The World’s 10 Best Hikes: Grand Canyon

Potterfield's Picks: Slicing through time, from the Rim to the River and beyond

Trek: Grand Canyon—Rim to Rim to Rim
Destination: Arizona, USA
Length: 44 miles round trip, 5-7 days
Difficulty: Strenuous

A natural feature big enough to be seen from space, the Grand Canyon is one much better enjoyed at closer quarters. From within, the staggering architecture and sheer scale of the canyon can be exhilarating, even humbling. The rocks at the bottom are 2 billion years old, at the top 5 million, creating a slice through geologic time that defies belief. To walk down through this epic historical record, strata by strata—from Kaibab Limestone to Coconino Sandstone to Bright Angel Shale, right down to the Vishnu complex of the Colorado River—is to take a foot journey unlike any other.

Any walk in the Grand Canyon is going to rate pretty high on the Richter Scale of hikes if only because of the scenery, but to appreciate the canyon, and the forces that created it, you’ve got to see the river that carved it, the opposing rims, and feel firsthand the dramatic climate shifts between the two. This strategy allows for a few extra days to experience the spiritual embrace of the canyon walls—the ambience here deserves some savoring—and to explore new ground as one takes an entirely different route back to the South Rim.

The route recommended here starts from the South Rim, follows the South Kaibab Trail (the best, shortest and most direct route from rim to river) seven miles down through the layer-cake of the Colorado Plateau to the river, crossing the Colorado via the Black Bridge to Bright Angel Camp. From there, the North Kaibab Trail rises seven miles to Cottonwood Camp, and the following day ascends steeply seven more miles to the North Rim. From the North Rim, the route retraces itself down to Bright Angel Camp (14 miles) before crossing the Colorado on the “Silver” Bridge (downstream of the Black Bridge). From the river ascend to the South Rim via the nine-mile Bright Angel Trail, a better trail for climbing out.

Logistics: Most hikers who come to the park arrive through Las Vegas, probably the easiest city to reach by air, or Phoenix. Both are about five hour’s drive from Grand Canyon National Park and its headquarters for visitors, the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. Beware, more than 250 hikers are rescued each year in the Grand Canyon, with most incidents resulting from heat related problems, poor fitness or dehydration. Temperatures in the inner canyon can take hikers by surprise because rim temperatures can be 20 or 30 degrees cooler, so plan your hike for spring or fall to avoid the heat.

Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles in search of the greatest backcountry routes on the planet. As he researches his iconic hiking books, such as Classic Hikes of the World, Potterfield is always on the lookout for the best hikes on all seven continents. Here, just months before the release of his next book, Classic Hikes of North America, Potterfield offers up his current list of favorite hikes. 

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