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The Rim to Rim is the most popular and iconic hiking route in Grand Canyon National Park. I was able to hike Rim to Rim over and over again while living and working at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and now I work for a guided trekking company that leads Rim to Rim hiking tours. What follows are answers to some of the most common questions I hear about hiking this route. While I’ve already written a much more detailed e-book about how to plan your own self-guided Rim to Rim hike (which you can download for free here), I find that most people who ask these questions are looking for quick, snappy answers to get their planning started and are not as interested in the minutiae quite yet.
*UPDATE: Bright Angel Trail and Havasupai Gardens will be closed from at least December 1, 2023 to April 14, 2024. Also, there is a new permit application system for trip dates in 2024 which I explained here.
How Long Does it Take to Hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?
Bright Angel Trail is about 10 miles long, South Kaibab Trail is about 7.5 miles long, and North Kaibab Trail is about 14 miles long. If you hike South to North, it’s best to descend South Kaibab and ascend North Kaibab. South Kaibab is steeper than Bright Angel; it will get you down quicker and has spectacular views, but ascending South Kaibab is pretty tough. If you hike North to South, it’s best to descend North Kaibab and ascend Bright Angel. Bright Angel is longer but has a more gradual elevation profile. Bright Angel also has plentiful water access; South Kaibab has none.
This means hiking South to North is ~21 miles and hiking North to South is ~24 miles, without adding any detours to spur trails. If you take a side trail to visit Plateau Point or Ribbon Falls, that will add to your overall mileage.
You can take any amount of days to complete a Rim to Rim at a leisurely pace, or you could zip through quickly. It takes most hikers an average of ~12 hours to complete a Rim to Rim itinerary if they do it in one day, but most people hike Rim to Rim over the course of 2-4 days.
Do I Need a Permit to Hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?
You need a permit to camp overnight below rim in Grand Canyon National Park. If you are camping at the top of the South Rim or North Rim in a drive-in campsite – for instance, at Mather Campground – all you need is a normal campsite reservation booked on reservation.gov. If you are backcountry camping down inside the Grand Canyon itself, then you would need to apply for a permit.
This means you need a permit for the most popular campsites typically used for the Rim to Rim hiking route, such as Bright Angel Campground, Havasupai Gardens, and Cottonwood Campground. You would also need a permit if you are going to stay at one of the more obscure dispersed sites like Clear Creek or Utah Flats.
Permit applications begin four months in advance. You are unlikely to snag one after the initial permit lottery deadline has already passed (and may not luck out even if you apply on time), especially for the more popular months of May, September, and October, although it’s worth checking periodically to see if there’s been a cancellation.
If you do the entire Rim to Rim in one day and therefore have no plans to sleep below rim in the canyon, you do not need a permit.
Can I Hike Rim to Rim in One Day?
It is possible to hike the Rim to Rim in one day, and many people do it, though the Park Service doesn’t particularly advise it. You need to take into consideration your hiking experience and activity level. If the only reason you are planning on hiking Rim to Rim in one day is because you couldn’t get a permit, but you’re not used to hiking trails with this much elevation change, you may need to have an honest conversation with yourself about how motivated you are to train and prepare for such an undertaking.
At least hiking Rim to Rim in one day means you don’t have to carry a heavy pack with a tent and sleeping bag, which does bring the difficulty level down a peg in one sense. However, hiking the entire route in one day pushes the difficulty level up a notch in terms of endurance. I’ve highlighted some of the elements that make the Rim to Rim a difficult trek in the next section.
If you hike Rim to Rim in one day, you need to figure out your transportation situation. It’s a four hour drive from South Rim to North Rim or vice versa. If you’re not hiking out-and-back, which would be a Rim to Rim to Rim or R^3, then you need some way to get back to your car after you finish the hike. Trans-Canyon Shuttle offers two daily shuttles going South to North and two daily shuttles going North to South. The shuttle times are going to determine your entire hiking schedule.
When I hiked Rim to Rim in one day, I started on the South Rim at midnight because the pickup times for the shuttle on the North Rim were noon and 2pm. I figured it might take me 12 hours to complete the hike.
How Difficult is the Rim to Rim Hike in the Grand Canyon?
The only way to describe the difficulty level of the Rim to Rim is to lay out all the facts and let you evaluate for yourself.
