I completed a bucket-list hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. Here are 11 things I did right and 6 things I got wrong.

·12 min read
A river inside the Grand Canyon
Only a small group of people hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.Zachary Petit
  • I've been to the Grand Canyon several times but never hiked to the bottom and back until this year.

  • I'm glad I overprepared with practice hikes at home, took things slow, and prebooked meals.

  • However, I wish I had stopped to savor the experience a bit more.

I've been to the Grand Canyon numerous times but never hiked to the bottom and back — until now.

A man taking a selfie while hiking in the Grand Canyon
Posing inside the Grand Canyon.Zachary Petit

I've visited the Grand Canyon numerous times over the years, but my trips consisted mostly of gawking at its size from the rim before moving on to the next destination on my itinerary.

When I visited earlier this year, though, I was there with my best friend to complete a bucket-list hike to the bottom.

According to the National Park Foundation, less than 1% of the Grand Canyon's millions of annual visitors ever make it to the bottom. We sought to do just that via two of the park's best-known trails, descending the steep South Kaibab (7.4 miles) and returning back up the no-less-demanding Bright Angel (10 miles).

Some people told me it's the hardest hike of their lives. Others said it was a walk in the park. I wasn't sure where I'd fall on that spectrum, but was about to find out.

Here's what I did right — and wrong.

One of the best things I did was opting not to start the hike in Arizona but rather my backyard in Cincinnati.

A pair of hiking boots photographed close up in the woods.
I broke my boots in at home before leaving for my trip.Zachary Petit

Originally, we planned to take this trip in 2020, and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

Our plan revolved around hiking to the bottom and staying at Phantom Ranch, known for its remoteness and the fact it's the only lodging below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Built in 1922, the Ranch consists of a rustic dining hall and a small set of cabins and dorms that are accessible only by foot, mule, or raft, and reservations are awarded by a lottery.

The dorm we initially won a spot in shuttered during the pandemic. And while we lost the lottery in 2021, we snagged a reservation for a cabin in May 2022.

The delay proved to be an unexpected boon. It gave us two-plus years to research the journey and train weekly. We hiked in intense heat, in the rain, and in ice and snow, to prepare for all climates within the park.

By the time we flew west, our boots and backpacks were broken in. Had we left in 2020 as planned, I'm not sure it would have gone as smoothly.

I'm glad I tested my backpack on practice hikes to determine the ultimate packing list.

A hiking backpack inside a suitcase on the floor
I packed my hiking backpack inside a suitcase for the trip to Arizona.Zachary Petit

I came up with a list of essentials and went for a test hike on a local trail at home. I chose one with a fair amount of elevation gain to mimic a fraction of what I'd experience in the canyon.

In the first 10 minutes, my back let me know I overpacked.

When I got home, I began shedding items left and right, like my SLR camera with numerous lenses. My friend and I also made a shared document to identify redundant items between us.

Ultimately, I chose to keep a 3-liter hydration bladder, a backup bottle, first aid/emergency supplies, foot care, snacks, hygiene essentials, maps, clothing for multiple climates, and an extra pair of shoes, clocking in at 20 to 25 pounds.

It was smart to arrive to the Grand Canyon early to acclimate to the elevation to avoid altitude sickness.

A man standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon taking a photo
We arrived early to enjoy the scenery and acclimate to the elevation.Courtesy of Barry Williams

We flew into Las Vegas and rented a car to drive a few hours to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where we planned to head down the trail a couple of days later.

In the meantime, we stayed in small bungalows with great views of the plunge we were about to take and explored the area.

But the early arrival also meant I took on too much activity instead of resting.

A view over the Grand Canyon.
A view of the Grand Canyon.Zachary Petit

In our excitement to see and do everything upon arrival, from the visitor's centers to the different viewpoints, shops, and restaurants, I made the mistake of blowing past my 10,000-step daily goal.

As a result, I gave myself arch pain, which only added to my pre-hike jitters.

When it was time to hike, we avoided heat and sun by catching a free 5 a.m. shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead, which isn't accessible by private vehicle.

The top of the Grand Canyon at sunrise.
Zachary Petit

I'm glad we did this rather than walking over. While the early wake-up was rough, we avoided extra heat and sun exposure.

