Public transit opens up many trip options that otherwise require shuttling two cars, hitching, or a long road walk. Night hiking opens up trips that are otherwise too hot or crowded, which is especially useful in a place like Grand Canyon.
This strenuous but very rewarding walk is a spectacular descent to the Colorado River, a nice respite at the bottom with two suspension bridge crossings, and a sustained-yet-cool evening climb along verdant creeks. I recommend it if you want to hike a BIG slice of the Grand Canyon without the bureaucratic permit acquisition hassle associated with backpacking, provided that you're an experienced hiker at a good fitness level and you aren't scared of the dark1.
Two friends and I planned this hike on very short notice (basically on the car ride to the park) but it worked out great. Many others have written about this and similar walks, I have just a few things to add. (Scroll down if you just want to see more photos.)
South Kaibab and Bright Angel are very different trails: the former tends to hug ridges, and the latter mostly follows creek drainages. Each is wonderful on its own, but walking both is a richer experience still. You can park at either of the two trailheads2 and take a free shuttle bus to the other trailhead to start your hike, descending via one trail and ascending back to the rim (and your vehicle) via another. This makes for a nice loop without retracing your steps.
A mid-day (rather than early morning) start carries three advantages3. First, we lost the day hiker crowds at a landing just a few miles in. We had the trail to ourselves for the rest of the day, save for a passing mule train and a handful of backpackers. Second, we stayed much cooler by arriving at the river in mid-afternoon, and beginning the ascent around 5 PM. This didn't really matter in March, but it would make the difference between doable and awful/dangerous if we hiked in the summer, when canyon floor temperatures at mid-day exceed 110 Fahrenheit.
Unless you're quite fast, an early afternoon start also means finishing the ascent to the rim in darkness, and this was half the appeal for us. A crescent moon was enough illumination for the very well-constructed Bright Angel trail; I only needed a headlamp when we hit a few ice patches near the top. Take breaks for some of the best dark-sky stargazing to be found anywhere.
Route and Stats
- South Kaibab to Bright Angel trails (North Kaibab trail used briefly as a connector)
- Parked at Bright Angel trailhead, rode free GCNP shuttle buses to begin hike at South Kaibab trailhead
- 17 miles, ~5000 feet lost then 5000 feet gained
- 6 hours moving time, 8:42 elapsed (12:25 to 21:07)
- About 4 liters of water consumed, refilled at Phantom Ranch
- Link to Strava GPS recording
Really nice drive up from Flagstaff. Perfect March day with a few clouds.
Andrew at the start of the hike. No sight of the river which lies below within nested inner canyons.
Just below the top, I don't know what these are but I call them buttresses.
Beautiful ridge descent on South Kaibab Trail.
With lots of foot and mule traffic, South Kaibab trail has many switchbacks and erosion control features.
One hour in, looking back at the rim.
Stopping for a snack. Saw less than a dozen people on the trail after this.
The Grand Canyon feels like a series of nested canyons, with the river only visible a couple of levels from the bottom. Here is our first glimpse of the Colorado, now only 1350 feet below.
We stopped a lot to take photos.
Last few switchbacks to the river.
Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River. Check out all the chlorophyll in that creek valley.
You can shorten the route by taking the River Trail directly to Bright Angel. For an extra couple of miles, you can cross the river on a suspension bridge, hang out at Phantom Ranch, then cross again using another bridge. We chose the longer route and were not disappointed.
The entrance to this bridge is tunneled through the rock.
Crossing the colorado, which was actually the color brown.
Mule train crossing the bridge.
Andrew and Collin enjoying the luxury of a picnic table near Phantom Ranch. Here you can fill up your water from the potable spigot near the bathrooms, no treatment required.
Mules at Phantom Ranch, the trucks of the Grand Canyon.
Second bridge takes us back to the south bank of the river. This bridge is newer and carries the trans-canyon pipeline (below bridge deck), which supplies water to the village one vertical mile above.
Beginning our ascent back to the rim at 5 PM. Falling temperatures make for comfortable, non-sweaty climbing.
Collin rounding a switchback.
Clear view of the rim now, though it's still far above.
We did not expect to see big, healthy deciduous trees in the middle of Arizona.
Waterfalls along the creek.
What a happy tree.
Dusk setting in. Still many more feet to climb, but we're fed, hydrated, and still feeling good.
What I mean by "some of the best stargazing to be found anywhere". Photo credit to Collin Weigel (also on the hike).
Almost at the top, I ruined my companions' night vision in a cool archway. Sorry guys!
GCNP will warn you not to do this or any other day hike that descends all the way to the river and then back to the rim, but we did anyway. Not for the inexperienced, life is dangerous, research the conditions and plan accordingly, YMMV/YOLO.↩
We chose to hike out at night via Bright Angel rather than South Kaibab, assuming that it would be the wider and less-exposed of the two trails. I think S. Kaibab had more ruts and rocks to trip over, but like Bright Angel, it felt like a four-lane highway by hiking trail standards and was mostly not exposed. You could hike this route in reverse and still have a great time.↩