Updated: Feb 17
Hiking The Grand Canyon is no simple task. I wish my husband, Colton, and I had realized that before adding it to our vacation itinerary on a whim during mid July of 2018. We were in our early twenties and thought we were invincible, but I'll be the first one to tell you we went into it unprepared.
This infamous hike took place during our first vacation as a married couple. It was the first time we were traveling out west, the first time living out of a van for a week, and long before I ever took up photography or travel blogging as a hobby. So of course, there are many pictures I wish I could go back and take, research I wish we would have done beforehand, the list goes on...
But in a way, the wonder and shear challenge of hiking the Grand Canyon shaped my passion for hiking. It showed me what my body is capable of, the power of a determined mindset, and how beautiful hard journeys can be.
Another theme that rang through loud and clear was how essential it is to prepare for hikes as difficult as this one! (Especially hikes with books dedicated to the deaths of those who have attempted them- thank God we didn't see a copy until we were post-hike-limping through the gift shop)
I hope that's a potential reason behind you reading this post! (To plan a successful hike and not die, obviously)
I still beam with pride when I have the opportunity to tell others this hike is already checked off my bucketlist!
If hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is also on your bucketlist, be sure to read my post, "Hiking Half Dome" to prepare yourself for that famous hike, too!
This post will go into detail about what to expect while Grand Canyon hiking (general route), necessary steps to plan this hike, what to bring, and our personal experience on the trail. Let's get started!
South Rim to River (For Us):
Our Trail Route: South Kaibab Trail
Length: 6.8 miles one way / 4,860 feet elevation change
(no water & very little shade)
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Time it took us: 4 hours / 5:30-9:30 am
***THERE IS NO PUBLIC PARKING LOT AT SOUTH KAIBAB TRAILHEAD. TRAILHEAD ACCESS VIA SHUTTLE ONLY- which is FREE
As I mentioned earlier, we did little research prior to this hike. This lead to us attempting to park at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 4:00 in the morning. It was still completely dark out and frustrations grew quickly when we realized parking here was not an option. I became increasingly angry as we drove around aimlessly trying to figure out where to leave our van. Don't be like us. Drive into the Grand Canyon Village Visitor Center to park and fill up your water for the day as you wait for the shuttle. The trail begins on Yaki Point Road. There is a water fill-up station at the trailhead as well.
Find shuttle service times by clicking here: www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses.htm
General Trail Route
Ooh-Aah Point 0.9 mile in
Cedar Ridge 1.5 miles in
Skeleton Point 3 miles in
The trail begins with declining switchbacks, which displayed a beautiful glow as the sun started peaking over the canyon. I found myself getting lost in my own thoughts as I watched the day begin before my eyes. It wasn't long until the canyon opened up for the first time revealing Ooh-Aah Point. There is no sign symbolizing the arrival to this destination, which I actually think is really cool. It's obvious when you arrive because of the incredible view. I'm 99% sure I found myself oohing and aahing prior to ever hearing of this spot's name.
1.5 miles into South Kaibab Trail is your last option for an actual restroom until Bright Angel Campground (the final destination). Even if you don't feel like you have to go, take advantage of the luxury. We were beginning to feel the effects of the hot day and took a short break here to recharge with our first snack- which is a common first stop for hikers.
*Cedar Ridge is recommended as a turn around point for summer day hikes, first time canyon hikers, inexperienced hikers, and/or late starters
"Day Hike"- a hike lasting less than one day; no plans to spend the night on the trail
*There are mules on this trail. For your safety, it is a rule to give mules the right of way. Lots of areas of this trail are narrow paths with room for only one-way traffic. One side of the trail is canyon wall (to lean against/toward until mules or other hikers pass) while the other is what I could only describe as a free fall to death. Be mindful of mules, keep still and calm while they pass
*There is virtually no shade on this trail, ensure that you wear sunscreen and reapply often. We bought hats to keep the sun off of our faces and shoulders, too. Browse some for yourself here: https://amzn.to/2yAnqHN
Here, a mere 3 miles in, is the first glimpse of the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. Because of all the different canyon views along the descent, we found ourselves losing track of the distance and time we had been hiking. I vividly remember Colton moaning in disgust realizing we were still so far from reaching the bottom when spotting the river for the first time. This view is truly breathtaking!
*Skeleton Point is listed as the final destination for anyone DAY HIKING, no matter the season
The rest of the trail is a brutal series of steep stairs on declining switchbacks. As someone who has a bad knee, this section of the trail seemed relentless. At the time, we only had one pair of trekking poles, one pole for the both of us. I cannot stress enough that this is the INCORRECT way to use trekking poles. When used correctly (a pole for each hand), the poles should provide stability over rough terrain and assist with weight distribution, lengthening stamina of the legs.
My arm without a pole swung naturally at my side as I walked, which sounds like no big deal. But as the hike continued and the day grew warmer, my pole-free hand became swollen and painful. My legs grew more and more fatigued and at one point, I actually fell! Reaching out to catch myself, my hands landed right in the dirt (which was tinted green from mule poop).
Lessons come hard, sometimes. If attempting this hike, I cannot recommend a sturdy pair of trekking poles more!
As you close in on the end of the hike, you will cross The Colorado River via The Black Suspension Bridge. Stretching 440 feet, the bridge supplies hikers with yet another surge of adrenaline before reaching Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. After crossing the bridge, turn right and you'll be on your way to claiming your site for the night.
Bright Angel Campground
-A permit is required for all overnight hiking/camping. This permit will act as your claim to a campground site and must be displayed for rangers to see (we did have a ranger ask to verify our permit with our IDs so remember to bring that along, too!)
