Hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim

by Kim on August 21, 2012 · 42 comments

I’m sidelined here in Quito, Ecuador with a bit of Montezuma’s Revenge. The good news? 24-hours in bed, rising only to sprint to the toilet, has given me some quality time with my computer. I’m catching up on the final posts from our U.S. road trip.

It’s going to be quiet around here for a week or so because Brian and I are headed to the Galapagos Islands tomorrow. I plan to post lots of pictures on the So Many Places Facebook page and write extensively about the experience when we return.

Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

Our rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon was the event that Brian and I based our whole summer road trip around. I’d snagged a late-July permit for a four-day, three-night backpacking trek from the canyon’s north rim to the canyon’s south rim, then I promptly began worrying about dying from heatstroke. My irrational fears know no bounds.

On the day before our trip was to start, we parked our car in the parking lot of the Bright Angel Trailhead and caught a shuttle to the north rim of the canyon where we’d reserved a campsite. Though the hike from one end of the canyon to the other is only 23 miles, traversing via shuttle takes 4.5 hours. It was our first glimpse at the size and remoteness of the Grand Canyon.

A view of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim

The temperature can easily reach 120 degrees at the bottom of the canyon so we packed lightly, leaving our sleeping bags and warm-weather clothes in the car. We were unfortunately unaware that the north rim of the canyon, perched as it is at 8,180 feet elevation, gets dang cold when the sun goes down. We hugged each other and shivered through a sleepless night until 4:30 a.m. when the alarm on Brian’s watch sounded and we rose to hit the trail before the sun came up.

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Day 1 took us down and down some more until we’d descended 6.7 miles to the canyon floor. Brian and I felt like the only two humans around as we passed looming canyon walls and red rock faces.

Heading down into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim

Down, down, down we go

We did not see another person until we reached Cottonwood Campground where we would stay for the night. Brian’s watch read 9:15 a.m. as we erected our tent. When camp was assembled we sat to eat lunch and rest our aching feet.

Our home on night 1: Cottonwood Campground

The problem with finishing your day at 9:15 in the morning is that you’re damn bored by noon. So we decided to put our boots back on and hike the 3-miles round trip to Ribbon Falls, a thin cascade of water falling over a shock of green moss, tucked away in a canyon crevice.

Ribbon Falls

We stripped and stood beneath the falls, letting the cold water pound our tired shoulders and clean the dirt and dust from our bodies.

Afterwards, we climbed the trail that leads behind the falls and fell asleep to the roar of the water. Eventually a clap of thunder awoke us and we scurried back to camp racing the rain.

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We awoke on day 2 excited about our destination: Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is a village of cabins, ranger stations, campgrounds and, most importantly, an air-conditioned cantina, located smack dab at the bottom of the canyon. Walking into Phantom Ranch after hiking in isolation feels like stumbling upon a lost civilization.

On the trail to Phantom Ranch

The Ranger Station at Phantom Ranch

The seven miles from Cottonwood Camp to Phantom Ranch were relatively flat and easy and we were pitching our tent at the Bright Angel Campground by 9 a.m. The day was already sweltering so we changed into our bathing suits and submerged ourselves in Bright Angel Creek, enjoying the soaking pools that Phantom Ranch staff had constructed out of rocks.

When the heat was too much to bear we headed to the cantina to drink icy cold Tecate and play board games, waiting out the hottest part of the afternoon in relative comfort.

Enjoying the AC and a cold Tecate at Phantom Ranch cantina

In the evening, Brian and I attended the stew dinner served family-style at the cantina. The recipe served up at Phantom Ranch has not changed in 100 years and it was delicious. We happily stuffed our faces with stew, salad, cornbread and cake while chatting with our fellow hikers. It was fun to take part in a tradition that dates back an entire century.

Our bellies full, we waddled back to camp and climbed into our tent. With the rainfly removed to help keep us cool I drifted off to sleep under a canopy of glowing stars.

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On day three we woke earliest of all. We’d decided that instead of hiking to Indian Garden campground, the third stop on our backpacking itinerary, we’d make the long 9.5 mile push to the south rim and climb out of the canyon instead.

We began walking before daybreak and crossed over the Colorado River just as the sun was beginning to rise.  

The sun rises over the Colorado River

By 7 a.m. we’d made it to Indian Garden where we stopped to rest and refill our water. We knew that the toughest part of the climb was still before us.

Actually, tough is an understatement. The climb out of the Grand Canyon was nothing but brutal. We averaged less than two miles an hour as we climbed switchback after switchback, slowly inching our way almost 4,400 feet to the top of the canyon. We were blessed with cloud cover and temperatures in the eighties. Had it been 100 and sunny I might have dropped to my knees and begged for an airlift. 

