Hiking The Grand Canyon from rim to rim
Travel Ekspert's Note: Mark Koehler is Senior Vice President of priceline.com’s Airline Ticketing Service group.
Of all the visitors to the Grand Canyon, only 1% to 3% actually hike down into the canyon. The majority of those hikers descend less than 1,000 feet. What awaits the minority who do make the trek all the way to bottom of the canyon is a view that is as breathtaking as the one from the top.
I’m in that minority. I’ve been making rim to rim treks across the Grand Canyon with friends and family members for 10 years now. It’s called a rim to rim hike because we descend from the South Rim to the Colorado River along the North Kaibob trail and then ascend the other side to the North Rim. In all, it is roughly 24 miles across the canyon with a descent of over 4,500 vertical feet down to the Colorado River and a North Rim ascent of over 6,000 vertical feet. The hike will take an average of 12 to 15 hours to complete.
Temperatures at the bottom can reach or exceed 100 degrees. Hikers will experience 13 different climate zones along the way. Each zone is unique due to differing temperatures, vegetation, animal life and age of erosion. The effect is that the canyon will continually change its look as you’re hiking through it.
A rim to rim trek takes intense physical preparation. I’ve run 5 marathons. Hiking across the Grand Canyon is actually harder than a marathon in terms of physical exertion and mental focus. But I would also say that the hike is more achievable for a person who is in reasonably decent physical condition and looking for an adventure.
In all of the marathon races I have run, my main focus was simply on finishing and measuring my time. Hiking the Grand Canyon is a more enjoyable process. It is beautiful. The scenery changes constantly. You stop to take pictures. And yes, you will experience all of the physical challenges you would expect on a hike of this duration, including fatigue, exhaustion, blisters, dehydration and soreness.
Anyone interested in trying a rim to rim hike should set the date at least a year in advance to get physically ready. The North Rim is only open from May 15 – October 15, so your hiking window must fall into that time frame. It is important that the training be a combination of cardio training and weight training. The cardio is to build stamina and strengthen the legs. The weight training should emphasize your body core since you will be carrying a pack weighing roughly 15 pounds for 12-15 hours.
My cardio training varies significantly so I don’t get bored. I use an elliptical, bike, and treadmill in the gym. I do preparation hikes on local trails. I will even go for just long walks through my local town. I would think that nearly any form of exercise is beneficial. Exercise that focuses on the legs and climbing/descending is even more beneficial.
There are a few aspects to the hike that are hard to replicate in training, such as temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. The North Rim elevation is roughly 8,250 so there is the aspect of thin air. The climb out of the canyon over last 5 miles of the hike has an average terrain grade in excess of 30%. Combining an elevation grade of 30% or more, plus extreme heat, plus thin air is hard to duplicate. And you will experience this phase after you have already hiked 18-19 miles. It is a great physical endurance test to climb out and finish the hike.
Here’s a tip – hiking the Grand Canyon from the north rim to the south rim is easier than doing it the other way around. That’s because the north rim is 1,400 vertical feet higher than the south rim. Taking the longer and more taxing south to north route usually involves finding overnight accommodations at the south rim. If you plan at least a few months in advance, you will have no issues in getting a room.
Once you complete the hike, there’s that small issue of getting back to your departure point. It’s a 210-mile, 5-hour drive back around. Trans Canyon Shuttle offers shuttle van transportation to tourists and hikers. They are extremely friendly people and the shuttle rate in 2009 was $85 per person for the one-way ride.
The Grand Canyon area is served by three airports. All three have fares available through priceline.com. Phoenix is approximately 225 miles away, a 4 to 4.5 hour drive. You can also fly into Flagstaff where the drive to the canyon is only about 100 miles. Airfares are generally cheaper to fly into Phoenix. Flying into Phoenix or Flagstaff means you’ll start your hike at the South Rim and the hike will be south to north.
A third option is to fly into Las Vegas. The drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon is approximately 230 miles. Flying into Las Vegas will have you entering the canyon at the North Rim, hiking north to south, which is the easier route since the uphill portion of the trek will be shorter. I personally prefer the more strenuous south to north route.
Where To Stay
If you are starting at the South Rim, there are two areas to stay. There is the town of Grand Canyon, AZ, where there are several hotels and at least a couple of brands that most people will recognize.
Additionally, one can stay in lodging right at the South Rim. These properties range in price and amenities. All are very clean, offer the best value and are literally right next to where your hike will begin. The drive from the town of Grand Canyon to the South Rim is about 15-20 minutes. Who wants to do that at 1:30 in the morning? Lodging at the Grand Canyon can be found at the following link: http://www.xanterra.com/.
If you fly into Las Vegas and hike in from the North Rim, there is very limited lodging on that side of the canyon. In fact, there is only one place:
My last bit of advice on staying at the Grand Canyon is to reserve early.
What to Bring
Your Grand Canyon is strenuous and will take 12 to 15 hours. Bring food, water, Gatorade (or equivalent), a small medical kit (mole skin, ointments, band aids, etc), a roll of toilet paper (you can be a considerable distance from a bathroom so be prepared), a spare pair of socks and sun block.
Loose-fitting hiking clothes, sturdy hiking socks and a well-broken in pair of hiking shoes will fill the bill. A 12-15 hour hike means that you’ll begin while it’s still dark, so you’ll need a hiker’s headlamp, and probably some type of hat.
Plan on carrying 2,000 to 3,000 calories worth of food that offers a blend of carbs, protein, sugars and salts. All are critical over the course of the hike. Many foods do not hold up under the heat or under the movement of a pack. I usually carry mixed nuts (salted), dried fruits, M&Ms (these do hold up in the heat believe it or not), granola bars, and Pop Tarts. Be careful not to take foods that are overly fiber based. You’ll burn all this off, plus some, during the hike.
As for water, I carry five ½ liter water bottles and a container of powdered Gatorade. There are places to replenish your water along the hike. Carrying powdered Gatorade allows you to make it when you want it, but otherwise having water to drink. Consume a lot of water to avoid dehydration.
Photo Credits - David Furey, Corey Vezina 2009.