While trail runners and day hikers blazed past us, I'm glad we chose to take it slow.

A view of the Grand Canyon on the trail looking down.
On the trail inside the Grand Canyon.Zachary Petit

We intentionally made many stops for photos and to embrace the awesomeness of the experience.

To force ourselves to take it easy and not overheat — a real danger that claims the lives of hikers on these trails every year, we set an alarm reminding us to stop every hour of the four- to five-hour trek to hydrate, have a snack, rest, stretch, and bask in the views.

It was tempting to charge to the bottom, but the journey was all the better for it.

I made sure to take good care of my feet for the entire hike.

The top of a backpack with socks dangling on the side of it.
I used the sock trick, in which you stash a pair of hiking socks on your pack. When your feet get sweaty, you change them and hang the used pair to dry in the sun.Zachary Petit

My feet are prone to blisters, and I prepared by using good, worn-in insoles and impromptu applications of Body Glide (an anti-chafing stick) and Moleskin friction pads on our hourly stops.

These precautions saved me, as did the sock trick. For the latter, you stash an extra pair of hiking socks somewhere easily accessible on your pack. When you feel your feet getting sweaty, you stop and change them out, hanging the used pair outside your pack to dry in the sun.

While a dangling pair of dirty socks wasn't the sharpest sartorial move, I didn't get a single blister during the trip.

I lost my hat, one of the most mandatory items for a desert journey. I wish I had cinched it tighter.

A man taking a selfie with a scarf wrapped around his neck, wearing sunglasses.
When my hat blew away, I had to rely on a neck gaiter.Zachary Petit

The 20 mph winds whipping through the canyon had other plans for the wide-brimmed hat I brought with me.

Rather than scrambling for it on a precipitous cliff, I pulled out a UPF neck gaiter and used it to shield myself from the sun. I may have looked more like Jackie O than canyoneer, but I escaped a sunburn.

Cinch that drawstring tighter than mine was so you don't foolishly leave a trace behind at the park or suffer from sun exposure.

In our excitement to reach Phantom Ranch, I regret that we skipped a stop by the Black Bridge.

A river amid mountains with a bridge going over it.
A view of the Black Bridge over the Colorado River.Zachary Petit

With only a couple of miles to go, we spotted the gateway to our destination, the Black Bridge over the Colorado River. It's a sign you're nearly at Phantom Ranch, where cabins and refreshments await.

In the rush to get there, however, I regret that we skipped a stop by the beach to soak my feet in the cold water.

Once we arrived at Phantom Ranch, we sat down for a meal. I'd never been more thankful for a dinner reservation in my life.

A stone and log cabin next to trees and mountains.
A cabin at Phantom Ranch.Zachary Petit

Finally, there it was: Phantom Ranch. I found it cathartic to visit its century-old grounds, watch mule deer graze nearby, have a glass of the ranch's lemonade, and fill out postcards that bear the coveted "mailed by mule at the bottom of the Grand Canyon" stamp, all while sharing the experience with others who made the journey down.

And then there's the food. While the canteen serves chips and other snacks, hikers can book breakfast, a sack lunch, or dinner before trekking down.

The meals aren't cheap, but my strip steak, served with a baked potato, salad, carrots, and dessert, felt wholly restorative.

Using hiking poles prepared me for the hobbled walk that hikers are known to sport after the descent.

Hiking poles laying on a wood surface.
My trekking poles.Zachary Petit

Most human bodies aren't used to descending 7.4 miles of rock, with an elevation change roughly equivalent to 460 flights of stairs.

My knees, surprisingly, felt great thanks to the trekking poles I trained with since we first planned the journey. I think they're a simple and crucial piece of gear (and central to the trend of "Nordic Walking"), and not only saved my legs on the way down but greatly helped on the way back up, too.

Because I heavily researched Phantom Ranch, I knew what to expect of the accommodations and wasn't disappointed while others complained about the bare rooms.

Bunk beds in a room with a chair.
Our cabin had bunk beds and was sparsely decorated with rustic style.Zachary Petit

The cabins at Phantom Ranch are no-frills: just some bunk beds, a concrete floor, a bathroom, and a sink with cold water. I knew this going in, but other hikers I chatted with seemed frustrated and disappointed by the lack of amenities.

