Hiking from Coachella Valley: 10 Hikes for a Mild Adventure, Hike 1, The Grand Canyon

By Jarrett Retz -November 6th, 2018

Introduction to This Hiking Series

With my recent move back to the desert (La Quinta, CA) I wanted to chronicle a series of hikes where I provide the information that I sought out before the hike, or discovered later, because this information was what I needed to know.

I'm 25, in decent shape, usually hike alone (not always by preference), and like to plan a decent amount. If that's relatable, I suggest continuing.

The hikes I'm choosing are for slightly more experienced hikers with sometimes a little travel time, sometimes a lot of travel time.

When I talk about weather, finding trails, or trail stats these are the apps where I get that information from.

If you are interested in other hikes that can be reached from the Coachella Valley, below are some small posts, that may or may not be useful from last winter (some might just be a picture actually).

Ok, let's move on to the first hike in the series.

Intro to Hike 1

  • Total Time: This excursion took ≈27 hours
  • Date: November 3-4
  • Driving Distance: ≈390 miles
  • Hike: 2.23 miles, desc./asc. ≈1800 ft., 2 hours, trailhead elevation 6260 ft
  • Expenses: Food, National Park Entrance Fee, Gas

I KNOW, this is way out-of-the-way for a hike series from Coachella Valley, but it was too tempting. Being from Washington, knowing The Grand Canyon is only 6.5 hour drive, is an opportunity that can't be missed. It was a lot of driving, but definitely worth the road trip.

I left the desert around 4:00 P.M. Saturday, rolled into the park about 7:30 A.M. Sunday morning. Spent about 5 hours in the park (including an almost 2,000 ft hike into the canyon), and got back into town around 7:30 P.M.

Getting there

I got off work at 3:00 P.M. Saturday, so figured I would drive and stay somewhere that night then complete the drive in morning. I started looking for a National Forest, and saw that the Prescott National Forest was about a 4 hour drive from La Quinta.

I looked into the rules and regulations for dispersed camping (free) there and found a good map with descriptions of camping areas. I chose to camp at the Marapai sites off FDR 64.

What was great about this drive was the fall sunset that lit up the rocky peaks on the drive east. The landscape changed with elevation and terrain. As soon as I left California, into Arizona, I was delighted to see saguaro cacti.

Unfortunately, I quickly found myself driving in the dark, in unfamiliar territory on some two-lane highways.

So I wish that I would have only been driving in the dark for an hour and not 2.5 hours.

Finding Marapai Campsites was a bit difficult. I used the map and directions to get me to Ponderosa Pines Rd, then using the written directions on the map PDF found the round. But before I got there..

The road climbed way up out of the valley—or basin—below. I was quickly heading up and into the Prescott National Forest. The road had a lot of curves and was 20 mph through Prescott. It was a little sketchy with that amount of curves, but it's slow with a lot of turn-outs if someone is trying to pass you.

I was in a whole different environment once I got into Prescott NF. There were a lot of ponderosa pines and it really was a forest with lots of under brush.

I didn't take pictures of the site because it was dark when I got there and dark when I left. But my description is as follows.

The campsites entrance was marked, but the road was really rough right when you entered. I was nervous driving my van and had to go very slow to avoid bottoming out. There was a sign that said 'Fire Activity Ahead', but I was too dumb to look any further into it (it ended up being nothing of consequence). The campsite #1 is close to where you pull off of Ponderosa Pines Rd (so can be loud if there are a lot of cars). However, it's a cool campsite from what I saw looking around and has a more secluded area for a tent/fire. I didn't check out the other sites, fearing some more rough road. This campsite had enough room for 2-3 cars.

The stars were fantastic, as one would expect, and most of the time spent awake was looking up to some degree. I was a little nervous with no one else around, and being in a totally unfamiliar place, but I was tired enough to just let a lot of those fears fade away.

It was cold when I woke up at 5:00 A.M., and I think that's why I woke up. The campsite eleveation was about 5600 ft, and my phone said Prescott (which ended up being really close) was 34 degrees.

Regardless, I needed to be up. It was a 2.5 hour drive to The GC (Grand Canyon) and I wanted to get there early.

Again, I was delighted with the Arizona landscape. I saw a snow-capped peak, a billion 12-14 foot bulb brush trees, with many more mountains in the background. Arizona is really a pretty place to drive through, especially on a sunny morning like I had.

I got gas off of I-40 E, but there was no need to worry about running out of resources because there are gas stations, supply stores, and restaurants all the way up to and in the park.

I saw the first elk by Tulsayan, which is a little town outside the park, and thought that was pretty cool. Later I would see many more, and they would become pretty commonplace.

Arriving at Grand Canyon NP

I remember having to wait last time I was at the GC (North Rim), but today rolling in just after 7:30 A.M. provided NO WAIT TIME. Still being at elevation, and in the morning, it was still cold. I was glad I brought my Patagonia zip up, because I would be taking it on and off for the next 5 hours.

GCNP charges $35 for the private vehicle fee, as opposed to what I thought was $20 at most other parks. At first I wondered why it was more, but realized quickly that this gets you into the park for a whole week, provides shuttle services (as well as many other services) that come in handy when it's busy, and it's the freaking Grand Canyon so I don't mind paying $35.

