Hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim

by Kim on August 21, 2012 · 44 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.


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.


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.


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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