South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon

17th May 2015

Stepping over the Edge of the Grand Canyon (This is a 100% real image, but there's just a trick of perspective which I'll reveal at the end of this post. Don't worry I'm not that stupid...)

When I talk to people about my outdoor adventures their eyes usually glaze over within the first six seconds. At first, I found this somewhat frustrating and difficult to understand. How could climbing up Mt. Washington in winter or being dropped off 40 mountain miles from your car in Vermont be boring? What else in modern life is more exciting?

I’m running into the same thing as I try to describe my recent experiences at Grand Canyon. Perhaps the problem is that people can’t relate or have a point of reference to what I am talking about. The scale of the Grand Canyon has always defied verbal description. I wonder if that is even more true in modern life since everything comes in a small box immediately close at hand. Your smartphone, cubicle, car, and flat screen TV are all pretty small boxes compared to the Grand Canyon.

Until you see the Grand Canyon and feel it for yourself you don’t get how big and deep it is. Sure I could say it’s one mile deep, 10-20 miles wide, and 272 miles long. Or I could say picture the tallest building in Boston, the 60 story, 800 foot high John Hancock tower, stack more than 6 of them on top of each other and look down. Or that it is roughly 4 Empire State buildings or Sears Towers deep if you are more familiar with those. But those comparisons still aren't enough.

Hopefully the following photos in this post will convey some sense of scale of what its like to move down from the rim to the river. One of the goals of my “Great Trails” project is to communicate a sense of the scale and beauty of the trails in our great wilderness areas.

The South Kaibab is one of the two main trails that descends all the way from the rim to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (the other is the Bright Angel). The South Kaibab trail hits the river after 6.4 miles (one way distance) and 4860 feet of elevation loss.

The South Kaibab Trail follows Cedar Ridge (as seen from Yavapai Point at sunset)

The trailhead starts at Yaki Point 7200', the high plateau on the right, and follows the ridge down to Tonto Platform (a roughly 3600'-4000' elevation mid level shelf that extends across most of the Grand Canyon) before continuing to descend to the river.

The trail follows the open ridge and provides nearly continuous panoramic views. The downside is that there is no shade or no water, so it is recommended to go down this trail and return to the rim via the less steep Bright Angel, which switchbacks up a wall of the Grand Canyon and has water sources. The park also recommends not hiking from the rim to river and back to the rim in a day, and this is a very good recommendation even if you are fit and have long day hiking experience elsewhere. While the trails are nicely maintained and graded (I found them intrinsically easier than the White Mountain, NH), the climate is the game changer at Grand Canyon. The sun reflecting off the red rock surface will add 20 degrees to the actual air temp. The usual 5% humidity means you will become dehydrated and lose salt without realizing it. Also the Canyon gets hotter (often by 40 degrees) as you descend because of the lower altitude. Trying to hike South Kaibab out and back would be even worse than attempting Bright Angel. Don’t even think about rim to river to rim in a day in the heat of mid-May through early September as temps routinely hit 100-110 in the shade!

My hike on the South Kaibab was during my first full day at Grand Canyon on April 13, 2015. My goal was to make it to Skeleton Point, a six mile round trip hike with 2000’ vertical loss and then gain. I was taking it relatively easy on purpose to be rested for the bigger hikes on the trip.

Here's a few highlights from the trip down:

A thru hiker of the 800 mile Arizona Trail makes his way down the first section of switchbacks to gain the ridge. This guy was carrying his bike on his pack to ride the bikeable sections of the Arizona Trail (a hiking trail which runs from the Mexican border to the Utah border) but he couldn't ride it at all through the 25 miles of trail in the Grand Canyon.

Hiker's standing on Ooh Aah Point Elevation 6620' about 1 mile into the hike.

A view down to the Tonto Platform, the green level, you can see the trail snaking across it.

Once on Cedar Ridge, 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail ahead comes fully into view. Look for the dots of hikers for scale. O'Neill Butte is the pointy peak on the ridge, and my destination, Skeleton Point, is the tip just before the squiggly switchbacks on the far right.

Utah Penstemon on Cedar Ridge

Hiker approaching O'Neill Butte, look in the 2nd shot for the same hiker for scale as a dot on the trail under the Butte...

Hiking the section under O'Neill Butte

There are a few commercial mule rides down per day:

Mule Train up close:

Mules train swallowed up by the scale of Grand Canyon: (look for the dots on the red/brown rock trail at bottom right).

First view of the Colorado River (elevation 2400') from Skeleton Point:

View to Phantom Ranch, the most popular camping area and even cabins, a dining hall, and medical clinic is all there at the bottom of the Canyon. Foot or mule travel only to reach it of course (roughly 18 mile round trip hike)

Because there were a few people hanging around Skeleton Point, I bushwhacked about .3 miles away to this cliffside view point to eat my lunch in silence and solitude.

Indian Paintbrush in bloom near my secret lunch area

The continuing route down past Skeleton Point gets steep and sunny!

The same switchbacks viewed from farther back on trail

So here's the secret to the opening shot where it looks like I'm standing 75% off the edge. I am just sitting, and then I cropped and rotated the shot. Standing/joking/posing on the edge of cliffs is how lots of people have died at Grand Canyon.

From there I turned around and headed up. Hope you enjoyed.

Next post I will take a break from the West and deep introspective drivel and post some photos wildflower photos from Northern New England now that spring finally arrived here last week! Then I have two more posts from Grand Canyon.

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