Why a popular Grand Canyon trail is restricted

The South Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park on Oct. 22, 2022. The only way to reach the South Kaibab trailhead is by foot or park shuttle. (Mike Godfrey, At Home in Wild Spaces)

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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — It's one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the pride of Arizona and one of the crown jewels of America's crown jewels, and autumn is one of the best times to visit.

But the Grand Canyon has also gained some infamy as America's deadliest national park.

Several hikers have already lost their lives within the canyon this year, on the very trails seen in this video. They include a hiker who attempted to cross the canyon "rim to rim," a hiker attempting to trek from the rim to the Colorado River and back in one day, and, a woman who attempted to hike 8 miles in triple-digit heat.

Those tragedies are only the tip of the iceberg.

An estimated 134 people have died at the Grand Canyon National Park since 2010. Some estimate 900 or more individuals have died at the Grand Canyon since the 1800s.

In 2022, there were 1,086 emergency medical service incidents at the park — and many, many more emergency calls.

Definite patterns have emerged in the frequency of emergency incidents within the canyon, according to officials with the Grand Canyon public affairs office. Chief among them, hikers account for nearly two-thirds of search and rescue events. Heat, insufficient preparation, fatigue, judgment errors and falls dominate the list of contributing factors, based on staff analysis.

It's a perpetual struggle, even coming close to completely overwhelming search-and-rescue personnel in the area.

In the 1990s, search-and-rescue teams were "burned out," according to park officials. Day after day, multiple calls indicating a collapsed hiker, or a hiker suffering a cardiac arrest would send emergency personnel rushing down the canyon on the hottest days of the year, not knowing if the hikers they encountered were resting in the shade or in need of urgent help.

By the time emergency personnel reached those in distress, first responders were drenched in their own sweat and dripping all over their patients. After the crisis was over, rescuers were totally "spent for the rest of the day."

"It took an unbelievable toll on (park) staff," said Ken Phillips, retired branch chief of search and rescue for the National Park Service.

Then, 1996 broke records and, subsequently, the proverbial "camel's back." With five heat-related deaths and 482 search-and-rescue incidents, the Park Service was forced to make major changes. Rangers began patrolling the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, Bright Angel and Hermit trails, talking with hundreds of thousands of hikers throughout the season and turning tens of thousands of them around.

The park began its "Heat kills" campaign, posting warnings throughout the canyon. And finally, the Yaki Point road and the South Kaibab parking lot were closed to private vehicles. To this day, almost 30 years later, the only way to reach the South Kaibab trailhead is by foot or park shuttle.

Closing the South Kaibab trailhead to private vehicle traffic was "instrumental" in reducing the number of underprepared hikers on the South Kaibab trail, a precipitous and often treacherous 7-mile path to the canyon floor that lacks life-saving water and shade.

Poor judgment by visitors has provided many hard-learned lessons, resulting in restrictions that affect everyone who enjoys the outdoors. Tragedy has a way of leading to restricted or lost access to natural treasures, especially when visitors routinely overestimate their abilities, or underestimate Mother Nature.

Wild spaces offer few guardrails. It's up to those who venture into the wilderness to educate, train and regulate themselves. If they, actively or passively, court tragedy, their misadventures might become justification for land managers to implement greater restrictions — not just for the welfare of those who might get themselves injured or killed — but for the welfare of rescue personnel who are called to bail out compromised adventurers.

The last decade has seen a number of tragedies followed by reduced or lost opportunities for others. Hikers must now acquire a permit to hike Angels Landing at Zion National Park, likely Utah's most famous trek, following a series of fatal falls from the trail's iconic chain section and summit.

In 2009, following the heart-wrenching death of a Utah caver, a cherished subterranean playground, the Nutty Putty cave, was destroyed and forever sealed by state land managers.

Beware the internet's siren songs

Internet culture is long on trendy rundowns of "must-dos" or "bucket list" suggestions, and extremely short on the necessary discussion of personal responsibility in the backcountry.

National parks, forests, wilderness areas and caves are not like Disneyland, where thousands of people are paid to clean up your garbage, make sure your seat belt is properly fastened, or verify that you're tall enough or readily prepared to attempt what some internet personality or creative writer said you "must do."

In 2021, search-and-rescue incidents at Grand Canyon National Park numbered 400, a stone's throw from the record set in 1996 that resulted in restrictions to park resources. And the question must be asked: If visitors continue to follow those siren songs of the internet and fail to properly prepare and regulate themselves, will additional restrictions become necessary?

In truth, the only "must-dos" are be safe, be prepared, be courteous and make sure you come home to those you love.

If you want to learn how to successfully and responsibly explore the Grand Canyon, make sure to watch this video, and my guide series to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.

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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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