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How to Hike Rim to Rim Grand Canyon: Planning Guide

The full hike Rim to Rim Grand Canyon is a challenging and rewarding adventure. Learn about the best trails, preparation tips, and everything you need to know to make your rim-to-rim hike a success.

We had wanted to do this hike for years and finally got the opportunity in September of 2023. It was an incredible, yet very challenging experience. We’ll run through the details of planning the logistics, such as transportation, lodging, and physical training.

south rim overlook while hiking rim to rim grand canyon

How Hard is Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim?

This is the hardest day hike I have ever done, and I have hiked all over the world.  The National Park Service strongly recommends against attempting this hike, especially as a day hike. 

One needs to be very fit and able to hike quickly for 12+ hours, as well as handle the huge elevation changes.  The elevation changes with this hike were very different than the more mild (although beautiful) day hiking in our hometown of Spokane.  

We all trained for months before attempting this trek, including running half-marathons and doing challenging day hikes with big elevation changes.

Warning sign posted at the south rim showing a hiker vomiting
Warning sign posted at the South Rim

Route Options: North to South vs South To North

The majority of rim-to-rim hikers choose to go North to South, and there are a few good reasons for going in this direction. 

First, the North Rim is higher in elevation than the South Rim, so there is less total elevation gain when hiking from North to South. 

Additionally, there are more water stops along the Bright Angel trail than the North Kaibab trail, so you have more opportunities to top off your water during that last grueling climb out if finishing via the Bright Angel Trail on the south side (instead of the North Kaibab Trail on the north side). 

The one downside of going North to South is that there are NO water stops on the South Kaibab Trail from Phantom Ranch until the South Rim, so if you hike North to South you need to take the Bright Angel Trail out, which forces you to take the longer route(about 24 miles total).

Hikers ascending the North Kaibab trail | Hike Rim to Rim Grand Canyon
Hiking out via the North Kaibab trail

Hiking South to North

This is the less popular option, but we decided to go this way for a few reasons. 

First, we live up north in Utah, and we wanted the shorter drive on our return trip. 

Secondly, we wanted to hike the slightly shorter route from South Kaibab to North Kaibab (21 miles instead of 24). 

If you want to hike South Kaibab instead of the Bright Angel Trail, you need to go South to North and complete the South Kaibab trail early in the morning, as there are no water stops along this route until you get to Phantom Ranch, so attempting to climb up this way in the afternoon would be very dangerous.   

How Early to Start

We intentionally started a little later in the morning because one park ranger had told us that when hiking South to North if you start too early and are a fast hiker, you will end up climbing up the North Rim in direct afternoon sunlight. 

If you wait to make the final climb until after about 2 p.m. the North Face will be mostly in the shade. 

However, climbing the North Face mid or late afternoon means that you will be hiking through ‘the box’, the hottest 7 miles of the hike along the bottom of the canyon, in the early afternoon heat. 

We started a little later, and yes, it was hot in the middle, but we were careful to hydrate and refuel often with salty snacks and we enjoyed being in the shade on the climb out.

Where to Stay Before Your Rim-To-Rim Hike

There are quite a few options for lodging at the South Rim.  We decided to stay at Yavapai Lodge so that we could all be together and walk straight to the shuttle stop the next morning, but there are many other hotel and Airbnb options available nearby.

Lodging at the North Rim is a little more difficult to coordinate.  As mentioned before, the Grand Canyon Lodge is the only lodging right next to the North Rim itself, and this tends to fill up months in advance, so book early! 

If you have two vehicles and have someone willing to pick you up on the North Side, you can drive like we did to Jacob’s Lake. 

These cabins and hotels still need to be booked in advance, but are a little easier to reserve and a little cheaper. 

Another option, if you have your own vehicle and can lug your camping gear, would be to camp at the North Rim Campground.  We decided against this option as we knew we would want to sleep well before our long drive home the next day.

Hiking Rim to Rim in One Day vs Camping Overnight

There are three options if you want to hike rim-to-rim: do it all in one day(not recommended by the National Parks Service, only possible if very fit), stay overnight at Phantom Ranch in the cabins, or camp in a tent at one of the other campsites.

Stay at Phantom Ranch

This is considered by many to be the best option.  The cabins and dormitories at Phantom Ranch have beds with bedding, showers, and a nearby dining option at the Phantom Ranch Canteen (for guests with reservations only).