I saw a herd of elk driving in, about a mile from entrance, which is always a bonus.

I was mistakenly driving out to Desert View Dr (on my way to the hike) and was greeted by a spectacular morning view of the GC, and by another small herd of elk.

I didn't do enough research on the way in, and how transportation worked in the park. Here's what I found out about how to get around GCNP. For better information about all of this, just check out the NPS website.

  • They have big parking lots around the visitor center that fit all sizes of traveling vehicles, and from there they operate a shuttle service. The parking lots fill up quickly.
  • Benefits of going to the parking lots are water fountains, nicer bathrooms, and more information.
  • The shuttles run every 10 minutes. Funny to note, as I was in line for the shuttle I felt like I was the only person that spoke English. Everyone else was speaking something else.
  • The shuttles are fairly quick, and the shuttle drivers can be informative, and pretty funny.

You can also take the South Rim Trail to get from visitor center to trailheads, which is probably a beautiful walk.

The Hike

Below is a picture of the hike I actually did (in red), the hike I might have wanted to do (the remaining blue line), and an arrow pointing to the visitor center (where I parked and got on shuttle). It also shows the location where I was and the elevation, which is kind of cool.

Picture of map as it is displayed on app Maps 3D

The hiking trail starts at South Kaibab trailhead, which is popular because there's not that many ways to descend down a cliff into the GC, so every trailhead is popular. This is the Arizona Trail and goes on very far in a few directions. To see what other hikes are in the area I would recommend checking out the AllTrails app.

GCNP definitely does about everything they can to warn you about how dangerous it can be to hike in the GC. Temperatures vary, there are cliffs everywhere, it's really freaking steep, and despite all of that, people still don't get it.

First section of hike, like I said, really steep.

I've hiked a fair amount of places, and you really need to come prepared here.

  • Wear hiking boots
  • Actually bring extra food & water
  • Be prepared for cold & warm temperatures
  • Stay focused because if you roll an ankle you have to hike UP to get out, not down.
  • Have an idea of your limitations.
  • They have a rescue team on hand if things to go south fast

Knowing your limitations seems to be the most common mistake people make. I'm certainly guilty of pushing it too much sometimes. But here, people are hiking down first, then up, so it's more deceiving. The hike I chose was either going to go around 1800 ft down, or 2600 ft down. It was an easy choice when I got there to stick with the shorter one.

I descended that 1800 ft in 45 minutes and 1.1 miles, and I certainly wasn't in a rush. Because there is a lot to look at.

Another shot of O'Neill Butte on the left and a large section of canyon.

The decision to stop where I did, and not go further, was fairly easy to make once I got there. It's almost eye level with O'Neill Butte, there are restrooms, lots of places to sit eat and marvel, I had already descended 1800 ft, and I really felt in the canyon.

Here are a few more pictures of where I stopped (it's called Cedar Ridge) and the view I had for my lunch.

Descending further from South Kaibab trailhead looking West.

I couldn't take enough pictures of this stretch of canyon.

The rock layers, and changing vegetation is pretty cool. There are pines on the cliff edge towards the top, then the trees become a little more sparse and thin.

This tree is part of a beautiful landscape down on Cedar Ridge

More vegetation.

I hung out in this area for about half an hour, just soaking it up. Weather was a little warmer so I could take off jacket.

I started back up the slope, and felt good, and found myself back at the top rounding out the whole hike at 2 hours, with 2.23 miles total, and approximately 1800 ft asc./desc. I mean, that's a perfect hike (I will note that the trail started to get pretty busy as I headed back up around 10:30 A.M., but everyone was very friendly).

A few more things..

After I got back to the top I hung out on the South Rim. I could almost make an argument that hiking down into the canyon can't beat just looking at it from the South Rim trail. Two shuttles came and went as I sat on this quiet ledge (which is ten steps from the maintenance vehicle parking lot at trailhead).

Heart really starts beating at this point

Hiking into GC has its appeals, but just hiking along it would be just as amazing if not more with varying sections of canyon.

I got back to the visitor center, and they had a lot of good information there. Below is a display showing hiking difficulties, and how they classify them, with suggestions of hikes from different trailheads.

I believe this trailhead is close the GC Village

Inside there was more informational displays. I quickly honed in on—and analyzed—their representation and wording surrounding the Glen Canyon dam.

Phrasing definitely hints at their ambivalent feelings..

On the way back, since I didn't stay at Prescott, I drove on I-40 W, which saved me time, and was probably safer. This took me on cool two lane highways, like 95 south which I had driven in the dark a couple years ago on my six week road trip, and on SR-62. This road goes through the desert, and past many California wilderness areas. If you take this route I would suggest keeping an eye on your gas tank, there aren't a ton of places if you get caught inbetween locations.

I also was able to witness another beautiful sunset chase the peaks down the desert mountain corridor as I cruised back into the valley.

It was a little spontaneous of a trip, but enough planning was done, and like my good friend Chase would say, "Sometimes you just gotta go for it."

Not sure which hike will be Hike 2 in the series, but it'll be tough to follow up this one.