The Rim to Rim hike involves 10,000ft of elevation change. The North Rim is at 8000-8500ft, the bottom of the canyon at the Colorado River is at 2000-2500ft, and the South Rim is at 7000-7500ft. You are going to start at the top of one rim, descend all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and then ascend back up the other rim. This route is famous because you can say that you’ve crossed the width of the canyon. The canyon is a mile deep and you’ll pass through 7 different climate zones to get to the bottom. You’ll see at least one, possibly two waterfalls, and you’ll get to cross a suspension bridge over the Colorado River.
Traversing the length of the Grand Canyon for hundreds of miles is much more harrowing. More people have been to the moon than traversed the entire length of the Grand Canyon.
The hike is 24 miles long if you choose one direction or 21 miles long if you choose the other. For the elevation change to be accomplished over such a distance, you can imagine that parts of the trails must be quite steep. It can feel like being on a stairclimber!
The upper miles of each trail, meaning the ~3 miles closest to the rim, are the steepest. Most people do alright with the descents, although they are relentless and may plague your knees and joints, especially if you’re not using trekking poles. As you get further down into the inner canyon, things really level out. In fact, the 7 miles between Cottonwood Campground and Bright Angel Campground are totally flat as you’re just traversing across the bottom of the canyon.
Overall it’s the end of your Rim to Rim hike that will be the hardest, when it’s time to ascend back up to the top. You’ll reach the steepest part of the trail after you’ve already put in a lot of mileage and worn down your energy reserves, yet this is the part where you most need your energy.
If you are not attempting to do the Rim to Rim in one day, you will have been able to rest up before your big ascent, or you may be able to break the ascent up into two days if you’re hiking North to South (since you can camp halfway up Bright Angel Trail).
There is not any climbing involved in the Rim to Rim. There are not any ladders, and if no recent weather events have caused trail damage, there shouldn’t be much loose scree or any need to scramble using your hands. As such, it is not considered a technical trail. However, people with fear of heights may feel uneasy when the trails become narrow.
I personally do struggle with extremely exposed ledges, yet I have felt comfortable every time I’ve hiked Rim to Rim. Looking down at the trail from the top of the rim might freak people out initially, but once you’re actually hiking, you gain a new perspective on how much extra room you have on either side of your feet. You also have the canyon wall on one side for reassurance, and you can keep in mind that the trails used on the Rim to Rim have to at least be wide enough for the mule trains. The mules do not use Threshold or Wilderness/Primitive trails such as Hermit, Grandview, New Hance, or Tanner, but they do use the Corridor trails featured on the Rim to Rim such as South Kaibab and Bright Angel, and the upper miles of North Kaibab.
Things like heat or snow will impact the difficulty level of your Rim to Rim itinerary. I discuss the best times to hike in the Grand Canyon below.
If you’re not comfortable with a self-guided hike or prefer the logistics to be taken care of for you, including permit applications, Wildland Trekking offers guided treks in the Grand Canyon.
Should I Hike North Rim to South Rim, or South Rim to North Rim?
If you are tent camping and hiking South to North, most people would try to spend Day 1 descending South Kaibab for 7.5 miles to camp at Bright Angel Campground. Day 2 would involve traversing the 7 mile flat portion of the route from Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Campground. Day 3 would be your 7 mile ascent to the North Rim.
If you are tent camping and hiking North to South, most people would try to spend Day 1 descending North Kaibab for 7 miles to camp at Cottonwood Campground. Day 2 would involve traversing the 7 mile flat portion of the route from Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Campground. Day 3 could be your entire 10 mile ascent up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, or you could divide this ascent to span Days 3 and 4 by camping at Havasupai Gardens halfway up.
If you are going to do the whole thing in two days, just camp for one night at Bright Angel Campground or Cottonwood Campground and do longer miles each day.
I often hear it repeated that ascending North Kaibab Trail is harder than ascending Bright Angel Trail, but I disagree. They’re about equal if you’re doing them in one fell swoop; Bright Angel would only be easier if you break it up into two days by camping at Havasupai Gardens.
Ultimately the choice comes down to whether you want to miss out on South Kaibab Trail vs. Bright Angel Trail, which is a hard decision (and one reason why people do the Rim to Rim to Rim to see all three).
