If you’ve ever made it past the tourist-dotted rim and decided to make the great descent into the giant hole in the ground (better known as the Grand Canyon) you can attest to the ample signage discouraging hikers from trying to make it to the Colorado River and back in a single day. Actually, discourage is an understatement. Just take a look at this sign, which blatantly tells hikers NOT to attempt this strenuous hike (strenuous being a euphemism for deadly).
Or this sign…
“Hiking to the Colorado River and back in one day is not recommended due to long distance, extreme heat, and a nearly 5,000-foot (1,500m) elevation change. If you think you have the fitness and expertise to attempt this extremely strenuous hike, please seek advice from a park ranger at the Backcountry Information Center.”
Don’t worry — your dreams aren’t dead yet. Remember, the title of this article is not “Should You Hike To The River And Back?” The question is — is it possible?
The short answer is yes, it’s absolutely possible. The National Park Service (NPS) advises against it, but that doesn’t mean an experienced endurance hiker such as yourself can’t manage the task.
Notice how I mentioned nothing of intelligence here…
There are signs warning against this type of hike for a reason. According to the NPS, over 250 people are rescued from within the canyon each year, many they say look just like this seemingly athletic gentlemen.
“A surprising majority of victims rescued from the Grand Canyon are young, healthy males between the ages of 18 and 43 attempting to hike to the river and back in one day.”
What I will say is that nearly 5,000,000 tourists visit the Grand Canyon every year. If the National Park Service just let anybody go down there without warning the public of the serious dangers first, they’d wind up flying rescue choppers in and out of there each and every day.
When in doubt, visit the Backcountry Information Center to understand the logistics of the journey.
Hiking from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the edge of the Colorado River and back up again is not for the faint of heart. But if you do decide to take the plunge, here are some parachute suggestions.
What do I mean by parachute suggestions?
If you’re 13,000 feet in the air and somebody suggests that after you jump you pull your parachute — well, you pull your parachute!
The same applies to the suggestions below — they’re non-negotiable.
8 Tips For Hiking Down To The River And Back In One Day
1. Do not attempt this hike during the hot summer months (May-September).
The best months for completing this hike are March and October.
Leave your masochism at home, folks. I know you love pushing the limits and might find pleasure amidst the pain, but for goodness sake save it for winter!
If you do decide this hike is for you, at least plan this endeavor when the temperatures are not exceeding 90 degrees.
Besides the obvious reasons why hiking 15+ miles in extreme heat is unsafe, this endeavor becomes particularly dangerous because of how quickly problems can arise.
The relentless heat of the Arizona sun causes perspiration to evaporate from your body almost instantly. If you’re thinking, “Great, no sweat marks!” that’s where you’d be wrong.
If you’re not visibly sweating, you may be less inclined to drink water. Before you know it the headache hits and it’s too late, you’re already dehydrated.
2. Visit the Backcountry Information Center well before you plan to hike.
Some hikers avoid heading to the Backcountry Information Center because they think their dreams of hiking the full depth of the Grand Canyon will be crushed. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Hiking from the rim to the river and back up is not forbidden, it’s frowned upon.
Soliciting the advice of an experience park ranger is always a good idea. They’ll be more than willing to help you plan your route.
Just remember to be completely transparent with them about any health issues you may have and take their advice seriously.
The staff at the Backcountry Information Center can point out where to fill up on water, and more importantly can give you up-to-date information on expected weather conditions on the day of your hike.
3. Start preparing for your hike in advance.
Again, this is where talking to an expert will benefit you greatly. Don’t just get up one morning and say, “Hey! I think I’ll hike the Grand Canyon today!” Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.
You should be training well before you endeavor this hike — cardio and weights. Building your endurance and strengthening your core and leg muscles might mean the difference between an enjoyable hike and a hike from hell.
People who have completed this trek also say you should eat calorie heavy on the days leading up to the hike.
4. Pack light, but don’t skimp on food and water.
Before you start throwing a bunch of stuff you think might need to go in your backpack, take a look at this packing list and ask yourself if that stick of deodorant and all your camera gear is really worth the weight. You’d be surprised how fast the pounds can add up.
• Headlamp w/ extra batteries
• Sun hat or baseball cap
• Pair of extra socks
• 2 x 2 liter water bottles
• Light raincoat
• Change of clothes in a water-locked bag
• Phone and a small digital camera
• Sunscreen if you are particularly sensitive to the sun
• Very small first-aid kit with the basics
As far as clothing goes — start the trip with extra layers on the top half of your body, like a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hoodie and perhaps a light jacket if it’s really cold. Depending on the time of year, shorts on the bottom should be fine as your legs will be plenty warm from all the work they’ll be doing!
5. Eat Often, Rest Often
You’ll see this posted on most of the signs at the Grand Canyon. Rest every half hour for 5-10 minutes.
Eating often and resting often is of the utmost importance. Seek shade whenever possible, and include high-calorie, salty snacks in your backpack. The goal is to nibble on something throughout the day, not to stuff yourself to the point of being uncomfortable. If you do that you’re likely to lose your lunch like the guy featured on the sign above.
Even if you’re not hungry or you don’t feel like stopping, do it anyways. You’ll thank me later.
