Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day
By Michael Lanza
Minutes after we start hiking down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, we descend steeply through a series of short, tight switchbacks where the trail appears to cling tenuously to the face of a cliff. The earth drops away abruptly beyond the trail’s edge—we’re gazing down nearly a vertical mile into the basement of The Big Ditch. Patches of early-morning sunlight waltz with cloud shadows across the infinite complexity of the tortured landscape sprawling before us, the high-contrast light magnifying the perception of endlessness. Not much farther, we pause at a clifftop overlook of possibly the most famous canyon on Earth.
The view is breathtaking. But less than a mile into our hike, it also lays bare the audacity, or maybe the folly, of our plans: to walk from South Rim to North Rim across this awesome chasm—21 miles and almost 11,000 cumulative vertical feet—today. From here, tonight’s destination looks very, very far away.
I’ve come to the Grand Canyon in mid-October—one of the two brief windows annually that offer, if not ideal conditions, the best possible range of temperatures for this adventure—with my wife, Penny Beach, and our friends David and Kathleen Ports, to attempt what has become perhaps the most coveted grail for avid and very fit hikers and trail runners. A rim-to-rim hike traverses one of the most inspiring, rugged, vast, vertiginous, arid, and certainly unforgiving landscapes in America. And that’s just a short list of the applicable adjectives.
We’ve arrived as prepared as possible for an endeavor the park’s management warns people against attempting. We all feel pretty good about our chances.
I’ve hiked rim to rim to rim—across and back—in a day previously. (Read my story about that hike, “April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim.”) David and I have shared single days of hiking over 20 and 30 miles and even 40 miles on trails all over the country. Although he’s only been to the Grand Canyon once previously—backpacking the adventurous and beautiful Royal Arch Loop with me—he and I feel confident we’ll make it. For Penny and Kathleen, this will be the biggest day either has hiked. But they’re both fit and experienced hikers and backpackers and they’ve been training hard for today.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a huge day. Things can go wrong—and do go wrong for a small percentage of rim-to-rim hikers every year. Enough uncertainty exists to leave a question mark in our minds about whether all of us will make it across today—and even greater uncertainty over how late we’ll reach the other side.
This much is certain, though: At some point during the long slog up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim, this stunning and inspiring hike will turn into a physical struggle to finish it.
Why Dayhike Rim to Rim?
Crossing the Grand Canyon ranks unquestionably among the most beautiful hikes (and backpacking trips) in America. The canyon’s severe verticality and desert climate create a landscape where seemingly boundless vistas accompany you almost every step of the way. Even in the canyon’s bottom, or Inner Gorge, where you’re too low to get the panoramas of an infinite labyrinth of canyons stretching for miles (or, more precisely, you have descended into the labyrinth), you still walk between cliffs that shoot straight up for hundreds of feet. In the canyon’s bowels, rim-to-rim hikers and backpackers follow the North Kaibab Trail’s winding course through the more intimate environment of lower Bright Angel Canyon, following a lively creek at the foot of close, dark rock walls on both sides.
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It’s also one of the hardest dayhikes in the country—hikers and runners who underestimate its difficulty usually pay for that hubris. A rim-to-rim, or r2r, is grueling. The shortest route, combining the South and North Kaibab trails (which we’re doing), entails 21 trail miles and a cumulative 10,541 feet of elevation gain and loss. The heat can wilt even the fittest people. Cold temps and wind are not unknown in early morning and evening, and although unusual, rain or snow can soak your ambitious plans. In fact, hard rain fell the day before the four of us hiked it south to north, and snow fell the morning after David and I made the return hike on day two.
So why not just backpack it?
Few wilderness camping experiences rival the majesty of sleeping below the rim of the Grand Canyon (something I’ve done many times). On the other hand, the three designated camping areas along the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails—the Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and Indian Garden backcountry campgrounds—are busy places that, in my opinion, do not quite replicate the sense of solitude and feeling really small that camping in other parts of the Grand Canyon inspire.
