The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, about a mile deep, and averages 10 miles wide “as the crow flies”. But if you don’t have wings, and you want to travel across it, you have to hike!
South Rim to Bright Angel Campground via the Bright Angel Trail = 9.5 miles/4380’ net loss
Bright Angel Campground to North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail = 14 miles/5761’ net gain
RIM TO RIM = 23.5 miles (24.1 miles with Ribbon Falls included)
On the evening of September 25th, 2013, Samantha and I had just returned from a hike out to Plateau Point, catching a magnificent sunset on the way back to our campsite at Indian Garden Campground inside the Grand Canyon. We were chatting with our immediate neighbors for the night, George and Judi, a couple from the Bay Area who, it turned out, had met on a Sierra Club hike just like we had. Their fateful meeting, they told us, took place on Angel Island in 1973, forty years ago. They were around our parents’ age, and were in phenomenal physical shape. We learned that they did a “Rim to Rim” trip together every year, and that once they were done with their backpacking George had the tradition of then running from Rim to Rim, with help from Judi in the form of car shuttling.
We took a break from chatting with them and gathered all of the supplies from our packs needed to prepare our first dinner inside the Canyon. I unfolded the legs of my backpacking stove, grabbed the fuel bottle, and…
It hit me.
You see, I have two fuel bottles that I use for camping and backpacking. One holds 22 fl. oz., the other 30 fl. oz. I had brought the larger bottle along, figuring it would be better to have too much fuel for our five-day/four-night trip than too little. Indeed, I had more fuel with me than we would need, for sure.
There was just one problem.
The bottle in front of me had the screw top on that it came with. The pump for the stove – I now realized – was fastened to the smaller fuel bottle: the one I use more frequently, and the one that was currently nestled in a closet in our apartment in L.A.
It took months of preparation to be where we were right now. Samantha had prepared delicious home-cooked meals and dehydrated them so we would have incredible eats to reward us at the end of each day inside the Canyon.
And now – one stupid mistake (mine!) and the rest of our trip lay in the balance. My brain raced a mile a minute, trying to assess all of our options to see if, in fact, there was a solution that would keep us from having to hike back out the following day and bring our glorious Rim to Rim backpacking trip to a very sad and premature close.
Would I have to depend upon the kindness of strangers, asking to borrow someone else’s stove each night at each campground we reached?
Would we have to eat our hot food cold?
I’m not sure what words I used to convey the distressing reality of the situation to Samantha, but I finally uttered them out loud.
In the dark, I heard George’s voice from the next campsite over: “What kind of stove do you have?”
“It’s a Whisperlite,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said. “We have the same one. You can use ours tonight, and then when you’re done with it just leave it on our table so we’ll have it in the morning to use for breakfast.”
Problem solved! For tonight, anyway…
“Actually,” Judi chimed in from inside their tent, “we’re hiking out tomorrow, and won’t need it again after breakfast. You can borrow it again then, if you like, take it with you, and mail it back to us when you get home.”
“Oh my God, thank you!!!” I replied, with undoubtedly noticeable relief.
Since we had a working stove, I just borrowed their pump (and fuel bottle, since they were attached), and we exchanged contact info.
“I’m an attorney,” George told me, handing me his business card. “And,” he offered with a wink, “part-time relationship saver.”
I marveled at our good fortune in meeting them when we did. What were the odds that:
a) We would find someone camped right next to us who used the same stove?
b) They’d be kind enough to let us borrow the part(s) of theirs we needed? And:
c) They wouldn’t need it for what constituted the remainder of our trip, because they (hiking in the opposite direction) would be hiking out of the Canyon the next day (while we had four more days to go)?
If George and Judi hadn’t just saved our trip altogether, they certainly came to our rescue in terms of eating well and maintaining our morale!
When George learned we were hiking from the South Rim to the North, he had a couple of things to say.
The first was: “I’d never do it that way!” (It’s theoretically more difficult, requiring close to 1400’ of additional uphill travel compared to the opposite route).
The second was: “Where will you two be on Saturday?”
We told him Saturday would be the day we would be hiking up to Cottonwood (the third and final campground on our journey).
“Well, I’ll be one of a group of five runners running Rim to Rim that day [yes, in a single day…in fact, I would learn that he finished the whole thing in just over 8 hours]. Look out for us, and I’ll do the same!”
Two Versions of “Crazy”
We did see George on the North Kaibab Trail three mornings later, not all that far from Phantom Ranch. We with our fully loaded backpacks trudging upward, and he in skimpy running attire and with few provisions making his way to the bottom.
The surprising thing was that we did not merely see four other folks running from Rim to Rim. We saw GROUPS of them – at least three big organized groups we recognized from their event T-shirts, not to mention numerous other smaller parties doing so without any fanfare.
When we backpackers encountered these runners, there seemed to be a mutual expression of external politeness coupled with an internal feeling of the other being certifiably loony. From our perspective: why would you want to run through probably some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth, no doubt missing much of its magnificence, all the while suffering tremendously with all of the downhill and then uphill demands of the trails? And their perspective was often (if not verbalized, then) visibly written all over their faces: Why would you want to carry all that heavy shit on your backs all the way from Rim to Rim???
To each his own, I suppose…
Those planning a Rim to Rim trip must make a bunch of important logistical decisions. Among them:
1. North to South, or South to North?
2. Bright Angel Trail, or South Kaibab Trail?
3. How many days to take?
4. What time of year to go?
Here are the choices we made in regard to the above questions:
1. I chose South to North, which turns out to be the less popular way to do this (due to more uphill climbing). However, I liked the idea of finishing at the North Rim, where I had previously never been, and where there are substantially fewer people (only about 10% of all visitors to Grand Canyon National Park visit the North Rim, largely because it is harder to get to). I have no regrets about this choice – our trip was spectacular. That said, I’m sure yours would be equally so whichever direction you choose!
