A Very Grand Canyon Thanksgiving: Backpacking Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
The best time to visit the Grand Canyon just may be in mid-Fall. On my longest out-and-back backpacking trip to date, I trekked vertical miles through riparian, desert, and subalpine climates. Montane meadows, conifer and ponderosa pine forests. Every habitat variety from Canada to Mexico was represented; as well as every season. Winter on the North Rim. Fall in the base of the canyon. Summer in the river corridor.
With some careful planning, my group met to attempt not just the famous Rim-to-Rim crossing, but an even more epic 50-mile loop through what felt, at moments, like the center of the earth and time itself.
Day 0: Leave San Francisco for overnight drive to Los Angeles; quickly unload and swap cars before continuing on to Arizona; sleep in fitful batches to excellent WWII podcast, Hardcore History with Dan Carlin; strange half-waking dreams all the way until arriving in Grand Canyon Village, AZ.
Day 1: Sunrise at Yaki Point (7,268 ft) followed by a hot breakfast at the El Tovar Hotel; leave for Bright Angel Trailhead (7,060 ft) and hike (5.6 mi) down canyon’s South Rim; set up overnight camp at Indian Gardens (4000 ft); hike out to Plateau Point for sunset viewing over the canyon (3.4 mi).
Day 2: Pack up overnight camp; leave Indian Gardens (4000 ft) and hike down remainder of canyon (5 mi), crossing the Colorado River and breaking for lunch at Phantom Ranch (2,546 ft); detour to Ribbon Falls before reaching overnight campsite (8 mi) at Cottonwood Campground (4,080 ft).
Day 3: Pack up overnight camp; leave Cottonwood Campground (4,080 ft) and hike (8 mi) up North Kaibab Trail to North Rim Campground (7,500 ft); Severe snowstorm successfully weathered by 12 hours hunkering down in tent.
Day 4: Pack up overnight camp; leave North Rim Campground (7,500 ft) and descend down North Rim of the canyon via North Kaibab Trail (15 mi) to Bright Angel Campground at Phantom Ranch (2,546 ft).
Day 5: Pack up overnight camp; leave Bright Angel Campground (2,546 ft) and cross Colorado River via South Kaibab Trail; finish canyon loop (7 mi) at South Rim Trailhead just south of Yaki Point and five miles east of Grand Canyon Village (7,268 ft); pack up car and drive for hotel in Kingman, AZ for head start on a NOAA-issued warning of a severe storm.
Day 6: Drive from Kingsman, AZ to Los Angeles, CA on the heels of a bizarre Southern California blizzard; Quickly unload and swap cars; continue on to San Francisco Bay Area in the midst of record-breaking bomb cyclone.
More than 5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year. Naturally, it’s difficult snagging an overnight permit. As we learned, the most important thing is to get a ‘foot in the door.’ Don’t hesitate to make some changes and re-apply. The park reserves permit spots for walk-ins, and inevitably some behind the reservations don’t show up. Knowing this, we weren’t overly-worried when our third-round permit application was finally returned, approved, with a red stamp header warning “aggressive itinerary.” We banked on the opportunity to amend in person, making sure to arrive before closing the night before our trip. After checking in at the Ranger Station, we ended up with a better itinerary than our first application. Woohoo! No more 17 mile days!