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THE DESERT RAT GUIDE TO GOING RIM TO RIM AT GRAND CANYON

The Canyon rim-to-rim is considered by many to be the hike of a lifetime. Many are those who see this as a goal for a milestone birthday, such as a 40th or 50th.

This hike is complicated by several factors, to wit:

The North rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October because the roads are closed due to snow in winter.

  • Mid-May to mid-October is summer in the Sonoran Desert, which the bottom of the Canyon happens to be. Therefore the time frame of when the North rim is open and when one will not boil one's brains out one's ears due to high temperatures is very short.

  • The North rim is a 4-hour drive from the South rim.

  • The North rim is 1000 feet higher than the South rim.

  • Let us review these items one at a time:

    THE NORTH RIM IS NOT ACCESSABLE YEAR-ROUND, AND WHEN IT IS, IT IS NOT ALWAYS NICE IN THE BOTTOM.

    The road into the North Rim will close in fall with the first major snowstorm and will not re-open until spring. Usually this means about May 15 to about October 15.

    From June through September, it is really, really, really hot in the Canyon. How hot is it? Look at the records for the bottom of the Canyon Phantom Ranch Weather Statistics. Suffice it to say that daytime temperatures top 100 in the shade, and in the middle of the summer they can top 120. Nighttime lows may not go lower than 90.

    THE NORTH RIM IS A FOUR-HOUR DRIVE FROM THE SOUTH RIM.

    There is no bridge, no highway, no way from south to north except driving a long way around.

    There are a few ways to handle this difficulty:

    Have a non-hiking friend drop you off at one of the rims, preferably the North, and drive around to pick you up.

    Have two groups, one going north to south, one going south to north, and meet in the middle to exchange car keys.

    Hike across one way, rest a day, and then hike back. Most people really, really don't want to hike back across once they have made it one way, so don't commit yourself to this option unless you are a majorly mongo elite type runner and/or hiker who enjoys pain and suffering.

    Hire the Trans-canyon Shuttle to take you around. As of this writing, the shuttle leaves the north rim at 7:00 a.m. and arrives at the south rim at 11:30 a.m, then again at 2:00 PM to arrive at South Rim at 6:30 PM. . The van leaves the south rim at 8:00 Am to arrive at North Rim at 12:30 PM, then at 1:30 p.m. and arrives back at the north rim at 6:00 PM.

    The fare is $90 per person one-way. The shuttle runs from May 15 through October 16, with limited service October 17-31. Be sure to call for reservations, (928-638-282) particularly after October 15 when the North rim is closed. Charter service is available as well.

    THE NORTH RIM IS 1000 FEET HIGHER THAN THE SOUTH RIM.

    This means that number one, if you spend the night on the North Rim prior to an early start (always a good idea) you will be sleeping in much colder conditions than when you start hiking. If you are camping, you will want to arrange for someone to bring your cold-weather gear around for you rather than carrying it. It is not uncommon to sleep in freezing cold temperatures on the North Rim, then hike down into weather so hot that you don't even need a sleeping bag at night.

    This further means that almost everyone wants to hike north to south. Why climb out an extra 1000 feet, after all? If you have a two groups switching keys method of arranging for your shuttle, this means there may be fisticuffs involving who wants to start from the North Rim.

    I can handle all that: how long will this take me?

    The shortest rim to rim is 21 miles, utilizing the North and South Kaibabs. The longest is 24, utilizing the North Kaibab and the Bright Angel. Many people prefer this route, even though the Bright Angel is longer, because the BA has shade and water, which the South Kaibab does not.

    People do the rim to rim in a day. This is not recommended. The Park Service is really tired of hauling people out of the Canyon because they were certain they could do the rim to rim in a day and couldn't. This is more difficult than a marathon. On most marathons, one does not have to climb out 4800 to 5800 feet. Nor do they usually run in 120-degree heat carrying all their water and other supplies. MARATHON RUNNERS HAVE TROUBLE DOING THIS IN A DAY!

    But people do it in a day, right? They do. Many of them make it. A few of them enjoy it. Every day in summer, at least two or three have to be airlifted out by the Park Service at great personal expense.

    Remember, you must carry water. Yes, there are water sources, but you don't want to collapse somewhere between those sources. Trust me: hikers passing by will not have extra water to share.

