Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

Arizona, USA
By Peter Potterfield
climber on mountain
The author drops down into the canyon via the South Kaibab trail. (Photo © Jim Nelson)
Trek Facts
Distance: 44 miles round-trip
Duration: Five to seven days
Difficulty: Strenuous

A natural feature big enough to be seen from space, the Grand Canyon is one much better enjoyed at closer quarters. From within, the staggering architecture and sheer scale of the canyon can be exhilarating, even humbling. The rocks at the bottom are two billion years old, five million at the top, creating a slice through geologic time that defies belief. To walk down through this epic historical record, strata by strata—from Kaibab limestone to Coconino sandstone to Bright Angel shale, right down to the Vishnu complex of the Colorado River—is to take a foot journey unlike any other.

Clearly, the best way to avoid the crowds in this sprawling, 1.2-million-acre park is to hit the trail. Fewer than one percent of the millions of visitors each year dare to venture a significant distance below the rim. And that’s where the magic is. While truly wild country elsewhere in the canyon can test the mettle of even the most experience desert hiker or canyoneer, the so-called "corridor" trails at the Grand Canyon—South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel—afford an opportunity to experience this geologic wonder in an intimate way, but with a degree of safety—with reliable water, known conditions, and good trails.

Any walk in the Grand Canyon is going to rate pretty high on the Richter scale of hikes if only because of the scenery, but to appreciate the canyon, and the forces that created it, you’ve got to see the river that carved it, the opposing rims, and feel firsthand the dramatic climate shifts between the two. This strategy allows for a few extra days to experience the spiritual embrace of the canyon walls—the ambience here deserves some savoring—and to explore new ground as one takes an entirely different route back to the South Rim.

Most hikers who come to the park arrive through Las Vegas, probably the easiest city to reach by air, or Phoenix. Both are about a five-hour drive from Grand Canyon National Park and its headquarters for visitors, the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. The 44-mile route recommended here starts from the South Rim. Starting out, the hike follows the South Kaibab Trail (the best, shortest, and most direct route from rim to river) seven miles down through the layer-cake of the canyon to the Colorado River, crossing via the Black Bridge to Bright Angel Camp. From there, the North Kaibab Trail rises seven miles to Cottonwood Camp, and the following day ascends steeply seven more miles to the North Rim. From the North Rim, the route retraces itself down to Bright Angel Camp (14 miles) before crossing the Colorado on the “Silver” Bridge (downstream of the Black Bridge). From the river it ascends to the South Rim via the nine-mile Bright Angel Trail, a better, less rigorous route than the South Kaibab for climbing out.

More than 250 hikers are rescued each year in the Grand Canyon, with most incidents resulting from heat related problems, poor fitness, or dehydration. Temperatures in the inner canyon can take hikers by surprise because rim temperatures can be 20 or 30 degrees cooler, so plan your hike for spring or fall to avoid the heat.

About the Author: Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield is the author of more than a dozen books on outdoor adventure, including the critically acclaimed In the Zone and High Himalaya, 2002 winner of the Banff Book Festival Award. He has written for Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Backpacker and Condé Nast Traveler. He lives in Seattle.

Published: 5 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »

Package Trips: