Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: Backpacking Guide to the Best of the Grand Canyon
In 2018, the Grand Canyon slapped me upside the head. I was attempting a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike in two days, in freezing weather, without a sleeping pad, but I was detrimentally optimistic. After my coldest night ever, I crawled back up to the South Rim without finishing the entire route. Though I was sore for days, this magical place stole a forever spot on my shortlist. This September I returned and finished Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in two days. Day one totaled 27 miles with 6,000 ft of elevation gain and 10,000 ft of descent, my longest ever. Returning to and crushing a goal that once eluded me is a feeling I can’t quite describe, but I have a feeling most of y’all know what I’m talking about.
I think Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim should be on everyone’s backpacking shortlist. Though it’s not technically a thru-hike, it follows the Arizona Trail and takes you through some of the most magnificent terrain this world has to offer.
Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim at a Glance
- Distance: 40.8 – 47.5 miles
- Elevation gain: ~11,000 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Days to hike: 1-5
- Camping options: Established backcountry sites only
- Permit required: Yes
- Water availability: Flowing water year-round, taps turned on seasonally
- Best time of year: September – November and March – May
- Terrain: dirt/sand
Why Hike R2R2R?
I know, an out-and-back may not seem appealing to many thru-hikers. However, considering how special the canyon corridor is, hiking through it twice will not seem redundant. The Rim-to-Rim route falls along the Arizona Trail, takes you through one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and has plenty of water. It’s also a great trip to do alone, because of all the ranger stations and emergency phones. At the bottom of the canyon, you can stop at Phantom Ranch, which has a small canteen for hikers. I’ve heard their lemonade is amazing, but I wasn’t willing to pay $5 for anything without caffeine. Stopping for a cold brew in the middle of my hike was definitely a highlight.
Many hikers go Rim-to-Rim in a day, but logistics from the South Rim to the North Rim are a straight-up nightmare. If you’re able to score a backcountry permit and have the time to double back, I cannot recommend it enough. There are three different backcountry campsite options, all of which require a permit. You can choose an itinerary that pushes the mileage, or take a leisurely trip through the canyon. Another option to bypass the backcountry permit requirement would be to hike Rim-to-Rim in a day, camp at a developed front country campground on the rim, then hike back the following day.
How to Choose your Trailhead and Route
There are three potential routes for this trip if you start from the South Rim. The length depends on which trail you choose on the South Rim. The South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trailheads both lead to the Colorado River from the South Rim, and the North Kaibab is the only trail from the river to the North Rim.
South Kaibab Trail Rim-to-River
- 6.3 miles
- 4680 feet elevation change
- No water until Bright Angel Campground
- No overnight parking near trailhead (shuttle access only)
Bright Angel Trail Rim-to-River
- 7.8 miles
- 4460 feet elevation change
- Water available every few miles (depending on season and how well the pipes are working at any given time)
- Overnight parking near trailhead
North Kaibab Trail Rim-to-River
- 14.2 miles
- 5850 feet elevation change
- Water available every few miles (depending on season and how well the pipes are working at any given time)
Understanding the pros and cons of each individual trail will help you to piece together a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim itinerary. Choosing the South Kaibab to North Kaibab route follows the AZT the entire way, and is shorter. However, the Bright Angel Trailhead is less exposed than South Kaibab, slightly less steep, and has water taps available seasonally. I chose to start at the South Kaibab Trailhead and exit through Bright Angel so I could have a shorter descent and longer ascent.
South Kaibab Trailhead to North Rim to South Kaibab Trailhead:
- 40.8 miles
- Shortest route
- Steeper and more exposed than Bright Angel, no water
South Kaibab Trailhead to North Rim to Bright Angel Trailhead:
- 44 miles
- Hit all three trails
- More logistical difficulty getting between the two South Rim trailheads (limited transportation options)
Bright Angel Trailhead to North Rim to Bright Angel Trailhead:
- 47.5 miles
- Longest, but most gently graded, route
- Bright Angel Trail has water and camping options
Starting at the North Rim
If you start at the North Rim, you’ll have an easier time doubling back on whichever South Rim trail you choose. You’ll also have more downhill miles to the river because the North Rim is taller. Because of the extra elevation, it’s closed to the public for winter, so a North Rim start would be impossible for winter hikers.
Every morning, there is a shuttle bus that runs from the backcountry permit station to the South Kaibab Trailhead. No parking is available at South Kaibab, and no drop-offs are allowed. This road is only open for shuttles, so if you want to start at this trail, check for updates here on shuttle availability. Overnight parking is allowed near the backcountry permit station, which is closest to Bright Angel Trailhead. If you’re starting from the south, I highly recommend exiting Bright Angel because there are no shuttles from South Kaibab back to the permit station. It’s confusing and annoying, I know. But, you don’t want to be caught with a long road walk at the end of your trip.
From May to November, there is usually a shuttle between the South Rim and the North Rim. However, it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. It operates independently from the National Parks Service. Bear in mind, it takes roughly five hours to drive between the North and South Trailhead, and shuttles are expensive. Logistics alone make Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim easier to plan than Rim-to-Rim.
You need a permit to camp overnight in the Grand Canyon. If you’re day-hiking or staying in a developed campground on the rim, you do not. As with many popular National Parks, permits are typically reserved far in advance. A permit costs $10 plus $8 per party member per night. However, if you’re flexible with your itinerary, walk-up permits are available (yes, even during COVID). Here’s how each system works:
The earliest permits are given out on the 1st of the month that is four months before your proposed start date. You can submit your permit up to 10 days before the 1st, but it will be considered along with the other earliest permits. For example, if you are planning a trip sometime in April 2021, you can mail or fax in your permit application 10 days before December 1st.
