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Elizabeth Dengler | 03.28.2022

Known best for the Grand Canyon, Arizona is also home to some of the most extraordinary adventures in the American Southwest. It also offers up some of the most remarkable backpacking opportunities around. From descending along turquoise waters to the depths of the Grand Canyon to a thru-hike of the entire Arizona Trail, backpackers of any level and experience can find a trip to enjoy in the Grand Canyon state. 

Drop-offs like this are not necessary to navigate on the trails, but they are easy to reach for the more adventurous hiker. Please be careful! Photo Credit: Jesse Weber. 

South Kaibab/Bright Angel Loop

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 21.6-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 4,968 feet


Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon is one of the most remarkable sights in the world—it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders, after all. However, to move beyond the edge and make the trek all the way to the canyon floor and the Colorado River, AND back up, is a trip that is well worth the energy. Heading into the depths of the canyon can test the physicality of even the most advanced hikers, so if you’re planning a backpacking trip here, come prepared with abundant water and sun protection. There are numerous ways to backpack in Grand Canyon National Park—but one of the most popular is taking the South Kaibab Trail (AZT Passage 38) down to the Colorado River. This steeper option down means that you’ll have a bit of an easier time hiking up the more gradual Bright Angel Trail (that’s not to say it’s an easy climb out). At the bottom of the canyon, you’ll be faced with the sheer enormity of the canyon. Surrounded by rocks hundreds of millions of years old, with your feet in the river that carved away all this rock, you can feel the vastness of this grand place. Of course, there are plenty of other backpacking options in the park. You can do an out and back on the Bright Angel Trail, or, for the tenacious, the out-and-back, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. No matter what you do, you’ll have to make sure to get a backcountry camping permit before heading out.

One of the many switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail. Photo Credit: Jesse Weber. 

 

Rincon Peak

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 14.4-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 4,288 feet


Tucked down on the edge of the states in Tucson is the stunningly beautiful Seguaro National Park. To backpack in the park, you will need to get a limited but reservable permit through Recreation.gov. Backpacking Rincon Peak, you’ll stay at Happy Valley Campground, which is about four miles up the trail. Rincon Peak is a truly adventurous summit and is rather strenuous, especially the last half mile. Though the journey is challenging, there is plenty of shade along the way making for a pleasant hike, even on sunny days. The views of Tucson, the Happy Valley, and the surrounding Rincon Mountains, from the summit of Rincon Peak, are well worth your efforts to get there.

Havasu Falls

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 26-mile loop

Elevation Gain: 4,032 feet

*Permits are mandatory—permits are difficult to get and are reserved months in advance through the reservation system.*

Easily the most sought-after backpacking trip in the state, Havasu Falls requires a permit, a weekend commitment, and the deepest respect for the land you can muster. Set entirely on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, the hike takes you on a tour of one of the most majestic places you can imagine. When you begin the hike, you’ll wind down through a hot and arid canyon that seems like it could never support life. However, about six miles in, the canyon opens up into another, more verdant one which will lead you all the way to Supai Village. Check in at the Havasupai Tourist Office and enjoy the dramatic landscape. Crystal turquoise waterfalls cascade into various pools along the creek. You can either choose to spend a couple of nights here or continue down the creek to check out several other waterfalls and, eventually, the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. 

Havasu Falls is a 90ft-100ft vertical waterfall that goes over a cliff into a large pool. Photo Credit: Allison Mayes.

Black Canyon Trail (BCT)

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 77.7-mile thru-hike

Elevation Gain: 4,411 feet

There is no permit required to hop on this backpacking trip! Running from Prescott to Phoenix, this thru-hike is generally descending over the course of its 77 miles. The whole trail is generally exposed to the sun, so be prepared with sun protection. As you travel, what shady vegetation there was in the beginning, tends to thin out, and the landscape becomes even more arid. Originally developed as a bike-packing route, there are plenty of camping spots along the way. The open scenery of the Sonoran Desert is spectacular, inspiring, and offers up the remoteness you might be looking for. Best done as an off-season hike due to avoiding peak summer temp highs. There are sparse (but enough) water sources along the length of the trek, so hikers won’t have to over-carry water but will have to plan fill-ups diligently. 

Arizona Trail

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 790-mile thru-hike

Elevation Gain: 93,000 feet

Running the length of the state is the premiere thru-hike, the Arizona Trail. Starting at the Mexico border, this almost 800-mile trail reaches all the way to Utah. Winding through mountains, canyons, deserts, and forests, the trail offers up an abundance of environments to enjoy along the way. You’ll experience lush forests, views of snow-capped peaks, wildflowers and blooming cacti, diverse flora and fauna, and vast canyons. You’ll even get to traverse the Grand Canyon! The trail is primitive in places and quite rugged. As such, it is essential to plan your trip accordingly to avoid dehydration, heat exhaustion, or getting caught in a storm.

North-facing view of Tonto Plateau in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo Credit: Brent Uhrig. 

Paria Canyon

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 38-mile thru-hike

Elevation Gain: 1,750 feet

One of the most stunning canyon hikes, this one spans the Utah/Arizona border and is worth the shuttle you have to set up beforehand for this one-way hike. Due to overuse, you need to book a permit to hike through the canyon. Winding through the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, you will be hemmed in by sheer canyon walls as you pass under hanging gardens and wade through dozens of river crossings. Most of the hike will be in sand, water, or mud, so come prepared for rugged and diverse terrain, and take your time hiking through the canyon. Starting in Utah, the route is generally descending as you follow the river downstream. As you near the end, the canyon walls fall away, and you’ll find yourself traversing an open riparian plain. 

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