This weekend, Julia and I decided to make our way out to Arizona for a Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) hike of the Grand Canyon. For those of you unfamiliar with the Grand Canyon, there is a South Rim and North Rim. The vast majority of tourists and travelers stop to take photos from the South Rim, as it’s easily accessible, and provides many opportunities to hop out of your car to take photos. That’s never really been our style though, so we decided we wanted to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim, and then return. Last year, we hiked from South to North, but took a shuttle back. This year, we completed the entire journey on foot. The entire R2R2R hike totals 42 miles, but adds an additional 6 miles when you include hiking to the North Rim lodge and getting from your car to the trailhead on the South Rim. The South Kaibab trailhead on the South Rim sits at 7260ft, and descends to a low point of about 2500ft before climbing to the 8241ft elevation of the North Rim.
**To make this weekend even more special, this was hike number 52/52 for my 52 Hike Challenge this year**
Getting To The Starting Line
Julia and I left Southern California after work on Friday and settled in for the 7 hour drive to the Grand Canyon. It’s a long trip, but not an unpleasant one. We made sure to stay hydrated on the drive out, which meant frequent stops to use the restroom, and snack time at fast food establishments. Fast food is almost never on the menu of our normal diet, so it’s pretty fun to try the offerings at these roadside slop joints. We started slow, with a stop at Panda Express and Del Taco. We were feeling well fueled and sodium rich after the meal, but were still craving a little sugar and carbs. To really top off our systems for the near 50 mile hike we’d be embarking on for the weekend, we next stopped at a joint KFC/Taco Bell drive-thru, which proved to be the perfect place. We ordered a box of 12 Cinnabon Delight balls. These things were insanely good, and I’ve had to keep myself from seeking them out again after that instance. They’re essentially a ball of what tastes like funnel cake, filled with Cinnabon frosting goo, and coated with more cinnamon and sugar. I don’t know how many calories are in each ball or how many grams of sugar they include, but to be honest, I don’t care….they were that good!
We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park around 11:00PM and made our way towards Pipe Creek Vista, which is the closest overnight parking spot to the South Kaibab trailhead. There is a parking lot at the South Kaibab trail, but it’s restricted for private and shuttle use only according to rangers. In the summer, there is a Hiker’s Express shuttle that starts at 4:00AM, but for October, the first one leaves at 5:00AM. We organized our things and layed down in the back of my car to get a short sleep before an early start. Just as we put our heads down, the bright lights of a truck hit us directly. It was a ranger telling us that no sleeping in the park grounds was permitted, and we’d have to drive back down to the RV lot in Tusayan. Luckily, this is only about 10 miles away from Pipe Creek.
We parked and slept on the gravel parking lot outside of the IMax Theater in Tusayan, and woke up at 4:30 to get ready for the day ahead. We ate a breakfast of oats, and made sure to hydrate. We were back at the Pipe Creek Trailhead by 5:30, and packed up the car before making the short .5 mile walk to the South Kaibab Trailhead.
Rim to Rim Day 1: Hiking From South Kaibab on the South Rim to North Kaibab on the North Rim
When we arrived at the trailhead, we were shocked to see at least 20 people congregating around the restroom area under a tent. Last year, we only saw a total of about 5 people on the entire South Kaibab Trail. One of the gentlemen under the tent invited us over. After being ushered under the tent, we found out that the University of New Mexico was conducting research on the physiological toll a Rim to Rim hike takes on the body. Julia and I willingly volunteered, and had our weight, heart rate, and food/liquid intake documented before hitting the trail. They told us that other members of their team would be taking similar information from us at Phantom Ranch and the North Rim.
We finally hit the trail around 6:00AM, which was a little later than our originally planned start time, but the delay was for a great cause. The positive side of starting late is that we got to see a lot more of the Grand Canyon from the get go, as it was light enough to turn off our headlamps after one mile in. The downside to this, is that the heat started earlier than we would have liked. The other thing you have to take into consideration with a late start is getting stuck behind a mule train.
We made good pace and were feeling great as we covered the first few miles to Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point. The sun was golden and warm as it made it’s way up to fill a cloudless sky. Having grown accustomed to the grey and yellow landscape of my backyard hikes, the hues of red and orange in the Grand Canyon always find a way to floor me.