Therefore, hikers to do the hike in two days and still only have to carry a small daypack.  Because of this, it is difficult to reserve a spot at the Phantom Ranch cabins.  Starting in April 2024, Phantom Ranch will use a lottery system that works as follows:

  • The lottery submission opens on the first of the month 14 MONTHS before the desired month of stay (for example: if you hope to stay at Phantom in April of 2024, you need to enter your lottery submission between February 1-25 of 2023).
  • The lottery will be processed and participants will be notified of the results by the end of the month in the month following the lottery submission (so if the lottery submission happened in February, you will be notified by the end of March 2023)
  • Unsold spaces open for general sale on the first of the month after the ‘notification’ month (in our example above: participants will be notified in March, and general sale will open on April 1st of that same year).  Again, this is all happening A YEAR before the desired month of stay.

See Phantom Ranch Lottery for more information on how the lottery system works

Camp at One of the Three Grand Canyon Campgrounds

There are three main campgrounds within the canyon itself:

  • Havasupai Gardens Campground: formerly known as Indian Garden Campground, located halfway down the Bright Angel Trail, 3,000 feet below the South Rim.
  • Bright Angel Campground: at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River.
  • Cottonwood Campground: located halfway down the North Kaibab Trail, 4,170 feet below the North Rim. 

For all three of these campsites (or for camping at any other approved backcountry campsite within the canyon, you need to reserve a backcountry permit at www.recreation.gov). 

Just like Phantom Ranch reservations, these backcountry permits will begin using a lottery system in 2024.  Early Access Lottery submissions open on the 16th of the month 5 MONTHS before the desired month of stay.  Find more information about the campsite lottery process here.

These campgrounds are easier to reserve than Phantom Ranch, the downside is that you would have to lug a frame backpack with all needed camping gear.

Best Time of Year to Hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

The North Rim is only open to vehicles between May 15th and October 15th

We recommend attempting a rim-to-rim hike in May, EARLY June, LATE September, or early October.  Temperatures can reach 115 degrees in the bottom of the canyon in July and August, and hikers have died from heat exposure. 

Another consideration is the number of daylight hours.  We hiked on September 16th.  We had plenty of daylight hours to complete the hike, but temperatures still reached about 92 degrees in the afternoon.  We were careful about drinking plenty of water and replenishing with salt, but if I were to do it again I would probably wait a few more weeks.

Hiker in the bottom of the grand canyon in the shade of a side wall. Temperatures reached about 94 degrees F in the afternoon when we hiked in late September
Temperatures reached about 94 degrees F in the afternoon when we hiked in late September

What to Wear Hiking Rim to Rim

We each wore the following during our rim-to-rim hike in September:

Clothing:

  • Light-colored T-shirt (I wore a loose long-sleeved shirt for extra sun protection)
  • Quick-drying hiking shorts or leggings (don’t hike in jeans for this one!)
  • Hiking socks
  • Well-broken in hiking boots (I like Colombia Newton Ridge)

What to Pack

Each of us packed the following in our day packs:

  • Two 1.5 liter water bottles(3 liters total per person, which we refilled often at the water stations)
  • Bags of beef jerky, salted trail mix, cheese sticks, and granola bars (about 1.5-2x the amount of food you would normally consume at rest)
  • Liquid water enhancer with salt and electrolytes (you can also buy this in packet form)
  • Headlamp with extra batteries 
  • Small roll of moleskin
  • Cell phone with extra power bank and charging cord (there is no cell service in the canyon, but I’ve found that my Alltrails app will still show my location, so this is what I use as a GPS).
  • Small first aid kit 
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Travel-sized bug spray (although we didn’t have any issues with mosquitos)
  • Water filter

Water Stops

When we went, there was some concern about contamination with the water sources, so we were advised to bring water filters, but the problem had been resolved before the day of our hike. 

However, we still recommend carrying a water filter just in case anyone needs to refill in between water stops, as much of the hike is near the Colorado River. 

For us, the longest stretch in between water stops was in between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Campground, which also happens to be one of the hottest stretches of the hike, so keep that in mind while hiking.

wall of the grand canyon, partially shaded
River that runs along a good portion of the trail near Phantom Ranch, can also be used to refill water if you have a filter

Transportation Options For Coordinating Your Hike Rim To Rim Grand Canyon

Hiking rim-to-rim is logistically complex because you have to coordinate your transportation once you reach the other side.  There are a few options here.

  1. Have a non-hiker drive your vehicle to the other side to pick you up.  This is what we ended up doing.  A few family members were nice enough to drive the almost four-hour trip to the other side while we hiked.  They hiked a few miles down the North Kaibab trail until they met up with us, and then we all hiked out together.
  2. Use the trans-canyon shuttle service:  This is what most people do. The price is $120 per person for a one-way ride.  You can either shuttle yourself to the other side before your hike, or shuttle yourself back to your vehicle on the day after your hike.  See the Trans-Canyon website for more information.

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