Hiking the Grand Canyon from one rim, down to the river, and up to the other rim is certainly a big adventure. In this page I describe how I did it safely.
Backpacking? If you’re a backpacker, I don’t really need to say much to you since you already know how to plan a trip to a new area. There are two perfectly situated campgrounds along the way. Read what the NPS say about the trip. Then read it again. Then follow the rules and recommendations. Enjoy your adventure.
But dayhiking Rim to Rim is another matter entirely.
When I started my Rim to Rim adventure I was confident, optimistic and thrilled to be doing it. I could do so because I had planned very thoroughly. And I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. That’s what I would very strongly advise you to do as well. Here we go …
There is no Plan B. This is the most important thing to know. If your legs take you to the river, then your legs must take you to one of the two rims. There are no motorized vehicles down there to carry you back up. There is no cable car ride. There are no empty mule trains that are happy to carry tired hikers to the rim. There is no shortcut. There is a permanent ranger station down there, right next to a helipad. (Does that sound like good news to you?) The NPS keeps people from dying every year. You don’t want to be one of them. And no one guarantees that you will be rescued. Having an emergency is not a Plan B. Your Plan A must work for you on the day you make your hike. Think it through very carefully.
Bail out option. But if you don’t think you can make all the way, surely you can go back to the trailhead right? Well, I suppose, but when might that happen?
- Will it happen early in the trip while you’re going 7-9 miles downhill? I doubt it. If it does, you’ll have to climb back up. That’s not much of a bail out option if you ask me.
- Will it happen while you’re going across the canyon? This is probably a little more likely. But you should be feeling pretty good here. And depending upon where you are, going back may be no easier than going forward.
- Will it happen while you’re going up the opposite rim? Of course, by now it’s too late.
There is a Plan C, however. That would be to cancel the trip if something makes success questionable. This must be an option if you intend to be as safe as possible on the trail. Alternatively, you could switch your plan to one of the shorter alternatives listed at the bottom of this page.
Facts about the journey. Here are some of the major facts you need to be aware of.
- The total trip is at least 21 miles, depending upon your endpoints and whether you take any side trips, like I did. My trips were 24 and 28 miles.
- It requires descending about 5000 ft and ascending about 5000 ft. Think of it as an inverted mountain where the climb comes after you’ve already walked a long way.
- There is plenty of potable drinking water throughout much of the journey (assuming the pipeline is not broken, which is a real possibility). Exceptions include the entire South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and the stretch between the two campgrounds (7 miles). So you won’t need to carry a lot of water in this desert area.
Physical condition. You must be able to hike about 25 miles in one day while ascending and descending 5000 ft. Remembering that there is no Plan B, I would say in the strongest terms you must have made such a trip in the not-too-distant past. “I once hiked 15 miles in a day; I’ll just tough out the rest.” is a recipe for big trouble. If the NPS can rescue you, they will want to curse you. And if you want to actually enjoy your hike up the opposite rim and to your final destination, as I did, I would also say that when you finish your practice hike(s), you should still have some energy to spare.
Weather. Do not even think about going in summer. This is the primary cause of those scary NPS warnings (I suspect). Temperatures in the inner canyon then can get well above 100º. In most places, shade is hard to find. The “feels like” temperature can be astronomical. Hiking for long in those conditions can be fatal. The NPS recommends completely avoiding hiking from 10AM to 4PM. It has two warning pages you should study: Weather Dangers and Weather and Road Conditions. OTOH, spring and fall have weather that is conducive to this hike. I did it in early October. But do not get complacent. It can still get hot (or cold) enough to affect your trip and possibly your safety. Other weather dangers, e.g. lightning, must also be considered. But by comparison, all of these risks are similar to those you will find in other hiking areas.
When to go. Spring and fall are the obvious times. Winter is also possible. (You can even do the trip at night if you want. I never considered that possibility, so I will not offer any advice about that option.) During the last half of October, various services are shut down until spring. If you want to hike then, you will have addition complications. One reason I chose early October for my hike was to avoid those complications. In any case, check the weather forecast in advance and just before you set out if you see something in the forecast that you might not be able to handle. The weather can change rapidly out there.
The day. The number of hours of daylight is an important consideration. Each of my trips required about 12 hours. I started around sunrise and finished around sunset. This was not a happy accident. I had planned for that. I knew my hiking pace. I actually wanted to spend as much time in the canyon as I could each day. My side trips were part of my calculations, and I considered all of them to be optional if it turned out that I was running behind schedule. Remembering that there is no Plan B, I recommend that you bring a headlamp in case you need to finish your hike in the dark. Plan how you want to divide your time between hiking, resting, photography, unplanned activites, etc. My philosophy was that I had enough extra time to smell some of the roses but not all of them.
Logistics. Where will you stay the nights before and after your trip? How and when will you get to and from the trailheads? Where will you park? What will you do after you reach the opposite rim? Planning for these factors can be almost as complicated as planning for the hike, itself.
