FLAGSTAFF - Groups of hikers and runners who want to do grueling excursions across the Grand Canyon will soon need a permit - a move officials say will cut back on overcrowding, litter and safety issues at the popular tourist attraction in Arizona.
The permit requirement begins on Sept. 15 and involves any group that publicly advertises a trip from rim to rim.
The trips take visitors 21 miles over steep, rocky and winding terrain, with elevation changes of a few thousand feet and temperature variances of more than 20 degrees.
The park has no limit on the number of one-day permits it will issue. The $175 fee will help park officials educate visitors about trail etiquette and free up rangers to respond to life-threatening injuries, Grand Canyon spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.
She said people have abandoned gear, left litter on trails and crowded restrooms near the Colorado River, sometimes with little regard for fellow visitors.
"People might not be thinking about the impact to others," she said. "Everyone comes to the canyon generally with a different idea of how they're going to experience it."
The permit requirement comes as Grand Canyon National Park is revising its backcountry management plan and will be in place until that plan is issued sometime next year.
Each group can obtain a single permit each day for as many as 30 people. At least one member must be certified in wilderness or emergency medical response and CPR, and there must be general liability insurance.
The rim-to-rim excursions are most popular in May and October, and officials said hikers and runners must be able to complete them within 24 hours. The traffic on Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails can include as many as 600 hikers and runners headed across the canyon.
"The permits are on an interim basis so we can monitor how many groups are going into the canyon for rim-to-rim trips and the impact it has on the canyon," said Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski, another park spokesperson.
The California-based Project Athena Foundation is set to take a group of hikers on the trip in October. Founder Robyn Benincasa said she understands the intent in making sure that groups are responsible for their members.
Each participant in her group, which aims to give survivors of medical or traumatic events a life-changing experience, must complete a 16-week training course that includes long hikes at high elevation.
Benincasa, a firefighter and endurance runner, also ensures that paramedics, EMTs and staff dedicated to hikers' safety also are on the trip.
"Of course the fear is at some point if you have everything and they still say you can't come here," she said. "It's a national park. That's why you raise an eyebrow."
Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix has taken a group of about 150 people to hike the Grand Canyon every year for more than 30 years as a team-building experience. The group size won't be possible under a single permit for the organization.
"We are disappointed to hear of the new policy and hope there are other opportunities in which we can continue our annual hike," the institute's director, Robert Spetzler, said in a statement.
Grand Canyon officials are encouraging groups to apply for permits two weeks in advance of their trip. Hikers and runners will be advised on yielding to uphill climbers and mules, packing out everything they take in, staying on trails, and not stashing clothing, food and other gear.
Adam Gifford, owner of Sedona Running Co., said he's torn about the permit system. He believes it will address overcrowding on the trails and ease the heavy workload of rangers, who respond to everything from dehydration, minor injuries, falls and deaths in the canyon.
"Something does need to be done," he said. "I don't think this is a good, long-term solution."
Miner reporter Ryan Abella contributed to this report.
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