The Do’s and Don’ts of the “Rim-to-River and Back” Grand Canyon Hike.
Backpacking in the Grand Canyon is near the top of bucket lists for most southwest travelers. The most common backpacking trip, by far, is rim-to-rim: starting at the South rim, hiking to the river, and trekking up and out to the North rim.
It’s not an easy endeavor- it’s challenging and not easily just “checked” off your bucket list. The weather is a major factor for backpacking in the Grand Canyon. The trick is to avoid the heat in the summer and the snow in the winter. This translates to spring before the summer heat kicks in and fall after the monsoons and before the snow.
In addition, getting a permit is no easy task outside of the two worst seasons to be in the Grand Canyon. NPS has documented the success rate of obtaining backcountry permits in the Grand Canyon. NPS states that you have about a 40% chance of getting a permit in the spring and fall and nearly a 100% chance during the winter and summer (when you shouldn’t be in the Grand Canyon at all).
And probably most important to mention, Rim-to-River and Back is one of the best ways to avoid the crowds in the Grand Canyon.
Fortunately, there are several major trails that offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy the wonders that the Grand Canyon has to offer. The two major arteries of the South Rim are the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails. In this segment, we’ll be detailing out a popular hike that connects the two together and offers an spectacular and memorable way to experience the Grand Canyon.
Description of the Route
For detailing out the route, let’s be frank and state that there are multiple ways to visit the river. This is the way that on of our writers took with a few friends and was picked specifically for hiking the whole trail in a single day.
- Entry point: South Kaibab trailhead
- Exit point: Bright Angel trailhead
- Total miles: 21
- Total time door-to-door: 9.5 hours
Here is a view of the actual route and time through Strava:
What to Expect and Tips for Trekking
We caught the first Orange Shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead at 7:00am sharp. Do not be late for the shuttle! The driver told us the drivers are on a strict schedule and aren’t allowed to wait around for straggling hikers. It’s imperative that you take the earliest shuttle that is available in the park. This allows you to maximize your daylight and allows some leeway in case your need extra breaks or hike slower than most.
The South Kaibab trail descents over 3,000 feet from the top of the rim to the river. The trail is very well maintained and easy to follow. Since mule trains use the same trail as hikers, the trail is a mix of long sections of compacted dirt and steep steps. If descending is hard on your knees or hips, I suggest wearing a brace or taping your knees to reduce the impact of each step.
Trekking poles are a MUST!
We cannot stress that enough. It will help keep your weight equalized and will reduce the impact of each step. There are multiple rest areas on the descent: Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge, Skelton Point, and the Tip Off. There are pit toilets at Cedar Ridge and the Tip Off and no water until you hit Phantom Ranch at the river. Take enough water for the entire descent. Each of our guys drank about two liters of water on the way down.
Expect at least three hours to get to Phantom Ranch and the river. Phantom Ranch is really an oasis in the middle of the canyon- both with the floral and the amenities that are available at the Cantina. You can not only refill your water, but get lunch, hot coffee, and ice-cold beer! Even if you don’t have the desire to buy food or drinks at the Cantina, at least stop in to mail a postcard via the Pony Express. It’s an eclectic thing to do- my family definitely appreciated getting postcards from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Hiking back up to the top of the South Rim via the Bright Angel trail is no walk in the park. Expect a lot of breaks and mental gymnastics as you sludge your way to the top of the canyon. Water is available year-round at Indian Gardens, about halfway up to the rim. Besides that, there’s no much for amenities until you get back to the trailhead. The trek from Phantom Ranch to the top of the rim took about four hours. The last mile and a half was by far the toughest of the entire trek.
Overall, the trek is absolutely fantastic. It is a true test of one’s strength and stamina. With proper gear, plenty of food and water, and some pep-in-your-step, you will be able to make it to the river and back in a single day.
If you’re looking for different ways to the bottom, there are several routes to the bottom of the Grand Canyon other than Rim-to-River, but we do like this one the best! The views are worth is alone.
Photos courtesy of contributor: Jon- https://jonwedell.com
Nick is the owner and regular content writer for Southwest Microadventures. When he’s not writing, you can find him rock climbing, peak bagging, mountain biking, backpacking, or drinking strong coffee.