Grand Canyon officials are considering a day use permitting system to better control day hikers and runners using below the rim trails. Trail runners using Grand Canyon trails to complete Rim to Rim runs and Rim to Rim to Rim runs, as well as an increase in hikers using rafts (called packrafters) to link backcountry trails are changing the face of Grand Canyon trail uses.
According to park officials the type of visitors to the Canyon have changed since the last management plan was created 25 years ago. Pack rafters who carry small inflatable rafts on their backs are able to utilize the river to access little used back country trails in ways never before imagined. Runners running the corridor trails have increased exponentially, and renewed interest in canyoneering has people exploring little slot canyons in the far recesses of the park.
Free backcountry permits, which limit the number of back country users in any given week, have always been necessary for multi-day trips into the Canyon's back country, this limit includes packrafters. Packrafters are also limited to a five mile rule for river usage. According to Brad Meiklejohn, president of the American Packrafting Association, the association is asking Park Service Officials for changes that will allow greater flexibility for packrafters in the Canyon. In addition to the limits imposed by the permitting process, packrafters are restricted to five-mile floats. The association wants the river zoned in a way that would link certain trails and a permit system that restricts users to a particular zone.
Runners are able to travel backcountry style distances, but without camping, and thus without the need for permits. Canyon Officials openly discourage running on the corridor trails, but with trail running exploding as a sport, they are waging a losing battle, and anyone taking a trip below the rim will likely encounter one or more runners.
According to a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Havasupai tribe is also upset with people crossing tribal land to access what it considers to be sacred sites, according to the Tribune, "In a letter to the chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, Park Superintendent David Uberuaga offered to seasonally limit permits onto a piece of land that covers some 90,000 acres of remote wilderness."
This has, of course, put the Park Service at odds with back country hikers and canyoneers who wish to explore the slot canyon of this little used area.
Backpacking and canned adventures such as mule trains and $5000 river trips are no longer the only route to below the rim activities. The vast majority of the 45 million Grand Canyon visitors will still probably walk no more than a half mile total during their entire trip. But for others, a silent run through a silvery blue night, or a raft trip to a thin rocky ribbon of unused trail, or a long dusty trip on a washboard road into the deep slot canyons, is what a Grand Canyon trip is about. It is the Park Service's duty to protect the park for everyone, limit the inevitable degradation of thousands of feet, and preserve the back country adventures that make any trip to the Grand Canyon (or any of America's National Parks) a trip of a life time. This is a delicate balancing act being carried out by a huge government agency. Let's hope they get it right.