Hiking the Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim
From South to North (Or North to South) in a Day, a Week, or More
There is SO much I could write about hiking in the Grand Canyon, but I want to focus on hiking rim to rim using the popular "corridor" trails in the central part of the National Park. I usually do my rim-to-rim trips from the South Rim to the North Rim, so that's the order in which I'll present the information.
While it's not responsible to advocate hiking rim to rim in a single day, it's something I've done a number of times. But I've also done the same hike over a week, and encourage all first-time Grand Canyon hikers—or those who prefer to stop and smell the cactus flowers—to spend multiple days getting from one side of the Canyon to the other.
In fact, I highly discourage people from hiking rim to rim—or rim to river and back— in a single day. Don't even attempt this unless you're fit and already very familiar with hiking in the Canyon.
Below you'll find some information on the corridor trails and sites and stopping points along the way, interwoven with journal entries from my own seven-day rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike. I've also included suggestions on when to go, what to bring, and where (and when) to get water, as well as some informative and fun reading material.
Be sure to post any questions or comments in the guestbook at the end.
Rim To Rim: Numbers
- Length: 21 to 24 miles, depending on the Corridor Trail route.
- Average elevation at the South Rim: 7,000 feet
- Elevation at the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch: 2,550 feet
- Elevation at the North Rim at the top of the North Kaibab Trail: 8,300 feet
From My Rim To Rim Journal: Day 1
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 Steve 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.
The South Rim and Grand Canyon Village
The most populated area of Grand Canyon National Park
You could spend a full day, if not an entire vacation, seeing the sights at the South Rim. There, you'll find hotels and cabins, a campground and RV parks within the National Park boundaries, historic buildings, free ranger talks and interpretive displays, restaurants and shops, groceries, even a bank and post office, as well as many viewpoints where you can take in the grandness of the canyon.
In addition to being a tourist destination, Grand Canyon Village is home to about 2,000 Park employees and their families, so there's also a school, grades K-12, and medical facilities located there.
The South Rim is a fun place to begin and/or end a rim to rim hike, perhaps with a stay in a comfortable hotel room and a nice, big meal to celebrate the accomplishment. And, if you want to walk off some of those post-hike kinks, there's even a paved Rim Trail to wander along and watch the colors of the Canyon change as the sun sets.
Grand Canyon Village is visited twice a day by the Grand Canyon Railway, bringing visitors to and from the town of Williams, Arizona. For information about this service and their various vacation packages, visit the Grand Canyon Railway website. I've never taken the train, myself, but this would probably be a fun addition to your trip if you want to spend a little extra time (and money).
NOTE: A free shuttle service is available year-round to take visitors from one point along the South Rim to another, so you can park your car and forget about it till you're ready to leave.
The South Kaibab Trail
One of two Corridor trails from the South Rim to the Colorado River
The South Kaibab Trail is a ridge trail with incredible, wide-reaching views all along it's 6.3-mile (10.1 km) route from rim to river. Keep in mind there is no shade or water to be had on this trail, so hike early or hike late in the day during summer months, wear sunscreen and a hat, and carry more water than you think you'll need. In the hotter months, I carry four liters on this trail, even when going down ... just in case. (And if I don't need all of it, I often see someone who'd love to take some off my hands ... uh, back.)
If you're hiking rim to rim in a single day, traveling south to north, then the South Kaibab Trail is the shorter route from rim to river. The trail begins near Yaki Point and descends 4,860 feet to the black suspension bridge at the Colorado River. Because there is no water along this steep trail, Park rangers recommend hiking down this trail only rather than up and using the Bright Angel trail for a hike out.
I love the South Kaibab Trail and don't personally consider it all that steep compared to some switchback-free trails I've hiked back east. It is more exposed than the Bright Angel Trail, but, coming from someone who isn't fond of heights and drop-offs, it's not scary at all. And you'd have to take a flying leap to fall off, believe me. Now, if the upper portion of the trail is icy, I'd most definitely use crampons, so go prepared if you're hiking during the winter. Yes, the South Rim gets snow.
NOTE: If you choose to hike the South Kaibab Trail, you can park in the dirt lot along Desert View Drive and walk the quarter-mile to the trailhead, or park in Grand Canyon Village and take the free park shuttle right to it.
