Our plan took shape in the cool of the Sonoran desert winter. My wife, Karen, and I had been enchanted by the Grand Canyon the previous year when we completed an all night hike into and back out of the canyon. As Arizonans, and avid hikers, we were embarrassed to admit that we had never taken a multi-day trip into the canyon. So over the course of the winter we set about the somewhat laborious task of getting permits to hike in the canyon.
At the trailhead
Although the canyon is an incredible wilderness, nearly all its hiking traffic is concentrated on two primary corridor trails, the Kaibab Trail, which spans the canyon from rim to river to rim, and the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail in the park and heads down from the south rim, through Indian Gardens, eventually reaching the Colorado River. Our plan was to spend our time mostly in the fringe zone, away from the majority of the crowds. We would hike down the less traveled Hermit Trail, down to the Colorado River, and across the Tonto Plateau to join the popular Bright Angel Trail for the final climb back to the South Rim. The total distance was 28 miles. Our schedule dictated a June departure, one of the hottest months of the year in the Arizona desert. The canyon is notorious for withering hikers, causing innumerable cases of heat stroke and rescues every year.
What follows are strategies and techniques that have worked well for my family when hiking in challenging conditions such as the southwestern deserts.
The summer heat in the Grand Canyon can be intense and water sources are limited. Couple this with the almost 5,000 foot elevation drop from the rim to the river and it is clear you must be careful in summer conditions. Temperatures in summer are typically 80°F at the South Rim, and 110°F at the river. Sparse desert plant life means limited shade during the heat of the day. These conditions, and the huge number of tourists in Grand Canyon National Park have prompted the park service to be aggressive in warning hikers about the canyon. When we received our permit from the Park Service, it was accompanied by a video and series of pamphlets warning of the dangers of the desert sun and an enumeration of all sorts of bodily disasters that can befall the unprepared hiker.
Hiking with a family adds a few more challenges. Over the past five or six years of hiking with our kids, we have informally developed a few guidelines for successful family trips.
Guidelines for Successful Family Trips
- Keep it fun. No big miles, no death marches. For us, the best way to have fun on these trips is to keep our mileage nice and low, and to camp in enjoyable locations. We spend a lot of time in and around camp, so good camp locations are important.
- Be flexible and ready for change. Be a little more conservative and pay attention to the moods of your children. That doesn’t mean give up and go home when things go awry. That means be ready to adjust quickly. Carry someone’s pack. Take a break. Tell some jokes. Get creative. After a few trips, the need for flexibility will diminish.
- Make light of adversity, such as bad weather and bugs. When required, certainly take them seriously; but when things go wrong and your wonderful campsite turns out to be a muddy bog filled with clouds of mosquitoes, either pack up and move, or pile into your tent and play cards. See who can count all the mosquitoes on the mosquito netting. Enjoy yourself regardless of the little miseries. It will rub off on your kids.
- Go light. You might think that you should carry more weight with kids, but we have found the opposite to be true. On our first 5-day trip in Yellowstone, my 6-year old daughter carried nothing. Light loads made it possible for me to carry all her gear. The lighter the pack, the less often you will hear this infamous phrase – how much farther do we have to hike? Carry a few select luxuries, but keep it to a minimum.
- Know your kids and help them grow. As they gain experience, help them to carry more and do more. Challenge them to learn the skills they need. Have them cook and clean up. Let them read and carry the map. Stay together and be safe.
Each family is different, but any family with young children can use these principles when exploring the outdoors together. Below, I’ll discuss our equipment and strategy for this trip, review the highlights of each day, and then discuss what we learned and what we will change in the future.
