Grand Canyon Backpacking
Grand Canyon is a land of contrasts. Start a rim-to-rim hike at dawn on May 15 and you’re likely to find residual snow banks and temperatures near freezing at the North Kaibab trailhead. Fourteen miles later, you’re standing on a sandy beach at the edge of the Colorado River in 85-degree sunshine. You’ve dropped 5,600 vertical feet, passed through five life zones and three of the four desert types in North America. You’ve descended through one billion five hundred thirty million years of earth history. No wonder Grand Canyon rim-to-rim is named on so many hiking bucket lists.
Rim-to-Rim vs. Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
So you want to hike the Grand Canyon. Most folks venturing below the rim for the first time utilize the Corridor trails: Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails on the south rim and North Kaibab Trail on the north rim. Two bridges connect these trails across the Colorado River so that it is possible to walk all the way across the Grand Canyon. Any other route from one rim to the other would require a cold and dangerous swim. Overnight permits for such an itinerary will not be issued by the park service
Hiking rim-to-rim means hiking from one rim of the massive canyon to the other. Hiking rim-to-rim-to-rim means hiking all the way across the Grand Canyon and back. This tough hike takes a ton of endurance but it does have some advantages. For one, the Grand Canyon is amazing and this way you get to see it twice. It gives you a chance to experience both the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails if you choose that route. It eliminates the need for a vehicle shuttle to cover the 4-hour, 200-mile drive back to your starting point. It also gives you more seasonal flexibility because the highway to the north rim is only open May 15 through November, although it can sometimes close earlier than that because of snow.
When to hike the Grand Canyon
Eliminate June, July and August as they are dangerously hot. It commonly reaches 120 degrees in the shade in the inner canyon. Grand Canyon National Park is the deadliest U.S. national park and many of the deaths are heat related. Winter sees short day length, cold overnight temperatures and snow, especially as you near the rims, so this should only be attempted by experienced hikers with the right gear. This leaves spring and fall. March, April, May and September, October, November. March and April are out if you want to access the north rim by road and the same could also be true of November if it snows hard. Hiking mid May is crowded with day hikers. Many athletes tackle rim-to-rim or even rim-to-rim-to-rim in a day, which does not require overnight permits or carrying camping gear. The first weekend after the May 15 opening of Highway 67 to the north rim is probably the busiest time in the canyon. If you want to avoid waiting in line at bathrooms and getting pushed off the trail by runners, consider a late fall hike, or do a rim-to-rim-to-rim starting from the south rim before the north rim opens.
This isn’t the only good plan for hiking across the Grand Canyon, and because permits are scarce, you might not get your first choice in itineraries. But here are a couple of great ways to tackle a trek across the greatest canyon in the world.
North Kaibab to Bright Angel Trail
Day 1: Hike 6.8 miles and drop 4,100 feet to Cottonwood Campground
Day 2: Take a short side hike to Ribbon Falls. Then hike 7.2 miles and drop 1,600 feet to Bright Angel Campground, which is near the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.
Day 3: Enjoy a quiet morning beside the Colorado River. Then hike 5 miles to Havasupai Gardens, gaining 1,550 feet in elevation.
Day 4: Hike 4.8 miles and gain 3,000 feet to Bright Angel Trailhead.
South Kaibab to North Kaibab to Bright Angel Trail
Day 1: Hike 7 miles and drop 4,780 feet on the South Kaibab trailhead to Bright Angel Campground
Day 2: Hike 7.2 miles and gain 1,600 feet between Bright Angel Campground and Cottonwood Campground. Check out Ribbon Falls after dinner.
Day 3: Leave camp set up and pack for a long, rigorous day hike. Hike 6.8 miles and gain 4,161 feet to the north rim. Snap a quick picture on the rim, then hike the 6.8 miles back to camp.
Day 4: Backpack 7.2 miles and drop 1,600 feet from Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Campground
Day 5: Hike 9.5 miles and gain 4,380 feet in elevation from Bright Angel Campground to Bright Angel trailhead on the south rim.
North to south or south to north?
Many hikers like starting on the north rim because it is 1,200 feet higher than the south rim, so there is less uphill hiking. There are also some big steps along the steep, upper portion of the North Kaibab trail that are more challenging in the uphill direction, especially when you’re nearing the end of a big hike and you’re tired.
