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Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike

Mrs. ERN, little Ms. ERN and I recently headed out to visit the great American West. We visited Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, (upper) Antelope Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Park, both North and South Rim. We got a good deal on the airfare by booking way in advance, we did the Priceline name-your-own-price deals for the various hotels along the way and paid almost all hotel charges with the credit card reward points.

The trip was also a great opportunity to check off one item on my personal bucket list: Hike through the Grand Canyon from the North to South Rim. In one single day. Since I didn’t bring anybody else along for the hike (Mrs. ERN and little Ms. ERN took the rental car to the South Rim) I thought I will bring all of you ERN blog readers along for a digital ride. Not that any camera can really do the Grand Canyon justice, but I’ll try my best.

Background

On earlier visits to the South Rim, I had seen the warning signs (in four languages!): “Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.”

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Serious illness or death from exhaustion? Sign me up!

Doing some research on what it would actually take to hike down and up I found a wealth information on the web about Grand Canyon hiking trails. It turns out that instead of the roughly 16-mile hike from the South Rim to the river and back one can do an even more “death-defying” hike starting at the North Rim and hiking trough the Canyon to the South Rim. It’s considered one of America’s classic extreme day hikes, see some interesting links here, here, here, and here. Since the North Rim trailhead is so much further away from the river we are now looking at a 23.9-mile hike. Where do I sign up? Actually, nowhere: doing this as a day hike without any camping inside the Canyon requires no permit or reservation.

Let’s look at the hike in more detail:

Route

I picked the “easiest” configuration of this hike. I started at the North Rim (around 8,240 feet altitude) and after crossing the Colorado River (2,450 feet), I opted for the Bright Angel Trail to climb back up to the South Rim (6,800 feet). About 24 miles (39km) total. Going North to South has the advantage of finishing on a slightly lower altitude, so I had to climb uphill for “only” 4,400 vertical feet instead of 5,800. Well, my GPS showed 6,500 feet descent and 5,000 feet ascent, presumably due to some up and down between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch. So, even in the easiest configuration, this is a serious hike.

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Also, the southern portion of the hike via the Bright Angel Trail has the advantage of water sources along the way and some shade in the afternoon, while the alternative route, the South Kaibab Trail, has neither water nor shade.

Logistics

  • At the North Rim, it’s best to stay a the lodge right inside the National Park. It’s only about two miles from the trailhead. We made our reservation 6 months in advance and even then the lodge was already close to fully booked. This takes planning way in advance!
  • Doing the hike one-way, I was lucky to have the help of my wife who dropped me at the trailhead in the morning and picked me up again at the South Rim. The drive is quite an undertaking itself (~220 miles!). If you don’t have a designated driver there is a shuttle service connecting North and South Rim.
  • Water was available throughout the hike. But it’s best to check at the North Rim ranger station, though, to make sure there aren’t any interruptions in the water supply.
  • You can get food at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon but you have to order it in advance. I opted to bring my own food for the day, though.
  • I was expecting no cell phone reception inside the Canyon. But it turned out that I had a weak signal south of the Cottonwood campground for a while. Enough to leave a voice message on my wife’s phone to let her know I’m doing well. And again for the final three miles of the Bright Angel Trail. Nice! I was able to coordinate with my wife to set up a time to pick me up at the Bright Angel trailhead.

Gear

  • Light daypack
  • Food: High calorie and salty snacks are best. I brought walnuts and power bars as snacks and tuna, salmon and spam (the meat, not the emails) in easy to open pouches as my lunch.
  • Gatorade powder to add some electrolytes to the water at the refill stations
  • Hiking poles are particularly useful on the long descent into the Canyon.
  • Map: Not exactly necessary because the signage on the trail was excellent.
  • Water: I brought a 3-liter hydration bladder and a 600ml bottle just in case. A water filter wasn’t necessary.
  • Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
  • Windbreaker/rain jacket
  • Headlamp (and extra batteries)

The hike in detail, with pictures

The North Kaibab trailhead next to the small parking lot seems unassuming. You wouldn’t even know you are at the Grand Canyon; the trail just descends into the dark woods at the North Rim without much of a view. Even at 6am, there were plenty of people starting the hike. I made sure I stayed out of the way of the trail runners and followed the beam of my headlight. Given the countless other hikers with headlights, the trail was lit up a Christmas Tree and I might have just left headlamp at home.

