How long Does it Take to Walk Down the Grand Canyon
Like many of the questions about Grand Canyon, this one has several different and nuanced answers. Will you travel by foot, mule, or helicopter? How much gear might you be carrying? Are you a fit hiker, or is this your first time? Are you approaching from North Rim or South Rim? The Goat is here to break down all of these options!
Let’s begin with the most popular, and easily the most rewarding style of travel in Grand Canyon; a good old-fashioned, one foot in front of the other journey into the depths of time and space.
Some Advice before you Begin
First and foremost, the National Park Service (and The Goat) advises that nobody, under any circumstances, should attempt the hike from rim-to-river and back in one day. Attempting to hike rim-to-river and back in a day has resulted in many deaths over the years, along with countless cases of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and severe dehydration among other delightful afflictions. Before we get into the fun, fabulous parts of hiking in Grand Canyon, we must first be clear about this practice.
Inverted Mountains Are Sneaky
Grand Canyon Hikers must remember one mantra; going down is optional, coming up is mandatory. The NPS must execute hundreds of rescues each year on hikers that run into trouble. Grand Canyon is a hostile, dry, and unforgiving place that yields no mercy. Summertime temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees, there is little water on any trails, and even less shade.
Hiking in Grand Canyon is often referred to as “hiking a mountain in reverse”. That is, your descent comes first, while your ascent is how you must finish. This can fool hikers easily, as walking down is an easy, breezy, view-saturated adventure that can quickly get out of hand. Many hikers that find trouble simply started walking down the trail, suddenly realizing that they are five miles down having barely broken a sweat.
Perhaps the most potentially dangerous thing about undertaking any hike in Grand Canyon is the particular lack of water. Many hikes the world over cross numerous streams, have shade, and/or easy access to clean, potable water. This is not the case in Grand Canyon, as water sources are extremely limited. Two South Rim hikes (Tanner, South Kaibab) have no accessible water source of any kind until the Colorado River.
Other South Rim trails (Hermit, Bright Angel) have access to water along the trail, but not for at least 3.5 miles. Always carry plenty of water when hiking in Grand Canyon. The Goat recommends a minimum of 3L/person, no matter the distance of the hike.
Much like the sneakiness of the inverted mountain, things in Grand Canyon tend to appear much closer than they actually are. At times it feels as though you could literally reach out and touch the Colorado River, or even just a portion of trail beneath you. Go to Desert Watchtower on the East Rim. From the Tanner Trail, you are presented with an astonishing view of the mighty Colorado, a unique rim view in Grand Canyon. Though the river is over 9 miles away by trail, an optical illusion is presented that makes the river feel close.
This is a difficult lesson for many hikers in Grand Canyon. Our destination is just right over there! It looks so close! Believe us, it is not. Between the necessarily winding trail, the relentless sun, the lack of water, and the absence of shade, something that optically appears close becomes seemingly further away in reality. Remember that the scale presented to your senses in Grand Canyon is typically unlike anything you’ve ever experience. Those of us that have spent years in this wondrous landscape are still blown away by its size and space. In Grand Canyon, perception is often NOT reality.
Let’s Start Hiking!
At last, we can actually talk about hiking! Hiking in Grand Canyon is a magical, perhaps even spiritual experience. The colors, sights, sounds, smells, and ever-changing conditions create an intensely dramatic and memorable experience on even short hikes. As you hike though 2 billion years of Earth’s history, the Canyon reveals itself step-by-step, both physically and philosophically. In terms of trails and the time it takes to reach the bottom, here are your options:
The South Rim presents most of the park’s developed trails, has the “shortest” routes to the river at the bottom, and is by a wide margin the more popular of the two rims. There are 4 developed trails from the South Rim, and 1 trail that is undeveloped and unmaintained.
The Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail in Grand Canyon. It traces the path of the Bright Angel Fault, through Indian Gardens, across the Tonto bench, and down to the river in 9.6 miles. This highly trafficked corridor trail teems with other hikers and rangers aplenty, great for beginners introducing themselves to Grand Canyon hiking. Hikers can reach the river and Bright Angel Campground in between 4-5 hours.
The South Kaibab Trail is the steeper counterpart of the Bright Angel Trail, and plunges to the river in an abrupt 6.4 miles. Holding the distinction as the only trail in the park developed completely by the NPS, it is a more direct route to the river for those looking for speed. Connecting South Kaibab to Bright Angel via the Tonto Trail is a classic backpacking trip that many first-timers find welcoming. Hiking to the river along the South Kaibab Trail typically takes between 3-4 hours.
The Hermit Trail follows a route forged by Canyon pioneer Louis Boucher, also known as “the Hermit of Grand Canyon”. Mr. Boucher led a reclusive life at the bottom of the Canyon for roughly 20 years, guiding tourists, mining, and homesteading. His pioneer route was improved by the Santa Fe Railroad company in the early 1900s, and today presents an excellent alternative to the more crowded corridor trails. The Hermit Trail descends 8.9 miles to the river, and will take the average hiker between 4-5 hours to reach the bottom.
The Tanner Trail is perhaps the most exciting and more challenging of developed routes from the South Rim. The trail presents sweeping views across eastern Grand Canyon, with views of Marble Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs to the north. The Grand Canyon Supergroup, a suite of tilted, faulted, 1 billion year-old sedimentary rocks that symbolize the Great Unconformity are revealed in splendor here, a perspective unique to this part of the canyon. The Tanner trail is 9.3 miles long, and hikers may reach the river in 4-5 hours.