Details. Food, clothing and gear are all important. I will just say that you must think everything through. Bring only items that have worked for you in the past . This is not the time or place to experiment.
More details. I am not attempting to list everything you need to consider. That is not the purpose of this page. But I will list a few of the major details:
- Which trails and trailheads will you use?
- Do you want to spend some time on either or both rims? Hint: The Rim Trail on the south rim is wide, paved and flat. And the scenery is spectacular. You can hike as much as you wish and use it in conjuntion with the shuttle system.
- Consider group dynamics if you hike with a group, which is strongly recommended.
- How can you insure that you will be at your starting trailhead on time?
Reservations. The good news is that you do not need a permit or reservation of any type for any dayhike in the Grand Canyon. (Only backpackers face the uncertain task of obtaining reservations for the two campgrounds in the inner canyon.) Getting advance reservations for either lodging or camping on the rims generally requires planning months in advance. Sometimes, it even requires making reservations on the first day they open.
- A Rim to Rim hike violates no laws, rules or regulations and voids no warranties. Despite the scary warning signs, rangers should be happy to help you plan such a trip. Your attitude should be, “What would it take for me to do this hike safely?” First do your own research. Then call before you start making reservations.
- Start your hike at sunrise or even at first light.
- Plateau Point is an exiting addition to the trip, but it adds almost 4 miles out and back (and little elevation gain/loss). The trail to Plateau Point includes a nice stretch of constant 360º views at a mid-level elevation that nicely supplement the top and bottom views you’ll get elsewhere.
- Hiking down the South Kaibab trail is thrilling. It is loaded with 180º (or more) views.
- I hate to say this, but for me, the north rim was much less interesting than the south rim.
- The Trans-Canyon Shuttle offers same-day service between the rims! You can either take it yourself or send gear across.
- For me, trekking poles are essential when travelling in hilly country. (Very little of the route is truly flat.) I find them helpful on uphills and essential on the downhills. (I am not the only 60+ hiker who sees it this way.) If your knees suffer when going downhill, you need to consider using trekking poles. You also need to consider whether this is the trip for you, but that’s another matter.
- Spend some time at the south rim soaking in the views and attractions before beginning your hike. Go to your starting trailhead so you’re sure you know how to get there. Consider hiking some of the Rim Trail. I’d recommend arriving at the south rim the day before your hike and then staying either in one of the lodges or Mather Campground. This will also make it easy to get a sunrise start to your hike.
- Phantom Ranch is a nice place to stop along the way, but don’t let it beguile you into staying longer than you planned. If you want to stay there overnight on a future trip, the chance of getting a reservation is essentially zero. Indian Gardens is also a nice place to stop.
- Expect the temperature to go up during day and down during late afternoon; there is nothing unusual here. But it will also go up about 3º for every 1000 ft you descend. If you descend in the morning and ascend in late afternoon, it is amazing how quickly the temperature will change.
Start planning your trip many months before it is to begin. Plan thorougly so you can enjoy the trip safely.
A Similar Trip
If the above trip sounds nice, but it’s a little beyond your reach (and I stress the word “little”), consider the South Rim Only option. Start at one of the two trailheads, hike down to the river, then hike back up to the south rim via either of the trails. (Along with everyone else, I recommend going down the South Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail.) This will cut the distance by roughly 10 miles and the vertical loss and gain by a little bit. Since the duration will be shorter, you will have additional options for planning the day of the hike.
Who knows, you may like this trip so much that you return some day to hike Rim to Rim.
If even this trip is too much for you, consider taking the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens and then the (relatively flat) Plateau Point Trail to the thrilling (IMHO) Plateau Point. Then return. This trip is about 14 miles long with “only” about 3000 feet vertical loss and gain.
All of my cautions above still apply, although their urgency is lessened.
A Trip for Cheaters
What if you say, “Oh, I would so much like to do something like that, but it’s out of the question for me. Isn’t there anything I can do? Please! Pretty please?” Why, yes there is. And the NPS even recommends it! It’s called the Bright Angel Trail.
Start at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Hike down as far as you want, and then return. Be very cautious about how far you go, though. It is still true that your legs will have to get you back up to the rim. Good turnaround points are the 1½-mile and 3-mile resthouses. For most people, Indian Garden Campground (5 miles) is probably too far; that would be about a 10 mile day with 3000 feet of vertical loss and gain. And heat is a more serious issue if you go down that far.
This trip has the advantage of being practical during the summer! The weather at the south rim is not nearly as hot as it is in the inner canyon. As long as you start during early to mid morning and don’t go too far down, it can be reasonably safe. But all of the NPS’s warnings still apply. If you have any questions, talk to a ranger.
For any of these alternatives, I suggest calling before your trip and perhaps even double checking with a ranger on the day you arrive. I have always found them to be very happy to help. People do collapse on this trip each year. Let them know you don’t want to be one of them, and they should be happy to help make you successful.