Thanks to the overcast sky overnight the temperature was not as low as I feared; the car thermometer read 39 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), significantly warmer than the forecast. But still cold enough to wear multiple layers for the first 20-30 minutes.

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Early Morning at the North Rim

If you ever stood at the Rim of the Grand Canyon you must have wondered “how the hell can there be a hiking trail descending into the Canyon over these sheer vertical cliffs?” After you pass the Supai Tunnel and look below you get the answer. The North Kaibab Trail is an engineering marvel, chiseled into the steep sandstone cliffs. Something like the Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam of hiking trails!

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Descending into the Canyon via the North Kaibab Trail

 

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Every time you cross one of the Canyon layers you get a geology lesson. Nice!

 

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Holes in the wall at the opposing Canyon Wall
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The North Kaibab Trail is an engineering marvel
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A sheer drop off, nothing for the fainthearted! But most of the time the trail is about six feet wide so even hikers with a slight fear of heights can make it down the North Kaibab Trail if they stay far enough away from the edge.

 

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After Roaring Springs, on the way to Cottonwoods

Two and a half hours into the hike, I had already descended about 4,500 feet vertical when I reached the Cottonwoods campground. It’s a nice place for a second breakfast with fresh water and picnic tables. I realized I carried way too much water. Out of the full 3-liter hydration bladder I hadn’t even finished a liter. I’ll be smarter next time.

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The mostly flat trail follows the creek south of Cottonwoods

South of the campground the landscape changed again. The terrain is flatter, a welcome relief for my knees and thighs. The trail now follows a creek fed by the Roaring Springs waterfall first through a wide valley offering spectacular views back up to the North Rim.

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The canyon South of the Cottonwood campground
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View back to the North Rim. The tiny Ribbon Falls are visible center right

 

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Steep canyon walls provide shade in the morning

Hiking on the East side of the creek for most of the time and protected by the steep canyon walls, I didn’t see much of the sun during the early morning hours and it stayed comfortably cool. But I can see how this part of the hike would become a heat death trap on mid-summer afternoons when the sun heats up the dark red canyon walls and turns this into an oven. This southern portion of the canyon, right before Phantom Ranch is called “The Box” and it’s the hottest part of the hike.

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Hiking in “The Box” along the Southern part of the North Kaibab Trail
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After leaving “The Box” and right before Phantom Ranch: A nice view of the South Rim. I’ll have to hike all the way up there!

Eventually, the steep narrow canyon opens up. There are trees and buildings and I hear people talking. Welcome to the “capital city” of the Grand Canyon: Phantom Ranch. It’s no exaggeration; there are cabins, campsites, a ranger station, even a small cafeteria. And it was busy there! I figured that the 6-7am shift of hikers that came down from the South Rim had arrived before me. Together with the North Rim runners and hikers I had encountered that morning the place was bustling. All the picnic tables in the “town square” by the sandwich shop were taken but I found a comfortable spot on the grass and in the shade. Two pouches of tuna and one with spam, and a PowerBar gave me the energy to get going again. 14 miles down, 10 more to go!

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The Silver Suspension Bridge

South of Phantom Ranch there are two suspension bridges crossing the river, one leading to the South Kaibab Trail and one to the Bright Angel Trail. The South Kaibab Trail is a little bit shorter but offers no shade and no water sources along the way. It’s a no-brainer to take the Bright Angel Trail. After crossing the mighty Colorado River on the Silver Bridge, the trail heads West for about 2 miles, parallel to the river offering spectacular views of the river and the steep canyon walls.

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The two suspension bridges crossing the Colorado River
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A Joshua Tree!
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View to the West along the trail, high above the Colorado River
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If you start swimming here you’ll reach Lake Mead and Hoover Dam in a few days!

Right before the trail heads South again I could even hike down to a small beach. Well, “beach” is an overstatement. There may be sand and water but you can’t swim here because the currents are deadly (see ya in Lake Mead!) and the water didn’t look too appetizing with so much reddish-brown sediment. But it’s a nice photo opportunity and I made sure I dipped my toes into the river here before heading back to the trail.

The serious part of the day would now begin: the ascent to the South Rim about 4,400 vertical feet (1,300 meters) spread over about eight miles to the South Rim. Heading south, away from the river and toward Indian Gardens, I encountered a group of mules carrying a bunch of weekend warriors down to the river. They may look cute (the mules, not the tourists), but they smell (again, presumably the mules not the tourists but who knows?). Moreover, hikers have to wait for them to pass, so I consider myself lucky I saw just that one group.

