In the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the shortest route from the rim to the river is via South Kaibab Trail. Expert hikers traveling from the rim to the river and back in one day often use South Kaibab for their descent and Bright Angel Trail for their ascent. See Grand Canyon Hiking: To the river and back in one day, Part I for an overview and important details of this hike.
Remember that hiking from the rim to the river and back in one day is extremely discouraged by the Park Service for good reason – it is very dangerous. Only expert and experienced hikers who are in top physical condition and have prepared specifically for this hike should attempt this extremely challenging trek from the rim to the river and back in one day. People die every year in the Grand Canyon, many of whom have attempted to hike beyond their abilities.
Begin your hike by parking at Bright Angel lodge and taking the hiker’s express bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead early in the morning. This entire hike will take 12 – 14 hours or more. You cannot drive to the trailhead and must take a shuttle bus. Take 3 – 5 liters of water for the way down as there is no water on South Kaibab Trail and most of the trail is in direct sunlight. We used every drop of three liters when the temperature was only 25 degrees at the start of our hike. If it is warmer you will use more water. If the rim is 25 degrees at sunrise, the river can still be 80 degrees or higher in the afternoon! Also, be sure to take lots of food (5,000 calories or more), first aid, emergency equipment, and all the other items needed in an extremely difficult hike.
Slideshow: See the attached slideshow for detailed photographs of this descent. The pictures are in the order you would see them as you descended the South Kaibab Trail.
South Kaibab Trail begins at an elevation of 7,260 feet and immediately begins to steeply descend a series of switchbacks. The views as you descend are unbelievable, especially in the morning when the rising sun illuminates the western canyon with its morning glow. While descending is not as much of a cardio workout as ascending, it can still be very difficult. Your quadriceps and knee and hip joints will be under a great deal of stress as you hike downwards. People with knee problems can find the descent more challenging than the ascent. Do not under estimate the difficulty of this portion of the hike.
After 1.5 miles of hiking you will reach the Cedar Ridge Rest House at 6,120 feet elevation. There are pit toilets at Cedar Ridge, but no water or emergency phone. From Cedar Ridge, the South Kaibab Trail traverses below O’Neill Butte to Skeleton Point (Elevation 5220 ft). This is the easiest portion of the entire hike as there are no switchbacks. At three miles from the rim, Skeleton Point is the maximum distance recommended for a day hike by the park service. With that being said, even if you are about to turn back you may wish to go on another five minutes or so for the first view of the river.
From Skeleton Point the trail descends rapidly via another series of switchbacks to the Tonto Platform and Tipoff which is at 4,000 feet elevation, 1.4 miles from Skeleton Point and 4.4 miles from the rim. There are continued views of the river in the beginning of this stretch. At Tipoff where the South Kaibab Trail intersects Tonto Trail there are pit toilets and an emergency phone. You can cut your trip short here by heading west on Tonto Trail to Bright Angel Trail where you can get water and ascend.
When you continue past Tipoff on South Kaibab Trail you will be rewarded with views of the river and the Black Bridge the rest of the way down. You will be entering the lower gorge where the rock formations and colors are totally different than what you can see from the rim. You have 2.6 miles (and over 1,500 vertical) to travel from Tipoff to Bright Angel Campground.
Towards the bottom of this section you will reach an intersection with River Trail which will take you to Bright Angel Trail, however, you will want to continue to the right to Bright Angel Campground. This route is slightly longer than bypassing the campground, however, you will get to cross the bridge, and see the river up close by going to the campground. More importantly, you can refill your water and rest in this oasis before you being the very tough 9.3 mile ascent back to the rim via Bright Angel Trail!
Check out more trails in your area: icedjamb.com’s Trail Guide
Grand Canyon Hiking: To the river and back in one day, Part I
Grand Canyon Hiking: Rim to river and back in one day ascending Bright Angel Trail, Part III