Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited places in the United States, but very few of those visitors make their way beyond the South Rim and even less to the canyon floor (less than 1% of the nearly 5M visitors according to park officials). One of the best ways to explore this hidden part of Grand Canyon is to take on the 24-mile Rim-to-Rim hike. Some people refer to the hike from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back as a rim-to-rim as well, but this blog focuses on the most common reference of hiking from one side of the rim (North or South) to the other (South or North).
The dramatic change in scenery alone is worth taking on this bucket list adventure. I didn’t know lush green trees existed inside the canyon and the grandeur of the Colorado River is something you can only true experience by standing next to it. While an amazing experience, the Rim-to-Rim hike is not for the faint of heart – hikers have to navigate logistics (transportation from one rim to the other), extreme temperatures (cold and hot temperatures), and drastic elevation change (lose 6,000 feet and gain 4,500 feet depending on which rim you start on).
There are endurance athletes that can complete this trek in a day but most hikers complete it as a backpacking trip over 2-4 days. Whether attempting it as a day hike or backpacking trip, the challenges of this hike are real and should not be underestimated. As with all adventures that I post about, with the proper training and gear, most people will be able to take on the challenge.
WHAT’S IN THIS BLOG POST
- Backpacking Experience
- Route Summary
- Things to Keep in Mind
- Gear for the Hike
- Trailhead Information
I did this hike with my sister (her first backpacking experience – jumping into the deep end is a family trait, I guess!). We started our day early in the morning in Phoenix and arrived at the South Rim 3.5 hours later, just in time for lunch. We picked up our permits at the backcountry office, enjoyed a leisurely lunch and beers at the Bright Angel Lodge, and explored the South Rim area while we waited for our shuttle to the North Rim (ten miles apart if you drew a straight line but 3.5 hours apart by car).
The afternoon Trans-Canyon shuttle got us to the North Rim around dinner time. We set up our tent in the walk-up hiker camping area (reservations have to made through recreation.gov now) and grabbed sandwiches at the General Store. Even if you’re not doing the rim-to-rim hike, visiting the North Rim, which offers spectacular views of the rim and canyon, is an experience that’s well worth the effort. We caught an amazing sunset while eating dinner and turned in for the night. Because the North Rim is at an elevation of nearly 8,300 feet, as the sun disappeared the temperature dipped dramatically and we had a cold night of tossing and turning. But we were ready to start our trek at dawn the next morning!
Before we could experience the dramatic sights that the trail had in store for us, we spent twenty minutes trying to find the North Kaibab trailhead. Shortly after we headed on the trail, we arrived at the famous Coconino Overlook which provides dramatic views of pine trees and rock stratum. Even the soil turning the iconic red near the Supai area was incredible and left us awestruck. This feeling only grew more intense as we reached the Roaring Spring Canyon area.
Lush green vegetation contrasted with the red desert soil giving the air of magic. We stopped every few minutes to marvel at the scenery. Although the rim-to-rim hike offers many incredible sights, this is by far the most beautiful section of the entire hike. We didn’t hike to Roaring Springs, but the roar of the mighty waterfall that provides all the water for the Grand Canyon was a soothing companion for the rest of our day. Having completed most of the descent and starting to feel the full force of the desert sun, we took a long lunch break at the Manzanita Rest House. We dipped our feet into the cold water and took advantage of the shade the trees offered.
We got the first glimpses of the South Rim shortly after and a short 1.5 miles later, we arrived at our first stop, Cottonwood Campground. The speedier hikers had grabbed the few shady campsites by the time we arrived at the campground, so we set up our tent in a semi shady area and tried to stay cool by the creek.
After the relaxing afternoon and evening of the previous day, we were ready to hit the trail at dawn again, which was good because the canyon floor gets incredibly hot (110 to 120 degree heat is not uncommon). After eating our strawberry Pop Tarts and filling up on water (rest area and campground water is portable, so no filtering necessary!), we started on the 6-miles to Phantom Ranch (a popular overnight lodge in the canyon floor).
On this stretch of the trail, we walked through billion-year old slot canyons and desert fauna like cacti. Just as the day before, we found ourselves awed by the scenery and constantly looking up and around. Before we knew it, we were at a sign pointing us to Phantom Ranch. As we waited for the Phantom Ranch Canteen to open, we plotted our next move. Because we’d arrived by 10 AM, we contemplated taking advantage of the early finish and push to Indian Garden Campground for the night. My sister had started to feel the beginning of heat exhaustion the previous day, and we’d have to traverse through the Pipe Creek area which gets incredibly hot and make a steep climb through a stretch of stairs and switchbacks during the hottest part of the day, so we were hesitant to push on. We checked in at the ranger station and were advised to stay put and enjoy the remainder of the day. So we did!
