Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in Just Two Days

How Saying “Yes” When You’re Uncertain Can Change Your Life Forever

My mind was racing as I scrolled through Instagram photos on my cell phone while sitting outside a Chipotle restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga. In a few short minutes, I was going to meet the other five members of my Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hiking group for the very first time.

I am friends on Instagram with Fabian, the trip organizer, but I had never met him in person before the trip. You can imagine my surprise when he reached out a couple of days earlier with one of the most exciting invitations I have ever received.

“Hey, Robb! We’re doing a last-minute trip to the Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim to Rim. We’ll be backpacking it in 2 days, 23 miles each way. We are leaving Saturday at 6 pm and driving back Monday at 8 pm, probably arriving back by 5 am Tuesday. So far 5 of us going, room for 1 more in my van. You interested?”

What Am I Getting Myself Into?

Fabian’s message blew me away. Here was an invitation from a person I had never met asking me if I’d like to join him on one of the most challenging hikes in the United States. Talk about having faith in humanity, it doesn’t get any more real than this.

Without hesitation, I responded with, “I’m really interested!” Then I started to get nervous.

I was confident I could handle hiking 23 miles per day for two days back-to-back, even with the elevation gains we were facing on both ends of the hike. No question, it was going to be challenging, but I was up to it. What made me nervous was the weather forecast and the prospect of camping in the snow, which I have never done.

The weather forecast was predicting temperatures ranging from the low 20s to the low 50s, winds as high as 40 mph, rain at lower elevations, and snow at higher elevations. In other words, we were pretty much guaranteed to be cold and wet for the entire hike. And with days that would begin before sunrise and extend long into the night, I was afraid I might be biting off more than I could chew.

I did my best to contain my nervousness as I followed up my first response with a slew of questions about gear and how to properly prepare. As he answered my questions, I feared Fabian would re-think his decision to invite me, but he never flinched. The invite stayed on the table and soon I was gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime.

An Informal Introduction

A photo taken by Brenda with the group behind her and the Grand Canyon in the background.

Shortly after arriving in Rancho Cucamonga, the text came through. ”We’re inside Chipotle. Come on over.” I hopped out of my truck and headed into the restaurant for a quick bite to eat and the opportunity to meet the group.

At 6’3” tall, Fabian stood out immediately. He was wearing simple outdoor clothing; a windbreaker, beanie, and trail running shoes. Nothing too fancy, but you could tell he was ready to go, as was the rest of the group.

Everyone placed their order, then sat outside on the patio and chatted while enjoying the last hot meal we would eat for the next two days.

I was thankful to find that we immediately clicked. We all had at least two things in common; we were all passionate about the outdoors, and we were all excited about going on this trip.

The Ultralight Backpacking Experience

After dinner, we headed over to Walmart for a last-minute supply run, then to Fabian’s adventure van where an ultralight backpacking gear smorgasbord awaited.

The group hiking into the canyon from the south rim on Bright Angel trail.

Fabian has accumulated an enormous assortment of gear in the 10+ years he has been ultralight backpacking. Excited to introduce the other members of the group to the joys of ultralight backpacking, Fabian started handing out his gear.

Heavier backpacks were exchanged for lighter cuben fiber backpacks, fleece jackets, and basic sleeping bags were exchanged for warmer and more compressible down alternatives. The exchanges seemed to last forever as the group sorted through gear and repacked their backpacks for the adventure ahead.

Pounds lighter and infinitely more ready, we threw all our gear in the van and piled in. Frank and Brenda headed to the rear where there was a comfortable bed. Fabian took the driver’s seat and Josue, Rafael and I all took one of the three remaining captain’s chairs and made ourselves comfortable for the 8-hour drive to the Grand Canyon.

Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden Campground

The switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail descending into the Grand Canyon.

We arrived at the South Rim at about 6 am Sunday and parked in the backcountry parking lot. The air was cold and the biting wind quickly chilled my fingers to the bone while I changed into my hiking clothes.

After changing, we all ran a final gear check, threw on our packs, and set out for Bright Angel Trail where our Rim to Rim to Rim hike was to start.

We stopped briefly at the Visitor Center’s lookout for a few quick photos before hitting the trail where we caught our first glimpse of the Bright Angel Trail’s famous switchbacks.

The Bright Angel Trail stretches 9.9 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and on to Phantom Ranch, where we would stop for lunch later that day. The trail was originally established by the Havasupai Indians. In 1890, Ralph Cameron, who would later go on to become a U.S. senator, started improving the trail to make it more accessible. Once completed, Cameron opened the trail to visitors who were happy to pay a $1.00 toll for easy access to the canyon.

After taking a few parting shots, we set out on the trail and began our steep descent into the canyon. There were a few patches of ice on the trail for about the first quarter of a mile or so, but never anything that raised any concern. We were able to sidestep most of it without any problem.

The group hiking around ice on Bright Angel Trail.

Into the Grand Canyon

Once past the ice, we were able to hike comfortably and start paying more attention to our surroundings. The canyon’s sheer immensity was upstaged only by its beauty.

The canyon walls were drenched in natural desert hues of orange, red, green, and yellow. And when the sun broke through the clouds it would highlight the tips of the highest canyon walls and rock formations around us, setting the canyon ablaze in color and light. Nature was putting on a spectacular show and we had front row seats.

Approximately 5 miles in, we arrived at Indian Garden Campground, where we took a brief break to refill our water bottles and take advantage of the clean restrooms.

Fabian and Rafael hiking into Indian Garden Campground.

Indian Garden Campground’s centralized location on Bright Angel Trail, halfway between the South Rim and Phantom Ranch, makes it a popular destination for overnight backpackers. From the campground, visitors can hike the remaining 5 miles along Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch for a snack and a beer before heading back to camp. Then, the next morning after a good night’s sleep, they can pack up camp and hike the 5 miles of switchbacks back out of the canyon.

Indian Garden Campground to Phantom Ranch

Rafael jumping over a stream with camera in hand.

From the campground, we continued our hike along Bright Angel Trail, following Garden Creek as it worked its way down into the canyon. We stopped several times along the way to take photos of some of the waterfalls we came across. As with any trip involving fun-loving Instagrammers, photography shenanigans ensued.

After a mile or two of easy hiking, we were once again traversing a series of steep switchbacks for our last descent before reaching the Colorado River. As we reached the river, we were surprised and delighted to find a pristine white sand beach. I quickly removed my shoes and looked for a calm pool where I could dip my feet in the cool, green waters of the Colorado River.

The Colorado River

Aside from flying over it a couple of times, I had never seen the Colorado River in person, and I was anything but disappointed. Here I was, surrounded by the colorful towering walls of the Grand Canyon sitting on a white sand beach and soaking my feet in the Colorado River.

“This is really happening,” I thought to myself. “I am officially on the adventure of a lifetime, attempting to hike nearly 50 miles in two days in one of the most beautiful and magical places on Earth.” I felt so fortunate at that moment to be invited on such an amazing adventure.

Low shot of the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon.

Continuing to Phantom Ranch

From the beach, we once again hopped on Bright Angel Trail where we hiked the last mile or so to Phantom Ranch. Just before we reached Bright Angel Suspension Bridge, we were intercepted by Frank who, along with Brenda and Josue, had made fast work of the hike to Phantom Ranch. While Fabian, Rafael, and I were hiking slowly and enjoying the wonders of the Grand Canyon, they powered through this section of the hike.

Fabian hiking toward Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

The three of them had been awaiting our arrival at Phantom Ranch for more than an hour and were eager to hit the North Kaibab Trail for our hike to the North Rim.

After crossing the suspension bridge, we took a left at the Kaibab Trail junction and headed towards Bright Angel Campground. The campground was more crowded than I had expected considering how hard the hike out is. But the world is full of hardy souls who like to hike and don’t mind covering some distance and elevation to camp in a place as memorable as the Grand Canyon.

Before hitting the Phantom Ranch Canteen, we stopped to get a close-up look at the pack mules that were corralled nearby. These mules were unlike any I have ever seen. Judging by their size and musculature, they’ve got to have Clydesdale in their family tree somewhere along the way. I imagine strength is an attribute their owners regard highly because these were some seriously massive mules.

Fabian standing next to a pack mule.