Then there’s the slim likelihood of getting a permit for one of the most popular backpacking trips in America: Some three-fourths of people applying for a backpacking permit on the corridor trails (South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel) are rejected every year simply because demand far outstrips availability during the peak seasons of spring and fall. Plus, any hike that’s hard carrying a daypack grows exponentially harder, step for step, carrying a backpack.
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More than anything, though, hiking r2r in a day has an aesthetic that’s very different from backpacking it. When hiking or running across, you may be on the move from dawn or earlier until late afternoon or evening: You see the many faces the Grand Canyon displays through the course of each day, in a landscape whose scale and depth collaborate with the changing light as the sun crosses the sky to steadily alter its appearance. Hiking through the canyon is a constantly evolving visual experience, and early morning and late day into evening are its finest hours.
When backpacking, in order to see the Grand Canyon’s full range of personalities, you must consciously break the usual mold of hitting the trail around mid-morning, hiking until late afternoon, and then lazing around camp through the evening before turning in and rising after dawn. (I try to hit the trail early and hike late when backpacking, primarily to see more of a place in a greater range of light.) That’s not always easy to do—even when the Grand Canyon’s midday heat forces you into that schedule of hiking early and late and resting in shade during the day’s hottest hours.
Finally, the athletic and endurance achievement of a one-day rim-to-rim hike inspires a powerful sense of accomplishment. It’s a big deal. It’s a worthy goal for someone looking to challenge him- or herself—and goals give our lives meaning. That’s probably the biggest reason so many people attempt it—and while there’s no way to really know how many do, I’ve read reports that it’s thousands of people annually.
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Completing a hike like this—one that’s both physically and mentally demanding—infuses you with confidence in your ability to take on objectives in other areas of life that may initially appear insurmountable. It can set a young person, or someone who has not yet found their passion for the outdoors, on a new, more gratifying, and healthier course in life.
There you have it: Crazy as it may seem, hiking rim to rim across the Grand Canyon is good for you—but only if you’re truly ready for it.
And the hard truth is that, as this activity gains popularity (fueled partly by the number of people introduced to the idea through the rose-colored, hash-tagged lens of social media), growing numbers of r2r aspirants don’t really have the right stuff for it—and find themselves at best suffering miserably, and at worst getting into serious trouble and placing others, from their companions to rescuers, at risk.
Feeling Awesome… Then Feeling Done
I’ve seen a phenomenon on ultra-hikes so many times that I’ve learned to anticipate it in myself and in companions. I’ve seen it both on huge dayhikes and when ultralight backpacking big-mileage days. (It was especially pronounced—at times humorously, at times brutally—when a few friends and I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in seven days, averaging a literally blistering 31 miles a day.)
It happens when you’ve trained and prepared so well that you cover the day’s first significant leg faster and feeling stronger than you expected. And you tell yourself and each other: We’re crushing this thing! We got this in the bag!
I will share with you this truth and urge you to hold it close to your heart: That belief is a complete delusion pulled from thin air because your brain is stoned on adrenaline and the euphoria of the moment. It is a dangerous self-deception. Before the day is over, you will almost certainly know intimately the pain and exhaustion hiding on the flip side of that coin of euphoria.
David, Kathleen, Penny, and I stroll across the South Kaibab Trail’s bridge over the Colorado River, swinging our gazes and craning our necks from the swirling, brown chocolate milk of the river to the heights of the Inner Gorge cliffs flanking it. We stop for a short break in the tiny patch of shade cast by an information kiosk near Bright Angel Campground, where we fill our bladders from a water spigot.
We just hiked a steep seven miles downhill, dropping nearly 5,000 vertical feet—knocking off the first third of our hike in under three hours—and we feel great.
As it always does, the South Kaibab Trail had enchanted us every minute of the way down that big hill. Following the sharp crest of a ridge that tumbles off the South Rim, the trail offers the best sweeping panoramas of the canyon than any other trail off the South Rim. As opposed to someone hiking up the trail, with those views at her back, a hiker descending it looks out constantly at that scenery. Doing it as the light of early morning slowly spills over the Grand Canyon is one of the most sublime experiences in the entire National Park System.
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Leaving our water stop near Bright Angel Campground, we start up the North Kaibab Trail on a 14-mile, 5,761-vertical-foot uphill hike to the North Rim. It begins gently and peacefully, following the bends of Bright Angel Creek through a narrow canyon where greenery flourishes along the droning creek. Even as the clock nears midday, the October sun hangs low enough to grant us plenty of shade in this canyon.
After a few miles, though, the canyon completely shifts character, abruptly growing much broader. Distant walls soar to the heights of the North Rim, where green forest caps the white rock of the Kaibab limestone, the canyon’s top geologic layer. There’s little shade as the hot sun beats down and the temperature rises toward around 80 degrees. Fatigue sets in, aggravated by the heat.
Where the trail crosses a tiny but fast-moving side creek before Cottonwood campground, the four of us stop for a break in the shade of a small cliff, eating, drinking, refilling our bladders, collecting some physical recovery—and steeling ourselves for the huge climb ahead.
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Is This Just Stupid?
Is it dangerous or irresponsible to attempt to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim?
Park management says it is—in fact, the park advises against even hiking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back in one day, a considerably shorter hike than rim to rim. That’s responsible and intelligent advice from the agency tasked with trying to keep all hikers safe—and with performing complicated and sometimes risky rescues of people who get in over their heads. When park management speaks, it addresses all hikers. It would place itself in a problematic position legally and ethically if it tried to offer a nuanced suggestion that only some hikers should attempt it.
But people don’t make choices in the backcountry that apply to everyone universally—we make nuanced decisions that apply to us individually and our group, because that’s the sensible way to make those decisions. By taking a single position and applying it to everyone, the park essentially tells ultra-hikers and runners that it’s not talking to them—it’s just talking to the large majority of hikers who could not make it and should not try.
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Is it dangerous or irresponsible for a person with little hiking experience overall, and little or no experience in the Grand Canyon, who’s never hiked 20 miles with a huge elevation gradient in one day in rugged terrain? Yes, it probably is.
But is it dangerous or irresponsible for an experienced ultra-hiker or runner who has worked up to this level of challenge and understands how to do this safely? No. To answer with more nuance: An r2r dayhike carries a small degree of risk for the person who’s prepared for it, just as many other hikes do, but much greater risk for the person who isn’t prepared.
If that sounds like an elitist attitude, ask yourself who you’d prefer to having flying the commercial jet you’re on: a trained and experienced pilot, or a randomly selected passenger?
Statistically, the vast majority of hikers and runners who attempt a one-day, rim-to-rim traverse make it without incident. Some get there far more wrecked physically than they anticipated, with a greater respect for the demands of a hike in the Grand Canyon. But most make it.
Roaring Springs Canyon has fallen into shade and dusk slowly approaches as Penny and I slog up the North Kaibab Trail, with David and Kathleen a short distance ahead. The trail is dramatic, traversing the face of a cliff overlooking the tall, sheer walls of this side canyon—and it is relentless, climbing more than 4,000 feet, or three-quarters of the total elevation change on the North Kaibab Trail, in the trail’s upper seven miles.
At this point, it’s all about getting it done. We maintain a steady pace and keep eating and drinking. We pass other r2r dayhikers, some of them sitting beside the trail, looking haggard, others shuffling along for a hundred or 200 feet, stopping to rest for a minute, then shuffling forward another 200 feet.
It’s a long climb to the North Rim when you were ready to be done an hour or two ago.
We reach the North Rim just before dark. David and Kathleen arrived minutes ahead of us. The temperature is dropping fast; we pull on all the layers we’ve carried. As we’re contemplating the mile-and-a-half walk down the road to the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, where we have reservations, a young guy offers us and a couple of women who just finished the r2r a ride; we all gratefully pile in, thinking about the hot shower and big dinner awaiting us.
