An Insider's Guide to Camping Near the Grand Canyon

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  • Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Looking out at the Grand Canyon from Kaibab National Forest.
Looking out at the Grand Canyon from Kaibab National Forest. J Brew
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Bordering both the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab National Forest and the surrounding public lands span over 1.7-million acres of diverse landscape in northern Arizona. Snowy peaks, red-rock vistas, aspen and Ponderosa pine glades, waterfalls, and wildlife, the region contains it all, including an equally diverse array of camping options to sleep and stay while visiting.

Grand Canyon National Park, which is surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest and public lands, receives over four million visitors a year. This creates a competitive and complex camping arrangement for those seeking to pitch a tent within the boundary of the park itself. Most campsites in Grand Canyon are subject to a reservation system and as a result fill up quickly—often months in advance.

Just outside the canyon, by contrast, is a beautiful region that contains not only developed campgrounds available by reservation, but also offers a variety of first-come-first served sites, dispersed camping opportunities, Wilderness Areas, and historic cabin rentals. This area, made up of the Kaibab National Forest and surrounding public lands, is under proposal to be designated as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, which would preserve the lands around these great camping spots and keep them open for public use.

Each camping option in the proposed monument is described below. Note that the Kaibab National Forest is cut in half by the Grand Canyon. The nearest crossing of this chasm is Navajo Bridge on highway 89A. It takes over three hours, for example, to drive from the US Forest Service Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, on the North Rim, to the US Forest Service Tusayan Ranger District office located in Grand Canyon, AZ on the South Rim.


Fishing at the White Horse Campground.
Fishing at the White Horse Campground. U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.

The Kaibab National Forest contains seven official campgrounds that range from developed to primitive. On the South Rim, in the Tusayan Ranger District, the Ten-X Campground is a great choice. Located just 4 miles from the southern entrance of the National Park, this 70-site campground offers all but guaranteed solitude among towering ponderosa pines. Single family sites are first come, first serve, while two group sites can be reserved in advance.

On the North Rim, the campgrounds shrink in size, contain fewer services, and are slightly more primitive. Indian Hallow, the most primitive, contains only three first-come first-serve sites and does not offer running water. All of the developed campgrounds in the Kaibab National Forest have a familiar feel and seem like camping relics from a bygone era. Expect clean vault toilets but no showers, friendly camp hosts and ranger campfire programs, a lack of utility hookups for RVs, and beautiful, high desert scenery crowding in on all sides.

Dispersed Camping

Views at the Grand Canyon.
    Brian Bates
Views at the Grand Canyon. Brian Bates

For those looking to avoid even the small crowds of the developed campgrounds, the Kaibab National Forest provides some of the best dispersed camping in the Southwest.

Generally speaking, all National Forest lands are open to camping except for areas specifically posted as closed. And while it might be lawful to camp almost anywhere, it is not the same for operating a motorized vehicle. The Kaibab has new restrictions for where and when visitors can operate a motorized vehicle. Check online or stop by a Kaibab National Forest Office to obtain a Motor Vehicle Use Map, or MVUM, which is an essential tool for all dispersed campers. While you’re there also grab the Kaibab National Forest’s dispersed camping pamphlet before heading out. This map details specific dispersed camping closures. Ask about fire restrictions too.

There is an art—and an adventure—to finding the perfect dispersed campsite. Don’t like the view? Just head down the road a bit further. Want a private spot next to a waterfall? Get the map out and look for creeks and streams crossing over several topographical lines in a short distance. Dispersed camping veterans usually check all four boxes before settling down for the night: shade, views, flat ground, and solitude. Bonus points awarded for running water nearby. As always, follow all Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping.

Wilderness Areas

Kanab Creek Wilderness.
Kanab Creek Wilderness. USDA Forest Service, Soutwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest

The Kaibab National Forest even has an option for visitors wanting to avoid both developed campgrounds and the motorized routes often associated with dispersed camping.

Four Wilderness Areas call the Kaibab home, two north of the Grand Canyon and two to the south. The Kanab Creek and Saddle Mountain Wilderness Areas together make up over 115,000 acres of wilderness north of the Canyon while the Kendrick Mountain and Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Areas display over 60,000 acres of wilderness to the south.

All of the wilderness areas are rugged, canyon-filled landscapes. The high country contains stands of pine, fir, and aspen. Sycamore and cottonwood line the few perennial water sources. Kanab Creek Wilderness contains some of the most significant rock art, and other evidence of prehistoric peoples, in the Southwest. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness encompasses the spectacular red and white limestone cliffs lining Sycamore Creek as it winds for over twenty miles from the Mogollon Rim to its mouth in the desert below. Ringtail cats, distant cousins of the raccoon, call Sycamore Canyon home as do bears, deer, and mountain lions.

Historic Cabins

The Hull Cabin available for rent.
The Hull Cabin available for rent. U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.

For those looking for something more civilized, the Kaibab National Forest also provides its own version of “glamping:” historic cabins available for rent . Subject to a reservation system, all cabins were formerly used by the Forest Service or local ranchers as overnight accommodations. Be prepared to bring your own bedding and other amenities—check the Kaibab National Forest’s website for additional details. Perhaps the most scenic, the Hull Cabin is set among a mature Ponderosa pines grove. Sitting quietly outside the Hull Cabin at dusk may provide wildlife viewing as well—there is a watering hole nearby that is used by local fauna including javelina, a small hoofed mammal which resembles a wild pig.

In all, the proposed monument offers a multitude of splendid camping opportunities for those seeking adventure, wildlife, scenery, and solitude. And considering its close proximity to the often overcrowded campgrounds of Grand Canyon National Park, it makes for a wonderful and easy escape to a much less-visited area near the park.

Of note: The  proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument encompasses some of the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and that these camping opportunities stay accessible forever.Learn more about the proposal for making the lands around the Grand Canyon a national monument and get involved.

Originally written for Sierra Club.

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