The Bright Angel Trail
My choice of a South Rim trail for a multi-day, rim to rim hike
The "B.A." (pictured to the right) is the most heavily used trail in Grand Canyon, especially the upper mile and a half. The further down into the canyon you go, however, the less company you'll have, especially on the lower portion from Indian Gardens to the Colorado River. Keep your eyes peeled as you leave the rim, and I guarantee you'll see somebody wearing heels.
Anyhow, the Bright Angel Trail begins just west of the historic Kolb Studio and follows a fault line 7.8 miles (12.6 km) to the River Trail, which you then hike another 1.5 miles to Bright Angel Campground via the silver suspension bridge pictured above. (Phantom Ranch is half a mile beyond that.) I usually think of the B.A. and River Trail as all one 9.3-mile trail to the bridge and campground beyond.
Hikers going southbound, ascending from river to South Rim, usually prefer the Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab even though it's longer. The availability of potable drinking water at the halfway point at Indian Gardens and, seasonally, at two other locations between there and the rim make it more appealing, as do the two shaded rest houses three miles and 1.5 miles before the top. If you time your hike out for the late afternoon, a good portion of the trail itself will also be in the shade.
As on the South Kaibab, BA hikers share the trail with mules. If you see a mule train approaching, stand off to the inside of the trail and remain still as the mule train passes.
NOTE: If you'll be leaving a vehicle at the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village, be sure to park in the backcountry lot. You'll get a map as you drive into the park, and the lots will be marked on there. (Depending on the time of year and time of day -- or night rather -- there sometimes is no ranger at the entrance station, so you might want to print this map to bring with you. Click here to print a copy of the map of Grand Canyon Village.)
A Maintained Grand Canyon "Corridor Trail"
From My Rim To Rim Journal: Day 2
Distance: 4.6 miles
From South Rim to Indian Gardens via the Bright Angel Trail
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.
Rest, Relax, or Camp at Indian Gardens
A desert oasis halfway down the Bright Angel Trail
Four and a half miles below the rim at an elevation of 3800 feet, Indian Gardens is a destination in and of itself. Here, you can relax in the shade of cottonwood trees or soak your feet in perennial spring-fed Garden Creek.
Indian Gardens is located at the junction of the Bright Angel and Tonto Trail. The area received its name from the fact that, until the early 1900s, the Havasupai indians used to raise corn, squash and beans in this desert oasis.
Indian Gardens is a wonderful campground with shade ramadas, a great base from which to day-hike and explore. As with other developed campgrounds below the rim, metal ammo cans are provided (and required) for food storage as hungry wildlife, big and small, abounds. Watch out for your wallet too! Those cute little rock squirrels will steal anything they can carry.
From My Rim to Rim Journal: Day 3
Distance: 3 miles
Round-trip to Plateau Point, back to Indian Gardens
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!
Hike out to Plateau Point
A great option for an out-and-back side hike from Indian Gardens
Time permitting, I highly recommend making the 3-mile round-trip hike from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point, where you can look down 800 feet to the Colorado River and up and down the Inner (or Granite) Gorge.
This is an easy hike with little elevation gain or loss, but, in summer, it's hot. There isn't an ounce of shade to be had as you make your way along the Tonto Platform to the overlook. But, boy, is it ever pretty. So if you do go in the summer, get up really early for this one, or wait till late afternoon/early evening.
Or, better yet, bring along your dinner and a headlamp and have a picnic, watch the sunset and enjoy a night hike back to camp.
From My Rim to Rim Journal: Day 4
Distance: 4.6 miles
From Indian Gardens to Bright Angel Beach Campground, Inner Gorge
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.
Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch
Take your pick for staying the night at the bottom of Grand Canyon.
I've never stayed at the cabins or bunkhouse at Phantom Ranch, preferring to camp (and pay less) at Bright Angel campground instead, but that's an option if you'd prefer a night indoors and book far enough in advance.
There's also a canteen at Phantom Ranch, where you can enjoy a little air conditioning when it's 120 degrees or more at the bottom of the Canyon. Food here is very expensive, though, so you might want to bring your own inside, where you can play a game of cards, send a postcard (to be packed out on a mule's back) to your friends and family in the world above, borrow a book or have a beer. Or, better yet, all of the above!
