Each year, more than 6 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park. Fewer than 90% of them venture more than a mile below the rim. Only 1% make it all the way down to the Colorado River on hiking trails that begin at either the North Rim or South Rim. When someone hikes from one rim of the Grand Canyon down to the river, then up to the other rim, it’s called a rim-to-rim hike (or R2R for short).
When someone hikes from one rim of the Grand Canyon down to the river, then up to the other rim, it’s called a rim-to-rim hike.
On the first Sunday of June 2018, my wife and I took on our first rim to rim hike. We first set foot on the North Kaibab Trailhead on the North Rim at 5:20 a.m. We hiked about 15 miles (24.12 km) down to the canyon floor and across the Colorado River on a footbridge, then roughly 9 miles (14.48 km) up to the top of the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail. It took us 15 hours to go 24 miles (38.62 km) in temps as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit (46 celsius).
North Rim to South Rim hike quick stats
- Distance: 24 miles
- Highest elevation: 8,297 above sea level (North Rim)
- Lowest elevation: 2,460 feet above sea level (Phantom Ranch)
- Time: 15 hours
- Peak temp: 110° F (46 celsius)
Our first rim-to-rim hike was one we’ll cherish forever. The best feeling of all is taking that last step off the dirt trail on to the asphalt path on the rim and looking far off into the distance of the canyon to see where you just hiked from. It’s a feeling to behold for sure — a combination of triumph, relief and awe.
Although we had many experiences on our rim to rim hike that we’ll always remember, three, in particular, stand out more than the rest. They could be described as good, bad and ugly.
Good: Ribbon Falls
Good is an understatement for Ribbon Falls. It’s actually off-the-charts amazing! Thankfully, I had heard enough about and seen ample pictures of Ribbon Falls to know the extra 0.6 miles or so trek off the beaten path was worth it. I couldn’t adequately describe it to you if I tried, so I’ll let some pictures do the talking.
Although we hadn’t yet reached the peak temperatures for the day, by the time we reached Ribbon Falls at around 9 a.m., it was warm enough that the mist-cooled air provided welcome relief from the dry, desert air.
Bad: Devil’s Corkscrew
From the Colorado River in the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of the South Rim, there are two key trails that hikers can take. During warmer months, South Kaibab Trail pretty much excludes itself as an uphill option due to no water sources. The choice for most hikers is Bright Angel Trail. It offers a few rest houses with shade and drinking water, plus a spring-fed creek that crosses the trail in a few spots so you can splash yourself with water to cool off.
Bright Angel: such a pleasant name. Doesn’t it sound so peaceful and inviting? It’s definitely more enticing than the name I would give it: “8-mile Staircase”. My guess is the trail got its name from some poor, delirious soul who wandered into the first rest stop from the bottom (Indian Garden) and uttered a few words about seeing a bright light and an angel.
Bright Angel may be a misnomer for the trail overall, but Devil’s Corkscrew is spot on. It’s the nickname of the lowest section of Bright Angel, evidently coined by folks who’ve experienced it. The 3.1-mile segment of twisting and turning rock and dirt seems to go nowhere. Devil’s corkscrew is especially difficult if you hit it when the temperature is over 100º F like it was for us. And as evidence that Satan himself inspired the route, just when you think it’s leading you toward the shade of a random tree in the distance, it shifts directions and you’re heading up a steeper, more barren section in the opposite direction.
If the entirety of Bright Angel trail were a meal, think of Devil’s Corkscrew section near the canyon floor as an appetizer. A basket of hot, spicy jumbo shrimp slathered in wasabi perhaps. So hot you need two drink refills before your entree arrives. And it makes you wonder if your restaurant selection was a smart choice.
Honestly, there were moments on Devil’s Corkscrew when I thought I might die. I’m pretty sure the buzzard hovering overhead was counting on it. Thankfully, my wife was my trail angel and encouraged me with promises of rest and ice cubes if I could trudge on just a little further. Eventually, we made it to Indian Garden where we cooled off in the shade and resupplied with fresh water, then baby stepped our way up to the top of Bright Angel where it delivered us to the South Rim.
Ugly: Agony of da feet
What you are about to see — if you dare to keep scrolling — is one man’s experience: mine. I want to stress this is not the result everybody has when hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim. I attribute my damaged feet and associated pain to a rookie mistake I made during the hike. I hope you can learn from my mistake.
What mistake did I make? On the roughly 14-mile descent from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I miscalculated our location and loosened my laces a few miles too soon. Experienced hikers know that you can reduce friction (and blisters) by cinching your shoes/boots up nice and tight when you’re going downhill. Even I know that. The thing is, I thought we were farther down the trail than we actually were.
I mistakenly thought we were entering a stretch known as “the box” where it is relatively flat. The box is clearly labeled on many maps of the area, but there is no sign on the trail that says “You are entering the box.“
My feet were starting to tingle from lack of circulation, so I stopped and loosened them up a little. It remained pretty flat for the next 3/4 of a mile or so. Then, the trail started to take on a steeper downward slope.
Had I known the steeper section was going to be as long as it was, I would have stopped and tightened my laces back up. I didn’t. As a result, my feet were sliding around in my shoes more than I realized.
Little did I know, blisters were beginning to form. This continued for about three miles. Oh, and my big toe on each foot was rammed into the front of the shoes a few dozen times. I didn’t notice the relatively mild pain happening in my feet due to the adrenaline rush from our fast pace and all the beautiful distractions in the natural landscape around us.
Eventually, it became clear when we entered “the box” — a relatively narrow, flat canyon that resembled the interior of a gigantic semi-trailer with a creek running down the center of it. By this point, the damage to my feet was done, although I still didn’t know it. It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch at Phantom Ranch that I realized my feet were damaged.
After we ate, I found a comfortable bench in the shade near a vacant cabin and gingerly removed my shoes and socks. There was my fresh crop of new blisters: On the balls of both feet, one toe and one heel. As if that wasn’t bad enough, both of my big toes were also bruised. They looked like I dropped a bowling ball on each one.
Truthfully, this is the first time in my six years of serious hiking that I’ve developed blisters on my feet. I’ve had a slightly bruised toenail or two before, but nothing like this.
“Uh oh, this could be a problem,” I thought to myself. And it was. I did my best to prevent further damage by covering the blistered areas with moleskin. Then, I laid on my back and propped my feet in the air for about ten minutes to help reduce the amount of blood built up in my lower extremities.
Eventually, my very patient wife insisted it was time for us to move on. We had a couple more miles to go on relatively flat terrain and a footbridge over the Colorado River before we began the eight-mile climb to the top of the South Rim. It was when we began to ascend that we entered Devil’s Corkscrew described above.
WARNING: DO NOT keep scrolling if you have a weak stomach.
As an added buffer, here are some links to much more pleasant things you should see on AZ Wonders:
- Havasu Falls
- Fossil Creek Waterfall Trail: A refreshing oasis
- Devils Bridge Sedona, AZ
- Papago Park stands out in Phoenix
- Refreshing Rim Country experience flows from Horton Spring and Creek
My promise: gross, vile images like the ones below will not become routine features on this blog. Please learn from my mistakes and don’t let it happen to you.
Only keep scrolling if you think you can handle the sight of bare, raw, damaged feet.
Since you made it this far, you must really want to see the ugly stuff you can experience by hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Here you go:
Don’t let that last section taint your perspective of the Grand Canyon. There are so many beautiful things to see and experience when hiking the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. To prove it, I’ll leave you with one more of my favorite views from our hike.
To recap our Grand Canyon Rim-To-Rim experience:
- Ribbon Falls was good. Make that amazing!
- Devil’s Corkscrew was bad – especially for me.
- After completing the hike, my “agony of da feet” was just plain ugly.
If you’re interested in exploring the Grand Canyon, and other awesome natural wonders in Arizona, be sure to follow this blog. Soon, I’ll be sharing a post with all the details about this trip with tips on how to have the best experience possible. Plus, I’m working on a post called Ultimate Grand Canyon bucket list that you won’t want to miss.
Thanks for reading, following and sharing.