Tips for Going to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon – When to Go, What to Pack, Etc.
One thing I’ll try to do more of with my blog is to synthesize my experiences into tips for other travelers to use when they are planning their own trips to the places I’ve been to. Since my recent trip to Phantom Ranch at the Grand Canyon is fresh on my mind, here are my top tips for making your Grand Canyon/Phantom Ranch experience a good one as well as hard-to find details as to what to expect at the bottom.
Tip #1: Plan in advance
Some of us are not planners, and that’s ok. However, understand that many top attractions and places worth seeing are so overrun with tourists that there is some kind of reservation/lottery system in place that requires advance planning (and luck), sometimes months and years in advance. Securing accommodations at the bottom of the canyon, at Phantom Ranch, is now a bit easier with the new lottery reservation system, which I already wrote about, but you do have to enter the lottery 15 months in advance. Before you put your name in the hat, however, you need to have two vital pieces of information already figured out:
a. What time of year you want to go
The best times to visit are Fall and Spring due to milder temperatures – this means September to November and March to May. I went during Thanksgiving and the weather was gorgeous, but keep in mind these shoulder seasons can bring unpredictable weather and what was a pleasant Thanksgiving one year could be snowy mess the next year. Take your chances, or choose a month where it’s more certain that you won’t have to deal with inclement weather (although you’ll probably be dealing with higher temps then).
b.Whom you’re going to go with
This is necessary because half the accommodations are dorms, which are split by gender. You have to know how many men and women you’ll have in your party if you end up being stuck with dorm reservations (cabins tend to fill up first). Everything needs to be paid up front so be prepared to do that as well. You might think that cabins are preferable but both dorms and cabins have pros and cons. Each dorm is shared among 6 people but it has its own hot-water sink, toilet and shower. Cabins give you more privacy but each cabin only has a toilet and a cold-water sink (no shower inside)… and you’re still sleeping in bunk beds like in the dorms. There is a community shower room ( with 3 shower stalls) for those staying in the cabins.
We stayed in both and could not decide which one was “better.” We actually enjoyed meeting other hikers in the dorms but liked having our own space in the cabin. We also could shower at the same time in the community shower room, which saved some major time. 🙂
Book your food when you book your lodging, unless you plan on bringing your own. Food will add a lot of weight to your pack, so another option is to utilize the mule duffel service to carry up to 30 lbs per person even if you yourself hike down. This also has to be reserved in advance. If you have any die-hard dietary restrictions, I strongly advise that you bring your own food. Read more under tip #3 – packing, below.
Tip #2: Spend at least 2 nights at the bottom, and spend the night before and night after on the rim
One of the best tips I encountered in my research was to spend more than 1 night at Phantom Ranch, if possible. It will give you more time to recover from the hike down and there is plenty to do at the bottom. You will also enjoy a forced break from your cell phone since there is no cell service at the bottom, and no WiFi either.
Also be sure to book reservations on the rim for the night before and the night after your Phantom Ranch excursion. We met people who were going to drive home after hiking out, which seemed like unnecessary torture. Real life can wait; savor the moments you have and don’t throw yourself back into the whirlwind so quickly.
Tip #3: Packing for the trip down
No matter what time of year you visit, you will be dealing with a big temperature differences between day and night and also between the rim and the bottom of the canyon. Essentially, prepare for temperature swings of 50F or more, and always bring clothes that are warm enough should you have to spend the night outdoors. I don’t mean to scare anyone but you never know what can happen on the trail, so you should always carry food, water and clothing for surviving a night outdoors.
So, people always advise you to layer – what does that mean, exactly? You know yourself best and know whether you tend to be warm, cold or somewhere in the middle. I personally tend to run warm. Then, consider whether you will be active or not on your trip, and what kinds of temps you will be in the majority of the time. Focus on packing for those conditions, then add a couple of key pieces to get you through any weather outliers you might encounter. Pay special attention to wind or rain in the forecast and bring appropriate pieces for that (I am a big fan of wind-proof outerwear).
For my trip to the bottom this past Thanksgiving, the majority of our time outside was going to be spent hiking during the day with temps in 60s and 70s. It did get cold at night, but we would have limited exposure to those temps since we would be mostly indoors at that time. With that in mind, here’s what I brought on my trip (and not everything went down to the bottom,either):
- 3 short sleeved running shirts
- 1 long sleeve running shirt. I love the Nike Element long sleeve half-zip shirts, they are awesome in all kinds of temps and they have UPF protection.
