Hiking the Grand Canyon’s Rim to River and Back in a Day
Last May I survived my longest, toughest, and most memorable day hike to date: a journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. I can’t believe it’s already been a year! The experience gave me an entirely new perspective on how stunningly spectacular this place really is. It blew my mind. And my body a bit too. The hike was amazing and completing it with my dad, stepmom Diana, and two great friends made it even more special.
A month earlier my dad had told me of his and Diana’s plans to hike from the Rim to the River and back in a day. The hike would start at 7,200′ from the South Kaibab trailhead at the Canyon’s South Rim, descend 4,780′ over 7.3 miles to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, then climb 4,380′ over 9.9 miles on the Bright Angel Trail back to the Rim.
It would be a tough 17 miles but having only briefly stopped at the Canyon years ago on a road trip with an ex-boyfriend I couldn’t wait to return. It took me all of five minutes to hop online and book a plane ticket. Easily convinced to also join us was our family friend Herman and my friend Annette, who might have booked her ticket even faster than me. I love my friends and family!
After flying into LA and driving 8 hours with my folks I found myself standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, peering over to look far below. In less than 24 hours we’d be at the bottom looking back up at the very spot we were standing. It seemed almost impossible you could even hike all the way down there!
The morning of our hike we hopped on the 6am Hiker’s Express Shuttle Bus from the Bright Angel Lodge with smiles from ear to ear. Despite chilly 40° temps it was going to be a beautiful day! We officially started our trek a bit after 6:30am. The first mile or two of the descent was shady and cold but as we descended the sun emerged and the temps warmed. The views became grander and grander. With every step I felt myself shrinking into the enormous landscape.
We stopped at Skeleton Point to enjoy our first big view of the Colorado River and the Black Bridge we’d soon cross. We continued down, stepping aside as a line of mules made their way up the trail. If there’s ever a hike that makes you feel like you’re in the Wild West this is the one! The air is dry, the sun intense and the colors are absolutely unreal. The beautiful turquoise of the Colorado River contrasts with the red-orange hues of the Canyon and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Once at the Black Bridge we stopped for some fun bridge antics before crossing and finally reaching the bottom of the Canyon. I was shocked to find a lush green oasis filled with trees and birds. Not at all what I had expected! It was quite the perspective to look back up the Canyon walls and realize just how big this place really is. It’s mind boggling!
At Phantom Ranch we took a much earned break to sit awhile, enjoy lunch, and drink the best cold lemonade I’ve ever had. I spent a little time addressing postcards to friends and family that would be hauled to the top of the canyon by mule. Fun!
Since Annette and I we were the only ones in our party who had not hiked along the canyon bottom we decided to explore the trail a short ways to Box Canyon before turning around and hopefully catching back up with my folks. By this time of day temps were creeping above 100 and the bottom of the canyon felt like a blast furnace. Both hot yoga addicts, we loved the heat and hiked along in giddy wonderment, our eyes looking straight up nearly the whole time. Captivated by the towering rock formations of the canyon it’s a wonder we didn’t trip over ourselves. Then we stopped, suddenly aware we had hiked substantially beyond our intended turnaround point. Oops!
We quickly returned to Phantom Ranch and had already logged nearly 14 miles before we started the toughest part of the hike, the actual climb out of the Canyon. A huge benefit to hiking the loop in this direction is that the Bright Angel trail has drinking water stops every few miles. On the arduous, dry and hot hike back up to the Rim you absolutely need them.
We stopped at the shady Indian Garden for a bit of a rest and I took a break to tend to blisters. Turns out wearing waterproof Gore-Tex boots to the Grand Canyon was a huge mistake. Gee, who would have thought?! I earned myself an F+ for shoe selection. My feet were pruned! Not a great situation for the remaining 5 miles left to hike.
I was already spent and with blistered feet I slowed my pace and waved Annette ahead of me telling her I’d make it eventually. I’m really not sure what it was that broke me: the mileage, the terrain, the heat, or the dryness. A combination of the above? The last few miles were mentally and physically the toughest I’ve ever hiked. The trail switch backed relentlessly upward. I would pick a large rock on an upper switchback to hike to, focus on putting one foot in front of the other, reach it and take a small 30 second break. Then go again. And again. No matter how far I climbed the Rim still looked at least 1000′ higher! I was never so glad I had brought trekking poles because without them I’m not sure I would have made it.