But, in my opinion, the fact they exist at all at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — and also have air conditioning — is an incredible feat of engineering.

I felt so anxious about the hike back up that I stayed in the cabin to rest instead of exploring my surroundings. I wish I got out more to enjoy the success of our hike.

A man from behind hiking inside the Grand Canyon.
I felt anxious about the hike back up.Zachary Petit

From our cabin, looking back at the top of the South Rim, roughly 10 miles off and thousands of feet up, I felt terrified.

I started to feel anxious about the hike back up, scrutinizing every pain point and the impact it might have on my ability to complete the hike. I maintained a periodic nervousness throughout our two-day stay, which distracted me from the otherwise transcendent vibe of Phantom Ranch.

Instead of taking a day hike to a waterfall, I hung out in our cabin and rested for the return journey. If I could do it again, I wish I would have enjoyed this time more.

When it was time to hike back up, I made sure to follow a drinking and snacking schedule to keep me fueled and feeling good.

A closeup of a hand holding a half eaten bagel.
I prepared for the return hike with loads of snacks, including bagels.Zachary Petit

After wolfing down a 5 a.m. prebooked breakfast of eggs, sausage, and pancakes at Phantom Ranch, and picking up the sack lunch we'd arranged for at the canteen, we struck out.

Before departing, we verified which water stations would be available along the trails, as they vary seasonally. And thanks to our practice runs back home, I knew heat sneaks up on me fast, and put Nuun electrolyte tablets directly into my water bladder to ensure I was well hydrated.

I also knew that on grueling, hot hikes, I get nauseous instead of hungry and I would need to force myself to eat. I did so, choking down bagels, snack sticks, energy gels, cheese, and a crushed-up bag of potato chips, a trail hack recommended to us by a Grand Canyon ranger.

I should have taken more time to rest, stretch, and explore Indian Garden, also known as Havasupai Garden.

A wooden sign saying Indian Garden.
I wish we spent more time at Indian Garden.Zachary Petit

Located 5 miles in, about halfway between Phantom Ranch and the top of the South Rim, this popular Cottonwood-lined respite offers shade, bathrooms, places to sit, a campground and, most crucially, potable water — the only water source available during our hike.

When we got there, we knew the hardest part of the ascent was still ahead of us. So after a quick snack, soaking our neck gaiters, and refilling our water, we were off.

If I could dial back the clock, I'd have taken more time to rest, stretch, explore, chat with other hikers, and get ready for the last leg. It's considered to be a sacred site by the Havasupai for more than a millennia.

On the final, most grueling leg, I wished I had hit the StairMaster at the gym before the trip.

A man hiking inside the Grand Canyon using trekking poles.
The final leg was a grueling, vertical ascent.Zachary Petit

The final leg of the Bright Angel trail is dubbed "The Wall" for good reason. Here, the path rockets up a few thousand feet in a couple of short miles.

And while I was downright gleeful as I started seeing hikers coming down from the rim because I knew I was near the end, I quickly realized I should've trained more for this portion of the hike to make it less painful.

Eventually, we made it out, and it was a glorious feeling, perhaps unlike anything I've ever experienced, though the pain in my calves definitely lingered.

When my hike was complete, I made sure to celebrate it properly. I'm glad I reserved a popular restaurant three months in advance.

A man hiking along the edge of the Grand Canyon
I was glad to have reservations made at the top of the rim at El Tovar.Courtesy of Barry Williams

My favorite part of completing a hike like this is replacing all those lost calories in a lavish way.

We booked a reservation at the historic El Tovar Dining Room in El Tovar Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the canyon. The restaurant is popular, and we made a reservation three months in advance to ensure the last thing we would do after hiking 10 miles uphill was hunt for a place to eat.

The food is pricey, but the restaurant is only five minutes from the Bright Angel trailhead, and I found it to be a grand place to lick my wounds.

As I devoured the restaurant's signature beef stroganoff, I wondered: Was it the hardest thing I'd ever done or a walk in the park?

Ultimately, every grueling step brought us closer to more beauty — so I'd say both.

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