More commonly done as an overnight hike, the “Grand Canyon South Rim to River” from the South Rim down to the Colorado River is one of the classic and most popular Grand Canyon hiking routes. I probably wouldn’t attempt this in summer as a day-walk due to the heat – as cautioned by many warning signs along the trail. Although the Grand Canyon is rarely mentioned in lists of the world’s most dangerous walks, it probably should be: an average of 12 people die at the Grand Canyon each year, with heat and falls being the most common cause of death.
South Kaibab Trail from South Rim
It’s a cold February day with below-freezing temperatures at the top, so while it will be a lot warmer at the bottom, I’m pretty comfortable with doing the return hike in a day. As I set off just after dawn down the South Kaibab Trail, parts of the trail are covered in snow and ice. I’m glad I’ve brought my Kahtoola microspikes, which provide a bit more traction and assurance on the occasional slippery bits!
The track descends via some switchbacks through the Kaibab Formation, a gray cliff band composed of sedimentary rocks (limestone, dolomite, sandstone, and chert). Below is the oddly and perhaps aptly-named Ooh Aah Point, which offers the first panoramic views across the Grand Canyon.
From Ooh Aah Point the trail descends Cedar Ridge, passing the angular O’Neille Butte which juts up in front of me and down to Skeleton Point at the end of the ridge. The Grand Canyon stretches in the distance as far as the eye can see… it’s quite a spectacular sight. This is one of those hikes where the photos don’t come close to doing justice to the jaw-dropping views.
There are sweeping view to the north, including Zoroaster Temple and the North Rim.
The next major landmark is the Tip-Off, located on the Tonto Plateau (the Tonto Trail meets the South Kaibab Trail here). The last section down to the Colorado River is the biggest and steepest descent of the South Kaibab Trail.
As the trail descends via a number of switchbacks, the Colorado River becomes more visible, and eventually the Black (Kaibab) Bridge comes into view. Built in 1928, the Black Bridge (or Kaibab Bridge) stretches 440 feet across the river; eight 550-foot steel cables weighing more than one ton each were carried down by Havasupai Indian labourers.
I encounter my first “mule train”, heading up from Phantom Ranch, and move to the edge of the path so it can get past.
Across the bridge is Bright Angel campground and Phantom Ranch. I’m staying on the south side of the Colorado River, following the River Trail upstream to where it meets the Bright Angel Trail.
Bright Angel Trail
Longer than the South Kaibab Trail but less steep, the Bright Angel Trail back up to the Grand Canyon South Rim is considered to be less strenuous – and also has a few spots where where water is available. Partly because of the availability of water, Bright Angel is the most-used trail into the Grand Canyon, used orginally by American Indians, then miners in the 1800s and finally as a tourist trail from the 1890s. The Bright Angel trail starts (or ends) at the Silver Bridge, constructed in the 1960s to support a pipeline that carried water from Roaring Springs to the South Rim.
As the trail ascends from the river to The Devils Corkscrew, there’s a good view of the different layers of rock that make up the Grand Canyon. There are nearly 40 major sedimentary rock layers, ranging in age from about 200 million to nearly 2 billion years old. The lighter “layer” is Tapeats Sandstone, and above it the darker Redwall Limestone (one of the most prominent layers that’s up to 500 feet / 155m in height).
Continuing up the trail toward Indian Garden, the environment changes from cactuses and and yuccas that can survive the desert conditions to a landscape with more shrubs and grasses, including willow and cottonwoods. The Bright Angel Trail goes up through Tapeats Narrows to Indian Garden.
There’s reliable water at Indian Garden from multiple springs, as well as campground and ranger station year. There’s also a rock squirrel that has found some seeds dropped by hikers. Small and fairly common, the rock squirrel is the most dangerous animal in the Grand Canyon, based on local emergency room visits from people getting bitten.
Above Indian Garden, the Bright Angel Trail ascends steeply up Jacobs Ladder, a set of switch-backs that take advantage of the Bright Angel Fault (a break in the vertical cliffs of the Redwall Limestone). The top of the Redwall is also the demarcation line between the forest above and desert-scrub environment below. At the top is the Three Miles Resthouse.
The trail continues to ascend fairly steeply up, past Two Mile Corner and Mile and a Half Resthouse.
About a mile before the end of the trail is the Cocinoco Sandstone layer: at the base of these cliffs the temperature is a bit cooler, creating a micro-climate that allows Douglas Firs to grow (you can see the trail below through the stand of trees).
At the top of the Cocinoco Sandstone layer the Bright Angel Trail traverses the Toroweap Formation and Kaibab Formation. Two tunnels have been cut into the rock, with the trail hugging the edge of the cliff-line.
The First Tunnel (above) is just before the Bright Angel Trailhead, and Grand Canyon Village at the top of the South Rim. I’m soon back at the car, making one more stop before leaving the Grand Canyon at the Desert View Point. (A small settlement on the South Rim about 25 miles / 41km east of Grand Canyon Village, Desert View Point offers one of the best views of the Colorado River.)
0.0km / 0 miles Start at South Kaibab Trailhead (2213m / 7260 feet) 1.6km / 1.0 mile Ooh Aah Point (2030m / 6660ft) 4.8km / 3.0 miles Skeleton Point (1585m / 5200ft) 7.4km / 4.6 miles Tip Off Point (1220m / 4000ft) 10.2km / 6.3 miles Black (Kaibab) Bridge (755m / 2480ft) 11.0km / 6.8 miles Silver Bridge (via River Trail) 18.6km / 11.5 miles Indian Garden (1158m / 3800ft) 21.5km / 13.3 miles Three Mile Resthouse (1447m / 4748ft) 26.3km / 16.3 miles Bright Angel Trailhead (2090m / 6860ft
Accommodation near Grand Canyon (South Rim)
There is accommodation within the Grand Canyon Village, which is within walking distance to the Bright Angel trailhead. The Grand Canyon National Park Lodges has a hotel and a number of lodges and cabins in the village. They also run a lottery system for bookings at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging below the canyon rim, which has dormitories and cabins.
If the Grand Canyon Village accommodation is booked out, the closest town is Tusayan, located just outside the national park entrance and home to the Grand Canyon National Airport. In the peak season (March – September) the National Park Service operates a regular “Tusayan Shuttle” which take guests directly to the main Visitor Center.
When to do the South Rim to River hike?
The Grand Canyon gets very hot in summer… and it gets hotter as you descend into the canyon. If you’re thinking about doing this walk in summer, you’ll want to start very early and either walk back up in the evening, or spend a night at Phantom Ranch (camping or lodge accommodation). The best time to hike is winter, when it will be cold and potentially icy at the top (I found having microspikes very helpful), and gets warmer as you descend.
More information on Grand Canyon South Rim to River hike
- Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail Guide – Purchase US / AU
- Grand Canyon South Kaibab Trail Guide – Amazon US / AU
- Falcon Guide, Hiking Grand Canyon – Purchase US / AU
- Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, Over The Edge: Death in Grand Canyon – Purchase US / AU
- AZ Central – Falls, heat and murder: What’s really killing people at the Grand Canyon
- Grand Canyon Panorama Project – 360-degree photos from the Bright Angel Trail