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Mules have the right of way!
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Making good progress on the way up to Indian Gardens. View back to the North Rim.

Just as I finished my water supply from Phantom Ranch, I arrived at Indian Gardens, a patch of lush bright green in the otherwise parched and barren landscape. I had planned to take a longer break to get a good rest for the final push uphill but the clouds now looked dark and menacing again. Better top off the water supply and get going again.

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Just South of Indian Gardens

After 1.8 miles I reached the 3 mile Rest House. Amazingly, I got a cell phone signal and was able to call my wife who had just checked into the hotel at the South Rim. “Babe, it’s me. Please put a Diet Coke in the fridge … yeah, I’m all right … love you too … see you at the South Rim at 4.” Light rain is starting and I can see lightning striking at the North Rim. Better get going again!

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The 3-Mile Resthouse
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The downpour already started at the North Rim!
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Switchbacks on the way to the South Rim

 

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The last picture I took that day, before the rain reached me

After I passed the 1.5-mile point I packed my camera for good for fear of even heavier rain. Amazingly, I still saw plenty of day hikers descending into the canyon right as the thunderstorm started to get going. Maybe the National Park Service should put up a sign (in four languages!) to warn the weekend warriors to get the hell out of there in a Thunderstorm!

Finished! After 10 hours, roughly 6 liters of water and countless tuna/salmon/spam snack pouches and power bars I finally reached the South Rim. The final 20 minutes, I hiked in pretty heavy rain and reaching the South Rim was a bit anti-climactic. No pictures, no hugs, no smiles, no high-fives with the other hikers I met along the way. Due to the rain and thunder, my wife and daughter didn’t even meet me at the trailhead but waited in the car in the parking lot. As happy as I was, I felt a bit cheated. I’m sure I will do this hike again! 2018 when I’m retired!

The next morning we headed back to the South Rim to enjoy the postcard-perfect weather and to take some additional pictures.

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View back to the North Rim. The North Kaibab Trail starts all the way at the end of the deep side canyon on the right side!
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Funny how from the Rim you barely see the Colorado River. Here you see one tiny sliver of the Colorado (center, a little bit to the right)
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Bright Angel Trail (front center) and the deep, long side canyon through which the North Kaibab Trail descends into the Canyon (top left ~11 o’clock)
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The final few switchbacks below the South Rim from the observation point along the Hermit Point Road.

Epilogue

was curious: what kind of financial wisdom would come to me on a long day like this. Absolutely none. Zero. Nada. I didn’t even think about finance or personal finance for a single second. If you look for wisdom from a hike about life and personal finance please consult the Choose Better Life Blog. Finance is my day job and on this hike, I tried to suck in as much of natural beauty as possible. Stay tuned for more finance material next week!

No camera can do the Grand Canyon justice, but I hope you still enjoyed the little virtual journey through the Canyon. Please leave your comments and questions below. If you are planning this hike and want to connect to ask more questions feel free to reach out via the “Contact” tab. We are still traveling until this coming weekend and might be slow responding to comments, though.

34 thoughts on “Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike

  1. Amazing! What an achievement, effectively a marathon on steroids, with the hills, and with no support stations, offering water, fruit etc. I bet you enjoyed a relaxing bath after that. What an advert for Early Retirement. Think of all these trips you will be able to have, where so many others will still be at the beck and call of an employer. What is Mrs ERN planning while you watch little Ms ERN?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thanks. Yes, that was a marathon hike, almost literally. I did enjoy a nice bath and then a beer and steak afterwards.
      And you are so right: I owe Mrs. ERN a return favor and will watch our toddler while she will do a girls night out. Or two. 🙂
      Cheers

      Like

  2. What an awesome hike! As I started reading I was thinking how fun and enjoyable that would be, then I saw your first picture and I gasped and remembered how freaking big the Grand Canyon is! Holy buckets that looked like a tough hike!

