The Grand Canyon is one of the greatest places to hike in all of the world. One of the classic treks in this unforgettable landscape is a hike from the North Rim of the canyon descending to the Colorado and hiking out on the South Side, a Rim to Rim trip
On this 24 mile trek, you travel on the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails which are like highways compared to other Grand Canyon trails. These trails are well maintained and are anywhere from 4 foot to 6 foot wide for almost the entire length. Even though the route is easy to find and in good shape, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a physically demanding hike, not only because of the extreme change in elevation but because of the extreme changes in temperature from rim to the inner canyon.
The temperature at the bottom of the Grand Canyon can be as much as 30 degrees different from the rim, so it is normal to shed from a jacket and long pants at the North Rim to shorts and a t-shirt as you near the bottom. This temperature swing can be dangerous from the end of May to the middle of September when the temperatures at the bottom exceed 100 F degrees in the shade. This hike can be completed in the summer months, but it is best to split the trip up to 4 days so that all hiking from campground to campground can be completed by 10 am each day. The ideal times to go are from May 15th to the end of May and from mid September to October 15th. The access road is closed from late fall to May 15th each year due to heavy snowfall on the North Rim. (Snow in Arizona!)
From the North Kaibab trail head, the trail drops 4,200 feet in seven miles before reaching Cottonwood Campground. On the way down to Cottonwood, the scenery changes dramatically from a shady forest of pine, oak and maple trees, to a high desert landscape of agave and shrub oak. If you are lucky you may spot the fuzzy eared Kaibab squirrel or a Stellar’s Jay. The trail winds its way along Roaring Springs and past the raging waterfall of the springs before turning south into Bright Angel Canyon before reaching Cottonwood Campground.One of big logistic issues is the shuttling from one end to the other. The Trans Canyon Shuttle takes hikers from Bright Angel Lodge at Grand Canyon Village to the North Rim Lodge from May 15th to October 15th. If you don’t have two cars to work with, this is about the only way to work out this wrinkle. Be aware that the Grand Canyon is huge and the drive from the South Rim to the North Rim takes four hours. Because of the drive times it is best to plan to stay on the North Rim the night before starting out. If you can’t find rooms available at the North Rim Lodge, try Kaibab Lodge which is just about 10 minutes away from the park entrance. There is also a campground within the park that is actually closer to your starting point at the North Kaibab trailhead.
Cottonwood, and all of the campgrounds along the route, is civilized by backpacking standards. All sites are numbered, have a picnic table for seating and food storage boxes. The campgrounds have treated drinking water, toilet facilities, information boards and ranger stations. Bright Angel Campground even has flush toilets, sinks and air dryers in its restrooms! If you have the opportunity, check out the Information Centers or listen to a ranger talk at Bright Angel and Indian Garden Campgrounds.
This section of trail looks like the true desert of the southwest that everyone pictures with Prickly Pear Cacti, Banana Yucca and Utah Agave dominating the landscape. In this area, several species of lizards are common as well as squirrels. One misconception is that there is a rattlesnake around every corner. Rattlesnakes are present in the canyon but they give you fair warning and only attack when provoked or threatened.From Cottonwood Campground, the North Kaibab trail heads south for 7 more miles before it reaches Bright Angel Campground. The trail closely follows the Bright Angel Creek as it carves its way through rocks that are over 1.5 billion years old. This section of trail drops only 1,400 feet over 7 miles so it doesn’t feel like you are dropping deeper into the canyon at all. Along the way, the trail passes by Ribbon Falls. This 100 foot tall waterfall is tucked away in a side canyon not far from the trail so it is an easy must do side hike.
The North Kaibab Trail comes to an end just past Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground near the confluence of the Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. This area is the hub of activity in the inner canyon with mules carrying packs to and from Phantom Ranch as well as river trips stopping at the beach on the Colorado, just minutes away. Phantom Ranch also makes this area the most civilized place in the canyon interior. The ranch canteen is open to the public for most of the day and sells lemonade, iced tea, coffee, snacks, souvenirs and hikers lunches (limited availability so it’s best to bring your own).
From the Colorado River the trail heads slightly west to the Silver Bridge and across the river. At the end of the bridge, hang a right and follow the appropriately named River Trail since it follows the Colorado for the next 1.5 miles. From here, the Bright Angel trail begins at the point where pipe creek flows into the Colorado.
The Bright Angel trail heads south away from the river along the Pipe Creek and to the bottom of the first major climb, the Devil’s Corkscrew. After this section, the trail passes through a section that is dotted with Cottonwood trees as it follows Garden Creek into the lush Indian Garden Campground. Mule deer are seen every day in this area. At night, mice and ringtails can be heard rustling through the brush.
By the time the trail reaches Indian Garden, it has gained over 1,400 feet in elevation in the 3.1 miles from the river, most of the gain during the Devil’s Corkscrew. If you choose to camp at Indian Garden one night, the 3 mile round trip hike to Plateau Point is a must do side trip to one of the best viewpoints in all of the canyon.
After passing through Indian Garden the trail gradually heads uphill toward the Redwall Limestone cliffs to the south and from there the trail begins almost 3.5 miles of switchbacks and long slopes before reaching the South Rim. This final section of the hike is the most crowded since many tourists hike this trail down to either the 3 mile or the mile and a half rest house. You will most likely encounter a mule train or two or three on the hike up. Mules have the right of way so be on the lookout and find a spot on the inside of the trail to let them pass.
This classic canyon crossing can be accomplished in two to five days and it is in high demand so campgrounds sell out early. It is best to plan this hike over six months in advance and to be flexible with dates when submitting for camping permits. This is a trip that is on many “Life Lists” or if you prefer “Bucket Lists” and for good reason because there is no other place like it on the planet.Make sure to look back from time to time because the view gets better as you gain elevation. The landscape changes once again as more Juniper and Pinon pine dot the landscape much as they do on the North Kaibab trail near Roaring Springs. This section of trail is also one of the best to spot a California Condor or a Bighorn Sheep. There is also a large gallery of Anasazi pictographs just before the second tunnel you encounter before the top of the trail at the South Rim.
By Ray Hendricks
Wilderness Guide and Owner of Just Roughin’ It Adventure Company
Ray is a native New Yorker. Born and raised near the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, he hiked all over the northeast before moving to Arizona a decade ago. He is a corporate refugee with over 15 years experience in the insurance industry before diving into the ocean of small business ownership in 2006.