NORTH KAIBAB HIKING TRAIL GUIDE
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is arguably the world’s most famous natural landmark. Much as the term ‘waterfall’ summons thoughts of the colossal torrent at Niagara, the mere mention of the word ‘canyon’ inevitable invokes mental images of this incredibly vast, visually peerless phenomenon carved into the Colorado Plateau by its eponymous river over the course of the last 70 million years.
There are various ways to see the canyon in all its glory: helicopter, raft, canoe, plane, mule, the West Rim Skywalk, and numerous hikes either on the canyon rim or within the canyon itself. Each has its merits, but none better the wildness, thrill, and relative peacefulness — traffic-wise — of the 14-mile North Kaibab Trail.
Below, we’ll take you through all you need to know when planning a hike on the North Kaibab Trail, starting with logistics and planning before moving onto the finer details of route descriptions and camping options.
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At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and in places over a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is kinda a big deal. These days it attracts millions of visitors every year, few of whom realize that the jaw-dropping scenery before them has been billions of years in the making and was home to native peoples for thousands of years before becoming the world-famous hiking and tourist destination it is today.
On few trails around the globe is the area’s geological character more overtly exposed than on those in the Grand Canyon. Descending the North Kaibab Trail is a walk through time, with each of the canyon walls’ multi-hued strata representing several hundred thousand years’ worth of geological history.
The simultaneous erosion caused by the Colorado River and its tributaries with the uplifting of the surrounding Colorado Plateau have exposed rock sediment which has not seen the light of day in roughly two billion years. To this day, the process continues, with the Colorado River’s teal waters carving an ever-deeper and wider fissure into the canyon’s base and its deposits from ever-more remote geological eons.
The North Kaibab Trail descends through several climatic zones, beginning with pine forest on the high desert landscape of the Colorado Plateau before then reaching the Tonto Platform, an enormous mantle situated just below the canyon’s upper rim where desert plants and grasses grow in surprising abundance.
Finally, the canyon’s lower reaches boast a blend of more sparse riparian and desert vegetation, all of which is threaded by numerous tributaries spilling into the Colorado River by way of eye-catching cascades and creeks.
As unlikely as it may seem from the viewpoint of the canyon rim, the Grand Canyon hosts a wide array of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates: canyon bats, bighorn sheep, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, elk, mountain lions, mule deer, raccoons, ringtail cats, Kaibab squirrels (galore), red-tailed hawks, California condor, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, turkey vultures, Arizona chuckwalla lizard, collared lizards, horny toads, rattlesnakes, and scorpions. Oh, and there are a few humans kicking about too…
The Grand Canyon and its surroundings have been continuously inhabited by Native American peoples for thousands of years, with archaeological evidence placing the earliest settlement around 10,500 years ago. In the last 4,000 years, several peoples (Ancestral Pueblo, Basketmaker, Cinchona) and tribes (Hopi, Havasupai, Paiute, Cerbat, and Navajo) have inhabited the area, with the latter being forcibly removed by the US Government in the 19th Century and resettled on reservations.
The first European known to have viewed the Grand Canyon was García López de Cárdenas, a Spanish explorer who arrived in 1540 with the help of Hopi guides, but the first pioneer settlements on the rim did not appear until the 1880s.
The Grand Canyon was first granted federal protection in 1893 (as a forest reserve and subsequently as a National Monument), and was awarded U.S. National Park status 1919.
The North Kaibab Trail was completed in 1928, combining segments of footpaths previously used by hunters, cattlemen, and Native Americans which had been loosely connected by a group of geologists working on behalf of the US Geological Survey in 1902. Over the years, the trail has been repeatedly damaged as a result of flooding, rockfall, and erosion, but today follows almost exactly the same course as it did back in 1928.
In 1981, the NKT was awarded a place in the National Trails System owing to its pivotal role in providing public access to the Grand Canyon.
A very well-maintained, in-an-out hiking trail that descends 5,800 feet from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to the Colorado River and then returns on the same route.
Moderate. Although the trail presents no technical difficulties in terms of navigation or covering difficult terrain, the uppermost 4/5 miles are fairly steep and the return journey (14 miles) is all uphill!
The greatest hazards likely to be encountered on the trail include heavy rainstorms, flash floods, rockfall, dehydration, and heat exhaustion.
Although officially closed in winter months, those intrepid enough to attempt the trail in the off-season should be aware that it becomes a different proposition entirely, requiring significant mountaineering experience and equipment (not to mention a fairly epic, 41-mile hike to the trailhead from the nearest campground at Jacob Lake!).
Facilities on the North Rim and the access road (Highway 67) are open mid-May to late-October. In the spring and fall, the trail is generally at its most pleasant, with temperatures far more accommodating than in midsummer, when they are frequently in excess of 100F.
Pro Tip: Day Hikers
If the bolder amongst you are considering doing the NKT as a day hike, bear in mind that the return journey is all uphill (for fourteen miles, no less!)
