Travel

A compact adventure into the Grand Canyon

mark arsenault/globe staff

One in a series of occasional stories marking the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

So it’s time to recharge with a tough hike and some alone-time in an unforgettable place, but you can only spare three nights away?

Easy choice: Grand Canyon National Park.

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I know, you went there once. It was beautiful but you didn’t like being jostled on the canyon rim, swept along by strolling tourists flowing around self-absorbed selfie-takers and little boys with ice cream smeared on their faces who screamed themselves purple while they hit their sisters.

But you don’t have to fight to get a good look at the canyon when you become part of it, on the Tonto Trail.

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The Tonto Trail scratches through the sagebrush on a wide plateau, roughly two-thirds of a mile below the rim yet still 1,000 feet or so above the canyon-carving Colorado River, itself a monument to what can be accomplished with sustained effort for several million years.

This compact and taxing adventure calls for two-nights in South Rim lodges, one overnight in the canyon backcountry and a 25-mile hike that hops onto a section of the famous Tonto Trail. My wife and I made this hike this past spring, traveling through the canyon’s greatest sights, startling one incredulous mule deer, but not seeing another human for hours at a time. It was so quiet we could hear the hollow roar of Colorado River rapids miles away. The only thing crowded in the canyon backcountry is the night sky, whitewashed with stars I think I had never seen, made visible by a lack of light pollution in the unspoiled desert.

Here are the steps to pull off this hike, with some potentially useful tips:

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Step 1: Get fit, then get an overnight camping permit from the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Information Center, where the permitting system seems as ancient as the canyon. You can print the application form from the Park Service’s website, but the form must be returned in person, by snail mail or fax. Yes, really — fax. Better, I suppose, than tapping out your request in Morse code. We applied for an overnight at the Monument Creek camping area along the Tonto Trail, which we reached via the Hermit Trail. The return trip to Grand Canyon Village is up the Bright Angel Trail, one of the great jewels of the Park system.

Tip 1: Overnight permits for the canyon can have a reputation as the Hamilton tickets of the National Parks, but backcountry permits are accessible if you can be flexible. My wife and I wrote in our application that we’d happily take a permit for any night during the month we wanted to go. We waited until we were awarded a permit with a set date, and then booked our flights, rental car, and other accommodations around that date.

Tip 1.1: This is mountain climbing in reverse, so it gets hotter as you go down. We had chilly 60s on the rim in April and steamy 80s down on the plateau, where there is almost no shade. This is a hike for shoulder seasons and not summer, when the sun-blasted inner canyon is into the 100s, combining dangerous with not fun.

The Tonto Trail scratches through the sagebrush on a wide plateau, roughly two-thirds of a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

mark arsenault/globe staff

The Tonto Trail scratches through the sagebrush on a wide plateau, roughly two-thirds of a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Step 2: Book stays at one of the rimside Grand Canyon lodges before and after your night in the backcountry. We like the Bright Angel Lodge and the El Tovar hotel for canyon views and the roughcast elegance of a classic National Park vacation.

Tip 2: If the lodge you want is booked, check the lodging reservation web page http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/ a few times a day for cancelations, and strike when something opens up.

Step 3: After breakfast on hike day, ride the free shuttle to Hermit’s Rest, the shuttle’s furthest stop to the west. Take the rugged Hermit Trail down into the canyon, to the Tonto Trail, and then to camp at Monument Creek. It is a tough, 9.3-mile day.

Tip 3: There are places on this hike where it’s possible for people who are preoccupied or just daydreaming, la-dee-dah, to walk off a cliff. Don’t move your feet while you’re looking through your camera’s view screen.

Tip 3.1: If you’re unnerved when the trail creeps near the edge of a cliff, just be attentive and walk confidently — it’s just walking; you’ve been doing it all your life and you’re not going to fall. Some mild high exposure doesn’t have to be a reason to skip a great hike. As a well-traveled old-timer said to us on the shuttle to Hermit’s Rest, “You could die in your bed, too, and that’d be worse.”

Tip 3.2: This hike is doable in either direction, but I’d suggest clockwise. That means descending the far rockier Hermit Trail first, and saving the superbly-maintained Bright Angel Trail for when your legs feel like wilted celery.

Tip 3.3: You’ll pass a lot of day hikers coming the other direction on the Bright Angel Trail. When they start smelling fresh from the shower, you’re almost done.

Step: 4: The trail ends back in Grand Canyon Village. Hike directly to the El Tovar, grab seats in the lounge beneath paintings of the canyon by local artists, and order prickly pear margaritas, pale pink and perfect after 25 miles on your feet.

Tip 4: This was supposed to be a short trip into nature, but did you know that from the South Rim, it’s only a four-hour drive to Vegas?

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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