We visited the Grand Canyon National Park in October 2015 and while there, decided to walk Rim to Rim. It was unplanned on our part as while we knew there was a North and South side rim and plenty of hikes throughout the National Park neither of us really knew you could walk rim to rim until seeing a sticker for it in the gift shop.
Once we decided on walking it we visited the Backcountry Office at the South Rim and requested a backcountry pass. Usually these passes require booking months in advance via the internet however there is a select few that are held for walk ins such as ourselves so with fingers crossed we hoped for the best. Originally we were given a number and told to return the next day at 8am to see if any were available however after getting annoyed at all the tourists and selfie sticks on the South Rim we returned to the Backcountry Office several hours later and changing our departure date we were given a pass to leave the next day.
The Ranger patiently answered all our questions and explained the backcountry and campground rules before issuing us our pass for $42 USD which was for the 2 of us for 2 nights camping (1 night Bright Angel Campground, 1 night Cottonwood Campground). With packs fully loaded we thought ourselves ready and so the next day set off on walking Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Day 1 – South Rim to Bright Angel Campground via South Kaibab Trail (6hrs and 6.4miles/10.3kms)
We caught the 8am hikers express bus from the back country office which arrived already full of people and packs from its previous stop. We sat stuffed in the back listening to all the other hikers excitedly talking about their walks and how many times they have been to the canyon etc. before finally being let off at the South Kaibab trail head around 8.30am. If we thought the bus was packed we had another thing coming at the trail head as it was an absolute gong show with people trying to use the toilets one last time and take selfies and group pictures etc. We stood aside and let the procession past before starting around 8.45am.
Once on the track it is all downhill and I do mean downhill! It’s fine for the first hour as you are still looking around and taking it in and excited to be down in the canyon and getting a different view of it but after a while it becomes tiring. I consider myself of average fitness but the relentless downhill took its toll and I was knackered by the end of the day.
The young fit people race ahead to the campground or beyond and knock it out in a day or a few hours so they can do other walks in the canyon while the more mature age and picture takers fall towards the back and slowly descend (I’ll give Craig the benefit of classing him in the picture taker category) which is why we took 6 hours to get from the trail head to the campground. I would say we were only slightly slower than average and most people of mediocre fitness could do it in 5 hours however given you then just sit around a campsite why rush the climb down?
We hit all the usual resting points of Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point then kept going down and down. There are only so many times you can smash your toes against the end of your shoes before they start screaming at you and if you let it it will be a huge distraction the whole way down. By 3 hours in we were only half way and both of us had jelly legs and wobbly ankles from the constant pressure of walking downhill. Actually walking downhill is too loose a term – this was stairs. And muddy uneven stairs so you had to watch your step and raise your foot higher to get over the wood which marked the edge of each step and then pick where you placed your foot so you didn’t step in a Mule pee puddle, a rain puddle, mule shit or just mud so it was very exhausting.
Finally you get your first glimpse of the Colorado River and see the camp ground which gives you some hope then you kept walking down and down and down and the campground doesn’t get any closer which was just a kind of mental torture. Finally we crossed a bridge and walked on ‘flat’ ground to the campsite which felt strange on legs which couldn’t understand the pitch difference.
We picked a campsite which I thought wouldn’t flood and settled in to build our nest and get fed and watered before another storm front came through. We had been relatively lucky all day with just passing showers instead of the predicted thunder storms but the rain made it especially slippery on the rocks and made the puddles bigger for you to step over or around. Just as we got into our tent a massive thunderstorm hit out of nowhere which was awesome to lay and listen to as hearing the thunder reverberate around the canyon is awesome and made you forget all about your day. It rained so hard that night the rain drops were spitting through the tent fly and my shoes outside the tent nearly floated away.
Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Campground (4hrs and 7Miles/ 11.25km)
It was a restless night’s sleep thanks to people wandering around shining their head torches into tents and talking. It had rained super hard at around 6pm and flooded everything then dried off so people ventured out checking the damage and it took a while for everyone to settle afterwards.