The next landmark after Skeleton Point is the Tip Off, which marks 4.5 miles into the journey. Only 20 miles left to the North Rim Lodge from here! You can really start to feel the descent when you reach the tip off, as the trail becomes a series of steep steps and sandy earth, churned to dust by the hooves of mules and feet of hikers.
After the Tip Off is the steepest section of trail on South Kaibab, as the trail drops down to the Colorado River. I love this section, as you can see the beautiful hues of the river and the bridge that spans it growing closer with every pass on the switchbacks. It wasn’t long before we entered the dark tunnel, and made our way across the bridge.
After crossing the bridge over the Colorado River, the trail levels out and passes the junction for the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel Trail is another option to take when descending from the South Rim. This junction is the point at which the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails meet, and continue on as one towards Phantom Ranch. Coming from South Kaibab, Phantom Ranch is the first chance for hikers to get water. There is also the option to buy snacks and drinks from the store, but you’ll have to arrive later than 8:00AM if you’d like to do so.
After leaving Phantom Ranch, the trail cuts through a gorge and remains relatively flat over a 7.2 mile stretch. This part of the Canyon is referred to as The Box. For much of this level walk, the trail is accompanied by a flowing creek. Hitting this section early in the morning is key, as the tall red walls shield the trail from the sun, allowing hikers to avoid the worst of the Arizona heat.
After hiking for about 5 miles through the box, the Canyon opens up to a much wider and dryer vista. The deep reds turn to an ash yellow, and the shade all but disappears. This is where the heat of the Grand Canyon first starts to beat it’s drum. There is a side trail here to see the beautiful Ribbon Falls, but we chose to continue on to Cottonwood Camp on this day, as it was only two more miles ahead.
There were close to 15 hikers enjoying the shade and fresh water at Cottonwood Camp when we arrived. Julia and I made sure to hydrate, as we could feel the temperature start to rise. We had hiked 15 miles thus far, but we knew the next 7 would be the toughest. The Cottonwood Campground sits at 4080ft, some 4100 feet below the North Rim. On top of this climb, we’d also have a 1.5 mile hike from the end of the trail on North Kaibab to the Lodge on the North Rim. After about 30 minutes of rest and hydration, we put our packs back on, and made our way upward.
We had been checking the weather forecast regularly in the days leading up to this trip, as a storm front was supposed to move in over the weekend. The last time we checked, the rain was scheduled to hit on Sunday (day 2) at around 3 in the afternoon. At this point in the hike, we could see the first signs of this storm starting to materialize, as clouds began to formulate high above the Canyon walls. It was a welcome site, as we knew the clouds would bring shade and cooler temperatures.
One of the many great things about North Kaibab Trail is it’s water availability. You don’t really need to carry too much from Cottonwood Camp, as the Pumphouse Ranger Station is only 1.5 miles and 600ft of elevation away, and then there is another great place to refill 3 miles later at the Supai Tunnel. The beauty of the North Kaibab trail is also something incredibly special, as it can feel like a completely different landscape when compared to the South Kaibab.
Even though the North Kaibab only climbs for 7 miles, it can feel like it goes on for much longer than that. There is a bridge before a steep uphill section to the Supai Tunnel that lets you know you’re getting close. After crossing this bridge, the trail covers some pretty steep switchbacks, before taking you up and out of a desert landscape and into a mountainous one.
It can be a little bit tough on the legs as you approach the top, as the trail grows dusty and soft. The soft earth began to sap the limited energy I had left in my legs. Just when I thought my legs had given all they had, the Oconino Overlook came into view and gave my body the charge it needed to finish.
After the Oconino Overlook, there are only a few short paces left before reaching the end of the North Kaibab Trail. Julia and I took some time to rest before giving our exit data to the research team from the University of New Mexico. From there, we began the 1.5 mile hike to the North Rim Lodge, where we knew there was warm food and cold drinks waiting for us.
After checking into the North Rim Lodge, we made a quick run out to take in the views of the Grand Canyon. We were both tired and hungry, but the views of the Grand Canyon seemed to supersede any fleshly needs one might feel.