    Drink a lot. At least a liter per hour. Eat a lot. More runners get into trouble from lack of salt than lack of water. You must carry your first aid supplies. During the monsoon season, from mid-July through mid-September, it often rains every afternoon, and you may want a raincoat. You will be wise to carry a flashlight. Most runners are not used to carrying a pack containing these items.

    In years past, groups have organized rim-to-rim and rim-to-rim to rim runs. The Park Service very sensibly got tired of hauling their sorry carcasses out. As of this writing, groups which advertise or require advance sign-up must obtain a permit. Group size is limited to 30. The leader assumes responsibility and liability for all participants. When interviewed about his contingency plans, one of these leaders assured the Park Service that he was ready for anything: he would carry his Platinum charge card (would I make up a thing like that?).

    Once you commit to doing this in a day, you are stuck. Do not assume that the Rangers or the employees at Phantom Ranch will take pity on your sorry self and let you stay overnight. If there is room at Phantom or in the campground, they may accommodate you. If there is no room, you are on your own, Clyde. You will hike out no matter how long it takes, and how dark it gets, and if you stop and sleep in the trail you can be cited for illegal camping.

    Think about it: every summer over a thousand people a day go through Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They simply can't let them all stay overnight in an area, which only holds 80 campers and 80 Ranch guests. You were warned, and you are stuck with your decision.

    RULES OF THE ROAD.

    Uphill hikers have the right of way. I don't care how fast you want to go downhill.

    Mules have the right of way. You are required to step off the trail and wait quietly, not run between the mules like a skier on a slalom course. The fall of 2003, a runner spooked some mules right off the trail: they fell and they died.

    If you pass someone, it is your responsibility to do so safely and politely. The next runner who comes up behind me and yells, "Out of the way, rookie!" will finish his run on two broken knees.

    I have done the rim to rim in one day from dawn to dusk. I ended up hiking an extra four miles, due to circumstances beyond my control, and I am not a runner: just a pretty fast hiker. I know runners who routinely do the rim to rim in 6 to 7 hours, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    Okay, I'll take more than one day. What are my options?

    Backpack. Permits are available five months ahead of your trip. Write to the
    Backcountry Office,
    Grand Canyon National Park
    PO Box 129
    Grand Canyon, AZ 86023

    It is better to fax your request to 928-638-2125, since these permits are popular. Don't worry about getting the fax off at midnight: all requests are shuffled together. It is more like a lottery than a first-come, first served. You cannot get permits by phone, nor can you show up in person on the first of the month.

    Permits are administered in person for dates closer in than the four month window. In other words, the first of May, one is not allowed to apply for permits in September, but May, June, July, and August are up for grabs. The procrastinating hiker may attempt to get a walk-in permit on the day of the hike. If these are not available, one is then placed on the waiting list for the next day, then the next day, and so on. It is possible to move up the list over several days and finally obtain the first-choice permit.

    There is a permit fee of $10 plus $8 per person per night. Groups of one to six are a small group: groups of seven to eleven are a large group. There is one group site at Cottonwood, two at Bright Angel, and one at Indian Gardens. Fees are non-refundable, but canceled permit fees may be applied to future permits. More information is available at the Park website.

    You may also luck out and get a space at Phantom Ranch. This is a hiker hut/lodge located in the bottom of the Canyon. These reservations are made one year in advance, but cancellations are sometimes available in the dorms. I have lucked out into rooms in May with only a few day's notice. Call for reservations at 303-297-2757. They also serve meals, also reserved in advance.

    The grunt way is to hike down the North Kaibab, 14 miles, to Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground, then hike out the next day.

    An easier hike is to hike to Cottonwood Campground, 7 miles down, then to Bright Angel, another 7, then out.

    The easiest way is to hike to Cottonwood, then Bright Angel, then Indian Garden. Added layover days at any of these locations will add to your enjoyment and ability to actually look around and see stuff. Keep in mind, however, that this is a very popular hike, and these campsites fill up quickly.

    As far as backpacking time goes, I have made it to Cottonwood Campground in three hours will full packs. From Cottonwood to Phantom in another three, and out in four hours. I have made it from the North Kaibab trailhead to Phantom in four hours with a daypack. However, hiking with a group with full packs, I have taken more than one mile an hour to hike down. Hiking down is hard, too, particularly with a pack.

    What about the essentials, like water and toilets?

