Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Beginner's Guide to Camping in Grand Canyon National Park, AZ


You like tips, right? Good. Hopefully you'll find some incredibly informative ones here if you ever plan to camp in Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona, USA. I wish I had these tips when we went. Believe me, Laura and I learned some things the hard way.

I'm writing this post specifically for campers who plan to camp above the canyon rim, so you won't make the same mistakes we made. (If you're staying in a lodge or backpacking into the backcountry, this blog wasn't meant for you, but you might find SOME helpful info here too.)

Please read this post all the way through. It's not Tolstoy, it's less than 3000 words. So it's fairly painless. And to get the most benefit out if it, please click on every hyperlink. There is great information behind each. 
But before you read these helpful tips, I want you to be aware of the positives we experienced in the park during our stay.  


1. This is one of the cleanest parks you'll ever visit. I'm talking the white-glove-test kind of clean. We found only two tiny pieces of trash the entire time. The park prides itself on cleanliness. Help them out by picking up your own BudLight cans and Kotex boxes. (Yes, that's the two items we found.)

2. The beauty of the canyon/park far outweighs any negatives. The scenery is once-in-a-lifetime. Experience the full gamut of the park and take in all it has to offer. Otherwise you are short changing yourself.

How I pest-proof a cooler.

3. Without a doubt, this conifer ecosystem is the healthiest I've visited in a long time, possibly ever. Trees are healthy -- tall, wide, green, alive -- little-to-no underbrush, and zero dead branches lying around. This is what a taken-care-of forest should look like. Bug life is thriving, birds are abundant and happy, and there are NO RACCOONS and NO BEARS in the park campgrounds, oddly enough. You won't even find bear-proof trash cans. This made us feel safe. We even left our cooler on the ground next to the Subaru overnight, twice, no issues. Not a single stolen beer! Even the varmints are honest!

4. I've never been surrounded by more people, but felt more solitude anywhere else in my life. The park has done an incredible job of making each campsite feel private, isolated and separate from others. The thick pine and juniper cover helps. We were precisely 102 steps from a bathroom facility (I stepped it off) and we couldn't even see it from the Subaru. Pretty cool.

5. Bathrooms are impeccably clean and nearby, no matter where you are in the park. That says a lot. Kiddos and the elderly need the facilities a lot. This place accommodates both!

6. FREE potable drinking water is available nearly everywhere you turn. In an effort to reduce the number of empty water bottles tossed into the park, they've stopped selling bottle water on every corner and created free water taps for all to use. SMART!

7. The night sky is amazing in the park because they participate in Zero Light Pollution efforts. It's an absolutely stunning night sky when you see it in the darkness of the desert. Be sure to check it out at least once!

8. People working in the park are as nice and helpful as you'll ever find. 

9. Everything you forgot, or will ever need, can be found inside the park. (I believe I even saw a dude purchasing a mail-order bride at the train depot. [Jokes.]) Between the cafe, restaurants, and General Store, what you need is what you need .
Some of the super-fresh produce in the General Store.

10. I was going to list 10 Positives, just to make it more comfortable for yourself. But I'm sorta ready to move on to the helpful tips, so 9 will have to do. Lo siento. 


1. When visiting a new place, such as the Grand Canyon, and someone hands you a map, you might expect a handful of items to be on that map, such as:
         a. all the area roads...with names
         b. all the important places...with names (Or at least give me 50% of the points of interest     
             [POI's] in the area)
         c. scale: or something similar to "1 inch equals 1 mile," so I know how far to walk, drive, or     
            crawl back to camp. One must assume that if a gov't entity spends thousands of dollars to
            print a map, certain items should be present - like what's listed above. But that isn't the   
            case with the map they hand you at the entrance. When you go through the park  
            entrance, the attendant is going to ask you if you want a map. Tell them all you want       
            is the 8-page newsprint publication called "The Guide: The Official Newspaper." It
            has all the maps you need for the South Rim, plus a TON of great information. The other
            tri-fold map is (almost) worthless because it lacks critical information. Using it, we
            couldn't find simple things such as our campground, the showers, and the trailhead we
            wanted to hike. We threw the tri-fold map away and finished the weekend using the

2. Since my last visit to the Grand Canyon (almost 10 years ago), a burgeoning new town is emerging between Williams, AZ and Grand Canyon National Park. It's called Tuyasan, AZ -- a terribly convenient little pit stop just before you get into the park, with a McDonald's and such, but also a list of mom & pop restaurants with mixed reviews. I'll let you be the judge. Gas will be slightly more pricey here. If possible, gas up in Williams, Flagstaff, or earlier. But beer, snacks, ice and similar are actually quite affordable and worth stopping for. I scored a sixer of Dirty Guera (Arix

3. IF YOU'RE STAYING IN A CAMPGROUND, do yourself a HUGE favor and visit http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/cg-sr.htm to make your reservations before you go. You'll notice on this webpage two flags posted on a map at Mather Campground and Desert View -- another confusing issue, because there seems to be several other campsites besides these two. Seemed there were several/many places to camp in primitive camping areas on Hwy 64 between Mather and Desert View, and beyond. Also, apparently there's no need to print any proof you've reserved and paid for a campsite. They'll know when you check in at the campground hut.