After taking in some quick views of the Canyon from the North Rim, we made our way to the cabin I rented to freshen up before grabbing some dinner. Having gotten used to spending most nights outside after a long hike, it was really nice to have a warm cozy cabin and a refreshing shower. After cleaning up, we made our way to the supply store, where I ordered a sandwich and Julia ordered some mushroom soup. They made for the perfect appetizer to tie us over until dinner, where we had planned to order a pizza after watching the sun set on the North Rim.
Our timing was perfect, as we could see the sun beginning to set just as we were finishing up with our appetizers. We made a quick walk through the gift store, and then made our way back out to the North Rim to take in the spectacle of sunset. After watching sunset, we made our way back to the restaurant, and picked up a large pizza. It felt great to be topped off on hydration and calories, and to my surprise, my body was feeling ready and charged up for another 24 mile trek across the Grand Canyon.
Rim to Rim Day 2: Hiking From North Kaibab on the North Rim to South Kaibab on the South Rim
We woke up early again for day number two, where we would be completing the second leg of our Rim to Rim to Rim hike. About two miles into the hike, Julia began to complain of a pretty painful food injury. She was experiencing a radiating pain on the outside of her midfoot, and in the fifth metatarsal. Luckily, she was willing to tough it out, and although we had to slow our pace a bit, the pain wasn’t altering our plans too much. We needed to be careful though, as there really is no escape plan for the Grand Canyon.
You would think the trail would feel redundant on the way back, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just like hiking a familiar mountain in the snow of winter, seeing North Kaibab in the morning gave me an entirely new appreciation for the footsteps I had laid down in the previous afternoon.
After struggling up North Kaibab the day before, I was shocked at how quickly we were able to cover the same terrain on the downhill. Before I knew it, we were already standing at the Pumphouse Ranger Station, with Cottonwood Camp in our sights.
After stopping for a quick break at Cottonwood Campground, we made our way back into The Box for the flat section towards Phantom Ranch. It was at this section that Julia’s foot really began to give her problems. There was something about walking on the level ground that amplified the aggravation in her aching soles. At this point, we were just counting down the miles and bridges before the final uphill climb towards the South Rim.
We took a long break at Phantom Ranch to allow Julia time to take her shoes off and rest her feet. While we waited, we discussed which trail to take up to the South Rim. Our first thought was to take Bright Angel Trail, as it is less steep at 9.5 miles than the South Kaibab Trail at 7.5 miles. There are also spots to take breaks and get water on the Bright Angel, and there is no water on South Kaibab. That being said, the South Kaibab is more direct, and would drop us off right next to my car, wheras the Bright Angel Trail would take longer, and require that we catch two shuttles to get back to where I parked. As if the Grand Canyon heard our conversation, the rain began to fall. This was all the comfort we needed to take on the South Kaibab, as we knew that with cooler rainy weather, the steep trail would be the better choice.
The views from South Kaibab in the rain were just gorgeous. The grey clouds sweeping over the Canyon walls were part of a scene I’ll never forget. Much of the uphill hike is a bit of a blur in my mind, as I was just focused on placing one foot in front of the other and making sure Julia could do the same.
Just as we approached the final few miles of the South Kaibab Trail, the rain let up, and the clouds made way for patches of sunlight. The two other times I’ve been on this section of South Kaibab, it was dark outside. It was pretty amazing to be seeing things in the light. It’s hard to put into words just how small the Canyon can make you feel. There is such an energy in these walls.
The final switchbacks leading up to the South Kaibab trailhead parking lot came as sweet relief for Julia and her aching foot. I was surprisingly feeling very fresh, and not wanting the journey to end. It was amazing to feel so alive after hiking over 48 miles from Rim to Rim to Rim. I was really proud of Julia for being so tough and having the resolve to finish this hike without being 100%. I could see the relief on her face when we saw the South Kaibab park kiosk, and set our feet on the asphalt Rim Trail that would take us back to my car at Pipe Creek Vista. Such an incredible journey, and such an amazing weekend microadventure. I can’t wait to return to the Grand Canyon to explore more of it’s beauty in the years ahead.