Our Rim to River backpacking overnight in the Grand Canyon. 140 °F in the sun, hiking at 3am under the Milky Way, almost a mile of vertical ascent, and one of the most memorable trips of our lives.
Grand Canyon Rim to River Overview and Logistics
You’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit to backpack in Grand Canyon National Park. Download the Backcountry Permit Request Form and fax or mail it in (number and address are on the form) 5 months ahead of the month you want to hike in. If your dates are flexible, you can apply for multiple start dates and multiple itineraries on the same application form. Here are the application dates provided by the NPS:
- Hike in on the South Kaibab Trail (7 mi, 4,700 ft elevation loss)
- Hike out Bright Angel Trail (9.5 mi, 4,340 ft elevation gain)
- It seems backwards to take the longer trail out of the canyon when you have to climb, but it’s for a good reason. The South Kaibab Trail has no water availability while the Bright Angel Trail has 3 stops along the way up where you can fill up water. You WILL need that!
- Hiking Into the Grand Canyon trail maps and tips - this publication from the National Park Service will give you trail maps, distances, and some tips for hiking into and out of the Grand Canyon. They also published a Grand Canyon Hiking FAQ.
- Grand Canyon Hiker Shuttle - this will take you to the South Kaibab Trailhead so you can leave your car in Grand Canyon Village where you will hike out at the end.
- We stayed at a free camping spot down a Forest Service road in Kaibab National Forest the night before hiking in. It has no facilities, but we were just there to sleep a few hours so it was fine.
- We recommend Mather Campground for camping in Grand Canyon Village. The sites are large and well-spaced with full facilities at the campground and the location is the best for accessing everything around the South Rim.
Grand Canyon Rim to River Tips:
- Pack light – we limited our pack weight by leaving behind our rain fly and sleeping bags. They aren’t needed when it’s so hot and dry. We brought sleeping bag liners, and even we could have even done without those.
- Start as early as possible – you want to be hiking in the dark and into the early morning, not in the midday sun and heat.
- Hike down South Kaibab Trail and back up Bright Angel Trail – Bright Angel Trail has water stops along the way that you will need!
- Bring entertainment – bring a book, cards, or something else to entertain yourselves while at camp, you will have a lot of time sitting around and in the creek at Bright Angel Campground while it’s too hot to go anywhere else.
- Take in the views – don’t forget to look back at the views as you hike out. They are spectacular!
Arrival and Preparation
With the need to start hiking before dawn, it was important to stay close by the night before so we could catch the first hiker shuttle of the day at 4am. We opted to stay at a free camping spot down a Forest Service road in Kaibab National Forest. It’s really just a flat spot on the side of an easy to drive dirt road where you can pitch a tent or park a camper. No facilities or anything, just a place to stop for the night, but it’s only about 20-30 minutes from Grand Canyon Village so it suited our purposes.
A friend gave us a tip to go to Shoshone Point for sunset. It’s an easy 1 mi walk each way on a flat trail out to a point overlooking the Grand Canyon. Just that mile off the road will mean you won’t be in a crowded swarm of tourists vying for space by the edge. We shared the area with only a few other small groups so finding space for ourselves was easy. We wished that we had brought our dinner to cook out there. You’ll find picnic tables and plenty of space to enjoy some dinner before sunset, or breakfast after sunrise if you choose to go in the morning.
Day 1: South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon to Bright Angel Campground
We didn’t sleep much, got up in the middle of the night, and got ourselves to the Backcountry Information Center, where the hiker shuttle bus would pick us up at 4am. There is a large parking lot there that is close to the Bright Angel Trailhead where we would finish our hike out of the canyon.
The bus took us and many other excited hikers to the South Kaibab Trailhead and we were on the trail hiking into the Grand Canyon before 5am as the sun began to rise on the Summer Solstice!
The South Kaibab Trail is well graded with some sections of rock stairs and manageable switchbacks. It offers astounding views from spots like Ooh Aah Point (0.9 mi) and Skeleton Point (3 mi). There are also bathrooms at Cedar Ridge (1.5 mi), but no water. We flew down the trail admiring the views and crossed the Colorado River on a steel bridge around 7:30am.
