Hiking the South Bass Trail in Grand Canyon
Backpacking Off Grand Canyon's Beaten Paths
It was August 24th. I had things on my to-do list for the next several days, but I couldn't pass up the invitation from a friend to hike Grand Canyon's South Bass Trail. As a National Park Service volunteer ranger, Sueanne had to check on some archaeological sites in the area, and I was allowed to tag along to keep her company. Neither of us had done this trail, but it turned out to be my favorite Grand Canyon hike yet.
As with anywhere else in the National Park, a backcountry permit is required for an overnight stay along the South Bass Trail. Camping here is "at large," as there are no established sites below the canyon rim. There is also no water at the trailhead -- not until you get to the Colorado River, more than 4,400 vertical feet below and 7.8 trail miles later.
Here, I'll tell you about this remote, "non-corridor" trail and show you photos from our four-day trip, as well as suggest some good reading material about different aspects of the Canyon.
**Please understand that my trip report and description of South Bass Trail isn't meant to be a guide. I strongly suggest obtaining a trail map and official description of the route, as there are spots where well-intentioned though poorly placed cairns, perhaps left by other hikers, and intersecting trails can lead you astray.
A Guide Specifically for the South and North Bass Trail - Written By a Very Reliable Source
History of the South Bass Trail: He Built It, and They Came
This trail and its counterpart on the other side of the Colorado River (the North Bass Trail) are named after William Wallace Bass, who began his tour operations at Grand Canyon in 1883 and constructed more than 50 miles of inner canyon trail, most of which can still be hiked today.
Like most trails in Grand Canyon, Bass's trails started as animal paths and Native American trails, some of which led past granaries like the one pictured here, used for storing dry goods.
Bass then adapted these preexisting trails to his purposes, which included--like that of many white pioneers at the Canyon--mining below the rim. The Havasupai Indians showed Bass many routes, which he originally used to haul loads from his mines. With tourism being much more profitable than mining, Bass built camps with overnight accommodations along the trails as rest stops for his visitors.
Bass married in 1894 and raised his four children in his camps at the rim, in the Canyon and at the river. When the Fred Harvey operation came along further to the east in what is now Grand Canyon Village, the tourist dollars that once went to Bass moved east as well. In 1923, William Bass gave his last tour.
At one time, the 14-mile North Bass Trail was connected to the South Bass Trail via a cable car that crossed the Colorado River. That tramway no longer exists, so the river crossing can now only be made by boat.
Today, the South and North Bass Trails have been rerouted, since several original sections were washed out or buried in rock and mudslides.
You can read much more about William Wallace Bass and his trails in Nature, Culture and History at the Grand Canyon from Arizona State University.
The Drive to the South Bass Trailhead
Plan a couple of hours from the highway.
From Highway 64, before the South Rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, you'll need to turn left on FS 328 and drive 30 miles on unpaved Forest Service, Havasupai Reservation, and National Park roads to get to the South Bass trailhead.
When the roads are dry, any relatively high-clearance vehicle can make the trip, although some sections are quite rough, especially the 1.8 miles that pass though part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. A four-wheel drive vehicle would be preferable and, if there's recently been any rain, a necessity. And if it really rains hard, I wouldn't want to take any vehicle out there until there's been some drying time.
Also, be aware that the Havasupai charge $25 to pass through their gate and drive those 1.8 miles through Reservation land en route to the trailhead. On occasion, as when Sueanne and I entered, there was no one home in the little building near the gate, so we simply let ourselves through. But chances are someone will be around when you leave, and they might charge you then.
By the way, when passing through the next gate and crossing the National Park boundary, be sure to close it behind you so the cows don't get through. We saw cows on the wrong side of the fence and, after our hike, reported that to Park rangers, who rolled their eyes at the news. I guess a round-up was in store.
Note: There is no commercial shuttle service to the South Bass Trailhead.
Read About The Havasupai
Pasture Wash Ranger Station
South Bass Trailhead Camping: Spending a Night on the Rim
At the South Bass trailhead, there's ample space for camping on either side of the parking area, along with a couple of picnic tables. There are no facilities at the trailhead, however--no water or bathrooms--so your backcountry trip has already begun by the time you've reached the rim.
Sueanne and I arrived at the South Bass trailhead mid-afternoon. At first, we considered hiking just the 1.3 miles down to the Esplanade and camping there, but with some dark clouds moving in and the brief, light rain that followed, we decided to pitch our tents at the trailhead and start out early the next morning.
As the storm clouds moved off, it turned out to be a beautiful evening. We explored the indian ruins and remains of Bass Camp in the area, then took out the Crazy Creek chairs that Sueanne had thrown in the truck and enjoyed the sunset and changing colors of the Canyon.
Grand Canyon Stories - Learn About Pioneer History
From the Canyon Rim Through the Coconino Sandstone: The first 1.3 Miles
For a remote Grand Canyon trail, the South Bass is in great shape, thanks in large part to some extensive trail maintenance that was done about five or six years ago. That hard work--to make an understatement--included the construction of numerous sets of rock steps (pictured below) and, as far as we could tell in comparison to earlier descriptions of the trail, some brush clearing in the Redwall section.
Leaving the rim, you pass through an area of pinyon/juniper over loose rubble but otherwise excellent trail. What I'd read would be an "exciting descent through the Coconino with 300-foot sheer drops along the narrow trail," turned out NOT to be the nail-biter I'd expected. I didn't find it scary at all and, though the scenery was absolutely beautiful, the description I'd read in one guidebook was exaggerated, in my opinion. And I'm usually very nervous about exposure. So no worries if you're a hiker like me, who doesn't like walking on the edge of a very long way down.
