Hiking the Grand Canyon: Rim to River and Back
All of the National Park literature warns you against taking on the canyon as a day hike. Lots of people attempt this and need to be rescued every year, people die of heat exhaustion, hypothermia and dehydration. They even have this fun sign a few miles down each one of the trails in an attempt to discourage you from doing it.
As a generally fit and experienced hiker I can attest to the challenge. The hike is 16 miles (25.6 km) long. I have done longer on numerous occasions but those generally are up mountains and back down or on more varied terrain.
What makes the canyon special is that it is a reverse mountain. You go down and then you have to come back up. In the process you go from high elevation on the rim (about 7,000 feet) and head down a vertical descent of nearly a mile to the river which is at 2,500 feet. Then you get to climb back out.
There are two major trails that enter the canyon from the South Rim and one from the North Rim. We had originally wanted to hike from one rim to the other, the “rim-to-rim,” but the North Rim is closed from November through May and we did this hike in early April. The rim-to-rim hike is also quite a bit longer.
We descended the South Kaibab trail from Yaki Point, walked along the river on the River Trail and then back up to the South rim on the Bright Angel trail. This is the recommended route because the South Kaibab trail is steeper than the Bright Angel trail and it has no potable water some times of the year. The Bright Angel trail, while longer, is less steep, making the ascent back to the rim easier.
View Grand Canyon Rim to River and Back in a larger map
We started our hike a little after sunrise. The intention had of course been to hit the trail right before the sun came up but we also wanted to make coffee and a delicious breakfast at our campsite and you know how that goes.
You can’t park at the Yaki point trailhead for the South Kaibab trail anymore. They encourage you to take the free NPS shuttle instead. There is one called the Hiker’s Express that will take you to the trailhead from the Bright Angel Lodge. In April the first one leaves at 6 am, in the summer the first one is at 5 am.
Unfortunately we are poor planners and had no idea we wouldn’t be able to park nearby. Here we are, geared up, psyched up and ready to tackle the canyon at sunrise and we can’t park the truck. Oops. We parked about a mile down the road at a scenic pullout and decided we’d deal with the parking ticket or probable towing in 12 hrs when we returned to the car.
While we somehow avoided any issues with leaving our car at the lookout I think we were just really lucky. I recommend that you take the shuttle or have someone drop you off.
We entered the canyon as the sun was rising. The changing light across the walls was beautiful and the air was still and very cold. As we made our descent and the sun shone down we were soon shedding layers.
It is really incredible how quickly you can get to the river. The first 6.7 miles of the hike down the South Kaibab trail went quickly. The steep descent can be a little bone-jarring but with the anticipation of the day ahead and the knowledge of how far we had to go we almost jogged it.
At the river you reach the only two bridges that cross the canyon. You can see Phantom Ranch right across the river which is a perfect place to camp if you want to break the trip up into two days. Reservations required.
We then turned onto the River trail and made our way west. Some parts of the trail were surprisingly sandy, adding even a bit more to the challenge. There are a few points of river access, but it is generally not swimmable because the river is too fast.
At the River Rest House you make the turn back up the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. The trail quickly turns to steep switchbacks then flattens out as you arrive at Indian Garden and potable water! From where we started, Indian Garden is 13.1 miles into the hike. It is also the first available water.
Indian Garden gets its name from the fact that it was a site of seasonal agriculture for the Havasupai people. It was used because of its reliable water supply. It is extremely lush and superlatively gorgeous. When we went the trees were blossoming a bright purple casting a violet hue over the canyon vistas.
We stopped for a snack and some hydrating and then started the trudge up the hill. A ways before Indian Garden we had seen a few European-looking tourists in white Keds carrying nothing but LaCoste shopping bags. I said to Kyle “Well, that’s either a good sign that we’re close to the end of the hike, or a really bad sign.” I guess it was a bad one…those guys still had another 7 miles to hike their way out.
The climb up is long but it is consistently beautiful. It hard to tell how much you have left but the rim slowly gets closer and closer. We stopped often and continued eating and drinking a lot and made it up about 10 hrs from when we started.
Overall, the key to a successful hike is knowledge of the challenge ahead of you and preparation. If you are going to be visiting the canyon I highly recommend getting the full experience of hiking it, just be prepared and think about spending the night in the canyon if you have any doubts.