Grand Canyon Heat Sanctuaries
In 2001, Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers described 683 ways people have died at the Grand Canyon in their book “Over the Edge: Death at the Grand Canyon”. While aircraft-related accidents had claimed most of those 683 lives, underestimating physical needs in relation to the debilitating climate has always been the main cause of heat-stroke and dehydration related deaths. Some people are not adequately prepared or conditioned to hike steep terrain in desert-like conditions and those that are can still make minuscule mistakes that cost them their lives. It is a tragic irony that rangers have found dead hikers with full bottles of water in their backpacks and pictures on their cameras posing next to signs warning them NOT walk further than their ability to climb out.
While the ideal way to start your hike is before sunrise, you’re not going to be climbing out of the canyon pre-dawn unless you’re staying at one of the inner canyon campgrounds or Phantom Ranch. For day-hikes that go below the rim, but not to a depth shallow enough to allow for a 10:00am return-time (remember, it takes double the time to ascend than it does to descend), finding a place to rest during the dangerous-heat period (10:00am- 4:00pm) is vital. Those hiking below the rim should take heat warnings with the utmost seriousness as the canyon’s geologic design means that temperatures below the canyon are far higher than on the rim. For every 1000 ft/ 305 m of elevation loss, there is a 5-degree temperature gain. This means that while temperatures at the rim can be a pleasant 70 degrees (21 C), the bottom of the canyon is seething in temperatures topping 100 degrees (38 C).
The Grand Canyon is a fascinating phenomenon, none the less for its ironies- while its desert tendencies would suck the life from you, there are also plenty of hydrating and shade-giving sanctuaries that would protect and restore you. To make the planning easier on you, we’re going to list a few plum places to beat the heat.
Indian Gardens on Bright Angel Trail
Whether you’re hiking down or climbing up, the best place to beat the heat on the Bright Angel Trail is Indian Garden Campground. At a distance of 5 mi/ 8 km going down and roughly the same coming up, this is the ideal resting spot. Indian Gardens also happens to be the halfway point of Bright Angel Trail.
One thing to keep in mind is that descending 5 miles will be a breeze compared to a climb of the same distance. With this in mind and your knowledge that it takes twice as long to climb out, make sure that if you’re coming from the bottom, you start out at 5 or 6:00am. This will ensure that you reach Indian Gardens by 10:00am before the heat becomes unbearable. If you are coming from the rim and start out early enough, avoiding the 10:00am-4:00pm window will be irrelevant. The average hiker will take 4-5 hours to descend the Bright Angel Trail, making a 10:00am completion goal very attainable.
If you’re making good time climbing out of the canyon, and reach Indian Gardens too early, another option is the Three-Mile Resthouse, approximately 11 km/ 7 mi away from Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. However, depending on how long it takes the heat to dwindle, Indian Gardens is by far more beautiful and enjoyable. By opting to rest here, you will avoid the coming-and-going crowds at Three-Mile Resthouse and be completely provided for. The trees at Indian Gardens are green and provide plenty of shade, a bubbling creek provides refreshment, and there are water spigots, bathrooms and picnic tables as well.
…. and don’t forget sunset at Plateau Point! A round-trip of 3 mi/ 5 km from Indian Gardens comes at the price of a dark hike back to the rim, but if you are able to do it, head to Plateau Point as soon as the sun relents to witness one of the most spectacular phenomenons on the Grand Canyon.
Ribbon Falls and Roaring Springs on the North Kaibab Trail
North Kaibab Trail has two beautiful resting places that you can take advantage of going down or coming up. While the latter isn’t recommended, as the trail is the longest rim-to-river trail and one of the steepest as well, these resting places will serve you well regardless of the level of risk you decide to take. That being said, if you know you’re going to be on the North Kaibab during your visit to the Grand Canyon, the place to be between 10:00am and 4:00pm is Ribbon Falls or Roaring Springs. The obvious reason is clear- access to a water source. Both Ribbon Falls and Roaring Springs are detours from the main trail, but either side trip is well worth the extra time as hiking in the heat can be deadly.
Roaring Springs is the Grand Canyon’s main water source, being pumped to the South Rim through a pipeline buried beneath the trail. More interesting to the weary hiker though, is the fact that the water here bursts out from the cliffs themselves, over a spongy bed of green moss and willowy ferns. A .2 mi/ .3 km detour from the main trail located 4.7 mi/ 7.3 km from the rim’s trailhead and 9.3 mi/ 14.7 km from Phantom Ranch, it is a sight you can’t possibly pass up.
If you’ve got your eye on Roaring Springs, make a day-hike out of the trip. Get to Roaring Springs before 10:00am, splash and gaze until the worst of the heat is over, and hike back to the rim. While the feat promises to be strenuous (especially hiking back up), you’ll have resolved one of the greatest issues hikers face at the Grand Canyon- where to be when the heat strikes.
Depending on where you’re coming from, the detour to Ribbon Falls is located either a mile before or a mile after Cottonwood Campground, 8.4 mi/ 13.3 km from the rim and 5.6 mi/ 8.7 km from the river. Since Ribbon Falls is located more than a mile down the halfway point (going down), and 2.5 miles (4 km) before the Box, it is the perfect place to beat the heat on a rim-to-river hike. Trust me, you do NOT want to be hiking through the Box during peak-heat. This is a place that holds on to heat and amplifies it and other than climbing UP the North Kaibab under similar conditions, this is one of the most dangerous things you can do at the Grand Canyon.
If you’re staying at Phantom Ranch a couple of days, a trip to Ribbon Falls makes the perfect day-hike and gives you a great place to distract yourself during the day’s dangerous heat. If you took the South Kaibab down to the river, and plan to take the Bright Angel up to the rim, a day hike to Ribbon Falls also gives you a chance to explore a bit of the North Kaibab Trail. Remember that when at the Grand Canyon, the more trails you explore, the better.
Cottonwood Campground on North Kaibab Trail
Another great resting choice on the North Kaibab Trail is Cottonwood Campground. Located precisely halfway down (or up) the trail, and decked out with all the beat-the-heat essentials, as well as entertainment, it is the perfect place to wait out the heat. The campground is equipped with toilets, a ranger station (and in case of emergency, a phone), shady cottonwood trees, picnic tables, drinkable water and access to Bright Angel Creek. Most importantly for those with a need for social interaction, there are campers who are more than willing to make conversation and share their adventures.
Grand Canyon Village, the Historic District, the Visitor Center, and Market Plaza
If you happen to be rim-gazing on the South Rim and need a place to hide out while the sun does blazes on in mid-afternoon fury, you’re on the right rim. The South Rim is replete with options for the overheated visitor looking to find some shade. The Grand Canyon Village is the center of activity at the South Rim and a great place to be between 10:00am and 4:00pm. Here, you will have access to shuttle buses going to the Visitor Center where you can find even more things to do. The Historic District provides a number of different indoor options as well, including tours of Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio, Hopi House, the Train Depot, Kolb Studio, and Verkamp’s Visitor Center.
From the village, you can also take the Greenway Trail to Market Plaza and get yourself a refreshing treat to enjoy at one of the many lunch tables. Not only is this an excellent place to get out of the sun, but you can also stock up on things you may have forgotten, use the ATM (a bank is available), or visit the US Post Office. Also, the Greenway Trail is a pleasant walk in the shade.
… and don’t forget the Yavasapai Museum of Geology, located a mile east of Market Plaza. If you’re starting your hike the next morning, this is a great place to get a geology lesson before the big day. Before long, you’ll be pointing out your location based on rock layers!
Note: Waiting out the heat on a hiking trail sometimes means that you’ll have to hike a couple of miles in the dark to reach your destination. Make sure to bring a flashlight and/or headlamp to see your way safely.