South Kaibab features some of my favorite viewpoints in the park, such as Skeleton Point and a few unnamed spots with dramatic red sand and colorful rock formations. At one point you’ll be looking down on Bright Angel Campground, Phantom Ranch, and the Colorado River from above, which is one of the most expansive and rewarding panoramas on the Rim to Rim. The views on South Kaibab come at you fast and frequently. There is no water on South Kaibab so you’ll need to pack it all in, and there is also very little shade.
Bright Angel’s most impressive views aren’t reached until further down the trail, though if you have the chance to take the spur trail out to see Plateau Point, in my opinion that’s in contention for the most beautiful viewpoint on the South Rim side of the canyon. Bright Angel has potable water pumps as well as a creek running alongside it for a few miles, so it could be a good choice to sub Bright Angel in for South Kaibab in hotter weather. Bright Angel is where you’ll find the Devil’s Corkscrew, a series of unrelenting switchbacks. In my opinion these aren’t any more difficult than the switchbacks you inevitably encounter on all the Corridor trails. You’re going to hit some switchbacks no matter what.
When is the Best Time to Hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?
The Rim to Rim is possible when the North Rim is open, which is usually May 15 – November 30 each year. This past year it didn’t open until June because the North Rim had a crazy winter; this was quite unusual as the North Rim hadn’t had a late opening in many years.
Being that it’s 1000 feet lower in elevation, the South Rim is always open year-around, though sometimes the Desert View Drive driving entrance might close due to winter storms. I have never heard of the South Entrance closing.
Within the mid-May to late-November season, the ideal time to hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon is mid-September to mid-November. Late May is already very hot, and the heat will continue to be brutal through early September. Keep in mind that the bottom of the canyon is 20 degrees hotter than the top of the rim at any given time, so if someone tells you the temperature on the South Rim is currently 90 degrees, you can surmise it’s 110 degrees at the bottom.
A lot of years we might get our first snow around Thanksgiving time, although in random years it could come earlier or not begin at all until December. New Years often has a big winter storm, and we’ll continue to get dumped on through February.
Since mid/late September and all of October are ideal for temperatures, these months are also extremely competitive for the permit lottery. By contrast, for some reason early November isn’t quite as competitive, despite the fact that it still has nice weather.
May is also very competitive despite the heat. It’s best to go as early in May as possible, but since the North Rim opens on May 15th, that is a popular and crowded week.
If you are doing an out-and-back Rim to Rim to Rim, this is possible when the North Rim is closed because you start and end on the South Rim, only touching down at the North Rim for a brief moment before turning around. April is a great time to hike R^3 both for weather (usually) and lack of crowds, though be aware the Park Service trail crews will not yet have cleaned up North Kaibab trail after whatever damage may have been caused to it over winter. I did have to scramble over some rockfall when I did this. There was no snow lingering on North Kaibab when I hiked R^3 in April 2019, but I bet there was tons this past year in 2023.
If you do hike with some snow on the ground, be sure to wear microspikes on your shoes for traction. Grand Canyon National Park can be glorious in wintertime when the snow forms white striations across distant rock formations and adds new color to the canyon’s palette, as long as the air isn’t actively thick with view-obscuring snowfall.
Do I Have to Tent Camp to Hike Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?
If you hike Rim to Rim in one day you won’t need to camp. The only other way to avoid camping on the Rim to Rim is to stay at Phantom Ranch, the rustic accommodation at the bottom of the canyon near Bright Angel Campground. Phantom has shared dorms and private cabins. You must win a spot in a highly competitive lottery more than a year in advance. I wrote about how to play the Phantom Ranch lottery in my detailed Self-Guided Rim to Rim free e-book download.
As a side note, since Phantom Ranch is also included in the mule ride package: no, you cannot hike in for the easy part but ride a mule out for the strenuous ascent. It takes some effort to get to the most beautiful places on earth! To me, this makes it that much more rewarding. I’m always disappointed when people want to be carried out on some kind of palanquin. You can either do the entire down-and-out mule ride, or hike the whole trail down-and-out in its entirety. You also cannot be picked up by helicopter unless it’s a medical emergency. Scenic helicopter rides are not allowed below rim within the bounds of the National Park.
How Much Water Do I Need to Carry on the Rim to Rim Hike in the Grand Canyon?
I would recommend carrying at least 3 liters of water when the temperatures are mild in autumn, or 4 liters in the heat of summer (even just 2 liters is probably enough in mild temperatures, but 3 is to be on the safe side).
There are potable water pumps along Bright Angel Trail and North Kaibab Trail, so you should be able to refill often enough, but the pipelines can and often do break down for any number of reasons. It’s a good idea to check the NPS water report in advance of your hike to see which pumps are currently working, and to pack a water filter so you can source natural water from Bright Angel Creek, Garden Creek, or the Colorado River if necessary. There is no water on South Kaibab, neither potable water pumps nor natural water sources.
Are There Bathrooms and Showers on the Rim to Rim?
There are pit toilets, like outhouses, periodically along each of the Corridor trails. On Bright Angel, there’s a toilet at 1.5 Mile Resthouse (which is 1.5 miles from the top of the South Rim), 3 Mile Resthouse, Havasupai Gardens (~5 miles from the South Rim), and River Resthouse (8 miles from the South Rim). On South Kaibab there is only one toilet at Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles from the top). On North Kaibab there are toilets at Supai Tunnel (1.7 miles from North Rim), Manzanita Resthouse (5.5 miles from North Rim), and Cottonwood Campground (7 miles from North Rim). Bright Angel Campground also has toilets. If you need to go when there’s no toilet around, read about proper waste disposal here.
There are no showers anywhere unless you have a reservation to stay at Phantom Ranch. You can splash around in creeks, but do not put soaps or shampoos into natural water sources, even if they are marketed as “biodegradable”. Bring anti-bacterial wipes to keep fresh, and pack them out to throw away later.
What Should I Pack and Wear for a Rim to Rim Hike in the Grand Canyon?
- At least 3 liters of water (I prefer Nalgene bottles; if you’re not sure about bottles vs. a hydration reservoir, check out my Common Hiking Gear Questions and No-Nonsense Answers post)
- Nuun electrolyte tablets
- Garmin InReach Mini
- Hat with a brim for sun protection
- Warm hat such as a beanie for cooler morning hours, or especially if hiking at night
- Shoes with good traction on the bottom, such as Oboz Sawtooths, Merrell Moabs, or Altra Lone Peaks
- Liner socks to prevent blisters plus regular hiking socks (or socks that are already double layered)
- Sweat-wicking base layer shirt made of polypropylene, nylon, polyester, or merino wool
- A mid-weight jacket layer such as a nanopuff or fleece
- Hiking pants or shorts
- Salty snacks
- Sawyer mini water filter
- Ingredients for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; you might bring a camp stove if you enjoy backcountry cooking but since it uses up water I often prefer to bring dry goods.
- GAIA or other navigation app on your phone with pre-downloaded offline maps
- Trekking poles (I like Leki). This is not a “must” but out of anywhere in the world, the Grand Canyon is the place I most like to have them because of the steep descents.
- You might like to have energy gels or energy chews to replenish carbs if you find it difficult to digest regular snacks during strenuous activity, but these should not be relied on entirely. You need real food.
- Headlamp (even if you’re not hiking in the dark, this is one of the ten essentials)
- First aid (most hikers are not willing to commit to hauling around a heavy full-service first aid kit, but bringing a few essentials such as band-aids could come in handy for things like blisters, at least)
- Rain gear such as a rain jacket or poncho and pack cover, depending on the forecast
- Microspikes if there is lingering ice or snow on the trail. If there is active snow coming down you will likely need extra layers, including gloves.
- Lightweight tent (I have a Nemo Hornet). You cannot drive stakes into the ground in the Grand Canyon so you want something free-standing or semi-free standing; you could tie your tent down to rocks if needed.
- Lightweight sleeping bag (I have a Nemo synthetic bag but down is great in the canyon too)
- Lightweight sleeping pad (the canyon floor is hard and rocky, so this is mainly for comfort)
- Odorless sandwich bags for Leave No Trace food packing
- Sandals such as Chacos to change into as soon as you get to camp, to let your feet air out
- Contact lens case, contact solution, or glasses if needed
- Toilet paper, trowel, and wag bags (though you’ll likely never need to dig a cathole since there are pit toilets along each trail). Read about proper waste disposal in the Grand Canyon here.
- Anti-bacterial wipes and a ziplock bag to pack out used wipes and any other trash.
🏨 Are all the in-park hotels already booked out? Find budget hostels near the Grand Canyon here, and standard hotels in Tusayan here.
✈️ Coming to Arizona from further afield? Use an Airalo eSIM for affordable international cell data, check Going for cheap domestic flight deals, and don’t forget to protect your investment with travel insurance.
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