The Grand Canyon has long been our favorite spring getaway after a long snowy Sierra Nevada winter. During a previous hike on the South Kaibab trail, we got the bug to walk from the south rim to the north rim and back. Our plan was to hike in May to take advantage of the slightly cooler temperatures without the risk of the north rim being snowed in.
It’s about 25 miles each way with over 20,000 feet of total elevation changes (you’re either walking up or walking down most of the way), but the biggest challenge came before we ever set foot in the canyon. At the time we did our trip, you could apply for a back country permit up to four months prior to arrival. For details and an application, please visit the Grand Canyon National Park website. We requested a permit that included Bright Angel camp on the first day, Cottonwood camp for the second day, a night on the North Rim, Cottonwood and Bright Angel camps on the way back. Yes, this was a pretty leisurely plan, but we wanted to enjoy being in the canyon, not just power through it. We were told that this was not an easy permit and we were surprised when we got everything we wanted with the exception of having to spend our last night at Indian Garden instead of Bright Angel. All in all a great itinerary!
I found it a bit distasteful that we had to pay the entry fee to the park, then a $10.00 application fee, plus $5.00 per person per night for every night we camped below the rim – all for a chunk of ground that we supposedly already own as citizens of the USA. We met a very nice Ranger at the back country office who felt our pain. We all agreed that while everyone should have the right to see this wonderful place, maybe people would be more respectful of it if they had more of a connection. Getting off a tour bus for a 3 minute peek into the canyon before being herded into the restaurant and gift shop just doesn’t foster much pride of ownership. OK, I’ll get off my soap box now.
We watched the sun set from a secluded spot just below the rim and settled in to a perfect night sleeping under the stars. The weather was perfect which only served to peak our excitement for what was to come.
Day 1 – Grand Canyon Village to Bright Angel Camp via the South Kaibab Trail
The next morning we parked our truck near the stables, shouldered our packs and began the walk to the South Kaibab Trail. This walk, and the first section from rim to river is described in my Hiking in Arizona – the South Kaibab Trail post so I won’t repeat myself here.
It took us a little over an hour to walk to the trail head under mostly clear skies but we couldn’t help noticing the clouds forming to the west. The walk to our first camp at Bright Angel campground was about 7 miles from the South Kaibab trail head, but it descends close to 5,000 vertical feet so it is a leg burner with a heavy pack. With the walk from the village figured in, it would be close to a 10 mile day.
The very moment we took our first step into the canyon, a gust of wind blew the fine dust into our faces and a crack of thunder warned us that this trip was not going to be a cakewalk. That was OK, we wanted to experience as much of the canyon as our six days would allow, including the weather! The temperature on the rim was around 55 degrees but it warmed up quickly as we made our descent. In spite of the ominous weather at the trail head, the weather for the rest of the day was beautiful. The clouds and wind passed a short while later and we enjoyed the remainder of the day under a bright blue sky.
As with our prior Grand Canyon hikes, we were amazed at how distinct the different layers of rock are. One step our feet were in red dust, the next step it turned to purple, or green, or brown. Every layer took us back millions of years – pretty cool! The final path was down a set of steep switchbacks into the dark and twisted Vishnu Schist of the inner gorge, the oldest rock in the canyon at over two billion years. Above the schist, the canyon is an open and airy place, but the schist is very hard so the inner gorge is relatively narrow and confining. We hiked to the river without incident although my 70+ pound pack had me wobbling by the time we stepped onto the bridge across the Colorado. Not far beyond we found the campground, dropped our burdens in the dust and set out to explore this corner of the world with nothing but a water bottle to weigh us down. I felt almost weightless without my pack, a fine reward after a tiring walk.
The weather was beautiful – 80 degrees and sunny with just enough of a breeze to keep us cool. We studied the tortured schist of the inner gorge, dangled our tired feet in the cold Bright Angel Creek which ran right through the camp and relaxed the rest of the day away in perfect contentment. It was interesting to note that all of the layers above the schist were horizontal while the schist was oriented more vertically but ended abruptly almost as if it was sheared off. What’s really weird is that the Tapeats sandstone lying directly on top of the schist is half a billion years younger. A lot must have happened in those 500 million years to erase any sign of them.
After a leisurely dinner, we walked around Phantom Ranch a bit just to see what it was like then crawled into our bags for a well deserved night of sleep. We only had to go to Cottonwood the next day, barely half way to the north rim but we had plans for some side trips so it would be a longer day than the map would suggest. Water would not be an issue for the next day so we planned to travel lighter and enjoy the walk.
Day 2 – Bright Angel Camp to Cottonwood Camp
Day two dawned overcast but with very comfortable temperatures. We had a quick breakfast and prepared for a great day of walking and exploring. We only had a little over 7 miles to go to Cottonwood camp and less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain so it promised to be our easiest day in the canyon.
Not long after leaving the relatively open spaces near Bright Angel Camp and Phantom Ranch the walls of the canyon narrow dramatically. The Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite of the inner gorge form nearly vertical 1,000 foot walls for a few miles. This section of the trail is called the Box. The area is fairly wet for the canyon with a few bridges and at least narrow one creek to wade through. We enjoyed this section very much as it was not only scenic (if you like geology, which we do) but it was also cool and damp. When the canyon began to open up again we noticed that the clouds had thickened and soon it began to rain lightly. No problem – it was warm enough that it felt good to be wet so we didn’t even bother with rain gear. Having already put close to half of the day’s mileage behind us we knew we had plenty of time to relax and explore.
Our next goal was Ribbon Falls, a 100 foot waterfall a short distance off the main trail and only about a mile and a half from Cottonwood camp. The rain ended a short time later and the sun came out a few minutes before we arrived at the Ribbon Falls trail. It probably wasn’t more than a quarter of a mile to the falls and it was a great diversion. The falls live up to their name with the wispy water blowing almost into a mist. The area around the fall also had a colorful collection of plants taking advantage of the micro climate the fall created. We settled in for a nice lunch and a rest.
After an enjoyable rest, we continued about a mile and a half to Cottonwood campground. We had a beautiful site right next to the creek with a tree overhanging most of the site for shade. Once again, we pondered sleeping under the stars until we were attacked by hundreds of the most annoying flies we had ever encountered. We quickly set up the tent to provide relief from the flies but didn’t bother to put the tarp on so we could look through the mesh at the outside world.
There were three agreeable older guys from Mesa Arizona camping next to us so we spent a few minutes talking and sharing info on our hikes. Thankfully the sun downer breeze blew the flies away and we were able to cook dinner and enjoy a nice evening outside of the tent. The next day promised to be a tiring day so we settled in early and let the white noise of the creek put us to sleep.
Day 3 – Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim
The third day was also about a 7 mile walk, but it included close to 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The weather once again started cloudy, rained for a bit mid morning then cleared up.
After a couple of miles of walking we came to an amazing sight – Roaring Springs. The wall of the canyon ahead was lined with many springs literally shooting out of the rocks. The name comes from the sound the springs make. We took the short side trail to view the springs and it was worth the detour. We were told that all of the drinking water for the national park comes from Roaring Springs and it looked like there was plenty to go around. We were now passing back into the day hiker zone because there were people with small packs around.
After exhausting the entertainment possibilities of Roaring Springs, we set off up the trail toward the rim. This was where the true climbing began. The three miles to the Supai Tunnel were amazing. The trail passes through the massive Redwall of the canyon in a series of switchbacks that were blasted out of the vertical wall. The views and exposure there are awesome. It was probably my favorite section of the trail so far.
After passing through the tunnel, we only had about 2 miles to go to the rim, but those two miles included another 1,400 feet of elevation gain on steep switchbacks. There were a couple of inviting ledges in this area so we took a break to enjoy the view and relax before the push to the rim. As we rested, the clouds blew back in and it began to rain lightly. Looking forward to a shower, we shouldered out packs and headed up the trail.
A few hundred yards from the rim we noticed small snow drifts and right on cue it actually began to snow. After the warmth of the canyon, the snow quickly chilled us so we put our rain gear on for the first time. A short while later we reached the North Kaibab trail head, took a picture and walked to the campground to get cleaned up.
After a wonderful warm shower, we walked unencumbered to Bright Angel Point to take in the view. The snow had stopped and the clouds parted just in time to bathe the canyon in a wonderful warm light. Then we indulged in a pizza at the Grand Canyon lodge and headed back to the campsite for a good night’s sleep.
Day 4 – North Rim to Cottonwood Camp
It was a fairly cold night and there was frost on the tent in the morning. We had planned to sleep in since we only had to go back to Cottonwood camp, but some huge ravens in the trees squawked up a storm and woke us up early. Happily the day dawned sunny and we could tell it was going to warm up quickly.
After enjoying breakfast at the lodge and stocking up at the little store we headed back to the trailhead for a leisurely day of walking. Note, the store on the north rim was clearly oriented toward car tourists. Luckily, we only needed some snacks so it worked for us.
Even though there was plenty of shade on this stretch of trail, it became obvious that the day was going to be very warm. After the rain and snow of the prior days, that was just fine with us!
The scenery looking down the canyon was spectacular (much better than the grind coming up) and we spent a good bit of time taking the classic “look how exposed the trail is” photos that you always seem to see in Grand Canyon photos. In reality, most of the trail is wide and not dangerous at all, but who can resist?
