Grand Canyon: Rim to River

Grand Canyon, as seen above Indian Garden
Grand Canyon

Objective: Backpacking to Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA
Distance: 28.5 miles (loop)
Elevation Gain: -4,780′ (descent to canyon floor), 4,380′ (ascent to South Rim)
Trip Length: 3 days
Terrain: Canyon, river, waterfall
Best time to visit: April, May, October
Caution: Heat, dehydration

Don’t just stand at the edge like everyone else. Grab a backpack and hike from the South Rim to the canyon floor of the Grand Canyon, spend a couple days exploring the Colorado River, and then climb out again. Every step you take transports you to another era of the Earth’s vast geological timescale. This humble waterway carved a colossal rift, revealing the story of lost eons.

Grand Canyon, roaming the steep South Kaibab Trail
South Kaibab Trail | ©

Descent from the South Rim to the Colorado River

Distance: 7 miles (one-way)
Elevation Loss: 4,780′ from South Rim (7,260′) to canyon floor (2,480′)

From the Yaki Point trailhead, the South Kaibab Trail descends ridgelines and ravines, with steep exposure offering more unobstructed panoramic views the deeper you tread. The price is a steep set of tight north facing, knee busting switchbacks and practically no shade. The trail traverses a west-facing cliff until reaching the white quartz Coconino Sandstone layer topped by Ooh Ah Point (the first panoramic view of the canyon). From here, the trail shifts to Cedar Ridge, descending on its east and west sides. Watch out for the sure-footed mule trains, as they need a wide berth to avoid tumbling over the edge. From Cedar Ridge, it is a straight shot, directly south to Skeleton Point.

The trail walks right off the plank of Skeleton Point and tumbles down a steep section of switchbacks dynamited from the limestone. The erosion is more pronounced the closer you are to the river. The fractured river bank becomes crumblier and filled with jagged crags once you descend below the sandstone of Tonto Platform. The Grand Canyon is a never-ending fractal; the curlicue terrain at the bottom resembles the overall shape of the canyon as seen from the sky.

Grand Canyon, Black Bridge, suspension
Black Bridge over the Colorado River | ©

The metamorphic granite and schist of the Vishnu Basement Rocks form the oldest layer along the river’s edge deposited 1.8 million years ago. Above the Colorado River, you cross the steel Black Bridge to Bright Angel Campground. Before setting up camp, take a well deserved break and dip your toes in the icy cold Bright Angel Creek. Phantom Ranch consists of log cabins where you can find snacks.

Ribbon Falls | ©
Green trees of Bright Angel Campground | ©
Ribbon Falls | ©

Ribbon Falls

Distance: 12 miles (round-trip)
Elevation Gain : 1,260′ from the canyon floor (2,480′) to Ribbon Falls (3,740′)

From Phantom Ranch, the North Kaibab Trail follows the Bright Angel Creek up the Inner Gorge that is tightly boxed by Vishnu Schist rock. This narrow canyon is essentially an oven during midday. After criss-crossing the creek, you reach a point where you turn toward the waterfall. The path climbs up and down Asinine Hill, and crosses a bridge. Ribbon Falls is located in a grotto on the west side of Bright Angel Creek. Within all this red rock is a sliver of water, which paints a green mossy stripe.

Grand Canyon, as seen above Indian Garden
Indian Garden is an oasis on the Bright Angel Trail | ©

Ascent to the South Rim

Distance: 9.5 miles (one-way)
Elevation Gain: 4,380′ from canyon floor (2,480′) to South Rim (6,860′)

The Bright Angel Trail follows a rift formed by the Bright Angel Fault. From Bright Angel Campground to the River Resthouse, the trail passes sand dunes until the Silver Bridge crosses the Colorado River. The trail rises at the Devil’s Corkscrew where a gully drains into Pipe Creek. The little crooks in the red walls of the canyon are filled in with young cottonwood trees providing ample shade and contrasting colors. If you are lucky, you may spot a Bighorn sheep in one of these jagged gully nooks.

Three-Mile Resthouse | © NPS/Michael Quinn

From the oasis of Indian Garden, the real work begins via a stretch of tough switchbacks. The resthouses and water sources are welcome respites during the steep climb to the top. The Bright Angel Trail is framed by massive vermilion walls and orange cliffs providing shade and water for both plants and animals. Celebrate atop the South Rim after you have finally emerged from the scorching and infernal depths.

Mule Train on the Bright Angel Trail | ©


Take the 40 E to Williams and use exit 165 for AZ-64 N. Drive 54.9 miles and turn left at Center Drive. Continue 1.6 miles to Village Loop Drive. Park at the Backcountry Information Center (Lot D) and walk 5 minutes or park at the Visitor Center and take the free shuttle bus (20 minutes). The South Kaibab trailhead is near Yaki Point.

Red Tape

Get a permit for overnight camping. The permit is $10 plus $8 per person or stock animal per night camped below the rim and $8 per group per night camped above the rim. Follow the procedures for submitting a permit request via fax or mail:

Video Tour of Grand Canyon Rim to River Hike