Our good Samaritan driver tells us on the way, laughing at himself: “I did the rim-to-rim, too. Before that, I was thinking about trying to go rim-to-rim-to-rim in a day. I’m over that now.”
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Hiking Back Across the Canyon
The air temperature on the North Rim hovers well below freezing—but fortunately, there’s no wind and the skies are clear—as David and I start down the North Kaibab Trail shortly after sunrise. It’s the morning after we hiked across the canyon as a foursome, and while Penny and Kathleen will—prudently—catch the shuttle back to the South Rim later today, the two of us have decided we’d prefer to walk back. It’ll be prettier than the shuttle, we tell ourselves.
The day’s heat builds by mid-morning, finding us descending the North Kaibab Trail’s shadeless middle stretch. David’s a short distance ahead as I approach a couple from behind. They’re carrying daypacks and hiking very slowly—suggesting to me that they’re hiking either from Phantom Ranch or the Colorado River (with a rafting party), rather than r2r hikers.
As I near them, the woman crumples to the ground with no apparent sign of having tripped. I stop to ask if they need help, but they wave me on. David, who passed them minutes earlier, will see the husband at dinner on the South Rim tonight and hear his story of how they were attempting a north-south r2r dayhike when his wife developed a serious and probably unpredictable spinal condition that rendered her unable to continue. She was helicoptered out.
A rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike delivers numerous moments of pure magic. Even on a popular trail like the Bright Angel, you can get gifted with a rare, thrilling surprise.
As I plod wearily up the final mile of the Bright Angel on the return leg of our two-day, nearly 48-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike (because the Bright Angel is longer than the South Kaibab), with David again just ahead of me, a loud noise to my left startles me. Two bighorn sheep burst from the sparse vegetation on the trail’s downhill side, dash across it no more than 10 feet in front of me, and clamber up the steep slope above, disappearing seconds after they appeared.
Moments later, still electrified by that chance encounter, I watched the same two bighorns jump onto the trail again, this time about 100 feet uphill from me. They sprint down the trail, straight toward me, passing so closely that I flinch, thinking for an instant that they are about to crash right into me. Then, once again, they are gone within seconds.
Those wild sheep illustrate one aspect of seeing the many faces of the Grand Canyon throughout a long day. I’ve never seen bighorn on a busy trail like the Bright Angel during the middle of the day, when it’s usually packed with hikers.
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Penny told me after our rim-to-rim hike, the longest day of hiking she’d ever done: “It felt easy until the heat got intense on the way up the flatter part of the north side. Don’t forget your sunhat like I did. The last 4,000 feet up was one of the hardest things I have done in my lifetime of hiking. It helped to take frequent, short breaks. The fact that it was about to get dark also helped as I was motivated to get out of the canyon before we needed to use headlamps, which we just barely managed to do. The overall experience was great. I want to do it again.”
David wrote to me after our hike: “It’s an amazing landscape, a wild array of shapes and colors: reds and browns and greens and gold and blues, with pyramids and jagged needles and tabletop mesas, and every now and then, a secret oasis. It’s really one of the most jaw-dropping hikes I’ve ever done. I think the hike is easier than other similar long hikes, especially hikes in the East, as the trail is well-graded, providing easier walking with less pounding and stress on joints and tendons. The long, almost flat section (on the North Kaibab Trail) between descent and ascent also provides a bit of a rest. However, it’s still a long day with plenty of vertical and shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
Tell me what you think.
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See my story about a previous one-day, 42-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhike of the Grand Canyon an all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park at The Big Outside.
