Standing at the top of the South Kaibab trailhead, I gazed into the canyon 4,000+ feet below. My only thought was, “we’re going where?” I couldn’t even see the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — the false bottom, 1,500 feet higher, obscured it. The sun was just starting to bring out the reds, oranges and yellows in the canyon walls that formed a panorama ahead of me. I turned to my hiking buddies and said, “Last chance to turn back?” And with a nervous laugh, I took my first step down toward the canyon floor to begin my Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim backpacking trip.
Rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic, scenic and challenging hikes in the national park system. It’s typically tackled by trail runners, or attempted halfway (rim to rim). It’s also the only way to see all three of the “corridor” trails in the canyon — the trails that run from a rim to the Colorado River — in one trip.
But for all the effort, this hike is far and away the best way to see the Grand Canyon. You simply can’t appreciate the scale of the place on a day trip or trail run. A night at a deep backcountry campsite, 8 miles away from the nearest light source, provides a completely different perspective on one of America’s most crowded parks. And if you never leave the South Rim, you miss the chance to see the more intimate corners and smaller canyons carved out by tributaries feeding the mighty Colorado.
Let’s be clear: backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim is hard. But it’s attainable for moderately experienced and fit backpackers. In this post, I’ll give you all the details to decide if this hike is right for you — and to help you plan your trip.
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Overview of the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim hike
The Grand Canyon has two sides, referred to as the South Rim and the North Rim. The South Rim is where the majority of tourist services are located, and where the overwhelming majority of visitors see the canyon from. The remote North Rim is a 4.5-hour drive away, 1,000 feet higher, and seasonally closed due to snow.
So a Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim hike involves starting at the South Rim, hiking to the Colorado River, going up the North Rim, turning around and doing the whole thing again.
That’s right — to complete this trail, you must hike in and out of the canyon twice.
Theoretically you could start at the North Rim and do it in reverse, but most people don’t because of the difficulty of road access for the North Rim. It also would require you to stay at the busier, more competitive and less pleasant campgrounds closer to the South Rim.
A few important things to keep in mind about this hike:
- The full trail is 51+ miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain, +/- a bit depending on your exact route
- The temperature difference between the rims and the river can be extreme. Like 50+ degrees different.
- The South Rim is only 7-8 miles from the Colorado River. The North Rim is about 15 miles from the river. So when you reach the river, you aren’t even close to the halfway point.
- Even if you space out your climbs on the south side, there’s no avoiding a 14-mile, 4,200-foot-climb day hike up and down the North Rim.
Some people attempt a Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim hike in one day. If you’re not a seasoned trail runner, you have little chance of completing this hike. You’ll enjoy the trail far more if you spend at least two nights below the rim.
The Indigenous history
On my hike through the Grand Canyon, I was simply in awe of the Indigenous people who lived below the rim year-round for generations.
As much as the canyon looks inhospitable from the rim, it supported thriving communities before White colonizers forced them out. 11 tribes currently trace their legacies to the Grand Canyon.
Many of these communities still have strong ties to the region. Unfortunately, the history most modern visitors learn about the Grand Canyon focuses on the White dudes and ladies who stole the land from the Indigenous inhabitants. (Exasperatingly, the history brochures at Phantom Ranch still tell this story, with no mention of the Native people who came before them.)
Before you attempt a rim to rim to rim hike, take some time to learn directly from people who claim heritage in the area. This interview is a good place to start, this article can give you a good sense of the modern politics, and this documentary is well worth a watch for more on the meaning of the canyon.
As you hike through the Grand Canyon, picture what life must have been like for these folks hundreds of years ago. It’s humbling.
Trails you’ll use for hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim
There are a couple minor route-planning decisions you’ll need to make for your hike. This is because there are two different trails on the South Rim. Going up the North Rim, you only have one option.
The South Kaibab Trail
Often considered one of the most scenic hikes in the entire country, the South Kaibab Trail will wow you with its panoramas of the canyon every step of the way.
This hike begins on the South Rim and runs to the black bridge across the Colorado, near Boat Beach. It’s 7 miles of brutally steep switchbacks. The entire trail is extremely exposed.
Most people hiking rim to rim to rim descend South Kaibab, which I’d definitely recommend. It’s good to have the views in front of you the whole way down (they’d be behind you when climbing out). And you’ll get more shade doing this trail in the morning.
You’ll pass a handful of iconic viewpoints, including Oo-Ah Point, and some restroom stops along the way. But there’s no water — not from pipes, and not in streams. This is true desert all the way.
South Kaibab is the less busy South Rim trail due to its steepness and the extreme dropoffs the whole way. But it’s beautifully maintained. I’m a little nervous with heights and it never really registered with me that most of the trail runs along cliffs with 100+ foot drops.
Personally I found descending South Kaibab to be the hardest part of the hike. Due to the exposure and lack of water, I definitely would not have wanted to climb up this trail.
The North Kaibab Trail
Once you cross the Colorado River, you’ll reach the trailhead for the North Kaibab. This is the longest of the corridor trails, running about 14 miles to the North Rim.
The trail first takes you to Phantom Ranch — the lodge at the base of the Grand Canyon — and Bright Angel Campground. Both have restrooms and water, and Phantom Ranch has a canteen where you can grab snacks or lemonade. (Get the lemonade! It’s soooo good!) This is also where you’ll leave the majority of the crowds behind.
The next eight miles follow Bright Angel Creek to Cottonwood Campground. It’s a meandering, gradual climb of about 2,000 feet through a much narrower, more intimate corner of the canyon. You won’t get sweeping views — but this section of trail might have been my favorite of all.
Near Cottonwood, you’ll pass Ribbon Falls, which is viewable from the side of the trail. You can hike down to it if you want a closer look.
Once you pass Cottonwood, the climb up the North Rim begins in earnest. It starts with moderate switchbacks, crosses a bridge, then gets very steep for the last four miles. I found this pretty easy with an empty backpack, but it was 4,200 feet of climbing — it literally never stopped going up.
Once you reach the North Rim, you’ll turn around and head back down the North Kaibab Trail.
The Bright Angel Trail
Bright Angel is the most popular rim to river trail in the Grand Canyon. And for good reason — it has sweeping views, a beautiful oasis, a waterfall, lots of time along a creek, golden aspens and cottonwoods, conveniently placed rest stops, and an awesome mile-long stretch right along the Colorado River.
Bright Angel is a mile longer than South Kaibab, which means it’s slightly less steep, theoretically. But unlike South Kaibab — where you go down the whole way — Bright Angel concentrates the vast majority of its elevation gain in the last 4.5 miles, after Havasupai Campground.
Nevertheless, Bright Angel is the best trail to ascend on the South Rim. You’ll really appreciate the water access (I carried 2 liters from Havasupai Campground and had water left at the South Rim). And considering how much elevation you gain, the climb is not particularly hard. It’s very, very long and it feels like you’re going up forever. But it’s beautifully maintained, well-switchbacked, and not super steep.
Overall, I thought the Bright Angel Trail was the most beautiful and diverse of the three. But it offers a completely different experience than South Kaibab, so it’s worth doing one on the way down and the other on the way up.
How many days do you need to backpack rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon?
Once you get below the rim of the Grand Canyon, you’ll appreciate just how huge it is. And for literally the entire length of this hike you’ll be either descending (usually steeply) or climbing. That makes it pretty hard on your body.
The good news is, you can make this backpacking trip as easy or hard as you want it to be, within the confines of 11,000 feet of elevation gain.
The ambitious itinerary
For a challenging hike, you can complete the route in three days, with two nights at Cottonwood Campground. This is what I did (and it honestly wasn’t bad, relative to some of the other hardest hikes in the U.S.). Here’s the itinerary:
- Day One: Descend South Kaibab trail, hike to Cottonwood Campground on the North Kaibab Trail (~16 miles, 4,100 feet of descent, 2,000 feet climbing)
- Day Two: Day-hike up and down the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail (~14 miles, 4,200 feet of climbing and descent). Stay at Cottonwood Campground.
- Day Three: Hike out on the North Kaibab Trail to the river, then climb on the Bright Angel Trail (~19 miles, 2,000 feet of descent, 4,100 feet of climbing)
The advantage of this itinerary is easier permits. Cottonwood books up in peak season, but if you go early or late (like March or November) when the North Rim becomes day-use only or closes altogether, it empties out.
The laid-back itinerary
Most backpackers won’t find the above itinerary very appealing, especially that last day. It’s more typical to do rim-to-rim-to-rim over four or five days:
- Day One: Descend South Kaibab Trail, either hike to Cottonwood or stay at Bright Angel Campground or Phantom Ranch. (This could mirror Day One above, or if you choose the interim stop it would be an 8 mile, 4,100 feet of descent day.)
- Day Two: Day-hike up and down the North Rim as outlined above. If you stayed at Bright Angel the night before, do the 8-mile, 2,000-foot hike to Cottonwood and hike up and down the North Rim on Day Three.
- Day Three/Four: Hike Cottonwood-Havasupai Campground on the Bright Angel Trail. This is about a 12-mile day with 2,000 feet of descent and 1,500 feet of climbing, with all the climbing in the last two miles.
- Day Four/Five: Havasupai Campground – South Rim via Bright Angel. This is only 4.5 miles, but it’s a brutal 3,000 feet of ascent.
The advantage of this itinerary is a more reasonable last day, especially if you hike in the shoulder seasons when you’ll have limited daylight. The disadvantage is Havasupai Campground is much more competitive, and Bright Angel is even more competitive. So your odds of getting the permits you want are much lower.
What time of year is best for backpacking in the Grand Canyon?
If there’s one thing every backpacker should know before taking a step below the rim, it’s the dangers of heat exhaustion. The Grand Canyon acts like a furnace; even when it’s chilly on the rim it can be sweltering at the river. The highest recorded temperature at Phantom Ranch — the hottest part of the canyon — was 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And there’s virtually no shade on most of the trails.
Heat kills people at the Grand Canyon. It also drives an extraordinary number of search and rescue operations under dangerous conditions for both you and the SAR crews.
With this in mind, the best time to hike rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon is March-April and October-November. It may be frigid at the rim, but you’ll appreciate it once you get to the canyon floor.
Common wisdom is October and April are ideal, but I did my rim to rim to rim trip over Thanksgiving and thought it was perfect. I had a ridiculously cold night at Mather Campground on the South Rim before starting, but it warmed up as soon as the sun rose and nighttime temps at Cottonwood were in the low 30’s. That’s the best camping weather in my book!
Between October and May, you should bring spikes for the north rim. I didn’t need them until the last half-mile, but then I really needed them. People hiking two weeks before me reported knee-deep snow and completely ice-covered trails beginning over a mile below the rim.
How to get Grand Canyon backpacking permits
I’m not gonna lie — the Grand Canyon has one of the most frustrating permit processes in the entire National Park system. But I promise it’s worth it!
Permit rules change frequently; your best bet is to check this page for the latest. But here’s the gist:
- You should apply during the “earliest consideration” time frame. This begins on the 20th of the month, 5 months before your trip. So, if you want to hike in October, you apply between May 20th and June 1st. It doesn’t matter when within the period you apply; all applications are processed beginning June 1st by lottery.
- You must submit a backcountry permit request form. For best chances of success, if you’re capable of the 19-mile last day, include the 3-day itinerary above as a backup option if you can’t get the 4- or 5-day route.
- You have to either fax, mail or deliver your application in-person. Yes, fax. Really. It’s super obnoxious. Try downloading a free e-fax tool if you don’t have access to a fax machine.
- The pricing is convoluted — it’s $10 for the application, plus $12 per person per night. So if you have a group of four, doing the five-day itinerary, you’ll pay $10 for the application, plus $12 x four nights x 4 people — so a total of $202. Yeah, it’s not cheap.
- On your application, you should authorize charging your card for up to the maximum you may need to pay. So if you apply for the five-day route, with the three-day as a backup, you should authorize the five-day pricing. If you get the three-day instead, the park service will only charge you for three days. But, they’ll never deny a permit if you calculate the costs wrong; you’ll just have to sort it out once you’ve been temporarily approved but before they issue the paperwork.
- You will be informed about your permit within three weeks of the first of the following month. So again using October as an example — if you applied on May 21st, you’ll find out by June 21st.
Warnings from the Park Service
If you applied for the 3-night itinerary or are traveling alone, you will likely get a warning from the Park Service before they issue your permit. These trips are considered “aggressive itineraries” and the rangers will tell you, “even though you can have these permits, consider whether or not you should.” This comes with an approximately 20-item bulleted list of things that can kill you in the Grand Canyon, with a heavy focus on heat dangers.
I actually think this is a brilliant safety check from the rangers, but to be honest, it was a little unnerving to receive even though I was completely confident I could handle the itinerary!
In order to get the permit, you’ll need to respond detailing your backpacking and desert hiking experience. I explained that I had experience in the backcountry in Zion and Canyonlands, regularly backpack 18+ miles a day, and had just come off of a 100+ mile solo trip in the Sawtooths in Idaho. That was apparently convincing enough to get the permit.
Overall, I found the rangers extremely helpful and responsive throughout the permitting process — they even let me add two friends on short notice.
If you don’t get a permit
When applying for peak season permits, there’s a good chance you’ll be rejected. Far more people apply for permits than there is space for at each campground.
