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Grand Canyon Exploratory Naturalist Backpacking Trip

May 13 @ 7:00 am - May 16 @ 7:00 pm


Spring warms its way into summer inside the Grand Canyon. Lazuli Buntings sing from the greening crowns of well-watered cottonwoods. Cliffrose and Redbud erupt into bloom along the south rim creek edges. The last cactus flowers grace the shale floor of the Tonto Plateau. The upper formations of the canyon, Kaibab Limestone, Torroweap Formation, and Coconino Sandstone glow softly in the evening light. Deep within the Inner Gorge, the River groans and roars.

Load up your backpack and join naturalist and explorer David Gilligan as we venture deep into the stone halls of geologic time in the Grand Canyon. We will spend half our time backpacking on epic canyon trails and half our time studying geology, birds, and plants. Each day will include backcountry travel, structured sessions on Grand Canyon rock formations and habitats, and time for sessions focused on plant and bird identification and the practice of natural history. We will spend our first day and night exploring the Grandview Trail and Horseshoe Mesa, then spend two nights at a base camp in the riparian oasis of Cottonwood Creek.

Registration via Eventbrite

We will backpack an average of 3-6 miles on travel days. Trails are well-maintained and graded, but the terrain is rough and exposed and involves elevation gain and loss of up to 2500’ in a day. Our goal is to take our time and enjoy ourselves. Participants should be in reasonably good cardio-vascular condition, be able to hike comfortably with a 30-35 pound backpack on uneven and steep terrain, sleep on the ground on a camping-style sleeping pad, eat simple food, and spend a period of a few days with only minimal (emergency) communications. The backpacking difficulty will depend on your previous background. For beginning backpackers, the physical nature of elevation gain and loss will be challenging. For experienced backpackers, the trip is intermediate. For athletes and very experienced hikers, the trip is relatively easygoing. Participants should expect to be in a mixed-ability group. Camping will be in established park campsites on Horseshoe Mesa and along Cottonwood Creek. Horseshoe Mesa is a dry camp but does have designated toilets managed by the park. Cottonwood Creek has dispersed camping along the creek and is primitive camping with no facilities. Please see the accompanying Eligibility and Informed Consent form for more details on trip conditions.

The Grand Canyon Exploratory Naturalist backpacking trip is partially guided— this means that you can expect a professionally planned and led expedition with full engagement by staff throughout the trip, but you provide your own personal equipment and breakfasts and lunches.

Equipment: You provide your own clothing, backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and related personal camping equipment. We provide group tents, stoves and fuel, kitchen equipment, and emergency equipment. You will be provided with a thorough packing list.

Food: We provide a tasty, delicious, nutritious group dinner each night. You provide your own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.

Programming: You can expect professionally facilitated natural history programs throughout each day and a casual, relaxed, communal environment in the evenings at camp. All parts of the program are designed for maximum participation: our goal is to travel through spectacular places and practice natural history together by day and tell stories about it by evening. Daily natural history sessions are well-suited to all naturalist ability levels, from beginner to advanced.

Expedition Leadership: We will guide you through the full hiking and camping experience. You are expected to carry your personal equipment and a share of the group gear, help out with camp chores, and practice self-care (staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, eating well, etc.) while on the trip. Although our primary goal is to use backpacking as a way to explore the natural world, if you are interested in improving your backcountry skills, you will have plenty of opportunities to do so. All navigation will be done in analog format with National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps.

Emergencies and Communications: Our staff are certified Wilderness First Responders with decades of experience and carry industry-standard satellite communication devices on board for use in emergencies. To preserve the quality of the wilderness experience and secure the clearest and most streamlined emergency communications, we ask participants to refrain from using phones or related digital communications for the duration of the trip unless specifically asked to do otherwise. Phone use should be limited to camera functions throughout the trip.

Transportation: We will provide van transportation for the full group to and from the Grand Canyon. The program will begin the morning of May 13th and end the evening of May 16th, 2024, at the Natural History Institute on Marina Street in Prescott, AZ.


May 13th

     7am – 12pm: Meet at the Natural History Institute, Prescott, AZ
                           Pack van and drive to Grand Canyon
                           Trailhead preparations, geology primer
     12pm – 4pm: Hike to Horseshoe Mesa via Grandview Trail (w/geology interp.)
     4pm – 9pm: Make camp, group dinner, community time, sunset viewing

May 14th

     8:30am – 10:30am: Geology interpretive session
     10:30am – 12pm: Break camp and pack; early lunch
     12pm – 3pm: Hike to Cottonwood Creek
     3pm – 5pm: Make camp; informal naturalist explorations
     5pm – 9pm: Dinner and camp socializing; community time and stories

May 15th

     8am – 10am: Birding sessions
     10am – 12pm: Botany sessions
     12pm – 1pm: Lunch
     1pm – 5pm: Day hike and exploration down Cottonwood Creek
     5pm – 9pm: Dinner; community time; group highlights circle

May 16th

     7am – 9am: Break camp and pack up
     9am – 2pm: Hike out via Grand View Trail
     2pm – 6pm: Drive to Prescott and the Natural History Institute
     6pm or 7pm: Farewells and departure

David Gilligan is a professional naturalist, explorer, professor, and writer. He has led wilderness trips and developed and taught natural history field programs for Prescott College, The Sierra Institute, and Sterling College. He has spent over three thousand days and nights in the field, training hundreds of people in expeditionary backpacking, mountaineering, canoeing, and sea kayaking skills necessary for exploration of wild places. He is the author of numerous books and articles including The Secret SierraIn the Years of the MountainsNature, Culture, Consciousness and “The High Country of the Mind”. His academic specialties include vegetation ecology, botany and geology in mountain and desert environments, and nature philosophy. David has lived and worked in Arizona, California, and Northern New England, and traveled to remote mountain environments all over the world. 


May 13 @ 7:00 am
May 16 @ 7:00 pm
Event Category:


Natural History Institute


Natural History Institute
126 N Marina St
Prescott, AZ 86301
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