The Rock Layers of the Grand Canyon - in 18 Hikes
The Esplanade: A Great Place to Camp and Cache
Thirteen hundred feet and 1.3 trail miles below the rim, after passing through the Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation and Coconino Sandstone layers, you'll come to the platform on top of the Supai layer known as the Esplanade, a relatively flat "shelf." In this area, the Esplanade is covered with vegetation, whereas, in other parts of Grand Canyon, it's nothing but rock.
Here, Sueanne and I cached two gallons of water in a shady space beneath a leaning rock, hoping it would be sheltered from both morning and afternoon sun. We both recorded the location on our GPSes and noted the significant features around the site, where we planned to camp on our return hike to the rim.
With no reliable water between our stash in the vehicle above and the Colorado River, other than the potential for some rain-made water pockets, we made sure we'd have enough to get us through our last night of camping and return hike. I recommend at least the one cache and carrying a gallon of water on the trail, especially in the extreme heat of summer. You can then filter more water at the river.
Learn About The Flora And Fauna In Grand Canyon
The South Bass Trail Through the Redwall Formation
The scenery here is amazing!
Now, here is where you'll find some exposure, with relatively narrow trail bordered by a long way down. But, still, it's not something that bothered even me. There was good footing, a nice visual barrier of rocks along the edge of those narrow stretches, and little chance of falling unless you were to try a back flip maybe. And, wow, talk about beautiful!
After leaving the Esplanade, the trail leads hikers down a series of those amazing rock steps, a number of short, tight switchbacks and then a couple of very long ones, before dropping down into Bass Canyon. Though somewhat brushy and rocky, that amazing canyon does afford some relief from the brutal summer sun, shading travelers with its high, sheer walls. Along the way on the west side of the canyon, you'll see a large cave, which is likely a haven for bats.
Across The Tonto Platform and Down to the Colorado River: The Final Few Miles to the Beach
After emerging from the Redwall, things really started to heat up in the midday sun, with no shade to be found most of the rest of the way to the Colorado River. At this point, you'll need to watch for rock cairns as you begin to cross and re-cross a widening wash as many as nine times (though I lost count somewhere along the line).
You may or may not notice the cairn marking the intersection with Tonto Trail west, but you'll probably see the prominent cairn further down the South Bass at the intersection with the east Tonto.
Be sure not to take the next trail that branches off to the left, unless you're intending to take that longer route to the river, below Bass Rapids. Given that the switchbacks to the river, at least as shown on the map, look much less steep than what we'd soon encounter, Sueanne and I wondered if perhaps that longer route to the Colorado was the one Bass used when bringing mules down the trail.
Also, when you come to a decision about going right or left to bypass a dry fall, take the right-hand route. The narrow trail will lead you up, high above the wash, and then back down to the bottom again.
Eventually, just when you start to think the Colorado River may have dried up, you'll round a bend and, within a quarter mile of the cairn marking the first scramble down to the river, you'll hear and see the blue, green or reddish-brown ribbon of water, depending on its mood (and silt content that day). You'll first pass by Bass Rapid below, but the descent will bring you back to the top of it.
At the large cairn, you'll begin to pick your way a couple hundred feet down to the beach. If it's as hot as it was when we climbed down, some gloves would be a good idea. Those rocks were scorching!
Soon, you'll see the old Ross Wheeler boat chained on the rocks above the high water line, and then you can shed your shoes at the edge of the fine, white sand and cool (that is, chill) your feet in the mighty Colorado. Just don't walk out too far, okay? That current is fierce out there, as you'll see when the river runners float quickly by ... unless they stop to share your beach. No worries, there's plenty of room for camping along the shore, upstream, where you'll find a pretty grotto, likely with a shadowed, rain-filled pool at the bottom.
FYI: If you pass by the cairn up on the main trail and continue on the South Bass, there's another route down to the river below Bass Rapid. This will lead you to the site that once was home to a cable car, where rim-to-rim travelers could cross the Colorado and head up the North Bass Trail on the other side, or vice versa. Beyond that route is the intersection with the longer route I mentioned earlier, with the third set of gentler-looking switchbacks to the river.
On the beach above Bass Rapids
Read About Grand Canyon's River Runners
From The River Back To The South Rim: Why Not Make it a Two-Day Return Trip?
From our riverside beach near the Ross Wheeler boat, we had a 7.8-mile hike back up to the rim. Sueanne and I awoke before dawn, packed up our sand-covered gear, filtered water from the river, which had receded considerably during the night, and started out with the aid of our headlamps. Even in the dark, the scramble back to the main trail was easier going UP than it had been coming down.
At about 5:30am, just as we were crossing the dry wash for the first time, we were able to turn our headlamps off. The hot sun didn't catch us until we'd climbed out of Bass Canyon. By then, we were a couple of miles from the Esplanade, where we'd cached those two gallons of water, so we kept moving along.
At 10:30am, we retrieved our water cache, still cool in the shade of that big rock, and crawled into the small area of shade beneath a juniper. And that's how we spent the rest of the day--following the shade from tree to tree--until the sun dipped low enough that we could set up our tents and cook dinner in comfort.
After a quiet night, this time not lulled to sleep by the sound of the river but by crickets instead, we started up at first light. In just over an hour, we were back at the rim, where we ate a breakfast of champions--Twizzlers and Pringles!
Grand Canyon Hiking
More Hiking in Grand Canyon From South Rim To North (Or Vice Versa)
- Grand Canyon Hike: South Kaibab Trail - Tonto Trail West - Bright Angel Trail
A pictorial guide to one of my favorite (long) dayhikes from -- and back to -- the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
- Hiking The Grand Canyon, Rim To Rim
There is SO much I could write about hiking in the Grand Canyon, but I want to focus on hiking rim to rim using the "popular" trails in the central part of the National Park.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.