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Rim-to-Rim Hike in the Grand Canyon

This page tells what you need to know about taking a rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon, from the north rim to the south rim: getting into condition, how to make the hike safely, what you'll see along the way, and the logistical arrangements you have to make in advance. If you're reasonably fit right now, there's no reason why you can't go. It's a big commitment, but it's worth everything you put into your preparation.

Planning the Route

To hike across the Grand Canyon, you can go from south to north, or north to south, using any combination of three corridor trails, all of which lead from the canyon rim to Phantom Ranch. They are the:

The North Kaibab Trail (hereafter, NKT) starts beside a parking lot about two miles from the north rim Lodge. The trail is 14.2 miles long with a 5,740-foot total elevation change.

The South Kaibab Trail (SKT) starts near the Yaqui Point viewpoint (sometimes spelled Yaki) and must be accessed by the park shuttle bus. The trail is 6.7 miles long with a 4,810-foot total elevation change.

The Bright Angel Trail (BAT) starts at Grand Canyon Village. This trail is 9.5 miles long, with a 5,510-foot total elevation change.

I would recommend going from north to south, going down the NKT and up either of the two south rim trails. This is because if you walk up the NKT, you don't start gaining serious elevation until you've already hiked about nine miles. Just about the time you would like to take it easy, the trail gets tough.

The choice of which trail to take for the climb out to the south rim depends on several factors. You should only go up the SKT if you're in excellent condition, and have made similar hikes in preparation. It's short, but steep, and there no stopping-off spots. You start it, you finish it. Also, there is no water and very little shade on this trail.

The BAT, while longer, does have a spot halfway up called Indian Garden. There are overnight accommodations here, which lets you take two days to make the nine-mile hike out of the canyon. This is a good choice if your conditioning is not up to the South Kaibab.

Scenery counts, too. The SKT goes along a ridge-top, giving you an unobstructed view in every direction for the entire hike. The BAT goes into a canyon about halfway up, and you don't see as much as you might like to.

Some hikers use both south rim trails, down one and up the other, to do their Grand Canyon hike. I would advise against this for the simple reason that you would miss out on the north rim. The elevation on that side is almost 9,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, the environment is quite different. Pine and aspen forests reminiscent of central Colorado, not arid juniper rangelands, are what you'll find. To get the complete Grand Canyon experience, please consider the north rim. Another attraction is that the number of visitors on that side is quite small, because it is not that easy to get to. South side, Disneyland. North side, a national park.


Logistics

You can't just show up and start hiking. You have to think about what kind of a trip you want and what kind of a hike you want. We'll make the choices clear as we go along.

Dates

Choice time. When do you want to go? Let's be clear that you don't want to go in July and August, because it is way too hot, and I'm talking about life-threatening heat. I'm not that crazy about June, either. April is good, but the north rim gets a lot of snow in the winter and the north rim is closed until it melts. April might be too early in some years. That leaves May. On the other side of summer, it's still hot in September, but at the end of the month, and in the first half of October, the temperatures are warm, but not unsuitable. Too much later than that and you risk getting caught up in the first snowfalls of winter on the North Side. November, definitely too risky on that score.

I would recommend October rather than May. In October, you've been through summer and are somewhat adjusted to heat. Not so in May, when a heat spike could be life-threatening.

You might want to check on the phases of the moon, too. The stars are magnificent and you want to be there within three or four days of the new moon, plus or minus, to have a dark sky in which to see them.

Meals at Phantom Ranch

Choice time. At the bottom of the canyon, you will be staying in a tent at the Bright Angel Campground. Do you want to pack your own food and stove, or eat meals prepared for you at the canteen (and save lots of weight in your pack)? If #1, skip this step. If #2, you have to call ahead to reserve your spot at the table. Way ahead.

You've figured out when you want to go. Let's say it's in October. If you want to eat at the canteen, which will save a lot of weight in your pack, you have to call over a year ahead of time. Specifically, reservations open thirteen months ahead. If you want to go in October 2017, call on October 1, 2016.