At long last I reached a rock tunnel and remembered my dad telling me the night before that “when you’re tired and not able to go on any longer you’ll see the tunnel and you’re pretty much done!” As I crossed through the tunnel I prayed he was telling me the truth! Then I saw my dad, who had come back down the trail to find me. Annette had caught them just as they were reaching the Rim about 30-45 minutes prior and told them I was struggling. It really is amazing when your 66-yr old dad out-hikes you and turns around to come rescue you on the trail!
I took my last steps up to the Rim, completely exhausted, followed by dad and Diana with Annette and Herman cheering from the top. A perfect end to an unbelievable day. I finally finished at 5pm, nearly 11 hours after we started.
Our timing would turn out to be impeccable because we awoke the next morning for our long drive home to find an inch of snow covering the ground. It was beautiful but also freezing cold and we sure were glad that today was a rest day! I can’t thank Annette, Herman, my dad and Diana enough for such a fantastic day. With the extra mileage along the bottom of the Canyon I’d end up hiking 23 miles, the longest, toughest but most memorable hike I’ve ever completed. I won’t soon forget spending such a wonderful day with great adventurous friends and family in one of the most fantastic places in the world!
Planning your own Grand Canyon day hike.
If you want to plan your own Grand Canyon day hike know that the Park Service highly discourages people to hike from the Rim to the River and back in a day. It’s not an exaggeration and don’t underestimate it. The hike is tough and not to be taken lightly. More people die in the Grand Canyon than in any other National Park and Park rangers rescue an average of 300-500 people per year who hike down to the Canyon floor and then realize they can’t make it back out. There are signs everywhere discouraging people from doing what we did. If you are fit, experienced, and sure of yourself, it’ll be an amazing adventure! If you’re not, plan far in advance and stay overnight at the Canyon bottom.
Here are some tips if you want to tackle the Rim to the River and back:
I’d recommend hiking the same direction we did, mainly because the Bright Angel trail has water sources that are key when you’re hiking back up the Canyon in the afternoon heat. It’s also a less steep climb back to the rim than the South Kaibab. Start early, don’t do this hike in warm weather, and expect to spend double the time climbing out of the canyon as descending.
Without our extra detour along the Canyon floor the hike is roughly 17.8 miles round trip with 4,780′ of descent and 4,380′ of gain. Moving at a steady pace with frequent breaks to enjoy the scenery we reached the Canyon bottom in 3½-4 hours. We spent roughly an hour resting at Phantom Ranch, then another hour exploring the Canyon floor. It took me 5 hours to hike out from Phantom Ranch.
When to go.
The best time of year to visit the Grand Canyon is between March and May or September to November.
Temps and crowds in the Grand Canyon are their mildest in early spring and late fall. Temperatures typically fluctuate between 50-70° F in the spring and 20-70° F in the fall at the Rim. Temps for the Canyon floor can be 20°-30° warmer and reach as high as 120° F. We did this hike in mid-May and had chilly 40s at the start, sweltering 100s at Phantom Ranch, and then woke up to snow on the South Rim the next day! Be prepared for just about anything!
Unless you’re planning to backpack there are no permits required for non-commercial day hikes of the Canyon. If you’re planning to backpack or camp overnight check with the Backcountry Information Center for permit availability. Plan ahead as permits book up fast.
Lodging and food.
Consider spending the night (or a few!) at Phantom Ranch. If you have reservations there you won’t need a backcountry permit and can really enjoy the amazing scenery at the bottom of the canyon. The Ranch has cabins and dorms available but plan ahead at least 13 months. Their accommodations are limited and book up fast. We booked rooms at the Bright Angel Lodge which was conveniently located to the Backcountry Information Center, shuttle buses, and the Bright Angel trailhead.
We had a more expensive upscale dinner at the El Tovar Dining Room the night before our hike and a much less expensive comfort food binge at the Bright Angel Lodge after our hike. There are a variety of dining options available.
Always carry water! Park rangers recommend 2 gallons per day. Yes, gallons! The Bright Angel trail has water sources approximately every 2-3 miles as does Phantom Ranch, but there is NO WATER on the Kaibab trail.
Leave your car at the Backcountry Information Center lot and take the free Hikers’ Express shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead. Or do what we did: book a room at the Bright Angel lodge, walk to the shuttle bus, and then have a short quarter mile walk (hobble) back to your room after the hike. And if you do hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon bring along some addresses for friends and family. Mailing a postcard from Phantom Ranch is a fun little treat!
Whether or not you hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in a day or a week I think it’s a trek everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. You just can’t get the same appreciation or perspective of the Canyon from the top as you can from the bottom. It’s an extraordinary experience and one of the most amazing places in the world!