Day 4 – Backpacking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Trail

Our final push for the South Rim and civilization is today. We actually rose a bit earlier than expected due to our neighbors in the camp site next to us – a fairly excitable co-ed group of college students who were also backpacking through the canyon as we were. So, instead of waking up at 6, we were up at 5:30 on a fairly overcast morning. The wind had blown in gusts throughout the night, and there may even have been a few drops of rain that fell but looking around the campsite, nothing looked damp, so I couldn’t be sure.

The college troupe took off on the trail to the rim about 25 minutes before we did as we broke down our camp, brushed our teeth, and had some bars and electrolytes for breakfast. At 6:15 AM, we left Indian Garden’s Campground behind us and started for the South Rim ourselves.

Leaving the campground area behind the the canyon really opens up from here on out. We start noticing the massive buttes and towering cliffs that rise to make the South Rim ridge all around us. The clouds also parted and we were exposed to the sun fairly quickly as we continued our climb.

From the campsite, there is only 4.6 miles left to go on the Bright Angel Trail to reach the rim. Other than Friday night when we only came 1.7 miles down, this would be our shortest hike in terms of distance. On the other hand, the rim was also 3060 feet above us. So even though this last part has the greatest elevation to climb out of, there are a few distinct advantages that helps to offset the sizable elevation gain. For one, this part of the trail from the South Rim to Indian Gardens is the most heavily traveled path in the Grand Canyon National Park. As a result, there are many more hikers to talk to and see in either direction. The second advantage is that this section is broken up almost in thirds with water and restroom facilities to help out. So once we left the campsite, the near term goal was to get to the first one called the Three-mile Resthouse (being three miles from the South Rim). From there, another hour gets you to the Mile-and-a-half Resthouse, and then the final push to the rim.

Look Back Towards Indian Gardens

View of Butte Along Bright Angel Trail

By the time we got to the Three-mile Resthouse, the college group that left before us in the morning were still there. They weren’t going as fast as we expected they would be. We spent about 20 minutes resting after the fairly steep climb to this point and then passed them up on our way to the next resthouse. We also passed several other backpackers on our way up, making me think that we were actually making pretty good time despite all the gear we were carrying. Of course, we were still being spanked by most (but not all) of the day hikers as they made their way back up to the top with just a bottle of water. It was at this point that I started thinking about those superheroes, and how the porters and sherpas of the world embody some of those superhuman traits that I spoke of in the Day 1 page of this trip blog.

I was rattled out of that thought about a half mile past the Three-mile Resthouse when a pack of mules carrying guests came down the trail on their way to Phantom Ranch. There were about a dozen in all and would cover a total distance of 9.6 miles in about 5 hours. I know this because I asked the guide as he passed me up. If I ever come back to the canyon again, I think I want to try this. It seems like one of the few things I haven’t done in this part of the Grand Canyon.

Mule Train Coming Down Bright Angel Trail

Looking up the Coconino Sandstone to the Rim

Another twenty-some minute rest once we reached the Mile-and-a-half Resthouse brought us to the last leg of our Rim-to-Rim hike. There are a couple more landmarks here in the final stretch: two tunnels that have been dynamited out of the Coconino Sandstone and is similar to the Supai tunnel on the North Kaibab trail. The first one is the Bright Angel Tunnel about a three quarters of a mile from the top. The second one is much closer to the rim much more rectangular in shape. I forget the name of it, though I’m pretty sure it does have one.

From here on, it’s pretty much a jaunt to the top. Voices can be heard by the visitors walking around the rim and observation areas. The trail is much more crowded as day hikers make their way down to the first or second rest house. I accelerated my pace here and arrived at the Rim at 10:14 AM on Memorial Day, May 30, 2011. The Bright Angel Trail begins (or ends, depending your direction) at the Kolb Art Studio, a Victorian-style building built by the Kolb brothers in 1904 and has served as a photography workshop and studio since. I waited about 15 minutes for my brother to climb out behind me and join me at the rim. It was a beautiful morning and the temperature at 6860 feet up was in the mid 70s. We did the entire journey in about 63 hours and 20 minutes from trail in to trail out.

At Last - The South Rim Summit!!!

Final View of Grand Canyon

Fortunately, I had found a place to park the car just 20 yards from the trail head when we first arrived here on Friday morning. So we were able to quickly throw our bags and gear in there, pull out a fresh set of clothes and headed into the Bright Angel Lodge to wash up and change. Following that, a quick stop off in the souvenir store had us purchasing the “I Hiked the Rim to Rim Trail” t-shirts. One final look and a few more pictures later, we jumped into the rental car and made the 90 minute drive back to Flagstaff. Overall, we were tired and sore, but feeling pretty good. The blisters in my feet would heal in a few days, but it was nothing to worry about. All in all, a nice adventure on one of the must-do hikes in the world.

Back in Flagstaff, we still had several hours before our flight to Phoenix and then our connecting flights back home to California. So to spend the few hours we had left, we took a quick trip to the famous Lowell Observatory. This world famous astronomical observatory was established in 1894 by Percival Lowell, who spent a significant amount of his time studying the planet Mars. He was fairly convinced that he observed a large number of “canals” on the planet which could have been proof of an intelligent life inhabiting the planet. Naturally, this is not the case and the canals have been proven to be nothing more than an optical illusion, due in part, to the poorer quality of telescopes used in the 18th and 19th centuries. The other notable highlight regarding Lowell Observatory was the discovery of the dwarf planet Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

Lowell Observatory Main Visitor Center

Clark Telescope Dome

After a few hours here, we headed to the airport, returned the car, and caught our flights home. No sooner had I taken off was I already thinking about my next backpacking excursion.

Finally, listed below are a few pieces of advice and hints that may prove to be useful for other would be Rim-to-Rim backpackers.

Tips for Rim to Rim Hike
1. You must have a backcountry permit. The only way to get one is from the National Park Service. Here is the link for the permit request form. Fill it out as soon as possible so that the dates you want are still available.

2. We did our backpacking trip in four days. We started as soon as the shuttle dropped us off on Friday evening and climbed out on Monday morning. I would certainly recommend one additional day. Starting immediately did prevent us from checking out the North Rim and made our first full day of hiking quite long for a backpacking trip.

3. Hiking sticks! Even if you have strong legs and great knees, they are indispensable for a terrain such as this. I would say that hiking sticks are more important on the steep downhill trails than on the uphills, but they help tremendously in both cases. I probably would have had a lot more blisters if it weren’t for the hiking stick I was using. If you purchase one, make sure you get the diamond tip ones. The hiking sticks will get battered on the rocks, gravel, and dirt.

4. Logistics. This is not an easy trip to plan. Even though the North Rim at the end of North Kaibab Trail is only 10 miles as the crow flies, it is about 24 miles by trail, and 220 miles by vehicle. So, unless you want to get to the South Rim and then turn around and hike all the way back to the North Rim, get a ride secured. The best way to do this is to use the Trans Canyon Shuttle. They have regular service from the South Rim to the North Rim at 1:30 PM. Also, if you’re going the other way, their North Rim shuttles leave at 7:00 AM. Call a few weeks ahead of time, book your ride and pay the 50% down payment by check to secure the slot for your party.

5. Electrolytes. Water is a must, but electrolytes are very important too for your body to maintain its ability to function properly at the cellular level. You will sweat out a lot of electrolytes here in the Canyon, and it is necessary to keep it replenished. We used electrolyte tablets that we added to our water. I used Nuun tablets that I purchased at REI. Since water was the only thing we had to drink, it was also good to have a nice change in flavor every once in a while.

6. Keeping Cool. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the Grand Canyon gets hot, really hot. Other than wearing a hat to keep the sun off your face and sun tan lotion to keep from frying, I would recommend a bandanna. Whenever you see a water source, wet your bandanna and tie it loosely around your neck. Depending on the heat and low humidity, it will dry pretty quickly. However, its still a great way to help regulate your body temperature and keep from overheating.

Have a great trip. As long as you’re properly prepared mentally and logistically, it should be a fantastic experience and one you soon won’t forget.

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