After these earliest consideration slots are filled, mail and fax permits are processed in the order they are received. You can check this corridor availability report to get an idea of what may still be available. Full instructions on where to mail or fax in permits are available here.
I won’t lie, I have an extreme bias for walk-up permits. I’ve been able to score overnights on the Wonderland Trail, a John Muir Trail permit, and my desired itinerary for Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim via walk-up systems. A lot of wilderness headquarters reserve some portion of allocated backcountry permits for walk-ups, so the key is to get there before anyone else does.
Normally, you would arrive at the backcountry permit office, located at the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, the day before your anticipated start date. So, if you want to head into the corridor on Tuesday, you would arrive on Monday morning. Rangers help each individual group to find an available permit in the order they arrived. With COVID restrictions, the backcountry permit office is closed to the public. However, for a walk-up permit, you still arrive the morning before. There are instructions for you to follow posted on the door. Walk-up permits have a two-night max stay in the canyon.
I love this system because you have the opportunity to work with a person one-on-one in the case your desired itinerary isn’t available. This is much more appealing to me than mailing something into the ether and hoping someone else isn’t snagging your same plan.
Backcountry Campsite Options
In the Rim-to-Rim corridor, there are three backcountry campsites. These are Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood. Here is each campsite’s mileage:
From Bright Angel Trailhead
- Indian Garden: Mile 4.5
- Bright Angel: Mile 10
- Cottonwood: Mile 17
From South Kaibab Trailhead
- Indian Garden: Unreachable unless you double back to Bright Angel
- Bright Angel: Mile 7
- Cottonwood: Mile 14
From North Kaibab Trailhead
- Cottonwood: Mile 6.5
- Bright Angel: Mile 13.5
- Indian Garden: Mile 19 (if exiting via Bright Angel Trail)
With these options, a multitude of itineraries is available. On my most recent trip in September, I stayed for one night at Cottonwood Campground. I left on the South Kaibab Trail, dropped my gear at Cottonwood, summited the North Rim and came back down. Then, I hiked out via the Bright Angel trail. I highly recommend this itinerary if you’re looking to push your mileage and experience both South Rim trailheads.
Worth noting, the campsites at Cottonwood are solid rock. I can’t accurately speak for Indian Garden or Bright Angel, but you will *not* be able to get a stake in the ground at Cottonwood. Luckily, I went in September so it was warm enough to cowboy camp. But if you’re planning a winter trip, consider a freestanding tent.
When the seasonal taps are turned off, you will have to hike roughly 5-7 miles from any trailhead to reach a reliable water source. Even when all the corridor taps are on (treated water available every 3-5 miles), bring a filtering system. There is year-round water available in the canyon via the wonderful Colorado River. The pipes suffer yearly breaks, and cannot be your only option for water. For a list of which water taps are currently on, check here.
Best Time of Year to Hike Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
The only time of year I would *not* recommend going is summer. The temperatures are scorching and the crowds are massive. The fall, winter, and spring months have varying pros and cons.
September – October:
- Pros: Cooler weather (although it can be hot in early September and cold in late October), water taps may still be on, more shuttles available than in winter, fewer crowds than in summer, fall colors on the North Rim
- Cons: Variable weather, water may be off
November – March:
- Pros: Very small crowds, nice hiking weather during the day, epics views of the desert in the snow.
- Cons: Potentially below-freezing temperatures, snowstorms, fewer services available (no filtered water, fewer shuttles, North Rim closed), ice and snow on the trails.
April – May:
- Pros: Cooler weather (although it can be cold in early April and hot in late May), water taps may already be on, more shuttles available than in winter, fewer crowds than in summer.
- Cons: Variable weather, water may be off.
- Physical toughness. Climbing out of the canyon is hard as hell. Be prepared for hours-long uphills with little shade. Every year upwards of 100 hikers utilize the Grand Canyon’s search and rescue. Know your limits, and turn back before it’s too late.
- Extreme temperatures and temperature swings. In the summertime, the bottom of the canyon can reach 115+ degrees. The temperature is often completely different once you’re in the canyon, so it’s imperative to bring layered options. In the winter, it’s straight-up frigid. Don’t go without microspikes and an adequate layering system. Going into the Grand Canyon in December without a sleeping pad is still one of my most regretted mistakes.
- Critters. Though there are minimal larger animals to be aware of, desert critters are plentiful. Keep your eyes and ears out for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Also, the squirrels are aggressive. They will sneak into your pack as soon as you turn your back, so use the critter boxes at each campsite.
- Bring more than you think you need. Because it’s the Grand Canyon, every hike you do will start with a descent. This can lead to a false sense of security or ease before the bulk of the work begins. It’s imperative to bring ample water and food. I tend to drink 6-8 liters a day, and I always bring ~3200 calories a day. I almost always hike out with extra food, but I never considered that wasted weight. On longer trips, I generally don’t bring chews or gels, but caffeinated Clif Blocks or Honey Stingers are life on a trip like this.
Because the Grand Canyon is a popular destination, it’s important to arrive prepared. Masks are required inside any buildings and on the shuttle buses, and while at Phantom Ranch in the canyon. Shuttle buses are also operating at limited capacity. Because of this, I advise arriving 20-30 minutes early for any scheduled shuttle. In late September, the peak season crowds had petered off. For this coming winter and spring, COVID safety may make an off-season hike that much more appealing.
The Arizona Trail Association is currently discouraging long-distance thru-hikes on the AZT. For anyone on the trail, they ask hikers to “follow proper sanitation practices and STAY HOME if you are exhibiting symptoms or may have been exposed to COVID-19.”
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