We enjoyed a longer rest at Roaring Springs and meandered wherever our interests took us but we still made it to Cottonwood Camp by early afternoon. We explored a bit and enjoyed the beautiful weather knowing that the next day would be our longest and most difficult of the trip.
Day 5 – Cottonwood Camp to Indian Garden
Day 5 was by far my favorite day of the trip although I never would have believed it when I first got up. The sky was overcast and light rain showers were blowing through. After the rain and snow earlier in the trip, we were ready for some classic desert weather.
Luckily, the skies cleared during our time in The Box and the temperatures quickly rose into the 90’s. By the time we made it to the shelters near Bright Angel Camp it was sweltering and we enjoyed a brief rest in the shade of the shelters. We refilled our water bottles because we knew we had a hot and steep climb awaiting us on the south side of the river.
It was a perfect day to enjoy the view of the inner gorge with brilliant sunshine sparkling off the Colorado River. After crossing, we spent some time on the small beach on the south bank of the river. We could actually feel the heat coming up through the soles of our boots. The thermometer hanging on my backpack registered 110 degrees, the hottest of our trip. It was surreal to think that just two days before we had been shivering in 30 degree temperatures and snow on the North Rim. It made our day, this is what we hoped to find in the canyon!
After enjoying a quick swim in the surprisingly cold Colorado, we began our trek to Indian Garden. After crossing a creek, we began the steady climb up the Devils Corkscrew which is a series of steep switchbacks that climb out of the inner gorge. Even though it is not a long climb, it was extremely hot and dry. Each step kicked up a little cloud of dust – strange since it had just rained a few hours before. It showed just how hot and dry the Canyon can be. We loved every step!
Once out of the inner gorge, the Tonto Platform opens up into a world of light that is dazzling after the inner gorge. We took a detour to Panorama Point to look back into the gorge and get a bird’s-eye view of the river before continuing to Indian Garden.
Indian Garden is an oasis with plenty of lush trees and a good water source. Unfortunately it was also fairly crowded and there wasn’t a lot of privacy. Our fellow campers were friendly enough but after spending the prior few days more or less in our own little world, it was hard to get back into carrying a conversation. We took a quick nap in the shade and then set out to find a quiet spot to enjoy our last sunset in the canyon. We were not disappointed. The buttes all lit up in a fiery orange color, then faded to red and finally purple as the sun set. It was spectacular! We ate our light dinner while we watched and made our way back to camp in total darkness.
The night was not as restful as we had hoped – the camp was just a bit too noisy – but we enjoyed our time there anyway. We knew our adventure would end quickly on day 6, so we savored being below the rim for one more night. The sky was incredibly clear and the stars were amazing. We were able to clearly see the Milky Way and counted 27 meteors in a little more than two hours. Even though it was a new moon, the stars were so bright that we didn’t need our flashlights at all that night. Temperatures were perfect – around 55 degrees with a hint of a breeze.
Day 6 – Indian Garden to the South Rim
We knew out final day was only about 4.5 miles but that includes over 3,000 feet of climbing so we wanted to get an early start to beat the heat. We were also entering one of the most heavily used parts of the trail so we wanted to get a head start on the crowds too.
After a quick breakfast, we broke camp and started up the trail. There are a number of water sources between Indian Garden and the Rim so we travelled light with just enough water to get us to the next source. It is worth noting that the quality of the water sources can be sketchy at times so we checked before setting off. Even though the water is safe, it is often cloudy with an unpleasant taste so bring some powdered drink mix to cover the flavor if you are picky!
The climb was hot but uneventful. Other than getting stuck behind some woefully unprepared tourists and having to step aside for the occasional mule train, the biggest issue was avoiding the copious mule droppings. The climb is fairly steep so the view is mostly the trail ahead of you unless you take the time to step aside and look around.
There are a couple of rest houses along the way and they were already quite busy even though it was still early. Other than brief stops at the rest houses to refill our water bottles and looking for some pictographs at the two-mile mark, we made good time and stepped onto the South Rim with plenty of time to drop our packs in the truck and have a shower before lunch. Even though the crowd had been growing ever since we left Indian Garden, the rim was a shock. Crowds of tourists jostled for position all along the rim walkway and the village was bustling for a midweek day in May.
We treated ourselves to a nice lunch in the lodge and after a brief walk along the rim to loosen up, we began the long ride home. It had been a totally satisfying trip that we would not forget.
A few thoughts…
All totalled, the trip was over 50 miles of walking on an often steep trail. The weather ranged from temperatures in the low 30s with wet snow to rain to 110 degree heat in brilliant sunshine. Even though this is not a true backcountry experience as you are never far from help, this hike offers the opportunity to experience all of the climate zones the canyon has to offer as well as the chance to walk 2 billion years back in time. I recommend it highly!
I will be adding photos shortly.