I really enjoyed the free Ranger programs at Phantom Ranch, held throughout the year, which I wrote about in my journal entry (below). There are two talks each day, with the earlier program held just south of the Phantom Ranch Canteen at 4:00 P.M., when the canteen closes so the employees can clean up and prepare for the dinner seating for cabin and bunkhouse guests. (The Canteen is open to the public from 8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and then again from 8:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M.)
Then there's a more formal ranger talk every evening at 7:30 P.M. at the amphitheater north of the ranger station. Nightly topics vary, so those staying at Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground can attend a different program each night.
For information and reservations for Phantom Ranch, see GrandCanyonLodges.com.
A Grand Canyon backcountry permit is required to stay at Bright Angel Campground.
While staying at this point on a rim-to-rim hike, my preference is to sleep in my tent, listening to Bright Angel Creek bubble by on its way to the Colorado River, and wander over to Phantom Ranch now and then for some amenities and fun. It's also nice to take a walk down to Bright Angel Beach itself and watch for river rafts, kayaks and dories to arrive.
From My Rim to Rim Journal: 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'!
The North Kaibab Trail
From Phantom Ranch to the North Rim of Grand Canyon
This trail sees much less use than its counterpart to the south. At 14 miles long with an elevation gain of 5,800 feet, the North Kaibab is the only maintained trail from the Colorado River to the North Rim.
The first half of the North Kaibab -- the seven miles between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Camp -- are relatively easy as you hike through "The Box," where the walls of Vishnu Schist in Bright Angel Canyon close in on you, and along Bright Angel Creek. Several footbridges take you from one side of the creek to the other.
After Cottonwood Camp heading north, the easier walking ends. More than half of the North Kaibab's elevation gain is accomplished in the top one-third of the trail. Two miles before the end of the hike, you'll pass through Supai Tunnel and can stop for a rest (and perhaps a potty break at the composting toilets) before the final push. Treated water is also available here from May through mid-October.
Leaving the tunnel, you'll likely start to feel the effects of the higher elevation if you're aren't used to it ... and, even if you are, it can make you breathe a bit harder.
The North Kaibab trailhead is located about 2 miles from Grand Canyon Lodge. There is trailhead parking available. A campground (right on the rim) and shower house is open seasonally, so be sure to pack some quarters for the showers if you're gonna want one.
See AmericanSouthwest.net for further information on the North Kaibab Trail, along with some great photos.
Visit Ribbon Falls
A beautiful place to stop for a rest, just off the North Kaibab Trail
5.6 miles from Phantom Ranch and a mile and a half before Cottonwood Camp, a short side trail leads to beautiful Ribbon Falls. A rest stop here (and maybe a cold dip) would be well worth the time if you can spare it. The falls aren't big, but they sure are pretty.
Check out this photo taken from behind Ribbon Falls:
The trail to the waterfall is not maintained, and you have a choice of either using the footbridge to the north or fording Bright Angel Creek further south. If you're hiking northbound from Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground, you'll come to the ford route before the footbridge, but never attempt to ford the creek if it's at flood stage
From My Rim to Rim Journal: Day 6
Distance: 7 miles
From Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Camp
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.
Another place to rest and relax before the big climb out
Cottonwood Camp is a small and often quiet campground, seven miles from Phantom Ranch and seven miles below the North Rim. Nearby Bright Angel Creek is a refreshing place to get wet.
Composting toilets, potable water (from May thru mid-October) and a Ranger residence are located at the campground, but no other services or interpretive programs are offered here.
I once spent a whole day at the creek, communing with the silent Canyon and watching bright blue dragon flies glittering in the sun.
From My Rim to Rim Journal: Day 7
Distance: 7 miles
From Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim
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!
Grand Canyon's North Rim
An island in the sky
The northern rim of the Canyon, also known as the Kaibab Plateau, is, in some ways, a different world than its not-so-distant cousin to the south. And I'm not talking just about the differences in elevation, temperature and weather, and some of the flora and fauna. I'm also referring to its remoteness and significantly fewer visitors and visitor services, which makes it much more appealing to some. In comparison to the South Rim, which receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-5 million visitors each year, the North Rim's numbers are in the neighborhood of 40,000.
One thing to keep in mind if planning a rim to rim hike is that the 44 miles of Highway 67 from Jacob Lake to the North Rim closes for the winter due to heavy snow. While North Rim services close in mid-October, the northern rim of Grand Canyon is accessible as long the road remains open. If it is a mild winter, ADOT will try to keep the road open until Thanksgiving or even as late as mid-December.
