Go to GRAND CANYON Explorer home page

Frequently Asked Questions

This page tries to answer some of the most common questions asked by park visitors. If you cannot find an answer to your question here try contacting a ranger at the south rim Visitor Center directly. When at the park seek out a ranger.

The questions and answers on this page are broken down into various categories based on topic:

Common Questions

How was it made?

There are a number of different theories that attempt to describe how the Grand Canyon came to be. The most popular theory at present claims that the Colorado River was in it's present bed, or one very close to it, long before the Canyon existed. When the Colorado Plateau began to uplift the river simply cut it's way through it as it rose. It did not rise very fast and so the river had plenty of time. Since the upper layers of the Colorado Plateau are composed primarily of sedimentary rock, which erodes easily, the river did not have to work that hard. The river is working much harder now as it is currently running through a rock layer composed of granite which does not erode as easily.

An analogy commonly used by Park Rangers compares the Colorado River cutting the Grand Canyon to cutting a cake by holding the knife still and having someone lift the cake.

To learn about some other theories about how the Grand Canyon was formed you should visit the Yavapai Observation Station at Yavapai Point.

What's the best way to see the Canyon?

There is no best way to see the Canyon. To truly experience the Canyon you must become part of it. This takes time and you should use whatever time you have at the Grand Canyon wisely. Click here for some suggestions.

Where's the road to the bottom?

There isn't one.

How do you get to the bottom?

You have two choices for getting to the bottom. One, walk down under your own power, or, two, let a mule do the walking.

Why isn't there any elevator?

Yes, I have actually heard people ask this question, and I have seen the Ranger's eyes roll back into their heads trying answer it. The basic answer is that the Park Service tries to preserve the natural look and feel of the Canyon as much as possible and putting in a elevator would go against their philosophy.

What's the best time of year to visit the Canyon?

Anytime of year is a good time to visit the Canyon. Each season has it's own special rewards. For backpacking and hiking on the south rim the best time of year is early (late September through late November) and mid-spring (April and May). Summers on the south rim are warm and mild but summer in the inner canyon is brutally hot with temperatures well over 110 degrees F (43 C). Winter comes to the south rim by early December and you can expect snow anytime through March. It typically does not snow very much, only a few inches (10 cm) at a time, and the snow usually gets a chance to melt between storms. Occasionally a bigger storm hits that will dump a foot (30 cm) or more of snow and that will stick around for a while and may close some of the roads in the area for up to a day. Seeing the Canyon with snow on the rim is an experience that only a small percentage of the total visitors get. The beauty of this vista has to be seen to be believed.

The best times for hiking on the north rim are May, September and early October. The north rim is over 1000 feet (300 meters) higher than the south rim and is therefore much cooler in the summer and much colder in the winter. Hiking through the north rim forests is wonderful throughout the summer months. If you are planning to head into the inner canyon you will again have to deal with the heat. The north rim officially opens on May 15 and closes on October 15. After it closes the services within the park shut down and the park remains open for day use only until the first major snowfall closes the road for good.

Where's the best place to watch sunrise/sunset?

The best places to watch sunrise and sunset are on promontories of rock that jut out into the Canyon. My favorite place is Yaki Point, near the trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail, at the western end of the Desert View Drive. I prefer this spot this especially well for sunrise, to watch the sunlight illuminate O'Neill Butte, which is just below the viewpoint. Some other popular places are Pima, Mohave and Hopi Points on the Hermit Road and Lipan Point at the east end of the Desert View Drive. In the village area Yavapai Point is a good choice.

How do you get to the other side?

To get to the other side you can walk, drive or take a shuttle.

Walking is the shortest route across, only 21 miles. This will typically take you at least 2 and possibly 3 or more days, via the Bright Angel or South Kaibab and North Kaibab Trails, and camping overnight at Bright Angel Campground or lodging at Phantom Ranch.

