The vast majority of visitors to the south rim of the Grand Canyon never leave the rim. Of those that do venture below the rim, the Bright Angel Trail is usually the chosen path. What many people don’t know is that the South Kaibab trail offers better views and far fewer people only a couple of miles to the east. Even though this trail is well maintained, it offers less shade and no reliable water to be sure to carry enough to get you through in the case of an emergency.
The South Kaibab Trail trailhead is located near Yaki Point. Unfortunately if you are visiting during the busier months, you either need to walk, ride the shuttle or have someone drop
you off because the parking area is closed. We decided to park near the train station and it was about an hour to walk to the trail head at a steady pace.
Our planned route was to go rim to river and back in one long day hike. This is seriously discouraged by the National Park Service and rightly so in most cases. However, we were very experienced desert hikers and runners who routinely knock off over 30 miles in high heat. We carried three gallons (24 pounds) of water and Gatorade dry mix each and enough food for two days just in case. Even so, had we come across a ranger lower down, we probably would have been turned back regardless of how prepared we were.
The South Kaibab Trail offers little shade and no water so we knew we were in for a hot, tiring day. The plan was to start at 3:30 am, be at the trail head by 4:30 am and have a firm turnaround time of 9:30 am whether we reached the river or not. The general rule is to leave twice as much time to come back up as it took to go down so this would give us time to enjoy the scenery and rest during the hottest part of the day if needed. We allowed one gallon of water for the descent and two gallons for the return each.
We took our first steps into the canyon at 4:40 am. The temperature was around 65 degrees under clear skies. We had headlamps, but the ambient light was more than enough and we didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves so we walked in the dark. The trail was very well maintained so footing was excellent. Walking carefully, we made it to Cedar Ridge (only about a mile and a half, but over 1,000 vertical feet below the rim) in less than 45 minutes.
After a brief break to adjust boots and have a drink, we continued on to Skeleton Point. This is a relatively easy stretch that drops close to 1,000 feet in another mile and a half or so. The light was just getting good so we took our time to enjoy the views. It only took about 30 minutes and the temperatures were still very comfortable so after a quick drink, we continued deeper into the canyon. A quick note – it may sound like the trip to Skeleton Point was easy, but don’t be fooled. Unless you are a seasoned desert hiker with a lot of experience climbing in the heat, this should be your firm turnaround point. You are looking at 3 miles and over 2,000 vertical feet to get back to the rim. It may not sound like much, but many people have found themselves in deep trouble attempting much less.
At Skeleton Point you are roughly half the distance but only 2/5 of the vertical to the river. This became apparent quickly as the switchbacks steepened and were pretty unrelenting the rest of the way down. Our pace was comfortable so we never had any worries about making our turnaround time and we arrived at the Kaibab bridge a little after 8:00 am. All told we had come a bit over 6 miles and over 4,500 feet from the rim in around 3 1/2 hours. A snail’s pace when walking on the flat but not bad for here.
At this time of the morning we were able to find plenty of shade and we relaxed for about an hour. We mixed up some Gatorade and we all drank until our stomachs sloshed, had some food and changed socks to prevent any blister problems. When it was time to begin our climb, we were all refreshed and enjoyed packs that were 1/3 lighter as a gallon of liquid was now gone.
The temperature when we left the river was hovering in the mid 80’s but quickly climbed into the 90’s. Within a mile of leaving the river we all felt some strain for the first time on the walk but it was very manageable. For the return, the plan was to stop every 30 minutes for a drink and a brief rest even if we didn’t feel thirsty. We all know that if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated and we didn’t want to risk it. Besides, the breaks were welcome as the sun rose higher in the sky and shade became harder to find.
The first few breaks were barely more than a pause long enough for a drink but we decided to take a major break at Skeleton Point. A full 30 minutes of lounging in the shade of a cheesy awning we made with a tarp and our trekking poles was just what the doctor ordered and we left feeling good with a full gallon of water each. The final push to the rim was a bit harder than expected, but not unreasonable. We passed a few people above Cedar Ridge, including a couple who were walking in flip-flops, carrying only a 20 oz soda each and looking unreasonably hot and tired for such a short distance. Being as we only had a mile or so and 1,000 vertical to go, we gave them one of our jugs and encouraged them to start back up. They accepted the jug but didn’t turn around, at least not immediately.
The final push to the rim went well and we arrived back at the trailhead around 2:30 pm, 5 1/2 hours after leaving the river. We didn’t break any speed records, but we completed the walk safely and had a great time doing it. Strangely enough, the walk back to the parking lot was the hardest part. Once the goal of reaching the rim was accomplished, our adrenaline levels plummeted and the fatigue kicked in. Walking on flat ground, with tourists in air-conditioned cars just steps away reminded us just how hot and tired we were.
A shower and a cold drink brought us back to life enough to have a nice dinner at the lodge but we were all sound asleep by 7:30 pm. None of us stirred again for almost 10 hours so we were definitely beat.
If you are looking for some great hiking in Arizona, the South Kaibab Trail is a great option for an exceptional outdoor adventure. Just be sure to stay within your limits and stay on the side of caution. The best views are near the top so you can get the full experience without the risk of pushing yourself. Just remember to turn around before you feel tired or thirsty!
This trip gave us a serious case of canyon fever and we agreed to return and hike rim to rim to rim as soon as we could get a permit. For details on our Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim adventure, please select here.