We spent so much time enjoying the cold drinks, shade, and good company at the Phantom Ranch Canteen, we neglected to take advantage of getting there early and grabbing a campsite by the Bright Angel Creek. By the time a group of hikers alerted us to this, there was only one campsite left by the creek. We claimed the spot and looked forward to the coolness of sleeping under the trees.
At dinner time, we meandered to our campsite to eat dinner and set up our tent. Although we opted to eat our dinner, hikers not spending the night at Phantom Ranch can still reserve a meal (or based on availability request a meal when you get there). As I was about to put up the tent, I saw a huge red ant hill! Ants are a nuisance but red ant bites are no joke. We scrambled to find another campsite. Luckily, we found one right across but it was not one by the creek and with temperatures dropping not much below a 100, it was an uncomfortable night of not much sleep.
The upside though was that I had the chance to step outside the tent several times during the night and catch some incredible views of the starry sky above me. The stars were so bright and plentiful, it almost felt like the sky was lit up by small crystal lights.
We knew that we had a tough hike ahead of us, so we hit the trail at dawn again. We got a little turned around and had some trouble figuring out the right direction on the trail (go the left of the creek!), but soon after we got on the trail we got to the suspension bridge over the Colorado River. The bridge itself is a wonder, but the massive river outshines every breathtaking thing you’ve seen to this point on the trail. If the old rocks didn’t make us feel like a small part of a vast universe, walking across from one side of the river to the other certainly did!
As we made our way slowly through the endless switchbacks of the Devil’s Corkscrew, the hardest part of the trail to that point, we were glad to not have attempted it while the sun was out in full force the day before. Even with the slow progress, we made it to the Indian Garden Campgrounds before 10 AM again. Instead of staying the night as planned, we decided to push through the next 4.5 miles to the South Rim.
We started the steep ascent to the South Rim with the sun bearing down on us. We made good time getting to the 3-mile rest house where we took a long lunch break in the shade. We poured cold water over our heads and cap in anticipation of the next three miles of steep uphill in the bright sun. Just under a mile from the rest house, my sister started feeling the heat. We decided to stop under a rock with a lot of shade, so the impact of the heat didn’t worsen and require a rescue. We spent a couple of hours just sitting under the rock and cooling off. Then we started to slowly make our way to the 1.5-mile rest house, a mental checkpoint of our progress.
As the sun was starting to set, we made it within a mile of the South Rim, and it felt like the longest and slowest moving mile of the whole hike. We kept putting one foot in front of the other and eventually we rounded a corner that brought us to top of the South Rim. We both could have kissed the ground. It was beyond words to look back and realize that our feet had carried us all the way from the North to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
We grabbed dinner at the El Tovar Dining Room then made the 3.5 hour drive to Scottsdale. We stayed at the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch for the next two days. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, a divine massage at the spa, an afternoon frolicking in the pool, and a luxurious dinner. The next day we drove to Phoenix and hopped on a plane back to D.C.
The Rim-to-Rim hike of the Grand Canyon crosses through several iconic trails of the Grand Canyon. The hike begins on the North Kaibab Trail, a short walk from the North Rim General Store parking lot. The trailhead is a little hidden so definitely keep your eyes out. The trail disappears into pine trees and begins to descend almost immediately. The first viewpoint will be the Coconino Overlook at 0.7 miles.
Just before the 2-mile mark, the the soil starts to turn red and you’ll arrive at the Supai Tunnel area, which has rest area with water and toilets. Veer left to stay on trail and head towards Supai Tunnel and another long descent to Roaring Spring Canyon. The famous Redwall Bridge will come into view and before you know it you’ll be crossing the bridge. The trail winds around the cliffside for the next 2 miles, offering some of the most expansive views in the Grand Canyon.
As the levels out and approach a trail split, stay straight to follow the North Kaibab trail to Cottonwood. The next half mile will be a gentle descent to the Manzanita Rest House. From the rest area, Cottonwood Campground is only a gentle 1.5 miles away and Phantom Ranch is 7.5 miles.
Past Cottonwood, the trail follows the Bright Angel Creek. Veer to the left to stay North Kaibab Trail at the trail junction. The trail to the right heads to the Ribbon Falls, a quick but detour but well worth the time. After the last bridge crossing, the trail passes through slot canyons offering much needed cool air and spectacular views. At the next trail junction, stay straight to head on the North Kaibab to Phantom Ranch.
