South Rim to North Rim:
Day Hiking the Grand Canyon

May 30th, 2004

Distance: 20.9 miles
Elevation Loss: ~4800ft
Elevation Gain: ~5850ft

Trailhead: South Kaibab
Trailend: North Kaibab


The day before: Vegas, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon Sunset

Living in the Bay Area, flying to Las Vegas is the easiest way to get to Grand Canyon. We booked a "direct" flight with Southwest from San Jose airport to Las Vegas. The trip was delayed more than two hours and we learned the difference between "direct" and "non-stop" when the airplane landed in Los Angeles (direct means that you don't change airplanes, but that the plane may stop more than once). I guess you get what you pay for.

In Vegas, we all arrived at the airport within one hour of each other! So at the end the delays were not bad. We stayed in an array of hotels as being Memorial Day weekend, it was hard to get reservations.

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Loading Carbs in the Rio Carnival Buffet

On Saturday morning, we all met at the Rio Buffet. I found it a bit overpriced for breakfast (partly because it included champagne, that we didn't consume as alcohol dehydrates you), but it was Ok. A nice detail was the waitress bringing a cake to Giles in honor of his birthday. We heavily loaded carbs in preparation for the big trip the following day. We had 3 groups: my group (Giles, Cecilia, and myself), starting from the South Rim; another starting from the North Rim; and a third one that was going to sightsee both rims.

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Giles at Hoover Dam

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The South Rim Group at Hoover Dam: Giles and Cecilia, Arturo.

Cecilia, Giles, and me leave Las Vegas and headed to the South Rim. We stopped at Hoover Dam (free parking in the Arizona side, $5 in the Nevada side) and admire the 1930s engineering that made this possible. If you are not interested in Hoover Dam, take the alternative route as traffic on the dam is usually bad.

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Grand Canyon North Rim: are we going there?

After Hoover Dam, we continue driving through the dessert to Grand Canyon. In the way there, we passed the town of Williams (which is a possible base for Grand Canyon trips) and then up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We enjoyed the amazing views during the sunset hours, took a lot of pictures, and worry about how far the North Rim looks like.

After enjoying the views, we drove to the town of Flagstaff. The drive is nice, and you gain quite a bit of elevation, but this 1.5 hour drive was completely unnecessary. There was plenty of places to camp both in private campgrounds and in the National Forest. It was nice to stay in a hotel though... Also, that allow us not to worry about sleeping bags, pads, etc.

The big day: Rim-to-Rim day hike

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Warnings from NPS: don't do what are doing!

If you missed my cautionary note at the beginning of this trip, here is again. This is a hard hike with the potential of being life threatening due to heat exhaustion. You will find a lot of signs and warnings telling you not to attempt a rim-to-rim hike. If you talk to a Ranger they will discourage you strongly from even attempting it. But it's doable, just remember what goes down must go back up!

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Giles and Cecilia: the before picture

We arrived at the trailhead at 6am. This was a bit latter than we planned and the sun was already above the horizon. Near the rim and while we were in the shade it was quite cold (low 50s), but it started to warm up by the minute. The moment we hit the Sun, the temperature was already in the high 70s).

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Flowering palm

Picture by Cecilia
Giles and Arturo taking pictures

The trail switchbacks its way down. The Grand Canyon is like a staircase, with plateaus ending on a cliff to the next plateaus. The trail just goes straight in each plateau and then switchbacks to the next one. Some of these plateaus are quite short, other are much longer. There is absolutely no shade, but that doesn't mean that there are no plants. In fact, we were treated to a flowering palm. It's amazing how a plant in this inhospitable environment spend all its energy in reproducing.

Indian Gardens and Plateau Point Colorado River

Picture by Arturo Crespo

The views coming down the South Kaibab trail is spectacular. You get a sense of the dimension of the canyon as you get deeper into it. Also, you start getting glimpses of the Colorado river. A big surprise is that the Colorado (Reddish in Spanish) is actually green. The river was actually reddish before it was heavily dammed, but nowadays the sediments are trapped at the multiple reservoirs and just cold, sediment-free water flows down the river. From Plateau Point we could see some rafters going down the Colorado. This group was doing a 6-day trip from Lees Ferry; but there are shorter/longer options including rafting the whole 275 miles from Lees Ferry to Lake Meed in takes about 17 days. These tours are very hard to reserve and they are terribly expensive $300-$350 per person per day...

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Mules coming from Phantom Ranch

A nice thing about the South Kaibab trail is that is not heavily used by mules (most tours go down the Bright Angel Trail). There are some droppings on the trail, but not as much as I remember from my previous trip up the Bright Angel Trail. In fact, we just found a single group that have spent the night at Phantom ranch slowly heading up the canyon on mules. When passing mules, remember that they are bigger than you, so they have the right of way (which is also the law of the trail). It's best to stop, be quiet, and wait for instructions from the guide.

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Bridge over the Colorado River

After just under 3 hours, we were at the impressive suspension bridge that spans the Colorado river. This bridge was built in 1928. The bridge (known as the "Kaibab Bridge" or "Black Bridge") is one of the two spans over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon (the other being the "Green Bridge" or "Bright Angel Bridge" a mile or so downstream).

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Arturo on the bridge

Just before crossing the bridge, a long mule train (16 mules) came from the other side. They were carrying garbage out of Phantom Ranch. We yield to the mules and waited for them to start crossing the bridge, but a trail runner ignore our warnings and continue down the bridge. Sure enough, a few seconds later he was running back, very upset that the guide didn't stop the whole train to wait for him to cross the bridge. After waiting a few minutes for the dust to settle, we crossed over the Colorado.

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USGS "summit" marker

If you look in my website, you will see a lot of pictures of me next to USGS markers at different summits. This is a special one as it's the first marker that I've found that it's at the "bottom" of something. Usually, when you get to the summit marker, the hard work is done and even when climbers remind you that getting to the summit is only half the way, you know that the descend will be easier. In the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, the "summit" marker remind me that I was at the bottom of it and that the hard work was ahead.

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Giles and Arturo at the Colorado River

When we got to the Colorado river, the temperature was a pleasant 88 degrees. Quite cool for that time of the year, but still warm enough to get wet in the river. The Colorado river is very cold (as a result of the dams) and it has swift currents, so swimming in it is not advised. Still we cool down a bit and talk to some other day hikers (the wife of one of them is from my home country!).

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Giles and Cecilia at Phantom Ranch

From the bridge, it's still about a 15 minutes walk to Phantom Ranch. This was the meeting point with the other group, so we decided to chill out under the shade of the trees. Phantom Ranch has a post office and you can send letters (taken out of the canyon by mules) with a regular stamp. I couldn't resist buying a few postcards and sending them to friends. I really like the "delivery by mule" stamp that they put on them.

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Bridges of the North Kaibab Trail

After an hour in Phantom Ranch (now with temperature at 92F), it was clear that the other group was delayed and that we needed to keep moving. We fill up our water bottles and we started up the trail. After Phantom Ranch the trail changes names to "North Kaibab Trail." This trail is very different than the South Kaibab trail. At first, it follows the Bright Angel Creek in a relatively narrow canyon. The trail is also cooler, as the canyon was narrow enough that we were in the shade most of the time. The trail crosses the Bright Angel creek many times on sturdy bridges.

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The North Rim Group and Girish and Arturo exchanging car keys

After about 40 minute from Phantom Ranch, we found the North Rim group! We were really glad that to see them and to get the car keys. After exchanging directions to the cars (trivial for us, a bit harder for them) and tips about the climb, we took separate ways wishing each other good luck.

Beautiful North Kaibab Trail Giles and Bright Angel Creek

Picture by Arturo Crespo

By the time we left the other group, the temperature was rising to 94F, so we took frequent breaks to cool down in the nearby creek. The number one enemy in this hike is the heat, so taking every opportunity to keep cool is important. I found that getting my hair and hat wet would keep me cool for a while. Sunglasses are also a must as the rock is light color and reflects light.

Hot segment of the trail Cooling down

Picture by Arturo Crespo

Eventually, the narrow canyon starts widening up, exposing us to the inclement sun. This was the hottest segment of the trail, which now is not next to the creek but instead parallels it about 300 yards away. Even though access to the creek is harder, cooling down becomes more important. Giles and I upgraded to get our t-shirts totally soaked. Just to find out 5 minutes later that they were dry. It was noon, and by this time, the temperature had stabilized at 96 degrees (our maximum), but we didn't want to stop for lunch as we couldn't find any shade. So, we decided to postpone lunch and push it to Cottonwood campground.

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Flowering cactus

Picture by Arturo Crespo

Despite being very dry and inhospitable, there were plenty of life on the trail. Cacti was flowering and we found many (fearless) lizards. The trail disappears at times, when it passes by former flood areas, but it's easy to pick it up again after a few yards. A confusing point in the trail is a fork near Ribbon Falls. Here, you can either cross the creek (hazardous in high water) or climb a small hill (~300 feet) and then drop to a bridge. We scouted the creek crossing, but we found it a bit hard (we didn't want to get our boots wet, given the long walk ahead), so we opted by the "high trail." It's beyond me why they build it like that... those steep 300ft in the sun were really taxing, specially when you realize that you lose them all. At this time, Giles was falling behind which was a bit surprising. It turned that he was having problems with his the mechanics of his lens and he had to take the pictures in manual mode. Unfortunately, shortly after that, his lens broke completely, so he couldn't take more pictures... Too bad, for us too, as now that he had nothing to slow him down, we had to keep up with him. The good news is that the breaking of the camera gave us an interesting discussion topic: where can we find a pawn shop in Vegas that sells cheap photographic equipment?

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Resting at Cottonwood Campground

Around 1pm, we got to Cottonwood camps, where we found some other groups that were attempting a Grand Canyon crossing (one as an overnight trip, another as a day hike). By that time, the temperature was still at 96 degrees, so we decided to have lunch and stay put until the sun would come down a bit. At the camp, we have done just a bit less than 3/4 of the total distance, but we have done just 1/5 of the elevation gain. After lunch (and a short disagreement about the best place to nap), we just linger in the shade until 2:30pm. The temperature has only dropped 2 degrees to 94, but we needed to keep moving (later we learned that at the river, the maximum temperature was 106, so just 1000ft, gave us a -10 degrees advantage).

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Waterfall by the trail

After leaving Cottonwood Campground, the trail becomes steeper, but it's still quite gentle. The terrain is still very open and the creek is far away, but the unobstructed views of Bright Angel Canyon are awesome. It's a bit worrisome to look up and up and up the walls, and realize how deep into the canyon we were.

Heading up the North Rim Roaring Springs

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After gaining about 700ft, the trail veers left, leaving the Bright Angel Canyon and heading into the Roaring Springs Canyon. This is when the real climb begins. Up to this moment, we have followed the canyon, but at this point, the trail cuts into the walls and begins its steep ascent as the trail needs to gain more than 3000ft in less than 5 miles to get to the North Rim.

A treat when going up are the views of Roaring Springs. To actually get to the waterfall (and the water there) one need to drop about 400ft, so it's a good idea to carry enough water so one can bypass that water stop.

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Where is the trail?

As the trail ascends the canyon, it becomes harder and harder to figure out where it goes. Giles and I were playing the game: where do you think the trail is going? We were usually happy with the answer "up up up" except for a 400ft drop to a bridge over a dry canyon. A good way of keeping track of the progress we are making are the natural history signs that describe the different layers of rock that form the Grand Canyon. The change in color of the different layers is dramatic and give you an indication of how high you have gone (and how much is left). You will also learn the names of the different layers: hermit shale, redwall limestone, temple butte limestone, muav limestone, etc.

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Supai Tunnel

The trail continues up and up, closing into a narrow canyon with lots of switchbacks. Very soon, it's obvious tha the trail will end on a dead end, and we started wondering where it was going to go. After reaching the top of the switchbacks, the mystery is solved! A short tunnel allows you to move to the canyon to the left of the dead end. This is the last water stop, so it's wise to fill up for the last segment.

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We made it! North Kaibab Trailhead.

I have to admit that about 1 mile from the top, I was running out patience. I decided to just push it and get to the parking lot as soon as possible. Giles was thinking the same and we both charged ahead. The last segment of the trail is in a nice forest, very different than the rest of the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! and better off, we spotted the car just in front of the trailhead.

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We came from there?

Even though I was very tired when coming up, out of the sudden I have extra energy! I think my body is conditioned to save some energy "for the trip down." I think Giles was feeling the same as when I suggested doing the short hike to Bright Angel Point, he didn't object to it. After enjoying the sunset, we headed for the showers and then to the cafeteria in the Tovar hotel.


After Grand Canyon, we spent a few hours in Zion National Park. There the very convenient shuttle can be used to get a quick tour of the canyon as well as to take you to the trailheads. At Zion, we hiked to the Canyon Overlook and we did the short and enjoyable "emerald pools" hike. A nice close to a wonderful trip.

Arturo and Giles at Checkerboard Mesa Canyon Overlook
Picture by Cecilia
Picture by Arturo Crespo

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Tunnel through Mt. Carmel

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Arturo on top of the Great Arch and view from the top

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Window from the Tunnel

Waterfall from Emerald Pools Upper Emerald Pools
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The Great White Throne Water from Upper Emerald Pools
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© 2004 Arturo Crespo