Hiking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in One Day
Grand Canyon is the hiker's paradise, well, the hiker that is looking for a challenge. Any trail at the canyon that takes you below the rim is at least moderately strenuous in difficulty and the difficulty only rises as the temperatures get warmer. But with over 300 miles of hiking trail in Grand Canyon, the Rim to Rim hike is the one that tends to entice hikers and runners from all over the world - for good or bad. The best way to really experience the canyon is to go off the beaten path and spend several days backpacking below the rim on a Hermit or Tanner to Grandview trip. Or, better yet, go on the original Rim to Rim trip along the Bass trails. And of course there is the traditional Rim to Rim backpacking trip over 3 or 4 days - much more time to see the canyon and not your feet. But if you must hike Rim to Rim in a day (or Rim to Rim to Rim), follow these tips to make it a safe journey. Also, read about hiking in Grand Canyon in the Summer as many of those tips apply here. And as a guide, avid desert hiker and having hiked Rim to Rim over a day and multiple days many months of the year, this article is from a multitude of personal experiences.
Hiking across Grand Canyon isn’t a walk in the park. In fact, the National Park Service discourages Rim to Rim hikes in one day because there’s a high potential for severe injury and/or illness that requires emergency assistance - something that is not easy to get in the backcountry. Temperatures in the inner canyon can reach 100+ degrees F by mid to late May and through early September (temperatures most people in the US do not experience). Way too many people descend into the canyon ill-prepared with assumptions about the terrain, climate and difficulty of the hike, resulting at times, in dire consequences.
Go as close to May 15th as you can or wait until late September/October
The road to the North Rim (SR 67) does not open until May 15th of every year so access to the North Kaibab trail head is impossible until that date - and that is assuming the road opens on that date. There have been occasions - albeit rare - that SR 67 opened after May 15th due to a late season snow. But while the North Rim, at an elevation of over 8,000 ft, can see below freezing temperatures, the bottom of the canyon at 2,400 ft will see temps in the high 90s. Consider what you have heard about temperatures in Phoenix, AZ May through September and then imagine hiking in Phoenix those same months - hot, hot, HOT. Well, inner canyon temperatures are not much cooler than those in the summer in Phoenix and you don't have an air conditioned building just a few feet away from your air conditioned car.
Train, train and train some more!
The more popular North to South Rim to Rim is a 23.5 mile hike that is tougher on your body than most marathons and should be approached with the same respect. You wouldn't wake one morning and say "Hey! I think I am going to run a marathon tomorrow!" Having only run 5 miles at any given time, a 26.2 mile run is not advised without a 12-18 week training regimen. There are many ways to train for any Grand Canyon hike - long or short - and you have to ensure you can get out of the canyon. There is no easy way out if you get injured or just felt like quitting half way through - no cars, no mules, no helicopters. As the park service says - "Hiking in is optional, hiking out is mandatory." Cardiovascular training like running, cycling, hiking - and as much outdoor time as possible - is important. Muscle conditioning is essential - lunges and squats, core training, even some Yoga and Pilates. Remember too that hiking downhill is a workout, one most people just don't expect.
Where's the water?
The most important item - WATER! Make certain you are have at least 3 liters of carrying capacity. While there is a pipeline running from Roaring Springs to the South Rim, this pipeline often breaks so ALWAYS have a back up to treat water wherever you run across it - Bright Angel Creek, Colorado River, Pipe Creek and Garden Creek. When the pipeline is intact, there is treated water out of a spigot (from North to South) at Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, the Pumphouse (Akins Cabin), Cottonwood camp, Phantom Ranch, Indian Garden, 3 Mile Rest House and Mile and a Half Rest House.
What to take
Aside from water, you will need waterproof sunblock, lip balm with SPF, an extra pair of socks, a hat, cotton t-shirts for the inner canyon (yes cotton - read this!) and some wicking long-sleeved layers. Yes, it is hot in the inner canyon, but the desert is arid and temperatures drop significantly when the sun goes down, not to mention that the rim temperatures are much cooler so you will find yourself with a chill if you are waiting on the North or South Rim with just a tank top and shorts. Did I mention you are dealing with the weather? The canyon has been known to have 20 F swings in temperature in a matter of a few hours so be prepared for those things out of your control. You also never know, you might find yourself taking a bit longer than expected and the sun is going down. With that said, a headlamp should also be in your day pack - again, just in case. Grand Canyon trails do not light up at night. Always prepare for the worst case, not just the bare essentials.You’ll also need food - real food. Salty snacks (peanut butter pretzels, trail mixes,) are your best choice to replace electrolytes. Peanut butter and jelly is an awesome lunch for a long hike! You can drink your electrolytes but getting them from real food is always best. And the most important item - broken in hiking shoes.
North to South or South to North?
Most hikers will start on the north side since you are starting at an elevation 1,000 ft higher than the South Rim, therefore it is overall easier. However, either direction works. Both sides of the canyon have facilities - camping, lodging, restaurants. The South Rim, or Grand Canyon Village, is much more populated and has more accommodations to choose from - the North Rim's seclusion is a nice beginning or end to any hike. Which ever direction you choose, you will want to spend the night before you start your trek as your start time will be bright and early - like 5am! This is where those clothing layers come in. For a South Rim start, go down the South Kaibab trail (shorter, steeper and saves you 3.5 miles of hiking - but no water on the trail). Plus, there is a hiker's shuttle from Bright Angel Lodge that will take you directly to the trail head. If going from the North Rim, bear in mind that the North Kaibab trail is not easily accessible from the lodge so you will need to be sure to reserve a seat on the hiker's shuttle that has limited space and departure times.
Take a breather at Cottonwood, Phantom Ranch and Indian Garden
As mentioned earlier, May is not typically a cool month for hiking Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, but since it is not possible any earlier in the Spring, make sure you are prepared for the warm inner canyon. As you are hiking, be aware of the temperatures as they rise and take advantage of any shady spots you can stop to rest a spell, get wet in one of the creeks or be prepared to wait out the heat of the day for the trails to shade over. The inner canyon can, and has, seen temperatures of 115+ F in the shade in mid May. Instead of trudging through in pure sunshine of 120+ F, wait until later in the day to continue your hike. If going North to South, Indian Garden is perfect for a long break and Cottonwood for the South to North hiker. and if you have too, grab that headlamp and hike out at night. A night hike is preferable to a heat stroke. And of course, you will be passing through Phantom Ranch so be sure to top off your water, get a lemonade and maybe a couple more snacks.
So if you decided that you must conquer the canyon with a Rim to Rim in a day, make sure you follow these tips so the canyon does not conquer you.