This is my first visit to the Grand Canyon North Rim, a few years after the South Rim to River hike – and getting there ends up being my first challenge. The plan is stay overmight at Kaibab Lodge, so I can get an early start to hike down the North Kaibab Trail to Ribbon Falls. I’m driving from Las Vegas to the North Rim, and while I’d planned another hike on the way there’s heavy rain as I get close to Zion National Park. The rain is replaced by some dramatic cloud formations as I cross the Kaibab Indian Reservation, and very dark clouds over the Grand Canyon National Park.
As I reach the Le Fevre Overlook – which is just inside Grand Canyon National Park – it has started to snow lightly.
Once I turn off Highway 89A at Jacob Lake onto Grand Canyon Highway, there’s increasingly heavy snow, almost no visibility and I’m finding it hard to even see the road. While in sunny Las Vegas the offer of a free upgrade to a Mustang Convertible was impossible to refuse, I am now thinking that the practical SUV I booked would have been far more appropriate. I’m relieved when I finally reach Kaibab Lodge, and park (or rather slide) my car in front of my cabin.
However, my challenges are not yet over… there’s still another 16 miles from the lodge to the trailhead, and with the unploughed road covered in snow and ice, driving my car any further is not really an option. (I’m not really confident I’ll even be able to make it across the carpark and back to the main road!) A regular shuttle bus, which runs from the lodge to the North Rim each morning, has been postponed until the early afternoon, when the ice will have melted. I’m rescued by Charles and Carl and their hiking group, who happily offer me a lift in their far more sensible truck.
We’re on the road around 7:30am, just after sunrise, for what will be fairly long day. (My new-found hiking friends are crossing the Grand Canyon to the South Rim and catching a shuttle back to the North Rim on the following day, while I’m descending to Ribbon Falls along the North Kaibab Trail, before returning the same way. The North Kaibab Trail is the least visited and most difficult of the three maintained trails that descend into the Grand Canyon.)
North Kaibab Trailhead to Supai Tunnel (1.8mi / 2.6km)
It’s bitterly cold as I head down the North Kaibab Trail: the outside temperature reading in the car was 7 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 Celcius), which is much colder than my previous late winter hike at the South Rim. I’m wearing multiple layers of clothes, but my toes feel frozen as I start walking.
I’ve brought my trusty microspikes, but there’s no need to put them over my shoes as there’s only a fairly light dusting of well-trodden snow on the trail, from yesterday’s storm.
The trail has many switch-backs as it descends steeply down the head of a valley, through tall forest of fir, spruce and ponderosa pine. (The North Kaibab Trail is said to pass through every ecosystem that’s found between Canada and Mexico.)
So far there’s hasn’t been much of a view, but the Coconino Overlook (which is 0.7mi / 1.1km from the trailhead) offers a panoramic view including Roaring Springs Canyon and towards the South Rim. (Coconino Overlook is one of the day-trips you can do along the North Kaibab trail, but the views are much more spectacular from Bright Angel Point.)
From the Coconino Overlook, there’s a bit less vegetation and the trail gets a lot more sun, so there’s very little snow left. There are many more switchbacks before the trail reaches the bottom of the Coconino sandstone layer, which is a lighter-coloured layer near the top of the grand Canyon and has near-vertical cliffs. The next layer down is Hermit Shale, or Permian Hermit Formation, which forms a red slope composed of siltstone, mudstone, and very fine-grained sandstone,
The sun’s getting higher, although it’s still fairly chilly.
After four miles (6.4km) I reach the Supai Tunnel, where’s there’s potable water from mid-May to mid-October (it’s no longer running by late October), pit toilets and a large space to tie up mules. One of the benefits of hiking out of the peak season is there’s no remnants of the mule poop you’d have to avoid in summer. The 20 foot (7m) tunnel was blasted through solid rock when the trail was created in the 1920s.
Supai Tunnel to Redwall Bridge (0.6mi / 1km)
The tunnel passes through the Supai Formation or Supai Group, a slope-forming section of red bed deposits which has four layers of rock via another series of switchbacks.
There’s some nice views down the Roaring Springs Canyon ahead of me. Looking back up the trail, you can clearly see the different layers of rock.
The next Grand Canyon layer of rock is Redwall Limestone, a cliff-forming which has prominent, red-stained cliffs. The North Kaibab Trail is often carved into of the vertical cliff face off this Redwall Limestone; at times it seems like there’s no possible route, but the trail magically finds a way down the Roaring Springs Canyon.
The next milestone – the Redwall Bridge – gradually comes into sight at the bottom of the Roaring Springs Canyon.
Mid-way between the Grand Canyon North Rim and Roaring Springs, the Redwall Bridge is one of the last of three “Day Hike Turnaround Points” suggested by the National Parks Service. From the bridge you get a great view back up Roaring Springs Canyon to the North Rim. which is now towering high above me.
