Lodging, Camping, and Food
The only lodging and dining establishment in the inner canyon is Phantom Ranch. But don’t worry: Whether you’re cooking up a package of instant noodles on your backpacking stove or enjoying sunset while a handy boat crew fixes you steak and strawberry shortcake, it all tastes better when every table has a view and you’ve worked up a good appetite exploring.
If you’re backpacking, be sure not to attract unwanted dinner guests: Use an ammo can or a high-tech food sack to keep ringtails and rodents out of your food supply.
Competition for river camps can be fierce during the high season, and if you’re on a commercial trip, you’ll notice that guides often pause to confer with each other about where their group plans to spend the night. Some beaches are large enough to offer space for two or three parties of 10 or more.
Other camps have space for only a few boaters and backpackers, so it’s important to plan ahead, have a backup, and be courteous to everyone you encounter, since you just might be sharing camp with them downriver.
Commercial rafting companies usually provide tents, sleeping bags, and pads. During the summer rainy season, most thundershowers pass before sunset. Unless the weather is threatening, you’ll probably find yourself forgoing a tent and sleeping under the stars.
Phantom Ranch (888/297-2757, www.grandcanyonlodges.com), the only place inside the canyon where you’ll find sheets and showers, consists of a cluster of historic wood-and-stone buildings along Bright Angel Creek, near its confluence with the Colorado River. Phantom Ranch has dormitory-style rooms for men and women, 11 rustic cabins, and a canteen serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The canteen also acts as post office and grocery. Room reservations (not available online) are accepted up to 13 months in advance, and rooms sell out quickly.
Men’s and women’s dorms ($42 pp) with 10 bunks each are available for hikers and river runners, with a shared shower and restroom. The cabins are reserved for mule riders and are included in tour fees. Cabins and dorms have heat and evaporative cooling (referred to affectionately by Arizonans as “swamp coolers”).
The Phantom Ranch Canteen sells snacks and serves up a simple but hearty breakfast ($20), sack lunch ($12), and dinner ($26–42). Dinner options include steak, stew, or a veggie meal. Meals are part of the package for mule-tour guests, but hikers and river runners need to make meal reservations well in advance of their trips.
Grand Canyon Campgrounds
Other than the costs of a backcountry permit, no additional fees are charged to stay in the Inner Canyon’s three developed campgrounds. Do note that “developed” is a relative term. Don’t expect showers—let alone cable hookups—if you’re spending the night in the canyon. Stays are limited to two nights per hike (four nights Nov. 15–Feb. 28), and your site is reserved when you apply for a backcountry use permit.
Permit fees ($10 per permit plus $5 pp per night) include camping, whether you’re staying at an established corridor campground or sleeping on a patch of sandstone in a primitive area. To cut pack weight, some backpackers forgo tents during summer, but be aware that afternoon thunderstorms are likely in July-August.
Bright Angel Campground, along Bright Angel Creek near its confluence with the Colorado River, has 31 campsites (including two group sites), year-round drinking water, food storage boxes, picnic tables, an emergency phone, and toilets.
The campground is accessible from the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab Trails. You’ll need a backcountry permit to stay here, and sites do fill up quickly in spring and summer. The ranger station is nearby, and during summer months, rangers host evening programs. Phantom Ranch is 0.5 miles north.
Cottonwood Campground, 6.8 miles from the North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail, has 11 campsites with picnic tables and food storage boxes. The campground also offers toilets, an emergency phone, and a ranger station (staffed May–Oct.). Although its name might suggest the whispering shelter of grand old cottonwoods, Cottonwood Campground actually has very little shade. Water is available seasonally, May-mid-October. Always check the park service website (www.nps.gov/grca) for announcements about seasonal water shut-offs, and be prepared to purify or filter water in case of a pipe break.
Indian Garden Campground is a shady oasis of grapevines and cottonwoods midway down the Bright Angel Trail, 4.5 miles from the South Rim. A backcountry permit is required to reserve one of the 15 campsites. Amenities include potable water year-round, pack hangers, food storage boxes, and composting toilets. Indian Garden also has a ranger station and an emergency phone.
Backcountry and River Camps
The backcountry is divided into zones and use areas that may be hundreds or thousands of acres in size depending on ecology, terrain, and popularity. Backcountry camping is limited to campgrounds or designated campsites in the Corridor and Threshold zones, where amenities range from developed campgrounds with piped water and flush toilets to dry sites with pit toilets. In the Primitive and Wild zones, at-large camping is allowed, with certain restrictions.
The Corridor zone includes Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Garden campgrounds.
The Threshold zone includes Clear Creek, Horn Creek, Salt Creek, Cedar Spring, Monument Creek, Granite Rapids, Hermit Creek, Hermit Rapids, Horseshoe Mesa, Widforss, Point Sublime, and Eremita Mesa use areas. Stays in campsites in these areas are limited to two nights, except during the off-season (Nov. 15–Feb. 28), when stays of up to four nights are possible.
Backcountry permits must be displayed while you are in camp, either attached to a pack or tent or elsewhere in plain view. Backcountry campsites must be a minimum of 100 feet from water sources. This protects water quality for other campers and wildlife (and helps protect you and your food supply from thirsty nighttime critters).
Don’t try to improve on Mother Nature with trenching or other earth moving—the site should look undisturbed when you leave. Pack out all trash, used toilet paper, and food scraps. Even the tiniest crumb attracts ants, mice, and other unwelcome visitors.
When you make camp, secure your food first, using the park’s food storage boxes where available. Bringing 20-30 feet of rope to hang packs is oft-recommended, but be warned that inner-canyon ringtails can outwit the most elaborate pack defenses in search of food. Pack edibles inside storage containers, such as an ammo can or sacks made with lightweight polymer, steel mesh, or some other material strong enough to thwart sharp little teeth. In riparian areas, particularly around Phantom Ranch, skunks and raccoons also make unwelcome nighttime visits.
Don’t feed animals—deliberately or inadvertently. It is not only illegal (with fines for violators) but also unethical and even dangerous. Human food can damage animals’ digestive systems. Wild creatures can become dependent on handouts, lose their ability to fend for themselves, and lose their caution around humans. Many cases of animals becoming aggressive toward people have been documented at Grand Canyon. On some popular trails, squirrels and other rodents have become outright bandits, ripping into your pack if you set it down even for a few seconds. This may seem relatively harmless, but a damaged pack is a hassle, and losing part of your well-planned food supply is worse. Rabies and bubonic plague outbreaks aren’t uncommon in Arizona. Hantavirus, while less common, is deadly. If you think food has been contaminated, wrap it up and pack it out.
If you’re hiking to the river, be aware that you may be sharing camps with boating parties. You might enjoy the company (and they may even feed you or let you cadge a beer), but if you prefer privacy, choose a tent site far away from the most likely boat landing.
© Kathleen Bryant from Moon Grand Canyon, 5th Edition