Grand Canyon Hike: South Kaibab Trail - Tonto Trail West - Bright Angel Trail
Have You Been to the Grand Canyon?
A Long Dayhike or Perfect Overnight Trip in the National Park
I just did this 13-mile hike for the fourth time, and each time has been different. The same canyon trails change with the seasons, the weather, the company (or lack thereof), and where I happen to look and stop for a rest.
This is one of my favorite day-hikes in Grand Canyon, which can be broken up into two days (with a backcountry camping permit), with the climb back to the south rim on the second day, when you're fresh from a good night's sleep at Indian Gardens. Or spend additional nights at the Indian Gardens campground to explore the area and relax in what I think is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Here are some photos and information about this hike. Feel free to ask any questions you might have in the guestbook below.
**But a few words of caution first: I would not attempt this hike in a single day unless a) you've already done at least one shorter dayhike below the rim, and b) you're in good cardiovascular shape. The climb out at the end of the day can be a doozy (and even a danger to your health) if you're not fit and used to desert hiking at some altitude.
The photos on this page were all taken by me. See more of my photos in my Grand Canyon photo album.
A Helpful Canyon Hiking Guide
There are 15 hikes included from the South Rim and 13 hikes from the North Rim.
Want to do them all? (I do!)
This book includes descriptions and detailed maps for all of the park's developed trails as well as tips on safety, hiking with children, access, and services.
- Hikes for every ability
- Directions to trailheads
- Trail Finder for best day- and overnight hikes for families, moderate day hikes, strenuous day hikes, and backpacking trips for all levels
- Comprehensive trail descriptions with mile-by-mile directional cues
- Difficulty ratings, average hiking times, and best hiking seasons for each featured hike
- Information on fees, contacts, lodging and campgrounds, and more
Have You Done This or Any Other Grand Canyon Hike?
That is, have you ever hiked below the rim of the Canyon?
Getting to the South Kaibab Trailead at Yaki Point to Begin Your Hike
This isn't a loop, so you won't end where you begin....
The Yaki Point Road and South Kaibab Trail parking lot are closed to private vehicles (unless you have an accessibility permit). So, you will need to ride a free Park shuttle bus to access the trailhead.
Park in Grand Canyon Village and go to any one of the nearby shuttle stops.
Take the blue route shuttle to the Visitor Center, then transfer to the orange route shuttle to get to the trailhead.
You'll end your hike at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, back in Grand Canyon Village, so you can easily walk back to your vehicle.
See the National Park Service website for more information about the Grand Canyon Shuttle Bus routes and to download a transit map.
There's also an early morning Hiker's Express Shuttle Bus, which departs from Bright Angel Lodge on the hour, with a second stop at the Backcountry Information Center, a third stop at Grand Canyon Visitor Center, and a last stop at South Kaibab Trailhead. (From December through February, this bus departs only at 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.)
From here, you'll begin your hike, starting with the series of switchbacks referred to as the "drainpipe." And you'll see why. Just watch your footing. You aren't going to fall off the edge unless you really try, but you could land on your butt if you slip on loose gravel on top of a hard-packed trail. And you'll likely have an audience, as this first part of the South Kaibab trail is quite heavily used.
I personally recommend using trekking poles to help stay upright, not to mention lessen the impact on your knees.
Ooh-Aah Point, South Kaibab Trail - A popular turn-around point for those who want just a taste of what it's like to hike below the rim.
About three-quarters of a mile after beginning your descent on the South Kaibab Trail, you'll come to this aptly named point, which got its title from hikers who turn to the west and say, "Ooh," then turn to the east and follow that up with an "Aah." (Or vice versa)
South Kaibab Trail to the Tip-Off - One of two maintained "corridor" trails on the south side of Grand Canyon
As mentioned, the South Kaibab trail is well-maintained by the Park, but it's relatively steep in places and, being a ridge trail, is exposed to the sun the whole way down all day long. So this is an especially hot trail in the summer months, and there's no water available at all. For this reason, the South Kaibab is not the ascending trail of choice when hiking back to the rim from the river. The majority of hikers prefer to descend the South Kaibab and ascend the longer Bright Angel Trail to the west, which offers more shade and opportunities to refill your water bottles.
At 1.5 miles down from the rim on the South Kaibab Trail, you'll reach a large, flat area called Cedar Ridge, where you'll find an outhouse and good places to take a load off and rest for a bit while taking in the view. This is another popular turn-around point for a shorter day-hike.
At 3 miles from the rim, you'll reach Skeleton Point.
Junction With Tonto Trail West - This is the little sign you're looking for, on your left as you head down the trail on the Tonto Platform....
The junction of the South Kaibab Trail and Tonto Trail is located 4.4 miles from the rim, just before the Tipoff, where the South Kaibab Trail leaves the Tonto Plateau for the descent to the Colorado River. Here you'll find a solar-powered outhouse for your convenience before you turn to the west.
About a quarter-mile beyond this junction (on the South Kaibab Trail), there's an emergency phone on the east side of the trail.
If you're doing this 13-mile dayhike, you're going to turn to the west on the Tonto Trail. Except for a couple of glimpses, you won't see the Colorado River on this hike.
Crossing the Tonto Platform - A 76-mile unmaintained trail
The 4.6-mile section of the Tonto Trail between the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails is the most heavily traveled portion of this east-west trail and the easiest to follow, due to the number of people who tread on it. Camping along the Tonto Trail is allowed by permit only and only at certain use areas, but there is little water available. Your best bet is Pipe Creek, but check with the backcountry office to see if it's running. And always filter water from backcountry sources that don't come from potable water spickets, such as those on the Bright Angel Trail.
