Grand Canyon Rim-to-rim hike

Notes by piero scaruffi | See Travel resources | My Grand Canyon page | Arizona
Pictures of the hikes (click on USA and Grand Canyon)

(Last updated in 2010)

For many hardcore day hikers in the USA this is the mother of all day hikes. It isn't as high as Mt Whitney or as long as Mt Williamson, but it is unique in that it first goes down (very steeply) and then up (forever). If you get exhausted, you cannot count on gravity to push you to the parking lot. It is also extremely hot most of the year, which of course increases the chances that you dehydrate. I personally met hikers who had sprained ankles and twisted knees going down. It is not fun to hike *up* a canyon after an injury. The distance itself (33-34 kms, depending on which map you believe) is not terrible, but certainly enough to intimidate casual hikers. Hardcore hikers have certainly done longer hikes in a day, but this one is, again, unique in that you go down first and up at the end (when you are tired and dehydrated). And, needless to say, psychology matters: as with any one-way hike, there is a point of no return after which you are on your own.

The North Rom (2,438m) is only open from mid june to mid october. I have hiked rim to rim in different seasons and, honestly, did not find much of a difference in terms of temperature. The real issue is the rain, which is more likely in july and august. The hottest hike of my life was the rim-to-rim hike of may 2001, so do not believe people who tell you that it is less hot in may. The best month is probably september, because the sun is low enough that most of the hike is in the shade. Alas, in september the days are shorter than in june.

There are two possible detours in this hike. The first one is worth every extra step: Ribbon Falls. Ideally, take the left trail at the fork marked "Ribbon Falls bridge". You may lose the trail here but simply cross the creek and head towards the wall until you hit the trail coming from the bridge. Follow the trail to the falls. Look for the sign "Alcove" and climb up to have a frontal view of the falls. The second detour is not worth it. It comes after Cottonwood Camp and it is marked Roaring Springs, but the trail seems to deadend after a little picnic area.

The most annoying part of the hike is that there is no easy way to get from the North Rom's trailhead of the North Kaibab trail to the Grand Canyon Lodge (where all the facilities are). Either you have friends driving you or you have to hitchhike. Things on the South Rim are much easier: there is a shuttle that takes 10 minutes from the visitor center to the Kaibab area and drops you off right at the South Kaibab trailhead. (Driving is not a good idea because that road is closed to traffic, so you'd have to walk an additional 2 kms or so).

There is a shuttle (leaving from the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rom and from the Bright Angel Lodge on the South rim) that brings you back to the rim you started from (as of 2007). But most people use friends: have friends drive around from the South Rim to the north rim (a grueling five/six hour drive) and pick you up at the other end.

The South Kaibab trail from the South Rim is extemely steep but gets you to the Colorado river very quickly. The North Kaibab trail is the only choice on the other side: it is very long, relatively "flat" near the river and extremely steep at the very end. I think that hiking the South Kaibab trail at the end would be a killer, so i recommend hiking from the South Rim to the North Rom, not viceversa. Also, this allows for a back-up plan: if anything goes wrong, you can take the Bright Angel trail back up to the South Rim. The South Rim is also a bit less spectacular than the North Rom, so, if you leave before sunrise, you are not missing that much. Another reason to hike south to north is that the North Rom has water, which is desperately needed in the afternoon.

Most people leave before sunrise. If you are in good shape and do not plan to stop too many times, you can do the rim-to-rim hike in 12-13 hours. This means that you do not need to start before sunrise unless you are hiking in october (when sunset is at 6pm). If you are not in good shape, you should not even think of trying this hike anyway. So leaving before sunrise may sound a bit unnecessary. The real issue, though, is the heat. It gets extremely hot already at 7am on the South Rim. If you leave before sunrise, you will still get very hot and dehydrate a lot, but not as much. No matter how early i left in the morning, i always got to the Colorado river totally dehyadrated. Also, a real killer is if you hike from the Colorado river to Cottonwood Camp (about three hours with absolutely no shade) in the peak of the heat. You may literally die. So many hikers start early enough that they can reach Cottonwood Camp well before noon. Personally, i hike because i want to see things, so i take my chances and start at sunrise and risk my life hiking the sunniest part of the trail during the hottest part of the day. The best way to avoid dehydration is to continuously soak your hat and your shirt in the creek (there is a creek coasting the North Kaibab trail).

There is water along the North Kaibab trail from Cottonwood Camp to the top. And there is water at Phantom Ranch (bottom of the canyon, Colorado river). So you need to carry your own water only for two major stretches: the South Kaibab trail from the South Rim to the Colorado river (about three hours) and from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp (about three hours). This latter segment, though, coasts the creek, so you can always go to the creek (a 20 meter walk) and drink from the creek. (If you are American, you probably do not trust natural water, so you may want to bring iodine pills or a water filter).

See the notes below for further tips on how to survive this hike.

Trail description.

