Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike

Have you ever thought about a Grand Canyon rim to rim hike? I’ll admit that for my first visit to the Grand Canyon that thought hadn’t crossed my mind. For my first visit I wanted to see the Grand Canyon in all it’s glory and I figured the best view was from the air. So in 2012, during my first visit to the Grand Canyon National Park I splashed the cash and did a helicopter ride. It was seriously unbelievable and one of the best experiences of my life.

However, even though a 50 minute flight sounded like a long time it was all over too fast. At the time I was on a group tour and our guide told us that for some of the best views of the Grand Canyon we should also try a hike down into the canyon. It was during this hike later that same day that the adventurer in me started to wonder, what would it be like to hike the Grand Canyon from one side to the other?

Fast forward 3 years to 2015 and there I was stood at the top of the North Rim trailhead about to start a 2night/3 day Rim to Rim adventure in the Grand Canyon. I’d been to the Grand Canyon for both work and play 4 times since my first visit. On my second visit I even hiked down to the bottom and camped near the Colorado River. However, it was during my last visit as I day hiked the Bright Angel trail that I promised myself I wouldn’t set foot in the park again unless it was to do a Rim to Rim hike. And so it came to pass that in May of 2015 I set off on my most exciting multi day hike to date – the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike.

A guide to hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

Now, hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, if you’re incredibly fit and at the right time of year, can be done quite easily in one day. Some people even run Rim to Rim and back again in a day. But for us mere mortals it takes a bit longer and so requires a little, no a lot, of organising. In this post you can find everything you need to know to plan your Rim to Rim hike.

Potential routes

Most people will do their Rim to Rim hike from the North Rim to the South Rim. There’s one very simple reason for this. The South Rim is lower than the North Rim so hiking in that direction means there’s a lot less ‘up’ involved! There are two routes you can choose when you hike from the North Rim to South Rim.

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim via Bright Angel trail: Facts and figures

  • Descend North Kaibab Trail to Colorado 14.3 miles 5781ft elevation change
  • Ascend Bright Angel Trail to South Rim 9.6 miles 4400ft elevation change
  • 23.9 miles total
  • Water sources available on the Bright Angel Trail.

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim via South Kaibab trail: Facts and figures

  • Descend North Kaibab Trail to Colorado 14.3 miles 5781ft elevation change
  • Ascend South Kaibab Trail to South Rim 7 miles  4800ft elevation change
  • 21.3 miles total
  • No water available on South Kaibab Trail.

 

Hike itinerary – our Grand Canyon adventure

Pre trip

Our 3 day hike of the Grand Canyon was a part of a 6 week road trip around the States for me and my friend Emma. We didn’t have too much of a plan with the exception of a musical festival, so we had time on our side. We first went to the backcountry office on the South Rim to see if we could get some walk in permits, but as suspected things were mostly booked up. We reserved 2 nights for a little later that week at Cottonwood campground, which is about a third of the way up the North Kaibab trail. Not ideal, as it would’ve involved one really huge day of hiking (see map above to get an idea). We were told that the backcountry office on the North Rim has walk in permits that only they can issue, so our best bet was to go there early morning and try our luck.

It’s a long way to drive from the South Rim to the North but I was keen to take a chance, so off we headed. En route we managed to hike in a secret lava river cave, have a few too many beers in Flagstaff and get our car stuck in the sand on Lake Powell. However, thanks to the help of some friendly locals we got unstuck and as recommended, we got to the office as soon as it opened. There was only one couple in front of us. After they had managed to get what they were looking for it was our turn. He punched some things into the computer and hey presto, we were in! We were able to change our second night of caping to Indian Gardens campground, which is about a third of the way up Bright Angel Trail. Perfect. The itinerary for Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike was now set.

Day 1

We were a little slow out the gates and didn’t start until 10:30am, but we knew we didn’t need to get to camp too early. When we started the hike it was all pretty socked in and you couldn’t actually see the canyon from the rim! Thankfully though, within 10 minutes of starting the hike the weather lifted and we enjoyed a beautiful and leisurely trek down to our first camp, Cottonwood Campground.

Our campsite at Cottonwood campground
Our camping spot at Cottonwood Campground

Day 2

Our biggest of the 3 days, as we planned to hike down to the Colorado River and then start our ascent of the south rim to reach our camp at Indian Gardens. En route to the river there is a spur just under a mile long to Ribbon falls, which I decided was worth an investigation and a nice opportunity to wet my bandana and feet.

The ascent from the river was fairly steep and hard going during the heat of the day, so when we found a shady spot near a stream about halfway up we took the opportunity to rest for a while. We were both pretty tired by the time we got to camp but decided the opportunity to head out to Plateau Point to enjoy sunset was too good to miss. Leaving most of our heavy gear at camp, we bounced off on the 3 mile round trip to enjoy sunset from the prettiest viewpoint in the canyon.

Enjoying sunset at Plateau point is possible on grand canyon rim to rim hike
Enjoying sunset at Plateau Point

Day 3

Our last day was gratefully our shortest day, as we made our final push for the South Rim. We started at dawn to ensure we would be out before the midday sun and in time to catch our 1:30pm shuttle that would take us back to our car on the North Rim. We got to the top with enough time to grab some food and buy our souvenir t-shirts, before we collapsed into the shuttle bus. A job well done!

North Kaibab trail & Bright Angel Trail with Ribbon Falls and Plateau Point spurs. Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike complete!

Total 28.9 miles

Finally made it. Emma and me wearing our I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim t shirts
Once we completed the hike Emma and I went to the gift shop and bought these awesome t-shirts!

Backcountry permits

To camp anywhere inside the canyon a backcountry permit is required. There are a limited amount of permits issued every day. You can apply 4 months in advance by faxing your request to the Backcountry Information Centre.

Permit cost: $10 plus $8 per person (or stock animal!) for every night spent inside the canyon. (Prices correct for 2019.)

How to apply: For a full explanation on how to get the permits visit the nps website. This page also provides information on trail conditions, rules and regulations and everything else in between, so I won’t repeat it all here.

If you would prefer not to camp you could stay at the only lodge inside the canyon, which is Phantom Ranch. They also provide meals for an extra cost. Reservations are taken on a lottery basis (new for 2019) which you can read about here. 

 

When you hike the grand canyon rim to rim you will need a backcountry permit if you plan to camp overnight in the canyon
Apparently it was an ‘Aggressive itinerary!’

Transport

If you are only hiking in one direction then you will obviously need transport to return to the start of your hike. There are shuttle buses that will provide this service, usually running twice per day. Prices, times and bookings are available on their website.

Tips for hiking the Grand Canyon

What will you need?

  1. Good boots or trail shoes. Flip flops for around camp.
  2. A good Hiking backpack.
  3. Water and the ability to carry lots of it! I used a water bladder for my multi day hike.
  4. Water purification tablets/filter
  5. Food and salty snacks. As well as staying hydrated you will need to keep sodium levels up which is a great excuse to eat some yummy trail mix.
  6. Sunnies and hat.
  7. Suncream.
  8. Basic first aid kit including plasters/second skin for blisters and pain killers.
  9. Head torch.
  10. Trail map or guide.
  11. Change of socks and underwear.
  12. Camping gear – tent, roll mat and sleeping bag/sleeping bag liner.
  13. Stove and fuel. Jetboils get your water boiling in about 2 minutes. They’re awesome when you get to camp and want some food, pronto!

You might be interested in what I take on a hiking photography trip. You can read more in this post.

When to visit?

The Grand Canyon gets extremely hot during the Summer months and it gets hotter as you descend. It also gets sub zero cold during the Winter months so the best times to hike are in the shoulder months (April, May, September, October) At any time, always try to avoid hiking during the hottest hours of the day (12-3pm)

Guided hikes

If you want to avoid the hassle of planning a trip, making the reservations and applying for the permits, you could always do a guided hike. Personally I have never done a guided hike in the Grand Canyon but I have heard good things about the guys at Wildland Trekking if you want to check them out!

Practicalities

  • Overnight parking North Rim – Parking lot trail head.
  • Overnight parking South Rim – Backcountry Information Centre parking lot. A short walk to the Bright Angel Trail and a bus trip on the free Park Shuttle Service from South Kaibab Trail.

What does it mean to hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim?

I truly believe that if you really want to fully experience the Grand Canyon then you should try a multi day hike of some description, whether it’s supported by mules and staying in a lodge or packing everything you need with you and going it solo. Only as you wander down through the layers of rock that took millions of years to form, do you see what a beautiful place it is. Only when you camp inside the canyon and watch as the sun sets up on the rim for the rest of the world do you feel what a magical place it is. And only when you walk from one side to the other and know what it takes to finally make it out, do you fully appreciate the true vastness of the Grand canyon.

Our Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon starting here at the North Rim
Preparing for the challenge – a view from the North Rim to the South Rim

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