Fabian and I approached the corral cautiously to take a few photos. They were beautiful animals, but I didn’t let their big brown eyes and gentle demeanor lull me into a false sense of security. We kept a safe distance while playing paparazzi, then continued to the restaurant to meet up with the rest of our group.

Regrouping for Lunch at Phantom Ranch Canteen

Rafael and Fabian at the entrance to Phantom Ranch.

The Phantom Ranch Canteen is a rustic, informal restaurant with a small counter space and a kitchen in the back. Lunch is open to anyone, but f you want to have breakfast or dinner there you will need to make reservations in advance. The menu is simple, and the prices are a bit steep, but I’ve heard the food is delicious and well worth the price you pay.

We stuck to the basics for our meals. My lunch consisted of a plain bagel with cream cheese and summer sausage sandwich, an apple, and a tall lemonade to wash it all down. The total for my meal came in at around $8.50. Not a bad deal for the perfect trail meal purchased in the middle of nowhere. Although the lemonade was a tempting option, a few members of our group tried a locally brewed Grand Canyon beer instead to round out their Phantom Ranch experience.

Fabian hiking on North Kaibab trail with storm clouds looming overhead.

Before leaving Phantom Ranch we took a few minutes to discuss our plan for the rest of the day. Based on our progress so far, it was looking like we wouldn’t make it to the North Rim where we had originally intended to camp for the night until well after sunset. We had anticipated the possibility of encountering rain and snow on this trip, but the cold reality of that threat was just starting to sink in.

A question was posed to the group; do we push for the rim as planned and risk getting caught in unpredictable weather after dark with nowhere to camp, or set up a base camp in the canyon before making our push? The group agreed that the best idea was to set up a base camp at Cottonwood Campground and push for the rim from there.

North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground

The group hiking North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground.

Minutes later, we were flying along on the North Kaibab Trail like a brightly colored bullet train, trying to make up for lost time.

The blistering pace made it difficult to take photos or to enjoy the wonders of the Grand Canyon. Although we did our best to keep up, Fabian and I were soon separated from the group. We simply couldn’t resist the urge to slow down and take pictures. There was just too much to see, and who knew if we’d ever get that opportunity again.

Despite our slowing pace, Fabian and I managed to keep the rest of the group within view until we reached the trail junction for Ribbon Falls. The others had taken a detour to visit the waterfall, and we watched as they made their way into the canyon. Since we were already so close to Cottonwood Campground, Fabian and I decided to skip the waterfall and search for a spot to set up our base camp.

A deer grazes next to a cabin at Cottonwood Campground.

Making Camp at Cottonwood Campground

When we arrived at the campground, we were surprised to find that we were not alone. The North Rim was closed, so we knew that anyone who made it this far had hiked in via either The Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. In either case, the campers who had made it this far were for sure a hardy bunch. We were 17 tough miles in, and with 4000 plus feet of elevation gain standing between us and our starting point, the hike out was no laughing matter.

After a few minutes of exploration, Fabian stumbled upon a group campsite that had more than enough room to accommodate all of our tents. Boulders, trees, and shrubs would shelter us from the east, while the trees above would help to break up the wind and offer some cover from any rain we might encounter. And with storm clouds rolling in overhead, the potential for a serious downpour was quickly becoming a concern… at least for me.

Fabian hiking towards the storm and into the canyon.

Fabian was relishing the possibility of rain, snow, wind, and anything that Nature could throw at him. “You have to trust your gear,” he kept saying as he proceeded to improvise a shelter using only a thin plastic sheet and a few rocks. I, however, was not so confident. My experience backpacking in foul weather was pretty minimal, and the threat of a real storm was… let’s just say, mildly disconcerting.

In reality, my concerns didn’t matter. I wasn’t about to turn back, and there weren’t any better options available, so I pulled my tent out of my pack and set up camp.

A half hour or so later, the rest of our group wandered into our campsite still riding the high from their visit to Ribbon Falls. We discussed the day’s events while everyone unpacked and set up camp, and the conversation soon turned to the topic of the North Rim push.

To Push or Not to Push, That is the Question

Storm clouds over the Grand Canyon into the distance.

We had a lot of factors to consider before deciding the best time to make the push, not the least of which was the fact that it was starting to rain and temperatures were quickly dropping.

