Backpacking Arizona: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim via North Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails

After finding myself with two completely free weeks in the middle of the summer to spend however I'd like, I did what any normal person would do - booked a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike. That is what any normal person would do, right? Potentially not, but I'm sure glad I did.

It was also the first time I chose to do a guided backpacking trip. I had a small window before those two free weeks to decide how to spend them. I wanted to hike, and could go somewhere new alone, go somewhere I'd already been alone, or look for a company that could take me on a big, complicated trip without having to worry about the logistics and advanced planning I wouldn't be able to do.

Watching the rain roll in over the South Rim on the third day of our trip.

I chose the last option, finding Wildland Trekking through a Google search and chatting with one of their guides about trips they still had available. Though a Rim to Rim hike wasn't on my to-do list, nor was visiting the desert in the middle of summer, it seemed like the best choice. I pulled the trigger 20 days before our scheduled departure from the North Rim.

Though it's certainly possible to do a Rim to Rim hike in less than the three and a half days it took us, the longer itinerary meant more time to explore, to learn, and to be inspired by an absolutely breathtaking landscape.

R2R Day 1: North Rim (8,241') to Cottonwood Campground (4,080'), 6.8 Miles

Our little crew of four, including Wildland Trekking guide Brian, started the four hour drive from Flagstaff at 6:00am on the first day. The early start gave us time to stop at Navajo Bridge in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the stop unexpectedly included spotting four California Condors. Seeing that many in one place is an absolute rarity, and I decided it was a good omen for the rest of the trip.

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge...the original Navajo Bridge.

After a stop at the backcountry office to pick up permits and weigh our backpacks (my Osprey Kyte 46L pack topped out at 40 pounds, including 3L of water), we made our way to the start of the North Kaibab Trail. It's the least visited and most difficult of the Grand Canyon's three maintained trails (South Kaibab and Bright Angel being the other two), and I was glad we'd only use it to descend. I was also glad to learn that the modern North Kaibab Trail we used didn't cross Bright Angel Creek 94 times like the original one did.

We shouldered our packs and started the descent toward the bottom of the Grand Canyon, following what seemed like and endless series of switchbacks through sand and mule poop. Luckily, the mules don't go past Supai Tunnel, 2.0 miles down the trail. We reached the Coconino Overlook (0.75 miles) 30 minutes into our hike, took a quick break for photos, and continued descending toward Supai Tunnel. I couldn't get over the scale of the Canyon, a feeling I remembered from previous visits.

Descending into the canyon. Shade became a precious commodity!

The sand became more red as we descended. We passed through Supai Tunnel and reached the Redwall Bridge (2,200' down, 2.6 miles) in about two hours. Shortly after crossing the bridge, we took a decently long break to admire the canyon walls from a shaded spot. Multiple hikers passed us  going the other direction, many asking us how far it was to the top. I couldn't imagine hiking out of the canyon up that trail in the sun.

It was another 1.8 miles down to the Roaring Springs day use area. The park service warns day hikers interested in a trip to Roaring Springs to start before 7:00am and not to hike past that point; it's a long way back up, and underestimating both the elevation change and the heat can get you in big trouble quickly. We relished in the fact that we had cloud cover for this portion of the hike, and the rest of the day, thanks to monsoon season starting.

I found myself thanking the clouds for showing up when we needed them for most of the trip.

Less than a mile past Roaring Springs, we arrived at Manzanita Rest Area four hours into our hike. This spot gives hikers access to water, toilets, and Bright Angel Creek. Drinking water is seasonally available in multiple places along the route we took, thanks to a pipeline that runs from the North Rim to the South Rim, pumping water from Roaring Springs. (Carrying a backup purification source in case the pipeline has a leak or breaks, which apparently happens frequently, is recommended.) I learned to take advantage of any water, toilets, and creek access available for the rest of the trip.

We crossed the bridge and continued another 1.4 miles to home for the night - Cottonwood Campground. The sites near Bright Angel Creek would've been in complete sun when we arrived around 5:00pm, but luckily, we still had that cloud cover. Of the dozen sites available, Brian chose one right next to the creek.

Home sweet home in Cottonwood, and the first time I've ever slept in a one-person tent.

