There’s no better way to experience the Grand Canyon than to hike from rim to rim and back again in winter. Backpacking from one side of the canyon to the other is quite an undertaking but well worth the effort. Though it may surprise you, the best time for this hike is winter, when you can avoid the crowds and the heat. Solitude and nature abound on this adventure of a lifetime.
WHY HIKE IN WINTER
This hike can be done any time of the year but there are several reasons why winter is best:
• No crowds: The Grand Canyon is the second most-visited National Park. Beat the crowds and enjoy the park to yourself by hiking in winter.
• Favorable weather: If you have ever hiked in the canyon before you know how hot and exhausting the hike back up can be. In winter, cooler temperatures make for favorable hiking conditions.
• Easy to obtain backcountry permits: Each year the park receives over 30,000 requests for backcountry permits and only 13,000 permits are granted. No need to request a permit months in advance; hike in the winter and you won’t have to worry about permits being unavailable. On my trip, I adjusted my itinerary mid-hike and the rangers had no problem moving around my campsite reservations.
• 5 days, 4 nights
• 44.5 miles (71.6 km)
• 10,100 feet (3,078 m) of elevation gain
The hike begins at the South Rim and follows the South Kaibab Trail down to the Colorado River. After crossing the river, you will continue along the North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim. Having completed half of the hike, the return journey will take you back down the North Kaibab Trail to the river. From the river, you may choose to return to the South Rim the way you came (via the South Kaibab Trail) or take the Bright Angel Trail. The latter will showcase another area of the canyon with different views and a quick side hike to the spectacular Plateau Point.
This is the itinerary from my rim to rim to rim hike in December, 2017. Check out the video for an in-depth look of the hike!
South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground
7.0 miles (11.3 km) and 4,700 feet (1,430 m) of elevation loss
We parked our car at the Backcountry Information Center at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. We checked in at the office with our permits and made sure we knew which water sources were running; during the winter months many water stations are shut off. From the office we took the free park bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead. We followed the trail all the way down to the Colorado River, crossed the river, and camped at Bright Angel Campground.
Notes: Phantom Ranch is adjacent to Bright Angel Campground and could be used as an alternative to camping. The ranch can book up a year in advance so plan accordingly.Phantom Ranch also offers a Canteen with snacks, meals, and supplies.
Seasoned hikers may opt to condense this itinerary and continue an additional 7.2 miles to Cottonwood Campground.
Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Campground
7.2 miles (11.6 km) and 1,540 feet (470 m) of elevation gain
From Bright Angel Campground we followed the North Kaibab Trail past Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground. About 1.5 miles before the campground is a short 0.5 mile trail to Ribbon Falls. I highly recommend this side hike; the falls were one of our trip highlights and it’s the perfect spot for lunch or a snack.
Note: The water was shut off at Cottonwood Campground but the Bright Angel Creek runs next to camp. We purified water from the creek.
Cottonwood Campground to North Rim and Back
13.8 miles (22.2 km) and 4,200 feet (1,280 m) of elevation gain
From Cottonwood Campground we continued up the North Kaibab Trail climbing 4,200 feet to the North Kaibab Trailhead at the North Rim. Along the way we passed Coconino Point which boasts spectacular views of the canyon and even the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. From the North Rim we returned to Cottonwood Campground the way we came. This was our longest day in terms of distance and elevation gain.
Notes: Because we were returning to Cottonwood Campground, we left our packs at camp and only took water and food for a much easier hike.
The water was shut off at the North Kaibab Trailhead but we were able to refill our water at the North Rim Administration Office.
Though the North Rim is closed in the winter, camping is still allowed. You could choose to camp here for the night but be aware that the North Rim is at a higher elevation than the South Rim and can be much colder and snowier.
Cottonwood Campground to Indian Gardens Campground
12.0 miles (19.3 km) and 1,320 feet (402 m) of elevation gain
We continued backtracking along the North Kaibab Trail all the way to Bright Angel Campground and the Colorado River. From the river we split away from the Kaibab Trails and headed up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden Campground. If you still have energy after reaching camp, there is a three-mile round-trip hike to Plateau Point which showcases jaw-dropping views of the canyon and river below, another trip highlight.
Note: From the river you could return to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail, the same way you came down.
Indian Garden Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead
4.5 miles (7.2 km) and 3,040 feet (925 m) of elevation gain
From Indian Garden Campground we continued up the trail to the Bright Angel Trailhead and the South Rim. It was a short walk from the trailhead to the Backcountry Information Office parking lot. The free park bus also could have taken us back to the office.
Note: If you are too tired the day before to visit Plateau Point, I highly recommend taking that side trip on this last morning.
BEFORE YOU GO
• Backcountry permits must be obtained for camping overnight in the canyon. During the winter, permits are easy to come by, though you should still apply for them as soon as you know your trip itinerary—Indian Garden Campground is very popular and can still fill up.
• In the winter water is shut off at many locations on the trail. You will most likely need to purify water at some point on your hike. Check the park website and with rangers before you begin your hike for accurate information on water sources. To purify water, we used LifeStraw Personal Water Filter and the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System. Other popular alternatives is Aquamira Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment and my new favorite, the Katadyn BeFree.
• There are restrooms located along the trail but you will be hiking for long hours each day. Should you need to relieve yourself along the trail, follow Leave No Trace methods.
• Pay attention to the weather. Temperatures vary in the canyon; the floor of the canyon can be 15°F warmer than the rim so pack your clothes accordingly. Snow and rain are also a factor. Check the weather before your trip and ask the park rangers as they have the most accurate forecasts.
• For less experienced hikers or those unsure of their abilities, there is (at the time of this writing) a guided tour offered that follows this itinerary.
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