The Grand Canyon Rim to River trail is the ultimate way to enjoy this National Park in just 1 day! Traversing the South Kaibab Trail, Bright Angel Trail, and the Colorado River, you’ll get to see everything the Grand Canyon has to offer!
I’ll be honest, if you don’t do it right, a trip to the Grand Canyon can be about as grandiose as the Griswald family’s trip in National Lampoons Family Vacation. You came, you saw, you left. While the Grand Canyon is really quite beautiful from the Rim, it’s not until you drop down onto the steep canyon walls of the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails that you’ll really see how magical this famous national park really is.
Done right, the Grand Canyon can be just as epic as the rumors make it seem and that happens when you drop down from Rim to River and go explore all that the Grand Canyon really has to offer.
This is what makes the Rim to River trail so spectacular! By exploring both the South Kaibab and Bright Angel sides of the South Rim and hiking all the way down to the Colorado River, you’ll get to see all the diversity of Grand Canyon views in just 1 day.
Grand Canyon Rim to River Stats
Distance (roundtrip): 16.5 miles
Elevation gain: 4460 ft
Elevation loss: 4860 ft
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
Min elevation: 2,200 ft
Max elevation: 7,000 ft
Trailhead: South Kaibab Trailhead
Nearest cities: Tusayan + Williams, Arizona
What’s The Grand Canyon Rim to River Hike?
Grand Canyon National Park consists of 2 sides, the North Rim and the South Rim with the Colorado River running through the middle. The Rim to River hike starts and finishes on the South Rim.
The Rim to Rim hike, as the name says, traverses the canyon from the north rim to the south rim. It’s a bit longer and harder than the Rim to River and it can’t be done in the winter due to road closures on the north side.
As displayed in the map overview below, the Rim to River trek classically descends on the South Kaibab Trail all the way to the Colorado River for 6.3 miles, goes along the Colorado River for almost 2 miles, then re-ascends the Bright Angel Trail for almost 8 miles.
Which Way to Hike Rim to River
While the Grand Canyon Rim to River trail CAN be hiked from either direction, it’s most common to descend down on the South Kaibab Trail and ascend on the Bright Angel Side. There are 2 reasons for this.
First and foremost, I personally think the views seen from the South Kaibab side are more stunning than Bright Angel so it’s nice to look at the views while you’re hiking instead of having to stop and turn around. From South Kaibab, you have views of both red and purple canyon walls plummeting downward in addition to the beautiful emerald green Colorado River below.
Second, if you are hiking this in the summertime, it’s essential that you hike down South Kaibab first because the Bright Angel trail has water fill stations at 3 different points on whereas South Kaibab has nowhere to refill water. If it’s hot out, these water stations will be a lifesaver.
Related: Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
Getting to The Trailhead
You have a few options here.
There are multiple different bus lines that run throughout the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Typically there is a village line, a South Kaibab line, and a Hiker’s Express line that runs from Bright Angel to South Kaibab.
The Hiker’s Express is what most people use for this trek. This line is not actually shown on the map because it only runs 3 times in the early morning. This line runs from Bright Angel Lodge to South Kaibab Trailhead stopping at Backcountry Information and the Visitor enter along the way.
Hiker Express Schedule
7 am, 8 am, 9 am in March
6 am, 7 am, 8 am in April
5 am, 6 am, 7 am in May
4 am, 5 am, 6 am in June, July, August
5 am, 6 am, 7 am in September
6 am, 7 am, 8 am in October
7 am, 8 am, 9 am in November
8 am, 9 am in December, January, February
Because lines are always changing due to season and limited operations, be sure to check the current bus status on the NPS website.
Personally, I’d recommend driving to Grand Canyon Visitor Center. You’ll have to ride the bus to and from your start/finish trailheads, but I feel it’s more convenient for time.
Getting an Earlier Start
If you want to start earlier than the earliest shuttle, you can just drive your own vehicle to Bright Angel or South Kaibab.
You can drive close to the South Kaibab trailhead but not all the way. The last 1/4 mile is only open to shuttle buses so you’ll have to park your car outside the gate and walk an additional 1/4 mile to the trailhead.
If busses aren’t running at all during your visit, you’ll need to shuttle 2 vehicles for this hike. Park one car at the Bright Angel trailhead then drives over to the South Kaibab trailhead. This is really your only option as of late.
Where to Stay
The campground inside of Grand Canyon National Park is simple but scenic and comfortable, as National Park campgrounds typically are. Amenities include spacious sites that fit up to 30’ RVs, restrooms, water, trash, and fire pits.
No bus lines run directly from the campground to the trailheads so if you’ll have to drive over to the bus stops.
If your budget allows for it, staying at Bright Angel Lodge is extra comfortable and extremely convenient with its location right at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Rooms here run between $100-$150 per night.
Personally, we spent one night camping in the park then spent one night at the Red Roof Inn in Williams and had no complaints given the affordable price.
Things to Know About Hiking Rim to River in 1 Day
Hiking the South Kaibab and Bright Angel in one day is considered an extremely strenuous day hike.
And I need to disclose that the National Park Service specifically states this: “The National Park Service DOES NOT RECOMMEND hiking from the rim to the river and back in one day.”
Don’t let this deter you from enjoying the Rim to River adventures but it should only be done by experienced hikers. What makes this trail so innately challenging is that your elevation gain comes at the end after already hiking for about 6 hours. Our legs were already weary when the 4,000’+ uphill trek began.
The trail itself is well marked and well maintained for its entirety so if your hiking fitness is good and you’ve done long day hikes before, this should be no problem.
How Long Does it Take
Hiking time can vary greatly depending on weather, experience, and how much you want to enjoy the process.
I’ve heard of people doing it in 7 hours, it took us 9-ish, and I know for many it could take 10-11 hours.
Use your own past experiences to judge how much time you will need and be sure to give yourself a minimum of 8 hours and pack headlamps in case you need to finish in the dark.
When to Hike in the Grand Canyon
The Rim to River trail in the Grand Canyon can technically be hiked year round however, the Grand Canyon gets terribly hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter. Note that it’s about 10 degrees warmer at the bottom of the canyon on average.
Average winter highs/lows: 43 degrees, 20 degrees
Average spring and fall highs/lows: 62 degrees, 34 degrees
Average summer highs/lows: 100 degrees, 75 degrees
Ideally, spring and fall are prime times to tackle the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trail. Both seasons lack huge crowds and the temperature lows aren’t as brutal for your early morning wake up call.
In the winter, you must come extra prepared with LOTS of warm layers. I would go so far as to say to bring hand/foot warmers and an emergency blanket. While the National Park Service simply recommends hiking during the middle of the day in the winter, in order to complete the Rim to River hike in 1 day, you’ll need to start relatively early in the cold in order to complete it by dusk. Quite honestly, I think this is better experienced in the winter rather than the summer.
In the summer, overheating is the main concern but you’ll just need to start really early. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the trail, descending first then ascending, you’ll have to climb out of the canyon in the midday heat. On the bright side, you’ll have water access at multiple points on the way up you’ll just have to be cautious not to push yourself to heat exhaustion.
Whatever season you’re hiking in, be sure to check the weather forecast for your trek. Check NPS website for an accurate forecast. We were just using the weather app on our phones and since the National Park is about 2,000 feet higher than the nearest town, the weather was not accurate.
Water + Bathrooms on the Trail
There are many bathrooms and drinking water stations along the trail. All of these locations have both bathrooms and water in the summer and fall (IMPORTANT: Water stations are closed in the winter).
- South Kaibab trailhead
- Bright Angel trailhead
- Cedar Ridge (mile 1.5 from South Kaibab TH)
- The Tip-Off (mile 4.4 from South Kaibab TH)
- Bright Angel Campground
- Indian Garden Campground (mile 5 from Bright Angel TH)
- 3-Mile Resthouse
- Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse
South Kaibab + Bright Angel Trail Guide
We started our hike from the South Kaibab trailhead at 7:40 am. Here you can get situated with water and bathrooms then take off on the long 3-hour descent to the canyon floor.
Quite honestly, the most beautiful section of the hike is what comes first so be sure to soak it in. You’ll reach 3 lookout points along the way. We didn’t really stop at these since you really get views for the entire descent, but for the sake of marking how far you’ve gone, Cedar Ridge is at mile 1.5, Skeleton Point is at mile 3, and the Tip-Off at mile 4.5.
Just a little while after passing the Tip-Off, the vivid green Colorado River carving through the rocky canyon will finally come into view. I consider this to be the best viewpoint on the whole hike.
Around mile 6, you’ll reach the tunnel and the bridge to cross over the Colorado River and then you’ll head left and sidle through the canyon, now on your way to the Bright Angel Trail.
At mile 7 you’ll come to Bright Angel Campground which is also the junction for Phantom Ranch. We hike at a really average speed so for reference it took us 3.5 hours to get here. Some people recommend making the .5 mile detour to grab a drink at Phantom Ranch but with how many miles we still had ahead of us, we decided to pass. Here we rested for about 30 minutes before continuing on.
It’s not long that you’ll be hiking right next to the river so appreciate the flat terrain and how up close the beautiful water and canyon walls are for the next section. At mile 8.5, you’ll veer away from the river to begin your ascent up Bright Angel.
Just over 13 miles in, you’ll reach another main resting point with water and bathrooms, Indian Garden. It took us about 2.5 hours to get here from Bright Angel junction, 6.5 hours from when we began. Here we took one last long rest before making the final 4.5 mile push to the Rim.
After a relatively boring section prior to Indian Garden, the trail gets steep and beautiful again. Just over 2 more hours of hiking brings you to the Rim. You’ll pass 2 more rest houses that also have water in the summertime. With a regular pace, you should finish just in time to see the canyon’s golden glow near sunset.
Our roundtrip time was 9.5 hours with about 1 hour of total stopping time during the hike.
Grand Canyon Hiking Pack List
- 16 oz water bottle per person
- Liquid electrolytes
- Hiking snacks (click here to see our top 10 paleo hiking snacks)
- Sun layers
- Packable puff jacket
- Thermal layer
- Puffer jacket
- Rain jacket
- Hand + Foot Warmers
- Emergency Blanket
Hope this blog helped you plan up your next big adventure in the Grand Canyon! Be sure to check out our related resources below for more tips on travel in the Southwest and if you have any questions, let us know in the comments!
- Ultimate Southwest National Parks Road Trip
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- Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
- Travel Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
- 5 Reasons to Visit Zion in the Winter
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