Rain clouds over the North Rim.
There are over 100 hiking trails in the Grand Canyon and several ways to hike rim to rim. Hiking rim to rim means starting on either the north or south side of the canyon and making your way to the other. Doing so calls for extensive physical and mental preparation. You will never be the same once you have finished a rim-to-rim hike. It is an out-of-body experience that only those who have done it can understand. I hiked rim to rim three times so far in my life. And, one thing is sure, the canyon will never rob you of a story.
My first time hiking rim to rim was in 2019, and we started on the north. I went with my husband’s family and some of their friends. Due to my husband’s knee surgery, he couldn’t join us this time. We got to the rim by dusk and set up our tents to camp for the night. We didn’t plan a year in advance; therefore, cabins were unavailable. Anxiety had me waking up every hour hoping for the morning. When it was finally time to hit the trail, we packed our stuff and piled it into a friend’s truck. That friend was our driver who dropped us off and drove to the south rim to wait for our exit. Logistics such as this are critical when planning this hike.
At 5 am, we began hiking down the North Kaibab trail. It was so cold, and my Raynaud’s syndrome was rearing its ugly head. My toes and fingers were numb for the first 3 miles. It was dark when we started; you could see dozens of headlamps making their way down behind us. It was the last weekend of the season before the north rim was too close for the winter, so we had a lot of company on the trail.
We hit the pump house around mile 5, and I felt great. I shed some clothing, had a power bar, and topped my bladder with water. Unfortunately, one of our group members had already tweaked his knee. I didn’t know him well but knew this would be problematic. However, he kept going with the help of my brother-in-law. I didn’t know the friends of my two family members and didn’t feel obligated to wait. The next stop was Cottonwood, where my group members’ faces said this would be slow and painful. I know this sounds terrible, but I took off for the next stop, Phantom Ranch, seven miles across the bottom of the canyon. During this portion of the hike, loads of people passed both ways: some smiling and many not. I was on an unbelievable high and loving every minute of this peaceful yet taxing journey.
At Phantom, I knew I had to wait for my group because it was the last time I’d probably see them on the trail. I had some trail mix, changed my socks, and filled my bladder. One of my group members showed up shortly after I arrived, followed by the rest about 30 minutes later. The knee tweak guy was having a rough time. The others didn’t look happy either. I, however, was on top of the moon. It was here that my brother-in-law gave me the green light to move on without them. He didn’t have to tell me twice.
The River just past Phantom Ranch, 2019.
When I reached the river, I looked around with starry eyes, gazing at this stunning force of nature. I forged ahead with my tired but determined legs. I turned around, realizing I had just completed the devil’s corkscrew. I stared down at the twisted trail I had just conquered and noted that I was alone. The bustling people I saw at the bottom were out of sight. It was eerie yet inspiring.
I finally reached Indian Garden, the last stop before the climb gets real. I re-fueled with water, and a snack, then set off with conviction. With four and a half miles uphill left, my legs were exhausted, but my spirits were still soaring. I heard people behind me singing hymns, and we took turns passing each other. At the three-mile mark, my spent legs wanted out of this hole. Every switchback was never-ending, and it was hard to gauge mileage going up. At mile one point five, I could taste the wine I was about to drink. I pushed through, and voila, there it was — the south rim. I was out at 4:50 pm, 11 hours and 50 minutes. I started to tear up, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was injured, so I buried my face in my sleeve. Although I was proud, no one was with me to share my accomplishment, and it felt lonely. I had a stranger take my picture to send to my husband, who I wished could magically appear.
On top of the world, upon completion in 2019.
I had no idea how long the others would be and didn’t have the phone number of our driver friend. I sat in the Bright Angel Lodge and drank a few glasses of wine, followed by a few cappuccinos. Four hours later, the others ejected from the canyon. I felt sad they couldn’t share the same joy I was feeling, but I couldn’t blame them.
We didn’t have a room on the rim, so we had to drive an hour to Williams, where we had motel reservations. My room was across the street from the rest of my group as the hotel underwent a remodel. I was in the sketchy-looking older part of the motel, and my door wouldn’t lock. I pushed the dresser against the door, took a shower, and tried to fall asleep. I guess I deserved the scary room since I left everybody. In the morning, I was slightly sore but walking with a swagger. I felt changed.
My second time hiking rim to rim was in 2021; we started on the south rim at the South Kaibab trailhead. Doing it this way is 21 miles, as opposed to 24 from the north rim to Bright Angel. However, it is a steeper climb as the north rim is about 800 feet higher. My husband, who has always been the best hiker, is doing it with me this time. Another couple, good friends of ours, my brother-in-law and a friend of his, joined as well.
Headed down South Kaibab with high hopes, 2021.
This time we got a cabin at Bright Angel on the south rim and a cabin at Jacob Lake on the north. We had a driver friend take us to the south Kaibab trailhead, about 6 miles from where we stayed. It took us longer than we had hoped to reach the river, but all were in good spirits. Until.
Just before Phantom Ranch, my husband sat down to rest with an unusual look. I asked him if he was OK, and he said no. My heart dropped as we were only at the 6-mile mark. I couldn’t figure out what happened to him as he is an avid hiker. It wasn’t his knees, as they are now bionic. He was beyond exhausted, and it was early. I told the others to go on, and we’d catch up.