My latest trip was September 29-30, 2011. I called on August 1, 2010, to get my September meal reservations. I started calling at 7 a.m. Arizona time and dialed non-stop (not kidding) for two hours until I finally got through to make my reservations.

The year before, September 2009, I called for a trip in October 2010, but on September 1, I forgot to start calling until 10:00 a.m. Arizona time -- three hours after the reservations for September 2010 opened. By the time I got through, all the meals for the entire month of October were booked.

Getting There

Next, you have to get there. Fly into St. George, Utah and rent a car for the three-hour drive to the north rim. You can take the northern route, starting on Highway 9, through Zion NP, to Kanab and down, or the southern route, Highway 59 through Colorado City to Fredonia, then down. The southern route is the fastest.

Driving

No need to bring your GPS unit. Out here, there's only one road.

Top off your gas tank at Jacob Lake before you continue to the North Rim area.

After you leave Jacob Lake, you have about 45 miles to go on what seems like a deserted road. There might be a tendency for you to take the road at somewhat above the speed limit since there is no one there but you and the trees. There are three reasons why you should not do this.

1. You do not have the road to yourself. It is patrolled by an Arizona state trooper who is quite zealous about protecting speeders from themselves. He is there. If you speed, he will find you. The reason he is so keen on tracking down speeders, is . . .

2. This is a dangerous road. It has lots of turns and elevation changes in the turns and is not very forgiving to cars that lose the road. If you have an accident and get hurt, medical assistance is not minutes away like in the big city. It's hours away out here. If you get pulled over, again, he is protecting you from yourself, and himself from a ton of other things he would rather be doing than cleaning up after you.

3. If you happen to be driving on this road at night, especially near or in the park, you must drive well below the speed limit because there are animals all over the road. If you are going too fast, you will not be able to stop in time to avoid hitting them. The morning we drove well before sunrise from the Kaibab Lodge to the North Rim trailhead, we had to stop twice for deer and once for a flock of turkeys.

Lodging

Choice time. You can stay in cabins inside the park at the north rim. The lodge at the north rim is a public building. Call a year ahead to get a cabin reservation. Lodging is run by a private contractor. If you don't get a cabin, you can stay at the Kaibab Lodge, a private facility about five miles outside the Park. If you're really stuck, the Jacob Lake Inn is 44 miles away.

I've stayed at both the rim cabins and the Kaibab Lodge. Either one is fine.

Meals at the north rim

There is a restaurant at the Kaibab Lodge, but the real treat is the dining room at the north rim lodge. This is a huge room with huge picture windows that give you a view of the canyon like you will not believe. There is no restaurant like this on Earth. Not even the best view on the south rim comes near it. Breakfast and lunch is first-come-first-served, but dinners must be reserved and there is no guarantee you will be a table.

Hiking Permit

You can't just go down to Phantom Ranch and plop down your sleeping bag. To control the number of visitors, and thus the stress on the canyon, you have to get a permit, which is good for two nights at most per campground. Going north to south, there are three campgrounds along the way - Cottonwood CG, halfway down the NKT, Bright Angel CG, at Phantom Ranch, and Indian Garden, halfway up the BAT.

You get a permit one of two ways. The first is a lottery, for which you register four months in advance of your hike. For a hike in May, 2013, you would register on January 1, 2013.

If you don't get your permit through the lottery, you can get a walk-in permit. A small number of permits are held out and issued to hikers coming to the Backcountry Office for a hike starting the next day. For example, if your hike will start on May 14, get your permit on May 13. Again, there is a limited number of these permits available, so be there when the Backcountry Office opens at 8:00 a.m. to make sure you get yours. You might get put on a waiting list for these permits, meaning it would take an extra day to get one. Having a flexible schedule for your entire trip is a good idea here.

Trans-Canyon Shuttle

When you finish your hike you'll be on the south rim needing a way to get back to the north rim. Take the Trans-Canyon Shuttle for the five-hour, 225-mile trip. It leaves Grand Canyon village in front of the Bright Angel Lodge at 1:30 p.m. You will be taken through gorgeous Southwest scenery, an adventure in itself. There are two rest stops along the way, at Cameron and Lees Ferry. When you get back to the north rim, ask the driver to let you off at the trailhead parking lot. The cost of the shuttle is $80 per person. Call at least six months in advance. Check in with the shuttle service inside the Bright Angel Lodge no later than a half hour before departure.

