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Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hiking Guide

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hiking Guide

Overview

On any given weekend during May, September, and October, thousands of zealots pour out of vehicles, shuttles, and even busses to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim.

The park rangers have long discouraged this practice, because they have to rescue all of the unlucky ones that don’t make it. On average, 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year. That hasn’t made it any less popular though, because the payoff is enormous.

It’s a huge accomplishment to complete the rim to rim hike – a notable feat even for fit athletes. The 23.5 mile hike offers a full tour of the canyon’s grandiosity, from its chilly pine-covered rims to its sweltering sunbaked bottom, where the mighty Colorado River continues to carve and erode the chasm deeper and deeper.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, I can’t talk you out of hiking the canyon rim to rim. However, I’d urge you to consider doing it as a multi-day hike if possible. You can apply for a permit on the 1st of the month, four months prior to the date you’d like to start.

Request a Backcountry Permit

The Colorado River from where the suspension bridge meets up with Bright Angel Trail
The Colorado River from where the suspension bridge meets up with Bright Angel Trail

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 23.5 miles
  • Hike Time: 12-15 hours if you’re Speedy Gonzales. 18+ if you’re Sid the Sloth
  • Elevation Loss: 5,850 feet (North Rim to South Rim)
  • Elevation Gain: 4,380 feet (North Rim to South Rim)
  • Fee: $20 per person or $35 per vehicle to enter the park
  • Dogs: No
  • Difficulty: Herculean

Rim to Rim in a Day

Logistics

If you’re still dead-set on hiking rim to rim in a day, and your group size is over 12 people, the park requires that you obtain a Special Use Permit.

Otherwise, you can arrange for someone to drop you off at the North or South Rim, drive four hours to the other side, and pick you up when you finish. Another option is to hire a shuttle service to pick you up and transport you back. Trans-Canyon Shuttle is the only one I know of. They’ve been operating since 1989, and you can make a reservation on their website.

Start as early as humanly possible to give yourself plenty of time to hike from rim to rim safely. When we hiked rim to rim in October 2019, our group was on the trail hiking by 5:15 a.m.

When we started at North Kaibab Trail, it was dark and bitterly cold at 12° F. At the bottom of the Canyon, it was a toasty 80° F. We finished in the dark and it was in the 40s, with bone-chilling wind atop the South Rim.

The Grand Canyon is a geologist's wet dream, with almost 40 sedimentary layers exposed by erosion
The Grand Canyon is a geologist’s wet dream, with plenty of sedimentary rock layers exposed by erosion

Distance and Elevation

There’s no easy way to hike rim to rim, but the least challenging route is to hike from the North Rim to South Rim, because it involves more descent than ascent. From this direction, you’ll start at North Kaibab Trailhead, elevation 8,060 feet, then follow Bright Angel Creek down Roaring Springs Canyon, 14.2 miles to the Colorado River.

After descending 5,850 feet, your legs are going to feel tired! Hopefully, you’ve still got some bounce in your step for the 9.3-mile, 4,380-foot climb up Bright Angel Trail.

Alternatively, you can ascend South Kaibab Trail. This route adds 400 feet of elevation gain, but it shaves off a few miles. From Bright Angel Campground, it’s just 7 miles to the top of the South Rim via South Kaibab.

Roaring Springs spills out of the earth below a cliff (lower right)
Roaring Springs spills out of the earth below a cliff (lower right)

What to Expect

Best Time to Hike Rim to Rim

At over 8,000 feet above sea level, the North Rim sits 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and gets 130+ inches of snow in the winter. Roads to the North Rim are closed between December 1st and May 15th, but services are reduced starting October 16th.

The temperature variation between the North Rim and the Colorado River is vast. As I mentioned earlier, when we did it in October 2019, it was 12° F at the start, 80° F at the bottom, and 40s at the finish.

It’s unwise to attempt a rim to rim in the summer months, because daytime highs often soar to over 100° F at the bottom of the canyon. This increases the likelihood of life-threatening conditions such as hyperthermia, hyponatremia, and dehydration.

For this reason, the best time to hike rim to rim is in late May or early October, when it’s not too hot at the bottom and not too cold at the top.

Weather Forecast for the North Rim

Weather Forecast for Phantom Ranch

Weather Forecast for the South Rim

Bright Angel Trail winds its way up endlessly toward the South Rim
Bright Angel Trail winds its way up endlessly toward the South Rim

What to Bring

In terms of clothing, the key to comfortably hiking rim to rim is to use a bulletproof layering system. You’ll want a system that keeps you warm for the freezing cold start and chilly end, but also allows you to strip down and stay cool at the sizzling bottom.

Gear List

Backpack: Black Diamond Sonar

Water: Start the hike with at least 3 liters. There is often potable water at Roaring Springs, about 4.5 miles from North Kaibab Trailhead. You can also treat the water from Bright Angel Creek. There is potable water at Phantom Ranch. There should also be some at Indian Garden Campground, but be sure to check current conditions with the rangers.

