It was cathedral quiet. Visitors don’t normally make it this far into the national park. My driver, Marcia, and I were alone at Bright Angel Point lookout, at the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon. My objective was to reach South Rim – on foot – before the day was out, but from where I stood it was just a hazy horizontal line far out across the trench.
The mountainous butte named Brahma Temple was closer. Sculpted over almost two billion years, the rock presides over the tapestry of decaying ridges and stretching valleys below. Before journeying towards the centre of the Earth, Marcia insisted I came here to fully appreciate what I was getting myself into. “OK, point taken,” I said, returning – humbled – to the trailhead.
I’d come to the Grand Canyon to attempt the classic 23-mile Rim-to-Rim crossing. Wanting to avoid the eight-month waiting list for campsites in the canyon and feeling fit from a season of mountain-running races, I set out with a tent-free rucksack in cool November temperatures to hike the entire journey in a single day.
Passing along the canyon’s best-maintained trails, the Rim-to-Rim hike offers much more than the typical view of North America’s greatest natural wonder. By hiking the vertical mile to the canyon’s floor, you experience the same variety of plant and animal life as you would travelling on foot from the Canadian to Mexican border. The Rim-to-Rim is a journey through diverse habitats, as well as through time itself.
The hike is usually done in a southerly direction, beginning at the remote North Rim and finishing at Grand Canyon Village, with its extensive visitor services and accommodation options. North Rim is also 400 metres higher than South Rim, and so starting there saves some climbing on the way back out.
Yet this route is not for the faint-hearted, nor the unprepared. Most experienced backpackers will find a two- or three-day crossing challenge enough, and will take advantage of camping or lodging options along the way. Grinding switchbacks, precipitous drops and steep trails are to be expected. High summer turns the canyon floor into a furnace, with temperatures reaching 49C, and winter shuts off vehicle access to the North Rim entirely. The optimum windows for hiking are from late May to June, and from September until the end of November.
Nevertheless, now is the time to go. Grand Canyon national park faces an uncertain future. When Barack Obama decided not to declare the Greater Grand Canyon a national monument at the end of his presidency, he left it at the mercy of Donald Trump. Plans for new uranium mining, a massive expansion of the nearby town of Tusayan and a project to build a cable car (connecting tourists to a retail experience at the heart of the canyon) are now all back on the table, having previously been shelved.
To the trailhead: train and car from Williams, Arizona, to North Rim
Just over 200 miles east of the bright lights of Las Vegas, I bumped the hire car off Route 66 and rolled into the old cowboy town of Williams, Arizona. My plan was to leave the vehicle in the Grand Canyon Railway car park. From there, I would travel by train to South Rim, and then take a shuttle taxi service to the remote North Rim trailhead early the next morning. This way, when I finished the hike back at South Rim, I could catch the train back to Williams and my car.
The Grand Canyon Train runs 65 miles from Williams to the Grand Canyon Village at South Rim, departing daily at 9.30am and taking a leisurely two hoursand 15 minutes. A pistol shot sounded 15 minutes before it departed and the Cataract Creek Gang daily cowboy show began beside the platform. Audience participation is encouraged as the train robbers hustle funds from game passengers.
High plains punctuated with ponderosa pines filled the panoramic windows during the journey. Roaming musicians strummed Dylan and Woody Guthrie tracks and staff encouraged passengers to drink eyewateringly strong cocktails.
It was a sobering view, however, across the canyon after we pulled into the depot and looked out from the forecourt of the historic El Tovar Hotel (doubles from $263 room-only). The uncompromising enormousness of the Rim-to-Rim hiking route was on full show: the vertiginous distant canyon of the North Rim led interminably down to the Colorado river before re-emerging as a discernible trail, weaving like a scorched snake in the desert through the rocky slopes back up to South Rim.
I spent the remainder of the day visiting viewing points around Grand Canyon Village, all easily reached on the free regular buses. An hour before sunset, I headed over to the excellent Yavapai Geological Museum. Its three-dimensional topographical maps gave me a further sense of awe about the challenge ahead. The next day I would catch a four-hour shuttle taxi from South Rim to the trailhead. The alarm was set for 4am. The 211-mile journey around the far eastern arm of the canyon traverses the rocky plains of the Navajo Indian Reservation before climbing into the golden eagle habitat of the North Rim plateau.
Trailhead to Cottonwood Campground – 6.5 miles, 4,160 ft descent
I set out on the well-maintained but sharply switchbacking North Kaibab Trail. The pirouetting descent dived through a rush of slender beech and gambel oak and, as the temperature in the sheltered folds of the canyon started to rise, deep blankets of sedimentary rock took me a million years further back in the canyon’s geological history.
After three-to-four hours of quadricep-grinding descent, I reached Cottonwood Campground. Cool, refreshing water runs in Bright Angel Creek. I was rationing my three litres to last me to Phantom Ranch, but had brought purification tablets to treat the river water, just in case. From mid-May to mid-October drinking water is available from a tap on the campsite.
For those who choose to stay overnight, Cottonwood’s 11 pitches offer a rustic, backcountry camping experience, with solar-powered composting toilets and picnic tables. Food storage boxes are available, to protect against marauding deer, squirrels or ringtail cats.
Applications for camping at any of the three campsites within the canyon must be made at least four months in advance but, during my hike, I met people who had taken advantage of last-minute cancellations by enquiring at the Backcountry Office on South Rim.
Cottonwood Campground to Phantom Ranch – 7 miles, 1,601 ft descent
The canyon floor is usually 11C warmer than its rim and I took a moment to rehydrate and examine the desert shrubs that inhabit this broad inner-canyon corridor. The deciduous trees of the North Rim are replaced by prickly pear cactus and aromatic sagebrush, providing home to lizards, and hawk moths after dark. Three more hours of gently descending trail now separated me from the Colorado river.
Over the next few miles, the canyon walls slowly steepened and the valley narrowed. The path began to snake around giant buttresses of dark crystalline rock (Vishnu schist): this is the bottom layer of the Grand Canyon, formed almost two billion years ago under intense heat and pressure.
At the heart of the canyon corridor, and nestled close to the river, is Phantom Ranch (dorms $51pp, two-person cabins $149, breakfast £18, dinner from £21), a rustic lodge built of stone and wood, designed in 1922 by architect Mary Colter. The cottonwood trees she planted are now mature and the outlying dorm and cabin accommodation have a peaceful, no-phone-reception escapist feel. Bookings need to be made at least 12 months in advance, but a two-day, one-night Rim to Rim itinerary with a stay at Phantom Ranch has the advantage of not having to carry camping equipment.
Early evening is beautiful down in these secret folds. As the sun disappeared dramatically behind an Arizonan horizon, the light lingered down in the canyon, fading almost imperceptibly.
An optional evening meal is provided at Phantom Ranch and the first breakfast seating is at 5am. Alternatively, there are 33 shaded tent pitches nearby at the separate Bright Angel Campground (permits apply.)
Phantom Ranch to South Rim – 9.5 miles, 4,379 ft ascent
I reached the suspension bridge over the Colorado river at nightfall, shortly after leaving Phantom Ranch. The previous day at the geology museum, I learned how this cleaving body of water began carving through the sedimentary rocks some five million years ago. As I began the swaying crossing, the dark rush and spray of river below was far more exhilarating than any modern theme-park ride.
Safely on the south side, I had a choice to make. The nine-and-a-half mile Bright Angel Trail veered downstream for a mile, before climbing at an average grade of 10% towards visitor services, parking and transfers at Grand Canyon Village. The South Kaibab Trail cuts an even steeper trail to an isolated exit near Yaki Point, five miles east of Grand Canyon Village which is served by the free South Rim bus, but has no private vehicle access.
I picked up the Bright Angel Trail, hoping it would prove easier on my weary knees. Many hours of silent trail miles followed. Mountain lions were out there, but the moon was high and full. I pushed unnecessary fears and tiredness away, stopping regularly for food. Campers at the 15-pitch Indian Garden Campground were long since asleep as I stole silently past.
Over the last few miles, I stopped regularly to stare up at the layered shadows of rocks towering above. Looking down, I could see the twinkling antennae of other headtorches, labouring ant-like up the switchbacks. It was well after midnight when I finally made it back to the Earth’s surface at South Rim.
Logistics and camping permits
Extensive planning is essential for any Rim-to-Rim hike and walking in a group of two or more is recommended. Permit applications for camping at any of the three campsites within the canyon must be made at least four months in advance (£8 a permit plus £7 a person, nps.gov). All three campsites within the canyon are open year-round.
• Trans-Canyon Shuttle has two daily mini-bus trips from North to South Rim, running from 15 May to 16 October (£70pp)
• Flagstaff Shuttle and Charter offers bespoke transfers to North Rim until snow closes Highway 67 (usually around 1 December and reopening on 15 May); £352 for South Rim to North Rim transfer for first three passengers, £37 each additional passenger.
• Grand Canyon Train (Williams to South Rim) from $65, children $29, plus $12 admission to Grand Canyon national park by train. Children under 16 enter free.
Accommodation before and after hiking
Lodging options and more at experiencewilliams.com
• Mary Colter-designed Bright Angel Lodge, doubles from$95, room only.
• Yavapai Lodge, a one-mile walk from South Rim, doubles from$150, room only.
• Mather Campground on South Rim is open all year and does not require a permit but reservations are recommended (pitches from $18).
• Twenty-five miles from Grand Canyon Village is the eastern entrance and the Desert View campsite (pitches from $12).
• There are affordable lodge options just outside the south entrance in Tusayan.
• Grand Canyon Lodge has a range of cabins sleeping three, from $143 and motel doubles are $132. Booking up to a year ahead is advised.
• North Rim Campground is open until 31 October in 2017. No permit required but reservations are recommended (pitches from $18).
Guided tours and mule hire
Guided Rim-to-Rim trips are provided by Arizona Outback Adventures. Both its three- and five-day itineraries include at least one night at Phantom Ranch. The company can also tailor faster or slower itineraries, but reservations currently need to be made up to a year in advance. Its three-day guided hike costs from $1,595pp, and two-night backpacking trips from $845.
Mule trips are a sure-hooved alternative for journeying into the canyon. Overnight rides to Phantom Ranch on the Grand Canyon lodges website start at around $588pp, reservation only by phone +1 303 297 2757. No operator currently offers a full Rim-to-Rim crossing.
• Travel on the Grand Canyon Railway was provided by Xanterra. Accommodation was provided by the Red Feather Lodge (doubles from $150, room only) in Tusayan. Arizona Office of Tourism provided travel to North Rim with Flagstaff Shuttle and Charter