The rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike has been described as one of the best day hikes in the world. However, even if you’re able to do it in a day, it’s better to take your time and enjoy the experience. While the National Park Service’s official stance strongly advises against undertaking a rim to rim in one day, people hike it every day of the year and the NPS doesn’t try and stop ambitious hikers from undertaking the journey. I’ve done it several times and you can too if you follow my real-life guide to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
Interesting Facts about the upside-down mountain
- The straight-line distance from the north to the south rims of the Grand Canyon is about 10 miles.
- By road, it’s a 5 1/2 hour, 220 mile drive.
- On foot, it’s just about a marathon – 25 miles, give or take – with around 10,000 feet of elevation change.
- Trail head at the North Rim is about 8,200 feet, while the South Rim trail heads are around 6,800 – 7,200 feet, depending on the trail.
- The inner desert sits around 2,200 feet.
- There were between 250 and 400 trail evacuations and one or two trail deaths a year.
- There are 12 to 20 yearly Grand Canyon fatalities, including drownings, homicides and suicides.
How to best prepare
- Start training months in advance; being physically fit is an absolute necessity. This post is geared toward the rim to rim hike but there are many more hiking opportunities for everyone of all levels of physical fitness.
- Plan realistically as far as time goes. The record for fastest rim to rim is held by Rob Krar of Flagstaff at an astonishing 2 hours, 51 minutes, 28 seconds. Average hikers should expect a hike between 10 and 15 hours.
- Figure out your transportation before you hike. Plan to either take the shuttle or coordinate with friends to leave a car at one rim so you can get back. If you’re feeling extra bold, you could hike rim-to-rim-to-rim.
- You need to get a backcountry permit and they open up 4 months out. So on September 1st the month of January 2013 will open up. That’s as far out as you can go. A backcountry permit is required for all overnight use of the backcountry including overnight hiking and camping at rim sites other than developed campgrounds. A backcountry permit is not required for overnight stays at the dormitories or cabins at Phantom Ranch. A permit is not required for day hiking or day mule rides in the canyon.
Time of Year
Snowfall closes the North Rim to car traffic usually from mid-October to mid-May, but if you have the gear and experience you can still hike it. The ideal hiking window shrinks even more when factoring in the peak of the summer heat, thus most rim-to-rimmers aim for “shoulder” season attempts.
The North Rim is accessible from around May 15th through October 15th. It can open earlier and close later but it’s entirely dependent on snowfall. One should not count on access by road outside of the May to October window. Regardless of the conditions, all of the facilities on the North Rim close October 15th.
Pick a trail, any trail
Most people hike the Canyon from North to South because it means 1,000 fewer feet of climbing. The North Rim is 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim. By going North to South you have an extra 1,000 feet of descent but save on the climb.
South Kaibab Trail-21.5 miles
The South Kaibab trail has little to no shade and no water except at the trailhead. In the winter this may not be a big deal but in the summer this can be the difference between life or death.
Bright Angel Trail-23.5 miles
The Bright Angel Trail is roughly 2 miles longer but has water, some shade, and half-way down is Indian Gardens – a wonderful place for a rest stop. There you will find water, toilet facilities, a ranger station, and a place to sit in the shade.
About 3/4 of a mile past Phantom Ranch you enter “The Box”. This is a 3-mile long area of the Canyon that is similar to a slot canyon. The gap between the walls is narrow and the dark volcanic rock heats up like an oven in the warmer months. The Park Service advises staying out of the box between 10am and 4pm. I wondered if this advice was overblown and have twice ended up in the box between noon and 4 during my rim-to-rim hikes. It is not an exaggeration. It’s like being inside an oven and it seems to go on forever. In the warmer months hikers need to plan and time themselves accordingly.
Distances to consider:
South Kaibab Trailhead to Phantom Ranch: 7.5 miles
Bright Angel Trailhead to Phantom Ranch: 9.5 miles
Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground: 7 miles
Cottonwood Campground to the North Rim Trailhead: 7 miles
Other important considerations
Water is potentially available at the North Rim Trailhead, Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs (requires .5 mile deviation from main trail), Cottonwood Campground, Phantom Ranch, South Kaibab Trailhead and (if you use Bright Angel) Indian Gardens, 3 mile rest house and 1.5 miles rest house. With the exception of Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens, the water gets turned off when temps are near freezing and stay off until spring when temps go back up. Also, water is dependent on the pipeline. If the pipeline breaks there will not be potable water available at some or all of these locations; it depends on the break. Breaks happen without warning and sometimes frequently. They’ve had at least 5 or 6 breaks to date in 2012. If there is a break, water can be obtained from Bright Angel Creek or Pipe Creek but should be treated before drinking.
A key way to stay cool when it’s hot on a rim-to-rim hike is to soak your hat, headband, shirt or even entire body in Bright Angel Creek. The Creek runs from the Colorado River to Roaring Springs. You can also soak at any location with the water turned on. This is a MUST in the hot months. The evaporative cooling that occurs when you soak these items makes a world of difference. Invest in a wide brimmed hat, a cool snake scarf, sunscreen, and dry wicking fabrics.
Proper food, electrolyte supplements and gear are essential to an enjoyable and safe rim-to-rim hike.
Ranger Stations can be found at Cottonwood Campground, Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens. There are rescue helicopters that can fly in to help in serious emergencies. Go with someone experienced and/or do a lot of research before you go. Get a book on wilderness first aid or take a class. There you will learn great tips such as breathing into a bag with coffee grounds to help with asthma.
A word of caution
“So many people who choose to do it,” said Marc Yeston, a Canyon District Ranger, “don’t know what they’re up against and end up needing to be rescued. Some even end up dying. If you know what you’re getting into and are prepared physically, it can be done safely. But if you’re not prepared, it’s dangerous.” Make no mistake: The rim-to-rim is no Sunday-afternoon stroll. If you have never hiked the Grand Canyon before and want to do the rim-to-rim you should really hop online and talk to someone who has done it before to get a proper idea of what’s in store. Check with our good friend and collaborator for this article, Matt, with www.wildhikes.com for more information, advice and tips.