Redwall Bridge to Roaring Springs junction (1.7mi / 2.7km)
This next section is my favourite, with some incredible trail construction.The trail initially ascends gently up the other side of Roaring Springs Canyon (which is notable for bring the only spot where the trail is not descending!).
The North Kaibab Trail hugs the cliff fairly closely, and there are sweeping views down the Roaring Springs Canyon which clearly show the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon.
A vantage point shows the trail following the base of the cliffs below.
As I get closer, I can see that the trail doesn’t really follow the cliffs – it’s actually been blasted out of the cliff in what is almost a tunnel: “The Redwall section is awe-inspiring in every way; fantastic exposure and views mingle with a reminiscence of an age when engineering marvels were commonplace” (NPS). It really is an awe-inspiring sdction of the North Kaibab Trail!
Once below the Redwall, the trail descends through Muav Limestone and Bright Angel Shale, identified by a soft-greenish colour and a slope-forming character (rather than cliffs). Well before the junction with the side trail to Roaring Springs is a view of the valley filled with trees sustained by the creek, a mix of green and yellow as the leaves change colours. Roaring Springs itself cascades out of the cliffs to form Bright Angel Creek, providing drinking water for every visitor and resident within Grand Canyon National Park.
The junction to Roaring Springs is well-marked, and it’s only 0.3mi (500m), but I continue descending as I’ve still got a long way to Ribbon Falls.
Roaring Springs junction to Cottonwood Campground (2.7mi / 4.6km)
In contrast to the previous section, this next part of the North Kaibab Trail is the least inspiring and would be fairly brutal in the middle of summer – although the never-ending views make up for the fairly exposed trail, and on a winter’s day it’s pleasamt walking. I’m starting to meet a few hikers who have started at the South Rim and are traversing the Grand Canyon: as it’s only about 10am, they must started in the early hours of the morning.
The trail reaches Bright Angel Creek, which is fed by Roaring Springs, before passing the Manzanita Rest Area, formerly called the Pumphouse Residence (or the Aiken Residence). For decades artist and park employee Bruce Aiken lived, painted and worked here looking after the pump house, which still provdes water to both the North Rim and South Rim via a long series of water pipes, before it was fully automated in 2006. The old residence is now a ranger station, and water is available here for hikers (it was still running at the end of October).
The North Kaibab Trail crosses Bright Angel Creek just after the rest area – from here it follows Bright Angel Creek all the way to the Colorado River.
It’s a pleasant change to be near the clear-runnng stream, after the hot and dry canyon environment, and a few of the deeper pools would make a nice swimming spot in the heat of summer. I’ve now stripped off most of my warmer layers, but it’s still fairly cool.
The canyon is now much wider, with views ahead of me of the South Rim. Although I’m still descending, it’s now a very gradual descent along the creek.
I’m starting to see a few more people along the trail, before reaching Cottonwood Campground where there’s a handful of hikers who hae camped here overnight. The campground is the only place you camp along the North Kaibab Trail (bookings required), so it’s popular in the busier months for people doing the trans-Canyon hike.
Cottonwood Campground to Ribbon Falls (1.6mi / 2.6km)
After crossing the campground (the camping sites are spread out along both sides of the trail), the North Kaibab Trail continues to gradually descend along Bright Angel Creek.
There’s a broad vista to the south, with the South Rim in the distance, from the trail. This is section would also be brutala i summer, but is pleasant walking even though there is almost no shade.
After another 1.2 miles (1.9km) from the campground is the junction with the trail to Ribbon Falls. The bridge was washed way almost a year ago, so there’s a bit of a scramble down to Bright Angel Creek where there’s a few places it’s possible to wade across.
On the other side a rough trail which is obvious in some places – and not so obvious in others – which skirts around a small hill, before reaching a side-creek which flows into Bright Angel Creek.
There’s a small amount of (easy) scrambling and route-finding, before I’m at the base of Ribbon Falls. The mineral-rich water has created a giant travertine spire, which is covered in moss, and below this spire is a shallow pool. It’s possible to walk behind the giant spire and the cascading water, and I spend a bit of time exploring the picturesque waterfall.
Ribbon Falls back to North Kaibab Trailhead (8.4mi / 13.5km)
It’s taken me about three hours to reach Ribbon Falls, which is only about halfway to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River – but well over half the elevation change (Ribbon Falls is about a 5,380 foot / 1,640m drop from the trailhead, and there’s only another 1,475 feet / 450m descent to Phantom Ranch). I’d consider pushing on to the bottom of the Grand Canyon if I had no time constraints – but I need to be back in time for my shuttle back to Kaibab Lodge.
