North Kaibab Trail,
Grand Canyon National Park
Distance: 9.4 miles Time: 3.5 hours Type: There and back
Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of the Grand Canyon: it is quite simply the most epic panorama you can possibly imagine. The North Rim receives far less visitors than the South Rim and is less developed, which was partly why we chose to visit it, but it does take longer to get to. The experience of approaching the Rim was in fact quite unexpected. You spend hours driving across a wide flat plateau that seems to go on forever and the landscape is surprisingly green and verdant. Until the very last moment, there is no hint of the enormous chasm that is about to appear.
It's quite tempting just to visit the numerous viewpoints and spend all day gawping over the endless vistas, but hiking into the Canyon offers a completely different perspective on this incredible landscape and is an experience not to be missed.
The North Kaibab Trail is the only maintained trail into the Canyon from the North Rim, descending 14.5 miles to Bright Angel Campground on the banks of the Colorado River. For most hikers, it is too far to reach the campground and exit the Canyon in a single day: the options are either to camp and return by the same route the next day, or alternatively to continue from the campground to the South Rim, thus completing a hike across the entire Grand Canyon. There are buses connecting the North and South Rims for those making a one-way journey (a distance of 212 miles - a very long bus trip).
We decided to hike to Roaring Springs at the base of Bright Angel Canyon, a 9.4-mile round trip that takes in the steepest section of the trail. While we did not make the base of the Grand Canyon and see the Colorado itself, by completing this section we descended a good depth into the Canyon and were rewarded with unique views from below the rim and the opportunity to pass several of the iconic layers of exposed rock.
The North Kaibab trailhead is located at a car park two miles north of the Grand Canyon lodge. The path begins with a steep descent by way of a series of switchbacks through the trees, with occasional views across the Canyon. It eventually reaches Supai Tunnel, where you can fill up with drinking water, before continuing its descent past Redwall Limestone, where the rockface has been blasted to create a dramatic half-tunnel. After descending yet further the trail reaches a house called the Aiken Residence near Roaring Springs. This is a perfect spot to rest before the real hard work begins: the return ascent.
Most hikes tend to involve an ascent followed by a descent. Physically and psychologically that works well, because you do the most tiring walking first, reach a summit and then have an easier return. Hiking into the Grand Canyon, however, reverses this process so that the really exhausting part comes at the end. It's something to bear in mind as you descend because every metre of altitude that you lose is another metre that you will need to recover on the return. It's a fairly tough hike, especially with the heat of the midday sun on your back, but a very rewarding one.
We were staying at the North Rim Campground. Booking ahead is almost essential as the season on the north side of the Canyon is relatively short. In fact, I booked our spot around 3 months in advance and most dates were already taken. It's worth the careful planning as it's the only campground at the rim and you are in a prime location for sunrise and sunset viewings.
The campground is not far from the Lodge and Bright Angel Point, which is probably going to be your first view of the Canyon. It's a popular spot for sunrise and sunset, but is equally stunning at any time of day.
All of the viewpoints are incredible, but our favourite by far was Cape Royal, located around 30 minutes' drive from the Lodge at the end of the Walhalla Plateau. There are numerous spots here, but at the very end of the trail it's possible to climb over the railings to access a flat outcrop of rock, from where the view really opens up. It's one of the most beautiful places I've been and as a sunset viewing spot, although popular, utterly incomparable.
A map of the North Rim with hiking trails can be found here: