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Marianne's Guide to Boondocking at the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park is 100 years old this year! With all the added publicity, it may be even more difficult than usual to land a campsite in the park or a permit to hike and camp in the canyon. Straight from the pages of my Frugal Shunpiker’s Guide for RV Boondocking in Arizona, here are some tips that are sure to help.

The Grand Canyon is the largest barrier to road-building in North America. The national park is divided into two sections: South Rim and North Rim. There’s no bridge across the canyon and the drive between them is 220 miles long and takes roughly five and a half hours. The South Rim is accessible year-round, while the North Rim, at a much higher elevation, is open only seasonally. 

Hiking into the Canyon

Summer is a perfect time to visit but not good at all if you plan to hike down into the canyon. With temperatures averaging 20° F to 25° F warmer below the rim than at the top, summer hiking to the bottom is very dangerous. Our visit here was in mid- September. At that time of year, temperatures in the canyon can still be quite hot but manageable.

Marianne and husband in Grand Canyon National Park.

A backpacking permit is required to camp anywhere below the rim. It allows camping at designated campsites only and is issued by a reservation system. If you know exactly when you’ll be visiting the park, you can purchase your permit up to four months in advance. Demand usually exceeds availability so, if you want to be assured a permit, apply as early as possible. 

Bright Angel Trail, view from above.

The popular Bright Angel Trail crosses the canyon from one rim to the other. Hiking it requires at least one night in the canyon so a backcountry permit is required.

There are always cancellations, so there’s also a decent chance of getting a permit by going in person to the backcountry office at Grand Canyon Village or, in season, to the office in the North Rim section of the park. You may have to wait a day or two for the trail and number of nights you prefer but this is a great option for people like us who don’t like having to be anywhere by a certain date. We took our chances in April (considered prime season) and got a permit this way without a problem.

Marianne at Indian Garden Campground

Our hike to the bottom was on Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, the most popular route. We spent two nights at the Indian Garden Campground, which is approximately halfway down. Our plan was well thought out and we would recommend it to anyone. It allowed us to carry our big packs and camping equipment only as far as the Indian Garden Campground. Here, we spent the first night and sat out at nearby Plateau Point for sunset. On the second day, we took our lighter waist packs and hiked the rest of the way to the bottom of the canyon. We spent the hottest part of the day lingering in the shade by the river before hiking back up to Indian Garden for a second night. On day three we started fresh, carrying our big packs and camping gear this shorter distance to the top.

RV Camping 

We always boondock for free in the national forest just outside the park’s boundaries. If you prefer a campground your options will be limited by the size of your RV and whether you have made reservations. 

Campgrounds Within the Park

Most visitors end up in Grand Canyon Village in the south rim section of the park. Campground reservations are essential at both Mather Campground (for RVs up to 30 feet long) and Trailer Village (for larger RVs). If you want hookups, Trailer Village is the only option. Desert View Campground at the east entrance and 26 miles east of Grand Canyon Village is your best option if you arrive without a reservation. It operates solely on a first-come, first-served basis. Avoid weekends, arrive early and look for sites where people are packing up to leave. Desert View offers rustic camping without hook-ups from mid-May to mid-October for RVs no more than 30' long.

Outside the Park 

Ten-X Campground, operated by the National Forest Service, is just 4.3 miles outside the park’s southern entrance and 2 miles south of the village of Tusayan. It’s open from May 1st through September 30th with 70 well-spaced reservable sites in a pine forest, including some for large RVs. There aren’t hookups but drinking water is available. The fee is only $10.00 per night ($5.00 with a Senior or Access Interagency Pass). 

Boondocking near the South Entrance

We have two camping areas we regularly use in the Kaibab National Forest just south of the park. They’re close to the park, on good roads, and free. 

These directions are for an area that’s central and closest to Grand Canyon Village:

  • On Hwy 64 approximately 1 mile south of the park’s south entrance gate, just beyond the Tusayan District Forest Ranger Station, turn west (right) on North Long Jim Loop Rd.
  • N35.98090º W112.12401º (geographic coordinates at the intersection)
  • Dispersed campsites line both sides of this good dirt road. The rules state that you must be at least ¼ mile from highway 64 to camp legally.

You’ll surely have neighbors because these sites are popular. They are, however, fairly well spaced. It’s suitable for all RVs and tents, but only if you can navigate a dip in the road at the entrance to most sites.

Another nearby dispersed camping area is suggested on the National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map and provides easier access for RVs up to 40' long. It’s on Forest Rd 302 to the east of Hwy 64 at the south end of the town of Tusayan. 

Boondocking near east end Grand Canyon.

Boondocking near the East End

An unadvertised entrance to the park on a gravel road lets us camp for free in Kaibab National Forest just south of the park boundary.

  • From Hwy 64 (Desert View Drive) in the park, between Grandview Point and Moran Point, 1.2 miles west of Buggeln Picnic Area and approximately halfway between mile markers 253 and 254, turn south onto an unmarked road. This is Forest Rd 310. 
  • A sign on Desert View Drive indicates a road coming in from the south, but there’s no other signage for this turn. There’s a dumpster and an old picnic table at the corner. 
  • N35.96803º W111.97221º (geographic coordinates at the intersection)
  • A good gravel road quickly leaves the park at this unofficial, unmanned entrance, although, when returning to the park, there is a sign that reads: Grandview Entrance – Entrance Fees Payable at South or East Entrance. 
  • Heading south on the gravel road you’ll soon see some “No Camping” signs. These refer to the land within the park boundary. The road soon crosses a cattle guard that marks the Kaibab National Forest boundary. Another sign announces you’re entering the forest and, therefore, have exited the park.
  • Immediately and for the next mile, dispersed camping is permitted and you’ll see previously-used sites, most of them on the west (right) side of the road. On our last visit we had to pass pass through a small fire-scarred section but we soon came to a healthy inviting forest.
  • Just over a mile south of Desert View Drive is the Grandview Fire Lookout Tower where there’s also a vault toilet at the trailhead for the Arizona Trail. Beyond this and the intersection with Forest Rd 307, you’ll cross a cattle guard and for the next few miles, signage again announces “No Camping”. 

This is a beautiful pine forest with lots of downed wood for your campfire. Despite its proximity to the canyon and easy access for any size RV, fewer people use this location so it feels remote and private. On one visit, we saw a herd of 12 elk walking through the forest 150 yards from our campsite. We also had a decent Verizon and AT&T signal here.

The RV dump and potable water fill stations in both the south and north rim sections of the park are free with park admission. Coin-operated showers and laundry facilities are also available, whether you’re camped in the park or not. 

The North Rim 

The North Rim is, on average, 1,000' higher than the South Rim, resulting in cooler temperatures, a different environment, and a lush forest. You’ll enjoy a more remote section of the Grand Canyon – equally beautiful but much less visited. Reservations are recommended at the North Rim Campground, too, but again we’ve found options outside the park. 

Kaibab National Forest operates two campgrounds along Hwy 67. De Motte Campground located just 7 miles north of the park entrance, has 23 sites and Jacob Lake Campground, 44 miles north of the entrance, has 53 sites. Demotte can accommodate RVs up to 30 feet only but Jacob Lake has sites for larger RVs. Both are open seasonally, usually by June 1st, and the campsites are reservable. 

Free Dispersed camping. 

Yes, we have found dispersed camping here, too! For specific directions, I hope you’ll consider purchasing my guide. As a bonus, you’ll get similar information for more than 100 other camping and boondocking suggestions across Arizona. 

Happy 100th Birthday to this amazing national park, and happy hiking and camping to all of you!

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