Hiking the Grand Canyon via the North Kaibab Trail
January 18, 2012 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Questions about hiking the Grand Canyon -specifically the North Kaibab Trail. Can we hike the 14 miles up in one day?

My bride-to-be and I are going on trip to the American Southwest including three days and two nights at the Grand Canyon (North Rim). We have a campsite reserved for June 1st at the North Rim and I have my heart set on descending into the canyon to the Colorado River. Unfortunately I don't see much online about doing this specific hike in two days (14 miles down, 14 miles up) - it's mostly people taking leisurely 4 day treks or endurance hikers doing Rim to Rim in a single day. It seems like the south two trails rather than the North Kaibab are more commonly hiked up and down in a two days.

Our Options would be:

Option 1. Day 1 Hike down 14 miles. Stay at Bright Angel overnight. Day 2 Hike up 14 miles. Obviously this is ideal if possible, hence my main question.

Option 2. Hike down 14 miles on Day 1. Spend afternoon at Phantom Ranch, then in the evening Hike up 7 miles to Cottonwood Campground. (Total of 21 miles on one day, mostly downhill). Day 2 Hike up the final 7 steeper miles.

Option 3. Day 0 Skip the night at the North Rim altogether and immediately hike 7 miles to Cottonwood. Day 1 Hike 7 miles to the River and back 7 miles to Cottonwood. Day 2 Hike final 7 miles back to North Rim.

Option 4. Day 1 Hike down 14 miles. Stay at Bright Angel overnight. Day 2 Hike up 9.8 miles to the South Rim by 1:30 PM. Ride shuttle for 4.5 hours (not ideal) back to North Rim car. Then we'd have to drive even more to get to Page that same night.

We are in decent shape. I've run two marathons in the past few years although at the time of the trip I'll be in more half-marathon shape. She runs regularly as well. We hiked the Inca Trail a couple years ago (25 miles in 3.5 days, biggest day was 9.5 miles in a day) and it was more the steep stairs and the 14,000 ft altitude that made that strenuous, and we still finished hours ahead of schedule each day.

Finally, she doesn't like the heat at all, but is tough when it's asked of her. It appears the hottest temperatures (90-100+) are at the easier section between Cottonwood and Bright Angel Campgrounds? Is this at all accurate?

If we bring tons of water, take breaks, and leave early in the morning to avoid the hot temps in the inner canyon, is it fine hiking out the North Kaibab in one day? Or should we plan on one of the other options?
posted by yeti to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total)
I did the down-up hike from the South Rim (South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch for the night, and then back up via Bright Angel). In my experience it took about 4 hours to get from the south rim to Phantom Ranch, and about 6 gruelling terrible hours to get back up. We left at 5am and by 8am the heat was almost unbearable, and by 9:30 it was life-threatening requiring extensive rests every 5 or 10 minutes at most. This was in early July. Rangers said many people start the hike out at 2am in the summer and I can see the wisdom of this. The early hours climbing out of the inner canyon are not that bad because you are in the shade; it's once you're on the exposed slope and the sun crests over the main canyon that you're on a death march.

If it is really 14 miles, it's close to double the length of Bright Angel. Far too long to really be done in any semblance of comfort; this would be VERY gruelling. Maybe 8 or 10 hours, most of it in the heat? 90-100 is the temperature at the top. It was something like 108 at the bottom. Option 3 sounds like the best idea because it splits your final ascent. Evening is a nice time to hike down, too.

Don't forget you need backcountry permits to camp below the rim. It won't be crowded in June though, if my experience is like yours. Too hot.

If we bring tons of water, take breaks, and leave early in the morning to avoid the hot temps in the inner canyon

Just to point out: these are the minimum things you can do to not pass out and die of heat exhaustion. The hiking literature and guides already assumes you are fit, running marathons, and will be doing things like drinking water, resting, and hiking in the shade. The people who get into trouble and need rescue, or die, are typically young fit people who ignore warnings and assume the guidelines are written for un-fit tourists; they're not. I don't want to discourage you as the experience of doing this hike was a life highlight, but it will be tough; have no illusions.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:32 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Never been on that trail, so can't offer specific advice for that trail, but I wanted to throw this out there. Running a marathon does not get you in hiking shape. Sure, your respiratory system will be great shape with all that training, but don't underestimate the additional stress put on your body when you are carrying 20 pounds of water plus supplies on your back going down and up 5000+ feet. Not too mention the different muscle groups that are utilized by your body. I'm not saying you can't do it, but be sure to get in lots of training hikes carrying weight before the big day.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 9:32 AM on January 18, 2012

Rim to river hike in one day is not recommended by folks in the know. Rim to Roaring Springs is more do-able, but still considered "strenuous" and likely to take 6 hours or more.