National Parks Pass

It costs $25 per vehicle to enter a national park. That's not bad, but you go through one (Zion) to get to the Grand Canyon. That's $50 of entry fees. A cheaper way to go is to get a National Parks pass. It's only $80 and is good for a calendar year.

Wait a minute! $80 is more than $50. Why is that cheaper? Because there are national parks all over the place in the Grand Canyon area and you might want to visit them. Because the pass is also good for hiking in the national forests which you will be going to get in shape for the Big Hike.

If you're 62 or older, you can get a lifetime pass for $10. That is definitely cheaper.

Lodging in St. George

You'll get back to the north rim via the T-C Shuttle at about 6 p.m. (Did you reserve dinner in the dining room before you started out three days ago?) The drive back to St. George the next day will probably prevent you from flying home that day. You'll need a room in St. George.

Choice time. Since you've come this far, I would strongly urge you to spend an extra day visiting Zion NP. This tiny park is a precious jewel, and May or September are the perfect times to visit. I like to stay at the Terrace Brook Lodge, about a mile from the park entrance. Ask for a room in the upper level (away from the street and quieter). The motel is in the canyon, but not in the Park.


Mental Preparation

The last time I was there, an employee talked about a hiker who had a panic attack and had to be escorted out with lots of encouragement while someone else carried her backpack. Her body might have been in condition, but her mind wasn't.

When you take a hike through the woods, you can see maybe a few hundred feet ahead of you. It's easy to break up the hike into these small bits of distance, walk just that far, and eventually you get to your destination.

The Grand Canyon is different. You can see way ahead of you. The next segment might be over a mile long, and gains a thousand feet, and you can see all of it. There will be spots in the trail where you can see all the way to the top, four to five miles of trail and thousands of feet up. If you're not mentally ready for that, it can be quite intimidating.

The way to get ready for that is first, to get used to hiking one step at a time. Keep taking the next step regardless of what is in front of you. Think only of that next step. Second, be in shape. Plan your hike out, and train for that hike. Overtrain. Find a way to have done more in your conditioning hikes than you will need to do to get out of the Canyon along your chosen route. That way, you won't have to do anything you haven't already done to get out.

Another kind of mental conditioning will help you appreciate better what you're seeing. The Grand Canyon is immense, both in size and time. You have never been in a place this big. Large natural objects where you come from become a detail in the GC. If you go rim to rim, you can see your starting point, and it's a LONG way away.

I said the Canyon is big in time, too. The basement rocks are 1.8 billion years old. Cliffs you can walk up to and touch were buried deep in the ground that many years ago and are now exposed. You hike out through the layers of rock that were laid down in the Pre-Cambrian era, before there were visible life forms on the Earth. You come out on rocks that dinosaurs walked on.

One way to appreciate all this is to memorize the names and features of the different layers. Look at them closely as you pass them by, and notice the sharp transitions between layers.

Physical Conditioning

The Grand Canyon is not a theme park. It is Nature in its most unforgiving form. You must be prepared in every way to go below the rim. Mistakes can be fatal. We will go over safe hiking later, but your first defense against tragedy is proper conditioning. Some friends of a friend went down one summer (2011) and all their conditioning consisted of was walks on flat ground around town. They had to be rescued. Be in top shape!

The trail from the north rim is 14 miles long. It is not a difficult hike, but its length will keep you on your feet for about eight hours if you decide to take on the whole thing. This is something you must have done several times comfortably before you try it here.

Getting out of the canyon is the real issue. Your conditioning must point to gaining almost 5,000 feet in one swoop if you take the SKT. Even if you split up the BAT, climbing 2,200 feet two days in a row is not something you can do easily without preparation.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, which is an ideal spot for high-elevation hiking. As part of my general conditioning, I go to the local college football stadium and walk up and down the stairs 20 times carrying 20 pounds on my back and ten in my hands, once a week. One other time each week I walk a route south of town that is six miles long and has an overall elevation gain of 1,000 feet. I also do this carrying a 20-lb. pack. Both of these events are year-round, week-in, week-out conditioning.

