Grand Canyon Basics: Rim to Rim to Rim
by John Medinger
Planning your own double crossing of the Grand Canyon? The logistics are relatively simple.
Leaving from the south rim there are two basic routes: the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail. Upon entering the National Park (and paying the $20 entry fee), you will be given a map that
clearly shows both trails. There are no permit requirements for day use in the Park.
The South Kaibab route is shorter, steeper and rockier. It is 41.2 miles roundtrip. There are two drawbacks to this route: the mule train that supplies Phantom Ranch and the lack of water between Phantom
Ranch and the south rim. The mule train leaves the South Kaibab trailhead daily at about 5 a.m. These are not the well-trained mules that carry tourists down to Phantom Ranch. These mules are working
pack animals and the mule skinners are perhaps understandably annoyed at runners who chase down the mule train and often spook the animals. To avoid any unpleasantries, locals who use this route will
often leave at 4 a.m. to make sure that they are ahead of the mules. It is about 6.5 miles from the trailhead to Phantom Ranch via this route.
The Bright Angel route is a more gentle way down to the bottom, though plenty steep enough in places. A round trip using Bright Angel in both directions is about 46 miles. There is more tourist hiking traffic
on this trail, but like most trails anywhere, once you get a mile or two from the trailhead, you pretty much have things to yourself. There is water year around at Indian Gardens campground, at 4½ miles, about
halfway between the south rim and the river. In the summer months, there is also water 1½ and 3 miles below the south rim. These are turned off in the winter months.
The two trails join up at the bottom, where there are two suspension footbridges over the Colorado River. Phantom Ranch, which is open all year, is about a half mile up the trail from the river. Phantom Ranch
has a canteen (open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) that has snack foods and lemonade for sale. There is a water fountain in front of the canteen.
Leaving Phantom Ranch and heading toward the north rim, you are now on the North Kaibab Trail. Though there are a couple of potential short side trips, there are no other trails, so it is nearly impossible to
get lost. You will pass through a spectacular box canyon and a shallow but long climb up to Cottonwood campground, about 7 miles from the river. There is a water fountain here on the far side of the
campground, just left of the trail. Once you leave Cottonwood, things start to get steeper.
In a little less than 2 more miles, you will come to a ranger’s cabin just below Roaring Springs, home to Bruce Aiken, an accomplished artist who has achieved quite a following with his canyon paintings. There
is water available here also, and Bruce often leaves a cooler of lemonade out for hikers.
From here to the north rim is about 5½ miles. There is water at the north rim, but it is turned off from October 15 to May 15. During this time, it will be about a 4-hour roundtrip to the top and back to Roaring Springs,
so tank up before you leave.
The best time of year to run the canyon is either in the spring – late April and early May – or the fall – late October and early November. The summer months are usually well over 100F at the bottom of the canyon
and in the wintertime there is usually snow on the trail near the top. There is longer daylight in the spring. In either case, you would be foolish to attempt a double crossing without carrying a flashlight.
Weather-wise, you will get a little of everything. During the prime running times, it will be freezing or below on the south rim at dawn and in the 80s or 90s at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon. Although it is
desert, rain or even snow is not unheard of. You should come prepared for everything and plan on being self-sufficient as there are no aid stations and no sweeps to help if you start having problems.
How long will it take? Well, first of all, it’s not a race. It would be crazy to do this run and not take some time to enjoy the incredible scenery. A mid-pack runner should plan on at least 13-15 hours.
It is a tough run, with a little bit of everything as obstacles: some rocky sections of trail, some exposure, two BIG hills, heat, cold, altitude (7000 feet at the south rim, 2600 feet at the bottom, 8000 feet at the north rim).
You will definitely feel like you’ve accomplished something when you finish. And you will see the Grand Canyon as few have ever seen it!