- 1 wool technical long sleeve that I ended up not using. I like Helly Hansen for my wool base layers; specifically, this Helly Hansen long-sleeve half zip. Do you notice I have a thing for half-zip shirts? 🙂 Keep in mind these are designed to fit snug against you – if you don’t like that, size up.
- 1 light wind/rain jacket. I have the Marmot Precip Rain jacket, pictured below. This worked well for me with just a short sleeve underneath but I tend to get warm fast when I am exercising. By the way, the matching purple sunglasses are Goodr (the color I’m wearing is called Gardening with a Kraken). Purple and teal are competing for my favorite color, can you tell? 🙂 My friends, both of whom get cold more easily, were jacket twins with their Patagonia puff jackets and they both wore long sleeves underneath.
- 1 thicker jacket in case we went out star gazing at night when it would have been in the 30s on the rim. I love this REI jacket because the sleeves come off and it turns into a vest; unfortunately it’s no longer available but look for something similar. I didn’t bring this to the bottom either.
- Gloves and a beanie. I prefer putting these on when I’m cold instead of bringing a thicker jacket.
- I hiked in tights but my friends chose long hiking pants. Again, I tend to run warm so I picked capri tights since they cover enough of my legs for the cold mornings but also breathe well when the temperature rises. The trails were very dusty so my socks and calves were covered in a layer of dust. If you don’t like that, plan on long hiking pants/tights, wear high socks or wear gaiters. As a tall gal, I am having a hard time finding hiking pants that are long enough… I’ll scream from the rooftops if I find a pair. The one thing besides length I always look for is a thigh pocket! Perfect place for a phone or chap stick. I hate using the back or side pockets for this purpose, it feels weird when I sit down and these pockets are full. Anyone else feel this way?
- We all took different-sized packs, as I’ve already discussed! Mine is the Osprey Mira 34 in Bondi Blue. I carried about 18 lbs in it and I had no shoulder or back problems whatsoever!
Packs are tricky to size yourself for. The size you need is actually based on the measurement from your neck to your lower back – basically, the length of your torso. It’s not about your height! I went to REI to get myself sized correctly but you can use their online guide. I still recommend that you go in person and try packs yourself to see what works best with your body. One thing you want to make sure is that the hip belt rests on your hips – not too high, not too low. This is key in ensuring that the pack weight is off your shoulders.
- Definitely bring hiking poles. All 3 of us opted for light-weight hiking poles that fold down so we can put them inside suitcases. Hiking poles are not allowed in your carry-on, so if you’re flying, you have to have a pair that fits into a suitcase you can check in. I just bought the Komperdell Carbon Expedition 4 Compact trekking poles before this trip and I am very happy with them. Be sure to read up on how to pick the right size hiking poles for you.
Save space by using next day’s clean clothes as your PJs. Also, always bring a bathing suit (I bring one no matter where I am going) – there is a beach at the bottom of the canyon near Phantom Ranch that is a must if the weather is warm enough.
Food-wise, we reserved all meals with our Phantom Ranch reservation. Breakfast was served family style and consisted of pancakes, sausage and bacon, eggs, canned fruit (not fresh), coffee and tea. Dinner was steak, green beans, baked potatoes, corn bread, salad, and dessert. Everything was delicious!
We also reserved sack lunches at Phantom Ranch, which we weren’t really happy with. They consisted of a bagel and cream cheese, summer sausage, peanuts, dried cranberries, pretzels, an apple, Oreos and electrolyte powder. Unless this sounds really appealing to you (I mean, bagel for lunch?!?!?), either bring your own or save yourself some money (and reduce waste) by buying items a la carte once you are at Phantom Ranch. Everything in the sack lunch was available for purchase on its own, and there were other snack items too. No sandwiches or anything remotely resembling proper lunch food though.
Beer and wine are also available for purchase at the canteen, but they could run out (they did run out of red wine while we were there). Credit cards are accepted no matter how small the purchase, so don’t worry about bringing cash. The only food we brought down with us were nutrition bars (I like Kind, GoMacro, RX) and trail mix. For lunch on the hike down, we purchased a pre-packed sandwich at the Maswik Lodge food court, which was your basic white-bread, american cheese and lunch meat sandwich.
And that, my friends is the run-down. I hope you’ve found some of these tips or gear recommendations (entirely my own, by the way, I am not getting paid by anyone) helpful. If so, please share this post or leave me a comment! If you have recommendations of your own, please share those also. Happy travels!