Once at Bright Angel Campground on the other side of the river, we selected a campsite and set up our tent. The permit guarantees a site, but they are not assigned or reserve. Just take any empty site and clip your permit papers to the post. As we settled in, we were promptly joined by a small deer seeking the waters of the creek. It was a great welcome to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Each campsite at Bright Angel Campground includes a picnic table, metal post to hang bags away from critters, and a metal box (a steel ammo can) to store your food away from animals. The campground also provides potable water and flush toilets. All the sites are set up along the creek, each with easy access to the water.
The heat was pretty much unbearable at the canyon bottom. It got to almost 140 °F in the sun by midday! A park ranger came around reminding people to stay cool by sitting in the creek for relief. We spent the day alternating between writing or drawing at the campsite table and laying in the creek with a book. As we had camp set up by 8am, we really did have the entire day to hang out there. We took a short walk to Phantom Ranch and the heat nearly melted us. If hiking in the summer, you don’t want to go anywhere away from the water in the middle of the day, so bring something to entertain yourself. We wish we had brought a deck of cards, it would have been well worth the weight.
We made the mistake of cooking ramen for dinner. When the temperature is still around 100 °F after dark, your hot soup will just not cool off. It was tasty, but we were way too overheated to handle it. A cold dinner would have been much more advisable.
Day 2: Bright Angel Trail out of the Grand Canyon
We tried to sleep, but basically spent time sweating on our sleeping pads just waiting for the time to come to hike out. Finally dozed off enough and woke up at 3am to prepare for our journey out of the canyon. We quickly ate breakfast bars, with a local skunk trying to steal Kathy’s out of her hand, and began hiking by 3:30am. The beginning of the hike at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by light of headlamp under the bright stars and faint Milky Way was nothing short of magical. Eventually, the sun began to slowly rise and light up the landscape as we ascended the Bright Angel Trail. The slanting rays of sun illuminating one canyon wall with the opposite still in dark shadow creating some stunning contrast in the surrounding scenery. I found myself turning around every few steps to admire the scene again and again.
We took advantage of every rest stop to snack and fill up on water. The first at Indian Garden Campground, where we chatted with other backpackers hiking out. The next two at 3 Mile Resthouse, where we began running into day hikers, and 1 ½ Mile Resthouse, where we were overrun by day hikers. The last few miles up to the canyon rim on Bright Angel Trail is easily graded switchbacks that have you steadily climb step after step. We found it to be tiring in the heat, but nothing that would be too challenging for regular hikers.
We made it to the top around 8am with smiles on our faces and laughed at the heat warning signs, grateful that we did not have any heat-related complications. We admired the view one more time, appreciating the distance we had climbed that morning, and then caught the shuttle to our car, ravenously hungry after all our exertion.
We had brought sandwiches with us that we planned to eat on the hike out. However, they basically cooked in the metal storage box provided at Bright Angel Campground. The sweltering heat pretty much turned it into an oven. So be sure to bring more shelf stable foods to avoid them spoiling like ours did. We made a beeline to Maswik Lodge and got breakfast burritos at the cafeteria to replenish some calories.
After breakfast, we went over to Mather Campground, right in Grand Canyon Village, where we had reserved a campsite for the night. We set up a hammock to rest and relax for the day. I highly recommend Mather Campground if you are camping in Grand Canyon National Park. The sites are very large with plenty of room between them and the location is as close to everything as you will get. We were able to easily get to lodges and other viewpoints on the canyon rim. From one, we were able to see Bright Angel Campground on the canyon floor and get a real sense of just how far we came that morning.
[…] You can take a picture with the monument that marks the intersection of all four states (but beware, there might be a line) and check out stands with Native American crafts, jewelry, and other wares for sale. It was a perfect stop on another long driving day to pick up some souvenirs and stretch our legs as we headed down the road bound for Grand Canyon National Park. […]