Grand Canyon Rim to River Hike Guide
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||17 miles (27.4 km)|
|Hike Time||9-11 Hours (Total)|
|Difficulty (?)||Very Hard|
|Total Ascent (?)||4,800 feet (1463m)|
|Highest Elevation||7,200 feet (2195m)|
|Fees & Permits||Park Entry Fee|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Grand Canyon National Park|
The Grand Canyon “rim to river” hike from the South Rim to Colorado is the one hike that the NPS asks you not to do. Why? Beginning hikers underestimate the effort of hiking back up to the rim after enjoying a casual downhill to the river. I’ve written this guide to help experienced hikers who understand the challenges of the “rim to river,” and for those who are not experienced yet will do it anyway. This guide gives you all the information you need to do the hike safely if you are up to it and the conditions are right.
Should You Even Attempt the Rim to River Hike?
I’ll sum the (main) danger up for you clearly. You have an easy hike downhill, it gets hot, and then you have to hike back up through steep exposed sections of the desert with names like the ” Devil’s Corkscrew.” If you can’t make it, you don’t get a helicopter ride. A ranger will usually walk you back out to the top if you don’t die from heatstroke first.
The National Parks Service says this about the hike:
Hiking to the river and back in one day is not recommended due to long distance, extreme temperature changes, and an approximately 5,000- foot (1,500 m) elevation change each way. If you think you have the fitness and expertise to attempt this extremely strenuous hike, please seek the advice of a park ranger at the Backcountry Information Center. Know how to rescue yourself. YOU are responsible for your safety and the safety of your family and friends. Rescue is not guaranteed, and assistance may take hours or days due to weather or other emergencies.
If you have second thoughts, why not try a shorter hike where you can see the river, such as the hike to Plateau Point or the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point. Both hikes are tough in their own right and give you a taste “below the rim.”
What Does the Rim to River Start and End?
Technically there are several trailheads where you can actually hike to the river from the South Rim, but the traditional route descends on the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, and then ascends back to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This routing allows you to make the (relatively) easier descent with no water (you have to carry your own), take a break at Phantom Ranch canteen at the mid-point, and then climb back on the Bright Angel, which has water (after a stretch).
Map locations: South Kaibab Trailhead – Bright Angel Trailhead
The way most people tackle the logistics of the two different trailheads is this:
- Park (or stay) near the Bright Angel Trailhead. There is trailhead parking just next to the Bright Angel Trail, or park in the bigger “Lot D” by the Backcountry Information Center.
- Take the early Hiker’s Express or Kaibab Rim (Orange) bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead starting point (no cars are allowed there).
- Finish the hike back at your car or hotel at the Bright Angel Trailhead.
If you want to do the “rim to river” as an overnight trip, I suggest you check out my Rim to Rim guide for a deeper dive on camping options.
In the summer this hike is a big no-no. You’re going to want to check the weather forecast at Phantom Ranch. If it’s going to be over 100F by noon, it’s prudent to try a different hike like Bright Angel to Plateau Point, which has water throughout and shaded rest areas. Ideally you want to be back up to Indian Garden (more below) before the real heat hits, which can mean starting as early as possible when it’s warm. In the winter, the upper stretches of the trails can be covered with slick ice, and even with spikes on your shoes, you’ll go very slow. The sweet spot for this hike is when the temps are cooler but not extreme.
Here’s a rough timetable for the average hiker.
|South Kaibab Trailhead||0||-||-|
|Cedar Ridge||1.5||0:45||Steep Downhill|
|River Resthouse||9.7||4:30||Gradual Uphill|
|Indian Garden||12.9||6:30||Mixed Uphill|
|Three-Mile Resthouse||14.4||7:30||Steep Uphill|
|Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse||15.5||8:30||Steep Uphill|
|Bright Angel Trailhead||17||9:30||Steep Uphill|
Again, you are responsible for your own safety. The hottest part of the hike is usually between Phantom Ranch and Indian Garden. And if you get to Indian Garden and it’s very hot, you need to delay your plans, rest in the shade, and wait for it to cool down. People die every year from heatstroke. I’m sure no one thought it would happen to them.
Gear For the Hike
- Understand and bring the day hiking essentials.
- Trekking poles are a massive help on the descent and climb.
- You’re going to need sun protection. A wide hat that shades your head and neck, and also soaks up sweat is smart. Soak your hat in water as you pass fill stations to stay cool. And sunglasses will help protect your eyes from photokeratitis
- Use a hydration bladder if you have one, otherwise you can carry two 1.5L Smartwater bottles (or similar).
- Bring food that’s easy to get down when it’s hot out and that has some salt in it, which most energy bars do (look for sodium). Energy gels are great for the climb out.
- Bring a headlamp in case you get stuck out after dark.
- Pick up the “Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon National Park Trail Map – Bright Angel Canyon/North and South Rims” by National Geographic which is great for navigating the hike.
Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.
Latest Price on Women’s Shoe
REI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s Shoe
REI | Amazon
Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.
REI | Amazon
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated October 2021.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
Planning Your Water
Luckily there are running water fills at key points on this hike. You need to check the backcountry alerts page on the Grand Canyon NPS website – sometimes water is shut off at spots, there is low pressure from leaking, etc.
- Carry 3L of water when you leave the South Kaibab Trailhead. There is no water until you get across the river. This water should last until Phantom Ranch.
- Refill all 3L at Phantom Ranch.
- Carry 1.5L of water up from Indian Garden.
- Refill your water when needed as you climb. There are refill stations roughly every 1.5 miles (1 hour) from Indian Garden to the end of the hike.
Rim to River Trail Maps
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Rim to River Hike Directions
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This guide last updated on September 19, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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