A couple of years ago, we did Bright Angel up from Phantom Ranch after three days rafting on the Colorado. 9.1 miles uphill. We had ideal 70 degree weather, Bright Angel has lots of shady tree cover, and we were all in our 30's and in decent shape. We were all rested, had proper gear and plenty of provisions. It took us about six hours. It was to that point and remains the hardest thing I've ever done. One of my hiking partners and I did a marathon/half-marathon this year, and we talked afterward about how much harder the hike out of the Canyon was than long-distance running.

Also, hiking downhill for such long distances is murder on your legs and hips.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2012

Another reason I like your option 3, is that it will let you deposit your camping gear and hike free of it for the entire second day. You will be glad of that, believe me.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:54 AM on January 18, 2012

Whatever you do: each of you should take walking sticks. Note the plural!

People not in the know may look at you funny or giggle....

They're 100% worth it, 2000% worth it for consistent uphill/downhill hiking. Your knees will thank you. They will save your knees and ankles, will probably save your day (if it's salvageable), and they may save your life.

Ok, ok... that last one was a bit overly dramatic but still... seriously... take 'um. I await your thank you memail in mid-june if this is new information to you.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:08 AM on January 18, 2012

I've known people who did much more difficult trails up in a single day, so it's definitely do-able. But rushing it like this takes all the fun out of it, and turns the whole thing into a grueling chore. (Also, I have a much more difficult time going down than up, so I wouldn't do any of these -- I'm in great shape and am also a runner, but my knees wouldn't handle it.)

If you're dead set on getting to the river and back in a day from the North Rim, I'd do (and have done) Lava Falls. Not easy, but much shorter.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:16 AM on January 18, 2012

I've done your option 3. Even that was a fairly 3 days, and I wasn't doing it in 100+ weather. My one piece of advice is to bring high-quality flashlights and extra batteries, because there's a very good chance you'll have to take a break during the heat of the day and end up hiking at night.
posted by miyabo at 10:17 AM on January 18, 2012

* (fairly challening)
posted by miyabo at 10:17 AM on January 18, 2012

Some things to keep in mind:
My understanding is that rangers at Grand Canyon do between 200 and 300 rescues per year. Most of those are during the summer for people who bit off more than they could chew.

Remember that the rim of the canyon is at something like 8,000 feet elevation, so much of your hiking will be done at high elevation.

The average high for that time of year is 78 degrees with an all time high of 90. I believe the canyon gets hotter as you go lower.

Hiking in the heat at high elevation just isn't a great idea, unless you're in incredible shape. Don't ignore you fiance's dislike of the heat.

I would *really* opt for option 3 or (maybe) 4. One advantage of Option 4 is that the hike back to the North Rim is four miles longer than continuing to the South Rim, so you would likely be spending that four hours in the shuttle hiking anyway.
posted by cnc at 10:23 AM on January 18, 2012


If we do Option 3, we are staying the night before at Zion Lodge 3 hours away. Is it fine to start that hike in the afternoon and reach the campground before it gets too dark? Sunset is technically at about 7:50 but I imagine it gets darker earlier in the canyon.
posted by yeti at 10:57 AM on January 18, 2012

This is really about your preferences. I believe you could safely do any of those, it's just a matter of how fast you want to hike and what kind of weather you want to sleep and hike in. My experience in August a few years ago (and we were probably significantly less fit than you): Hiked down the South Rim, spent a miserable night at the bottom, where the LOW was 86, and then hiked back up the next day - skipping our reservation half way up because we wanted A/C and a shower - and arriving at the top around 1 pm. Glad we did it, but if I had it to do again, I might even have tried to start down earlier (5 am instead of 7 am), rested for a few hours at the bottom during the peak of the heat, and then taken a (relatively) leisurely walk up. Again, that was from the South Rim, not North.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:02 AM on January 18, 2012

I think you should be fine starting in the afternoon, as long as you're aware that you'll likely have to set up camp and cook dinner after dark. On a different trip to the GC, that's what we had to do and it was totally fine. At least until our one flashlight ran out of batteries. Bring extras!
posted by miyabo at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2012

I can tell you that my friend and I arrived at our North Rim campsite a few years ago with the idea of doing exactly this.