Follow the signs as you head out of Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground and shortly after cross over the next bridge and head towards the river. The North Kaibab trail ends at the Silver Bridge, a steel suspension bridge across the Colorado River. Follow the River Trail at the other end of the bridge for the next 1.2 miles. Right before the Devil’s Corkscrew, pick up the Bright Angel Trail and begin the ascent along a series of steep switchbacks. At the top of the climb, the trail joins Garden Creek. Follow this gentle climb for another 1.3 miles to the Indian Garden Campground (past the Tonto Trail junction).
The South Rim is 4.5 miles exposed trail from the Indian Garden Campground. The trail will get steep as you approach the 3-mile rest house and another series of steep switchbacks, known as Jacob’s Ladder. Water and toilets are to the left and Bright Angel Trail proceeds straight ahead.
The next trail marker is the 1.5 mile rest house. Follow the trail to the right. When you approach the lower tunnel area, you’ll begin to hear the bustling activity of the South Rim and you only have a mile left to go. Pay attention to the trail in this area (there’s a blocked off older trail). As you approach the upper tunnel, there’ll be pictographs of deer to the left. The trail curves around a corner and you’ll be at the South Rim!
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
BE PREPARED TO HIKE IN THE HEAT!
- Avoid hiking in direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day (10 AM to 4 PM).
- Drink fluids, rest, and eat often during the hike.
- Balance the intake of fluids and food to avoid over hydration.
- Soak yourself in water, which will help bring down your core temperature.
- Watch for signs of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hyponatremia, and hypothermia.
- Learn more about hiking the Grand Canyon in the summer.
SECURE & CARRY YOUR BACKCOUNTRY PERMIT AT ALL TIMES!
- Secure permits during the Early Consideration Period.
- Plan time to pick up permits in person at the Backcountry Information Center.
- Carry the permit on your pack during the hike and on the tent at night.
- Adhere to the information provided on the permit (e.g., trip leader, itinerary, dates, etc.).
- Make reservations for developed campgrounds including the North Rim at recreation.gov.
- Learn more about the permit process in the Rim-to-Rim Hike Permit blog post.
PLAN YOUR TRANSPORTATION BETWEEN THE RIMS!
- Make plans for transportation between the North and South Rims. It takes up to five hours to travel between the rims. If you are planning to drop off vehicles at each rim, calculate this time into your hiking plans. Alternatively, you can also use shuttles to get from one rim to another. One option is the Trans-Canyon Shuttle, which runs two trips a day between the rims for $96/per person.
- Grand Canyon National Park charges an entrance fee ($30 for a car and good for seven consecutive days, $60 for an annual pass to Grand Canyon, or $80 for an annual interagency pass that gives you access to all areas managed by the National Park Service). This is separate from the fees related to the backcountry permits and developed campground reservation fees.
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- Sun protection: hat, sunscreen, lip protection, sunglasses – the heat in the Grand Canyon is dangerous and can cause life-threatening hazards, so being prepared to stay cool in multiple ways is not just important but crucial for a successful hike!
- Hydration pack and extra water bottles: staying hydrated is key to any successful hike, especially in the Grand Canyon. Water is heavy to carry but with the level of sun exposure and heat the Grand Canyon throws at you carrying plenty of water and knowing how long it’ll take you to the next water area will be the difference between adventure and disaster.
- Snacks (salty, carby, protein-filled are best) and electrolytes: Salty snacks and electrolytes in your water will help your body maintain a good balance of the water intake and over hydration (yes, it’s a serious health hazard!).
- Trekking poles: the deep descents and ascents can put a lot of pressure on the knees, but hiking poles can distribute some of the pressure away from the knees, especially if you have knee issues.
- Light-weight hiking shoes/boots: Many hikes including ones in National Parks don’t require expensive hiking footwear including the rim-to-rim hike. However, well-broken and light-weight hiking shoes/boots will reduce the pressure on your back and make the hike more comfortable.
The information for trailheads will vary depending on where you start the hike. The North Kaibab Trailhead, my starting point for a north rim-to-south rim hike, is located 0.5 miles from the North Rim Campground and 1.5 miles from the Grand Canyon Lodge on Highway 67. There are bathrooms and water at the trailhead.
The North Kaibab trailhead (and the North Rim) is not accessible by vehicle in the winter, typically after October 15.