Our two children, Megan, 13 and Amy, 9 would each carry their own clothing, their own sleeping bag and some miscellaneous items. Megan also carried quite a bit of food. Karen and I carried all the tents, cook kit and fuel. We carried only one pot and an MSR Pocket Rocket stove for the four of us. We had bathing suits and sandals for spending time in the water. We each had only very lightweight insulation and no rain jackets, just water-resistant wind shirts. In the event of heavy rain, we would stay dry in our tents.
|Pack||Osprey Aether 60||Gregory G Pack||Gregory G Pack||REI Half Dome Children’s pack|
|Tent||Tarptent Squall||Mountain Hardwear Waypoint 2|
|Sleeping Bag||Western Mountaineering UltraLite||Western Mountaineering Apache||Marmot Sawtooth||North Face Blue Igloo|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Gemini||Petzl Tikka||Black Diamond Ion||Black Diamond Ion|
|Other notable gear||Cook kit, Fuel||Camera||Whistle, trail guide||Whistle, maps|
|Extra clothing||Everyone carried the following extra clothing: one lightweight long sleeved shirt, one fleece or mircrofleece top, one water repellent wind shirt, and one pair of long pants. The long pants and long sleeved shirts never left our packs. Karen and the girls only wore their fleece tops at the trail head and for the start of the hike.|
|Water capacity||12 L||6 L||4 L||1 L|
|Base weight||13.5 lb||10.5 lb||8 lb||6 lb|
With these loads, which we refine and make lighter each trip, we felt prepared to take on some of the special needs of a summer hike in the canyon. We carried 23 liters of water capacity, and lots of sunscreen. Our strategy was to hike at night and in the cool of the morning and to always camp at a water supply. We were not quite sure how severe the heat would be, but felt our 23 liters would be more than enough for our longest waterless stretch, which was 11 miles. Since we planned to hike at night, bright headlamps were important, and I used a Black Diamond Gemini instead of my normal Black Diamond Ion.
Day 1: We rise at 4 am at a hotel just south of the Grand Canyon.
At 49°F, it is colder than we had anticipated. The girls put on fleece. We stop at McDonald’s for a “last meal” and get to the trailhead by 5:45 am. Our plan for the day is to hike down to Hermit Creek – about 8 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation loss. We head down the trail at 6:15 am. The trail is steep; in places it lives up to its “no maintenance” designation. There are several rockslides, which have wiped out sections of trail, apparently years ago. We wind down through the Ponderosa pines, eventually beginning to see juniper and more cacti. Although we are in the shade, the temperature rises quickly as we lose elevation and the day advances.
All morning, we can see the deep and colorful Hermit Creek drainage below us. It is beautiful – but exposed to the sun. By 8:30 am it has reached 80°F even in the shade. We still have a long way to drop, and we make a long traverse across deep red rock, crossing large rockslides along the way. At about 10 am we begin a final very steep drop, down through Redwall limestone on a section of trail known as the Cathedral Stairs. Emerging from this chute, we see the trail following the south side of the huge red butte, and winding into the sun. We are all feeling good, and take a last long rest, watching the sun move ever so steadily in our direction. Finally, we pack up, hydrated and ready for the two or three more downhill miles, and head out into the sun, where the temperatures are easily already over 100°F. The trail curves around a nameless butte, finally leveling off on the Tonto plateau. This relatively flat plateau lies 1,000 feet above the Colorado River and traverses much of the Grand Canyon. We have plenty of water, and we cruise to Hermit Creek arriving by about 11:30 am. The creek is awesome. There are spectacular little water slides, small waterfalls and shade to hide in. It looks like just the ticket for a scorching afternoon. We spend the remainder of the day playing in the creek. There are a couple of other parties at this camp. We compare plans with them – no one is planning to spend more than 48 hours in the canyon – too darn hot. Hmm, we consider this and decide they are wimps.
After a delightful afternoon exploring in the creek and napping in the shade, we finally head up to our exposed campsite at about 9 pm. It is still over 100°F. Getting inside a sleeping bag is out of the question. In fact, I only crawl into my sleeping bag once on the entire trip. So we just lay on our little foam mats. About this time a strong wind comes up also. Here’s the kicker – the ground we are laying on is blazingly hot. I’m talking hot. And the wind is howling. This is the desert, so when the wind blows hard, sand flies all around. Imagine you are trying to sleep on a hot griddle, and every 5 minutes or so someone throws a handful of sand into your face. That’s our evening in a nutshell. Around midnight I begin to question the wisdom of this little venture. Karen and I discuss “alternative plans” since God knows nobody could possibly sleep on a hot griddle inside a sandblaster. We try to remember “Rule Number 3” – make light of adversity. I find it difficult to instill any humor into the situation. It is late, so we put these thoughts off till morning, and at some point we get a couple hours of sleep. This is the low point of the trip.
Sunrise – Hermit Trail – Day 2
Day 2: We are up at 4 am again. The temperatures from the previous day have reinforced the need to be on “desert time.” It’s fun to get into this rhythm with the desert. We decide to stick to our plan, and try to forget about our bad night.
Today’s plan is to cross a divide to reach a different drainage, and then cut off the main trail down another drainage to get to the Colorado River, a total of 5 miles. We are hiking by 5 am. It’s a beautiful hike with a spectacular sunrise. Nowhere I’ve been has sunrises or sunsets to match the Grand Canyon. We hike into a side canyon with some large rock spires and lots of early morning shade. Everyone is in good spirits. Amy and Meg are troopers despite the bad night. We cut off the main trail and make it to the river by 7:45.
We chose to go to the river at this location mainly because we knew it was popular with rafters. We didn’t really care if we shared the beach with anyone. But use by rafters was an indication that the beach might be a good campsite. Upon our arrival we realized right away that the beach was a paradise. It is about 300 feet long, with lots of trees, beautiful soft sand, and a short walk downstream to the rapids. No one was there, and we were very happy. We found a tremendous campsite on cool sand under the trees about 20 feet from the river. The river, which drains from the depths of Lake Powell, is surprisingly cold. This keeps a cool breeze going all day and night: very pleasant.
We settled into camp and saw one party of rafters float by. Now one thing you have to realize is that most river rafters follow a river code of ethics. If someone is occupying a beach then that beach belongs to them, and them only. First come, first served. If a beach is already occupied most parties will simply float on by. And if they decide to land on your beach, they will always ask permission, even if you are a tiny party of bedraggled hikers.
At the beach on the Colorado
Around 11 am two large rafts pull up to our beach and ask permission to eat lunch. We have no problem with this, of course. Here’s today’s kicker – since we have allowed them to use OUR beach they feel obligated to pay us back. Immediately, the head guide in this group walks over with four ice-cold beers. Other folks also come over, bringing us sodas, fruit drinks, chocolate milk (no kidding) and more beer. They depart about 12 and we decide to bathe in the river, which is delightful. About 1 pm, another big group of rafters comes into sight and we are beginning to catch on. One raft floats over to us and asks if they can eat lunch since it is late, and their clients are near mutiny. We oblige of course. More beers arrive, along with tuna fish sandwiches, cookies, and fresh fruit. Amy even gets Cheetos. They depart about 2 pm. The afternoon is spent playing on the sandbars.
We wonder what will happen tonight if someone actually wants to camp on our beach. About 5 pm we spot a very large raft heading down the river. Sure enough, they head straight for us. The guide strolls over to us and begins some small talk. It’s immediately apparent that they desperately want to camp here, but he is hesitant to ask us. We are happy to share and soon he is offering to cook us dinner, breakfast, and dessert. We share a nice evening with the rafters. We sleep like kings on the cool sand with a cool breeze.
Day 3: We awake to sounds of “coffee’s ready.” Our wilderness experience now includes eggs cooked to order, ham, fruit, and even orange juice. We figure that we could probably stay on that beach all summer and get fed and pampered every day. The rafters are a good lot.
