|Hiking||17.46 Miles|| 9 Hrs 1 Min ||2.21 mph|
|6,164 ft AEG|| 1 Hour 7 Mns Break||15 LBS Pack|
||no linked trail guides|
South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel is the "easiest" way to do a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike in a single day. I say the "easiest" (with quotations) because this is still an extremely difficult hike that requires training in advance, good weather during the right part of the year, good physical conditioning, proper equipment, and preparation. The hike covers 17.5 miles and over a mile of accumulated elevation gain; it is breathtaking in more than one way. The logistics of this particular route are much simpler than other Rim to Rim Grand Canyon routes in that you don't need reservations in advance, shuttle vehicles, or a support team to meet you on the other side. It is relatively popular i.e. we weren't the only ones doing this route on the day we went (we made some friends at Phantom Ranch).
South Kaibab Trail is readily accessible via the shuttle busses or regular car (someone will likely have to drop you off as parking is limited). When we were there, they had blocked off the pull-out entirely (not sure why, it may have been Covid related), so we had to walk an extra 1/4 mile to the trailhead. Likewise, Bright Angel Trail (where you ascend) is also on the shuttle bus route, and you can easily get to Mather Campground in the park (where we stayed) or to the various parking areas if your lodgings are outside the park.
An advance reservation or permit for this hike is not (at the time of writing) required. The National Park entrance fee (paid at the gate on a per-vehicle basis) is required.
Navigation is the one part of this hike that is easy. All the trails are clear, and there is signage at almost all of the intersections. There is also an alternate River Trail route that can be used if one of the suspension bridges is down for maintenance.
The trails conditions are typical for the Grand Canyon National Park. They are generally packed dirt with wood erosion control ledges which inevitably act as steps. It is usually a bit dusty but only noticeable if a big group or a mule train just went by. There are a few sections on the river trail area and bottom of Bright Angel where the trail is sandy and tiring due to your feet sinking in but these areas tended to be short. There are also sections below Indian Gardens where you will have to rock hop across a few springs, but these tended to be shallow and not very wide. Mule trains operate on both South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails so you will need to yield the right of way when you come across them. You will also need to watch your step and avoid stepping in the "mule dirt" and "mule mud" when you come across it.
This hike is best done in late April/early May in the spring or late September/early October in the Fall. Even then the weather can make your hike pleasant (if it is relatively cool) or significantly less so (if it is a hot day). An early start is absolutely critical as the temperature in the canyon goes up by ~2 F for every 1000' of elevation dropped so the general strategy is to get to the bottom well before noon and begin the ascent before it gets too hot. This way the temperature increase from the sun coming up is counteracted by the temperature drop from the increasing elevation gain of the ascent. We had a relatively late start time of ~7 am at the trailhead. The group we hiked with normally starts this hike at 6-6:30 and has started as early as 3 am (if the weather is going to be really hot). We had a relatively cool day and are pretty fast hikers so we didn't run into any temperature/weather-related issues.
Water and water logistics is one of the primary reasons to choose this particular set of trails for a rim-to-rim hike. South Kaibab is a completely dry trail, but it is also one of the shortest routes to the bottom, which is why it is used for the descent. Technically there is a rainwater collection system at one of the outhouses, but that would need to be purified and is only useable if it has rained recently.
Conversely, Bright Angel Trail has reliable water at Indian Gardens and the Phantom Ranch area (the latter actually has bathrooms with running water). There are also spigots at the 3 mile and mile-and-a-half resthouses although these are less reliable and you have to check with the rangers the day of your hike to verify if they are operating if you plan to rely on them. The status of the latter water sources changes daily. The day before our hike we were told that the water was off but on the hike itself, we found that they were running. The Colorado river is, of course, a reliable water source though it has to be purified and often allowed to settle first if it is muddy.
The relative reliability of water sources on Bright Angel Trail is why it is chosen for the ascent. You do not need to carry excessively heavy quantities of water or cache water with this trail selection. With the right weather, adequate speed, and all the spigots running, it is possible to do the hike with only 2 liters of water carrying capacity. This is definitely not recommended though, we did it with 4 liters of capacity per person but deliberately did not fill everything completely to save weight once we found out that the rest houses had water.
As usual, the water supplied at the various spigots in the Grand Canyon Nation Park tastes like it has been sitting in a plastic tank in the sun for a week (which is to say awful, and may actually be occurring lol) but it is safe to drink without additional purification.
General Comments and Musings
The Grand Canyon is beautiful, no matter which path you take to get to the bottom. Of the trails I have hiked (Hermit, Bright Angel, and South Kaibab, so far) South Kaibab was my favorite route to descend. There are lots of places that offer superb views and in particular great views of the Colorado River as you descend. South Kaibab was also fun because it is less popular and crowded than Bright Angel, likely due to our early start time and the lack of water on the trail. Of the corridor trails it is definitely my new favorite.
The hike overall was superb, and I was very glad to have finally done it. Previously I had hiked to Indian Gardens and Plateau Point as day hikes with different groups that got turned back from a full rim to river and back in a day hike for various reasons. I also did a 3-day backpacking trip to the Colorado river down Hermit Trail and was eager to get redemption for the past unsuccessful attempts. This was the day, and it was excellent. I would do it all again in a heartbeat and look forward to exploring the Grand Canyon some more in the future.
[ youtube video ]