The next morning the rest of the campsite seemed in a rush to get back on the trail so by the time we were packed up and ready to go by 8am we were one of the last to leave. After a brief stop at Phantom Lodge to fill up on water and send postcards that get carried out by mule trail ($0.75USD for each postcard and $1.25USD for international postage) we were finally ready to tackle the day – or so we thought. While filling our water bottles we left our packs unattended and when we came back the Ravens had gotten into them. They apparently know how to open zippers and get inside plastic bags so careful how you pack and what they potentially have access to.
The walk through the canyon today was one of the better experiences. It was nice and cool and quiet and the trail was relatively flat until the last hour or so when the gradual uphill we had been walking became rather noticeable. We only passed about 20-30 people all day which was awesome in comparison to the couple of hundred we saw or passed yesterday. Plus there were no mules after Phantom Lodge so you could look up and enjoy the view without fear of stepping in mule shit. After the epic thunderstorm last night there were a few fresh rock slides we had to navigate over but nothing eventful happened to us.
We arrived in Cottonwood campground at lunchtime after only 4 hours of walking. We were both still getting used to walking with weighted packs and hiking in general as neither of us had prior fitness or training but by the end of the second day we both felt better especially as packs lighten. With the tent up and lunch done there was nothing else to do but have a nana nap while it tried to rain and instead spit just enough you had to close the flaps of the tent instead of enjoying the breeze.
After a lazy afternoon it was time for another early dinner and in the tent before another thunderstorm hit at just before 6pm, there was a lot of noise but unlike last night not much rain.
There was no water at Cottonwood Campground when we stayed as they were fixing the pipe line so we used river water for dinner and breakfast and treated some for drinking water. It tasted like soil and had heavy sediment after recent rains but was otherwise clean enough.
Day 3 – Cottonwood Campground to North Rim (7hrs and 6.8 miles / 11kms)
What a day! It started with me being sick all last night and what I thought to be a head cold from the flight from Australia turned into something worse and without going into details meant I woke up having not been able to digest dinner. We both got up just after 6am for as long as it took to go to the bathroom and drink a cup of tea before rain forced us back into the tent. The rain finally let up after 8am and we could finally get up and get packed.
We were on the trail by 9.20 which wasn’t great but not too bad considering. The lie in must have helped us as we smashed out the first few kilometers in good time and got to the Pump House Ranger Station in about an hour. From there it was just up and up and up. It was relentless and in some sections you wouldn’t want to be afraid of heights as the trail was right on the drop off. After a short break at the bridge it was non-stop switch backs which is mentally exhausting as you have nothing to aim for.
Just when you think you’re near the top it keeps going and going. Both of us were really struggling by this point and just as we get near the top it started to rain and sleet. I managed to get to the trail head shelter just in time before it really let rip but Craig didn’t and got wet therefore a chill as its freezing up there.
Overall I am glad we finished the rim to rim and while we didn’t do the Rim to Rim to Rim as originally intended I am glad with what we did do. Seeing the Grand Canyon from the bottom and physically climbing down into it, walking across it and climbing back out again gives you a greater appreciation for it than just sitting on the rim does. While inconvenient having to pack a wet tent and protect ourselves from the rain seeing the storm fronts roll over the canyon and hearing the thunder reverberate through it is something I will never forget.
- There was a limited selection of postcards to choose from at Phantom Lodge. I didn’t find them especially nice looking either so be prepared.
- Ravens know how to open zippers on bags and other ground dwelling creatures eat holes in bags and tents to get at food. Pack rubbish accordingly and use the ammo containers provided at each camp site.
- Take a way to treat water.
- The Campground is 0.7 mile from the North Kaibab Trailhead which is a kick in the teeth if you think you have reached the top and can finally stop walking.
- If you don’t have a vehicle ask to camp in the Hiker Biker section of the campground – its only $6USD as opposed to $18USD for a regular site.
- We caught the Trans Canyon shuttle from the north rim back to the south rim, it was $90USD each for the 4.5 hr. journey. Check out www.trans-canyonshuttle.com for more information and reservations.