To train for the Grand Canyon trip in 2011, my wife and I did the hikes below. Most of them are in the Oregon Cascades or the Columbia River Gorge. The names don't have to mean anything to you, but the distances and elevations show how to gradually get in shape for the climb out. The distances are one-way, elevation is total gain.

We took one of these hikes every two weeks. On the off week we hiked the south-of-town trail mentioned above. If you're able to follow a program like this, you'll be in shape to enjoy the hike out, and not just get through it.

The first time I made a trans-canyon hike, I asked people I met who live east of the Rockies how they got in shape for getting out. How did they do their hill work, since that part of the country is pretty flat. Their answer was, "We didn't."

If you don't have hills to climb, you probably won't be ready for climbing out all at once. Figure on spending a year doing stadium stairs somewhere and taking the BAT in two days. Trying to gut it out in one bite if you're not prepared is dangerous.

Every where you go in the Park, you will see signs saying not to hike down and back in one day. Words to live by. Or maybe, stay alive by. But you will run into lots of rim-to-rim hikers who start down one rim and don't stop until they get to the opposite rim. Well, they do take rest breaks, but their destination is the other rim and they're in fabulous shape to begin with. Hats off to them, but remember, you're a one-time visitor. One day down, the next day out.

A word about heat. A major part of your conditioning is getting used to sustained exercise in heat.

Even though you're avoiding high summer, you'll still be hiking in high-80s heat and perhaps the 90s on the NKT for several hours. That's why I think a fall hike is the best. You've had the entire summer for your body to get acclimated to the heat and you will handle it much better than in the spring. In the spring, even though it's not real hot, a sustained hike in moderate heat could be more than you can live through (and I mean "live through" literally) because your body isn't ready for it.

As for climbing out, there's good news. Going up to higher elevations means you're hiking away from the heat. One time we started our hike out at 5:30 a.m. when it was 58 degrees at Phantom Ranch. By the time we got to the south rim at noon it was 63 degrees.

See more on hiking in the heat at Safe Hiking.

Outfitting

What are you going to take with you on your hike? Think carefully. You're going into a desert environment, which most likely is new to you. You have to carry things that protect you from the sun and the heat, and keep you cool and hydrated. Also, there are no garbage cans at Phantom Ranch, and digging a hole to dispose of waste is not allowed. What you pack in, you pack out.

Watch the weight of your pack, too. Too many little things that weigh ounces add up to pounds, and that can make the hike more unpleasant than it needs to be. My pack without water, weighed twelve pounds.

This packing list for covers all your needs on a three-day trip. It weighs twelve pounds, depending on the item. Starred (*) items can be bought at the North Rim general store.

Camping

Clothing

Hiking

Odds and Ends

Notes:
Make sure the batteries in your camera and altimeter are fresh.
There is zero/none/forget it cell phone reception below the rim.
If you are going in a group, some of these items you only need one of for the group.
Take out the camp stove and fuel if you're eating in the canteen.
The money is in case you need to buy anything at the south rim, for postcards sent from the Phantom Ranch, and a Phantom Ranch T-shirt.
The plastic canisters that film used to come in are perfect for storing sun screen, moisturizer, and shampoo.

* There is a general store on the north rim that has everything. Buy starred items there instead of bringing them with you.

** Only if the weather forecast makes it necessary equipment.

The rest of what you take will be food and water. That will also be extra weight, and it is variable. Coming down from the north rim, there are many sources of potable water up to Cottonwood Campground. I filled up to a quart at every water stop. After Cottonwood, Bright Angel Creek is right beside you, but that water must be treated, and the creek is difficult to get to for most of its length. Carry a half gallon of water away from Cottonwood.

Coming out, you must carry all your water on the SKT. I started with a gallon in my pack and 20 ounces on my hip. All that weighs 9 pounds, 6 ounces. This is when your pack will be at its heaviest. Whatever this weight is, do your conditioning hikes carrying this weight, so you're used to it.

