The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Visiting the Grand Canyon

hiking the grand canyon
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

It doesn’t matter whether you actually have a travel bucket list or not, pretty much everyone in America wants to see the Grand Canyon. And who can blame them? It’s only the most majestic and awe-inspiring sight in the country.
It's also one of the most deadly. About 250 people are rescued from the Grand Canyon each year, often the result of improper planning and/or making dumbass decisions (i.e., don't wear dress loafers into the canyon, just don't). So, in an effort to make your trip safer, easier, and all around more enjoyable, here are the most common mistakes --  some annoying, others fatal -- people make when visiting the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon waterfall

Failing to plan your visit to the park

You wouldn’t leave for New York City with no idea of where you’re staying, what you're going to do, or even how long it's gonna take to get there, would you? Of course, not. Yet amazingly, some fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants tourists don’t plan any of their trip to the Grand Canyon and are so overwhelmed when they arrive that the day pretty much begins and ends at the visitors’ center. Be smart and do a little online recon before you go. Research the hiking trails and find one that matches your ability, rather than just barreling down the first one you see.

Trying to do waaaaay too much

On the flip side, some people try to hike to the bottom, see Havasu Falls, and drive to Hermit’s Rest all in an afternoon. Slow down there, camper. The canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000ft deep, and you could live in it your entire life and never see everything. To give you even more perspective, you could put every person on Earth in the canyon, and still not fill it up. Pick one thing to do per day, maybe two if you’re feeling ambitious. But just accept that you can’t do it all.

Grand Canyon traffic

Not realizing how far it is from Las Vegas

If you watched too many National Lampoon movies, you probably think the Grand Canyon is just on the outskirts of Las Vegas. After two hours of driving in the desert, however, you’ll realize the Griswolds were exaggerating. The trip takes four hours -- with no traffic -- and trying to get there (and back) in a day is a guaranteed way to spend more time in the car than at the canyon. Flagstaff is only a little over an hour away, and probably a better point of departure. Or at least, a better place to spend the evening after you've visited.  

Arriving without a National Park Pass

What, you thought you’d just drive right up and take a gander at one of the country's greatest natural wonders like you owned the place? Ha! This is America: there’ll be a charge for that. And every morning, an epic train of cars waits in a slow-moving line to pay that fee. Buy a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass before you go, however, and you'll zip through one of the shorter, faster lines.

Grand Canyon hiking shoes

Wearing the wrong shoes when hiking in

Yes, those retro Jordans you got are indeed “mad tight, yo.” But they’re also mad uncomfortable and mad dysfunctional if you try and wear them to hike through the desert. If you’re planning a trip that involves more than just a glimpse from the observation deck, buy a pair of hiking boots with good traction and ankle support. You don’t need to go blow half your paycheck at REI, but consider the shoes a cost of the trip. Then break them in for a few weeks so you’re not fighting blisters during your hike.

Forgetting the hike out is a LOT harder than the hike in

You’re probably familiar with the laws of physics, and that fighting gravity is more physically exerting than going with it. But you may not understand exactly HOW much more exerting until you’ve been walking up a rock cliff in 110-degree heat for an hour and haven’t even gotten a quarter of the way back. Remember, you're doing the reverse of climbing a mountain. Hiking down it first, then up! So think of your hike into the canyon as a warmup; the real work starts when you get to the bottom. Just be sure to ration your food, water, and time accordingly. And speaking of time, depending on how far you intend to go, it's a good idea to leave BEFORE 7am. The temps are cooler, and you leave yourself more time to hike out assuming fatigue sets in.

drinking water while hiking

Not bringing/drinking enough water

This is absolutely one of the biggest and most common mistakes visitors make. Temperatures in the canyon climb upwards of 110 degrees. 110! And no, just because “it’s a dry heat” doesn’t mean it won’t completely kick your ass/possibly kill you if you don't stay hydrated. Park rangers recommend drinking a gallon of water a day. And with only a handful of places to refill along the trails, you’ll need to BYOG. Seriously, we cannot stress this enough -- BRING A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF WATER. And drink it!

Assuming the weather is the same throughout the Canyon

The North Rim is mountainous terrain, almost like Colorado. The South Rim is desert, like New Mexico. And the rest of the canyon varies wildly. So if you show up at the North Rim dressed for the scorching hot desert of the South Rim -- in spring -- you might find yourself wearing shorts in the snow. Check the weather for the SPECIFIC part of the canyon you’re visiting and dress accordingly.

Grand Canyon Lodge

Not reserving lodging ahead of time

If you wanted to stay in an actual, like, room while you're at the Grand Canyon, your options are pretty slim. The South Rim has a few lodges and the El Tovar Hotel. And options at on the North Rim are even slimmer, with only the Grand Canyon Lodge. Book these before you even book your plane tickets -- like months in advance -- as they sell out early.

Forgetting to obtain a backcountry permit

For obvious reasons, the park limits how many people can be hiking in the backcountry at any given time. So if you're planning to camp/spend the night anywhere other than a designated campsite on one of the rims, you’ll need to get a permit. And they go insanely fast. Remember, four MILLION people visit the Grand Canyon each year. Permits become available to the public on the first of the month, five months before the month of the permit. If you don’t snag one, you may have to delay your trip another month. NOTE: this doesn't apply if you're just taking a short day hike in and out.

Grand Canyon mule hike

Not following the rules for mules

And, no, not the meth-smuggling kind. The four-legged kind that hump people (and their gear) up and down the canyon so they don’t have to work as hard. It’s a unique thing to the Grand Canyon and has its own set of rules. Should you encounter a mule convoy: 1) Step off the trail to the uphill side; 2) Remain perfectly still; and 3) do not move until the last mule is 50 feet ahead of you. When you see how narrow the trails are, you'll understand why the rules are so important.

Packing an insufficient amount of food

When it’s painfully hot outside, eating sounds about as appealing as being blasted in the face with a hairdryer. But you’ve got to look at it as a necessary evil. People pack a Clif Bar and a banana and think it’s going to hold them for an entire afternoon. That is how people end up needing to be rescued. Absolutely pack a protein-filled lunch along with your gallon of water, as well as a few nutrition bars, trail mix, and salty snacks. No, you won’t lose weight. But nobody’s ever touted a Grand Canyon vacation as a miracle diet either.

Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist who rafter the Grand Canyon for a week when he was 15 and ate plenty to taco salad. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

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