We jumped right into the surprisingly freezing cold water as soon as we finished setting up, a practice we'd continue for the rest of the trip. We lay our wet clothes out to dry, made sure all food items and anything with an odor was safely locked in the large metal animal-proof box, and crawled into our tents around 8:00pm, preparing for a 4:30am wake-up call to start the second day.

R2R Day 2: Cottonwood (4,080') to Bright Angel Campground (2,480'), 7.2 Miles

The wake-up call came after a fitful night's sleep. Even laying on top of my 50-degree bag, I was too hot, thanks to the canyon rocks radiating heat after baking in the sun all day. After a hearty breakfast and strong coffee, we started on our mostly flat walk to the oasis that is Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel Campground around 6:00am. The early start meant we'd be through "the box" - a steep black rock walled (vishnu schist) section of canyon - before the sun had enough of a chance to turn it into an oven. It also meant we'd have time for a detour to Ribbon Falls 1.6 miles into the day - one of the highlights of the trip for me.

An absolutely gorgeous start to the hike out, staring down the trail at the South Rim.

Ribbon Falls used to be accessible by a footbridge, but winter weather took the bridge out in recent years, requiring hikers to cross knee-deep water to make the trip. We could hear the falls long before we got close and decided without hesitation that it was worth it, switching to sandals and later dropping our packs for easier travel.

Arriving at Ribbon Falls was like stepping into another world. The nearly 100-foot visible section of the cascade flows down through dark red rock, and the water's mineral content created a large travertine dome that's now covered in moss and other foliage. We got to explore under, above, and around the waterfall for a good half hour, completely soaking ourselves and cooling off for the miles ahead.

Getting the whole waterfall to fit in my camera lens was a challenge!

We traded our sandals for hiking shoes around 7:45am and continued working through the remaining 5.6 miles to to Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. The North Kaibab Trail remained relatively wide, flat, and hugged the edge of canyon walls that seemed to get steeper and higher the further we went. We were mostly in the shade until crossing a large bridge to the other side of the canyon around 9:30am, putting us in direct sun, which we'd move in and out of the rest of the day.

I started noticing how warm I was feeling, how the air felt increasingly warmer, and kept taking sips of water as we walked. But despite my best efforts, I started to feel dizzy, and we reached the point where Phantom Creek and Bright Angel Creek meet at the perfect time. I needed to cool off, and we had a scheduled "sit in the creek for 30 minutes" stop there.

This part of the day was HOT.

After a salty snack, (yay Cheez-its) and a long sit in Bright Angel Creek, we continued on, passing the Clear Creek Trail junction around 11:30am. Five minutes later, a sign welcoming us to Phantom Ranch came into view. We followed the trail past Phantom Ranch, crossed a bridge, and found our campsite in the busy 32-site Bright Angel Campground next to a water spigot.

Had I done some of the trip planning rather than relying on a guide, I likely would've been less surprised by Phantom Ranch itself. It's a historic oasis nestled between the canyon's tall walls, the only lodging below the canyon rim, and is only accessible by mule, on foot, or by rafting the Colorado River. Hikers have the option of staying in dormitories that need to be booked very far ahead of time. Other accommodations include cabins for 2-10 people, complete with bedding, showers, and air conditioning.

Feeling much better after completely soaking myself in the creek!

We took full advantage of the creek next to camp, sheltering under the bridge and sitting in the cool moving water. We also took full advantage of the canteen when it was open. The building is air-conditioned, albeit not well, but temperatures hit 130 degrees in the sun on our walk over to the canteen, and it was definitely more comfortable to sit inside. I was still feeling a bit dizzy and off, but after a few glasses of iced tea ($3.25 for the first glass, $1 refills) and a glass of cold brewed coffee, I felt like a new person. It was also a fun opportunity to meet and chat with others visiting the Ranch.

Leaving the sheltered canteen when it closed for dinner at 4:00pm was tough, but we went right back to quick dips in the creek and attempts at finding shade before dinner. After dinner, Brian took us a short walk up the Bright Angel Trail to a beach along the Colorado River. It was another hidden gem I likely wouldn't have found on my own, but after wading knee deep into the river and sinking in up to my neck, I was eternally grateful for the side trip. Sitting in the shade on the beach, chatting with Brian and my trip mates, was the first time I'd felt cool and comfortable all day. Even as the sun disappeared behind the canyon walls, the walls themselves radiated heat, and would do so all night.

