Challenge: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (R2R) Hike

After hiking the Grand Canyon in 2017, I have always wanted to hike from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other in one straight shot. This year I decided it was time to go for it.

Back in March, I put the feelers out to see who would be interested in taking on this challenge with me. I wasn’t expecting many, but the response was overwhelming. I had over 30 people express interest in this hike. However, as I’ve learned organizing other trips/hikes, those numbers dropped off dramatically once the extremity of the challenge sunk in and it was time to commit to lodging. The group has now settled down to 12 people, which is still a good number to keep track of on a full day hike into, and out of, the Grand Canyon.

SCOPE

The full hike is 23.1 miles straight through starting at the North Rim and ending at the South Rim. We will hike down the North Kaibab trail, take a short rest at the bottom at Phantom Ranch, and continue on up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. This requires serious endurance and is no simple feat!

To help explain the challenges involved, I wanted to highlight some of the risks we will face on this hike.

PHYSICAL ExerTion

The elevation loss/gain is extremely challenging and quite brutal on the body, especially if you aren’t adequately prepared. Unlike typical mountain hikes, this is in the opposite direction with the hike going down first and then back up to finish. This means that some of the hardest aspects of the hike are at the end of the journey after hours of physical exertion.

  • North Kaibab Trail: 13.6 miles down, 5,740′ elevation loss.
  • Bright Angel Trail: 9.5 miles up, 4,340′ elevation gain.

In addition, the terrain is rocky and the trails are built like giant staircases making this hike pretty tough on the knees. The elevation change is challenging in itself, but to add to the difficulty, we will be up against many other physical and environmental challenges.

TEMPERATURE / Climate

The weather in the Grand Canyon is the cool on the rims and significantly warmer at the bottom near the river. The rims are high in elevation (North Rim  8,240′ above sea level / South Rim 6,840′ above sea level) and the bottom near the Colorado River is low in elevation (2,480′ above sea level). This creates extreme temperature changes, sometimes changing over 50°F from the top to the bottom. Our R2R hike will take place in late September in hopes of capturing some of the cooler temperatures at the bottom and before the North Rim shuts down for the winter (due to snow). The hike will start with temperatures near freezing (mid 30’s °F), become t-shirt weather at the bottom (high 70’s °F), and finish cool again as the sun is setting (low 50’s °F). The extreme temperature changes require we start and end the hike with more layers than the middle of the day when we may be down to a t-shirt and shorts. All part of the challenge!

ELEVATION

With higher elevations comes altitude related symptoms/illnesses. Although a sustained elevation of 8,000′ isn’t considered a major risk zone for humans, people can experience minor symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, and dehydration. These symptoms can lead to larger complications so taking care of these before they arise is critical to a happy and healthy hike. The key is to drink plenty of water, eat small meals more frequently, and replenish electrolytes throughout the hike. These few steps will make a big difference in how you will feel.

Wildlife

The Grand Canyon is full of incredibly interesting and beautiful wildlife such as elk, mountain lions, California condors and so much more. The Grand Canyon National Park offers a great search engine to look through all the wildlife in the park and even download a checklist if you want to keep track of what you see along the way.

With wildlife also come some risks. There are a few creatures that will most likely cross your path on a R2R hike that you will want to keep an eye out for:

  • Scorpions like to hangout under rocks and in bushes throughout the Canyon. Their sting is pretty painful, but it doesn’t last too long. Not a big threat on a hike, but if you are resting in the shade or sitting near some rocks, you should be aware they may be present. A trick is to bring a small blacklight with you so at night you can shine the light at the ground and the scorpions will glow. Very useful if you are camping anywhere in and around the Canyon. If you do get stung, just wait out the pain and continue your hike. If the swelling persists for a few days maybe go seek medical advice, otherwise if should calm down on it’s own.
  • Tarantula hawks are known for their extremely painful, debilitation, and possibly paralyzing sting. They like to burrow and often create their hives under the wood planks that line the trails. This can be challenging if one decides to hover right in the middle of the trail and there is nowhere else to go. Be patient, let it go on its way, and it won’t both you. If you do get stung, the first thing you should do is sit down because the pain will be so excruciating that you may hurt yourself by tripping over rocks or falling into the surrounding vegetation (e.g. a cactus). The the pain will be immense, however know that the pain will subside within about 5 minutes or so and you will be ok. You will want to keep the wound clean, but you will be able to finish the hike. Depending on the level of your reaction, if the swelling doesn’t come down for a few days, so seek medical advice.

Good rule to go by in the desert, if you leave it alone, it won’t bother you either.

TRIP SCHEDULE (3-4 Days)

To accomplish the R2R hike, the group will be camping at the North Rim on Day 1, completing the hike on Day 2, camping (or staying in a hotel) at the South Rim that night, and eventually leaving the Grand Canyon on Day 3 (or 4 if they plan to stay longer).

This schedule requires booking campsites/hotels (South and North Rim’s), transportation up to (and back from) the south rim, shuttle transportation to the North Rim, and shuttle reservations to take our gear back to the South Rim for after the hike. TIP: If you have a friend willing to drive you to the north rim and then take your gear back to the South Rim to meet you after the hike, that can save you a decent amount of money.

Something to keep in mind, hotels book up very fast, sometimes a year in advance. If you want a nice bed, shower, and private place to relax after the R2R hike, you should definitely plan further in advance. We started planning this a bit later in the year and most of us will be camping on both rims. Campsites also book up 1-2 months in advance, so keep an eye on that as well.

If you have more questions about setting up a hike like this or a longer Grand Canyon backpacking trip, please feel free to contact me for additional information.

“Why not camp at the bottom?”

I have had several people ask why we aren’t camping at the bottom and maximizing our time in such an incredible place. The simple answer is that is not the purpose of this hike. This hike was planned to be physical and mental challenge and provided an opportunity to experience the Grand Canyon in its entirety in one day.

I have backpacked and camped in the Canyon before and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried it. One thing to note, if you plan to camp in the Grand Canyon you are required to have a backcountry permit issues by the Grand Canyon Backcountry Office. The process is strict and they use a lottery system to issue permits making it very challenging to get permits in the time period you desire. If you want to learn more about the permitting process, check out this post I wrote with a few tips and tricks to get the dates you want.

For more information about hiking in the Grand Canyon, here is a brochure (PDF) provided by the Grand Canyon National Park with added statistics and information about the various hikes in and around the Canyon.

I will share more about the hike after it is completed, but for now I wish you blue skies and happy trails!

“Hiking down is optional, hiking out is mandatory.”
~ Grand Canyon National Park Sign

About the author

Erin Bonilla

I am a curriculum developer, technical trainer, communicator, and adventurer with a passion for human space exploration and training. I am actively involved in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) educational outreach efforts and advocate for the deep connection between the arts and science education.

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