Hydration Salts: I dropped the recommended amount of Nuun Sport tablets in my Nalgene bottles to keep up my electrolytes and minerals. Hydration salts are a game changer!

Footwear: I hiked in Hoka One One Speedgoat 3 trail runners.

Headlamp: I used a Black Diamond Spot Headlamp. Take extra batteries!

Food: I brought around 5,000 calories worth of fuel and ate as much as I could stomach. I had flour tortillas, a small block of sharp cheddar cheese, a couple pouches of tuna fish, 6 cereal bars, Haribo peaches, dark chocolate, and beef jerky.

Clothing:

Map: I used the Gaia GPS app. For a paper topographic map, get Grand Canyon North and South Rims by Nat Geo.

First Aid Kit: Before every trip, Kim (my ICU nurse wife) assembles a kit for me. Check out her articles here. If you don’t have the time or knowledge to make your own, I recommend buying this one.

Sunscreen: Bring high SPF sunscreen and wear it.

Other Stuff: 

The Grand Canyon's scenery is captivating from rim to rim
The Grand Canyon’s scenery is captivating from rim to rim

Training for the Hike

This is not a hike that you should waltz into willy nilly. You’ll want to find and stick to a proven training regimen in the weeks, months, and perhaps years leading to it.

I don’t have a background in coaching people on how to train for a hike of this magnitude. All I can tell you is what I did to get myself in shape. I felt completely prepared for the endeavor and although it was hard, my body handled it great and I never found myself outside of my comfort zone.

The number one suggestion I have is to make sure your diet is in check and that you’re not overweight. Those extra pounds will be taxing for you to get down and back out with.

I may or may not be stating the obvious here, but you should be putting a lot of miles in on foot every week. Walks, day hikes, and runs are the main way I keep myself in good condition for these types of things.

Train Below Your Aerobic Threshold

In the months leading up to our rim to rim hike, I did most of my activity below my aerobic threshold. This means I kept my heart rate 30 beats per minute less than my lactate threshold when exercising.

You can calculate your maximum heart rate by taking your age and subtracting it from 220. I’m 30 years old, so mine is 190.

To get your lactate threshold, take 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can get this number by multiplying .85 times your maximum heart rate. Mine looks like this: (.85 * 190 = 161.5).

Next, to find your aerobic threshold subtract 30 from your lactate threshold. So, for me it’s (161.5 – 30 = 131.5). My aerobic threshold is 131.5 beats per minute.

If you’re not a math person, you can calculate your aerobic threshold by walking on a treadmill at a comfortable pace. Pay attention to your breathing and slowly increase the incline over a few minutes. The point at which you find yourself breathing from your mouth instead of your nose is when you’ve surpassed your aerobic threshold.

You’re probably wondering why any of this matters, and I’m here to explain. When you’re working out below your aerobic threshold, your body has plenty of oxygen and can use fat, protein, and carbs for fuel.

When you go above your aerobic threshold, your muscles start producing lactic acid to assist with heightened energy requirements. The problem is, this state is unsustainable and you’ll eventually tire out/bonk.

Hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim takes a long time and also requires a lot of effort, especially during the ascent. By frequently training at or below your aerobic threshold, you will increase your aerobic threshold. This means that you will be able to increase your heart rate without producing lactic acid. This is why it’s such a crucial part of your training.

As a baseline routine, I like to walk or hike almost every day for 30-60 minutes. I also sprinkle in 2-3 longer hikes with 1,000 feet or more elevation gain/loss every week. Every 1-2 months, I go on a multi-day backpacking trip where I cover 15-20 miles a day with anywhere from 2000 to 5000 feet of elevation each day.

I sprinkle in some yoga, calisthenics, and barbell strength training into my routine too, but I’m not that serious about any of it. Between all of these workouts and maintaining a healthy body weight, I was fit enough to tackle the rim to rim hike without any problems.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23921084
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28745473
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23620244

A scarlet monkey-flower and Ribbon Falls, a worthwhile side trip from North Kaibab Trail
A scarlet monkey-flower and Ribbon Falls, a worthwhile side trip from North Kaibab Trail

Map

Location

Directions to North Kaibab Trailhead

Directions to Bright Angel Trailhead

Resources

Guidebooks

Topographic Maps

Photos

My dad and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim at age 60 and 30. October 2019
My dad and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim at age 60 and 30. October 2019
Ribbon Falls adds another 1-2 miles to a rim to rim hike, but it's worth the effort!
Ribbon Falls adds another 1-2 miles to a rim to rim hike, but it’s worth the effort!

Ribbon Falls. October 2019

Ribbon Falls. October 2019

Ribbon Falls. October 2019

This suspension bridge allows hikers to cross the mighty Colorado River
This suspension bridge allows hikers to cross the mighty Colorado River
It’s always a treat to see The Colorado River, especially at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
Desert Primrose near the Colorado River, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
Desert Primrose near the Colorado River, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Video

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