It was Sunday evening, a little after 7 pm by this time. The night was setting in, the rain was growing heavier by the minute, and gusts of wind were ripping through our camp. This was shaping up to become a real storm.

The last thing I wanted was to be hiking in pitch-black darkness during a winter storm on a narrow icy ridge with 1000-plus feet of exposure below. One wrong move, one unexpected gust of wind, or one falling rock and I would be toast. Not to mention that hiking in the rain before heading into below-freezing temperatures on the North Rim was a recipe for hypothermia.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one in our group with concerns.

As we discussed our options, it quickly became clear that our group was divided. Three of us were ready to push for the rim in the rain, while the other three, myself included, felt sitting out the storm was a better plan.

Neither group was able to convince the other that their plan was best. So, our three boldest adventurers, Frank, Brenda, and Rafael, geared up to take on the North Rim.

The plan was simple. Head out and push for the rim, tag the trailhead sign for the win, and return to camp by 1 or 2 am. When they got back to camp, they would give us a full report, then crash out till sunrise. At sunrise, they would wake up refreshed and hike the 17 miles back out of the Grand Canyon.

We said a few wishes for safe travel, and off they went into the dark, rainy abyss.

A Decision is Made

I watched for a minute as their headlamps grew dim in the distance. I wondered why someone would take such a seemingly unnecessary risk. But I soon got over it and realized that everyone has to hike their own hike. I climbed into my tent, slipped into my sleeping bag, and fell asleep to Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings.

Within a couple of hours, the wind and rain subsided and the night had become cold and peaceful. I woke up about every hour or so, checking the time each time. I was concerned for the safety of our group out there on the North Rim. Not because I felt they weren’t up to the challenge, but because I was afraid they didn’t fully appreciate it.

Brenda, Frank and Rafael on the North Rim at midnight.

Awakened by Voices in the Night

Around 1:30 am I heard some chatter and saw the dim haze of headlamps lighting up my tent from outside. I roused myself from my sleeping bag and stumbled out into the dark to join the conversation.

Our adventurers had returned, wet and chilled to the bone, but generally no worse for the wear. Their journey to the North Rim had been a success, though challenging to say the least.

Fabian asked a few pointed questions, including, “Would you recommend going?”. After a moment of consideration, Frank responded with, “No, I can’t recommend it.” Fabian, not yet ready to give up completing the Rim to Rim to Rim hike, followed up with, “Why?”. The answer was short, “It’s too cold.”

Cold we can deal with. They were “too cold” because they were soaked through from the rain. The skies were clear, stars lit up the sky, and there wasn’t a cloud or raindrop anywhere around.

If cold is our only concern, then off to the North Rim we shall go.

Our Quest for the North Rim

Topping off our water bottles at Manzanita Campground.

Fabian, Josue, and I geared up for the hike to the North Rim. Headlamps, water, trail snacks, gaiters, and rain gear. It was on!

We were on the trail by 2 am, hiking into the quiet darkness and delighting in the stars overhead. Our headlamps lit the way as Josue led the hike. About 45 minutes in, we made a quick stop at Manzanita Campground. We topped off our water supply before hitting the notorious switchbacks of the North Rim.

Back on the trail, we began the steep ascent up the face of the Canyon. Switchback after switchback, we climbed in the dark for what seemed like an eternity.

Josue hiking into the night on North Kaibab Trail.

As the ascent continued, Josue began to pull away from our group. Fabian and I were moving slower and trying to conserve energy. After all, we still had a 24-mile hike ahead of us after we reached the top of the Rim. Also, when hiking in cold temperatures, it’s important to keep sweating to a minimum. Sweat, just like rain, can saturate your clothes and leave you exposed to the threat of hypothermia.

I have to admit, I was a little jealous watching Josue’s headlamp moving across the canyon wall above us. It was difficult to pace myself when all I wanted was to get to the top for sunrise. But pace ourselves we did, and by 6 am we were on the home stretch.

The North Rim. We Made it! Halfway, at least.

About a mile or two out from the top, we started running into patches of snow and ice. Patches of snow gave way to piles, and the trail was soon entirely covered. It wasn’t that soft powdery snow you look forward to making snow angels in. It was thick, hard, and icy, and up to a foot deep in places.

Snow and ice on the trail with our headlamps still on high.