The trail is very steep downhill from the South Rim to the Colorado river (watch your steps, as the rocks are also very sharp). You cross the river thanks to a suspended bridge. Then you enter the Phantom Ranch camping area. There is water and there are cabins and a telephone for emergencies. The trail is very mild uphill from the river to Cottonwood Camp, a leisure walk albeit a long (and very hot) one. At Cottonwood camp (potable water, picnic tables, a bit of shade) you are halfway up the North Rom. The trail starts going up very steep a little later, at the following water stop. Basically, from the Colorado river to this water stop you are simply following the creek inside one of the subcanyons. At this water stop, the trail parts way with the creek and you start going up the wall in front of you. The good news is that from here to the top there is increasingly more shade. In fact, be careful you don't soak your clothes too much at this water stop because they may not dry anymore. After you reach Supai bridge, the trail is simply a terrifying series of switchbacks, first to the tunnel (potable water) and then (a little less terrifying) to the top. You can see the end: look up to the pine trees at the very top of the wall. That is the parking lot. This is by far the toughest part of the hike, last but not least because you are tired. The second part of the hike (from the Colorado river to the North Rom) is ten times tougher than the first part (from the South Rim to the Colorado river).

Here are the main milestones of the Kaibab trail from the South Rim to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
You will remember them for many years. (Click here for the pictures).
(Times include stops: it takes 30' from Supai bridge to Supai tunnel, but a 30' stop makes it a 1 hr segment).

Intermediate pointAltitude KmsHours May 2001 time May 2002 time July 2004 time Sep 2006 time
South Kaibab trailhead2220m   6:105:15 4:415:28
to Cedar Ridge1874m 2.4kms 30' 6:405:45 5:156:00
to Skeletal Point - - - - 6:20 5:506:38
Tonto West emergency phone? - - - - - 7:15
to Tonto Trail Junction1222m 4.7kms 1 hr 15' 8:177:40 6:317:58
to River Trail Junction731m 2.6kms 45' 8:237:40 7:12 -
to suspended bridge731m ... ... ... ... 7:188:08
to Bright Angel campground (*)731m 0.6 kms 15' 8:30-8:507:40 7:27 -
to Phantom Ranch (*)776m 0.3 kms 15' 9:008:20 7:50 -
To third bridge? - - - - - 9:45
To Ribbon Falls fork? - - - - - 10:30
To Ribbon Falls? - - - - - 11:10
to Ribbon Falls bridge????m 9.3kms 3hrs 30' 11:4610:55 10:15 11:20
to creek wading... ... ... ... ... 10:20 11:45
to Cottonwood campground (*)1239m 1.8kms 1hr 12:35-13:2011:30-13:15 10:46-11:1512:00
to next water stop (*) - 2.3kms - - 13:45 11:52 -
to Roaring Springs junction1585m 1.2kms 1hrs 30' 14:1514:15 12:2213:30
To deadend of Roaring Springs trail? - - - - - 13:30
to Supai bridge1800m 3.2kms 1.5hrs 16:1515:20 13:4714:20
to Supai tunnel (*)2085m 1.4kms 1.5hrs 17:0516:30 14:3815:15
to Coconino overlook2516m 1.7kms 1hrs 18:4517:30 15:4816:08
to North Kaibab trailhead2516m 1.2km 1hrs 18:4518:07 16:1516:26
Total altitude gain+loss, distance and time3274m 33.2 kms 12hrs 45' 12hrs 35'12hrs 42' 11hrs34'10hrs58'
(*) = purified water

  • The rim-to-rim hike is, de facto, possible only May-October because the North Rom is closed in winter, early spring and late fall.
  • If you make the mistake of telling them what you plan to do, the rangers will discourage you from hiking across. I must admit i heard of several people needing help while I was hiking, so their warnings may be justified. But do not expect any useful tip from them: their job is to convince you NOT to do it. Period.
  • The North Rom trail is completely different from the South Rim: 1. there is water, plenty of water (most of the hike runs parallel to creeks); 2. the landscape changes all the time; 3. it is higher. If you haven't hiked into the North Rom, you haven't seen the Grand Canyon.
  • Your main enemy is the heat. Second enemy is also the heat. Soak your clothes in the creek all the time.
  • Shade is important for your survival, and it really depends on what time you start. If you start around 6am, most likely the trail will be in the shade from Phantom Ranch for a few kms (because you are walking up a narrow canyon), then you will be exposed and the sun will eat you alive. Shade will return after Roaring Springs, as you are climbing up the North Rom wall. So you are in full sun only for a few hours, but those can be fatal (the temperature is easily a scorching 45 degrees even in the spring). Temperature at the top of the North Rom, though, will be barely lukewarm in the evening, if not chilly (because of the higher altitude): expect a comfortable 15-20 degrees in the summer. The earlier you start, the more shade you get between Phantom Ranch and Roaring Springs, and the less shade you get further up. (But, of course, if you start before sunrise you miss some of the spectacular views from the South Rim).
  • On the other hand, if you hike late in the season, you will be in the shade most of the day, and you might get chilly. It is cold at the North Rim in october.
  • You do not need to carry a lot of water. If you can hike down to the Colorado river in less than 3 hours and before sunrise, you only need minimal water with you. Once at the bottom, there is water. From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp, you are coasting a creek: if you drink natural water, you can just walk to the creek and help yourself. From Cottonwood Camp to Supai tunnel, there is purified water every 3-4 kms. Overall, you don't need to carry more than one liter of water except for the part from Supai bridge to Supai tunnel. The last purified water is at Supai tunnel. (Note: "natural" water is the water that is found in nature, whereas "purified" water is the industrial water filtered by humans to be germ-free).
  • Hiking rim to rim is not only feasible but is not even as terrible as you would think. You just have to keep in mind that it is very hot, that the beginning (going down) is treacherous (if you trip on a stone, you may get seriously injured) and that the toughest part of the hike is at the end. This is a long hike but, except for the last 3-4 hours, not steep at all compared with, say, Half Dome.
  • For most of the hike you see amazing nature, especially on the north side of the Colorado river. Right after Phantom Ranch, you are hiking behind a gigantic auditorium. After Roaring Springs you coast a gigantic "fort" protected by gigantic "colossi". Everything seems to be gigantic compared to you as you ascend the North Rim. After Supai bridge, the landscape is a bit less intimidating, but, of course, this is where you get the postcard views of the South Rim in the distance.
  • Alas, when you get to the top of the North Rim, you have to hitchhike to the Lodge because there is no park transportation.
  • Once you get to the Lodge, another spectacular view expects you, because now you are able to see the north side from above. The Lodge is worth it because of its strategic location. You have to see it to believe it.
  • Factors to keep in mind (pros and cons) when choosing the season:
    • Air tickets are cheaper in the fall. It's also probably easier to find campsites and/or a room at the legendary north-rim lodge.
    • The sun is lower in september so the north-rim trail is mostly in the shade. When i did it in early september, i was craving for sun, not for shade. Once the sun set, it got winter-cold. If you are hiking late in the season, make sure you can finish before sunset.
    • The colder it is, the more stuff you have to carry. When i did it in july, the heat was actually a blessing because i didn't need to carry any warm clothes (just t-shirt and shorts).
    • Days get shorter late in the season. The later you do it, the more likely that you will be walking in the dark at the end (or at the beginning), which is a pity. Check sunrise and sunset times for the Grand Canyon. Make sure you have enough daylight for 33 strenuous kms (including stops to actually enjoy what you see). And i strongly recommend at least one detour to Ribbon Falls. You want to see all of this with daylight. In june you have 14 hours, in october only 12.
    • Don't believe the story that the temperature is milder in may than in july/august: it's pretty much the same inside the canyon. The difference is at the rims, not where you hike.
    • Rains are more likely during the flash-flood season, needless to say (especially in august).
    • Many websites suggest that the best time is very early in the season or very late in the season. Make sure they have done it more than once before you trust their opinion.
Practicalities (2004)
  • Weather forecast for the North Rim
  • The distance by road from the south to the north Rim is about 350 kms. If your friends are driving around to pick you up, they won't be much faster than you walking through the canyon.
  • The North Rom is open only from mid-May through mid-October.
  • The only accomodation at the North Rim is the wonderful Grand Canyon Lodge (928.638.2611, but it is mostly busy). They also run the only restaurant, and you need to make reservations if you want to have dinner there.
  • Motels north of the Canyon (30 minutes by car): 928-638-2389 and 928-643-7232
  • Grand Canyon camping: 1-800-365-2267 or this ever changing website (at the South Rim best is Mather Campgroun, and ask for a campsite near the shuttle bus stop)
  • Camping in the Kaibab national forest north of the North Rim entrance is free (as of 2004): instructions for dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest.
  • The campsite at Sublime Point (North Rim) is right by the edge of the canyon. The 30km road takes easily 1.5 hours because it is unpaved. From the North Rim Lodge, drive north for about 5kms and then turn left at the Widforss Point Trailhead parking lot. This dirt road heads west. After 5/10 minutes, turn left at a "Y" intersection into the Point Sublime road. When you reach a clearing, take the right road. After about 18kms, take the left road. (Prudent people may want to use an SUV. A regular car is actually enough for this road most of the summer. It all depends on your driving skills).
  • Hikers can take a shower at the shower house near the official North Rim campground
  • As of 2007, the shuttle from the North Rom to the South Rim is run by Transcanyon Shuttle (928-638-2820, but changes every year, hours change all the time) and costs $70.00 for a one-way fare (2005). Leaves from the North Rom at 7:00 (arrives at the South Rim at 11:30) and returns 13:30 (arrives at the North Rom at 18:00). During the memorial day weekend, it was also running at 7pm from the North Rom, because of the high number of hikers attempting the rim-to-rim hike.