A few things you could try if you’re rejected:
- Try for a last-minute walkup permit (you probably won’t succeed in high season, but if you have a few days to kill, there are ways to game the system using the waitlist numbers).
- Try for sites deeper in the backcountry, rather than along the corridor. Just be aware these sites are often on unmaintained trails, some of which require exposed scrambling or rappelling, and they don’t have amenities like toilets or consistent water access. One option for the rim to rim to rim route is Clear Creek, which has an off-trail camping area two miles away from Phantom Ranch.
- Check the corridor availability report to see if anything is still available and reapply.
Carrying your permits
The one nice thing about the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim permit process is you don’t have to pick up your permits in person. Instead, you can print them yourself.
I recommend printing two copies for yourself, plus one for each person in your group. You’ll need to leave one at your campsite, but you also may want to carry one on your day hike up the North Rim in case you encounter rangers.
If you’re worried about water damage, put your permits in a plastic bag. The dates must be legible. You may also be asked for ID to ensure it matches the name on your permit.
Do not even think about heading into the backcountry without a copy of your permits. This was the most-patrolled backcountry area I’ve ever been in. Plus, there are emergency phones at each corridor site, so if you take someone’s spot who has a permit they can easily call a ranger to slap you with a massive fine.
Water access while hiking rim to rim to rim
When you backpack in the Grand Canyon, you’re in the desert. Yes, the Colorado River flows through the middle of the canyon, but you won’t actually spend much time along the river. So you’ll have long stretches where water is a serious concern.
The good news is, if you hike in-season, you’ll have easy access to piped water sources the whole time.
On the South Kaibab Trail, you can fill up (from the rim to the river) at:
- South Kaibab Trailhead*
- Boat Beach*
- Bright Angel Campground*
There is no water access between the rim and the river on South Kaibab, so you’ll need to carry at least 3L on the descent. (I know, your knees aren’t going to be happy about it.)
On the Bright Angel Trail, you can fill up (from the river to the rim) at:
- Havasupai Gardens*
- Three-Mile Rest House
- One and a Half Mile Rest House
- Bright Angel Trailhead*
On the North Kaibab Trail, you can fill up (from Phantom Ranch to the rim) at:
- Phantom Ranch*
- Cottonwood Campground
- Manzanita Day Use Area*
- Supai Tunnel
- North Kaibab Trailhead
However, starting in October and until mid-April, the seasonal water sources start to shut off. The sites with asterisks above stay on year-round, but because of pipeline repairs, they may be intermittently shut off as well. You can verify water access here.
How much water should you carry?
Backpacking in the Grand Canyon requires a tricky balance — every ounce of water adds weight, which sucks for your knees going down and your lungs going up. But running out of water is a recipe for heat injuries and worse.
The Park Service tells you to carry a liter of water for every mile you hike. This seems excessive, unless you’re backpacking in late spring or summer. But a liter per two miles isn’t unreasonable in colder temperatures.
If you aren’t sure when your next fill-up point will be, err on the side of carrying more water. Additionally, plan to carry more water when you’re climbing or on more exposed sections of trail. You should have capacity to carry at least 3L.
Even if all the water sources are on when you visit, never, ever travel in the backcountry without a way to treat water. There’s no need to filter water from the pipes, but you never know when you’ll need an emergency fill-up between water sources. The option doesn’t exist on the South Kaibab Trail, but both Bright Angel and North Kaibab have creeks where you can fill up. Given the amount of mule traffic on these trails, you’ll definitely want a filter.
If you’re camping in chilly temperatures, make sure you protect your water from freezing. I stuff my bottle in my sleeping bag at night if it’s below 20 degrees. If it’s a little warmer, simply store your bottles upside down at night. Bladders tend to freeze faster than bottles and there’s less you can do about it.
Beware of hyponatremia — drinking too much water
It may seem counter-intuitive in the desert, but drinking too much can be just as dangerous as drinking too little. If you overdo it on water without consuming enough salty stuff, you can dilute the sodium in your blood — a condition called hyponatremia.
The symptoms of hyponatremia are similar to those of dehydration — nausea, weakness, vomiting, and confusion. It can be hard to identify for yourself, so make sure all your traveling companions are aware of this illness so you can spot it in each other.
The best treatment is prevention, and luckily hyponatremia is easy to prevent. Simply eat lots of salty snacks during your Grand Canyon hike. Think chips, pretzels, Goldfish/Cheez-its, hard cheeses, salted nuts, etc. This is your official green light to eat like a 10-year-old, so enjoy it!