The adventurers ahead of us had plowed the way. Their footprints were clearly visible all the way to the summit. We stepped where they stepped to avoid post-holing.

Postholing is when you step onto snow you think you can support your weight and suddenly fall through. It’s a miserable way to travel in snow and can lead to injuries. We didn’t want to be miserable or get injured, so we took our time as we made our way through.

Sunrise tops the edge of the canyon on North Kaibab Trail.

By this time, the sun was starting to rise over the eastern edges of the canyon. It was a welcome sight after hours of hiking in the dark and cold. Its rays warmed my face and recharged my soul. I found a new sense of energy, my spirits were lifted and I was ready for the long hike ahead.

We reached the summit of the North Rim a few minutes later. Shortly before we arrived, we passed as he was making his way back down the trail.

Fabian standing proud at the North Rim trailhead.

There wasn’t a soul in sight at the trailhead. The only footprints in the snow were those left by our group. It was a calm, white snowy winter wonderland, and we had it all to ourselves.

Fabian and I took a few minutes to bask in the glory of our accomplishment. Then, hit the trail again for the arduous 24-mile day we had ahead of us.

Have I Mentioned My Fear of Heights?

Fabian hiking back down North Kaibab trail.

From the Rim, Fabian and I headed back down the North Kaibab trail, stopping occasionally along the way to take photos. Now with the sun up, I could see exactly how dangerous the trail is.

My fear of heights on the way down was in overdrive as I navigated the narrow trails. We stopped at one point and, while grasping the wall and looking down at my feet, I asked Fabian to throw a rock off the cliff. I wanted to know how high up we were.

One Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi… four Mississippi… Then in the distance, I heard the faint sound of the rock as it landed somewhere far below.

Guess that answers that question. We’re really high up and I need to get down.

I made my way around Fabian and started heading down as quickly as I could without risking a misstep. The trails were wider at lower elevations, so I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way.

My fear of heights has always been a frustrating limitation for me. It limits my ability to enjoy things other people can enjoy freely. So, I intentionally place myself in uncomfortable situations hoping that one day I’ll overcome the fear.

But this situation caught me off guard. I wasn’t ready for it, and my body went into self-preservation mode. I was on autopilot and there was nothing I could do but ride it out.

Eventually, I arrived at a clearing where I could confidently stand upright again without grasping for the wall. Finally, I was able to take a moment and regain my composure. This trail was testing my limits in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated. Fortunately, I was up to the challenge and made it through unscathed.

The Long Way Back

Me standing by the North Rim visitor's sign.

We arrived back at camp around 11 am Monday where we regrouped with Josue. He was relaxing in the sun on a picnic table next to his tent. We shared stories about the journey we had just endured as we broke down camp and packed up for the hike out.

As we left camp, I took a moment to look around and consider what I had just accomplished.

I had conquered so many moments of fear and self-doubt on this adventure. It had already been a life-changing experience, and I was barely halfway done.

We made quick work of the trail as we hiked our way back to Phantom Ranch for lunch. Fabian and I picked up the pace to keep up with Josue. Even so, we still managed to get a few photos here and there.

The Colorado River flowing near Bright Angel Bridge.

After lunch, we left Phantom Ranch and hopped back on Bright Angel Trail. It seemed like no time had passed since we crossed the Colorado River on Bright Angel Bridge the day before. I took a few last-minute photos before tucking my camera away for the rest of the hike.

We finally reached the parking lot at the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trailhead at around 8:30 pm on Monday. We were exhausted, elated, overwhelmed, cold, hungry, tired, and a multitude of other things. More than anything, however, we were all excited to have completed such an amazing adventure.

The drive home was a quiet one. Fabian took the wheel and somehow managed to stay there for most of our return trip to Rancho Cucamonga. Josue covered the last couple of hours. Soon, we were back in the parking lot at Walmart loading up our cars and saying our goodbyes.

A Few Final Words

Looking into the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel trail.

This will always be one of the most exciting trips I’ve ever taken. Not many people will ever have this type of opportunity come up. Even fewer will accept the challenge when and if it does present itself. I’m so thankful to Fabian for inviting me on such an exciting trip, and to the rest of the group, who made it one of the most memorable times of my life.

You guys crushed it!

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