Sleeping under the stars deep in the Grand Canyon
The National Park Service operates developed campgrounds on the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon and allows backcountry camping on the rims and the canyon floor. Developed campgrounds have tent sites or parking pads for RVs and limited hookups. If you’re backpacking, you don’t have to stay in one of the campgrounds on the canyon floor, but all campers, including those staying at Bright Angel, Cottonwood and Indian Garden campgrounds require backcountry permits. There is also dispersed camping in national forests near the north and south rims.
Getting to the Grand Canyon backcountry campgrounds
Bright Angel: Hike the River Trail or the north or south Kaibab trails to reach this campground about a half-mile from the Colorado River. The North Kaibab trail hike, at a little over 14 miles, is the longest. The shortest hike is on the South Kaibab trail, 6.8 miles from trailhead to campground. The Bright Angel trail is 9.3 miles long. Bright Angel campground, named for the creek it’s on, has water, toilets and a ranger station.
Cottonwood: Almost seven miles from the North Kaibab trailhead, and 16.6 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim, Cottonwood campground is halfway between the Colorado River and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s not an easy hike–the trail loses 3,170 feet in elevation. Most of the campsites are unshaded, but nearby Bright Angel Creek provides a spot for cooling off. The campground has toilets, water and a ranger station, but the station closes and the water is shut off during the winter.
Indian Garden: Indian Garden is only 4.6 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead and makes a great first-night stop for hikers headed farther into the canyon or on to the North Rim. Lush plants, nourished by nearby Indian Garden Spring, provide shade for the campsites. The campground, outfitted with toilets, water and a ranger station, is near Plateau Point and the Tonto Trail.
What to pack for camping in the Grand Canyon
Since you’ll have to pack out everything you pack in to one of the Grand Canyon backcountry campgrounds, there probably will be no room in your backpack for extras. Temperatures at the rim of the canyon and the valley floor can be very different. Pack lightweight clothing you can layer as temperatures change. Thin, long-sleeved shirts worn over a tank top keep you cooler by protecting your skin from the sun. Wear pants if you’ll be hiking through areas with bushes that might scratch your legs. Otherwise, shorts are acceptable. Wear thick socks, make sure your hiking boots are worn in and waterproofed and carry blister bandages. Pack extra socks in case yours get wet. Use sunscreen, and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Hike in the early morning or in the evening, and make sure you have enough water to remain hydrated.
Crowds and seasons at the Grand Canyon
Around five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year. Most of them tour the more easily accessible South Rim. Only 10 percent of those visitors make the trek to the North Rim, which closes from mid-October to mid-May.
Since many of the campsites at Grand Canyon campgrounds, both developed and dispersed, are available on a first-come, first-served basis, expect them to fill quickly during busy seasons and on weekends. If you need to know that you’ll have a site after a long drive, make reservations at one of the drive-in developed campgrounds on the north or south rim that accepts reservations.
Many of the developed campgrounds on the north and south rims close in October, but Mather, in Grand Canyon Village, remains open year-round. Overnight backpacking on the canyon floor is permitted year-round, but hikers must apply for a permit.
Making the most of a Grand Canyon camping trip
Download and study the National Park Service’s “Introduction to Backcountry Hiking” brochure before you head into the canyon. It gives know-before-you-go tips, hints on essentials for hiking in the canyon, seasonal tips and trail information.
Begin your hike into the canyon early in the morning when temperatures are cooler. Remember that you’re in a desert environment and temperatures can be scorching hot during the daytime. This also allows time to set up camp and do some exploring.
Because the park promotes zero light pollution practices, the night sky is clear. Make sure you save some time for stargazing.
Leave Fido at home. Pets are not permitted below the canyon rim, but if you can’t find a dog sitter, a park concessionaire operates a kennel for both dogs and cats on the South Rim.
If you plan to camp anywhere in the Grand Canyon, other than the north and south rim developed campgrounds, you’ll need a backcountry permit. Because of the park’s fragile ecology, far fewer permits are awarded than are applied for. You can apply for a permit up to four months in advance. Once you’ve reached your campsite, display your permit so that rangers can easily check it.
Once you’re in the backcountry, keep in mind that wood and charcoal fires are prohibited. Leave the wildlife alone, stay on trails and don’t disturb archaeological sites.