Basking in the cool Colorado River. We didn't go in further than that; swimming in the river is discouraged because of the currents.

The canteen opened again at 8:00pm, and our little crew headed back for a nightcap. In addition to ice and cold drinks, they also served two beers from the Lumberyard Brewing Company, which sort of blew my mind. It was one thing to imagine mules carrying food and other essentials down, but beer seemed like such an incredible luxury! I treated it as such, sipping a red ale and relishing in the fact that I got to buy cold beer and flush a toilet with running water in the middle of a backpacking trip.

R2R Day 3: Bright Angel Campground (2,480') to Indian Garden Campground (3,040'), 5.0 Miles

I tossed and turned most of the night before another 4:30am wake-up call to start our third day of hiking. The air temperature dropped to 90 degrees as we settled into our tents at 8:00pm, but next to the hot canyon walls, it felt warmer than that to me all night. We were on our way after breakfast and an extra cup of coffee.

The Silver Bridge, carrying people and water across the Colorado River since the 1960s! Mules use a different bridge.

The first section of our five mile day followed the creek, skirted the edge of the Colorado River, then crossed the river on Silver Bridge. Built in the 1960s, the bridge connects the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, which we'd follow the rest of our trip, to Phantom Ranch. It's narrow, wobbles as you walk across it, and thanks to the grates that make up the walking surface, you can see right through it.

We crossed the bridge around 6am, along with some of the 500,000 gallons of water pumped daily from Roaring Springs miles away near the North Rim down Bright Angel Canyon through Phantom Ranch, across the Colorado River, and up to the South Rim. That pipeline is what makes water so easily accessible on our entire route, which I was eternally grateful for. We wouldn't have access to water on this day until we reached Indian Garden, our last campground on the trip.

Watching the sun rise over the Colorado River behind us.

But getting to watch the sun rise behind the mountains as rafting parties made their way down the river was something special. We continued on down the edge of the Colorado River, stopping to dunk our bandannas in the cool water before we continued on to the River Resthouse about 0.75 miles into the day. The River Resthouse has composting toilets, and we stopped there to sunscreen up; we'd be in and out of the sun for the rest of the morning.

The Bright Angel Trail continued meandering along the side of the Colorado before we arrived at the Pipe Creek drainage, indicating most of the rest of our trip would be uphill. This section of trail is also referred to as the Devil’s Corkscrew because it's brutally hot in the summer sun. I found myself grateful again for the early morning start.

On our way up and up and up toward Indian Garden.

We took a short shaded break partway up the trail before continuing on until about the 4.5 mile mark where Brian told us to drop our packs around 9:30am. We'd stay in this spot, hanging out by Garden Creek for an hour and a half. The section of the creek near Indian Garden Campground isn't as conducive to swimming, so we'd soak in some cool water, relax, and kill some time before arriving in camp. I spend that time hopping in and out of the water, dunking my head under a small waterfall, reading books on my Kindle, and taking quick naps.

Around 11:00am, we continued up the last 0.5 miles or so to camp. This section was entirely in the sun, and when we arrived at our campsite, I was pleasantly surprised to find the picnic table sat under a covered structure and our site was almost entirely shaded by giant cottonwood trees. According to the NPS, the little oasis that is Indian Garden was used by Native Americans up to modern times, and the resident Havasupai allowed one of the builders of the Bright Angel Trail to build a camp that would become the 15-site campground we stayed in for tourists in 1903.

Thunder clouds forming over the North Rim. 

After lunch, we had about six hours to hang out, relax, visit the Indian Garden camp library (yep, that's a thing, and the book return is an ammo box on the way out of camp), nap, read, and chat. After dinner, Brian promised us a special side trip if we were up for it and the weather cooperated - a three mile round trip jaunt out to Plateau Point.

I was excited to get up and move after relaxing all afternoon, and the idea of watching the sunset from the edge of the canyon was irresistible. The 1.5 miles out on relatively flat ground took us less than 30 minutes, and we spent from 6:30 to 7:15pm hanging out, rock hopping (carefully), and enjoying the views.

