do so, it might seem you’re driving through a landscape more common to Idaho or Montana than northern Arizona. The ponderosa, aspen, spruce and white fir skirting open meadows are reminiscent of lower montane forest communities than desert, but so goes the Colorado Plateau. By following a rim trail on the relatively more forested North Rim, for example, the Canyon itself sneaks up on you to tease you with a view framed by branch and needle until the forest recaptures you, allowing another glimpse here and there between massive ponderosa that dwarf members of the same species in other regions. For an experience like this, I recommend the easy Widforss Trail.
Many hikers will take this trail, found about 500 feet west of Hermit’s Rest at the end of Hermit Road, to Dripping Springs, which requires a turn down a side trail that branches off the Hermit Trail at the head of Hermit Gorge. I prefer following the Hermit Trail itself further in, which takes you out and then down into the main of Grand Canyon. The trail gets rocky and steep. Guidebooks will classify the Hermit as a primitive trail, which means it’s not maintained. However, in my opinion it’s really held up well. The occasional washout is marked good enough by cairns to find your way through. Long level stretches intersperse with sometimes tight switchbacks. You’ll have to cross a few rockslides so make sure you’re in fit shape and not alone. Eventually, the trail breaks with the Redwall Limestone and spins down through the Cathedral Stairs, eventually intersecting with the Tonto Trail. West of this you’ll run into campsites at Hermit Creek. Follow the creek another 1.5 miles and you peak over the edge of the Tonto Platform into Hermit Rapids. There, you can camp for the night. All campsites must be reserved two weeks in advance. You’ll find water at Hermit Creek and Hermit Rapid. Treat before drinking.
The Tonto Platform remains the only extensive region that stays relatively flat within Grand Canyon National Park below the rims, at least for another few million years. You’ll recognize the Platform as a wide, sandy bench dotted with scrub suspended between the river and the upper rims. Walking the Platform remains easy and reminds me of a desert landscape, probably because that’s what it is. You can easily spot the Tonto Trail from the South Rim. It’s a 95 mile interstate that intersects with some of the corridor trails. If you’re sane and wish to remain so, don’t try it in the summer. Way too exposed. Way too hot. As with most other trails (besides Bright Angel) the Tonto hosts no treated water, no color TV. Some experienced and fit hikers do the South Kaibab to Tonto to Bright Angel trail loop back up to Bright Angel Trailhead, but you and I shouldn’t. The Tonto is best taken in small doses. For one option, take the South Kaibab Trail and end up at Indian Gardens, a midpoint oasis along the Bright Angel Trail’s descent from rim to river. Then camp out Indian Gardens and explore the Tonto in either direction for awhile before turning back to Indian Gardens. Reserve early. Indian Gardens remains a popular stop.
South Rim versus North Rim
As the earth hath two poles, so too are the rims to the Grand. Why choose one over the other? The South Rim has more services, and hence, more tourists. That’s the big rap against it. More accessible to the outside world, the South Rim stays open all year. Owing to its greater elevation and snowfall, the North Rim remains closed from late autumn throughout the winter. If you want solitude, the North Rim retains an edge. Personally, I prefer the South Rim. For the casual tourist, it offers more overlooks and an easy rim trail connecting them. The designated viewpoints stretch out over a longer distance. Besides, if it’s solitude you’re looking for, you’ll leave 95% of the tourists behind by walking more than half-way down the Bright Angel Trail.