Once the road closes, the Park itself will still be open, so if you can get yourself there by snowmobile or a long trip by cross-country skis or snowshoes perhaps, you're welcome to head for the Canyon.
For more information about staying at the North Rim Lodge or campground, visit the National Park Service website.
Still Wondering What a Rim to Rim Hike Looks Like?
Here are a video and a book for you.
This video combines trail footage with fly-thru animations to orient you to the Corridor Trails in the Grand Canyon -- the Bright Angel and the South and North Kaibab.
Run time: 63 minutes
Author Seth Muller lives here in Flagstaff, where I'm from, and, believe me, he knows the Grand Canyon well. He's also an excellent writer. "Muller profiles rangers, artists, volunteers, hikers, ultra-marathoners, mule skinners, and others who regularly experience the inner canyon, presenting the Corridor Trails in intimate, creative prose that will carry the reader into the depths of the canyon and back out again."
Plan Your Trip
So, are you ready to plan your trip? Here are tips on logistics, water, and gear.
Grand Canyon Backcountry Permits
Yes, we all have to get one to camp below the rim, but I prefer to leave that process to the Park Service to explain.
Visit the Park Service site on backcountry permits to find out everything you need to know about obtaining a backcountry permit for your trip.
Grand Canyon Online Resources
Shuttling from Rim to Rim
How do you get back to your vehicle on the other side of Grand Canyon? Unless you can arrange for a generous friend or family member to shuttle you from one side of the Canyon to the other -- a 5-hour drive -- or you want to hike back to the other rim, you'll probably need to contact the Trans-Canyon Shuttle service for a ride, as well as current schedules and rates.
Water on a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike
Definitely something to think about BEFORE you go
Natural, perennial water sources are few and far between in Grand Canyon's desert landscape, and, though you may be able to see that great big river at the bottom, getting to it is another story. So your Corridor rim to rim hike is going to rely much more on human-made water sources, some of which are seasonal themselves.
Going south to north, here's what you can expect:
As mentioned above, there is no water along the South Kaibab trail from the rim to the Colorado River.
There are three places to obtain water along the Bright Angel trail:
- Mile-and-a-half rest house (1.5 miles from the South Rim) *May thru September
- Three-mile rest house (3 miles from the South Rim) *May thru September
- Indian Gardens (4.6 miles from the South Rim) *year-round
There is no potable water between Indian Gardens and the Colorado River, but there are often seasonal natural sources. All water not provided by human-made taps should be filtered or treated to prevent Giardia and other waterborne "bugs."
At river level, you can obtain water at Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch, year-round.
It's another seven miles from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground, where you can again fill up from May to mid-October. You'll be hiking along Bright Angel Creek the whole way, but, again, treat this water if you need to use it.
From Cottonwood Campground heading north, Roaring Springs Trail Junction is 2.2 miles. The buildings you will see as you approach Roaring Springs are the pumping station and the caretaker's house. Potable water is available from May thru mid-October.
Then it's another 2.7 miles to Supai Tunnel, where you can obtain treated water, which is also seasonal from May thru mid-October.
From there, it's two miles further to the top of the North Kaibab Trail.
Please visit the Grand Canyon Backcountry Updates and Closures page for current information on the availability of drinking water along the Corridor trails before setting off on a hike. All pipelines in the canyon are subject to breaks at any time of year, cutting off water supplies, so it's a really good idea to check before you go.
When to Hike in the Grand Canyon
No matter which trail or route you choose
Hiking in Grand Canyon is awesome at any time of year, but you'll want to consider these factors when deciding when to do your rim to rim hike:
The road into the North Rim (AZ 67) is closed from the time of the first major snowfall (usually mid-November) until the Spring thaw around mid-May. All North Rim facilities are also closed during this period.
July and August are hot, hot, hot in the inner canyon with daytime temps easily exceeding 100 degrees. (I've seen the big thermometer in the sun down at Phantom Ranch hit 130!) If hiking at this time of year, you'll need to carry extra water and plan your time on the trail for very early in the morning or late afternoon to evening. (Matter of fact, moonlight hiking can be a lot of fun, too.)