Taking it all in at Plateau Point.

A thunderstorm started forming above the South Rim, and as we heard thunder rumbling, it was time to head back to camp. I got to lead the group back to camp, setting a quick pace to try and outrun the rain, but we didn't make it before the skies opened up. Luckily, we'd all covered our tents before heading out and the lightning was far away from us. Thanks to the passing rain and cooler temperatures at slightly higher elevations, I slept better that night than any other night on the trip...until 3:00am.

R2R Day 4: Indian Garden Campground (3,040') to the South Rim (6,860'), 4.5 Miles

This last day hardly qualifies as a day, given we started hiking at 4:15am and were on top of the South Rim at 8:00am. But it was one of my favorite parts of the hike; I much prefer walking uphill to walking downhill. The 3:00am wake-up call had us all out of our tents, fed, and packed up ready to tackle the first 1.5 miles of our 4.5 mile day in the dark before the sun showed a hint of rising.

Watching the sun rise from Three-Mile Resthouse.

Though the Bright Angel Trail is significantly more shaded than the 100% non-shaded, but shorter South Kaibab Trail out of the canyon, the sun is still brutal as the day wears on. We wanted to be up and on top of the South Rim before the real sun hit. In addition to  having share on the way up, one of the advantages of staying at Indian Garden the night before hiking out on the Bright Angel Trail was the fact that the 4.5 miles was easily split into three separate parts.

The first 1.5 miles is uphill, but not steep, and there's a built-in rest stop at Three-Mile Resthouse (4,748'). We did most of this in the dark, but as the sun rose, it turned into an absolutely beautiful morning. The canyon walls started to appear out of the darkness, and we could put our headlamps away. There was water available, but we didn't need it.

Looking back toward the endless switchbacks and the sunrise.

The second 1.5 miles is steep, and covers what seem to be endless switchbacks, but some of the switchbacks pointed us toward the Colorado River for incredible views of where we'd come from the previous few days. Another natural break at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse (5,729') gave us a chance to catch our breath, but after three days of hiking, my legs were starting to get accustomed to the routine and I felt better than I had any other day.

The last 1.5 miles is still steep, and the closer we got to the top, the more people we saw. Some day hikers choose to make a day trip to Indian Garden, Three-Mile, or Mile-and-a-Half Resthouses to get below the rim, and as we neared the top, the trail got downright crowded. But I didn't mind, the uphill felt good, the air was cool, the sun wasn't out in full force, and I started to feel the familiar euphoria that comes with nearing the completion of a route.

Up and up and up!

Brian set a leisurely, comfortable pace, and we took multiple breaks, but we still popped out over the rim (6,860') at 8:00am. I welcomed the chance to wander the Bright Angel Lodge gift shop, wash my hands in a sink, and relish in finishing the trail with plenty of time to relax the rest of the day. (After we got to Flagstaff, I took a long shower, had a beer and a burger at Flagstaff Brewing Company, and passed out at 6:00pm.)

The post-trip blues hit me as soon as we stepped on to the concrete parking lot. I was surprised to feel that way so quickly; doing a Rim to Rim trip was never on my adventure to-do list, I'm not much of a desert person, and I spent a good part of the trip exhausted by the heat and sun. But it was such a special experience.


Obligatory "we made it" photo at the South Rim.

It's an incredible thing to walk the trails Native Americans used for many many years, to think about how the land was used and is used, to take in the flora and fauna, and to understand how hard it can be to survive, much less thrive, in such a harsh environment. I didn't know anything about the Colorado River, the different drainages and creeks, how a small pipeline can supply enough water to run everything in the Canyon, the Native tribes, how many different plants and animals thrive in the Canyon, or how to successfully backpack in the desert in the summer.

And though I can plan backpacking trips on my own, I'm glad I chose to do this one with a guide, particularly the guide we had. Brian's passion, desert hiking knowledge, meal planning skills, and ability to take care of us without making me feel like I was being taken care of really made the trip. It was so nice to have someone secure permits in advance, deal with logistics, manage the food, and set the pace; I hardly had to think at all. I definitely know enough to feel comfortable going back to do this hike again, but if I do, it's going to be in cooler months!

To anyone who stuck with me through this entire trip report, thank you, and I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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