Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.
There Are Many Ways to Do a Rim-to-Rim Hike in Grand Canyon
From more than 20 miles in a single, long, challenging day to a multi-day backpacking trip with a permit, there are many options for crossing Grand Canyon, from south to north or north to south.
For this trip, I decided to join a few friends for a 7-day, more leisurely journey with a pack on my back, from South Rim to North Rim on the Bright Angel Trail.
Come join me...
Location: South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park
Tonight I sleep in the bed of a pickup, where I can almost write by the moonlight alone. The trees are glowing above the campfire, and I swear I can hear the canyon nearby. It almost seems to whisper.
My hiking companions and I stood at the edge of the South Rim today, where I last stood five years ago when my newly wedded husband and I hoisted our packs and set off on our honeymoon. Had it been five months or five days ago, my reaction would be the same: Awesome! And no matter how many people stand there with me.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon bustles with activity most of the year, but tomorrow we'll leave more than 99% of park visitors behind when we drop below the rim. I expect the number of hikers will decrease as we move toward the Kaibab Plateau on the north side of the canyon.
I'm pleased to find that my hiking partners are like old friends. Easy to be with and talk to. Good people to share this hike with. I feel very lucky to be here.
Rim-to-Rim Facts and Information
- Hiking the Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim
From south to north—or north to south—in one day, one week, or more.
From South Rim to Indian Gardens via the Bright Angel Trail
Distance: 4.6 miles
Last night was a cold one, with temps in the low 40s, and me in just a sleeping bag liner, a long-sleeved shirt, fleece vest, and shorts. I should have been better prepared for the often chilly nighttime and early morning air on the rim.
Ooh, a little bird just landed a few inches away, on the edge of my unzipped tent door, and stayed for most of a minute.
The animals that live in these high-use areas of the canyon are quite habituated to humans, who are equated with meals. The Park Service provides large ammo cans at each campsite for food and trash storage, both of which are supposed to be packed out by the people who brought them in.
Ground (or rock) squirrels, ring-tailed cats, mule deer, and stinging ants are the most common campsite raiders in the canyon.
In other trail journals of mine, I've often talked about my fears. But that's not the case in Grand Canyon; I feel very comfortable here. I'm so relaxed right now, lying in my tent after a mid-afternoon nap at Indian Gardens, where we'll spend two nights. I just heard the ranger tell the folks at the next campsite that the temperature today is 110 degrees in the sun at this level of the canyon, but I don't feel overly hot here in the shade of a cottonwood tree, with the warm breeze blowing into my tent and a damp bandanna around my neck. Looking out, I see white, puffy clouds peeking over the edge of the South Rim, where we began hiking at 8:30 this morning.
Our 4.6-mile descent was actually quite eventful. Not long after starting down the switchbacks, a woman on the trail pointed up toward a cliff. A California condor! What a treat. It wasn't all that long ago that the only condors left were in captivity, and there were few of those—22 individuals in 1982. At present, there are only 34 of these highly endangered birds living in Grand Canyon.
Russell and I watched the vulture-like, black bird until it took off and glided gracefully on a thermal. Nearly ten feet of wingspan. As we followed the condor with our eyes and slowly resumed hiking, a sound coming from the eastern sky made us stop again. Whup, whup, whup! And moments later a helicopter landed on a cliff, maybe a hundred yards down the trail.
We soon learned that a Park employee had been thrown from a mule. Despite a fractured collarbone and severely injured hand, the man had managed to climb the slope back to the trail, and was soon sitting in the doorway of the helicopter. Russell and I were several long switchbacks down the trail before the helicopter took off. Scott and Kim were behind us, nowhere in sight.
As expected, there were many people on the Bright Angel Trail this morning. Russell and I often had to step off to the side to let ascending hikers or descending mule trains pass, turning our faces away from the dust stirred up by the latter and exchanging a few words with the former. I'm more of a greet-n-walker, as opposed to a stop-and-talker, when I'm hiking. I do like to stop now and again and look around, but not so much for conversation. Funny how many people are more chatty with passing strangers on a trail than they are on a street. Not funny-bad. Just ... funny.
Anyhow, Russell and I hiked together today, his first time wearing a backpack. From rim to campground, we listened to what sounded like millions of tiny castanets. After several moments spent looking up into the branches of a tree, I caught a glimpse of the insect making the sound—a winged critter that looks like a cicada. Ah, okay: Della, the ranger, just confirmed that's what they are. I'd always known cicadas to make a constant, high-pitched hum, but Della tells us this is a different type of cicada and that they haven't had the humming kind here for at least a decade.