Perhaps the most pleasant times for a rim to rim hike, though, are mid-May to mid-June, and late-September through October, when the cooler temperatures typical of these months will make your hike much more comfortable, not to mention safer.
Hiking Grand Canyon in the Summer
Here's an excellent article from the Arizona Daily Sun.
Hiking Rim To Rim In A Day?
I don't recommend that any first-time Grand Canyon hiker undertake this trip in a single day, fit or not. And you certainly should be fit and used to hiking 20-plus miles at one shot before doing so.
That being said, I've found a one-day rim to rim hike to be a fun challenge, especially with friends. In the past, I've done this trek in as little as 9 hours and as many as 12, but always with sore feet and sense of satisfaction at the end.
Here's an account of an October rim-to-rim hike:
" find myself standing at the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at 6 a.m. on Oct. 12. ... If all goes right, I'll be meeting my wife and mother-in-law at the North Rim before the sun goes down.
Check out this blog post by Tradshad about hiking rim to rim to rim ... in a single day!
Gear for Under the Rim: A Basic Backpacking Packing List
The following list is intended only as a guide to what you might want to bring on a multi-day rim to rim hike. Pack weight is certainly a consideration, not to mention the time of year, so of course tailor your pack contents to both personal preference and weather-related requirements.
Okay, so first you have your backpack. (Duh!)
Then you might add....
- Tent: although many people prefer to sleep under the stars in Grand Canyon or bring no more than a tarp in case of precipitation. Me, though ... I prefer zipping myself inside a cocoon rather than being crawled or perhaps slithered upon by creepy-crawlies. (See the photo below, and you'll know what I mean.)
- Ground pad: a blow-up Thermarest for the more delicate or, if you're like me and don't mind a bit less cush, a closed-cell foam or Z-rest pad to shave some weight
- Sleeping bag or even just a liner for mid-summer hikes
- Water bottles: I always carry four (or two bottles and a water bladder) on a R2R hike, even if a couple are empty at times. I like to have that much capacity.
- Extra shirt (or two): The Canyon is one place I sometimes break my "no cotton" rule, particularly in the summer. You may have heard an outdoorsperson say, "Cotton kills," and that is certainly true in cold and even wet, cool weather, but in the extreme heat of the summer in Grand Canyon, it's sometimes nice NOT to dry off. A saturated cotton tee will take a very long time to dry, so it can act like an air conditioner.
- Extra shorts or convertible pants: I prefer the convertible pants, so I can zip the lower legs on or off. They help protect my calves from the sun and occasional brushes with prickly desert plants.
- Extra socks: Here, I always go non-cotton.
- Thermal underwear: non-cotton. as always
- Jacket: another thing I bring on any hike or backpacking trip at any time of year. Of course, adjust the weight depending on the season. (If you read my journal entries above, you can see the extreme temperature differences between the Inner Gorge and rims, so a variety of clothing layers is necessary.)
- Hat: I always carry a knit hat and, in the Canyon, a sun hat is really a must. Some people even prefer to bring a lightweight sun umbrella.
- Gloves or glove liners (and sometimes work-type gloves come in very handy, too)
- Camp sandals for airing out one's tootsies (and wading) after a sweaty day of hiking
- Light sources: I always carry two, a headlamp and a hand-held (flashlight), along with extra batteries and bulbs.
- Cooking equipment: a backpacking stove and fuel, wind shield, gripper, pot and lid, utensil/s, and perhaps a mug if you like something hot to sip on now and then. And, hey, maybe even pack some food too!
- Electrolyte replacement (Gatorade or another type of sports drink or drink mix packets)
- Personal first aid kit
- Toiletries, including TP (There are bathrooms in the Canyon but often nothin' but cactus spines for ... well, you know. Ouch!). I also bring a small brush or comb, toothbrush and travel-size paste, and some skin lotion.
- Sunscreen (sweat-proof), and
- Emergency water purification tablets—I always bring these, even if I feel sure I'll have access to plenty of potable water.
- Bandana: I always bring at least one. This multi-purpose item can be a sweat rag or headband, a wet-down neck band, a sun shield tucked under one side or the back of my hat to protect my face or neck if need be, a snot rag, and a washcloth.
- Trekking poles--a personal preference
- Map: You really don't need a map when hiking the Corridor trails, but I like to bring one along anyway, for identifying certain features and seeing what other trails and side canyons are in the area.