Additionally, do not force yourself to drink when you don’t feel thirsty. If you backpack a lot, you probably have a pretty good sense of when your body needs water, so listen to it — but you probably don’t need, like, 8 liters of water on an 8-mile hike in 50-degree weather. If you’re really nervous about your water intake you could also bring electrolytes to add to your water, but personally I’d rather stop at Phantom Ranch for a lemonade, which serves the same purpose.
If you believe you or anyone in your group has hyponatremia, stop, get into the shade, and eat something salty. Don’t continue hiking or drinking water until they recover (it often takes an hour or more). If left unaddressed, this illness can lead to coma and death.
What are the campgrounds like?
Once you’ve backpacked in the Grand Canyon, you’ll never want to go back to roughing it in the backcountry again.
The corridor campgrounds in Grand Canyon National Park have amenities galore. You’ll usually have water at camp that you don’t have to filter. All campgrounds have clean composting toilets (but bring your own sanitizer). Each site has picnic tables, locking critter boxes, and poles to hang your packs or gear. They’re in gorgeous settings, and with the exception of Bright Angel Campground, sites are reasonably spread out for privacy.
These sites are so bougie, you can even get a date stamp for your national park passport at them!
The biggest critter problem is mice, and they are relentless. It took approximately one second after I dropped a crumb on the ground for three mice to go after it. You’ll want to use the critter boxes for all your smellables, and you’ll want to use them religiously. This also makes it extremely important to pack out all your trash. I also kept my trekking poles in my tent — mice have been known to chew through the wrist straps because they like the salt in your sweat (yuck!).
By far the best part of staying at Cottonwood is its remoteness. You’re 7 miles from the North Rim and 8 miles from Phantom Ranch. There is zero light pollution. I camped the day after the new moon and I’m pretty sure we saw every star in the Milky Way.
Fires are not permitted anywhere in the Grand Canyon backcountry. Bring some extra hand warmers instead.
How hard is the hike?
It wouldn’t be fair to call rim to rim to rim an easy hike. You’ll be hiking long miles with lots of elevation gain. This is not a beginner backpacking trip, even if you split it over five nights.
But it also wouldn’t really be fair to call it a hard hike. Yes, you’ll climb a lot. But the switchbacks mean it’s never super steep. The trail maintenance is simply amazing. It’s rocky, and your feet and ankles will hurt after awhile, but experienced backpackers will have done far more brutal climbs. (Give me Bright Angel over the Art Loeb or Linville Gorge any day.)
Overall, if you’re accustomed to big miles, I’d rate the 3-day itinerary on the moderate end of challenging, and the 5 day itinerary on the challenging end of moderate.
In terms of training, I did an easy (20-mile, 3,000 feet of elevation gain) backpacking trip two weeks before my Grand Canyon hike. The week before, I did two hard, 15-mile day hikes with 3,500+ feet of elevation each. Even with the 19-mile last day and 4,000 feet of climbing, I wasn’t sore the day after I finished my rim to rim to rim hike.
A few final tips for your Grand Canyon backpacking trip
- If you’re doing the three-day itinerary, bring more food than you think you need. You do not want to run out of snacks at 3-Mile Rest House on Bright Angel. I brought one more snack per day than I usually bring, and I ate all of it.
- In November and March, you’ll need to get early starts to beat sunset. On my last day I set out from Cottonwood at 6 am and made it to the South Rim by 4 pm. Sunset was 5:15 pm.
- A sun hoodie makes a good base layer in the Grand Canyon, since it limits your exposure and reduces the amount of sunscreen you have to glob on. This Outdoor Research one is my go-to.
- Mather Campground makes a great base for the night before your hike. It’s cold in November — like, 12 degrees cold — but it’s only a 5 minute drive from the hiker shuttle.
- On that note, use the free hiker shuttle! Park at Bright Angel Trailhead and pick up the shuttle from the lodge there. It takes 20 minutes to get to the South Kaibab Trail, and your car will be waiting for you when you finish.
- If you get into trouble in the canyon, you don’t have a lot of options, but Phantom Ranch has a year-round ranger station. It’s your last opportunity to get help going in either direction. (If you want some entertainment, take a 30-minute break here and listen to the people asking the rangers for a $2,000 mule ride out. It’s truly stunning how many people go all the way to the bottom before they realize they don’t want to climb back up.)
- The rangers will tell you: Going down is physical, but going up is all mental. Anyone in reasonable backpacking shape can do it! Just make sure you eat and drink enough.
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