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Take This Trip
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers with experience knocking off long day trips in the wilderness and desert hiking experience. It requires knowing how to prepare with the proper clothes, nutrition, fluids, and definitely training. Only basic map-reading ability is required; the trails are obvious and well-marked (unless covered by fresh snow). See my story “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
Season April to mid-May and late September through October are the best times for attempting a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, whether in one day or spread over multiple days. Snow and ice may cover trails at the rims until mid- to late April, slowing travel and requiring some kind of traction device on your shoes; in autumn, rim trails are generally free of snow and ice, though storms can bring snow then. The inner canyon often sees daytime highs in the 90s by mid-May. Summer highs in the canyon frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., though morning temps are often comfortable. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips for average inner-canyon temperatures.
The Itinerary Whether hiked in one day or backpacked in two to three days, a rim-to-rim hike links either the South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim with the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim. The shortest route combines the South Kaibab and the North Kaibab: 21 miles one-way with a cumulative 10,541 feet of elevation gain and loss. Some hikers and runners consider going north to south easier because there’s about 1,000 feet less uphill than going south to north; but you trade the uphill for about 1,000 feet more downhill, so while it may be faster, a long, steep downhill can be more punishing on the body than an equivalent uphill.
Some hikers prefer the Bright Angel Trail over the South Kaibab because it’s less steep and reduces the South Rim uphill climb (when hiking north to south) by 400 feet (the Bright Angel Trailhead is at 6,850 feet). But it’s also longer at 23.5 miles.
Another option for fit hikers and runners: Dayhike from the South Rim to the North Rim, spend the night at the Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim, and then dayhike back to the South Rim or take a shuttle bus back. The Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim is managed by Forever Resorts, grandcanyonforever.com/index.php/lodging.
Getting There Grand Canyon Village on the park’s South Rim is located 60 miles north of Williams, via AZ 64 off I-40, and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, via US 180. The South Kaibab Trailhead is near Yaki Point, about two miles east of the village, just off AZ 64 (watch for signs). Parking is not permitted at the trailhead, but there are early-morning hiker express shuttles; see the seasonal schedule at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses. Although the road to the trailhead isn’t normally open to private vehicles, you could have someone drop you off there early in the morning. The Bright Angel Trail begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village.
Daily transportation between the rims is available from May 15 through Oct. 15 through Transcanyon Shuttle, trans-canyonshuttle.com; reservations required.
Permit A permit is not required for dayhiking, but is for overnight camping in the backcountry. You can apply for one beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (e.g., on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April). A Grand Canyon backpacking permit is one of the hardest permits to get in the national park system. Submit your application early in the morning on the first day you can submit it. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm for details and the application form.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon map no. 207, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Water In early spring, you’ll find water flowing at several points along the North Kaibab Trail, including in Bright Angel Creek; treat it. Potable water is available at the North Kaibab Trailhead, Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, the Manzanita Rest Area, Cottonwood Campground, and Bright Angel Campground; all but the water at Bright Angel Campground are seasonal and turned off by sometime in mid-autumn. There is no water available along the South Kaibab Trail, but from early May to mid-October there is water near the trailhead (at a spigot near the bus stop). On the Bright Angel Trail, there is potable water at Indian Garden Campground year-round, and from early May to mid-October at Three-Mile Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse.
• Food Plan food wisely—it should be varied, high in calories per ounce, provide a good balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, and be something you’ll want to eat later in your hike, when you might find yourself unable to stomach some foods. Plan on eating about two pounds of food, or roughly 4,000 calories. Experiment on long training hikes with what revives you and remains palatable to you after many miles. In the desert, you need salty foods to replace depleted sodium levels.
• Heat Avoid severe heat by planning a r2r2r hike for early spring or late autumn, or hiking only in the morning and evening on hot days. Wear a wide-brim hat. Drink plenty of fluids.
• Fitness A 40-plus-mile dayhike in the Grand Canyon or anywhere should really only be attempted by very fit people who’ve previously done 20- and 30-mile hikes. See my stories “Cranking Out Big Days” and “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
Contact Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca. Backcountry office, (928) 638-7875.