By Michael Lanza
Minutes after we started hiking down the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, we descended through short, tight switchbacks where the trail clings to the face of a cliff. The earth dropped away precipitously beyond the trail’s edge; we gazed down nearly a vertical mile into the bottom of The Big Ditch. Not much farther along, we stopped, awestruck, at a breathtaking overlook of perhaps the most famous canyon on the planet.
Those first vistas laid bare the audacity of our plans: to walk across this awesome chasm in one push, on a 21-mile, nearly 11,000-vertical-foot, rim-to-rim dayhike.
On a visit to the Grand Canyon in mid-October—one of the two brief windows annually that offer the best chance for ideal weather for this adventure—my wife, Penny, and I, joined by our friends David and Kathleen Ports, made what has become possibly 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 unforgiving landscapes in America. And that’s just a short list of the applicable adjectives.
I have both hiked and run the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r) in one day—42 miles and over 21,000 vertical feet—and hiked rim-to-rim-to-rim over two consecutive days (that time combining all three corridor trails, making it 44.5 miles). Going r2r2r in one day is an enormous challenge, and spreading it out over two days, or hiking in just one direction in a single day, still represents a very, very big undertaking — one that, based on what I have seen each time I’ve done it, many hikers underestimate.
My downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim” offers expert tips specific to the unique challenges of successfully and safely hiking or trail running rim to rim in a day, including preparing for it, the ideal seasonal windows, tips on strategy and direction to hike, gear, and all possible hiking itineraries combining the three corridor trails, the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails.
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It’s unquestionably one of the most beautiful dayhikes in the country. The Grand Canyon’s severe verticality and desert climate create a landscape where seemingly endless views accompany you almost every step of the way. In the canyon’s bottom, or Inner Gorge, instead of looking out over an infinite maze of canyons sprawling for miles, you pass through a more intimate environment. Rim-to-rim hikers follow the North Kaibab Trail’s winding course through lower Bright Angel Canyon, walking along a lively creek, between close, dark rock walls that shoot straight up for hundreds of feet on both sides.
Click here now for my expert e-guide to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim!
It’s also one of the hardest dayhikes in the country—quite likely the hardest many people will ever attempt. Don’t underestimate its grueling difficulty. By the shortest route, combining the South and North Kaibab trails, a rim-to-rim hike, or r2r, entails about 21 trail miles and a cumulative nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. The heat can wilt even the fittest people.
I have seen numerous hikers struggling on r2r attempts, including one young couple whose one headlamp had died late at night two hours before we found them sitting beside the South Kaibab Trail, where they might have spent the night if we didn’t show up with lights and accompany them up. On a separate hike, I encountered a woman who was collapsing to the ground repeatedly and had to be rescued by helicopter.
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 on a Saturday, and snow fell the Monday morning after David and I made the return hike north to south on Sunday (while Penny and Kathleen—perhaps wisely—took the shuttle from the North Rim back to the South Rim).
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How to Hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
The following are some of my tips for hiking or running the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim or rim-to-rim-to-rim. (Most of these tips are available only if you have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, which costs as little as 5 bucks.) You will find many more tips and planning details in my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim” (which can be purchased for $9.95 without a subscription).
I can also help you plan this hike or any other trip you read about at my blog; see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn more.
Use trekking poles, they’re critical on a hike this long with this much cumulative elevation gain and loss. I recommend an ultralight model like the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles, the Gossamer Gear LT5, or the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
The park requires that any organized, non-commercial group of 12-30 participants, or not-for-profit group conducting rim-to-rim, rim-to-rim-to-rim, rim-to-river-to-rim, and/or extended dayhikes in the inner canyon must obtain a Special Use Permit (SUP). The inner canyon is defined as the area below the Tonto Platform from the South Rim and below Manzanita Resthouse from the North Rim. Groups may not break into smaller groups on different permits to accommodate group size. Commercial operations are not authorized under this SUP. For more information visit nps.gov/grca/parkmgmt/sup.htm.
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.
Click here now for my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking rim to rim.
As I hiked wearily up the Bright Angel, in the final mile of the return leg of our two-day, nearly 45-mile, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, I heard a noise to my left. Two bighorn sheep burst from the sparse vegetation on the trail’s downhill side, dashed across it no more than 10 feet in front of me, and disappeared within seconds, clambering up the steep slope on the trail’s uphill side. At that moment, there happened to be no other hikers within sight. I was the only one to see them.
Minutes later, still electrified by that chance encounter, I watched the same two bighorns jump onto the trail again, this time maybe 100 feet uphill from me. They sprinted down the trail, passing so closely to me that for an instant I thought they might crash right into me.
Check out my picks for “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks” and my “8 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters When Hiking,” my five-level difficulty rating system in “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” and my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.” And see all stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.