Backpack the Grand Canyon: Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
Arizona › North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP
Added by Rob Witt
Explore one of the Natural Wonders of the world and get the experience of backpacking both Grand Canyon rims.
Start at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park at the North Kaibab Trail. You have 14 miles and 5,761 feet of elevation to descend to the Bright Angel Campground, so bring those trekking poles if you have bad knees (like myself).
Along the North Kaibab Trail a few noteworthy trail markers are the Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, the Pump House Ranger Station, and the Cottonwood Campground.
Just before you reach the halfway mark of 7 miles, you will come to a fork in the trail to see Ribbon Falls. I highly recommend you take the time to see this unique waterfall. Ribbon Falls is an oasis in the canyon and provides a gorgeous detour. The thin fall of water is full of plenty of photographic opportunities and a great place to dump your pack for a little rest and relaxation.
Right after you arrive at Phantom Ranch, you will soon come across the Bright Angel Campground. Camping at the Bright Angel Campground can be tough to come by as it's a very popular destination, so plan ahead and reserve your permits months in advance. In this adventure we camped both nights at the Bright Angel Campground, which has water, restrooms, and even a restaurant in the nearby Phantom Ranch.
If you are able to get reservations for a meal or two at the Phantom Ranch Restaurant--do it! It is worth it, not only is it way convenient to not have to worry about packing and cooking for a meal or two, the food is extremely tasty and super filling.
The second day is the longest of the three as you will hike the most miles (19 round trip) and see the greatest change in elevation up and down (4,380 feet up AND down). You will be leaving from the Bright Angel Campground, heading to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. Be sure to have an early start, and get on the trail well before sunrise. This allows you to beat the heat, gives you enough time to hang out at the South Rim, as well as time to make it back down to Phantom Ranch at a reasonable hour. Bring a daypack and leave your overnight gear at camp to travel lighter.
If you left Bright Angel Campground before sunrise, you will experience some beautiful photography moments watching the sunrise light the various canyon walls over time.
Once you reach the South Rim, be sure to take the time to explore a few viewpoints as the southern rim is more iconic and grand. Also take advantage of the Lodges Cafeteria and order some breakfast, brunch, or lunch, depending on what your body is in the mood for. Relax and let your body recover a little before you descend down 4,380 feet over 9.5 miles into the canyon back to the Bright Angel Campground.
The Bright Angel Campground has a gorgeous river that flows nearby offering great photographic opportunities. Note that shooting in the canyon can be very difficult as the massive narrow canyon walls will cast shadows most of the day, and so it is tough to tell when the “best” lighting will be. So I recommend you get creative and just make the most of wherever you are when the lighting is the way you like it.
The third and last day you will hike back out towards the North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail. You have the long haul of 14 miles and 5,761 feet of elevation gain ahead of you. Start early to beat the heat and enjoy the change of scenery.
The National Park has several places along these main trails to fill up, but be sure to double check with a Ranger to see which ones will be running before you leave, as a few are only seasonal. The majority of these pump stations do have restrooms.
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Tent (for privacy and gear)
- Backcountry permit from the NP Service to camp overnight
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking socks (and extra socks)
- Zip-off pants
- Fleece Jacket
- Trekking poles
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Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Photography
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A+ Trail Run
My friend and I completed the R3 trail run on Halloween of last year. As a first-timer to the canyon, my breath was truly taken away (and not just from covering that insane amount of distance + elevation in under 15 hours). The very first Story I published on The Outbound is "5 Things I Learned Trail Running The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim," check it out if you're thinking of picking up the pace on your next visit!
I know others will kill me for saying this, but I have got to have the greatest luck. As you know, this trail is difficult to get a backcountry permit for due to the lotto system - obviously for a park this popular its necessary. I was fortunate enough to just show up the weekend before Spring break and the park happened to have ONE walk-in permit left. Since the North Rim was still closed, and since I was by myself anyway, the trek required the Rim-to-Rim route. As fate would have it, that turned out to be a great happenstance. The Rim to Rim trail offers a totally different perspective going in the opposite way...its like its an entirely different trail. Oh and go check out that waterfall if you can! Totally funky!
Conquered R2R2R on 4/30/16
What a great review and details on your article. Just wanted to say that our group conquered this 47 miles and 11,700 gain/loss adventure back on 4/30 of this year. I ended up finishing in 19 hours as we set out to complete it as fast as we could. Next time I'm slowing down and enjoying all the canyon has to offer which is vast.
Great destination, especially if you can go with friends or family. While this trip was amazing, you need to be prepared and peruse the list of items to bring. Hope you guys love it as much as I did :)
Awesome write-up and beautiful photos Rob! I hiked South Kaibab down and back in one day and then North Kaibab, stopping at Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, then to Bright Angel a few days later. It was the best experience of my life and you included all the great aspects of the hikes.
I love this hike/adventure. As noted, if you can reserve meals at the Phantom Ranch Canteen, then you can avoid packing cooking gear and food. If no rain is forecast, then you may want to consider leaving the tent and sleeping under the stars.
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