    On the North Kaibab during summer, there is water at Supai Tunnel, which is two miles down, Roaring Springs, which is 4.5 miles down, the Pumphouse, which is 5.5 miles down, and Cottonwood Campground, which is seven miles down. The next water is at Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch, another seven miles. You will be hiking alongside Bright Angel Creek from Roaring Springs down, so if you carry purification you can drink that water. If not, you can cool off your sweaty self in the creek and hike with wet clothes, highly recommended.

    There is an outhouse at Supai Tunnel and another at Roaring Springs and Cottonwood. Phantom and the Bright Angel Campground have flush toilets (oooh!).

    On the way out the Bright Angel, there is water at Indian Gardens and an outhouse. There is water at Three Mile Resthouse and Mile and a Half Resthouse on the Bright Angel Trail during the hot season: this water can be turned off when it is cold enough to freeze on the rim, so if you are there in the spring or fall be sure and ask. There is an outhouse at Mile and a Half as well. On the Bright Angel Trail, you will hike along the River for the first two miles (though most of the way you are inconveniently high above it), then along Pipe Creek, then along Garden Creek. Once you leave Indian Gardens, there are no creeks unless they are in flood.

    Going out the South Kaibab, there is no water, little shade, and usually a hot and drying wind. There is an outhouse at the Tonto Level and at Cedar Ridge. The Park Service does not recommend going out the South Kaibab during the hot season.

    For more information on these three trails, look at my three trails to Phantom page.

    Cautionary tales of rim to rims

    TALE NUMBER ONE: Many years ago, a young person who shall remain nameless due to possible martial difficulties, went rim to rim with a bunch of friends. They bombed down the South Kaibab in two hours and decided: this will be easy! They bombed through the first seven miles of the North Kaibab (which happen to be almost flat) and thought: Piece of cake! They turned the corner at Roaring Springs, saw the remaining four plus thousand feet or so of cliff and thought: Oops. After dark they arrived at the trailhead, figured out that their ride was at the Lodge, two miles south, and huddled behind the cars, freezing in their wet cotton tee shirts, out of water, out of food, and wondering how in the world they were supposed to get to their cars. Lessons to be learned: this is a long, long hike. Bring food, water, and clothes. Make sure your ride knows where you will be coming out.

    Be it said that 20+ years later this same person, armed with good boots, lots of water and snacks, and many years of hiking experience under his belt started down the South Kaibab at 5 AM and arrived at the North Kaibab at 2 PM, hot and sweaty, but much better off than the first time. Also, his ride was waiting for him at the trailhead.

    TALE NUMBER TWO: When I did my first rim to rim in college, we arranged a car swap. At Phantom Ranch we met the other group and exchanged keys. Fortunately I asked Jim where he had left my car, because it wasn't at the North Kaibab trailhead. Said he: "Oh, I don't like the North Kaibab, so I came down the Old Bright Angel." Said I: "Gee, thanks for sharing that little bit of information, Jim". The Old Bright Angel is not only several miles away from the North Kaibab, it is four miles longer. We got out before dark, but just. Lessons: communication, communication, communication. If you are trusting someone else to bring your stuff for you, don't trust him or her too far.

    TALE NUMBER THREE, FOUR, ETC: I do rim to rims several times a year, taking several days to do so. We always meet runners who are doing the trip in a day. They are more often than not exhausted, hot, sweaty, and sometimes suffering from dehydration, hyponatremia, or both. No matter how much they suffer and crawl and even complain of irregular heartbeat or projectile vomiting (!) they won't turn around and they won't consider not coming back across the next day. Lessons: This is supposed to be your vacation. Are we having fun yet?

    I also routinely see people at Phantom Ranch, either buying flashlights, because they figured out they aren't going to make it out by dark, or begging the desk clerk to let them sleep on the floor because they cannot, absolutely CANNOT make it out tonight. The desk clerk is less than impressed. Lessons: A positive attitude only takes you so far. The muscles have a life of their own.

    You can do a rim to rim by all means. Please consider long and hard before attempting this in a day. You may have to wait several months or a year for your hiking permit or reservations at Phantom Ranch, but if they did not limit numbers, the delicate Canyon ecosystem would suffer. Hang in there: it is worth the trouble.

    If you are planning a backpacking rim to rim, check out my interactive equipment page.