If the world were in some kind of mortal danger and for some reason, getting to the Colorado River would save humanity from imminent doom, the best bet would be to take the South Kaibab Trail. Not only would you get to the river within 4-6 hours, you’d be able to do so at any time of the year given the unique location of the trail, which ensures full sun exposure year-round. While this may be ideal for keeping the route ice-free during winter months, hiking this fast-descending trail in the summer can be risky given the absence of both shade and water along the way. Dropping almost 5000 ft (1524 m) in 6.3 mi (10.1 km), the decent is a steep one. However, while the descent may be strenuous and the exposure risky, the design of the switchbacks and trail location ensure an expansive and constant view of the main canyon, not to mention the gorgeous rock guiding the route, and the gaping beauty of the inner gorge and crevices.
South Kaibab Trail: Distances
Distance (from trailhead)
Cedar Ridge: 3 mi/ 4.8 km round trip
Skeleton Point: 6 mi/ 9.6 km round trip
Tipoff Point: 8.8 mi/ 14.2 km round trip
Bright Angel Campground: 14 mi/ 22.6 km round trip
Phantom Ranch: 14.8 mi/ 23.8 km round trip
Elevation Change: 4860 ft (1480 m)
Water Availability: None
Estimated Hiking Time (entire trail): 4-6 hours
Excursions: Indian Garden (via Tonto Trail junction)
Hiking the South Kaibab Trail:
The South Kaibab Trail was the solution to a five year conflict between Ralph Cameron, who controlled (and imposed a toll on) access to the inner canyon via the Bright Angel Trail, and the National Park Service, who gained rights to the Grand Canyon in 1919. Unlike the Bright Angel Trail, the South Kaibab was not constructed for mining purposes and because of this, water that would have gone to mining activities or the miners’s consumption is lacking along the trail.
The South Kaibab was constructed mainly for three purposes: to provide visitors with an alternative (and free) route to the river, to provide access to the river quickly, and to serve as a year-round utilitarian trail. The trail’s design means that less than 1300 ft/ 400 m of the trail receives shade throughout the year and while this greatly minimizes the accumulation of ice on the trail and facilitates the park’s maintenance activities, it can be extremely dangerous to hikers during summer months.
The must-hike recommendation for the South Kaibab Trail is winter-months and into-the-canyon. Because of it’s unguarded exposure to sunlight, coupled with an absence of water sources along the way, this route is not recommended for summer hiking. Also, the steepness and lack of water combine to make hiking out along this trail almost impossible. As always, once at the bottom, the way out should be Bright Angel Trail.
Since the South Kaibab Trail lies on the popular South Rim and it is the fastest way into the canyon, parking at the trailhead is not allowed due to space limitations. However, the village bus’s green line and the shuttle buses will take hikers to the trailhead free of charge.
Beginning with a dynamic set of steep switchbacks (the only area on this trail where ice could accumulate during the winter months), the trail quickly drops and reveals what is arguably the most panoramic view of one of the world’s greatest wonders. Because the South Kaibab Trail is highly engineered, most of the trail follows a ridgeline instead of natural features. Once you pass Ooh Ah Point, every trace of shade will disappear and sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water will become your survival kit. While this ridgeline-hugging design allows for the most direct route to the river and year-round access to traversable terrain, the sun exposure is relentless. The only form of relief hikers will find on the trail comes in the form of pit toilets (emergency phones are also unavailable).
While there is certainly reason to take the “full-exposure” caution seriously, the South Kaibab Trail is a very safe route. Because most of the trail was either drilled, blasted, or chipped away from the rock itself, the pathway is a smooth surface that ensures safe footing while the stone walls create a natural guideline along the entire trail.
Because it provides exhilarating exposure to the canyon’s most breathtaking views and will get you to the Colorado River within five hours, most people who’ve visited the Grand Canyon insist that if you can only hike one trail, it should be the South Kaibab.