Bright Angel vs. South Kaibab
The Bright Angel Trail is 2.5 miles longer from the south rim to the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon. But the hiking feels easier. It’s well groomed with few big steps or loose gravel. It’s not as steep and it’s less exposed to the sun. Canyon walls sometimes provide shade. There are several developed water spots along the route so you don’t have to carry as much weight. The trail is gorgeous and it goes through Havasupai Gardens, a green, shady oasis that was farmed by the Havasupai people. The South Kaibab trail is 2.5 miles shorter, but it’s steeper and offers slightly more difficult terrain with more rocks and steps to navigate. It’s very exposed to the sun. There is no water along this route so you will need everything you need. Many say they prefer the South Kaibab Trail because of the view. The trail follows a ridge that affords expansive canyon views while the Bright Angel Trail is set in a fault with fewer grand overlooks. We say, the best thing to do is hike them both.
There are three developed water sources that do not need to be filtered on the south side of the canyon between the Bright Angel Trailhead and the Colorado River. One could also treat and drink water from Garden Creek or the Colorado River. There is no water along the South Kaibab Trail. On the north side of the river, there is developed water at Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch, at Cottonwood Campground, Manzanita Rest Area, the Supai Tunnel and the North Kaibab trailhead. One could also filter water at Roaring Springs. Developed water sources are seasonal and the water lines break frequently, so check this website the night before your hike or contact the backcountry office just ahead of your trip. Always carry iodine tabs or a water filter as a backup.
So you have your permits, your map, your itinerary. But are you really ready to walk across the Grand Canyon? It sounds crazy. But it will be a blast, a trip of a lifetime if you’re prepared. One of the challenges is the reverse nature of this hike. It’s all downhill until you have to go back up. Any hiker who ever reached the bottom has probably looked back up at those towering cliffs wondering how they would ever get back up. Here are some tips for preparing physically:
- Start small. Hike regularly and increase distance and difficulty as you’re able. Eventually, you’ll need to walk as far as your longest planned day in the canyon carrying weight comfortably. It needs to feel good. During your backpack, you’ll be hiking several days in a row.
- Train with the backpack and shoes you plan to use in the canyon. Get your pack adjusted, get used to carrying weight, be aware of foot blisters that develop.
- Train in hilly terrain. Walk the bleachers at the local high school or the stairwell in your office building if that’s all you’ve got. If possible, find a mountain that climbs 800 feet per mile and hike it to get a sense of the steepness. It’s also good to do one long downhill of several miles. The downhill uses different muscles and puts strain on your knees. It pushes toes into your boots. The long downhill stretches into the canyon are often the hardest for people.
- Do some hot weather training. See how your body holds up.
Books have been written about backpacking gear. Here is a good gear list by REI, but you probably don’t need everything on it. Really work at lightening your load. It’s amazing what you can get by without, and you’ll have a lot more fun with a light pack. Go as light as possible, while bringing the essentials:
- Tent (go small and light or perhaps you can get by with a small tarp in case of rain)
- Sleeping bag (look for a 30 degree down bag, but this varies by season)
- Sleeping pad (foam is the best here because of cactus punctures)
- Backpack (nothing too heavy, but find one that will carry your load comfortably and will fit your body)
- Stove, fuel, lighter, pan (something light and simple like the MSR Pocket Rocket, and more than one hiker can share a stove)
- Small cup, don’t get carried away with dishes. You don’t need a full kitchen.
- Small, light knife
- Food: Dehydrated dinners are great because they’re easy, light and don’t require too many dishes. Bring plenty of snacks, especially salty snacks. Keep breakfast and lunch simple. Instant oatmeal, nuts, bars, peanut butter or cheese and salami tortillas.
- Trekking poles – practically a lifesaver on a hike with this much elevation change.
- Water filter or iodine tabs are prudent. Bring lightweight water bottles such as Smartwater bottles or a hydration reservoir. No heavy Hydroflasks.
- Clothes. Clothing is a personal choice and will vary seasonally, but again, don’t bring anything you don’t need. Find a cool, moisture wicking base layer, a fleece for evenings and perhaps a rain jacket. One or two extra pairs of socks would be sweet, we love Darn Tough brand.
- Sunglasses and a brimmed hat
- Map, permit
- Tooth brush, sunscreen, necessary medications
- First Aid kit
This is not an exhaustive gear list but it will get you started in the right direction. The lighter the better. Don’t bring things you don’t need. If you’re doing a guided tour with us, we will send you a more specific gear list. Your guide will carry the shared community gear and please know we have some gear rentals available.
An incredibly in-depth Grand Canyon hiking article: https://hikingguy.com/hiking-trails/grand-canyon-hikes/rim-to-rim-grand-canyon-hike-guide/
Grand Canyon Backcountry permits: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm
Critical Backcountry Updates: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/trail-closures.htm
Planning for Grand Canyon weather: https://grandcanyonbackcountryguide.com/weather.html