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Best Grand Canyon Hiking Trails

South Kaibab Trail Hiking in Grand Canyon National Park

For a steep-but-rewarding hike, take your time admiring the views and catching your breath on this 6-mile out and back.

Seeing the Grand Canyon from any angle is spectacular, but the South Kaibab Trail is a classic hike with expansive views and therefore photo-worthy stops of this natural wonder. This out and back hike starts and ends on the South Rim, much like its sibling route, the Bright Angel Trail. But the South Kaibab way down offers less shade, is slightly steeper and is about two miles shorter. Scenic stops include Ooh-Aah Point, Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point where you can take a break and bask in the canyon’s orange, purple and pink hues. To plan your visit, here’s everything you need to know about hiking South Kaibab Trail.

Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon
Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab Trail (Photo: Getty Images)

Can You Do the South Kaibab Trail in One Day?

Because of elevation change, water availability and sun exposure, the park service recommends stopping at Skeleton Point if you plan to hike South Kaibab Trail in a day. From the trailhead, Skeleton Point is 3 miles out, so this suggestion makes for a 6-mile round trip hike. The elevation drops from 7,200 feet to 5,200 feet, which you have to ascend when you turn around. You can shorten the hike by turning around at Ooh-Aah Point (1.8 miles round trip with 540 feet of elevation) or Cedar Ridge (3 miles round trip with 1,080 feet of elevation) — both have incredible views of the surrounding valley and formations.

If you want to hike to the Colorado River or North Rim, the park service recommends spending the night either at Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground before turning around. The stretch from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground and back is 14.3 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation one way and requires advanced reservations, if you plan to stay at the campground. Read more about hiking rim-to-rim.

How Long Does It Take to Hike Down South Kaibab Trail?

To hike South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point, plan on spending between 3 and 7 hours, depending on how fast you walk, your fitness level and how much time you rest. The park service says it usually takes hikers twice as long to hike uphill as it does to hike downhill.

For an overnight trip, plan on walking for at least 9 hours between the two days to the river and back up to the trailhead. Permits are required in order to get a camping spot at Bright Angel Campground or a cabin or dormitory room at Phantom Ranch. This process is highly competitive and some people have to apply multiple times before getting a permit.

To camp at Bright Angel Campground, fill out a backcountry permit request form and either mail, fax or return it in person to the park service. For timeframes to apply, visit www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm. It’s also possible to obtain a last-minute permit at the Backcountry Information Center, located inside the park on both the South Rim and the North Rim, but it depends on the waitlist.

To make accommodations at Phantom Ranch, an online lottery system opens up 15 months in advance through a third-party lodging company. Therefore, you don’t need a backcountry permit from the park service to stay.

Services available at the campground include flushing toilets, metal food storage cans, picnic tables, drinking water and river and creek beaches. And services available at Phantom Ranch include a general store, advance reservation-only restaurant, showers and flush toilets.

The steps to Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon
The steps to Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail (Photo: Getty Images)

How Difficult is the South Kaibab Trail?

The South Kaibab Trail is considered a challenging route because of the change in elevation and lack of shade, but it’s manageable if you take your time and come prepared. You also want to consider the time of year to hike this.

The trail is quite vertical, dropping 2,000 feet in elevation, but wide and well-maintained. The park service says that the steepness of this hike is misleading because you’re looking at the views when you descend, so they recommend planning to take twice as long on the way back up.

How Do I Get to the Trailhead?

The South Kaibab trailhead is located near Yaki Point on the South Rim. The trailhead is closed to private vehicles, so you must take a 10-minute shuttle ride from the visitor center. Parking is available at the nearby Backcountry Information Center.

Service on the orange shuttle, which services the South Kaibab Trailhead, starts at 4:30 a.m. and runs until one hour after sunset. You can find more information about routes and schedules at www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses.htm.

Hikers descend the switchbacks on South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon
Hikers descend the switchbacks on South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon (Photo: Getty Images)

When is the Best Time to Hike South Kaibab Trail?

It is not a good idea to attempt this hike in the middle of summer, when temperatures are hazardous at their peak. With very little shade and dramatic elevation shifts, it’s surprisingly easy to become fatigued and dehydrated, even for a seasoned hiker. The best times to hike this route are early spring and fall, when temps are generally more mild. Any earlier in spring or later in fall and you can encounter icy and snowy conditions on the upper parts of the trail. As for time of day, always opt for earlier to beat the heat of the day and give yourself plenty of time.

Which Trail is Better: South Kaibab or Bright Angel?

Both trails offer majestic views of the Grand Canyon. They also both start on the South Rim, lead to the Colorado River, and are rated as strenuous hikes. However, they’re different in a few ways.

The Bright Angel Trail offers more shade and water stations at Mile-and-a-half Resthouse, Three-Mile Resthouse, and Indian Garden. At Indian Garden, you will also find restrooms and a ranger station.

The South Kaibab Trail has little to no shade and zero water stations. There is, however, a restroom facility at Cedar Ridge, which is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead.

For both hikes, the distance depends on where you turn around. The park service recommends turning around at Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail (3 miles at the halfway point) and Three-Mile Resthouse on the Bright Angel Trail (3 miles at the halfway point).

What Else Should I be Aware of on the South Kaibab Trail?

This route is used by mules and horseback riders. When you see livestock approaching, move to the side of the trail on the uphill side, away from the edge. Stand still and remain quiet so you don’t startle the animals. When the last mule or horse is about 50 feet past where you’re standing, you can return to the trail.

Meeting mules on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon
Meeting mules on the trail in the Grand Canyon (Photo: Mike Orrill)

What Should I Bring for My Hike?

Because there’s little shade along this route, bring sunscreen, a hat and appropriate sun layers. And because this is considered a strenuous hike that requires a lot of energy, pack lunch, snacks, and at least 2 liters of water for each person. Sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots with adequate traction are also recommended, since the trail is rocky and gravelly.