How to Fit Hikes in to a Grand Canyon Self-Support Itinerary

When you tell someone you’re self-support kayaking the Grand Canyon, or that you’re doing a 10-day trip, they usually assume it’s a lightning trip — on the water dawn to dusk with no time for hiking or lifestyling. The reality is that with an efficient group and some good planning, you can do more hiking on a 10-day self-support than many groups do on 20-day raft trips. There are a few key factors that go into making this happen.

Required Daily Mileage

The Grand Canyon NPS does not require you to sign up for camps at the put-in — it’s first come first serve throughout the river corridor — which means you don’t need to plan out your whole trip in advance, but it’s worth thinking about how far you should be moving each day in order to arrive at your takeout at the correct time. The calculation is pretty easy — river miles (225 to Diamond Creek) divided by length of trip. On a 10-day trip, you need to average 22.5 miles a day. But there are a couple hiccups, and your first and last day are typically shorter.

Seth Swallen and Daphnee Tuzlak in Fern Glen Canyon.
Seth Swallen and Daphnee Tuzlak in Fern Glen Canyon.

Depending on how fast your group can get ready and how quickly the ranger can get you briefed and ready to go on day one (they don’t usually start until 8 or 9am), you’re likely to not be able to do a full day on day one. I’ve done as short as 17 miles on day one and heard of other groups going even shorter.

Your last day depends on your shuttle situation, but the shuttle companies often like to meet groups around noon. De-rigging a kayak trip is a whole lot faster than de-rigging a raft trip, but it’s still not insignificant. I usually aim to keep the last day to about 10 miles or less — Three Springs is a nice distance, as are the camps at 220. There are other good ones as well.

Once you factor that in, your remaining days look a bit longer. On a 10-day trip to Diamond, days 2-9 will typically average more like 24.75 miles.

Research Hikes and Camps in Advance

It’s best not to be wedded to any particular plan going in, but you should have an idea of which hikes you really want to do and where they are. Each day, you can plan out which hikes you’re hoping to hit, which hikes you’ll hit if you have spare time, and the general ball park of where you want to camp.

Jackie Selevan and Seth Swallen take in the view over the Colorado from the Nankoweap Granaries, Grand Canyon National Park.
Jackie Selevan and Seth Swallen take in the view over the Colorado from the Nankoweap Granaries, Grand Canyon National Park.

In certain areas — particularly in the Deer Creek / Havasu area — things really stack up and your need to make miles can make it challenging to catch all the hikes. It’s worth thinking ahead a few days to try to anticipate these spots and plan for them. Camping in the middle of a busy hiking section will make it easier to hit more of the hikes. You can also front-load longer days to buy yourself a bit of a buffer for the areas with more hikes.

Short Hikes, Medium Hikes, and Long Hikes

Short hikes are the ones that are easiest to do on a kayak trip. The low overhead of typically small group sizes and fast transition time from river to hike that kayak trips have make hikes and stops like Elves’ Chasm, Silver Grotto, Redwall Cavern, and others really easy to knock out fast. You can easily hit a few of these every day, as many of them are short enough that you don’t even need to take your drysuit off (assuming it’s a winter trip).

Jackie Selevan on a short hike up Silver Grotto.
Jackie Selevan on a short hike up Silver Grotto.

Medium hikes are ones where you’ll probably take your drysuit off, or at least your skirt and life jacket, and typically take 1-2 hours. On an efficient kayak trip, you can usually squeeze one of these in every day. They’re things like Clear Creek, Vishnu Creek, Nankoweap GranariesDeer Creek Narrows. In my opinion, the ability to do a lot of these hikes is one of the ways in which small-group kayak-only trips really shine.

Longer hikes are hard to make happen on self-supports, but not impossible. These are routes like the hike to the rim at Nankoweap Mesa, or to Mooney Falls at Havasu. Often, these hikes are reserved for layover days on raft trips. A layover day on a kayak trip is not out of the question, but you’ll have to plan around it and the rest of your days will be correspondingly longer. Another option is just to plan an early start and a short day and do a long hike starting from a camp. We once had a group start very early at Ledges camp and hike all the way to Mooney Falls and back with time to spare (continuing downstream for a moderate length day).

Jackie Selevan hikes back down to camp from the Tabernacle at sunset.
Jackie Selevan hikes back down to camp from the Tabernacle at sunset.

Maximizing Your Hiking

Each day, plan where you’re trying to get to and a couple stops you’d like to make on the way. Prioritize them — if things aren’t going that well on the water, you may not have time for everything. If you can, camp at some of the medium or longer hikes you’re trying to do — not having to gear up and gear down before the hike definitely saves time. Maybe plan to have lunch at one of them, too. Getting the whole group to shore and in and out of boats is certainly much more efficient on a kayak trip than on a raft trip, but it still eats time.

Don’t Be Afraid to Put In Some Long Days

There are a couple sections in the Canyon without a ton of popular hikes or major rapids that tend to flow pretty quickly if you put your head down. The longest day I’ve done on a self-support is 37 miles and it really wasn’t bad, minus the New Year’s Day hangover. Putting in a couple 30-35 mile days gets you a big buffer that you can use to do more hiking and shorter days the rest of the trip.

If you fall behind early, it’s not the end of the world. You really only need 1.5 days from Lava to Diamond — it’s a long distance, but it goes fast and you can just push through it.

Jackie Selevan and Daphnee Tuzlak in Clear Creek's unique narrows above Phantom Ranch.
Jackie Selevan and Daphnee Tuzlak in Clear Creek’s unique narrows above Phantom Ranch.

Wondering How to Put These Suggestions Into Action?

Check out our example 10-day itinerary from a winter trip with a lot of great hiking stops.

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