Hiking or running from the South Rim to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is one of those bucket list items that attracts those who love endurance sports, enjoy hikes with incredible swings in elevation gains and losses and are fit enough to cover 21-24 miles in a day (or two or three if you decided to backpack it). As long as this hiking distance sounds, the 215-mile drive between the two rims is longer, taking 5 hours.
While some people spend several days backpacking from one side to the other, others will hike it or run it in one day with a pre-arranged shuttle meeting them on the other side to drive them back to where they started their hike. It’s a grueling full day of work that could take even the fittest athletes between 10-15 hours because you’ll spend the first half of your hike losing about 5,000 feet of elevation and you’ll spend the second half climbing about 5,000 feet of elevation. This is not the type of hike you can do off the couch. You’ll want to put in some serious time training and planning months in advance to set yourself up for success.
For planning purposes, you should know that camping in designated campsites or campgrounds in the park is limited to two nights (consecutive or nonconsecutive) per campsite or campground per hike. You need to apply for a backcountry permit from the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm). You can apply for your permit four months before your trip, and you’ll need to include your proposed night-by-night itinerary with dates for each night, plus an alternative itinerary.
However, there is a slightly more luxurious option to keep in mind. If you want to do this hike in two days but do not want to carry a huge backpack, you can make reservations at Phantom Ranch about a quarter of a mile from the Colorado River. Hike down to Phantom Ranch from either rim and spend a night in a cottage or hikers dorm with dinner at the Phantom Ranch Canteen before waking up the next day and finishing your hike. Because Phantom Ranch is so popular and can accommodate so few people, you’ll need to apply for reservations via the Phantom Ranch lottery (www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/phantom-ranch-lottery-faqs/) up to 13 months in advance of your trip.
Which Rim-to-Rim Route Should I Take?
If you hike from South Rim to the North Rim, you’ll take the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and pick up the North Kaibab Trail from there for a total of 21 miles. If you hike from the North Rim to the South Rim, you’ll take the North Kaibab to Bright Angel Trail, clocking in 24 miles.
Why the difference in routes? Bright Angel Trail is recommended when you’re coming from the North Rim, despite the fact it’s longer than South Kaibab (Bright Angel is 9 miles and South Kaibab is 7). Bright Angel Trail offers more shade and has water along its trail, both of which can be lifesavers later in the day when the sun is high in the sky. Conversely, the South Kaibab Trail offers no shade and no water.
If you’re starting off really early in the morning from the South Rim, the South Kaibab Trail will get you to the Colorado River faster before the hotter temperatures move in. However, you’ll still have 14 miles of uphill climbing after you reach the Colorado River, so plan your day accordingly and make sure you start early enough so you avoid being on the trail in the heat of the day.
Which Rim Should I Start My Hike?
It all depends on a few factors. The South Rim offers far more services, including dining and lodging, than the North Rim. There are six hotels and several campgrounds on the South Rim along with a number of hotels and private campgrounds just outside the park in the towns of Tusayan and Williams. Because of all of its services, it may make sense for you to start your hike at the South Rim.
In contrast, the North Rim offers far fewer lodging options. There is one campground inside the park and one lodge. Just outside of the North Rim, there are some campgrounds, both private and on National Forest land. The upside of spending time at the North Rim is it is higher in elevation, making it slightly cooler at the rim’s edge. It also has fewer visitors with only 15%of the park’s total visitors ever making it to the North Rim.
Either way, you’ll want to arrange in advance a shuttle to pick you up after your one-way hike and bring you back to the start. Trans-Canyon Shuttle service has offered a shuttle service for hikers since 1989. It drives more than 6,500 hikers between the two rims every year. It’s about a 4.5-5 hour ride. Make your reservations online at www.trans-canyonshuttle.com/.
When Is the Best Time to Hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?
Plan this Grand Canyon adventure for the fall months or early spring. The temperatures will be far more comfortable, making your hike all that much more fun and less stressful. Be aware that services at the North Rim do close down in mid-October, although the road to the North Rim is still accessible until Dec. 1 or earlier, if weather shuts down Hwy. 67.
Avoid doing this hike in the summer months of June, July or August. While the rim temperatures could be in the 80s, the inner canyon trails could be as hot as 115 degrees. Even temperatures at the end of May and September can be dangerously hot the closer you get to the Colorado River.
Hiking 21-24 miles in temperatures in the 90s and 100s with little-to-no shade is dangerous and could lead to serious or even fatal heat-related illnesses. When it is that hot out, even the fittest hiker is susceptible to heat-related illnesses.