I recommend wearing long pants -- such as convertible pants, so you can remove the bottom portions later -- while hiking on the Tonto. While this particular section isn't as overgrown as other parts of the Tonto Trail, you can get quite scraped up by the brush if you wear shorts.
Also, heat is extreme on the exposed Tonto Trail during the late spring to early fall, so if you really want to hike across parts of the Tonto Platform during that time of year, hike early or hike late and carry a LOT of water -- more than you think you'll need.
Pipe Creek - A nice spot to stop for a rest, a short distance from the Tonto Trail
About two miles from the junction of the South Kaibab Trail and the Tonto Trail, you'll come to Pipe Canyon and little Pipe Creek. A short detour from the Tonto Trail will bring you to this nice spot for a rest and snack or lunch break. A short distance further, you come to the pour-off.
Looking Down on Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground, on the Colorado River and Bright Angel Creek
Offering bunkhouses and cabins, Phantom Ranch is the only lodging below the rim of Grand Canyon. There is also a canteen where meals, beverages, and sundries are available. No backcountry permit is required, but reservations must be made -- usually far in advance -- through Xanterra. Reservations are accepted up to 13 months in advance.
After crossing the Colorado River via suspension bridge and half a mile before reaching Phantom Ranch, you'll come to Bright Angel Campground. Unlike Phantom Ranch, which is operated by a concessionaire, Bright Angel Campground is run by the Park Service, so a backcountry permit is required to stay here.
Phantom Ranch is located 10 miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead and 7 miles from the So. Kaibab Trailhead. Guests can access Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground on foot, by mule or by boat.
Tonto Trail to Bright Angel Trail and Indian Gardens - Approaching the oasis in the desert
Nine miles from the start of your hike, you'll reach the end of the Tonto Trail section and the oasis in the desert, called Indian Gardens. Here, you'll find shade ramadas, potable water year-round, a ranger station, mule corrals, and a campground. You can also dip your feet and cool off in Garden Creek.
If you can get a permit to camp at Indian Gardens, this is a great way to break this hike up into two days (or more). From Indian Gardens, you can make the 3-mile, round-trip, easy hike out to Plateau Point, where you can look down another 1,000 feet to the Colorado River.
From Indian Gardens, you have 4.6 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain on the Bright Angel Trail to reach the South Rim. There are two rest houses at 3 miles and 1.5 miles from the rim, and potable water available seasonally (from May thru September) at each. Check with the Grand Canyon backcountry office to be sure if the water is on or off. There are also outhouses located at these points.
Wildflowers in Grand Canyon - Finding a foothold in the desert
When my friends and I did this hike in late April, lots of different kinds and colors of wildflowers were beginning to bloom, some of them popping out of the tiniest cracks and crevices.
There are approximately 650 herbaceous wildflowers found in Grand Canyon National Park, including the following (Click on the names to see photos of these flowers):
- sacred datura
- evening primrose
- tidy fleabane
- baby white aster
- desert tobacco
- white violet
Red or orange flowers:
Pink and purple flowers:
- Rocky Mountain bee plant
- Palmer lupine
- toadflax penstemon
- Grand Canyon phacelia
- Rocky Mountain iris
Identify the flowers and other wildlife.
Learn About & Identify Grand Canyon Flora, Fauna, and Geology - ... from the rim or as you hike
Take your time and stop to smell the cactus flowers (and maybe a little eau de mule) as you hike. I like to carry a guide and match the images with what I'm actually looking at -- a self-guided tour that gives me all kinds of goodies with which to entertain and educate my friends on future hikes.
One reviewer writes, "Handy easy-to-use guide to birds, flowers, cacti, wildflowers, reptiles, mammals, geology of the grand canyon. Nothing like it anywhere."
More Information About Hiking in Grand Canyon
Some links I like....
Grand Canyon National Park Permit Request Form (PDF) : For camping below the rim
All About Hiking and Backpacking the Corridor Trails of Grand Canyon - An educational tour on DVD
From the director - "Join my three hiking partners and me as we begin hiking in the Grand Canyon for the first time. We fumble (and sometimes stumble) down the dusty scenic trails while discovering the magnificent wonders of the canyon. Originally, we had all planned for that first hike to be our only trip to the bottom, but that is not the way things worked out.
We are all obsessed with the canyon and have returned again and again. We think you will feel the same way. Explore the Bright Angel Trail down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. If you are adventurous, take the steep and dry South Kaibab Trail. For the most awe inspiring views from the main trails, creep along the towering cliffs of the North Kaibab Trail. Learn about permits, techniques and skills that you need to camp in the inner canyon. Find out what to expect when you reach Indian Garden, Bright Angel and Cottonwood campgrounds. Take side trips from the main trails to explore waterfalls and Native American ruins that most people never see. Get a close up view of the plants and animals that live in the bottom of canyon--some of them unique to the area. Experience the solitude and clear beauty of the North Rim in winter. You may be the only person camping on the North Rim! Get a glimpse of the treacherous Hermit and Clear Creek Trails with exciting footage of rafters going down Granite Rapids. Most of all, learn how to be safe and enjoy your experience hiking and backpacking in the Grand Canyon."
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Deb Kingsbury