I did a lot of smiling today, by the way, but not only at other hikers. No, this place just does that to me. I think I still have trail dust in my teeth. So I guess I'll dig out my toothbrush and, after that's taken care of, go for a short walk to the creek to dip my feet and commune with the water bugs. I plan to get up early tomorrow for a 3-mile round-trip walk to Plateau Point. Just some me-time in a place where I feel at peace.
Round-trip to Plateau Point, back to Indian Gardens
Distance: 3 miles
My day began at first light without a watch or alarm. I woke up just as the stars were beginning to fade. All I had to do was put on my socks and boots, and grab a water bottle, and I was off to Plateau Point. From Indian Gardens to just before my destination, I pretended I was alone in the canyon, stopping every so often to scan the slopes and listen to the "shhhh" of the Colorado River, growing louder as I moved towards the rim of the Inner Gorge and the 1000-foot drop to the blue-green ribbon of water. So different its personality is when you're in a raft on that river. Instead of a "shhhh" it's sometimes a roar.
As Plateau Point came into view, I saw that I hadn't been the first one up this morning. A couple was already there. I felt a little bad, like I was invading their quiet time, but I continued to the point, leaving as much room between them and me as I could ... which wasn't much at the edge of the cliff. They nodded hello, then resumed their conversation. Like many others I passed yesterday, they were speaking German. I'd also heard French and Spanish, as well as English, Australian and Canadian accents on the hike to Indian Gardens.
Minutes later, the couple left, and I spent a short time alone, sitting cross-legged on the rock, my arms resting on the lower bar of the metal rail just a couple of feet from the edge of a very long way down. I remembered the second time I visited Grand Canyon, the first being when I was twelve, with my mom and dad and at least two dozen others on a tour bus. But the second time was a life-changing experience; I rafted the Colorado in 1995. At the time, I was on vacation from my south-Florida paralegal job. As I sat at the front of the boat, grinning from ear to ear and squealing spontaneously as the raft shot up out of the "hole" in Crystal Rapid, I realized I'd somehow lost track of what made me happy. I felt like I'd been living someone else's life for years. When the trip was over and I returned to Florida, I wrote a letter to Canyoneers, the company I'd traveled with, and pretty much begged for a job. Several months later, I was working for Canyoneers at their remote Kaibab Lodge—a winter season on Kaibab Plateau, which forms Grand Canyon's northern rim. It was there that I met my future husband, Steve.
As I sat there at Plateau Point, reminiscing, I heard footsteps crunching on the sandy trail behind me. Della, the ranger, was out for a morning jog. (The trail to Plateau Point is generally flat—rolling, more like—compared to the other trails of the canyon.) Della took a break, and we chatted for a while. Among other things, I learned that the California Condor was released at Vermillion Cliffs in 1996, but still has not successfully reproduced in the wild.
Della headed back, and I soon followed when the sun cleared the top of a silhouetted spire. Immediately, I felt the rise in the temperature. I was back in the shade of the cottonwood trees maybe forty minutes later, as most other campers were getting up.
After breakfast, I did some reading—a Grand Canyon natural history guide on loan from Della—then took a nap. I awoke as the shade moved off my tent, pushed away by the hot sun. So I relocated to the covered picnic table, where I now sit, scribbling and watching lizards go about their business, which they seem to have a lot of, listening to the cicadas click, and watching the mule trains clomp by, laden with chattering people. I'd never realized how many mules make that hike each day!
Well, time to stop writing for a bit and once again go find a seat by the creek, where I'll soak my feet and think about the next book. There's a story brewing in my brain. I just need to sit back and watch the mental movie in order to figure out what exactly that story is. This is so much fun!
From Indian Gardens to Bright Angel Beach Campground, Inner Gorge
Distance: 4.6 miles
This was a day of mixed emotions.
I awoke long before dawn, when a curious mule deer stuck its nose right up against the screen of my tent door, so close I could feel its breath. From then on, I lay awake, watching the moon move lower, towards the rim, and listening for the first cicada click. I don't know what time it was, but when I heard that sound, I started packing up. I soon heard Scott doing the same in the next tent over.
I was ready within twenty minutes, but Scott was still rearranging his gear, and Russell and Kim appeared far from ready. Should I go, I wondered. I stood by my pack, trying not to look or feel impatient. I like to get an early start in the canyon, before the extreme heat of the day sets in. I decided to wait and ended up enjoying a nice hike with Scott as we descended the lower portion of Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and, after crossing the Silver suspension bridge, to Bright Angel Campground.