The day worsened, and my husband kept telling me he wouldn’t make it out that day. We caught up with our friends, and one of them was now also struggling. It was pretty hot, which added fuel to the fire.
The River before reaching Phantom Ranch, 2021.
We stopped often and, thankfully, had plenty of water and electrolytes. However, we were averaging one mile an hour when we reached Cottonwood.
It was slow and stressful as we started to climb the steepest portion of the day. It was dark and, even with our headlamps, tough to navigate. We could hear the mice scurrying about the rocks. With one foot in front of the other, we made it out by 8 pm, 17 hours. I will never forget the glorious sight of our friend’s headlights beaming through the pines, waiting for us at the trailhead.
My brother-in-law and his friend made it out about an hour before us. Our friends were about an hour after us. Limited communication added to our tension, but we were all accounted for and OK. My husband confessed to taking his knee pain medication before the hike. Therefore, this must have been why he had such a hard time. We poured ourselves a drink in the van and toasted to our perseverance.
The drive to our cabins at Jacob Lake was about 40 minutes. I showered and had another glass of wine to ponder the day. The canyon is mighty, but so are we. This time was different, though. When I think back, I don’t recall the heat or the toughness of the hike. All I can remember is the stress and worry. However, yet again, I felt changed.
My third time hiking rim to rim was in 2022. This time it was my husband and I and the same couple that joined us last year. Like my first year, we did it from North Kaibab to the Bright Angel trail on the south rim. My brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and 3 of their friends decided to hike it the opposite way. Logistically this worked out perfectly as they left our car on one side, and we left theirs on the other—no need for a driver.
We were smarter with accommodations at North Kaibab lodge on the north and Bright Angel lodge on the south. This way is most convenient as everything is right there upon completion. We even made dinner reservations for 8 pm. We felt physically prepared.
We left the lodge at 3:30 am and headed down the north rim at 4 am. It’s uneasy in the dark, especially on the north side, because it is narrow. A few hours into the hike, my anxiety began to fade as the shadows of light began to shine. Despite our shaky knees and firing quads, we made great time to the pump house rest stop.
We rocked it on time and made it to Phantom Ranch by 10:20 am. We met up with our family and friends, hiking the opposite way just before hitting Phantom. There was a bit of concern as my sister-in-law had a tough time with the downhill on South Kaibab. She said her legs were giving out. They had a ways to go, but the down part was over, so they were hopeful.
The four of us, heading south, were in fantastic shape and feeling great. I changed into shorts at Phantom, and we got some lemonade. We had some snacks and refilled water. It was getting warmer, but we made it through the box, which was good. Here, my husband and I went ahead of our friends, but we were all positive.
Feeling great, just past the river, 2022
We reached the river, took some selfies, and studied the canyon’s beauty. As always, we were in awe of its magnitude. Heading up the devil’s corkscrew, I turned to my husband and asked if he was OK. He said no.
Just past the river, 2022.
Nearly three miles left to Indian Garden, he was low on water and feeling dizzy and disoriented. I’ll never forget him saying he couldn’t believe he was in this situation again. It was hot, about 98 degrees, and it was getting too much for him. He was experiencing heat exhaustion. We were familiar with one step in front of the other, so we inched our way to our next stop. We filled up our bladders and sat for a while. Our friends caught up with us at Indian Garden. And although they were OK, one of them was also having a rough time with the heat. From here, we had four and a half miles to the top. My husband described it as three one-and-a-half-mile hikes.
We went ahead of our friends and made it to the three-mile mark. This stop was void of water from the prior pipeline break. We had a good supply but were hoping to top off there. The only option was to keep going, albeit slowly. One one-and-a-half-mile hike down.
The heat was letting up as we continued the grueling climb out. The next mile-and-a-half was daunting, although the clouds were in our favor. My friend caught up with us with under a mile to go. She left her husband at mile three to go at his own pace. My husband still needed to make often stops, so we told her to go ahead of us.
At last, we could hear people talking at the top of the south rim as we made our final ascent at 6:20 pm, 14.5 hours. I teared up, kissed my husband, and told him he would never see the bottom of the canyon again. He said he would never do it again anyway, and I didn’t have a vote. With that, I knew he was back to his normal self.
I had the shower of a lifetime, and we made it on time for our dinner reservations at 8 pm. Our friend’s husband didn’t make it to dinner but was out about an hour after us and was fine. We toasted to our apparent insanity and bid ourselves a good night.
We were concerned that we hadn’t heard from our family and friends who did it the opposite way. However, we knew the cell service on the north was limited. They sent us a text on our way home the next day saying they had made it out safely.
Rest assured, every time you hike the canyon, she will give you a story. Hiking rim to rim will make you realize the power she possesses–there is no better way to understand this. She will give your eyes her enchanting vision yet test every piece of your existence. But, if you have the gumption to do this hike, there is no doubt you can. You will have good and bad memories of tackling this magnificent beast. Train hard, pack smart, and do everything right. Also, be prepared for a boatload of emotions. And most importantly, you must know that she does not come without challenge and that you will never wholly defeat her.
Having said that, would I hike rim to rim again? You bet.