Regardless, five hours later we made it to the top- sweaty and sore and grateful to be done. We looked out over the Grand Canyon and congratulated ourselves on the accomplishment. It’d been a damn hard climb, but worth every step.

Perhaps even better than reaching the south rim in one piece, though, were the people that we met along the way. The IT employee and his son entering culinary school. The 22-year old recent college graduate and her mother who were on a mother-daughter road trip. Pat and Frank, in their sixties, who we bonded with over marathon running and who kicked our butts up the canyon and then greeted us at the top with high-fives and smiles and words of encouragement.

These are the people that we’d not have met if we hadn’t left our comfort zone to step out and explore the world. These are the people that remind me that there is an earth full of kind and amazing souls just waiting to call us friends.

Celebrating a successful rim-to-rim hike with our new friends Pat and Frank

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Patti August 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Years and years ago we took the mule trip down the canyon. The first hour no one says a word and/or barely breathes (paralyzing fear) as the mules walk the outside edge of the trail. After the first hour you start to relax and take in the amazing canyon that encompasses you. We did not go all the way to Phantom Ranch, which is an overnight trip, and I’m glad because we could barely walk after 8 hours on those mules, I can’t imagine spending the night at the ranch and then getting on a mule the next morning. My body screamed in pain with every movement for days, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Oh yeah, when I saw people coming down on mules I thought to myself that there is no way I’d do that… they’re so close to the edge!

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Jordan August 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Oh no, I hope you’re feeling better before heading to the Galapagos! Your grand canyon pictures are beautiful by the way, and it looks like the waterfall made a great last minute addition to your trip.

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Jordan, we got better just in time… thank god! That waterfall was unreal…

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Michele August 21, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Love the image of you guys catching some zzzzz in a hidey-hole behind the falls! So glad you splurged on the Galapagos! Good for you!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Thanks Michele :)

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Jen m August 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Hope you feel better soon. What made you guys decide not to stay in the canyon for the third night like you had planned?

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Hi Jen. We skipped the third night because the hike to the campsite was only about four miles and we would have arrived by 8 a.m. Then we would have had to kill the whole day in the heat (there isn’t any water to sit in at that third campsite). We just wanted to take a shower and be cool, so we decided to hike out.

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Kindra August 21, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Great photos – love the one of Ribbon Falls!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Thanks Kindra!

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Lindsey August 22, 2012 at 1:00 am

Oh man, this looks absolutely awe inspiring! Hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim just got added to my research list for a US road trip. I want to use so many adjectives that sound so cliche. Just wow. That last photo of the sunrise – I want to see that :)

Have fun in the Galapagos!! Can’t wait to see photos.

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Lindsey, it really is an amazing thing to do. Make sure you buy the hikers stew at Phantom Ranch in advance!

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Manda August 22, 2012 at 1:16 am

Oh Gosh I LOVE the pic of the sunrise. Ive been to the canyon twice and both times it was snowing so didnt get to do any trails as they were unsafe.
So very jealous of you two right now!! Such an amazing adventure and how awesome you set out to see a bit of your own backyard before heading out to see the rest of the world.

I cant wait to embark on my new journey. 9 weeks till I touch down in Canada!!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Hi Manda. I bet the Grand Canyon while snowing would be a totally different (and beautiful) experience!

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Sarah Somewhere August 22, 2012 at 4:15 am

Got a bin close by?! Hope you feel better for the Galapogas. Beautiful photos of the canyon, I loved reading about your journey. You guys are hardcore. What an accomplishment!!!!!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Sarah, you know a thing or two about having a bin nearby, don’t you? ;)

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Traveling Ted August 22, 2012 at 5:34 am

This post reminds me of my hike in the Grand Canyon. My thighs are burning remembering the grueling hike back up out of the canyon. Someone once told me you don’t hike to the top of the canyon, but you let the top of the canyon come to you. Meaning that you don’t focus on getting to the top. Instead you take focus on taking the next step and eventually it will come. Good advice that can be applied to other areas as well.

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm

That is definitely good advice… you can only take it step by step- it’s too hard otherwise. Reminds me of a quote about running by a famous marathoner: “run the mile you are in.”

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Janett March 22, 2014 at 12:37 am

No! It starts off as sand and when you heat it ,it turns into glass ! The glass has to be hetead to a very high temp. to become a liquid again! So it’s not going to fall out! Yes it is because the molecules slow down that it stays in shape! Heat it and the molecules speed up!

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Christine August 22, 2012 at 5:51 am

just wrote about my first visit to the Grand Canyon and how it was a little disappointing–I think because we didn’t actually go IN the Rim. Certainly thinking about tackling a Rim to Rim hike one day–looks gorgeous!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Hi Christine. Yep, it would be a totally different experience to just see the canyon from the top. Also, did you go to the north rim at all? It is SO different (and I think better) than the south rim.

