Grand Canyon: Tackling the rim-to-rim hike

Rack up the miles on a Rim-to-Rim hike of Arizona’s Grand Canyon that includes an overnight stay in the gorge with stargazing, plus cooling waterfalls — a welcome surprise in one of the hottest, driest places on Earth.

By Aaron Millar
Published 5 Jul 2019, 08:00 BST
North Rim of the Grand Canyon
North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Photograph by AWL Images

Looking down from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a 277-mile long, 10-mile wide golden gorge snakes beneath me. At sunrise, the rocks blush pink and appear sullen; at sunset, they glow like the embers of a fire — it’s like peering into the heart of the Earth. The US poet Harriet Monroe called it ‘the abode of gods’, adding that ‘it made a coward of me’. There’s perhaps nowhere else at once so humbling and vast, so cowering and uplifting.

But the South Rim is also a madhouse. Six million visitors a year come to Grand Canyon National Park and most never stray from this view.

My Rim-to-Rim hike is one of America’s most spectacular adventures: 24 miles from the northern to the southern edge of the canyon. But it’s not for the faint-hearted. With roughly 5,000ft of ascent and descent, it’s the equivalent of walking from the bottom to the top of London’s The Shard five times, with nearly a marathon’s worth of hiking in between. But it offers solitude: less than 2% of visitors spend a night on the canyon floor. If you want the Grand Canyon minus the crowds, this is the way to do it.

Starting on the North Rim — the wilder, quieter side — I’d set off in the early-morning dark and descended a narrow, winding path. Dawn clouds lifted as the sun rose, revealing a hidden world, imperceptible from the rim, pyramid-like mountains all around.

A few miles after reaching the bottom, I came across Ribbon Falls, one of the Grand Canyon’s secret spots. Hidden away from the main path, this ice-cold waterfall is in the middle of one of the planet’s driest and hottest places. I climbed to a hollow behind the falls, stripped off and jumped into the bracing shower.

But this wasn’t the only surprise on my hike. Phantom Ranch is the only accommodation in the gorge itself, a collection of idyllic 1920s stone cabins with fluffy beds, warm showers and home-cooked meals. It turns the Rim-to-Rim ordeal into the business class of backpacking. After 13 miles and seven hard hours on the trail, I’d been welcomed with refreshing beers and a steak dinner, followed by a sky alight with stars (the Grand Canyon is one of only a handful of International Dark Sky Parks in the country).

But getting into the Grand Canyon is one thing — getting back out is something else altogether. Having crossed the Colorado River after breakfast, I’d spent the day zigzagging the gruelling 5,000ft to the top. As I’d climbed, the views spread out majestically: stone towers rose around me like cathedral spires. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the rocks. Written into these sheer walls is the most complete geologic record on the planet: two billion years of the Earth’s natural history etched into stone like a photocopy of time. Reading into the cliff layers, I could see oceans rise and fall, and deserts turn to mountains and crumble again.

Finally, I’m at the top. A fellow hiker turns to me: “From up here,” she says, “you have no clue how grand it really is.” She’s right. To witness the gods from afar is inspiring, but I’ve walked among them.

How to do it: Arizona Outback Adventures’ three-day Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hiking tour includes a night camping on the North Rim and a night at Phantom Ranch, all equipment, meals, transportation from Phoenix and the services of an guide. From $1,595 per person, with departures from May to September. American Airlines has a daily direct flight from Heathrow to Phoenix from £942. 

Mike Buchheit.

Expert insights: Meet Mike Buchheit, landscape photographer & director of Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute

Temperatures inside the canyon can be much hotter than on the rim. Avoid June, July and August for the Rim-to-Rim hike. Spring and autumn are the time to be down there. The more time you devote to the canyon, the more you get out of it. Try and spend at least one night down there if you can. And start in the North Rim, which is higher than the South Rim, so you have less climbing to do.

My favourite spots for photographs are Navajo Point and Desert View on the South Rim. For the North Rim, the absolute best sunrise spot is Point Imperial, it’s the highest point in the park. Worldwide shooters also tend to stream to the canyon during late summer, which is our rainy season, so you get big afternoon thunderstorms, rainbows, lightning, if you’re lucky. There’s nothing more dramatic than seeing an isolated thunderstorm sweep across the canyon. 

The Grand Canyon Conservancy is the official non-profit partner for Grand Canyon National Park. We help the park service accomplish everything it’s trying to do, including youth education, trail restoration, and the Dark Skies project, which helps to preserve the night’s sky around the park. We take people on expert-led educational backpacks, river trips and day tours with a focus on geology, botany, wildlife and history. Anyone from first-time hikers to salty old veterans will find something to their liking that we do.

Grand total: the Grand Canyon in numbers

11 Native American tribes traditionally associated with the Grand Canyon, including the Hualapai and Havasupai.

100 years Grand Canyon National Park has been in existence, as of this year.

6,000,000 years it’s taken the Colorado River to carve out the Grand Canyon.

1,840,000,000 age of the oldest rocks in the park, the Vishnu Schist, found on the river’s edge.

Click here to see our full list of the 20 unforgettable places for 2019 from our Trips of a Lifetime cover story.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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