It’s worth noting that the temperature variation between the rim and the base of the canyon can be significant. The North Rim is at an altitude of over 8,000 feet, meaning it is frequently much cooler than the canyon’s interior, where temps can be up to 25F higher nearer the Colorado River and the infamously toasty stretch of trail passing through “The Box”.
Visitors to the Grand Canyon must pay an entrance fee. At the time of writing, this is $35 per vehicle ($30 for motorcycles) and $20 per person. Entrance passes are valid for seven days.
Advanced reservations are not required to hike the NKT, but unless you plan on taking on the 28-mile return trip in one day, you’ll need to get your hands on a backcountry permit in order to camp at any of the canyon’s established campsites. This can be done by filling in a Backcountry Permit Request Form, in which you will be asked to provide an itinerary of your intended camping locations within the canyon.
At the time of writing, the cost of backcountry permits is $10 per permit plus $8 per person per night camped below the rim, and $8 per group per night camped above the rim.
Wild camping is not permitted on the NKT and visitors must camp at designated campsites, either Cottonwood Campground (7 miles from trailhead) or the Bright Angel Campground (14 miles from the trailhead, at the base of the canyon).
North Rim Campground (operated by the National Park Service) is open May 15 to late October.
Services: tent and RV camping, water refill station, restrooms, campsite grilles, laundry, showers.
Reservations: call 1-877-444-6777 or book online here
Fees: $18-$25 per site per night.
In winter months, the closest campground to the North Rim that remains open is at Jacob Lake, some 41 miles from the trailhead.
In order to ensure you get a spot at one of the campsites both on the rim and in the canyon itself, booking in advance is essential. The National Parks Service has opening dates for reservations for certain periods, which are usually about 4/5 months in advance. For more on advance reservations and booking windows, see the ‘When to Apply’ section on the NPS website.
The trailhead for the North Kaibab Trail is located 41 miles south of Jacob Lake on Highway 67 and 1.7 miles short (north) of the Grand Canyon Lodge, which lies just past the North Rim Visitor Center. Services here are open from May 15 to late October, and the lodge runs a complimentary shuttle back to the trailhead at 5:30 am and 6:00 am daily.
Transportation to the trailhead is available from the Grand Canyon Lodge.
Though some hikers choose to take on the North Kaibab Trail as a day hike, this is a strenuous undertaking and deprives you of the experience of spending the night in the canyon’s depths and enjoying the scenery at a leisurely pace. For this reason, and because not all of us possessed of turbo boosters in our thigh muscles, the following trail description assumes you will be doing the hike over two days.
From the trailhead, the North Kaibab Trail descends on a series of steep switchbacks on the way to the Supai Tunnel (2 miles). Below the tunnel, the trail continues on ever-more exposed switchbacks to the cliffs of the Redwall Limestone section, where things suddenly take a turn for the downright airy (see the video below!) as the trail, skirting gaping precipices, becomes no more than a slender indent blasted into the rock.
After 4.7 miles, a short diversion (0.3 miles) near the base of Bright Angel Canyon leads to Roaring Springs, a dazzling waterfall where the water appears to gush out directly (and somewhat counterintuitively) from the cliffs above.
At the 5.4-mile point, the trail passes the Pumphouse Residence (aka the Aiken Residence), which now serves as a ranger station and adjoins the Manzanita Rest Area, where you’ll find plenty of welcome shade, a toilet, and drinking water.
From the ranger station at the former Pumphouse Residence, the trail descends more gently to the Cottonwood Campground (6.9 miles) and then the lovely Ribbon Falls, situated in a secluded grotto only 0.6 miles from Bright Angel Creek and the NKT proper.
Pro Tip: Ribbon Falls
If you have time on your hands, be sure not to miss the small diversion to Ribbon Falls.For those of you overnighting in the canyon, we’d recommend doing this short side trip on the way down so as to save all of your resources for the return trip the next day.
Alternatively, the grotto makes for a handy, cool resting-point where you can bathe your toasted and tired feet on the way up for those who would prefer to break up the lengthy slog back to the trailhead.
Below Cottonwood Campground, the trail drops into the Inner Gorge, also known as ‘The Box’, a much narrower stretch of the route skirted by tall, black-rock walls. This section can become something of a furnace in summer months, so be sure to do plenty of hydrating at Cottonwood Campground on the way down.
Over the last four miles, the trail follows the meandering course of Bright Angel Creek, crossing it a couple of times with the aid of footbridges on its way to the junction with Clear Creek Trail, which lies less than a mile from Phantom Ranch and the trail’s end (a further 0.3 miles) at Bright Angel Campground.
Return to the trailhead on the same route. To avoid the worst of the day’s heat, we’d recommend breaking camp and setting off as early as possible.
From North Kaibab Trailhead to:
Drinking water is available at the trailhead, Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, the Manzanita Rest Area, Cottonwood Campground (all seasonal only) and year-round at Bright Angel Campground.
Pro Tip: Lighten the Load
You can save on carrying water by bringing a purification system and refilling from Bright Angel Creek
Flash floods, thunderstorms, and heavy rainfall are not uncommon in the area — be sure to check forecasts before you leave or at the ranger stations at the trailhead or within the canyon itself.
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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.