North Kaibab Trail
Highlights: Less crowded than Bright Angel Trail, it's great for a first backpack trip into the canyon. Drawbacks: At 14.4 miles and with a vertical drop of 5,850 feet, it's much longer, and drops farther, than the South Rim corridor trails. Difficulty Level: Descends gradually from rim to river. Ample water and shade. Tests endurance more than agility.
Forget the myth that corridor trails are easy. The North Kaibab Trail will test any hiker who attempts to go from rim to river (or vice versa) in a day. Compare its 14.4 miles to the South Rim corridor trails, Bright Angel and the South Kaibab, which are 9.2 and 6.7 miles, respectively. The drop, too, is a factor; the North Kaibab descends 5,850 feet, while the others fall about 4,800 feet from rim to river. Despite the length and the big vertical drop, the North Kaibab Trail is one of the best for backpackers first experiencing the canyon. The scenery is lovely, the trail's grades are manageable, and beautiful views look down two side canyons -- Roaring Springs and Bright Angel. But unlike the South Rim corridor trails, you see less of the gorge cut by the Colorado River; this one's also less crowded.
The trail begins with a long series of switchbacks down the head of Roaring Springs Canyon. At an elevation higher than 8,000 feet, the first switchbacks are in thickly forested terrain that could just as easily be found in the Rocky Mountains. Aspen, Douglas fir, and Gambel oak shade the trail and hide many of the rocks in the Kaibab and Toroweap layers. The Coconino Sandstone layer, whose sheer cliffs hold too little soil for these trees, stands out against the greenery, its white rocks streaked black and tan by mineral deposits. The Coconino Overlook is clearly marked and stands about .75 mile from the trail head.
The next major landmark is Supai Tunnel. At 2 miles from the trail head, and with shade, a restroom, and seasonal water, this is an ideal turnaround point for day hikers. Beyond the tunnel, the canyon warms up, and heat-tolerant plants such as squaw-bush, pale hoptree, piñon pine, and juniper appear. The trail descends in relatively gradual switchbacks through the Supai Group, then crosses a bridge over a creek bed. Past the bridge, the creek plummets. The trail travels along the south wall of Roaring Springs Canyon, on ledges above Redwall Limestone cliffs. A spire of Redwall Limestone known as the Needle marks where the trail begins its descent into the Redwall in a series of fairly steep switchbacks.
Roaring Springs, the water source for both rims, becomes audible just above the convergence of Bright Angel and Roaring Springs canyons. A .2-mile-long spur trail descends to the springs, where water pours from an opening in the Muav Limestone layer and cascades downhill, pooling at the bottom of the creek bed. Around those pools grow Arizona grape, scouring rushes, and box elder and cottonwood trees. You'll find shade, picnic tables, and usually drinking water here (verify water availability in advance with the visitor center). This is the farthest a day hiker should go.
Below the springs, 5.4 miles from the starting point, is a pump house (with a water faucet) and a heliport. From here, the trail begins a long, gradual descent to the Colorado River, traveling on or near the floor of Bright Angel Canyon for most of the way. The rocks along this stretch can be difficult to identify. In addition to the layers seen everywhere in the canyon, you'll find members of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, including the reddish-brown Dox Sandstone, purplish Shinumo Quartzite, orange-red Hakatai Shale, and numerous dikes and sills -- places where lava filled cracks in the earth.
Two miles past Roaring Springs is Cottonwood Campground. By camping here on their way to and from the river, backpackers can extend their trips while hiking reasonable distances.
About a mile past Cottonwood Campground, a spur trail leads to Ribbon Falls, the centerpiece of a large natural amphitheater. The waterfall is usually a short detour off the North Kaibab Trail (when the water level is high, a sign points the way to Ribbon Falls and you'll walk across a bridge). Don't forego the chance to hike to the base of these falls, which roll off a high sandstone ledge and arc gracefully down, skimming an apron of travertine on the way. This apron formed when calcium carbonate precipitated out of the water as rock. You may see small, dark gray birds known as dippers (the name alone describes them) fishing in the pools around these falls.
About 2.5 miles past the falls, the trail enters a long stretch of narrows known as the Box and remains there, winding alongside Bright Angel Creek, until just above Phantom Ranch. To keep hikers dry in these narrows, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s built three bridges over the creek and blasted ledges in the Vishnu Formation's cliffs. An immense flash flood swept away most of the originals -- steel and all -- in 1966. Today, this is the only maintained trail from the North Rim into the canyon.
Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike this trail from the rim to the river and back in 1 day.
2 miles to Supai Tunnel; 4.7 miles to Roaring Springs; 6.8 miles to Cottonwood Campground; 14.4 miles to the Colorado River. Access: On North Rim entrance road, 2 miles north of Grand Canyon Lodge; free parking available. Water sources at Roaring Springs (seasonal), Bright Angel Creek, Cottonwood Campground (seasonal), Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Campground. Maps: Bright Angel Point (7.5 min.) and Phantom Ranch (7.5 min.) quadrangles.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.