    What a shame and unlucky it started raining at the end, you were definitely deserving of a celebration. Congrats to you and I’m sure you had a blast on the rest of the vacation as well. Thanks for sharing the story, personal finance can take a back seat for things like this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the write up, brought back many memories. I did “one-sided” trip twice, and a Rim to Rim to Rim (that’s South to North and back, 46 miles) in 2010 (I think?). Took me 13 of the most beautiful hours. And I agree, while on the strenuous and gorgeous adventure, thoughts about finances are not entering my mind. Well, may be float by when I go for multi-day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, congrats on the 2 R2R and one R2R2R hikes. Doing this in 13 hours you must have been running through there. That’s an amazing achievement!
      I might be in the market to do the R2R2Rover a long weekend: Hike North to South, stay two nights at the South Rim with a nice relaxed rest day in between and then hike back again via South Kaibab Trail. Thanks for stopping by!
      ERN

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  4. Awesome stuff. I can understand the anti-climatic feeling of the “alone” adventure. On my last long training run I had to drive to the spot for 2-years, do the run, and then drive home, all alone. But, I sure did enjoy the beauty that I encountered.

    People die because they decide to attempt the hike when it is too hot. The bottom, as you noted, is far warmer. So good season pick for your adventure.

    Great photos. Thank you for sharing your trip with us.
    cd :O)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice photos. I cried a little the first time I saw the the Grand Canyon. It lived up to all the hype and more, it was so damn beautiful. Much as I loved it though, I am extremely unlikely to ever be consumed by the desire to hike across it, so I enjoyed being a voyeur today.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Awesome, ERN! Beautiful shots and a great story… 24 miles!! That’s one heckuva workout – mad respect, bro.

    But now I’m gonna have to go check this out myself…! Thanks for sharing this great adventure, and I hope y’all are having a great vacay this week. Cheers to the whole ERN crew!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, FL! It’s not the longest and not the most strenuous hike I ever did, but definitely way up there in the top 10. And it’s a true American classic. Well worth the effort. If you need a hiking buddy, let me know!
      Cheers,
      ERN

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  7. Ah it is beautiful. I made the visit to the Grand Canyon this summer on my move to California. Unfortunately I had my dog and was unable to take a hike. It looks amazing though and definitely would be worth a second trip in the future! Congrats on the hike and I give you a virtual high five.

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  8. Ahh so much jealousy. Hiking the grand canyon is still on my bucket list. How did you like Zion & Bryce? I LOVE canyoneering through Zion. Such an unreal looking part of the country! Glad you got to unplug for a while and not think about finance– that is something I need to do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! We spent three days combined in Zion and Bryce Canyon NP, and did “only” the mostly touristy things. Shorter hikes because we have our toddler with us. I didn’t even attempt to do Angels Landing in Zion. My wife gave me only 1 day off and that was for the GC hike, haha! But both Zion and Bryce are very pretty. I could go there again!
      Cheers!

      Like

  9. Wow, thanks for letting me hike the entire trail vicariously through you! Amazing, I had a nice cup of coffee along the way, took about 10 minutes, and am not in the least bit exhausted!

    I hope to do that hike myself after we FIRE in 18 months. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Awesome pictures Dr. ERN. Loved reading this side of the ERN story in addition to your great financial articles. Look forward to more like this as well as your usual high quality financial ones!! And clearly sucking all the beauty in ( as well as oxygen) was an important part of the trip for you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Impressive ERN. I didn’t know you guys were such hikers. I probably would’ve been so exhausted barely halfway through and would be looking for helicopter rescue!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup, hiking is my favorite pastime (and skiing in the winter). The nice feature of the hike is that the first 2/3 to 3/4 of the hike are either downhill or flat. Or at least not too steep up. So you will need the helicopter only way towards the end, so just save the money and keep going. 🙂
      Thanks!

      Like

  12. what sort of exercise routine do you have prior to a hike like this? I haven’t ever done a day hike over about 15 miles, so I’m curious what you do prior to the hike to make sure you have the stamina to get through the entire day since you are committed by the time you get done to the bottom of the canyon on this particular hike.

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    • I get light cardio exercise every day, my 10,000 steps. I just like to walk a lot. I walk to work every day, for example.
      On weekends I would go on hikes, usually 10-15 miles. Then, leading up to the Grand Canyon hike, I did a few longer hikes: 18-20 miles. Each with between 3,000 and 5,000 vertical distance up (plus the same distance down). Not so easy where I live, so I had to plan hikes with a lot of up and down and up and down. I felt ready for the GC hike after I did 18 miles and was still able the race up the final 600 feet ascent back to the car and pass scores of sandal-clad tourists. 🙂
      Yes, agree, this is a strange setup for a hike: down first then up & the most strenuous part in the end. But the advantage was that for about 8-9 hours the hike was pretty easy. If you have walking sticks to protect your knees on the downhill. Only the final 1-2 hours are really hard. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by!!!
      Happy New Year!

      Like

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