Grand Canyon North Kaibab Trail 10/17/2020

I woke up Saturday morning at 4:15am for the final hike of my 10 day road trip. My plan was to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon via the North Kaibab Trail. The North Kaibab Trail starts on the North Rim at 8000 feet and descends to the Colorado River at 2400 feet in about 15 miles. The North Kaibab Trail is the only trail to the bottom from the North Rim. There are multiple trails that descend into the canyon from the more touristy South Rim. The South Rim is about 1000 feet lower than the North Rim, and the trails on that side are substantially shorter. I chose the North Rim simply because I was coming from Utah. The South Rim is a much longer drive from southern Utah, as the Grand Canyon itself is a formidable barrier to car travel. It was about a 30 minute drive from my campsite in Kaibab National Forest to the trailhead. It was 27 degrees when I got out of the car, definitely colder than I was expecting. It was annoying having to bundle up so much since I knew the temperature would rise fast as the day warmed up and as I descended. The trailhead was very busy when I arrived in the dark. The lot was full, so I had to park on the road, and there were dozens of groups already there preparing for their hike. I started hiking at 5:40am from 7993 feet.

I started hiking by the light of my headlamp. There was a little light on the horizon.

There were many hikers on the trail already. All of the headlamps looked kind of eerie in the dark. At 1 mile I reached the Coconino Overlook, but obviously couldn’t see much.

It started to get light out over the next mile or so. This part of the trail was steep – I was already thinking about having to hike up this later in the day with 28 miles on my legs.

At 2.03 miles I reached the first water station. I had already descended over 1000 feet up to this point. There are water stations every few miles along this trail, as well as on the South Rim trails. This is very lame if you ask me, but I can see why they are necessary with hundreds of hikers on these trails daily. Many of the water stations on the North Kaibab Trail were currently not working (something about burst pipes). After the water station, I immediately passed through the Supai Tunnel.

The view immediately opened up after passing through the tunnel. The canyon in the picture below is Roaring Springs Canyon, a sub-canyon of the Grand Canyon. The first few miles of the trail descends Roaring Springs Canyon in a southeast direction.

The wind picked up here, but I was already shedding layers. As expected, I would only need my jackets for the first hour of the hike and then had to carry them the rest of the day. At 3 miles I crossed the Redwall Bridge.

The trail continued to descend rather steeply. Portions of the trail hugged right up against huge walls of rock.

I passed more and more hikers on my way down. It was light out, but the sun was still hidden behind the canyon walls.

At 5.04 miles I reached a junction for a short spur trail called the Roaring Springs Trail. I decided to save this spur trail for the way back if I had energy for it. I had a great view of the springs from here.

I continued descending after Roaring Springs. The scenery was really amazing. Of course, the vegetation shifted from pines and aspens to desert plants like yucca as I lost elevation.

I continued to pass hikers and eventually reached the Manzanita Ranger Station at 5.8 miles. I had already descended about 3300 feet to this point, which was well over half the total descent. This meant that the final couple miles of the return hike would be the steepest. There were bathrooms here, as well as the only functioning water spigot on the North Kaibab Trail before reaching the bottom. There were 15-20 hikers milling around here resting and refilling their water bottles.

I crossed a bridge over Bright Angel Creek right after the ranger station. Here the trail makes a 90 degree bend to the southwest where Roaring Springs Canyon meets with the much larger Bright Angel Canyon. The trail descends the rest of the way down Bright Angel Canyon to the Colorado River.

I had pretty much passed all the amateur hikers at this point, but I started to get passed by trail runners going in each direction. I knew that people did this but had no idea how many. They were everywhere. The trail continued to descend past the ranger station, but it was noticeably flatter than the preceding 6 miles. Part of the trail followed telephone lines, and the water pipes were also visible over certain sections.

I passed a trail crew and then reached Cottonwood Campground at 7.21 miles. This is the only campground on the trail before reaching the bottom. I’m sure it’s very popular, but only about half the sites looked occupied. I wondered if this was due to Covid restrictions. There was also a corral, bathrooms, a work camp (for the trail workers probably), and a day use area here. The water spigot here was not functional.

After the campground, the trail continued its gradual descent down Bright Angel Canyon. The trail paralleled Bright Angel Creek on the left side for most of the way.

At 8.47 miles I reached a junction for another short spur trail to Ribbon Falls. This trail was closed due to the bridge over the creek not being stable. The trail made a short ascent after this junction.

There is another path leading to Ribbons Falls slightly further down the trail. This path doesn’t have a bridge so you must cross the creek on foot. I figured I would save this for the return trip if I had energy.

At 10.2 miles I crossed another bridge.

The canyon started to narrow around this point.

The section from here to end of the trail is known as “The Box,” because the trail is boxed in by high, dark walls of 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist.

I would cross 4 more bridges over the next few miles.

The trail really started to feel long as I passed the 11 and 12 mile marks.

There was a distinct chill in this section, probably due to the lack of sunlight caused by the high walls and low angle of the sun this time of year.

This part was spectacular but sure seemed to take forever. I was starting to get tired and was ready to take a break at the bottom.

Down, down, down!

Eventually the narrow gorge opened up. I was very close now!

At 14.71 miles I reached Phantom Ranch. Less than a mile from the river, Phantom Ranch is a historic lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The complex consists of a bunch of cabins, a café, a corral, and an amphitheater. I’ve heard that reservations are very hard to get here – you must reserve your cabin 15 months in advance!