2. The only option for getting from the canyon bottom to the North Rim (or vice versa) is to take the North Kaibab Trail. However, there are two choices for getting from the canyon bottom to the South Rim (or vice versa): the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail. We chose the Bright Angel Trail for the simple reason that there are water sources along the way (an important consideration for backpackers – water is heavy!). The South Kaibab Trail is a shorter route to the bottom (6.9 miles, 4740’ net loss), but a good deal steeper: there’s 360 more feet to descend, and 2.6 fewer miles within which to do so. It also has no available water, and requires that you do the whole thing in one day to get to a water source and campground. The South Kaibab Trail is a good one to take if you are hiking down to the bottom from the South Rim without a full backpack (I did this back in 2000, stayed overnight at Phantom Ranch, and hiked out the next day via the Bright Angel Trail). Of course, you could choose to hike Rim to Rim TO RIM and get to hike on all three “Corridor” Trails (South Kaibab on the way down, North Kaibab up and then back down, and then Bright Angel on the way up and out), but that’s a whole other thing altogether. 🙂
3. While some folks apparently traverse on foot from Rim to Rim in a single day (more power to you, and make sure you know what you are doing!), Samantha and I deliberately planned to do so in a leisurely five days. Along with making it easier to manage from a hiking/backpacking standpoint, it also offered us more opportunities to appreciate the majesty of the inside of the Canyon (the least we could do, considering it took the Artist some 1.7 billion years to create what we see there today, bottom to top!).
4. The general consensus on the ideal time to do a Rim to Rim hike, from a weather standpoint, is roughly mid-to-late May or mid-September to mid-October. This is, in part, due to the fact that there is a 20-30°F difference in temperature between the rims and the bottom of the canyon, and the canyon bottom is brutally hot in the summertime.
If you plan on staying at a campground (or two or three) along the way, you must first procure a permit, as spaces are limited and highly coveted, especially during the popular seasons I just mentioned. As the form indicates, “Requests must be postmarked or faxed no earlier than the first of the month, four months prior to the proposed start month.” In my case, this meant faxing the form over on the first day of May for a planned September hike.
As it turned out, I lucked out in two big ways:
#1: I was granted a permit for my first preference of requested dates: Wednesday, 9/25, thru Sunday, 9/29.
#2: Though I couldn’t have known it at the time, the U.S. would endure a 16-day government shutdown beginning on October 1st, during which time (among other things) all national parks would be closed! (My heart goes out to all who were adversely affected by this – seemingly, to me – totally unnecessary national disgrace.) We finished our trip, and got to spend a full day at the North Rim afterwards as planned (on 9/30), just in the nick of time.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Day One (Wednesday, September 25, 2013): Bright Angel Trailhead (6860’) to Indian Garden Campground (3800’) – 4.8 miles/3060’ net loss
Day Two (Thursday, September 26, 2013): Indian Garden Campground (3800’) to Bright Angel Campground (2480’) – 4.7 miles/1320’ net loss
Day Three (Friday, September 27, 2013): A full day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to explore, and a second night spent at Bright Angel Campground.
Day Four (Saturday, September 28, 2013): Bright Angel Campground (2480’) to Cottonwood Campground (4080’) – 7.2 miles/1600’ net gain
Day Five (Sunday, September 29, 2013): Cottonwood Campground (4080’) to North Kaibab Trailhead (8241’) – 6.8 miles/4161’ net gain
Advantages of Our Approach
Here were some of the key benefits of spending five days and four nights inside the Grand Canyon:
1. On Day One, we were able to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. I took a short mid-day siesta and appreciated the oasis that was Indian Garden Campground. We also thoroughly enjoyed a 3-mile round-trip hike (without our packs) from the campground out to Plateau Point just before sunset. Breathtaking.
2. On Day Two, after arriving at Bright Angel Campground, we enjoyed wading in Bright Angel Creek and marveling at the views from the bottom of Grand Canyon, a place that only a very small percentage of the park’s visitors ever see.
3. Perhaps the single best decision I made in planning our trip was giving us the luxury of a full day (Day Three) at the Canyon’s bottom. Not only did we get to enjoy some amazing day hikes without our heavy packs, but we got to experience some blissful solitude, not at all possible on the heavily trafficked “Corridor” trails. We did not see a single soul on the magnificent Clear Creek Trail, and deep into our hike on it we stopped, sat in a choice spot, and just reveled in the beauty all around us. It felt as if we had the whole canyon to ourselves, and was one of the highlights of the trip.
4. On Day Four, we indulged in a magical mid-afternoon treat by visiting Ribbon Falls and cooling off in the pool at its bottom. Ribbon Falls is only about a .3-mile excursion off of the North Kaibab Trail, but we hung out there for a good long while without having to worry about making it to our camping destination (Cottonwood, which, incidentally, was our favorite of the three campgrounds due to the views and relative privacy it afforded).
5. Last, but certainly not least, our “relaxed” approach allowed us to take our time, relish the scenery, take a ton of pictures, and have more of an immersion experience in a place that no words can sufficiently describe.
You can pause the slideshow below at any time by moving the cursor into the frame and clicking on the “pause” button in between the arrow buttons at the bottom. The arrow buttons allow you to scroll through in either direction at your own pace: