Classic Hikes of the World: Grand Canyon

An excerpt from Peter Potterfield's new book on the world's best hiking routes
By Peter Potterfield - September 2nd, 2005

  • Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim
  • Arizona, USA
  • Distance: 44 miles round trip, 5-7 days, strenuous

A natural feature big enough to be seen from space, the Grand Canyon is one much better enjoyed at closer quarters. From within, the staggering architecture and sheer scale of the canyon can be exhilarating, even humbling. The rocks at the bottom are 2 billion years old, at the top 5 million, creating a slice through geologic time that defies belief. To walk down through this epic historical record, strata by strata--from Kaibab Limestone to Coconino Sandstone to Bright Angel Shale, right down to the Vishnu complex of the Colorado River--is to take a foot journey unlike any other.

Clearly, the best way to avoid the crowds in this sprawling, 1.2-million-acre park is to hit the trail. Fewer than one percent of the millions of visitors each year dare to venture a significant distance below the rim. And that's where the magic is. While truly wild country elsewhere in the canyon can test the mettle of even the most experience desert hiker or canyoneer, the so-called "corridor" trails at the Grand Canyon--South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel--are another matter. These routes afford an opportunity to experience this geologic wonder in an intimate way, but with a degree of safety--with reliable water, known conditions, and good trails.

Any walk in the Grand Canyon is going to rate pretty high on the Richter Scale of hikes if only because of the scenery, but to appreciate the canyon, and the forces that created it, you've got to see the river that carved it, the opposing rims, and feel firsthand the dramatic climate shifts between the two. This strategy allows for a few extra days to experience the spiritual embrace of the canyon walls--the ambience here deserves some savoring--and to explore new ground as one takes an entirely different route back to the South Rim.

Most hikesr who come to the park arrive through Las Vegas, probably the easiest city to reach by air, or Phoenix. Both are about five hour's drive from Grand Canyon National Park and its headquarters for visitors, the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village.

The 44-mile route recommended here starts from the South Rim, the hike follows the South Kaibab Trail (the best, shortest and most direct route from rim to river) seven miles down through the layer-cake of the canyon to the Colorado River, crossing via the Black Bridge to Bright Angel Camp. From there, the North Kaibab Trail rises seven miles to Cottonwood Camp, and the following day ascends steeply seven more miles to the North Rim. From the North Rim, the route retraces itself down to Bright Angel Camp (14 miles) before crossing the Colorado on the "Silver" Bridge (downstream of the Black Bridge). From the river it ascends to the South Rim via the nine-mile Bright Angel Trail, a better, less rigorous route than the South Kaibab for climbing out.

More than 250 hikers are rescued each year in the Grand Canyon, with most incidents resulting from heat related problems, poor fitness or dehydration. Temperatures in the inner canyon can take hikers by surprise because rim temperatures can be 20 or 30 degrees cooler, so plan your hike for spring or fall to avoid the heat.


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