-Permit cost is $10 plus $8 per person. If your permit is denied, you won't get charged
Learn more about getting a backcountry permit here:
-The campground consists of 30 sites- which are first come, first serve (a few designated for large groups)
-The campsites are primitive; each site has a picnic table, an ammo box or two for food storage, and a pole to hang hiking bags/supplies
-Bright Angel Creek runs along the campground and is encouraged as a means to cool off for hikers- take advantage!
-In the middle of the row of campsites, there is a building with flush toilets- 2 women stalls and 2 men's. Outside of the men's side there is also a slop sink for washing off/washing dishes. There's also a ranger station in the area for emergencies.
-If you have any extra energy, take some time to walk around the campground. There is picturesque scenery all around!
During our trip in mid July of 2018, it was a whopping 116 degrees Fahrenheit in shade and 120 degrees in direct sunlight! Having hiked for hours, we took advantage of the cooler temperature of Bright Angel Creek. We had arrived at our campsite at 9:30 a.m., but felt as though it should've been much later in the day. We spend most of our time resting in our tent, cooling off in the creek, or sitting in Phantom Ranch Canteen by a fan sipping lemonade and playing cards.
Phantom Ranch: The Basics
Phantom Ranch offers cabin reservation if you're not into the idea of sleeping in a tent. Colton and I wanted the full primitive experience during our stay, so I can't speak to this from experience. I do know lodging reservations are by lottery only, so look into this far in advance of your trip!
Phantom Ranch Canteen is a shop/dining area to enjoy while at the bottom of the canyon. Meals must be reserved in advance (breakfast and dinner only).
Learn more about entering the lottery for cabin reservations and meals/pricing here: https://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/lottery/
Phantom Ranch Canteen has designated hours for public use while employees are not prepping or preparing meals (8:00 AM to 4:00 PM and again at 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM). During this time the tables are open for relaxing and playing cards/board games. There are some souvenir-like items as well as pre-prepared food and ice cold lemonade available for purchase (not to mention fans blasting cool air around the room).
*Sack Lunches are available for purchase
-This was our first backcountry/overnight hike and we didn't want to waste space/carry extra weight due to food. Buying a sack lunch from Phantom Ranch Canteen gave us more variety/fresher food than what we had carried with us already.
-Each sack lunch contains an apple, craisins, a whole grain bagel with cream cheese and jelly, an energy bar, Babybel cheese, roasted/salted almonds, 2 oz beef sausage, and an electrolyte powder drink (priced at $21.40 per sack lunch)
River to South Rim (For Us):
Our Main Hike: Bright Angel Trail
Length: 9.3 miles one way / 5,006 ft elevation gain
Difficulty level: Strenuous
Time it took us: 6.1 hours / 3:00-9:10 am- headlamps are handy when hiking this early
Because Bright Angel Trail has multiple rest houses and water filling stations, it made more sense to us to ascend back to the rim via this trail. From what little research we did prior, our choice of route seemed to be the most popular.
Bright Angel Trail is longer in distance and steeper in elevation gain. We began early, hoping to get a chunk of the journey out of the way prior to ever gracing the hot sun.
The disadvantage of beginning this trail in the dark is the constant fear of going off course, or it least it was in my mind. We followed along the creek until we reached River Resthouse. This is located 1.5 miles from Bright Angel Campground. There is no portable water available here.
The trail continues up the canyon until reaching Indian Garden, the halfway point (4.8 miles from the rim). Indian Garden is location to a resthouse, portable water, ranger station, and campground. This section of the trail offers more flatter of a terrain, which is a welcomed, but short-lived, change. The sun had just started to rise when we finished our break here. There were multiple deer nearby, and a few got pretty close to us!
Indian Garden Campground requires a backcountry permit just like Bright Angel Campground. For more information regarding this, click here: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm
After Indian Garden, the trail becomes what seems like a never ending series of switchbacks. What I can only describe as brutally steep, switchbacks. These final 4 miles are where the majority of elevation gain occurs. Colton and I took breaks very frequently and questioned our capabilities of reaching the rim more often than that. It was extremely intense. As we started passing more and more hikers on their way down from the rim, people started to comment on knowing our starting point by the look on our faces. They offered it, jokingly, but Colton and I never brought ourselves to laugh.
There are also resthouses 3 miles and 1.5 miles from the rim. Seasonally there is drinking water available here.
When you FINALLY reach the top, it is super easy to locate a nearby shuttle stop to be driven back to the Grand Canyon Village Visitor Center. We highly recommend El Tovar Lodge as a stop for a rewarding meal. Our waitress said she immediately knew we had hiked from the river, calling our limp "The Canyon Shuffle."
What to Bring
I wanted to include a short list of items to have on hand for safety and some ideas of what kinds of foods we brought to stay energized during such a physically-draining voyage. Getting an early start for both hikes is essential. Arizona heat is intense and can be dangerous. Many people are rescued via helicopter/ranger rescue every year. Make your trip a safe one by staying hydrated and fueled!
Feminine urination device (awkward, I know, but useful)
Ziploc Bags (for TP and food wrappers- remember to Leave No Trace!)
*Never bought a pair of boots before and don't know where to start? Read my post, https://www.oliviahalephotography.com/post/find-your-fit-hiking-boots-edition for everything you need to know!
Non-melting Candy (for when you need a quick energy boost-we like Oreos and Sour Patch Kids)
I hope this post provided you with some helpful information about the epic Rim to River / River to Rim Hike(s). l know we would've benefited from reading something like this before our trip. Conquering this hike is such an accomplishment! If you end up doing it or have done it in the past, I'd love to hear all about it! Happy hiking, everyone!