So, I reluctantly head back up the North Kaibab Trail. While going up is a little harder than the hike down, the cool weather and stunning views are a great antidote for tired legs, and it takes me about four hours to reach the trailhead again at about 3pm.
I’ve still got a few hours before my 6:30pm shuttle pick-up back to Kaibab Lodge, so I head up the Transept Trail to explore Bright Angel Point…
North Kaibab Trail distances
If you’re very fit and have enough time, the North Rim to River (and back) can be done in a day (outside summer when it’s too dangerous – but at 28 miles (45.1km) with 6,800 feet (2,090m) elevation gain it’s a huge hike. It’s longer and involves more climbing than Mount Whitney, which I did a few years ago – and which pushed to my day-hiking limits. Ribbon Falls is a little more feasible, and combines some stunning Grand Canyon scenery with a pretty cool waterfall.
|Trailhead to Supai Tunnel||1.8mi / 2.6km|
|Supai Tunnel to Redwall Bridge||0.6mi / 1km||2.4mi / 3.6km|
|Redwall Bridge to Roaring Springs junction||1.7mi / 2.7km||4.1mi / 6.3km|
|Roaring Springs jct to Cottonwood Campground||2.7mi / 4.6km||6.8mi / 10.9km|
|Cottonwood Campground to Ribbon Falls||1.6mi / 2.6km||8.4mi / 13.5km|
|Ribbon Falls back to trailhead||8.4mi / 13.5km||16.8mi / 27km|
A Brief History of the North Kaibab Trail
The original route from the North Rim down to the Colorado River was pioneered by Francois Matthes and his party of geologists and cartographers in 1902, when he was sent by the US Geological Survey to plot sections of the Grand Canyon North Rim. A few years later (in 1906) the route was slightly improved by David Rust, the first tourism operator on the North Rim, who used the trail for stock and tourists. (David Rust established a primitive tourist camp at Phantom Ranch in the early 2900s, before the Fred Harvey Company took over the site and constructed buildings there in the 1920s).
This original route down from the North Rim was replaced by the current North Kaibab Trail in 1920-1921 by the National Park Service (NPS), which was keen to support tourism and encourage development at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim. The NPS trail was designed to match the quality and grade of the South Kaibab Trail, and replaced the 94 crossings of Bright Angel Creek of the original trail with six creek crossings. Upon its completion in 1928, the North Kaibab Trail connected to the South Kaibab Trail to create the only NPS-maintained trans-canyon rim-to-rim trail (the Bright Angel Trail being privately controlled).
The North Kaibab Trail has been maintained since 1928 by the NPS, and has been open every year (outside of winter), except in 1966 when heavy rains falling on the winter snow pack led to flash flooding along Bright Angel Creek. The trail and multiple bridges were destroyed; parts of the trail had to be reconstructed and wooden bridges were replaced with aluminum bridges and concrete foundations. The upper trail opened again in 1969, and the bottom portion in the summer of 1971.
When to hike the North Kaibab Trail
The North Rim elevation is much higher than the South Rim, which means it gets colder in winter, and also less hot in summer. However, it gets significantly warer as you descend into the canyon – as a rule, the temperature increases 5.5°F with each 1,000 feet loss in elevation. So in summer you don’t want to be on the trail from about 10am to 4pm. You can undertake this walk from May to October – I’d recommend avoiding the summermonth and aming for mid to late October (before the winter road closures).
Getting to the North Kaibab Trail
Unlike the South Rim which is open and accessible year-round, the Grand Canyon North Rim is inaccessible by road from October/November (depending on the first winter storm) to 15 May, when Highway 67 is closed by a locked gate at Jacobs Lake. Outside winter, the North Rim is a 265mi / 425km or 3.5 hour drive from Las Vegas or 207mi / 333km from Flagstaff.
Staying near the Grand Canyon North Rim
The closest accommodation to the North Kaibab Trail is the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim, which has motel rooms and cabins. There’s a complimentary shuttle to the Kaibab trailhead twice daily, or it’s 30-45min hike. The Lodge is open from 15 May and closes 15 October, even if the road to North Rim is open longer. A bit further away is the Kaibab Lodge, which has cabin accommodation and is also open from 15 May, but stays open until 31 October. Its about a 30min drive to the North Kaibab trailhead, or you can pay for a shuttle which leaves early morning and eary evening.
You can also camp along the North Kaibab Trail at Cottonwood Campground, or stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom – bookings essential.
- National Park Service (NPS) – North Kaibab Trail / overview [PDF]
- National Park Service (NPS) – Grand Canyon Permits
- The Grand Canyon Association – North Kaibab Trail
- Canyon Crossing: Experiencing Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim – a book with stories on Grand Canyon crossings.
For a summary of all hikes at the North Rim and South Rim, visit the Guide to Grand Canyon.