The South Bass trail, set roughly 25 miles west of the South Rim Visitor’s Center, is easily the most rugged trail from the South Rim. Reached by a 4WD trail, the drive here takes roughly 2.5 hours. The trail itself was carved by William Wallace Bass, and early pioneer and promoter of tourism in Grand Canyon. South Rim solitude is found in droves here, wildlife abundant, and views outstanding. The trail is 12.2 miles long, and will take the average hiker 5-7 hours to reach the river.
The less popular, more contemplative North Rim presents Grand Canyon hikers with opportunities for more challenges, more solitude, and a decidedly different perspective of Grand Canyon. Set at over 8,500 feet above sea level, North Rim is a forested wonderland of rolling meadows, wildflower, and perhaps even a glimpse of one of the iconic symbols of the west, the American Bison. Access requires longer drive times, and trails here retain a fairly rugged character. Like the South Rim, do not even dream of attempting a rim-to-river-to-rim hike in one day. North Rim trails are long, can be challenging, and are generally reserved for more-experienced Grand Canyon hikers.
Much of the Colorado River system that has carved Grand Canyon emanates from the north. Consequently, in contrast to South Rim, North Rim is “set back” from the river, following long, meandering routes coursed by ancient tributaries. South Rim’s dramatic and abrupt cliff faces and 4000-foot plunges are a product of the lack of water flowing into the river from the south, while North Rim landscapes are dominated by softer relief.
Counterpart to the South Kaibab Trail, North Kaibab is North Rim’s most accessible and least rugged trail. It is the only North Rim trail maintained by the NPS. The trail is follows a 28 miles route to the river, and most hikers will find that it takes 2-3 days to reach the river. Keep in mind that this is the least-challenging trail on North Rim.
Notice the use of the word “route”, as opposed to the use of the word “trail” in the name. This is for a reason, as Nankoweap is really not a trail in the traditional sense. It is lightly trafficked, unmaintained, and follows an ambitiously-descending ridge along the East Kaibab Monocline. Hikers descend 14.8 miles along the trail, and average hikers may reach the river in 1-2 days. Get ready. Get set. Go!
The North Bass Trail is, of course, the North Rim counterpart to South Rim’s Bass Trail. William Wallace Bass, pioneer of Grand Canyon, carved this route as part of his efforts to promote tourism in Grand Canyon. The trail follows faults, rock falls, and sublime canyon scenery 14.5 miles to the river. Hikers may reach the river in 1-2 days. This is perhaps the quintessential trail in Grand Canyon, as it contains just about everything hiking here has to offer. Try an exciting Rim-to-Rim backpacking tour on the Bass Trail, complete with a pack rafting adventure!
Seeing Grand Canyon on Muleback
The National Park Service maintains a mule farm on both North and South Rims. Visitors to Grand Canyon may elect to have their gear carried to their campsite by pack mule, a decidedly easier alternative to carrying your own gear. Please consider your choice carefully when selecting a mule outfitter.
Several private companies have been fined and banned from Grand Canyon for animal abuse and cruelty. Check the Park Service’s website for more information about mule rides in Grand Canyon. Contact us to learn more about mule-assisted backpacking tours.
Imbibing in a mule-assisted trip to the river certainly takes a load off, however it does not save time. Hikers must still make their way on foot, or on the back of a mule whose goal is not speed. Mule trips down to the river typically take between 4-5 hours.
See Grand Canyon by Helicopter
One of the fairly new enterprises in Grand Canyon is the proliferation of helicopter tours. They are popular particularly in western Grand Canyon, where helicopters buzz through the air almost constantly. The Goat’s opinion is this — get your butt off your couch and onto your feet. Need more information? Please look elsewhere :). Helicopters create several problems in Grand Canyon. Helicopters create pollution, both noise and exhaust. They destroy any perceived wilderness experience. They damage wildlife patterns, and best of all (sarcasm) they crash! In the past 7 years, there have been 3 helicopter crashes that resulted in fatalities. The most recent of these was near Peach Springs in 2017, when 5 passengers and the pilot died. One woman was rescued, and is scarred for life both physically and mentally. Take my advice — don’t contribute to the proliferation of industrial tourism in Grand Canyon.
Surely you’ve heard this numerous times, but please be in reasonable physical condition. Undertaking any hiking in Grand Canyon is a decidedly physical challenge, and it will increase your enjoyment as well as decrease your chances of trouble if you are in shape. For more information, see our blog post regarding training for hiking in Grand Canyon.
Guided Grand Canyon Hiking Tours
Perhaps the very best way to see and experience Grand Canyon is by hiring a professional guide service. Hiking with people who know the Grand Canyon intimately vastly improves your experience and understanding of this unreal place, and not having to deal with logistics, food, gear, and all that madness only enhances the trip.
Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides everything need; geologist/guides with actual geology degrees and professional certifications, backcountry meals inspired by professional chefs, top-of-the-line gear, and outstanding customer service.
The Goat’s Final Word
There you have it, folks. You asked how long does it take walk down the Grand Canyon, and we have outlined virtually every possible eventuality! Whether by foot (awesome), by mule (still awesome), helicopter (not cool), from North or South Rim, by land or bey sea, you now have some idea of how long it takes. Happy Hiking!
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