There were a lot of hikers hanging out here filling their water bottles and ordering from the café, called the Phantom Ranch Canteen. I continued past the buildings and reached Bright Angel Campground at 15.11 miles. This NPS campground was pretty big and the sites were right next to the creek. I’m not sure why but it was completely closed.

I walked past the campground and hiked down a short little trail to Boat Beach. I finally reached the Colorado River at 10:50am at the 15.63 mile mark! My altimeter showed 2420 feet above sea level here.

I took my shoes off and walked in the water a little bit.

There was a rafting trip getting to take off down the river.

Looking upriver I could see the impressive Kaibab Suspension Bridge.

I even saw a team of mules crossing the bridge.

I sat down on the sand and took a long break. It was the first time all day I wasn’t in the shade, so it was very hot. I’m guessing it in the mid-80s down here. I had some snacks and just enjoyed the moment. After a little while I decided to cross the river and make a small loop before heading back. I hiked up to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge.

The bridge was very cool. This is looking upriver:

And this is looking downriver. The Bright Angel Suspension Bridge can be seen in the distance.

This is looking down at Boat Beach. Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground are in the canyon on the left side of the picture.

I crossed the bridge and then hiked west on the River Trail. The River Trail connects the 2 bridges on the south side of the river. The green color of the river is due to the massive amount of sediment the river carries.

I walked for about a half mile on the River Trail and then crossed back to the north side of the river via the Bright Angel Trail Bridge.

I stopped for some more pictures on the bridge.

I walked back towards the campground and took another break before beginning the ascent. I filtered some water from Bright Angel Creek to refill my bottles. I could have just filled up at Phantom Ranch, but this was my attempt to make this hike more of a wilderness experience (difficult to do with hundreds of other hikers on the trail).

I began the return hike at 12:15pm. I knew I had about 15 miles/6000 feet to go but I was feeling pretty good. I was a little concerned about my phone battery as I was just below 50%. My GPS was having trouble in the canyon so that was definitely draining the battery faster.

I hiked back through the dark narrow walls of the Vishnu Schist.

The grade was pretty gentle on the lower half of the trail, so I made good time. I was almost in disbelief at the number of trail runners. There were hundreds of them, and I was recognizing some of them from earlier returning to the south rim. I had no idea this many people went rim to rim to rim in one day. That’s 44 miles! I’m really not used to feeling out of shape or like a tourist when I hike.

The trail was now completely in the sun, so it was very hot.

I made sure to stop and admire the scenery as much as I could.

I reached the Ribbon Falls turnoff again. I was still feeling good so decided to try to find a way across the creek. I spent a few minutes but didn’t find an easy crossing. I wasn’t too sold on this little side trip, so I gave up and returned to the main trail.

I soon made it to Cottonwood Campground again. Cottonwood is the halfway point, so I took a nice break here and filtered more water from the creek. At some point between Cottonwood and the Manzanita Ranger Station I turned off my GPS. It was draining my battery too quickly and I wanted to save my phone for any more pictures on the hike. I wasn’t worried about navigation, but I was bummed about not having the entire recording.

After passing the ranger station I decided to hike down the short Roaring Springs Trail.

I was expecting it to lead to a nice viewpoint of the springs, but it really just led nowhere. The trail reaches a bathroom and then just kind of petered out. Disappointed, I returned to the main trail and continued the ascent. It was starting to get late in the day, so the low angle of the sun was casting some cool shadows.

The last few miles were really steep. As I had expected, it was pretty difficult with nearly 30 miles on my legs already.

I didn’t see too many people the rest of the hike – a few runners on their way down and a few hikers on their way up. Most people were still below me in the canyon I figured. It was also starting to get chilly as I climbed higher. There were even some pretty fall colors on the upper part of the trail.

I stopped briefly at the Coconino Overlook before finishing. I think the peak visible way in the distance beyond the South Rim is Humphreys Peak. Humphreys Peak, located near Flagstaff, is the state high point of Arizona. I climbed the 12,635 foot peak during my 2 week road trip in August 2018.

I slowly made my way up the final mile and reached the car at 6:10pm. What a hike! The whole hike had spectacular views and I was impressed with myself for the physical accomplishment. The hike took me exactly 12.5 hours car to car. I’m not sure the exact mileage but think I turned off my GPS with about 6 miles to go so the total was probably about 33 miles. Elevation gain was probably around 6200 feet.

It was finally time to start heading home. It was late and I was exhausted so only drove about 2 hours before stopping for the night. I parked just south of Utah State Route 59 near Hurricane (you have to drive back into Utah to get to I-15). I woke up early the next day and made the long drive home to San Diego.

What an amazing trip. It was hard to believe all of the incredible places I saw and all of the great hikes I did. I feel like I saw more in 10 days than some people will see in their lifetimes. Utah is really a beautiful state and I can’t wait to go back and explore more.

Trip Stats

10 days
9 Nights
2111 miles driven (211 miles/day)
151 miles hiked (almost 19 miles/day)
32,000 feet of elevation gain (4000 feet/day)
4 states
4 national parks
3 national park high points
2 national monument high points
2 wilderness high points
1 national forest high point
34 peaks total (from the Peakbagger database)
2 restaurant meals
$0 spent on accommodations

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