Banner Photo by David Lardy
I DO NOT recommend hiking from the rim to river and back in one day. It is an extremely difficult hike. Heat exhaustion, heat stoke, and dehydration are serious. Realize that by attempting this hike you are taking a risk.
You should NOT attempt this hike if:
It is summer.
This hike is difficult enough without having to deal with temperatures well into the hundreds. Keep in mind that the inner part of the canyon experiences temperatures about 20° degrees higher than at the rim. The high at the rim on the day we hiked was 80°, but closer to the river it got hotter than 100°F. This is VERY hot, and it’s a dry heat, meaning you sweat a lot more than you realize. Dehydration and heat exhaustion become serious factors quickly. If the high at the rim is over 85°, do not risk it.
There is a possibility of storms.
In order to safely and successfully complete this hike, you really should be looking for ideal conditions. If there is a chance of storms (most common in late summer & early fall), either don't try it or wait for a different day when conditions look better.
You are not athletic or in good physical condition.
Fairly self-explanatory: this is a physically challenging hike, and physical fitness plays a role in completing this hike safely. If you wouldn't consider yourself particularly fit, reconsider your plans to do this hike.
You're not acclimated to higher altitudes.
Another factor to consider is altitude. If, like me, you live practically at sea level, consider allowing yourself 24 hours or more to adjust to the higher altitude before this hike. The elevation of South Kaibab Trailhead is 7260 ft (2213 meters) and Bright Angel Trailhead is at 6860 ft (2093 m). Elevation changes from rim to river are 4860 ft and 4460 ft respectively for S. Kaibab and Bright Angel.
Planning Your Hike
Ok, so you're still not scared off. You're sure you can handle it. That's great! Here's what you need to know before you get to the trailhead.
Hike down on South Kaibab and up on Bright Angel.
Going down goes quickly and easily, so the lack of shade and water on South Kaibab are less hazardous on the way down. Bright Angel is an easier trail (although longer) with both afternoon shade and water. The full hike breaks down into the following sections: approx. 7 miles down to the river on South Kaibab, approx. 2 miles across along the River Trail to change from Kaibab to Bright Angel, approx. 9 miles up to the rim on Bright Angel. You'll be hiking back up in the heat of the afternoon, so rest often in the shade, drink plenty of water (refilling canteens/bottles/camelbak whoever possible), and eat salty snacks.
Plan to be at the trailhead for South Kaibab at dawn. Starting your hike early will give you more of a cushion to take breaks and rest during the hot afternoon. If you have a car, remember that you will not be able to park at the trailhead. You will have to park at the visitors center and take the bus (Orange route) to the trail. Once you've begun your hike, keep an eye on the time and remember that it can take twice as long to hike back up. We stopped to take pictures have snacks and spent around an hour at Indian Garden, and still made good time, so don't feel like you have to rush either. Know what time sunrise and sunset are, and adjust your speed to be finished before sundown. As a secondary insurance policy, pack a flashlight or headlamp. Better to hike safely in the dark than push yourself too hard to finish before sunset.
Bring plenty of water...
When I was doing some reading before our Grand Canyon trip, this advice was everywhere, but I was still unsure how much was enough, and what constituted "plenty". After doing the hike, I would advise carrying at least 2 liters of water, as long as you have checked that all of the pipes (especially to Phantom Ranch and Indian Garden) have running water. If it is a warm/hot day you should drink at least 1.5-2 liters on the way down, and refill at Phantom Ranch (at the bottom, near the river). Then, you should drink another 2 liters while hiking across River Trail and up to Indian Garden. Drink a full liter upon arrival and rest in the shade. Refill again before departure at Indian Garden. After Indian Garden, there are 2 more stops with water at about 1.5 mile intervals (DO check that pipes have running water before you start your hike!). Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink, by then you are already dehydrated. If you begin to feel light-headed, rest in the shade, drink lots of water, and force yourself to have a snack. ALWAYS bring backup water purification tablets.
Pack a hearty lunch, and plenty of snacks. As you sweat, your body losses salts and other electrolytes, so bring a sports drink and/or salty snacks like trail mix. Pack some granola bars and energy bars. These are light and don't take up much space, so pack more than you think you will actually need. If you don't eat all of them its better to err on the side of caution.
What to Pack
- Minimum 2 liters of water (refillable container)
- Water purification tablets
- Lunch + snacks
- Energy bars
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Extra batteries
- First Aid Kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Swiss Army Knife
- Lip balm
- Hat with bill/brim
- An extra pair of socks
- Emergency blanket or bivy
- Toilet paper (must be packed out with you)
- Plastic bags + extra for packing out trash
- Contacts solution, case, extra lenses, & glasses (if applicable)
- Map and/or trail guide
- Blister treatment (moleskin, etc.)
- Handkerchief or small towel
- Duct tape
- Money & ID
- Hiking boots
- Thick socks
- Light weight, moisture-wicking shirt
- Lightweight pants or shorts depending on weather
*We started out wearing jackets, but put them away by 8:30 or 9AM, and didn't need them again. Hence why they are on the "pack" list, rather than the "wear" list.
The above is assuming you are hiking in warm weather. Consider adding extra windproof, insulated layers, thermos of warm liquid/food, etc. if hiking in cool/cold conditions.
Additional Information & Maps
For additional information, here is a great pamphlet from the National Park Service about planning your hike. It also contains good information if you're planning on spending the night in the canyon (permit required).
Here's information on taking the bus to the trailhead & around Grand Canyon Village.
Here is the NPS page that lists sunrise/sunset times.
This is the section of the Grand Canyon National Park website devoted to backcountry hiking. Use the sidebar to navigate to sections including hiking tips, hiking FAQ, distances, etc.
For me, this hike was difficult, but not impossible. We met others on the way that were doing the same thing, so it is certainly an attainable goal. In the end, I was left with an immense sense of accomplishment. It was absolutely worth battling the elements and my own fatigue. The reward of overcoming a real challenge gives a high like nothing else. Although I had a positive experience, I would probably wait until I had a camping permit to spend the night at Phantom Ranch or the Indian Garden before trying it again. Additionally, I don't want to be responsible for encouraging others to take undue risks. If at all possible, try to get a permit to camp in the canyon. This will make the trip more enjoyable, less strenuous, and less risky. If you cannot get a permit, consider doing day hikes from the rim that turn around after 3 miles or so. If you've weighed the risks and still want to try, good luck! And please let me know how it goes!