Today’s plan is to hike back up the side canyon and camp by Monument Creek. That seems a bold name for a trickle 18 inches wide, although it does spill into some great little pools. After the creek our next water source is another 11 miles away, so we make camp at the creek despite it being a short hike from the Colorado River. We explore and relax all afternoon and get ready for the next day, which will entail climbing back up onto the Tonto Plateau and hiking the 11 miles across the plateau with little shade and no water. Although we are definitely in “desert time” by this point, we are still concerned that the heat will be a real problem. Our plan is to get started about 2 or 3 am, hiking the first few miles in the dark by headlamp.
We find a great little alcove with a rock ceiling in the shade and relax all afternoon – dipping into small pools in the creek to cool off on occasion. This part of the canyon is deserted, and we will not see another hiker until arriving at Indian Gardens.
By evening we pack up as much as possible and try to get some sleep. Here, Karen uses the ultimate in lightweight sleep systems. Sleeping directly on her RidgeRest with no bag, no jacket, no shoes, and no tent. Total weight, 7 ounces. A combination of bats, mice and anticipation lead to a fitful and short sleep.
Day 4: We are up at 1:40 am. After replenishing all our water and packing up, we are hiking by 2:45 am. One technique we use at most water sources is to drink our fill, and then some, before leaving water. This leads to frequent “pit stops” soon after we leave a water source, but is an effective part of managing our hydration in the desert.
We are all excited for our night hike across the Tonto plateau. We hope to arrive at Indian Gardens by 9 am, where we will camp and join the popular Bright Angel trail. The hike goes smoothly and is really a blast. We see two rattlesnakes on the trail, one Lyre snake and two huge scorpions. After we shake our initial sleepiness we move quickly and are treated to incredible views as dawn arrives. The night hiking is a little difficult because there is no moon and it is very dark. Our biggest worry is losing the trail since it is not well worn and losing it could potentially be a serious problem. But, we stay on course.
Indian Gardens – note the temperature
The sunrise is once again amazing as it reflects off the river below and the multi-hued rock all around us. Hiking on this plateau gives us a good sense of how complex and varied the canyon is. We traverse in and out of several drainages, cross under huge cliffs and above others. We stop for “lunch” at 7:30 am. It is clear by this point that we will have plenty of water and we are really savoring the morning. The girls are hiking really well and enjoyed the night hiking experience. We cruise into Indian Gardens by 9 am. The tough part is over now – but we are exhausted. We doze and lounge all day. It is definitely cooler at Indian Gardens, but the thermometer there says 112°F! I sleep like a log anyway.
Day 5: Up at 5 am. The plan is to hike up to the South Rim. It is a steep climb, but with plenty of water along the way, it will be no problem. We’re looking forward to some cooler weather on top, and very pleased that the trip has been so enjoyable in these conditions (well, except for the griddle thing on the first night). The girls knock off the climb with no difficulty. We are on top before 9 am. Immediately, we head to the ice cream shop.
Reflections on the trip
As long time desert dwellers, our experience in the desert was important to the trip’s success. Less experienced groups might consider a shorter or more well traveled route as their first desert experience.
We were happy with our equipment choices. Our lightweight tents were perfect and withstood the winds easily. You could certainly get by with a tarp in the Grand Canyon, so that is something to consider. We chose tents mainly to give us a little protection from the many creatures crawling about the desert floor at night. Our headlamps were critical to the night hiking, so we might use a more powerful lamp for Karen, such as the Black Diamond Gemini, which I carried.
The most significant change we would consider would be to carry only fleece blankets or very lightweight sleeping bags. We simply didn’t need anywhere near the sleeping insulation we carried. One possible combination would be to eliminate the bag, then also carry a bit more insulating clothing, such as long underwear, and a slightly heavier jacket.
Lightweight, well ventilated shoes kept our feet dry. Our hiking days were short, and no one had any foot or blister problems. Probably the most critical choice for success was our commitment to hike very early, and spend all day at a water source. This made for very relaxing days and eliminated most of the risk posed by the desert heat. Our 23-liter water capacity was more than enough, although I would not reduce it.
We are looking forward to many more trips together in the beautiful desert southwest.