You have tried month after month, year after year and you still cannot get that ever-coveted (and somewhat overrated) permit so you can hike Rim to Rim of Grand Canyon. As a guide service having led trips in Grand Canyon since 2006, we know why it is so difficult. It's not because guide services take all the permits (they take about 10% of all permits). It's more about supply and demand, an out-dated backcountry management plan, an archaic permit system and the permit lottery.
The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Route
Let's first look at the actual Rim to Rim backpacking route. A Rim to Rim route goes either North to South or South to North. If you want to truly enjoy your trip, you will want to spend a few nights camping as you cross the canyon. The typical route is North Kaibab to Bright Angel trails, utilizing the campgrounds at Cottonwood, Bright Angel and Indian Garden. Some people do go South to North - South Kaibab to North Kaibab, regardless, you are hiking and camping on the most popular trails in Grand Canyon and Cottonwood campground is the key to the whole route. It breaks up a 14 mile hike over a 6,000 ft elevation change in two 7 mile days. It also has the fewest number of available spaces for reservation, so it creates a bottle neck.
Cottonwood campground has 11 campsites, of which 9 are available to reserve in advance and 2 available on a walk-up basis (only if the campground has not met the quota set for the number of people allowed to camp per night). It is a complicated algorithm that many-a-ranger has perplexed numerous backcountry rangers.
Bright Angel campground has 33 campsites, of which 29 are available to reserve in advance and 4 for a walk-up.
Indian Garden campground has 15 sites, with 12 available for advanced booking.
So, if Cottonwood is part of your itinerary, as it should be since the 14 mile North Kaibab Trail is not an easy hike for most people - especially during the summer - you are likely to get a permit denial due to Cottonwood being full.
Let's do the math...
Say you want to do a Rim to Rim trip in May. The road to the North Rim does not open until May 15th of every year. This means you cannot start a Rim to Rim hike until May 12 (if you hike south to north). This gives you 20 possible start dates, assuming you are flexible with your dates - as you should be.
Cottonwood is typically where the problems arise. Multiplying 20 possible available nights by the 9 spaces available at Cottonwood gives you 180 chances of getting a permit. Sounds possible right? WRONG! A month like May could see over 1000 permit requests (give or take 10%) from all over the world, of which 70-75 percent will be vying for the permits needed for the Rim to Rim route. To give you more perspective, a guide service such as ours may submit for 22 Rim to Rim permits and only get 6. Calculating..... That's 27%, close to the same odds a private party has of getting their dates assuming you are flexible for the entire month.
Now, let's look at the general route logistics. Take an arbitrary date in October for your 4 day North to South Rim to Rim trip - October 10-13. If you request October 10 for Cottonwood, October 11 for Bright Angel and October 12 for Indian Garden yet Cottonwood is sold out, you will be denied for the entire permit. Or, even if Cottonwood happens to be available and Bright Angel is sold out (which is also possible), your permit will be denied (assuming you gave no back up route, dates or flexibility in your itinerary).
You can only fax or mail your request
Permit requests are only accepted by fax or mail. Most people fax in their request to one fax machine. We have yet to find out what happens when it jams up and a request gets lost, misplaced, eaten by the fax machine or a dingo. There is NO online booking - a process the park service has been working on for over a decade. A fellow guide service owner once said that the day the Grand Canyon hits the button to turn on the online permit system, a coke machine at a McDonalds in Flagstaff will blow up. That is totally funny if you knew the park service, Flagstaff and McDonalds. Anyway, when the faxes are received, they are randomly numbered and processed, one by one, and by hand in the Flagstaff permitting office.
Here's an image. Think of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy Ricardo is working in the chocolate factory. Faxes spewing from an overworked fax machine that may still be the old dot matrix type (I still imagine the phones they use being the old cream colored landlines with dials and cords). Anyway, it is this process that explains why it takes a few weeks before you find out if you were approved or denied, at which point it is then too late to maybe send in again for a different option as you are then stuck in the line that is created after all permits are received after the first of the month. This also means you getting a permit is totally by chance. It has ZERO to do with when you faxed it in. Many times we had heard people say to us "I was denied and I faxed my request in at midnight on the first of the month!" That means absolutely nothing. It isn't on a first-come-first-served.
Oh, and don't try to cheat the system by sending in multiple requests or having all your friends and family send in individual requests. They will notice it and likely through out all the requests they received from you and deny the request. In other words, you will lose that place you were randomly granted via the National Park Service random number generator.
Click here for the official Grand Canyon NPS page about applying for your backcountry permits. You do still need this information to get you started on your journey.
Well, that's it for now. If you understand this - great job! You are ready for a life working within the red tape of a government bureaucracy. If not, then you are like the rest of us! Keep watching our blog. We may add an article with some tricks to getting what you want (without breaking rules). Just haven't decided yet if we are willing to give up the tricks of the trade without a price.
Hike the Grand Canyon With Just Roughin' It
This is another option to figuring out the system - just hike with us. Just Roughin' It is a hiking/backpacking guide service with hundreds of miles in Grand Canyon on our hiking boot tread. Check out the Just Roughin’ It blog or our website for more tips and information about hiking Grand Canyon.