Our Trip At a Glance
How we got there: AUS > LAS > Rental Car to North Rim
Before the hike: North Kaibab Lodge (North Rim)
After the hike: Maswick Lodge (South Rim)
Hike Stats: 24 Miles over 3 days, roughly 10k feet of elevation change
Itinerary: North Kaibab Trailhead > Cottonwood Campground > Bright Angel Campground > Bright Angel Trailhead
Day 1: started at 6:30 am, finished at 10:45 am
Day 2: started at 6:00 am, finished at 9:15 am
Day 3: started at 5:50 am, finished at 11:50 am
Favorite part: Ribbon Falls
Worst part: 3-mile Rest house to Bright Angel Trailhead (so many tourists!)
Step 1: Choosing Your Itinerary
There are several possible itineraries for this hike and there are many variables that might dictate which you choose. I've included our itinerary below, as well as some other information which might help you choose which is best for you.
You can start your hike from the North or South Rim. While the South Rim of the park is open 24/7/365, the services at the North Rim close during the winter.
There is one entry to the trail on the North side via the North Kaibab Trailhead. Closer to the South Rim, the trail splits in two and connects with the Rim via the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. The South Kaibab trail is slightly steeper than the Bright Angel trail. It's also less trafficked and has fewer water sources.
There are 3 campgrounds along this hike as well as Phantom Ranch Lodge. You must have a permit to stay at any of the campsites. Reservations for Phantom Ranch Lodge can be hard to come by and tend to fill up a year in advance.
Each campsite features a picnic table, food storage boxes, and a pole to hang empty packs.
- Located 6.8 miles from North Kaibab Trailhead.
- 1.5 miles from Ribbon Falls - an absolute must do on this hike and a great place to spend a few hours after you're done hiking for the day.
- Composting toilets and drinking water available.
- Campsites 10 and 4 offered the best shade which was very important for a Summer hike. 10 is close to the drinking water and toilets. None of the other campsites had tree cover.
- There is a great place to swim near the ranger station.
Bright Angel Campground:
- Located 14 miles from North Kaibab Trailhead, 9.5 miles from Bright Angel Trailhead, 7 miles from South Kaibab Trailhead.
- Flushing toilets and drinking water available.
- More shady campsites than Cottonwood. Site 20 offered shade for most of the day and was close to drinking water and bathrooms.
- Bright Angel Creek runs directly next to the campground and is a great place to relax and cool off. Boat Beach is also a short walk past the campground and offers an up close view of the mighty Colorado River.
- Only a short walk to the Phantom Ranch Cantina which is open to all hikers, not just guests of Phantom Ranch.
- Located right next to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon, the lodge offers heated/cooled dorms and cabins.
- The Cantina is a little slice of heaven during the Summer months. You can buy a cold beer or tea/lemonade and other snacks. They also sell postcards and stamps which are brought out of the canyon by mule (remember to write down any addresses you may need ahead of time).
- The Cantina also offers meals which you can reserve online. We really enjoyed the stew (unlimited servings accompanied by cornbread and salad) on the night we stayed at Bright Angel Campground.
Indian Gardens Campground:
- 4.9 miles from Bright Angel Trailhead
- We did not stay at this campground so I can't offer much information about it other than it appears the campsites were in a lush and shady area.
- It seemed to be much more trafficked since it's the closest campground to the top of the South Rim.
Day 1: North Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Campground (6.8 miles, 4,161 ft elevation loss)
Day 2: Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Campground (7.2 miles, 1,600 ft elevation loss)
Day 3: Bright Angel Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead (9.5 miles, 4,380 ft elevation gain)
Our itinerary allowed us to make the most of our time in the canyon. The pace was easy and we had a good chunk of time to relax each day and enjoy being in such an amazing place.
It was nice to end on the South Rim which has more lodging and food options if you want to stick around after your hike. That burger and beer at Bright Angel Cafe after the hike really hit the spot. My only complaint was that the hustle and bustle of the South Rim was a bit jarring to come back to after two nights of tranquility in the bottom of the canyon. The North Rim may have been less so.
Which itinerary should you choose?
How much time do you want to spend in the canyon?
Overall, the hike is fairly short and you have to make the tradeoff between logging high mileage each day and spending time. We could easily have done this hike in two days but I am really glad we didn't. While it can feel great to accomplish something like the Rim to Rim in as short a time as possible, I would argue that you'll regret not slowing down and enjoying yourself.
One way to add more time in the canyon and mileage to your hike is to do a Rim to Rim to Rim hike. This also removes the need to get transportation back to your car at the end of the hike.
How fit are you?
To an experienced hiker or backpacker, this hike is not difficult. I would recommend our itinerary even to a novice hiker. Coming out of the canyon is by far the hardest part. However, if you really want to take it easy you might consider grabbing a night at each campsite along the way. Keep in mind you can only stay at each campsite for a maximum of two nights (consecutive or non-consecutive) for each hike.
When do you want to go?
Ultimately, the itinerary you get will depend on availability. Permit request success rates vary drastically during different times of the year (see When to Apply below).
The canyon is home to some pretty intense weather and you'll want to be aware and prepared for the temperatures you might see during your hike. The average temperatures might also dictate how long you want your hike to take or which Rim you start/end on. Remember, the North Rim has limited services during the winter and snow often closes the main road to get into the North side of the park.
Step 2: Secure Your Permit
I've found that figuring out and then landing permits for backcountry hikes is the most tedious part of the entire planning process. It seems each park has a different system and lengths between requesting a permit and hearing back. All in all, the permitting process for a Rim to Rim hike isn't too complicated and we heard back very quickly.
Do I need a permit?
If you are aiming to do a Rim to Rim hike over multiple days, you'll need a permit. The park requires permits for any camping outside of the established campgrounds on the North and South Rim.
When to Apply:
There is a period of about ten days at the end of each month within which you can apply for permits for hikes starting roughly five months later. For example, if you want to hike in June, you can apply for earliest consideration between January 20th and February 1st. Equal consideration is given to all requests submitted in this time period. According to the park website, requests are combined together into one pile, duplicates are removed, and then processing begins using a computer-generated random order.
If you want a good chance of securing a permit, you should apply during this earliest consideration period. Success rates for backcountry requests submitted on the earliest allowed date are published in the Backcountry Use Statistics Report. Success rates for the hotter summer months are close to 100%, while the more temperate Fall months drop below 60%.
How to Apply:
You can find all relevant information for how to apply on the permit request form itself.
You'll have to fax or mail it in since they don't accept email or phone requests. You can also drop it off in person at either of the Backcountry Permit Offices in the park.
Step 3: Transportation & Lodging
Once you have your permit you can start planning transportation to and from the trailheads as well as lodging for before and after your hike.
Getting back to your car:
We parked our car on the North Rim and ended our hike on the South Rim. The only option we found for transportation back to the North Rim was the Trans Canyon Shuttle. It was a fantastic service. There are pick-up times twice a day from each rim. We took the 8am shuttle the day after our hike. It takes about four hours to travel between the rims and the shuttle made two rest stops along the way. They offer unlimited seat availability (not sure how they do this!) and can accommodate you on any date as long as you book in advance.
Lodging before and after:
Lodging in the actual park can be hard to come by unless you're booking far in advance. When we first received our permits in February for our June hike, all lodges in the park were completely full up for our dates.
Most of the lodges in and around the park have generous cancellation policies. I suggest booking as far in advance as you can, even if you don't have your permit yet. You can always cancel if you don't get a permit or if you get different dates than your original request.
We stayed at the Kaibab Lodge the night before our hike. It was fine for one night's stay and was only a 30 minute drive to the trailhead. Another option was Jacob Lake Inn, which was slightly farther away (they also make some pretty damn good cookies). I called again the week before and thankfully there had been some cancellations at Maswick Lodge on the South Rim for the dates we needed. Don't expect much from these lodges; they're basically motels and are far from fancy. After camping for a few days, you won't even notice.
Learn before you go
This was my first trip to the Grand Canyon and I was absolutely blown away. The view from the top of the Canyon is awesome in the most basic sense of the word. The tranquility and timelessness you experience at the bottom is something I've never felt before. We were there for only 3 days, but that was enough time for me to absolutely fall in love with the place. Since returning from our trip, I've tried to learn as much as I can about the Canyon and I've found some resources that I wish I had read before our hike.
As the title suggests, this book tells the story of the fastest boat ride ever down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Not only is it a thrilling read, but it teaches you a ton about the history and exploration of the Grand Canyon.
Written by the same author as The Emerald Mile, this article details two men's 650 mile hike through the Grand Canyon and goes in-depth about the conservation battles currently being fought to protect the area. The Dirtbag Diaries Podcast episode titled Mileposts — Greater than the Sum of its Parts also discusses this same trip and the challenges the two men endured to complete the hike.
To learn more about the current threats to the Grand Canyon and what you can do to help, visit: savetheconfluence.com.
Miscellaneous Tips and Tricks
- View my full packing list here.
- If you're going in the Summer months, you can go without a tent or sleeping bag to save weight in your pack. You can still be comfortable with just a sleeping pad and light blanket (I brought my Rumpl and didn't even need to use it).
- The hike is short enough that you can also easily go without a stove, especially if you reserve a meal at Phantom Ranch.
- Give yourself time to hang out at Ribbon Falls. Sure, you can drop by on your way to or from Cottonwood Campground, but it was amazing to spend a couple of hours there during the hottest part of the day.
- There is food storage at the campsites so you don't have to worry about bringing your own food storage options.
- Best campsites: Sites 10 and 4 at Cottonwood, site 20 at Bright Angel.
- Last minute cancellations are your friend. If you're not able to get lodge reservations or food reservations at Phantom Ranch, call a few days before your trip to see if anyone has canceled. This was how we were able to get accommodations at Maswick Lodge and our stew dinners at Phantom Ranch.
- The stew dinner at Phantom Ranch was definitely worth it. We heard from other campers that the steak dinner was just so so.
- Phantom Ranch Cantina is a little slice of heaven. The ice cold lemonade and beer were extremely enjoyable after being in the heat all day.
- It gets hot in the Summer - like seriously hot. It is generally 20 degrees hotter at the bottom of the canyon than it is at the top. Do some research about desert hiking and come prepared with proper clothing and lots of salty snacks and water. We left camp no later than 6am each day to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day.