To drive to the other side is 215 miles, a 4 to 5 hour trip. This is a very scenic drive and along the route you will get to see the Little Colorado River Gorge, Marble Canyon, and the Vermilion Cliffs.

A shuttle service is provided for people who wish to hike across one way but not the other. Contact the Transportation Desk at the Bright Angel Lodge for more information.

Why is the sky so hazy?

This is typically caused by manmade pollution blowing over the Canyon from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The Navaho Generating Station, a coal burning powerplant located near the Canyon, has also been blamed for some of this pollution.

Vital Statistics

How big is it?

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long and varies in width from 5 miles (8 km) to 18 miles (29 km). In the village area it is about 10 miles (16 km) across. The Grand Canyon begins at Lees Ferry, which is measured as mile 0 on the Colorado River, and ends at the Grand Wash Cliffs, mile 277. In the village area it is about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) deep as measured from the south rim and 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) deep as measured from the north rim.

Grand Canyon National Park itself contains over a million acres of land - 1,218,375 to be exact. This equates to about 1,904 square miles (4,931 square kilometers).

How old is it?

The Canyon itself is not that old, only 5 or 6 million years. The rock layers exposed at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon are almost 2 billion years old.

How big is the river?

The Colorado river averages about a hundred yards across as it runs through the Canyon. It is 1,450 miles (2,333 km) long and runs from it's source in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico.

Why does it look like that?

The main reason why the Canyon looks the way it does is because the different types of rocks that it is composed of erode at different rates and in very different ways. Softer rock and rock that tends to erode easily will form slopes whereas harder rock and rock that does not easily erode will form cliffs. The best example of a slope is the Tonto Platform, located about 2/3 of the way to the bottom, which is composed primarily of Bright Angel Shale and has eroded into a wide bench. The best example of a cliff is the Redwall Limestone which forms the massive cliff just above the Tonto Platform. The various colors that you see can be attributed to the composition of the rocks in the different geologic layers. Different minerals located in the rocks cause the different colors. Sometimes the color from one layer will leach down onto lower layers as is the case with the Redwall Limestone, which is not actually red but brown, but has had its outer layer stained red by iron oxides leaching out of the layers above it.

Hiking And Backpacking

How long does it take to get to the bottom?

The shortest route the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, is 6.5 miles (10.4 km) by way of the South Kaibab Trail. This also involves a vertical drop of about 4,400 feet (1,443 meters). The average person would make the trip down in 3-4 hours and the trip back up in 6-8 hours. This should not be attempted as a day hike. There is no water available enroute and the trail is very exposed causing summertime high temperatures in excess of 100 F (40 C). During winter, the top portion of the trail is frequently covered with ice and the lower portion with a very slick mud.

Can I go to the river and back in one day?

Day hikes to the river and back are not recommended. This is not to say that it has not been or cannot be done, it is simply not a safe thing for your average person to do. If you are adapted to the high altitude, can walk 13-15 miles pretty much continuously for 9-15 hours, and handle the vertical drop and rise of almost a mile, and can carry at least 2 quarts of water and some food, and are in extremely good shape, then you can probably survive the attempt. Someone usually dies and many are seriously injured in the attempt ever year. Heatstroke, hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion are the common undoings of people who make the attempt.

The safest route if you are still determined is to descend via the South Kaibab Trail and ascend along the Bright Angel Trail, because it usually has water available. This involves a descent of 6.7 miles to Bright Angel Campground, on the other side of the Colorado River, a walk of 2 miles along the river trail, followed by an ascent of about 7.5 miles. You can break up the hike out with pauses at Indian Gardens, the Three-Mile-Resthouse and the Mile-And-A-Half-Resthouse. Potable water is usually available at Indian Gardens, except in the event of a pipeline break, which is not that uncommon. Check before you start your hike. During the spring, summer and fall months, water is usually available at the resthouses as well. The water is turned off during the winter months.

The Fred Harvey Company operates a shuttle that runs between a few of the lodges in the village area and the trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail. This does two pickups every morning. Check with the lodge transportation desks for details.

What should I bring with me?

What you bring with you depends a lot on where you are going, how long you are going to be there and how comfortable you want to be. If you are planning a multi-day trek through the Canyon you need to be aware of every ounce that goes into your backpack.

For a day hike:

For an overnight or multi-day hike:

* These items are optional depending on the level of comfort and peace of mind that you want to maintain. Many people will sleep out under the stars with the snakes and scorpions, I personally would prefer not to. You can also bring food that does not require cooking.

Are there any toilets down there?

There are a few chemical toilets in some of the more heavily used areas. Where ever a toilet is provided you must use it. You must also provide your own toilet paper. If a toilet is not available you should dig a hole about 6 inches (15 cm) deep, deposit your feces in it and cover it up. Try to dig in organic soil, rather than sand, as this will hasten decomposition. You should be at least 100 feet (30 meters) from trails, campsites, and water sources. Do not bury toilet paper as this will not biodegrade in the Canyon's arid environment. All liter, including toilet paper, must be carried out of the Canyon. A small ziplock bag with a pinch of powdered bleach in it is good for packing out used toilet paper. If you are at the Colorado River you should urinate directly into the wet sand along the edge of the river. You should never burn your toilet paper as this could result in fire.

Is there water to drink?

None of the water in the Grand Canyon is safe to drink without first being filtered, boiled or treated with iodine. Potable water is available in a few locations along The Corridor trails: the resthouses on the Bright Angel Trail as well as at Indian Gardens, at Bright Angel Campground at the river, and at Cottonwood Camp along the North Kaibab Trail. You should not rely on these water sources as a break in the Trans-Canyon pipeline could, at any time, cause this water to be unavailable. You should always carry at least two quarts of water with you.

How do you purify the water?

Water can be purified using one of three methods: boiling on a camp stove, filtering, or treating with iodine tablets.

How much water should I carry?

In the summer you should allow for one gallon (4 liters) per person per day. In the winter 2 quarts (2 liters) per person per day should suffice. You should drink enough water so that you urinate normally. If your urine becomes a dark yellow or yellowish-brown you are not drinking enough and are risking dehydration.

Should I bring food?

You should always bring some kind of nourishment with you, even if you are only hiking for the day. Remember that the hardest part of your hike will be the climb out. It is a good idea to have something with you to eat before beginning this. Candy bars and food high in sugars are not good choices for this as they will simply give you a quick rush of energy, that once depleted will leave you feeling more tired than before. Trail mixes that include nuts and dried fruits are very good as are other foods that are high in carbohydrates For overnight camping consider packing in freeze-dried or dehydrated foods that can be reconstituted by simply adding water.

How do I get help if I get into trouble?

If you are hiking with a party of three people or more, which is what the Park Service recommends, one person should go for help and the other should stay with the injured party. If two people are hiking together then it depends on the situation and how quickly help is needed. If you are on a frequently used trail, get someone else to carry a message for you. If you are on a wilderness trail, you should have a signal mirror with you and know how to use it to signal the rim (areas known to be frequented by people) or passing aircraft. If the emergency is great and you are close to the river you should try to get help from a passing river party. Most of these are equipped with radios for use in emergencies.

The resthouses on the Bright Angel Trail have emergency phones and there is also one at "The Tipoff" on the South Kaibab Trail. Ranger stations are located at Indian Gardens, Phantom Ranch, and Cottonwood Camp (summer only) on the North Kaibab Trail. These phone are directly linked to the main ranger station on the rim and no fee is required for their use.

Remember that you are responsible for any expenses incurred by the Park Service during your rescue. Being airlifted out by helicopter is very expensive and your insurance may or may not cover it. Also be aware that the Park Service does not consider fatigue an emergency situation.

Is it OK to hike alone?

