Everything You Need to Know About Hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

arizona hiking Jan 16, 2022

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About Hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

Hiking Rim to Rim ("R2R") in the Grand Canyon is an epic adventure worthy of any serious hiker's bucket list, but the rugged terrain and remote nature of the canyon create a number of logistical challenges you’ll have to overcome before you ever step foot on the trail. Because of these challenges many folks opt to backpack, spending anywhere from 1-7+ nights in the canyon, but the 21 or 24 mile trek (depending on your route) can also be tackled as an extremely long, but rewarding, day hike. 

Hiking across the Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list for quite some time, so in 2021 my partner, William, and I decided to go for it. We’re avid hikers who climb at least one 14’er every summer, so we knew it would be a doable challenge for us to train for. Since scoring a backpacking permit for the Grand Canyon can be tough, we decided to set our sights on an ambitious day hike on Halloween.

 

Bright-eyed and ready to hit the trail at 5:30am.


After months of progressively longer training hikes in Colorado, I found that hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon wasn’t as difficult as I had built it up to be, largely because my body was conditioned to hiking at higher elevations. With that said it’s an extremely difficult hike if done in 1 day and absolutely should not be attempted without adequately training for it! 

This post covers all of the logistical information that you need to know about hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. At the time of this publication, permits are not required to day hike Rim to Rim, however backpacking permits are required if you plan to sleep in the canyon. Standard Grand Canyon National Park entry fees are also required. I always recommend getting an annual Interagency pass if you enjoy National Park adventures. They will pay for themselves after 3 visits and are also accepted by other Federal land management agencies including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

 Tired & sweaty at 5:30pm!


Backpacking Permits

If you’re looking to tackle a multi-day trip across the canyon, then a backpacking permit is required. There are 3 campgrounds along the main corridor in the canyon- Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood. Permits are obtained by submitting a permit request 4 months in advance. For the best chances of success be sure to submit your request by 5:00pm MST on the 1st day of the month 4 months before your trip (you can begin submitting requests up to 10 days in advance). It takes about 3 weeks to hear a response. If you’re successful, permits are $10 per person per night.

A limited number of last-minute backpacking permits are also available at the Backcountry Information Center on the North and South Rim up to 1 day before the start of your hike. To obtain a permit you must go to the Backcountry Information Center and obtain a waitlist number. The next morning you’ll return and try to get the permit you want for up to 2 nights in the canyon. If all of the permits are gone by the time your number is called you can exchange your number and get a new, lower waitlist number for the following day. You can then repeat that process until you get the permit you’re looking for!

Phantom Ranch

If you want cushier accommodations in the canyon you can also opt to stay at the highly sought after Phantom Ranch. Due to the extreme demand, reservations are subject to a lottery. You can submit an entry between the 1-15th of the month, 15 months prior to the month you want to stay. You’ll be notified if you’re successful 14 months prior to your stay. If there are any unclaimed reservations they become available for general sale 13 months prior to the stay (i.e. reservations for March 23 will become available March 1, 2022).

The Best Time of Year for Hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

Access to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is limited to mid-May through October or November (depending on the weather), which means day hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon is only feasible during some of the hottest and most unforgiving months of the year. If you’re a highly experienced trail runner attempting a Rim to Rim to Rim, you can start and end on the South Rim, making the canyon accessible year-round. 

The best months to hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon are late May, early June, late September, October, and November. Try to avoid hiking from late June-early September when temperatures in the inner canyon typically reach over 100°. If you must hike during the summer, plan to get an early start and stay off the trail and in the shade between 10-4. Monsoon thunderstorms are also common in the afternoon during the summer, which pose safety risks including lightning and flash floods. It should go without saying that if there’s inclement weather in the forecast, including thunderstorms and snowstorms, you should strongly consider rescheduling your hike!

The 43 mile road to access the North Rim from Jacob Lake opens on May 15th and closes either on November 30th or after the first major snowfall of the season, which could occur as early as October depending on the year. The North Rim also transitions to day-use only after October 15th, but the North Rim campground stays open through November 1st, so there’s still an option to get a pre-dawn start in late October.

 

Caught some fall color in the canyon.
 

Shuttling from Rim to Rim 

While the lodge on the North Rim & Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim are only about 10 miles apart as the crow flies, driving from one rim to the other takes a solid 4 1/2 hours, so it’s important to thoroughly plan out how you’re getting to and from each trailhead ahead of time.

To get back to your vehicle after hiking across the canyon you can shuttle yourself with a car you dropped off ahead of time, hire a shuttle service for $90, find hikers heading the opposite direction to swap keys & meet up halfway with, or hike back! You can safely leave your car overnight at the trailhead on both rims, but keep in mind that finding parking may be difficult during peak season, so if you plan to leave a car where you’re ending your hike try to avoid arriving during the middle of the day to drop it off.

Make a stop at Navajo Bridge during your drive and keep an eye out for California condors!