There is water on the BAT, but don't take it for granted. You're going to be working harder by going uphill and your water needs will be high. Always have at least a half gallon with you after every water stop.

Put some Gatorade powder in your water to replace electrolytes. Drinking pure water all day does not replace the electrolytes you're losing and can lead to a health emergency called water intoxication.

As for trail food, there are signs all over the canyon saying, "Salty snacks are brain food in the Grand Canyon." Pretzels, party mix, that kind of stuff, are what you must eat to keep your salt intake up to par. Add in some raisins, nuts, and M&Ms, and you have a well-balanced Grand Canyon diet.

If you want protein, buy some salami at the general store. Protein requires lots of water to digest, though, and if you go overboard on the protein, you will dehydrate yourself.

Energy bars and dried fuit are also good to carry.

Eat frequently and drink frequently. Keep ahead of your hunger and thirst. If you feel hungry or thirsty, you're behind. Eat a good handful of food, don't just nibble. Also, take a big swig of water. That will get more water into your body than frequent sipping does.

Safe Hiking

Whenever you interact with Nature, there is risk. It is up to you to understand what the risks are, evaluate your exposure to them, and do what you can beforehand to minimize your risk to the greatest practical degree. The only way to eliminate risk is to stay home. This web page gives you advice on how to handle the major risks of Grand Canyon hiking: heat, flash floods, rock falls, and lightning. Hiking across the Grand Canyon will expose you to risks of injury or death. Don't think that there are a few you don't have to worry about. Be prepared for all of them.

Enjoying the Trip

Itinerary

You're here to hike, but you're also here to see one of the wonders of the world. There is no reason why you would want to rush along the trails as fast as you can just because you're in condition to do so. Slow down. Stop. Look. Absorb. Take all the time you want and then some. The campgrounds are set up so you can do this.

On my first two trips into the canyon I hiked the North Kaibab in one day, rested one day at Phantom Ranch, and hiked out the SKT on the third day in six hours to catch the Trans-Canyon Shuttle at 1:30 p.m. I have since moved on to other hikes, but if I had to do it over again, I would do it like this:

Day 1 - NKT to Cottonwood CG
Day 2 - Cottonwood CG to Phantom Ranch
Day 3 - Phantom Ranch
Day 4 - SKT to south rim
Day 5 - Trans-Canyon Shuttle to north rim

What I have done is split the NKT in two, and taken myself off the clock going up the SKT. That gives me all the time in the world to enjoy the best bits of the corridor trails. There's no need to rush through these sections, since that's what you came to see. Take your time to look in the distance to your heart's content, and look at the fine detail that the canyon is a multi-million-year-old accumulation of. Otherwise, it's drive-by hiking. You see something, but you have to keep going and impressions never have a real chance to register. Here's what this schedule gives you.

Roaring Springs Canyon, the first part of the NKT is really spectacular. You should spend lots of time making your way through it. Three-and-a-half hours is a typical time for getting from the trailhead to the Pump House at the end of the Canyon, but if you take five or more, you will be rewarded. From there, it's only 45 minutes to Cottonwood CG. Spend the night there, because it's a long way to Phantom Ranch and you have to rush to get there by nightfall.

Spend some time beforehand learning what each layer looks like, what it is made of, and how it got there. The beauty is more than enough, but knowing what you're looking at adds a great deal to your appreciation of place.

If you decide instead to make it all the way in one day, plan on nine hours on the trail. Take a long rest for lunch at Cottonwood CG. Fill up your canteen with water because that is the last source of potable water until you get to Phantom Ranch. The seven-mile trail is rugged, and there is little shade. Park rangers will tell you there is no shade, but there are groves of tall bushes you can duck into, and large boulders you can sit in the shade of. When you get to the final portion of the trail and enter what is known as The Box, you will have all the shade you want.

There isn't that much to see in the stretch between Cottonwood CG and Phantom Ranch unless you really know what you're looking at, because the layer-cake geology of the canyon, so evident in the Roaring Springs section, is harder to discern here. Most of this section of the trail goes through the Supergroup, which has been tilted and broken up somewhat. Steam through this part of the trail.