This is a tough question to answer. Easily half and probably closer to 2/3 of my hiking in the Canyon is done solo. If you are cautious and remain aware of your environment at all times this is one of the most rewarding ways to see the Canyon. It is very easy to become one with the Canyon when it is just you and she.

The disadvantage is that if you get hurt you could be in serious trouble. If you are alone in a wilderness area, as I frequently am, then getting help as soon as possible could mean the difference between life and death. Be aware of your situation at all times. One important thing to do is to watch the trail ahead of you. It can be very tempting to look around while you are walking but this has been the cause for frequent accidents. If you want to look around, stop walking. Paranoia is a state of heightened awareness, if you are hiking alone you should be paranoid.

Can I camp overnight?

If you intend to camp overnight below the rim you must be in possession of a valid Backcountry Permit for the area you are in.

What happens if I camp without a Backcountry Permit?

If a backcountry ranger happens upon you and you do not have a valid Backcountry Permit, you will most likely be asked to leave. Depending on the ranger and the situation you may be escorted out and/or fined as well. This could result in the need for you to appear in court as well. Plan ahead and get the permit, it's not that difficult.

What happens if I need to change my plans?

You are NOT allowed to change your plans and MUST stick to the itinerary that is listed on the permit. Each area in the Canyon has a use limit and by breaking your itinerary you could be the cause of overuse for a given area, which is damaging to the Canyon's fragile ecosystem. There are, of course, exceptions for emergencies but these should be true emergencies and not ones invented to facilitate the change.

Can I make a campfire?

Campfires are not allowed below the rim. The reasons for this are numerous: you may start a brush fire that could destroy a significant amount of acreage; there is not enough wood for fuel; by burning you are altering the normal decomposition processes that the Canyon depends on; the resulting charcoal does not readily biodegrade.

What do I do with my trash?

You must pack out everything you came in with, including all of your trash.

Are there are dangerous animals in the Canyon?

The Canyon is inhabited by numerous dangerous animals. The ones that have the potential for creating the biggest problems are rattlesnakes and scorpions. Problems with these can be avoided with some basic common sense. Always watch where you are placing you hands when you are climbing. Never stick you hand into a dark opening in the rocks or cliff. Always shake out your boots and other clothing before dressing. Do not walk around camp barefoot.

If you are bitten by a rattlesnake you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. You should try to limit the victim's physical activity and also try to slow the flow of blood above the the area of the bite (between the bite and the heart) with the use a tight wrap or some other means. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES cut off the flow of blood completely. You should also not make any incisions in an attempt to suck out the venom as this frequently causes more harm than good. The snake's fangs are curved and the puncture marks on the surface are not a good indication of where the venom has been injected. Some snake bite kits have a suction device that attempts to suck out the venom through the existing puncture marks, without the necessity of an incision. If you are going to purchase a snake bite kit this would be the preferred variety.

If stung by a scorpion you should monitor the victim closely. A scorpion sting can be painful but is seldom life threatening, except possibly for young children or the elderly. One other important thing to remember about scorpions is that the smaller they are the more dangerous the sting. The Grand Canyon has its own subspecies, the Grand Canyon slender scorpion, that is very small and very dangerous.

Other animals less likely to cause problems are coyotes and mountain lions. Although these animals do exist in the Canyon they tend to avoid contact with human beings. If they are by chance encountered on the trail give them plenty of room. A coyote will seldom cause you any trouble unless it happens to be rabid. If you do happen to encounter a mountain lion and are locked in a staring contest try to make yourself look as big and menacing as possible. Wave you hands over your head, shout, scream and throw rocks. Cats don't like that kind of thing and will usually leave you alone. Do not bend over or lay down and never turn and run away, as this just makes you look like prey and the cat's natural predatory nature will take over.

[ Grand Canyon Home ]
Copyright © Bob Ribokas, 1994-2001, all rights reserved. This publication and its text and photos may not be copied for commercial use without the express written permission of Bob Ribokas.