Grand Canyon Hiking: The North Kaibab Trail

Hiking in the United States starts at the Grand Canyon and no other trail is as challengingly amazing as the North Kaibab Trail. Considered one of the toughest trails on the Grand Canyon, the North Kaibab Trail is also the only maintained (the Nankoweap trail also leads into the canyon, but it is not maintained) rim-to-river trail on the isolated North Rim and as such, the perfect starting point for a rim-to-rim hike. Even independently, the North Kaibab is one of the best hiking trails in the United States, offering the scenery, variety, challenge, and solitude vital to an outstanding hike.

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North Kaibab Trail: Distances

Distance (from trailhead)
Coconino Overlook: 1.5 mi/ 2.4 km round trip
Supai Tunnel: 4 mi/ 6.4 km round trip
Roaring Springs: 9.4 mi/ 15 km round trip
Cottonwood Camp: 13.8 mi/ 22.2 km round trip
Ribbon Falls: 16.8 mi/ 27 km round trip
Phantom Ranch: 28 mi/ 45 km round trip
Elevation Change: 1,730 km / 5, 660 ft
Water Availability: Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, Cottonwood Campground from mid-May to mid-October only.
Estimated Hiking Time (entire trail): 7-10 hours
Excursions: Ribbon Falls and Roaring Springs.

Hiking the North Kaibab Trail

While almost every trail on the Grand Canyon will offer amazing scenery, it is only on the North Rim that you will find extended before you the entire range of ecosystems of North America. The change is such that the trail starts out in an evergreen forrest, surrounded by Aspen, Blue Spruce, and Pine and ends up in a dessert environment surrounded by cactus, yuccas, and agave. Additionally, since most tourists prefer the accessibility of the South Rim, the North Rim is often overlooked, giving those who prefer an uncluttered hike a great opportunity for solitude along the trail.

Part of what makes the North Kaibab Trail the toughest is its length and elevation. Starting out at 8000 ft (2438 m), the trailhead is almost a thousand ft (305 m) higher than its South Rim counterparts. The drop to the canyon floor is well over a thousand feet (305 m) and from the trailhead to Bright Angel Campground, it stretches 14 miles (23 km). Additionally, the descent is mostly downhill and the steepness can cause knee pain and crushed toes- it’s not uncommon for a hikers’ toenails to fall off at the end of their hike.

One of the most dangerous aspects of hiking the North Kaibab Trail is the Arizona heat, which is amplified, reflected, and retained within “The Box” of the inner gorge. The Box is a narrow, smaller canyon enclosed by 1000 ft (305 m) Vishnu Schist walls. The cramped space, coupled with the dark slabs of rock cause this area of the canyon to entrap and retain heat, making it the most dangerous 7.2 mi (11.6 km) of the North Kaibab Trail. During the summer, temperatures in the Box can reach deadly highs, so it is important to plan your hike with the heat in mind.

While the inner gorge may be physically draining, it is a geological wonder; between the top of the Vishnu Schist and the edge of Tapeats Sandstone, well over a billion years of history is missing, melted away by an internal bleed of lava that fused entire eras into a stoic pangea of rock. This area is known as the Great Unconformity.

Despite the fair amount of danger, the North Kaibab Trail still manages to be every hiker’s dream. The terrain is challenging, the views are scenic (and more importantly, varied), the traffic is almost nonexistent, and the distance instills just the right amount of exhaustion. You will have to share the North Kaibab Trail with the mule trains, but as long as you stay out of their way (and no worries, they only pass by a couple of times), this route is easily one of the best ones on the canyon.