Backcountry permit applications for the Grand Canyon open up on the first of the month 3 months before. You have to print out the application, fill it out with all possible itineraries, fax it to the backcountry office and wait to get your permit or denial letter in the mail. Getting the permit (to camp in the canyon) is basically just as big a feat as completing the hike into the canyon. Even though we submitted the application the first day, September/October is the busy season for hiking down in the canyon and there were so many first-day applications it required a lottery for the limited number of camping spots. Lady Luck wasn’t with us back in June. So we headed into Grand Canyon in September knowing we wanted to do a long hike into the canyon, but not knowing how it would work out.
Fortunately, there’ a thing called walk-in permits that are held as first-come-first-serve options for people like us. You can go to the Backcountry Information Office at either the South or North Rim and try your luck the day before or day of your desired night in the canyon. Unfortunately, the office closes at 5 and our Garmin GPS was giving us an ETA was 4:55. So instead of driving into the Grand Canyon and dropping our jaws as we stopped at every overlook along the 28-mile road to the GC Village, we resisted the urge and booked it straight to the office to arrive just in time.
To make a long story shorter, we were able to get a spot on the waitlist and then (surprisingly) get a coveted spot for the 11-site Cottonwood Campground. Our ideal itinerary for our first real backpacking challenge – a 4-day Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim epic – was falling into place… for now:
- Day 1- Leave South Rim at 5:30am to hike 7 miles down (-4,380 ft) South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Campground. Hike 7.2 miles up (1,600 ft) North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground. With a side trip to Ribbon Falls just before Cottonwood that’s about 15 miles total.
- Day 2- Continue hike 6.8 miles up (4,161 ft) the North Kaibab Trail from Cottonwood to North Rim. Walk to and stay at North Rim Campground where we already had a reservation.
- Day 3- Hike 14 miles down (-5,761 ft) North Kaibab Trail from North Rim to Bright Angel Campground.
- Day 4- Hike 9.5 miles up (4,380 ft) Bright Angel Trail from Bright Angel Campground to South Rim and OUT.
With all the off-shoot stops and hiking to the North Rim campground the 4 days would entail about 55 miles. However, we thought we were pretty conservative with our long days on the downhills, allowing us to take our time on the canyon climbs. The backcountry office ranger quickly informed us that we were not taking it “slow,” but actually doing the rim-to-rim in 2 days when they recommend 3. Remembering the side-long looks and alternative suggestions we’d gotten from everyone else we’d mentioned our route to, we were starting to think we were more ambitious than we realized (miles always look shorter on the map). On top of that, since our itinerary didn’t include 2 consecutive nights in the canyon, we were told we would have to go to the backcountry office once we climbed to the North Rim to try to secure a campsite for the 3rd night of our hike at Bright Angel Campground. Coincidentally, our 3rd night was the Friday of Labor Day weekend.
But what’s a trip to the Grand Canyon without a little risk and a big challenge?
Before unfolding the story of our trek here’s a few tips for anyone planning their own journey below the rim:
- Use trekking poles – equally useful going down as going up.
- Don’t carry too much water – the corridor has plenty of potable water sources, although some are seasonal.
- Start early in the morning to the heat – the canyon gets 5 degrees hotter for every 1,000 feet you go down and direct sun is killer.
- Soak your shirts or hat – evaporative cooling is magical.
- Night at the North rim gets much colder – so pack your layers.
- If you want any tips on getting permits, post a comment. We have lots, but don’t want to bore everyone here.
The first day descending into the canyon started early as we got up at 4am to break camp and catch the Hiker’s Express shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. The shuttle was packed and our huge backpacks got stacked on our laps. Fortunately we found that most people were classmates just going down 1.5 miles to a great sunrise point, which we joined them for. The rest of our hike down was not very crowded on the less popular South Kaibab, but was full of amazing, iconic Big Ditch views. It seemed we had both beaten the heat and the day hiker crowds with our early start. Unfortunately, beating the heat did not last past midday as we crossed over the Colorado River bridge, past Phantom Ranch and started up the Bright Angel side canyon towards the North Rim. Several stops at the creek running along the trail to dunk shirts, hats and buffs were required until we finally reached the oasis of Ribbon Falls.