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Leigh August 22, 2012 at 6:03 am

About 5 years ago I joined about 9 guys and headed down from the north rim with the intention of getting to the south rim by nightfall. We did just that but I was one tired, stiff hiker. The next day we took off – I could barely walk. In fact I was quite happy eating and sitting in the El Tovar restaurant. Day 3 took us back to the north rim on foot. That’s the most up & down + mileage I’ve ever done over a few days. As I look through your photos I am reminded of what a wonderful trip it was.
Enjoy the Galapagos!

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Wow- rim to rim to rim. I’d like to do that someday :) I can imagine you couldn’t walk for awhile :)

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Carmel August 22, 2012 at 7:12 am

Wow, what an experience. Congratulations on making it out in one piece…

I just heard about a half marathon in Idaho that has an elevation gain of over 5,000 feet. Doesn’t that sound fun after your hiking adventure?

Hope you feel better soon! Can’t wait to see pictures from the Galapagos.

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Kim September 8, 2012 at 8:10 pm

What? Where is that half marathon??? That sounds worse than the Bend marathon :)

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Sarah Ram August 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

After visiting the Grand Canyon last year as a South Rim Tourist, my dream was to go down to the Colorado by mule – now I want to hike rim to rim! I love your beautiful pictures and words – they always make me feel as though I’m experiencing a tiny bit of what you and Brian are. Hope your feeling better soon, Kim – the Galapagos sound amazing, can’t wait to ‘go’ there with you!

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Kim September 9, 2012 at 6:33 am

Thank you Sarah. You TOTALLY should go down to Phantom Ranch! There’s a way you can go to the bottom via either the north or south rim (and then up the same rim) but I think it’s fun to say you’ve gone rim to rim ;)

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Hannah August 24, 2012 at 6:42 am

This sounds like the most amazing hiking adventure – I have to do it one day! When I visited the Grand Canyon we just did a few easy hikes and had a BBQ as we watched the condors circle above. We also took a helicopter ride through the canyon, which was expensive, but incredible. Enjoy the Galapagos – can’t wait to hear all about your time there :)

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Kim September 9, 2012 at 6:34 am

Oh, I bet that helicopter ride was amazing- a great way to get a sense of how big the canyon really is.

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OurLifeExperiments August 27, 2012 at 7:31 pm

You guys are tough!! We only did the Bright Angle trail to the bottom of the canyon and back. When we were done though, we met two grandmas (I don’t say this in jest, these ladies were well in their seventies), who’d just hiked the whole hike like you guys did. I think it took them longer, but hey, they did it! I hope we all age like them! :o) Happy travels to the islands!
Maria and Sky

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Kim September 9, 2012 at 6:34 am

So amazing! I want to be a grandma like that one day :)

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Dustin August 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Loved seeing the pictures and bringing back good and bad memories, I see how rushing through it we missed highlights like the soup and Ribbon Falls (jealous) :)

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Kim September 9, 2012 at 6:35 am

The stew was AMAZING (as was the falls). You can always go back and do it again!

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Diana September 9, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Stumbled across this doing some research for my own trip. What an amazing experience you had! My friend and I are hiking for 3 days in the opposite direction a month from now. I’m getting very excited (and nervous!), but also now a little disappointed because the stew dinners were sold out! ;) I am, however, thrilled we won’t be dealing with 100+ degree heat.

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Kim September 10, 2012 at 5:09 am

You will have an AMAZING time! It’s a bummer about the stew dinners, but you can still hang out at Phantom Ranch before and after the meal- we met a lot of great people that way. Lucky, too, that you won’t have the heat. ENJOY YOURSELF!!

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TammyOnTheMove September 14, 2012 at 3:16 am

I have never really considered hiking the grand canyon. I just thought people go to that scary glass viewing platform and then leave again. Looks like an amazing trek though. Thanks for sharing.

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Kim September 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

I think it’s the best want to see the canyon (much better than the scary glass overhang!)

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Scott B March 2, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Looks like a great National Parks road trip. If you could only hike at one park – which would it be?

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Trine-Marie May 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Wow, I really, really enjoyed reading this! Mostly because me and my husband are going on our own road trip this summer (and a Grand Canyon hike has definitely been planned) and I am completely addicted to planning it, but also because you’re a great writer and got me hooked from the very start! I’m now going to read about the rest of your trip and see if I can’t pick up some pointers :)
Trine-Marie recently posted..Things Are Looking Up!

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Kim May 6, 2014 at 6:18 am

Thanks Trine-Marie. Have fun on your trip and let me know if you have any questions!!!

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