Visiting the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable experience. The Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World that sprawls across the face of Northern Arizona. If Mount Everest is a Natural Wonder for its dangerous beauty, sheer presence, and height, then the Grand Canyon is its counterpart for depth. Stark cliffs and rugged red rock formations carved by the ancient Colorado River draw travelers from all corners of the globe to marvel at the other-worldliness of the place.
There is no wrong way to see the Grand Canyon and the park offers something for everyone in terms of experiences. There are day hikes, mule rides, river rafting adventures, historic hotels, fine dining, overnight backpacking treks, scenic vistas, and of course camping.
Camping is a fabulous way to get in touch with nature and to experience the vibe of the Grand Canyon in a uniquely immersive way. The Grand Canyon National Park boasts several campgrounds within the park boundaries, making camping a great option for those who want to experience nature firsthand. It should come as no surprise that camping in the Grand Canyon comes with its own sets of challenges that are not widely considered by the average visitor. Thankfully with this beginner’s guide to Grand Canyon camping, every traveler can be prepared for a safe and awe-inspiring adventure.
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Things to Know About Grand Canyon Camping
The climate of the Grand Canyon is probably the biggest consideration to make when planning a camping trip. Northern Arizona is a desert in various forms, and while there are no sand dunes or camel trails, there are snakes and scorpions to be aware of. The high desert landscape of the Canyon ranges from the low-scrub brush and warmer climate of the South Rim to the cool, high desert forest of the North Rim.
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Keep the critters away
Be extra vigilant to keep tents zipped up at all times. Check any stray clothing and shoes to be sure no creepy-crawlies have made a new home. When camping at the Grand Canyon it is important to remember to keep all food properly stored. Deer and rodents will take every opportunity to snatch any crumb. Many a visitor has had their backpack chewed through by chipmunk for a stray granola bar. Keep all food locked away for the health and safety of humans and animals.
Obey fire restrictions
Please abide by all fire restrictions and keep campfires in the designated spots. The forests of Northern Arizona are incredibly dry and brittle. If a burn ban is in effect, please take it seriously. Burning restrictions are not nice suggestions, but rules to be followed for everyone’s safety.
If camping during the summer months there are annual monsoons that sweep through the area in the afternoon. While the large, purple thunderheads rolling over the red canyon is a beautiful sight to behold, it isn’t so nice for a hiker or tent camper caught without rain gear. A few ponchos and tarps are great to have on hand “just in case”.
Beyond those considerations, camping in the Grand Canyon is a lot like camping anywhere else. The gear is the same: tent, backpacks, stove, pots, towels, sleeping bag, plates, water bottles, cutlery, food, soaps, clothes, etc. If traveling from out of town, it is a good idea to get all supply shopping done well before getting to the park itself. Flagstaff, Arizona is an excellent little town off I-17 that every traveler must pass through on their way to the Grand Canyon. (Fun Fact: Historic Route 66 also goes through Flagstaff. Travelers can check two things off the old Bucket List in one go.) This town has plenty of grocery stores and camping supply shops available to the traveler. The prices and selection will be far more reasonable than anything north of the town.
When choosing a campground at the Grand Canyon it is imperative to get the dates and reservations as soon as possible, and before arrival. Camping spots fill up quickly especially during the popular summer months.
Deciding where to stay in the Grand Canyon has everything to do with the visitor’s preferences and travel objectives. The Grand Canyon could be split into three main categories: North Rim, South Rim, and back-country. The rims of the Grand Canyon are nothing more than the edges of the canyon named for their southern and northern locations. The Rims typically have developed landmarks that are peppered with visitor centers, ranger’s stations, campgrounds, and corridor trails. The back-country areas of the canyon typically cover anything below the edge.
Back-country camping is a high stakes endeavor that requires permits for overnight stays. It is also important to know that extensive physical conditioning is paramount before embarking on a hike into the Grand Canyon. The climate is extreme and unforgiving beyond the edge, and it deserves due respect. Water, shade, and steep climbs await the adventurer. Planning accordingly does mean the difference between life and an air evacuation (best case scenario).
Grand Canyon Camping at the South Rim
The South Rim is probably the landscape that most travelers are familiar with when conjuring up mental images of the Grand Canyon. The high desert climate, red rocks, and juniper trees are all iconic to the experience. It comes as no surprise considering that the South Rim is the closest point of interest for most visitors as it is near the main park entrance. The South Rim is easily accessible and is a well-developed area with plenty of amenities including a visitor’s center, general store, and shuttle system.
Hiking is readily available with the Rim and Bright Angel Trailhead is easily accessible. If camping during the summer be prepared for warmer temperatures. Have plenty of water and large water containers on hand. Dehydration can set it with an alarming speed when staying in an arid, high altitude climate. The winter months are much colder. Bring plenty of cold-weather gear as snow is a possibility.
When camping in the South Rim there are two campgrounds available: Mather and Desert View.
The Mather Campground is open year-round. Throughout the early spring and late fall, the campground is hosted. The winter months are different as the ground is not staffed and everything is self-serve/self-managed. Reservations can be made online HERE or over the phone. These sites fill up fast, so plan as far in advance as possible. Water spigots and toilet facilities are available throughout the campground. Showers and laundry facilities are available for a fee. There are no RV hookups for this particular campground.
The Desert View campground is the second South Rim option. It is smaller than the Mather campground with fewer amenities. Reservations are on a first-come/first-served basis. Flushing toilets and water spigots are available, however, there are no laundry or shower facilities. Please be advised that Mather campground is not open year-round and closes for the winter, reopening in the spring.
Grand Canyon Camping at the North Rim
The Northern edge of the Grand Canyon is quite different from the South. The dry desert scrub gives way to tall Ponderosa pine and aspen trees. The North Rim is higher in altitude so it is quite a bit colder, even in the summer. During the summer months, this particular side of the Grand Canyon boasts beautiful views, top-notch dining, the North Kaibab Trailhead, and plenty of outdoor experiences. Due to the colder climate the North Rim completely closes during the winter.
The North Rim campground is currently available on a first-come/first-served basis during the summer months. The sites are available for tent and RV camping. Water is provided throughout the grounds. Laundry and shower facilities are available for a fee. The North Rim has a beautiful lodge as well as a visitor’s center near the campground. If taking a break from camping food seems like a welcome change of pace then dinner at The Lodge Dining Room is an unforgettable experience with excellent food and even better views. The visitor’s center has a complimentary pamphlet of day hikes for most physical abilities.
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Grand Canyon Camping in the Back-country
While the edges of the Grand Canyon are breathtaking it is only natural to want to know what this beautiful place looks like from below. As beautiful as this canyon is, it is imperative to know that it comes at a cost. Hiking and backpacking in the Grand Canyon is a feat that requires top physical ability, hiking know-how, backpacking savvy, and desert survival experience.
Mountains are an easy deterrent to those who may not be prepared to climb them as the trails are steep and treacherous uphill at the start. The Grand Canyon lulls hikers into a false sense of security with the downhill climb at the trailhead, it seems all too easy to continue down a trail that can not be easily climbed back out of. Please be advised that the following camping experiences are for those who have adequately prepared for such an undertaking.
Since all campgrounds in the back-country can only be accessed by foot, all campgrounds and experiences that follow will be considered “backpacking”. Meaning there is no car access and all supplies for food, hygiene, sleeping, and survival will be carried in a large backpack throughout long, treacherous, multi-day hikes. Please research all appropriate gear, packing lists, and hiking itineraries when considering a venture of this magnitude.
Overnight camping in the Grand Canyon requires a permit for all hikers/backpackers. Applications are available for download on the National Park’s website HERE. Applicants can bring their forms to the back-country office within the Grand Canyon National Park, or by either faxing or mailing in the requests to the number/address provided on the website.
The weather in the Grand Canyon varies greatly depending on the season. During the summer extreme caution should be taken as the temperatures can exceed 110 degrees. The radiant heat from the red canyon walls can cause the thermometer to rise drastically. The trails have little to no cover in terms of shade and water is intermittently available. Be heat smart and hike early in the morning, wear wide-brimmed hats, and bring large volumes of water via a hydration pack or dromedary bag.
In the winter temperatures plummet significantly. Prepare for cold weather camping. Do not skimp on warm sleeping bags, base layers, and sleeping pads.
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Indian Gardens/Plateau Point
This campground is located 5 miles below the South Rim on the Bright Angel trail. It is roughly halfway down to the bottom of the canyon and the rim. A spring runs through the site watering tall cottonwood trees and grasses making for an unusual sight among the usual desert scrub. From the campground, there is a small trail that takes the hiker from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point (additional 2 miles round trip). The views are breathtaking being equal distance from the edge of the canyon and the Colorado River at the bottom. The Indian Gardens campground has a ranger station, year-round water spigots, toilets, and picnic tables.
Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel
Located literally at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, ten miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead, is the Phantom Ranch lodge. This area is the only developed part of the Canyon in terms of services. There are phones, mail (the only place where letters will be carried by mule), a ranger’s station, and cabins with running water. Reservations for the cabins need to be made well in advance HERE.
A small general store and restaurant are also located within the lodge. Adjacent to the lodge and cabins is the Bright Angel campground. This campground is perched along the edge of the Colorado River. Campers will find themselves lulled to sleep by the sound of the rushing river and the leaves rustling overhead in the wind in a truly unforgettable experience. Water and toilets are available as well as picnic tables throughout the site.
Four hours from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is Havasupai Falls. This location is renowned for its beautiful series of turquoise waterfalls and red rocks set deep inside the canyon walls. This area is located outside of the National Park boundaries and on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. The campground and falls are all located in the same vicinity.
Havasupai Falls is a one-stop destination and hikers should plan to spend several days exploring the nearby day hikes and waterfalls. Getting to the campground involves a 10-mile one-way hike through steep switchbacks and narrow canyons. Be sure to bring plenty of water as there is no water available on the trail. This is important to note during the blistering summer months when temperatures rise over 110 degrees. Permits are required for all guests before arrival and reservations can be made HERE. Toilets, picnic tables, and water spigots are available throughout the grounds.
Camping is a wonderful way to experience the Grand Canyon. The place itself is awe-inspiring and terrifying. The steep canyon walls and low desert scrub brush looks like something out of a movie set.
There are plenty of options to consider when it comes to a camping experience in the Grand Canyon. All the factors can and should seem intimidating at first. The harshness of the climate combined with the stark reddish cliffs deserves the respect of the visitor. However, with a little research and planning, it can be a fabulous way to experience one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
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