Note: About three miles out from Phantom Ranch, you start walking through the Vishnu Schist, a high-walled Canyon that is full of turns. This is The Box. The trail goes south, hits a wall of the schist and turns right, then turns left again for another south-right turn-left-turn meander. There are so many of these, you start wondering when they will ever end. The USGS topographic map shows that there are 12 of them, maybe 13, depending on how you count. This stretch might seem like the longest three miles you ever hiked.

At Phantom Ranch

When you get to Phantom Ranch, do these three things right away, in this order:
1. Find your camp site.
2. Stow your food and drink in the metal ammunition boxes. There are animals lurking where you can't see them, but they can see you, and they can smell your food. Believe me, they will be in your pack and on your food in a wink if it's not stowed.
3. Set up your tent. Now the work is done and you can start enjoying yourself.

Take a look around. Walk down to the Boat Beach. Look at the Colorado River, how swiftly it flows, and how wide it is. If you walk along the trail toward the Black Bridge, you'll see on the right some Anasazi ruins that are nearly 1,000 years old, from the native civilization now gone. Go over to the Silver Bridge and walk across the river. Spend some time looking at the desert plant life along the way. About mid-morning, if you're lucky, you can see the mule train of tourists crossing the bridge on their way to the Ranch. Early morning, say between 7:30 and 8:00, you might see the pack train that re-stocks the Ranch daily.

Back at Phantom Ranch, take the trail from Bright Angel Campground that runs alongside Bright Angel Creek, north toward the ranch . About halfway there, you'll find a group of three wooden benches. Sit down in the bench that faces south and just look at the wall of rock in the distance, reaching all the way up to the south rim (upper right corner in the picture).

If you're energetic enough, you can keep going north out of Phantom Ranch and head east on the Clear Creek Trail, which starts just beyond the Ranch. You'll have to gain a few hundred feet, but there is a spectacular view of the ranch below, and if you wind around enough, you have an overview of the Black Bridge and part of the SKT winding up the Vishnu Schist.

There is lots of animal life there. You might see Mule Deer, Rock Squirrels (they're the biggest squirrel in North America), Ringtail Cats (at night), and bats, at dusk and dawn. There are birds, mostly Ravens, but listen for the distinctive song of the Canyon Wren.

Spend a few moments in the Phantom Ranch canteen, where you can get the best lemonade you have ever had. Buy a postcard and send it off with a Phantom Ranch postmark. Buy a Phantom Ranch T-shirt, sold only at one place in the world - the Phantom Ranch canteen. Talk to other hikers about their trip, where they've gone, where they're going. For the few hours you're down there, you're a part of a club where every member has respect for what you did to join. The camaraderie of total strangers, and the ease at which you can start a conversation with anyone, is a wonderful thing.

Coming up the SKT, all the layers are exposed and you're right next to them. Several of the Supergroup layers are exposed as well. As i said before, learn beforehand what they look like and notice them, and the junctions between layers, as you pass them by. The most important one is the Vishnu-Tapeats boundary, where the ~570 million-year-old Tapeats sandstone sits on top of the ~1.8 billion-year-old Vishnu schist. All the rocks in between are missing. I once saw a Mountain Goat in this section, so watch out for one. Get close to the rock layers when you can and look at the layers, millimeters thick that were laid down one by one to form formations several hundred feet high. Pay attention, too, to how the flora changes as you gain altitude. When you go up the SKT, the vistas are behind you. Stop frequently and turn around. (BTW, the lack of sun protection this hiker has is not what I recommend for you.)

Once you get out of the canyon, and on your way back to the shuttle, you can make plans for your next trip, because you can't come here just once. I'm going back in 2016 to take a one-day hike, going down the BAT to Indian Garden, east along the Tonto Trail to the SKT, and out the SKT to the South Rim -- 13 miles. This hike is much simpler logistically than going to the bottom, and you get to see a different view of the canyon.

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Copyright 2011-2013 by Bob Jones, Salem, Oregon. OLP at wvi dot com