I had been down into Grand Canyon on my one prior visit to the North Rim with my family. During that trip I decided that Ribbon Falls was the coolest most beautiful natural setting I had ever seen. And it might be my nostalgia bias, but I still stand by that. In my opinion, any trip into the Grand Canyon (and especially any trip in from the North Rim) is largely wasted unless you make it to Ribbon Falls. As with anything in the Grand Canyon, pictures cannot do it justice. But at least they’re worth a thousand words…
The second day of hiking was everything we expected: a hard, but fairly short climb out of the more forested canyon near the North Rim. The rest of the day was nothing we expected. Remember how I said we were going to try to get a permit/campsite for day 3 at Bright Angel Campground when we got to the North Rim? Completely booked. What were we supposed to do? Stay at Cottonwood again? Take the $85 per person 5-hour shuttle back? Hike rim-to-rim in a day? We considered them all. In the end we found our own “Bright Angel” haha.
His name was Mike, an accountant from Connecticut. He happened to be right in front of us in line during our first visit to the backcountry office and by some crazy coincidence was planning his own solo Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim hike with the same itinerary. But where we had failed to get our 3rd night at Bright Angel, Mike somehow secured a spot at the time. We had seen and talked and hiked with Mike several times throughout the trip so far. But by the time I thought we could maybe ask Mike to change his Bright Angel campsite permit to add us it was 4:40. And what time does the backcountry office close? 5.
So I took off running for the campground to find Mike and ask our huge favor. But the North Rim is spread out and I’d never make it to Mike and then to the office in time. So I flagged down a passing truck and hopped in the bed for my first ever hitchhike. Now in the campground, I found Mike walking back from the shower. After explaining the situation, Mike was more than willing to help and we started powerwalking (I really felt bad he had just showered). It was 5:57 and we still weren’t going to make it. So I took off running again with his current permit and knocked sped into the office parking lot right at 5to a locked door and dark windows. But the ranger was still inside. After a bit more explanation she let me in and we were able to pay and add Elizabeth, Maria (Elizabeth’s sister) and me to Mike’s permit. Could we have just gone down and stayed with Mike without this frantic, Amazing-Race-ish ordeal? We thought so. But we really wanted to do it right.
The third day was all downhill from the higher North Rim, but felt like forever on our burning feet. A full dip in the Bright Angel Creek when we got to camp was very necessary. We found out the campground also has ranger programs at night, so we enjoyed testing our Grand Canyon Trivia knowledge (Elizabeth and I rocked the #FindYourPark category about all National Parks thanks to our research on our National Parks 101 and 201 posts). But the real fun began after the trivia when a handful of people stuck around for the Scorpion Hunt. Apparently scorpions are very common at Bright Angel. We found 5 at their favorite hangout of the mule corral by using a black light which made them glow neon green!
The fourth day was expected to be our hardest with a final 9.5 mile steady climb out of the canyon. To all our surprise it seemed to fly by. Although, it was increasingly difficult to get an uncluttered picture of the canyon as we got closer to the rim where more and more day hikers were concentrated. Bright Angel Trail is the Grand Canyon’s classic rim to river trail and its popularity showed itself in the gallon water jugs and selfie sticks the people carried.
The most important lesson we learned was to know your own limits because no one else (not even the rangers) can know them for you. We were very glad we weren’t dissuaded from our original rim-to-rim-to-rim plan. But the hike was tiring and required plenty of planning, packing food/water etc. We wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but it definitely gave us the full, quintessential Grand Canyon experience we were searching for.
Overall, the canyon, the trail and the trek were spectacular. Only 1% of the 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon stay overnight in the canyon. Although 90% of those backpackers go somewhere on our “corridor” route of the South Kaibab/North Kaibab/Bright Angel trails, we felt our days were fairly peaceful until we got to the upper Bright Angel section. But with so many other trails to explore we are excited to go back some day soon and join the other 10%.