While taking breaks is imperative, keep them brief otherwise you might find yourself hiking the last miles of your hike in the dark. Which isn’t the end of the world if you packed your headlamp as suggested above, but remember you have to have a permit to be in the park overnight. A park ranger might stop you and you could be fined. It’s unlikely if you explain your situation, but plan for about 4 to 5 hours on the descent and 7 to 8 on the ascent. This adds up to a total of 11-14 hours depending on your pace.
Expending that kind of energy requires a lot of calories. Here are some suggestions on what to pack for food:
• Trail mix
• Sandwich wraps
• Salted nuts
• Pre-packaged & sealed meals
• …don’t bring anything that can go bad!
6. Get Wet, Cool Down
If you see a location where you can fill up water or where water has collected naturally from the rain, get your hat, bandana or t-shirt damp to help keep you cool. Most definitely do this when you reach the river.
Whatever you do, don’t waste your precious drinking water on dampening your clothes. If you see water, use it. Otherwise just focus on staying hydrated by drinking your water, not pouring it all over yourself.
Another tip? Peppermint oil! While it might not do anything to actually decrease your body temperature, when rubbed into the back of your neck it gives the illusion of being cool. Just don’t get it in your eyes or any other sensitive areas, in which case more than just your legs will be burning!
7. Drink Up
Speaking of water — keep one water bottle in your hand at all times and continue to take short sips throughout the duration of your hike, regardless if you’re thirsty or not. This parachute suggestion doesn’t need too much emphasis because it’s one of the more obvious of the bunch.
Nevertheless, the mistake most people make is thinking that because they aren’t sweating or out of breath, they don’t need any water and that they should conserve it.
While you shouldn’t chug your water supply in the first mile, you should keep your mouth moist by taking small sips often and refilling at every opportunity.
8. Keep track of time by taking pictures on the trail.
Take time stamped pictures to keep track of your pace. It will give you an idea of where you are in the canyon and how long it’s taking you to complete each mile.
According to the National Park Service, most first-time Grand Canyon hikers walk uphill at an average speed of one mile per hour.
If you’re planning on a hike like this, I assume you’re somewhat of an experienced hiker, so you could probably average closer to about 1.5-1.75 miles per hour. At 14.1 miles round trip, you should be on the first 5 a.m. bus to Yaki Point.
*Add an extra 2 miles or so if you want to check out Phantom Ranch at the river, which would make the trip closer to 18 miles — they have snacks, coffee and lemonade!
Matt Burns — a former marketing guy turned world traveler — completed the hike successfully!
When Matt and his hiking partner got some initial advice from a park ranger at the info desk about the realities of hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again, the response was a bit discouraging. “Some people try and do it, but we definitely don’t recommend it. It’s very dangerous.”
They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they also knew it was at least possible and decided to try their luck anyway. But not without making the proper preparations first.
Their next stop was the Backcountry Information Center, where they met a mega-cool park ranger who helped them plan out their arduous enterprise into the canyon.
It only took about 10 minutes of surveying maps, timetables and weather reports to come up with a blueprint for their excursion.
As you can see from this handy-dandy map provided by the National Park Service, there are three trails to the bottom of the canyon — two from the South Rim (South Kaibab & Bright Angel Trailheads) and one from the North Rim (North Kaibab Trailhead). I would say the majority of people attempting this hike start out at the South Rim Village.
Follow in Matt’s footsteps and take the steps listed below to complete your hike. At your own risk, of course! Check out his full story here.
How To Hike The Grand Canyon From Rim To River To Rim Again In One Day
1. Use the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to form a loop.
Descent route — South Kaibab
Ascent route — Bright Angel
Why? Because the Bright Angel trail provides opportunities to fill up on water — more important on the hike up.
This is yet another reason why you should visit the Backcountry Information Center before embarking on your journey — they know where the water is!
2. Park your car at the South Rim Village and take the Orange Bus Route to Yaki Point — ask the driver to let you off at South Kaibab Trailhead.
You can find up-to-date timetables and info here. Hint: Get there early if you want to finish this hike by Christmas. The first bus leaves at 5 am.
3. Hike 4860 feet and 6.3 miles (1480 meters and 10.1 kilometers) down to the river!
4. If you’re brave (might be cold), take a much-deserved dip into the crisp blue water of the Colorado River. Don’t get your shoes and socks wet, you’ll regret it horribly.
5. Start your ascent up Bright Angel Trailhead. Feel the burn for 7.8 miles and 4460 feet uphill (12.6 kilometers/1360 meters)!
6. Kiss the ground because you’ve made it back to the top and live to tell the tale.
7. Hop on the Blue Bus Route back to South Rim Village and back to civilization…and your car.
That’s it folks! I’ve thoroughly warned you of the risks, provided you with tips, shared Matt’s story and the steps he took to complete the hike. Now it’s up to you to get out on the trail and give it your best shot. Worst case scenario you’ll have to be helicoptered out of the park and will be scorned by the National Park Service for disregarding their sincere warnings. I’ll leave you with my personal advisory…
WARNING: partaking in this rim-to-river-to-rim-again trek may result in blisters, joint pain, dehydration, a devastating crush to your ego, wanting to throw yourself off the ledge, killing your hiking partner, throwing a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old and post-hike paralysis.
Comment below with any questions you may still have or if you’ve completed this hike yourself and have more advice to share! We’d love to hear from you. Happy trails!