“Some people try and do it, but we definitely don’t recommend it. It’s very dangerous.”.
That’s the advice we got from the park ranger at the info desk when we asked about the realities of hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in one day.
We’d seen a few posters around the park in the days leading up to this, all warning of immediate and virtually guaranteed death for anyone attempting this extremely strenuous hike.
Not a massively promising start.
But there’s no way we were giving up on it that easily.
We’d read a few accounts from people who have tackled it and presumably lived to tell the tale. We could also read the elevation changes and the distances and compare it to hikes we’d done before.
So we knew it was at least possible.
What we were trying to work out was just how hard it was going to be, and whether we were being a bit too optimistic undertaking it in the first place.
We hike quite a lot, and we’re in reasonable kinda shape.
On paper, things still looked good to go.
Time To Step Things Up A Notch
We figured the resistance we’d ran into so far was probably just the National Park Service standard response to all tourists.
And fair play.
The Grand Canyon is one of the busiest National Parks in America (for obvious reasons) and if they let everyone who fancied it go down there uncontested, there wouldn’t even be enough rescue helicopters in the States to handle the response.
But the stats still looked well in our favour.
“It’s basically just like hiking down Mt Roy, but with twice the distance…and then back up again” I told Jess.
Although the thought of the similar Mt Roy style elevation change didn’t seem great, the longer distance involved gave us some small consolation. And we’d both hiked that mountain several times during our time living in Wanaka, so we knew it was do-able.
Time to get a 2nd opinion.
We decided to head to the Backcountry Information Center .
That’s the place where you need to go to get your permits if you’re planning a multi day hike in the park, and we figured the guys there might be a bit more willing to talk through our ambitious plan with us than the staff at the main visitor center.
We walk up to the desk and tell the guy “Hey, we’ve got quite an ambitious hike in mind, and we wondered if we could get your opinion on it?”.
“OK, cool! What’s your plan?”
The smile on his face is rapidly restoring our hopes of survival.
“We want to hike down to the river and back up again. And we only have a day.”
“Awesome! You should definately do it!”
We’re silent for a second while we take in his unexpected but brilliant response.
“Yeah, at the end of the day, it’s just walking.”
Easily one of the coolest guys we met on our US roadtrip and if I ever have to grow up and get a proper job, I’d wanna be just like him.
Once he’d pacified our initial concerns, we got down the the logistics of it all.
The Plan – How We Hiked The Grand Canyon In A Day
After 10 minutes of analysing maps, timetables, weather forecasts and sunrise/sunset times, we’ve got our plan.
Here’s how we did it. If you’re keen to do something similar, I’d strongly recommend going to see the Backcountry office guys before you head out. They’re really helpful and will be able to give you more up to date info, including the all important weather predictions.
As one final note of caution – we did this in the shoulder season. October is when the summer temps start to cool off and the tourist crowds are thinning out. In the summer, this hike is a different ball game and I’m not sure if I would want to attempt it in 47C heat.
There are a couple of ways you can do this hike.
There are 3 trails leading down to the bottom of the canyon – 2 from the South Rim and one from the North.
At this point on our road trip, we were on the South Rim, which is also home to Grand Canyon Visitor Center and the rest of the South Rim Village where we were looking to start our hike from.
Since we had the car, we had to make this into a loop.
Looking at the map, the logical thing seemed to be to use the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to form a kind of loop track, hopefully getting us back to the car again while maximising the amount we got to see.
At that time of the year, things are slowing down in the park, and some essential services are being shut off for the winter.
Both of the trails we wanted to use were still open, but some of the facilities along the way weren’t. Our main concern at this point was water.
We started out thinking we should take a gallon or so each. Temperatures down at the river can still get up as high as 82F in the autumn on a clear day, and we weren’t certain we’d be able to replenish our water supplies along the way.
“Don’t even worry about it. Check it out, there’s water refills here and here.”
My new favourite Park Ranger starts pointing to places on the Bright Angel trail where we can get water.
Turns out there’s no water on the South Kaibab Trail, but two potential refill spots on the Bright Angel.
So that settles the debate of which direction we go in!
We figured we’d start out going down the South Kaibab because:
a) We’d need less water going down hill. Especially since we planned to start well before sunrise.
b) At that point, we’d already have full water bottles, so probably wouldn’t need a refill.
