Grand Canyon in a Day

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Additional Information GPX File: Download GPX » View Route on Map
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: May 12, 2016
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Spring

Grand Canyon (South Kaibab to Bright Angel) in a Day

South Kaibab to Bright Angel Trip Stats
South Kaibab to Bright Angel Trip Stats

The Lead Up

If you do a quick search for “Grand Canyon in a Day,” you get a bunch of results suggesting you may be insane for thinking about it.  Insane or not, my wife and I wanted to go all the way to the Colorado River and back when we visited the Grand Canyon.

Most sources will tell you to camp at the bottom and start early (or very late) to avoid the heat.  However, backpacking requires a limited supply of purchased backcountry permits which many individuals vie for early in the season, if not the year before.  I despise red tape and a paid-for permit is included.  It’s to the point where I won’t go someplace if I feel the red tape is not justified.  (Corollary: this is the same reason my brother and I did the Grand Teton in a day last year, but that’s a whole other trip report…)

After hemming and hawing, we finally agreed to put on our tough hiker pants (or shorts) and go for it in day. The decision was not made lightly.  For fitness background, my wife runs 10ish miles a day, every day of the week, regularly.  Which instantly puts her in better shape than me.  I’ve done other long in-a-day objectives, including: Dix Range in a day (Adirondacks), Lone Peak Cirque plus climbing in a day (Wasatch Range), Grand Teton in a day (Wyoming), and a few other long backpacks with heavy bags to the Wind Rivers, WY.  Living at elevation in Salt Lake, and regularly playing in the mountains with lots of sun and low humidity definitely helped.

Without too much else to go on, apart from knowing people run rim-to-rim, we set off to make our own observations and experiences.

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Too much fun on a recovery day...

The Trip Down

We did our hike May 12, 2016.  The forecasted South Rim high was 74.  The forecasted canyon floor high was 95.  Hardly ideal, but with an early morning temperature of 34 we deemed it was a good compromise.

There are a few options for an early hike.  The “Orange Route” bus leaves the visitor center at 4:30AM and this is definitely the way to go unless you have someone who can drop you off/pick you up.  There is also a hiker’s express bus which leaves Bright Angel trailhead at 5AM.  Side note: the 4:30AM bus works well to catch sunrise. We were hiking by 4:40AM on the South Kaibab trail.  There was already quite a crowd at Ooh Aah Point when we got there.

I usually make my hiking mistakes going downhill (rolling ankles, careless foot placements, and slipping).  This was no different, except I was going to have to hike through those mistakes on the way back up.  Thankfully none were catastrophic. The sunrise below the rim is unique and colorful.  Definitely a different experience than watching one from the summit or ridgeline of a peak!

Grand Canyon sunrise below the rim
Sunrise below the rim.

We made it to the watering hole outside of the Bright Angel campground 3 hours later.  That’s 7:40AM, and the thermometer on my GPS watch read 81 degrees.  Time to get moving!  The 1.5 miles between Bright Angel campground and the Bright Angel Trail/Colorado River junction is mellow but comparatively boring when juxtaposed against the views and backdrop of the South Kaibab trail.

The Trip Up

The business starts about 2 miles into the 8 mile hike up the Bright Angel trail.  The start is mellow, scenic, and the stream flowing nearby adds to the serenity.  Tall walls enclose you and it’s hard to tell how low you really are in the canyon.  Then the switchbacks start.

The heat began to take its toll.  We pulled out bandanas and tucked them into our hats to shade our necks and ears.  We’d also soak them to help cool us off.  We stopped to eat lunch at the Indian Garden campground at the 5 hour mark (9:40AM). An early lunch for sure but at this point we were borderline hangry and warm.  Hot and bothered?  Indian Garden provides a welcome reprieve with large trees for shade, water fill up, and bathrooms.  After taking a significant break and having a nice chat with another couple, we continued up and up.

For reference, Indian Garden sits at around 3740’.  The river is at 2400’.  The rim is at 6800’, and 4.7 miles away.  You can do the math and see that the next section is quite severe.

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The upper and steep switchbacks of the Bright Angel trail

Most sources encourage hiking up the Bright Angel trail because it has more shade than the South Kaibab trail and has water.  This may be true.  But at high noon, the shadows are short and the only shade comes from trees.  This means the last few miles are quite exposed to the sun.

We broke down the next section into the rest house stops.  These stops 1.5-1.6 miles apart are welcome, provide shade and water, and a chance to look up and wonder how the trail makes it up.  They are also the longest 1.5 mile sections of trail I’ve ever done!

We made it back up to the rim in just over 7.5 hours (7:40 to be precise), putting us back on the rim at 12:20PM.  It was STILL warm, even all the way up there!  We took the “Blue Route” shuttle back to the visitor center, then quested off to find our new campsite.  We also tried to find a place in town that served milkshakes but that was a fruitless effort.  Wendy’s was the best bet.


Suggestions, and Warnings

Trip stats:
17 miles
5000’ descent, 4550’ ascent (this includes the
little sections of up/down along the trail too)
5.5 liters of water consumed
Down time: 3 hours
Up time: 4.5 hours
3200 calories burned
2.3mph (average)
Fun factor: solid type 2

Suggestions: If all the water spigots are on, you can get away without a water filter.  Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to bring some form of backup or water filtration. Something can always go wrong.

If seeing the Bright Angel campground is not high on your list, I’d almost recommend hiking down the Bright Angel trail, spending some time at the “beach” at the intersection with the Colorado, and then hiking back up late afternoon (4PM).  However, the South Kaibab trail is significantly more scenic with better views.

Warnings: the hike is not a joke.  But if you’re in good shape, familiar with hot and dry desert hiking (at elevation), and avoid the heat, this is a very doable hike.  If you are not prepared, then you are in for a very rough time.  That being said, I would not necessarily discourage people from hiking rim-to-river-to-rim with the same adamant caution that the NPS does.  (To be fair, a significant portion of the “National Park crowd” is underprepared and not in any sort of shape to attempt this hike.)

So, thinking about doing this hike for yourself?  Do some test hikes in your area and compare these trip stats against your hiking history.  Are they comparable?  If so, you will find it a very rewarding experience.


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