South Kaibab Trail
Grand Canyon National Park
April 2009

Distance (round trip):   12 miles
Elevation loss/gain:   4,620 feet
Average grade:   15 percent

There are only two maintained trails into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. The most popular is the Bright Angel Trail; its trailhead is located very close to Grand Canyon Village and the hotels. The other option is the South Kaibab Trail. It is less used than Bright Angel, for a few reasons: it's located further away; no water is available, and there is very little shade; it is, on average, 40% steeper than Bright Angel; it starts out 500 feet higher, so there is even more of an elevation change. However, the South Kaibab Trail has one big advantage: better views. The trail follows a ridgeline instead of a natural fault. Translation: it's out in the open, instead of being boxed in.

The Park Service will tell you that you should not attempt to hike down to the river and back in one day, especially from May through September. A sobering statistic is that they have to rescue more than 250 people a year, some of them day hikers who overestimated their abilities. However, a day hike to the river is possible if you've trained sufficiently well and have sufficient experience. The gotcha is in that pesky word "sufficient." If you want to read about potential pitfalls, and my preparations, they're at the bottom of this page.

For all of my planning, I started late, and didn't get to the trailhead until 6:30 am. It would have been better to start at sunrise (around 5:45) or even at dawn. However, I was lucky; temperatures were slightly below normal, there was a gentle breeze and dry weather was predicted.

Near the trailhead, after sunrise but still early morning:

You don't have to hike very far to get a different perspective than from the top:

At Cedar Ridge (scroll right to see the entire picture). The field of view into the canyon is awesome. Sorry about the black areas; I was unsteady on my feet while taking this landscape photo.

An early glimpse of the river:

Mules have been hard on the Grand Canyon trails. Some areas were much worse than this, with 18 inch drop offs, and metal rebars sticking into the air. Shortly after my hike, the trail was temporarily closed to mules, and much needed reconstruction began.

Some much appreciated color along the way:

At this point, I really felt like I was in the canyon, not just looking down into it.

Bird's eye view of Black Suspension Bridge:

Almost there!

This is the tunnel that leads to the Black Suspension Bridge:

I was about to cross when a supply mule train appeared. I had to back up and wait for it to cross. I then returned to this point...and another supply train appeared. Sigh!

I think I was on the bridge at this point, taking a picture of the Silver Suspension Bridge:

Finally across, and looking back:

It took me 2 hours 58 minutes to get across the river. Before I started, I had promised myself that I'd turn around after 3 hours. So, even though it was an easy 20 minute hike to Phantom Ranch, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, took a 15 minute break, then turned around. Against advice, I went back up on the South Kaibab Trail, instead of the easier Bright Angel Trail. My reasoning: I'd save a couple of miles, and I'm strange in that I greatly prefer hiking up hill to down hill. Crazy or not, it worked out well. Time to hike back up: 3 hours and 10 minutes.

Total time 6 hours, 23 minutes
Water (and Gatorade) carried 5.5 liters (1 liter left at end of hike)
Food LOTS of very salty nuts, and a bunch
of snack bars
Trekking poles? Absolutely yes!

Why You Should Not Do This Hike
If you ask the park rangers, they'll tell you not to do this hike in one day. If you ask almost anyone who's done it, they'll tell you not to do this hike in one day. If you ask me, I'll tell you not to do this hike in one day. So why did I do this hike?

Because I didn't have to ask.

OK, that's a wise ass answer - but it also contains a lot of truth. Before attempting this as a day hike, you need to know you can do it. This involves a lot of preparation, and a lot of experience. I have neither the desire nor the ability to write a comprehensive treatise on what is required, but here are some key considerations:
(1) Aerobic fitness.
(2) Stamina. This isn't a perfect analogy, but how would your legs feel if you were to walk up the stairs of a four hundred story building?
(3) Comfort at altitude (7,000 feet). The large majority of people are fine, but find that even moderate exercise causes them to breath heavily. This makes aerobic fitness even more important.
(4) Experience with hikes that go down hill first, then up hill at the end. For most people, going up hill is much more difficult; for this hike, that occurs when you're already a little tired from hiking down.
(5) Experience with large elevation changes. It's not the distance that's the issue; it's the elevation change. Before I started serious day hikes, a change in elevation of 1,500 feet sounded like nothing. However, the first time I tried it, I was tired! The elevation change for this hike is three times that.
(6) Your shoes. Shoes are critical. Shoes that have been great for flat hikes may still be terrible for hikes like this. Toes hitting the front of the shoe as you walk down hill can result in severe pain, or loss of toenails.
(7) Food and drink. Eating food is important; drinking enough water is critical; getting enough salt/minerals is critical. Get the food part wrong and you may get exhausted or sick. Get the water or salt/minerals part wrong and you may be in serious danger.
(8) Weather. In the winter, it will be cold and the trail may be icy at the top. In the warmer months, it may be blisteringly hot as you near the bottom.

I give up; there are just too many items. I don't mean to scare you off, as it's a great experience to hike below the rim. It's just that too many people underestimate the difficulties and dangers. If you decide it sounds feasible, listen to your body, and be prepared to cut the hike short well before you get tired. After all, even walking down a mile or two will provide a great experience.

My Preparations for the Hike
I started visiting the desert Southwest in 2004, and fell in love with hiking and (rock) scrambling, along with a tiny bit of rock climbing (at which I really suck). Since then, I've taken several trips annually, hiking or scrambling at least a 10 - 15 days each year. I've gotten used to the desert, and am constantly vigilant about water, minerals, food, temperature, name it.

I'm 56 years old, and have been lucky with my health so far. I'm a fanatic with respect to aerobic exercise, using my exercise bike a huge amount - slowly building up to 18 to 20 hours per week right before trips. This exercise is done at very high resistance rates as well (to brag a bit, I keep having to have the metal gear chain replaced, as I stretch it out of shape; the mechanic says this normally only happens in gyms, not in homes). Prior to trips, I also start walking, then jogging, in hiking shoes. This exercises muscles the bike doesn't, and gets me used to high impact activities.

I was interested in a day hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and back. I knew I had the above in my favor, plus a couple of other factors. One is that, probably because of the kind of exercise I do, I much prefer hiking up to hiking down - I have the aerobic capacity and stamina, and it's easier on the knees. Secondly, I had never gotten really tired out by a hike - by scrambles yes, but not by hikes. Thirdly, I had hiked at even higher elevations without distress.

Even given this, I wasn't about to try a one day hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. Instead, I tried a hike at the North Rim, down a little way past Roaring Springs (10+ miles; just over 3000 foot elevation change). It was early in September, when it's still a touch warm. I found it strenuous but not overly so, and had energy at the end of the hike.

The following year (April 2009), I returned to the southwest. As a final test, I tried a scramble that I deemed to be harder than my upcoming hike in the Canyon. The scramble didn't exhaust me, and I had no sore muscles the next day. Time for the real thing!