4. There are NO DOGS ALLOWED ON TRAILS BELOW THE RIM. We saw only one sign on the Bright Angel Trail that said NO DOGS. We weren't sure if that rule applied to dogs in a papoose, not walking, like our little Katie. Two volunteers posted up right next that that sign asked us "How long will you be hiking? and "Do you have enough water?" We had over 140oz. of water between us, so they let us go without any qualms. But down the trail we were warned there was a hippie getting a citation from a ranger because he had a dog with him. We turned back and headed for camp. Not cool.
Laura carried Katie on her papoose.

5. BEWARE of LACKING SIGNAGE around the park -- it's fairly inept. If you're looking for a particular campsite (let's say Mather Campground) using ONLY posted roadside signage, you probably won't find it. If you want a shower, you won't find them simply by looking for signs. There are no roadside signs posted pointing you to Mather Campground, or Bright Angel Trailhead, or anywhere else that does not steer you to someplace that makes the park money. You'll find plenty of signs pointing you to Market Square, or Yavapai Lodge, or the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. But it is critical you look at a detailed map of the park before you arrive and know in a general sense north/south/east/west, and where your're staying in relation to the major POI's in the park. 

6. Whatever you do, TRY YOUR BEST TO ARRIVE DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS. We dealt with soooo many people arriving at night in a campground with ZERO lighting trying to set up tents and campers in total darkness with the help of only a grumpy wife holding a crappy flashlight, or overkill vehicle headlamps. And let me tell you, both were annoying and kept others from sleeping. Just so you know, darkness is important in AZ! Nearby Flagstaff AZ was the first designated ZERO LIGHT POLLUTION CITY in the world as part of the Dark Skies Coalition. Grand Canyon National Park has followed suit and tried to keep the park as dark as possible at night to preserve the natural beauty of the night sky. You gotta respect that! 

7. DRIVE SLOWER in the park than you might expect, or else you'll end up waxing an elk, squirrel, fox, chipmunk, skunk, skink, or skank, or even the occasional drunk from time to time wanders across the road in front of you without warning. Seriously, kids and families are everywhere too and can pop out on the road at any moment. Slow down.  

8. No soap in the campground bathrooms. You need to take your own, each trip. We used a little $1 pack of soap slivers we got at Pier One Imports. You'll find some at REI and similar camping outfitter places.  

9. Even though you reserved a site online, check-in at the the campground check-in hut once you get there to let them know you made it. They'll have some good information for you (another map, probably tell you where the showers are, etc) plus they'll be aware of what sites are open and occupied.

10. We read plenty of reviews on TripAdvisor and the likes glowing about the showers and how they were only $2 for 8 minutes and "..oh-so worth it..." Don't make the assumption (like we did) that those showers are at the bathroom facility. They're not. We looked, looked, looked, and it wasn't until our final hour of our trip that we found them. At the Mather Campground Check-in hut, the showers are located just up the hill, to the west. (Look for a large white boxcar sitting next to the parking lot that vends ice.) Laura used the shower, not me. Hers actually wouldn't turn off after 8 minutes so she got a the Deluxe Package.  See map below, where the three symbols (Phone, Laundry, Shower) near the parking lot above the check-in station, near Zuni Way. That's where the showers are.

10.  There are no mile markers or distance markers on the canyon trails to let you know how far you've traversed into the canyon. This seems inconvenient, as well as dangerous to me. But what do I know? The maps do show you waypoints and how far they are. But if you can't see them or don't know where they are, you have no earthly idea how far you've walked until you reach one. I don't like that idea. But again, what do I know?

11. The ground at nearly ALL of the campsites are unfortunately hard, dusty, rock scrabble. Bring a ground cloth if you're pitching a tent. Bring sleeping pads. Brink a small rug to wipe your feet before you climb into the tent.

12. There are plenty of turnouts and scenic overlooks. Don't pick one and be done. See as many as you can!


14. Although there are no bears or raccoons to deal with, the ravens in the campground will rob you blind if you don't put things up. They're huge, and walk around like barnyard chickens in search of anything you got!

15. Other helpful reviews of the park's camping areas:
Grand Canyon National Park
Mather Campground
Desert View Campground



Honestly we had a blast in the park, we just wished a handful of things would have been different/easier/explained better  etc...  I know for a fact if you read this blog and follow our guidance, you'll have an easier time than we did. Safe camping and Vaya con Dios, amigos!

About Mac

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I am W. Chad McPhail. I'm an outdoor/travel writer, book author, former English teacher, and Amarillo native. 

I spend my spare time traipsing around the mountains and streams of the southwest in search of wild trout with my family, friends, various freeloaders, and other flotsam and jetsan. I used to teach English & Creative Writing. These days I am a Right of Way field agent with Coates Field Service, representing Sharyland Utilities during the construction of a 345 megawatt transmission line from Hereford to Panhandle, Texas. I love exploring the outdoors, fly fishing, backpacking, camping, hiking, kayaking, and yes, writing outdoor and travel books and pieces. I am a field writer of flyfishing, backpacking, camping, and kayaking articles for Suite101.com. I have written many articles for magazines such as Southwest Fly Fishing, Texas Fish & Game, Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, ESPN.com, and more. I have co-penned three books with fishing buddy Mark D. Williams; Colorado Flyfishing: Where to Eat Sleep Fish, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado, and An Introduction to Fly Fishing for Trout.