We opted to shuttle ourselves while hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in order to save money. We left our home in Grand Junction, Colorado on Friday and drove 6 1/2 hours to Page, Arizona. After catching the sunset at Horseshoe Bend we met up with our hiking partners, Tom and Cary, and camped together at the Lee’s Ferry Campground outside of Page. The next day we drove 2 1/2 hours to the South Rim to drop off Cary’s car, before all piling into my car to drive another 4 1/2 hours to the North Rim. The day after our hike we drove Cary’s car back to the North Rim to pick up my car before making the 7 hour drive back to GJ. It’s safe to say that you’re probably going to spend more time in your car than on the trail!

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

Rim to Rim Route Options

There are two different routes you can take when hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon- the North Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Trail, or the North Kaibab Trail to the South Kaibab Trail. As you can see, the North Kaibab Trail is the only trail that descends into the canyon from the North Rim, but you have the option to take either the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail into or out of the South Rim. The Bright Angel route is 24 miles, while the South Kaibab route is about 21 miles.

The Bright Angel Trailhead is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, which makes it easy to find parking or grab a bite to eat at the beginning or end of your hike. The Bright Angel Trail is also more heavily trafficked than the South Kaibab Trail, which means you shouldn’t expect any solitude unless you’re getting an extremely early start!

After you choose your route you have to decide whether you want to begin on the North or South Rim. The North Rim sits 1,000 ft. higher than the South Rim, which means you are going to either have extra elevation gain or loss depending on the direction you hike.

There are bathrooms and drinking water available along the entire canyon corridor at the Manzanita Rest Area, Cottonwood Campground, Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Campground, Indian Garden Campground, the Three Mile Resthouse, and the 1 1/2 Mile Resthouse. Be aware that water sources may be turned off during the winter beginning in mid-late October, so be sure to check the National Park Service's Critical Backcountry Update page for the latest information.

We chose to hike from the North Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Trail. We left the North Kaibab trailhead at 5:30 am, made it to Phantom Ranch shortly before noon, and arrived at the Bright Angel trailhead at 5:30 pm. Our total moving time was roughly 9 hours and 40 minutes, so you can see that we took plenty of breaks for photos and snacks!

Lodging Options 

North Rim

Lodging options inside of the Park at the North Rim include the Grand Canyon Lodge and the North Rim Campground. There’s also ample dispersed camping available in Kaibab National Forest just outside of the park.

The Grand Canyon Lodge is open from May 15-October 15th. Guests can choose from 3 different styles of cabins or a more traditional motel room. Dining options at the Grand Canyon Lodge include a dining room, deli, and saloon. 

The North Rim Campground has 87 sites nestled amongst towering ponderosa pines, each with its own picnic table and fire pit. There are bathrooms with flush toilets, running water, and electricity, in addition to potable water available. At only $18/night, it’s a great place to spend the night before hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon.

If campground reservations are full or you’re looking to save money and are willing to camp a little further away from the trailhead, there is ample dispersed camping available in the Kaibab National Forest right outside of the National Park. If you opt to camp here please remember to pack everything out and follow Leave No Trace practices!

South Rim 

The South Rim has 5 different hotels & lodges located inside of the Park- the El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Maswik Lodge, and Yavapai Lodge. The Bright Angel Lodge is located next to the Bright Angel Trailhead, making it the most convenient place to stay, especially if you plan to end on the South Rim. The Maswik Lodge is the only hotel in the Park that I have personally stayed at and I thought it was clean, comfortable, and affordable.

 Additional hotels with various price points are available in Tusayan, Arizona, just a quick 15 minute drive from the park. You can also find a variety of dining options in Tusayan, which aren’t available on the North Rim.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon has 3 campgrounds inside of the Park for $18/night- the Mather Campground, Desert View Campground, and the Trailer Village RV Park, which is the only campground that provides full hook-ups. 

If you’re looking for a more affordable option, there is also additional dispersed camping available in the Kaibab National Forest outside of the park, as well as an established Forest Service campground that is open from mid-May through late September.

Where We Stayed

As I mentioned earlier, we camped at the North Rim Campground the night before hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. Because temperatures at night can get pretty cold in late October, the campground wasn’t full and we had a quiet night’s sleep. The only thing I would have done differently is picked a site further from the bathroom. The light is motion activated, so anytime someone went into the bathroom it would stay on and shine through the windows for about 10 minutes afterwards. Since our site was fairly close to the bathroom there was light shining into our tent for most of the night, which woke me up on a couple of occasions.

Watching the sunset at the North Rim the night before our hike.


After our hike we stayed at the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel in Tusayan. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t stay there again or recommend it to others. There were makeup stains on our sheets and the bed wasn’t very comfortable, but the shower had great water pressure which was much needed to wash off the layers of sweat and dirt that were caked on from the hike!

What to Pack

Packing to hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon is a delicate balance. On the one hand you want to be sure that you’re adequately prepared for whatever you may face on such a long, strenuous hike, but on the other hand you’re going to be hiking for a long time, so you don’t want to carry more than you need. Ultimately you want to make sure that you have everything you need to stay safe while hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, and while there are more resources in the canyon than on most trails, I always think it's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. 

