If you want to make the most out of a trip to the Grand Canyon, there’s something you need to know.
Around 5.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but most of them never make it past the parking lot!
Having chosen the busiest time of year to visit, they jostle amongst the crowds to snap a quick Facebook photo and then jump back on their tour bus to the next destination.
After a somewhat underwhelming experience, they stop at an over-priced, mediocre restaurant, then set off for the long journey home quite a bit poorer and not sure what the fuss was about.
I’m not making this up!
Only 5% of visitors leave the Rim and explore the inner canyon. For those who do, a vast wilderness is waiting to be uncovered. If hiking to gurgling springs and ancient caves sounds better than walking around the South Rim parking lot, this article will help you prepare!
What Exactly Is the Inner Canyon?
The inner canyon is the vast wilderness beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon. To access it, you head to either the North or South Rim, then continue on foot (or by mule!).
Don’t worry if you’re visiting for only a short time. There are plenty of day hikes to enjoy.
Ninety percent of people drive up to the South Rim, which is open year-round. You’ll find the Grand Canyon Village and Railway here, as well as a short hiking route of around 2km. It sure is pretty, and there are plenty of accommodations and restaurants to check out.
If you’re looking for an easy weekend in your jeans and flip-flops, there is nothing wrong with the South Rim. You can make some great memories with your family and enjoy ice cream with a view.
But if you’ve come to the Grand Canyon because you crave time in the wilderness, you will want to leave the car at the Rim and set out into the inner canyon.
The North Rim is harder to get to than the South Rim.
Because of this, only around 10% of visitors make it here. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet but aren’t up for a wilderness hike with the mountain lions, the North Rim can be a great option.
The facilities and road up to the North Rim are closed in the winter, but cross country skiers can access it with a backcountry permit year-round.
The Inner Canyon
The Inner Canyon is everything beneath the North and South Rims.
Over a million acres of wild landscape are waiting to be explored, and it’s not ‘dead’ or ‘desolate’ like many people assume when they look down from the parking lot viewing platform.
The inner canyon has springs, rivers, and forests that support a wide range of wildlife. Mountain lion, wild sheep, and a myriad of reptiles and birds make their home here.
There are also large desert stretches, and the landscape can be dangerous if you are not prepared.
Exploring the Inner Canyon
There are three main ways to explore the spectacular inner canyon:
- On Foot
- By Mule
- By River Raft
Let’s dive into these a little deeper. (But remember, this is a starting point for your research. You will not be fully ready for an Inner Canyon adventure just because you have read this short article!)
Hiking in the Grand Canyon will be completely different depending on the season. But conditions are extreme year-round, so you’ll have to do plenty of further research and make sure you’ve got suitable kit!
The best rule of thumb is to take it slowly. Start with a shorter hike and see how long it takes before trying anything more serious.
Also, remember that coming in and out of the canyon means covering steep ground, so it might take you longer than you think to hike in these conditions.
In summer, the extreme heat makes dehydration and heat stroke a severe risk. At this time of year, it is a good idea to hike only before 10 am or after 4 pm.
In the heat of the day, you can find a shady spot at your campground and soak up the beauty and quiet of the canyon. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids!
In winter, a thick layer of snow covers the Grand Canyon. It’s still possible to explore the trails, but you’ll need some good cross-country skis or snowshoes.
If you’re skiing, you can put your kit in a sled rather than a backpack.
Hiking Safely in the Grand Canyon
If you aren’t used to hiking in these conditions, don’t worry! You can try a short hike with a ranger, which is available every day from the South Rim.
Alternatively, you could join a multi-day group hike, which is a brilliant way to dive deeper into the wilderness (and know you’re coming back out in one piece!).
In addition to the extreme conditions, the wildlife can be dangerous. Mountain lions live in the canyon, so you shouldn’t hike alone.
If you are hiking without a guide, make sure you’re properly equipped with a map (that you know how to read!) and first aid supplies.
Mule Riding in the Grand Canyon
Mules are truly remarkable animals. They are sure-footed on ridiculously steep terrain. Despite being a die-hard horse rider my whole life, I’d much rather be on a mule than a horse as I descend the canyon!
You can organize a short day ride or multi-day mule rides, depending on how much time you have available. There are multiple operators in the canyon, so you should work out which ranch is most convenient for you.
In general, you don’t need experience with horses to ride a mule at the Grand Canyon. But there are weight restrictions for the well-being of the animals, so if you have any doubt, it’s worth asking about this when you book.
River Rafting in the Grand Canyon
If the scorching heat of summer sounds like it’s too much to bear, river rafting is an excellent alternative to hiking or mule riding.
You’re going to get soaked, but you’ll probably be grateful for the cool-off!
Just like with mule riding, there are many different companies that you can do river rafting with.
Note: For safety reasons, you can’t ride or raft without a guide at the Grand Canyon. However, you can hike alone if you have a backcountry permit and you know what you are doing.
Camping Inside the Grand Canyon
If you want to camp in the inner canyon, you need a permit from the Backcountry Information Center. This applies to dispersed campers, as well as people using the Bright Angel Campground inside the canyon.
It is sometimes possible to turn up on the day and buy your permit, but not always. To avoid disappointment, it’s best to grab one in advance. (Permits take up to three weeks to process when you get them in advance, though, so you need to plan ahead!)
Permits cost a base rate of $10, and then an extra $8 per night per person. (That might change, though, so use the official website to stay up to date. You’ll find all the forms that you need to fill in here, too!)
You don’t need a camping permit if you are camping at a developed campground on the North or South Rim. Developed campgrounds start at around $15 a night, depending on the facilities.
Bright Angel Campground
Bright Angel Campground is a basic campsite inside the canyon. You can reach it from the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails from the South Rim or the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim.
The amenities are simple, with water and flush toilets, but no showers or trash collection. Pets are not allowed, so I’m afraid you’ll have to leave your pup at home for this adventure.
Dispersed camping is allowed in some areas so long as you have a permit.
Designated sites will have a pit drop toilet for you to use, but At-Large Camping Zones mean that you choose your spot from a largely undeveloped area of wilderness.
The At-Large Zones don’t have toilets, so come prepared with a little shovel. You need to bury your poo away from trails and waterways, and you should pack out toilet paper in a zip-lock bag.
There are a few more rules to keep you and the national park safe. For example, you should set up camp at least 0.4 kilometers from the highway (but why would you want to be any closer?).
No campfires are allowed outside developed campgrounds due to the risk of wildfire. You’ll find out more when applying for your permit.
Many people think they ‘experienced’ the Grand Canyon because they stood on the viewing platform at the South Rim parking lot. Sorry, but that just does not count!
But getting the most out of the Grand Canyon isn’t about seeing how much you can fit in. It’s the opposite. It’s slowing down, taking a seat, and listening to the birds. It’s resting by the river and watching birds of prey circle above you or lizards scurrying up the canyon walls.
It’s perfectly possible to experience some of the canyon’s wilderness on a shorter trip. For example, you can enjoy a short hike, mule ride, or river rafting experience (or, in a perfect world, visit for at least three days and try all three!).
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you an unforgettable trip to the beautiful Grand Canyon.
Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.