Bright Angel Trail follows a drainage route, whereas the South Kaibab, another popular rim-to-river trail several miles to the east, follows along and sometimes parallels a ridge. Bright Angel doesn't afford the sweeping views of the canyon that the South Kaibab does, but it's a bit more protected from the sun, especially the lower portion from Indian Gardens to the river. Scott and I were in camp before the sun had risen high enough to heat the way.
Bright Angel Campground was fairly quiet when we arrived. Most of those going up had passed us on the trail, and we'd left Indian Gardens before the rest of those coming down. Scott and I selected a site next to Bright Angel Creek, still in the shadow of the walls of the Inner Gorge and the narrow side canyon we're in. But the shade was soon gone, and the only respites from these 120 degrees were the canteen at nearby Phantom Ranch and the cool water of Bright Angel Creek. I made use of both.
After drinking a few cups of cold water and borrowing a book from the canteen, I walked back to the creek and found a nice spot in the middle of it—a circle of rocks that formed a pool. I sat myself in it and stayed there for hours. For a while I read, pausing now and then to watch dragonflies. Odd little creatures. A bright blue dragonfly landed on the corner of my open book, staring at me, so it seemed, with beady, bright blue eyes. I touched it, but it didn't leave until I turned the page. Came back seconds later and stared some more, this time with a friend attached. The friend stared at me, too.
I was soon joined by two women who'd never hiked, let alone backpacked, before coming into the canyon this morning. They'd intended to visit only the South Rim, but when they met someone who'd just hiked out, so excited about the experience, the women decided they wanted in on it too. So they checked with the Backcountry Office and were lucky to fill a cancellation; they received an on-the-spot permit for a night at Bright Angel Campground. They bought some basic gear in Grand Canyon Village, and here they are.
The women were full of questions. I enjoyed talking with them, though their reaction to some of my answers was "Oh, that's so weird!" ie. No, I don't carry deodorant or soap when I hike; I cook with little fuel tablets; No, my husband is at home, because he had to work. I met the guys I'm with on the internet. (Lots more questions about that one!) And, well, yes, sometimes it's nice to get away from the crowds. One of the women said, "You go backpacking to get away from people? That's weird." I explained that that isn't my motivation, that I enjoy company when I hike, but before I finished what I was saying, the other woman told me, "Gee, you don't look like someone who'd go backpacking." Not quite sure what that meant, but I didn't ask.
After the two women left, I watched three mule deer drinking (and peeing) upstream, maybe thirty feet away. I looked in the other direction, and there were two more. Sitting in the creek was peaceful, but when I'd finally had enough sun and went back to the campsite to get some dry clothes, I felt overwhelmed by too much company. Scott, Kim and Russell weren't around, but kids were running through our site, one of them tripping over my tent stake and using me to stop his fall. I felt like the campground was swarming with humans, but there was nowhere short of a very hot hike to get away from what felt like a crowd. I was angry at the screaming kids and the equally loud adults. I felt claustrophobic.
Just as the kids left our campsite, the ranger came along and wanted to see our permit. I didn't see it on Kim, Scott or Russell's backpacks or tents, so I was scolded and told that one of us needed to bring it to the ranger station over at Phantom Ranch in order to avoid a fine. I was also berated for the food and trash someone had left on our picnic table, where animals could get to it. (Some years back, rangers had to shoot 22 starving mule deer in the Phantom Ranch area; their stomachs were so full of plastic, they couldn't feel hungry and weren't eating.) I was told to "Read the rules!" and then the ranger adjusted his mirrored sunglasses and moved on to the next site. I felt like crap. But I did read the rules, I'd wanted to tell him. And I follow the rules. I'm a good camper. But I'd just nodded then cleaned up the picnic table and sulked for a few minutes.
So back to the creek I went with my book. By the time the sun moved enough to leave the campground in the shade at about five o'clock, I'd finished the book and was feeling happy again.
Crossing Grand Canyon: Day 5
Location: Bright Angel Beach Campground
This is a nice spot, under a tree at the edge of the Colorado River. I'm not far from camp, but it sure feels like I am. This is where the rafts (and kayaks and sometimes wooden dories) pull in, and there are several here now. But the passengers and most of the crews have walked over to Phantom Ranch. I see the part of the beach where Steve and I cooked a pasta and pesto dinner on our honeymoon hike, but that area is now under six inches of water, as the river level fluctuates, controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam.
After a couple of hours at the boat beach, some creek-sitting, and then card-playing with Scott and Kim over in the air-conditioned canteen at Phantom Ranch, I enjoyed two very interesting ranger programs, one about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the other about bats. Both talks were given by a lively ranger named Pam. Pam herself has an interesting story. She first came to Grand Canyon when she was 30-something and, like the two women I met while creek-sitting yesterday, had never hiked before. Pam was working in dentistry at the time. When she came down to Phantom Ranch and attended a ranger program like those she gave today, she discovered her dream job. Pam went back to school, earned a geology degree, worked as a seasonal ranger up at Mt. Ranier in Washington state, and, six years ago, landed that dream job here in Grand Canyon. You can see how much she loves what she does when you attend one of Pam's programs.
So about the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was created in 1933 during the Depression, thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the jobless rate was at around 30 percent. Young, single men (don't recall the exact age range, but I believe the lower end was 25) could enroll in the program for six months at a stretch and re-enroll up to five more times. They earned $30 a month for full-time work (five days a week, eight hours a day), and were required to send $25 of that amount back to their families. The remaining $5 they could keep for themselves. Pam said that the ratio to today's dollars would be 1:12.85. So they were earning about $385 a month, with opportunities to make extra money (such as $1 for hiking to the rim and back in a day to bring down a 500-foot cable for the bridge I walked across to get here). Their basic needs were well taken care of—three square meals a day, uniforms, medical care if need be, and so forth.
We have the CCC to thank for many of the trails we enjoy today, not to mention roads, bridges, state parks, and buildings (such as the stone resthouses along some of the trails in Grand Canyon). They put in a trans-canyon phone line, which was the first of its kind placed on the historic register. (Perhaps the only?) When hiking in Grand Canyon, you can still see many of the poles and sometimes the old wires, though the system is no longer used. The CCC planted more than 3 billion trees nationwide. (Pam may even have said 30 billion. But I know it was in the billions, not millions.) The CCC was discontinued when World War II began because the reason for its creation no longer existed.
So that's some of what I remember from Ranger Pam's 4 p.m. program, given under a large cottonwood tree in Phantom Ranch. The evening bat program was held in the outdoor amphitheater. Here are some of the many things I learned about the world's only mammal capable of true flight:
Bats aren't blind. (Well, I knew that one already.) They aren't dirty animals and groom themselves several times a day. They are much more closely related to primates and humans than they are to rodents. When they do get rabies, they get sick and die; they do not become aggressive like a rabid dog. (Although, if you pick up a bat, it certainly may bite. So if you ever see one on the ground, that's abnormal behavior and the bat is ill.) Fruit-eating bats are the primary pollinators in the rainforests. So if those bats disappear, the rainforests, our oxygen tanks, disappear. We can thank bats for the existence of bananas, mangos, avocados, tequila (from the agave plant) and more. The Lesser Longnose bat is the pollinator of the saguaro cactus, and the Lesser Longnose is on the endangered species list. Vampire bats live only in South and Central America. They don't go for the jugular; instead, they wait until the host animal is asleep (by listening to breathing patterns), then make a very tiny incision in the lower extremities. It takes approximately 20 minutes for a Vampire bat to drink its fill—2 teaspoons. They use a very effective anticoagulant so the blood won't clot until the bat is finished. The host likely will never know it's been dined upon.
So that's some of what I learned from Ranger Pam. I stuck around for a few minutes after the bat program, while the bats were flying, and listened to her short talk about hiking strategies for getting out of the canyon safely and happily. After all, that's a pretty big climb we have ahead of us, day after tomorrow. 5,800 vertical feet over 7 miles from Cottonwood Campground to the North Rim. I believe that's the biggest single climb I'll have ever done, topping out at 8,870 feet. Gonna do me some sweatin'!
From Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Camp
Distance: 7 miles
Up at 3:45 a.m. and on the North Kaibab Trail before dawn. The North Kaibab parallels Bright Angel Creek the entire distance to Cottonwood Camp, crossing several times by bridge. Scott and I arrived at Cottonwood at 8:15.
I should have worn longer shorts. My inner thighs are chafed. Youch! Good thing I brought Vaseline. Will I ever learn?
So, anyhoo, I had a nose bleed early this morning. (My mind is jumping all over the place here.) Must be the dry air, because when I went into the bathroom at 3:15 with my bandanna in front of my face and my head tipped back, there was another girl in there who'd just finished doing the same thing. Haven't had a nose bleed for ... geez, since I was a kid, I think.
What else? Well, I had company in my tent last night. A cicada snuck in there at some point but kept quiet until I decided to go to bed. Then, all of a sudden, it started freaking out, buzzing and flying around the tent and into my face. Took me at least five minutes to get him or her out of there, and I don't think he or she ended up in top condition.