- Extra goodies: Guidebook and/or field guide, camera, your favorite trashy novel, the kitchen sink and so forth. You decide what's worth the extra weight in your backpack.
- And don't forget your wallet (or at least some money, a credit card and ID in a zip-loc baggie) and your car keys.
- Cell phone: I'm including this only because when I don't include it my lists people remind me to add it. Thing is, cell phones don't work in Grand Canyon. Some providers will have a signal here and there on the rims, but, as with any backcountry location, never count on it. There's actually a pay phone at Phantom Ranch, and there are also pay phones on the North Rim, so you may want to carry a calling card.
Grand Canyon Guidebooks
Grand Canyon trails, history, geology, flora and fauna, and the Colorado River that runs through it
Learn more about this amazing natural wonder of the world -- it's history, both geological and human; the people who've made Grand Canyon their home, from past to present; the flora and fauna; the river that had a big part in creating it; and events that have taken place in the Park.
You can also find these books in stores at the South Rim....
A good Grand Canyon map to have—great for planning hikes!
This detailed topographic and trail map of 308,000 acres in central Grand Canyon covers eight USGS quads. 295 miles of trails are shown with trail ratings, descriptions and statistics. The map includes contours, shaded relief, a UTM grid, springs and drinking water locations, backcountry use zones for permit planning, and other trip information. It's printed on waterproof, tear-tough paper.
This map covers the huge core of Grand Canyon National Park where 99% of visitors travel and where 90% of backcountry trips take place. This is also where most trails and reliable water sources are located. The map does NOT cover the vast and more isolated western sections, nor the far northeastern corner.
I like to take this book with me when I go. Learn about the plants and animals of the Canyon.
One reviewer writes, "This is the most thorough traditional field guide to the Canyon, complete with pictures of flora and fauna for identification in the field. It's perfect for day hikes along the rim or packed on raft trips."
An Interactive DVD: Backpack The Grand Canyon
This film covers the three main Corridor trails -- Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab -- in great detail, not to mention amazing visual quality. The information will help people who plan on hiking in the Canyon at all times of the year.
Available from Amazon third-party sellers. You can also pick up this DVD on BackpackTheGrandCanyon.com.
A Great Beginner's Guide
Written by a local from Sedona, Arizona, this guidebook was designed especially for the first-time day hiker or backpacker in Grand Canyon.
You'll find advice on equipment, permits, rules and restrictions, trail descriptions, and other tips—all geared toward the most popular, easily accessible, and well-maintained trails in the park. Also included are full-color maps and photos, to give you a real sense of what it takes to hike the canyon.
My Well-Used Pocket Guide
My own copy of this Sierra Club guide shows every bit of its age and use, having seen many, many hours of flipping through and reading, pondering which trail to hike next and many miles of canyon hiking. Detailed descriptions of more than one hundred of the best trails--from easy, level day hikes along the Canyon's North and South Rims, to rigorous but rewarding rim-to-river and trans-canyon expeditions.
Happy title, isn't it? But the stories are definitely interesting and some of them hard to believe (though true). This book was co-written by fellow member of the Search and Rescue team I belong to here in Flagstaff, Arizona, who's also a river guide in Grand Canyon.
Read about intriguing ideas and innovative theories that geologists have developed over time about the formation of the canyon. This book is a written by a well-known local geologist here in Flagstaff.
The Havasupai were among the first groups of Indians to arrive in North America some 20,000 years ago. Today, about 500 of their tribe members live on reservation land at the bottom of Grand Canyon, in the realm of the blue-green waters, including some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
I have this book, myself. Got it years ago when I went on a river trip through the canyon. Even if you're not taking a river trip, this is a great book to add to your Grand Canyon collection.
One reviewer writes, "This is THE book to have for anyone taking a private river trip through the Grand Canyon. It's the only guide book that shows all of the camp sites and their relative size. It also rates the difficulty of all of the rapids. There should be one on every raft. For those quiet moments in camp the book contains a lot of information about the history and geology of the Grand Canyon as well as a lot of other information."
Have You Been to Grand Canyon National Park?
Please answer my two visitor polls below.
Have you visited the Grand Canyon -- the South Rim, the North Rim, the Colorado River?
If you've been to Grand Canyon, have you hiked below the rim?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury