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Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

  1. Distance: 44-47 miles Depending on which route is followed on the South Rim (1-4 days)

  2. Total Elevation Gain: 11,000 feet

  3. Average Elevation: 5,000 feet

Backpacking and Running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and even Rim to Rim to Rim is a bucket list item on many trail runners and backpackers list. It is a crossing of one of the most striking features in the country and in the world. At its fastest, it is a 6 hour commitment, and for the average backpacker it usually stretches a few days of navigating the “Big ditch.” The nearly 50-mile effort effort requires attention to planning, food, permits and designated campsites.

With this being in a national park, there are a number of things that can be used to backpackers’ advantages. The trail passes twice by Phantom Ranch, where a few resupply options can be bought as well as postcards to mail from the bottom of the Grand Canyon (packed out by mule).

The trail begins at either the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail. From either location on the South Rim, it is a long drop to the canyon floor. If you opt for the Bright Angel Trail there is usually water turned on at Indian Gardens (check before you go). The trail drops nearly a vertical mile down to the Colorado River. After crossing the river on bridges, the trails converge and pass by Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. Check the hours, but this small store sells coffee and snacks, while also offering lodging if you reserve it in advance.

After Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch, the next spot to camp is Cottonwood Campground 7.6 miles later. The stretch has access to Bright Angel Creek but is dry otherwise. If the creek is used as a water source then the water will need to be treated. There is one water source 5 miles from the top of the North Rim just after Manzanita Creek Footbridge. There is a faucet that is often turned on next to the pump house.

From the pump house it is a 10-mile (5 miles to the rim and 5 miles down) out-and-back that can be dry depending on if the water is turned on at the North Rim. There is a campground at the North Rim but it is often closed for the season during the peak times for Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim crossings. The North Rim is also notoriously colder than the South Rim, so descending back into the canyon may be the best bet.

The route back across the canyon is same as the initial crossing with the exception of every hill being inverse. The camp locations and water sources will be the same, and Phantom Ranch will once again be a good spot to grab a snack or take a break. After Bright Angel Campground the long climb up to the South Rim begins. It is the last climb of the route and if the South Kaibab Trail is taken then it will be dry for the vertical mile to the top.

Camping Options in the Grand Canyon

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Rim to Rim to Rim

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Rim to Rim to Rim

How to get to Grand Canyon National Park and the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Hike

Grand Canyon National Park is in northern Arizona and about an hour and a half from Flagstaff. The easiest way to get to the National Park is to drive from Flagstaff. Whether this means flying into Flagstaff and renting a car or flying into the large airport in Phoenix and driving from there, the Grand Canyon is best reached by car. There are a number of shuttle services from Flagstaff to the canyon if that works better. The hike is started on the South Rim by nearly every hiker. This is because the vast majority of amenities in Grand Canyon National Park are located at the South Rim.

There are two options for starting points: South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel Trail. There is parking at the Bright Angel Trailhead but there is none at the South Kaibab Trail. If you are taking the South Kaibab Trail it is best to park at the visitors center and take a shuttle right to the trailhead. This is also the best way to get back to Grand Canyon Village after the hike.

Nearest City: Flagstaff, Arizona (80 miles)

When is the best time of year to backpack the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim?

The best time to hike the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon is in the fall or the spring. If there is a pocket of good weather in the winter, the trail can also be done then, but the North Rim is known to accumulate snow and ice and hold onto it until the spring. Temperatures in the Grand Canyon can climb to triple digits and make it a very hot endeavor in the summer, so we don’t recommend that. The waterless stretches can last quite a way, and if you go too early in the year the water faucet may not be turned on at the North Rim.

What is the backpacking like in Grand Canyon National Park?

The terrain in the Grand Canyon varies wildly and is unforgiving. The South Kaibab Trail is dry from the trailhead on the south rim all the way to the Colorado River. This can make it a very hot climb and is where the majority of rescues happen in the national park. The wind is often present and the sun beats down directly overhead. This climb is the crux of the entire route, and is the final climb of the trek.

Other than the South Kaibab climb, the route oscillates in small gains and losses through box canyons on the North side of Phantom Ranch before beginning to truly gain elevation near Ribbon Falls. The short side trail is worth the view of the beautiful waterfall. After the natural feature, the trail climbs sharply all the way up to the North Rim. A little over 5 miles from the rim is a reliable pump house water source just after the Manzanita Creek Footbridge. If the water is off on the North Rim, then this is the only source for the 10-mile out-and-back to the rim.

Do you need a permit to backpack or trail run the Grand Canyon Rim to RIm to Rim?

Camping and Permits: Backcountry permits are required for each night you camp within the Grand Canyon National Park boundaries. This means that trail runners planning to exit the national park before the nighttime do not need a permit other than the entrance fee required for all National Parks. Outside of holiday weekends and with some flexibility, permits can be obtained without too much hassle.

What is the water like on the Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon?

Water: Water is one of the most difficult things to manage on the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. The weather at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is usually 20 degrees warmer than the rim, so planning water capacity for the hotter portion of the hike is essential. Depending on the season, different water sources are turned on, so it is best to consult NPS information at the time of your hike.

What else to know for backpacking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

Grand Canyon Mules

Grand Canyon Mules

Weather: The 20-degree difference between the bottom of the canyon and the top of the canyon can come as a shock. Sometimes there is snow on the rim and threats of dehydration at the bottom. The canyon can also be very windy, so carrying a windbreaker will make the crossing more comfortable.

Bright Angel Vs. Kaibab: There are two options for getting down to the river and connecting to the North Kaibab Trail. The South Kaibab Trail is shorter but also steeper with more elevation change, while the Bright Angel Trail is a little longer, more gradual, and has less elevation gain. Many people take one trail down and a different one up to see something new.

Shuttle: Grand Canyon National Park offers a shuttle service to and from the trailheads on the rim. It starts early in the morning, so this is a good way to get your hike started. There is no parking at the South Kaibab Trail, so those hikers must park at the visitor center and take the shuttle to the trailhead.

Mules: Grand Canyon National Park has mules that take supplies and mail up and down from Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. If you are approached by a mule train, step off the trail and let them pass.

Read about my running of Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon

Running Rim To Rim To Rim at the Grand Canyon
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