Back to Cottonwood Camp. Once again, I spent most of the afternoon in the swiftly-moving creek. Well, my legs were in it, anyway. That's cold water! Especially when you don't know that an overgrown kid (Scott) is going to dump a hat full of it on you as you nap on a warm rock. After I got my breath back, though, it felt good.
The ranger here at Cottonwood is a volunteer, who does the work, he says, because he loves the canyon. Said he doesn't have to obtain permits, he just calls the Backcountry Office and tells someone where he's headed. He's been all over the Park and probably knows Grand Canyon as well as anybody. He makes written descriptions of his routes for the Park Service, which aids them in finding lost or injured hikers. (Routes are different than trails, by the way.)
Although the four of us started out at the same time this morning, Scott and I were soon separated from Kim and Russell, and we didn't see them again until this evening. We assumed they'd stopped at Ribbon Falls, a mile or so back, and spent the hottest hours of the day there. And that turned out to be the case. Russell came into camp first, and Kim arrived maybe two hours later. I'd spent a day at Ribbon Falls when Steve and I were on our honeymoon hike, but I'd never been as far as Cottonwood, so I preferred to come straight here and spend the day in this area. So we each did what we wanted to do, and I think everyone had a great day.
The sun hasn't set quite yet, but I'm going to put my journal in its Zip-loc and close my eyes. I want to get a very early start on the big climb up to the North Rim.
From Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim
Distance: 7 miles
Great day! Scott and I started out at 4:30 a.m. There was really no easing into it. Up we went from the very first step, but we hiked at a comfortable pace, cooled by an early morning breeze. Although I wasn't yet hungry at that early hour, I'd eaten a decent portion of granola with rehydrated milk—fuel to get me going. I carried four liters of water and salty snacks to replace what I'd sweat out on the seven-mile climb.
Scott and I heeded the advice posted on bulletin boards within the Park. We took periodic, ten- to fifteen-minute breaks, putting our feet up above the level of our hearts, which helps to drain toxins that build up in the legs. And what a difference that and frequent drinking and snacking makes. Our pulse rates were certainly up, but we were able to maintain a steady pace and, now and then, a conversation. Sometimes Scott would hike a switchback ahead, and all I could hear was the sound of Bright Angel Creek, fading as we climbed, while the wind in the trees above drew closer.
The North Kaibab Trail has a very different character than its counterparts on the South Rim, the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails. In many places, the North Kaibab is very narrow, with sheer drop-offs and no vegetation to make a height-wary hiker like me feel more at ease. But I stayed close to the wall of stone to my left and watched my step, breathed as evenly as I could, and enjoyed the hike.
The North Kaibab Trail winds its way through an increasingly narrow canyon, passing a waterfall at Roaring Springs, and around and through some beautiful rock formations. If you take the time to stop and look behind you, you're treated to equally awesome views of where you've been. And as you climb, the South Rim and eventually the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff are visible on a clear day, which today was.
Scott and I reached Supai Tunnel at the five-mile point just as the sun caught up to us. I'd been watching the yellow light move up the canyon walls all morning. By the time we got to the tunnel, though, we'd gained enough elevation that the heat wasn't nearly as intense as it was in the Inner Gorge. The elevation combined with the increasing tree cover made for fairly comfortable hiking the rest of the way.
When we were within a mile of the top, however, we both began to feel the effects of the thinner air and slowed down, now taking micro-breaks at nearly every switchback, enjoying the view as we let our breathing return to normal. With all of our breaks, we were on the North Rim at 10:30 a.m. Kim and Russell arrived at about 5:00 p.m., having left later and taken more frequent and longer breaks.
Tonight, after dinner at the North Rim Lodge and a wonderful ranger presentation about the wildlife of Grand Canyon, we're camped near the rim. I'm wearing a few layers of clothing and have put the rain fly on my tent for the first time this trip, as the nighttime temps have been as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit on the North Rim this past week. (Yes, even in June.) The rain fly will help keep the heat in and the chilly wind out. We've set Scott's alarm for 5:45 a.m. in order to be ready to meet the rim-to-rim shuttle at 6:50.
Overall, I had a wonderful time on this hike. I was very pleased to find that my knees gave me no trouble like they did on the Laurel Highlands Trail earlier this year. I was also pleasantly surprised at how well I did on the big climb. I was a little intimidated by it and wondered how out of shape I really am. I'm in nowhere near the condition I was when I finished the A.T., but I'm also well beyond the condition I was in when I started that long trek. I'm feeling more confident about the Minnesota hike now. Three weeks and counting!
© 2022 Deb Kingsbury