Here is a list of items to carry when hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon:

  1. Pack: Hiking pack recommendations are incredibly subjective and really depend on your personal preferences. I personally carried the Osprey Sirrus 24L pack so I would have plenty of room for layers. William wore a vintage Osprey fanny pack that he thrifted last summer with a much smaller capacity, but he was still able to carry everything that he needed. Many people also choose to wear trail running vests in order to stay light and move quickly, even if they don't plan to run. Ultimately you want something that is comfortable and can carry the rest of your gear.
  2. Water: As previously mentioned, there are quite a few places to refill your water while hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, so you don’t necessarily need a water filter (although I think it’s always a good idea to carry something like a Sawyer squeeze just in case), but you should make sure you’re always carrying enough to drink 1L of water per hour while hiking. Depending on the time of year, temperature, and how acclimatized you are to the desert, you may need more or less (I personally drank less, but I live in the desert and temps were cool during most of our hike). Also consider carrying electrolyte packs like Liquid IV to add to your water, especially if you’re hiking during warmer months!
  3. Food: You’re going to be expending a lot of energy while hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, so it’s important to make sure that you’re adequately fueled on the trail. Eat a hearty meal the night before your hike and fuel yourself with something calorie dense that you know you digest well the morning of. Salty and carbohydrate rich snacks are the name of the game on the trail- think chips, dried fruit, nuts, jerky, bars, gummies, bagels, sandwiches, etc.
  4. Headlamp: Chances are you’re going to spend some time hiking in the dark either at the beginning or end of your hike, so it’s important to carry a headlamp to help you see the trail.
  5. Sun protection. Depending on the time of year and day that you’re hiking you can expect to spend some or most of your time in direct sunlight, so a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are musts while hiking in the Grand Canyon. 
  6. First-aid kit: A well stocked first-aid kit should always be in your pack as part of the 10 essentials, but while hiking in the Grand Canyon make sure you have band-aids, moleskin, tylenol, and tweezers.
  7. Map & compass: While all of the trails through the main corridor of the Grand Canyon are very well marked, you should always carry a map & compass of your route in the event you get lost.
  8. Knife: A knife can come in handy for a variety of purposes from cutting an apple to fixing your gear. Plus it’s part of the 10 essentials, so it should be one of those items that just lives in your pack!
  9. Emergency shelter: Injuries that may require a hiker to spend an emergency night in the canyon are not uncommon, so it’s important to carry an emergency bivvy or space blanket to help you stay comfortable during an emergency situation.
  10. Fire starter: Campfires in the canyon are restricted to developed campsites only, so don’t plan on having a fire during your hike (we actually ran into some rangers who were cleaning up an illegal fire on the banks of the Colorado River, which is activity they will absolutely try to prosecute), but again, a fire starter should always be carried as part of the 10 essentials in case of an emergency.
  11. Trekking poles: Trekking poles are optional but highly, highly recommended to save your knees during the hike! 
  12.  Appropriate layers. What clothing you specifically need to wear or carry depends on a number of factors including the forecast, time of year, and your personal preferences. Helpful layers to consider wearing/bringing include a sun shirt, waterproof jacket, baselayer, mid-layer, outer layer (how heavy of a mid and outer layer you need to carry will depend on the month you’re hiking). 
  13.  Emergency GPS: We always carry a Garmin in-reach mini GPS on hikes to easily get in contact with authorities in the event of an emergency. This isn’t really a necessity while hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon because there are always rangers in the canyon and the trails are so heavily trafficked it probably won’t take long to find someone to find help, but it never hurts to have some extra reassurance!

What I Ate

Before the hike: a plain Dave’s killer bagel with a packet of Justin’s maple almond butter

During the hike: a peanut butter chocolate chip Perfect bar; ½ can of sour cream & onion Good Crisps (split with William), cookies & cream Cliff builder’s bar, Sour patch kids, Probar pink lemonade energy chews, a couple of Stinger margarita energy chews that I did not enjoy.

What I Wore

I began my hike wearing leggings, an athletic quarter-zip (non-insulated base layer), and windbreaker. I originally planned to also wear a puffy, but the temperature wasn’t as cold as I expected (they were in the mid-40s when we began our hike), and I knew that once I started moving I would warm up quickly so I opted to leave it behind. I changed out of my leggings into an athletic skirt at Phantom Ranch, where temperatures were up in the 80s. For footwear I wore trail runners, which are my preferred hiking shoe of choice, but I carried a second pair with me to change into before the final ascent out of the canyon. This was a GAME CHANGING move that helped keep my feet fresh the entire hike, so it was worth the extra weight!

Here’s a breakdown of what I wore:

Sports bra: Lululemon Energy Bra

Athletic top: The North Face quarter-zip jacket

Windbreaker: Black Diamond wind jacket 

Leggings: Lululemon align crops 23"

Hiking skirt: no brand, purchased from Klik in Grand Junction, CO

Trail Runers #1: Altra Superior

Trail Runners #2: Altra Lone Peak

Hat: Keep Nature Wild dad hat

You now know everything that you need for hiking Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon. I can’t stress enough how difficult this hike is, and how important it is to make sure you thoroughly train beforehand, but if you’re able to make the trek, it’s a life changing hike.

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