Rim-to-River-and-Back Day Hike in the Grand Canyon

Planning on a rim-to-river-and-back day hike in the Grand Canyon? Here are 5 things you need for an enjoyable hike - Good weather, layered clothing, lots of food and water, decent hiking poles and great company. You can get everything you need for the hike on Amazon.com with the exception of the first and the last one (Who knows, Amazon may be working on the last one too ;) While there are several other precautions we took and tips I can share, the above 5 elements immensely contributed to a fun day hike. 

Hiking the Grand Canyon

When you are talking about hiking ~16.5 miles for 12+hours in the canyon, handling an elevation change of ~4,500 ft twice, you better be praying for good weather on the day of the hike. We chose April 1st (for real!) as we did not want to handle the heat, and hoped it wouldn't snow. Luckily for us, the weather was gorgeous on the day, though it snowed the night before.

If you are planning to take the first shuttle of the Hiker's Express from Bright Angel Lodge, you would most likely start the hike right before sunrise. The timings of the shuttle vary each month, so it is best to check here in advance. At an elevation of ~7,000 ft, it would most likely be cold when you begin the hike. It would get hotter as the day progresses but would get cold again after sunset, so it is best to dress in several layers that you can add/remove as per the weather. Remember, it is a full day's hike, so you don't want to be stuck in thermals the entire day or lug around heavy jackets throughout the hike. In addition to dressing in layers, it is best to carry gloves and woolen socks as they help you handle the cold in the mornings and evenings without adding a lot of weight to your bag.

If you have spent a summer in Arizona before, you already know you have to drink water every 10 minutes to survive :). If you are new to Arizona, remind each other in your group to keep sipping on water as they say if you wait till you feel thirsty, its probably late already! Also, drinking lots of water helps ease up muscle cramping, something I learned recently. I bought a hydration backpack which helped me to easily take frequent sips of water throughout the hike (3 liter pack is recommended).

Good food helps you go a long way, so pack in your favorite high-carb diet. Throw in a couple of bananas, energy bars, some salt (yes, eating salt helps you to stay hydrated!), nuts and some protein shake, if that's how you roll. Chocolate GU Energy Gel was my thing (my husband's recommendation) and it worked beautifully for me. Don't forget to load on extra carbs the day before the hike. Trust me, it helps!

If there is one thing I could convince you to purchase for this hike, it would be decent hiking poles. We bought these and they worked well, reducing the impact on the knees while going down and providing additional support while going up. I also invested in lightweight hiking shoes and Injinji toesocks, both of which worked well I would say, as my feet were happy and blister-free at the end of the hike. I also used Bodyglide Anti-Chafe balm on my feet, so I am not sure which one to attribute the lack of blisters to. Go for the combination, I would say :) Hiking shoes with good tread are also helpful on steep slopes, especially when it rains or snows the previous night.

It is best to have these items ready a month or two in advance, so you can do some practice hikes to make sure you are comfortable with them. These practice hikes will also help in setting the pace for your group. Now that you have everything you need for the hike, let's talk some logistics. 

We stayed the night before in the town of Tusayan at the Canyon Plaza Resort. We had low expectations after reading some of the reviews, but we got an upgraded suite and it turned out to be pretty good. We got up quite early the next morning and queued up at the Bright Angel Lodge bus stop by 5:30 am to make sure we catch the first 6 am Hiker's Express shuttle. We planned to take the South Kaibab Trail while going down and the Bright Angel Trail while coming up. South Kaibab Trail is relatively shorter and steeper, more open and does not offer any shade. Bright Angel Trail is a well-maintained trail with regular drinking water stations and rest-houses, so you can refill your water and get the much needed rest breaks on your  way up. 

We reached the South Kaibab Trail head around 6:30 am and started our hike at the break of the dawn. The ~6.5 mile trail offers wide great views of the Grand Canyon and is usually crowded for the first couple of miles. As you go further, the crowd gets thinner and by the time you reach the river, you only see a few other groups. The Trail is steep with several switchbacks and at a decent pace, it takes about 4 hours to reach the river, rest-room breaks included.

South Kaibab Trail
View of the Colorado River

Suspension Bridge

Once we reached the Colorado river and crossed the suspension bridge, there is a little sandy area by the river where you can sit and relax. After a good brunch break, we decided to head to Phantom Ranch which is a 0.25 mile (one-way) detour. Here, you can get some cool lemonade, grab some food, refill your water, use the restrooms and most importantly, post some greeting cards home. These will be carried by mule on the last official mail-by-mule route in the country out of the Grand Canyon before reaching your home.

Pretty cool, ain't it? Not sure if the mules think the same!

After having a good time at the Phantom Ranch, we headed back to take the ~9.5 mile Bright Angel Trail. The first couple of miles are flat and you can see the white water rafting groups on the Colorado river. It is followed by some steep switchbacks and another relatively flat mile with some shade. This portion of the hike surprised us with some greenery and spring flowers. We then reached the Indian-Garden rest house where we took a long break and loaded up on some carbs and electrolytes, for the remaining ~4.5 miles is where the fun is about to begin :)

White Water Rafting on Colorado River

Greenery in the Grand Canyon

Red Rocks shining in the Sun

Now, brace yourself. You are about to gain ~3,000 ft elevation in the next ~4.5 miles with several switchbacks which may seem never-ending. This is where all the practice you have done will help. Maintain a steady pace, take some breaks and make good use of your hiking poles. Sing songs, share some stories and laughs with your friends, say hello to fellow hikers and in a few hours, you will reach the Bright Angel lodge in time for a hearty dinner. Don't forget to pack a headlamp in case you don't get to the top before sunset. It can get real dark in the canyon, and you won't find a lot of people of the trail after sunset.

Bright Angel Trail

If you are reasonably fit, with some good practice and planning, this could be an enjoyable, though strenuous, day hike with a good group of friends (remember, you are stuck with them in the canyon for the entire day without cellphone service!). Avoid hiking in extreme weather conditions and don't let the towering canyon wall staring in your face on your way up intimidate you. Trust in yourself, in your friends, in your practice and preparation and enjoy the views and the hike. You will get to the top, eventually. As the warning sign at the beginning of the hike rightly points out, "Going down is optional but coming back up is mandatory!"  Choose wisely. Happy and safe hiking!


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