A Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to RimBy Judith K. Tingley; Updated September 26, 2017
The grandest adventure of them all?
It's on the bucket list of a great many people – a trek to the floor of the Grand Canyon and back up again. It's a journey through millions of years of geological strata, a challenge to strength and endurance, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a memory to cherish forever. And yet it's within reach of most able-bodied men and women as long as they plan well and take proper precautions.
What to do while you're waiting
Plans and preparations for a rim-to-rim hike will take a year or more before the actual adventure. While waiting for the departure date, make sure to get in the best shape possible. A hike in Grand Canyon National Park is not just a walk in any old park – it's strenuous, hard work. Endurance training is important, as is cardio. If you have any health issues whatsoever, talk with your doctor first.
Get together a small group of friends – if possible, people who've already proved they can work well together – and frame the trip so that everyone is satisfied with the arrangements. Plan responsibilities for each group member and for the group as a whole; for example, how much food, water and gear will you need, and how will these be packed and carried?
The group will want to travel light, but at the same time be prepared for any eventuality. Rain is infrequent in the canyon, but it does occur, especially during the months of July and August. A tent offers protection from the elements; if the group feels a tent is necessary, try to make it as light as possible. Bring light, not bulky, sleeping bags. A hiker typically needs to drink a gallon of water a day to stay properly hydrated. Always have water on hand in addition to water treatment tablets or filters. Bring food that's compact yet nutritious; it's probably best to stick with easily portable, energy-rich food that doesn't require heating to enjoy. Do bring a topographic map and a first-aid kit. Wear lightweight, sturdy hiking shoes. And toilet paper. Don't forget the toilet paper.
Decide ahead of time whether to reserve campground spots to stay overnight or live large at the Phantom Ranch Lodge on the floor of the canyon, where you can have a meal prepared for you, sleep in a real bed, and otherwise allow yourself a bit of pampering before getting a fresh start the next morning. Camping out requires a "backcountry permit," which should be requested on the first day of the month, four months prior to the desired date. A reservation for the Phantom Ranch Lodge (or lodges on the South Rim), should be made as far in advance as possible – currently, reservations for Phantom Ranch are accepted on the first of each month for the same month of the following year. Please note that the Phantom Ranch also requires that all reservations be reconfirmed two days before the hike.
The reservation system for Phantom Lodge is changing to a lottery system effective for stays in January, 2019, and beyond. The lottery system will entail entering between the 1st and 25th of the 15th month prior to the desired stay month. For example, if you wish to stay during the month of January, 2019, you must submit your entry November 1–25, 2017. Notifications will be made in December, 2017, and any unsold or unclaimed inventory will become available to the public January 2. A schedule of lottery procedures can be found on the Phantom Ranch Lottery website.
Time to take a hike
The best time to hike the canyon is between May and October. No matter when the trip is taken, however, bear in mind that the differences in temperature between the canyon floor and the rims, and between night and day, can be extreme. The temperature can be pleasantly cool at the rim yet blisteringly hot at the bottom. The canyon walls are approximately 1,000 feet higher on the North Rim than on the South Rim. Due to its higher elevation, temperatures on the North Rim tend to be lower. The South Rim, though shorter, is also somewhat steeper.
One recommended route for a rim-to-rim hike is to take the North Kaibab Trail down from the North Rim (14.3 miles) and the Bright Angel trail back up to the South Rim (9.6 miles). Even though it's physically possible to do a rim-to-rim hike in one day, this is definitely discouraged by the park rangers and also seems rather pointless. Allow at least two days for the rim-to-rim hike. But, to fully appreciate the glories of this adventure (and maintain energy levels), consider taking four days to hike and explore. Get as much out of the experience as possible.
The four-day plan
Start from the North Rim down the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Camp, which has several spots where small groups can set up camp overnight. It's close to Bright Angel Creek and offers compost toilets – and tap water as long as the weather isn't freezing cold. Leave Cottonwood Camp early the next morning to allow some time at Ribbon Falls, one of the prettiest places on the trail. Keep walking along Bright Angel Creek until you reach Phantom Ranch; then head straight for the cantina, relax in air conditioning and have a beer. Depending on what the group has decided to do, either stay overnight at the Phantom Ranch Lodge or keep going another half-mile to the Bright Angel Campground. This camp provides toilets, tap water and sinks, and just beyond it is a beach on the Colorado River.
Get an early start the next day, continuing along the Colorado River for a few miles. After that comes a series of switchbacks called "The Devil's Corkscrew" and eventually a path to the Indian Garden campground, a pleasant, shady spot to spend the night beside a creek. But before hitting the hay, check out the sunset from Plateau Point; the trick here is to watch both the sunset itself and the resulting shadow and light-show among the canyon's rock formations.
Why did the hiker cross the canyon? To get to the other side!
The group will be making its victorious final climb out of the canyon the next morning. The way is steep, with plenty of switchbacks, but there are rest stops with toilets and tap water along the way and some spectacular views as well. Once at the top, hikers can make their way to the historic district of Grand Canyon Village, where they'll be able to explore architecturally interesting buildings, shops, Hopi House, the Lookout Studio, Kolb Studio and more.
Shuttles are available to get group members back to their starting point at the North Rim if that is where the car was parked. Or, if two or more cars were used to get to the canyon, the hikers could leave one parked at the South Rim all ready to go.
So now your bucket list is down by one more item, and replacing it are memories of the grandeur and inspiration of one of nature's greatest works. And even though this particular adventure is now officially removed from the bucket list, you might just decide to do it again, this time for the sheer thrill of it.