After spending an afternoon there evaluating the conditions, checking out the summer heat and light and humidity levels, talking to people, and reading the abundant literature and warnings, we decided not to. This was more than 10 years ago when I was younger and fitter than I am now, and I still think it was a good decision - we were simply underprepared and overoptimistic, and I didn't want our trip to end in physical problems and heat exhaustion. Instead, we had a really great 12-mile roundtrip hike along the rim through the tall pines, with amazing views of the canyon all along the way. It was cool and comfortable and beautiful. If you only have a day, I can highly recommend this.

I still want to go to Phantom Ranch but am waiting until I can allow a proper amount of time.
posted by Miko at 12:47 PM on January 18, 2012

Whatever you do: each of you should take walking sticks.

Second this. Didn't have em, survived like I said that ascent was very difficult, and joints and muscles were sore for weeks, and you're doing 3X the distance I did. Seconding "hardest thing I ever did". And also second the headlamps -- this should be common sense emergency checklist stuff though, and if you didn't already know you would need them, please start reading up on backcountry safety. Do bear in mind that one twisted ankle and you're stranded in a pretty inhospitable place and help will likely have to come on foot, which could take a while.

When I descended South Kaibab I started at 2:00pm and got to Phantom Ranch in time for dinner. There was still plenty of light at 7, I seem to recall. I think your Option 3 plan would be fine as long as you get started in early afternoon rather than late. I don't know what the hike to Cottonwood is like, but if it's 7 miles it should be comparable to South Kaibab.

Phantom Ranch is a cool spot to chill in, by the way. Nice and shady with grass and streams. They serve breakfast and dinner - don't think they do lunch which is a shame, you'll miss the hot meal (you have to order these in advance by the way) - and they have a little store where you can buy limited supplies (gatorade powder, for example). And postcards you can mail which go out by mule and are postmarked 'sent by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon'. It's cute.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:54 AM on January 19, 2012

Thanks everyone. We're planning to go with Option 3. We'll keep our reservation for the North Rim just in case we get there and it's too late to head down or weather conditions aren't worth it.
posted by yeti at 6:49 AM on January 19, 2012

Come back in June and let us know how it turned out!
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:06 AM on January 20, 2012

Well, it turned out to be moot point. We faxed the backcountry application in first thing in the morning on Feb 1 and didn't get Cottonwood Campground for any of our options. We'll do the North Kaibab Trail as a day hike to Roaring Springs and back instead.

On the plus side, this means we'll be car camping our entire road trip so we wont have to buy/pack the extra gear to do 1-2 nights in the backcountry.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by yeti at 6:46 AM on February 13, 2012

Well, we're back. As mentioned in February, we couldn't camp below the rim, so we did the day hike to Roaring Springs. This may have been a blessing since when we arrived at the North Rim, there was a note from the Ranger Station stating that the water pipe had burst washing out 40 feet of the trail, that all water between Supai Tunnel and Phantom Ranch was turned off, and that Cottonwood Campground was actually closed. However, as we found on the trail, there were definitely campers who had stayed at Cottonwood coming up who had bypassed the washed out trail. Later that day, the rangers did indeed allow hikers/campers to use a bypass, but none of this was really apparent when we first showed up.

Anyway, the hike to Roaring Springs was fun and just strenuous enough in the late morning heat. We left at 5:30 AM and it took 2:20 to get there. After a 20 minute break and a sandwich, we headed back up and it took another 2:45 to go up, finishing right before 11:00. When we got to the top, the Rangers meanwhile had updated the note saying that while water may be on at Supai going down, to be aware it may be off when coming up as they fixed the pipe. Yikes! Luckily that didn't happen, because we had counted on refilling there on the way up.
posted by yeti at 8:55 AM on June 12, 2012

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