The next problem we needed to tackle was closing the loop.
The distance between the top of the Bright Angel Trailhead and the South Kaibab Trailhead is 3.8 miles.
Not too far, but when you’ve already hiked down and up the Grand Canyon that day, it’s 3.8 miles you could do without.
Our solution was to park Sally (our much loved and very abused rental car) at the main visitor center car park in South Rim Village.
From there, we’d get the first bus of the morning going east to Yaki Point and the start of the South Kaibab Trailhead.
Bus times very depending on the season, and you can find up to date timetables and info here. If you’re planning to tackle this hike in one day, make sure you’re on this bus nice and early to give yourself plenty of time.
This map here also gives you a handy visual of the different bus routes and key places around the park. If you head into the visitor center while you’re there you can also grab a printed copy of this pocket map to keep with you.
In short, from the village you’ll need to catch the orange bus to Yaki Point. It’s shuttle busses only down this road, so leave your car at the visitor center. Just next to parking lot 1 you’ll see a row of bus stops. Jump on any orange route bus that comes along and ask the driver to let you off at the South Kaibab Trailhead.
Once you’re there, it’s just a matter of a small 4860 ft (1480 m) elevation change over a 6.3 mile (10.1 km) distance.
Distance and elevation changes by trail:
|Trail||Distance (miles/kms)||Elevation Change (ft/m)
|South Kaibab||6.3m / 10.1km||4860ft / 1480m
|Bright Angel||7.8m / 12.6km||4460ft / 1360m
|North Kaibab||14.2m / 22.9km||5850ft / 1780m
Once you surface at the top of the Bright Angel Trailhead, jump on any of the Blue Route busses and enjoy your well earned sit down.
That bus will take you right back to the car park where you first started the day.
If you make it back up in time for sunset, head to Hopi Point. It’s one of the best places for sunset and you can just about spot the faint blue dot of the Colarado River all the way down below while you wonder how the hell it’s possible that you were paddling in that just a few hours ago.
The Gear – What To Take On Your Grand Canyon Hike
Because we were starting this hike before sunrise (and in all probability, finishing after sunset) we needed to pack for a variety of situations.
When you start out the hike you’re at the rim of the canyon – 7,000ft above sea level.
That means chilly temps in the early hours of the morning. Think mid to low 30’s in Fahrenheit at that time of the year.
As you descend and make your way down to the river, you start loosing altitude pretty quickly. Couple that with the sun coming up and a clear day means that things warm up fast.
But don’t take that clear day for granted either.
The weather is very changeable, particularly in spring and autumn, and rain can come from nowhere.
Here was the packing list we put together for our day hiking the Grand Canyon:
- Hat & Gloves
- 2x 2l water bottles each
- Camera (digital camera and GoPro)
- Phone (for Spotify) and headphones
- Change of clothes in a dry bag just incase
You’ll want to start out the day with plenty of layers on. That way you can gradually peal these off as you warm up. I had a tshirt, a long sleeve tshirt, a lightweight hoody and a waterproof and windproof jacket on up top with my trusted hat keeping my head and ears warm. By the time we got to the bottom, it was 10am and I was in a tshirt.
Even when it’s cold I usually prefer to keep to just shorts on the bottom half. As long as I keep my upper body and head warm, my legs are usually working too hard to want longer trousers on.
Wondering what food to bring on your long hike?
Lightweight protein packed food and plenty of sugary energy treats are our usual hiking staples.
For this hike, we knew we didn’t want to waste time cooking, since we would need every available minute for walking! So here’s a breakdown of the food we took with us:
- Spicey salami and cheese – precut into bitesized chunks and carried in a ziplock bag
- 2 tins of tuna (ring-pull!)
- 4 corn tortila wraps
- 1 big block of chocolate
- 2 ziplock bags of trailmix
- 2 apples
- 2 mandarins
Sounds like quite a lot of food, and to be honest we probably could have gotten by with a lot less. But in my book, when you’re hiking you need all the energy and treats you can get, and I always make a habit of overpacking when it comes to food.
Over To You
Still got some questions? Ask away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to get back to you with an answer.
Have you hiked the Grand Canyon? What are your tips?