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Grand Canyon: To the North Rim (September 2023)

Set Your Mind Right
Having done 15, one-day hikes between the Grand Canyon rims since 2016, and some as Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim in 2 days, our key message to those hiking between the rims is to be prepared to finish alone even if you aren’t planning on hiking alone.

Being fully prepared to finish on the N Rim alone, even if you are hiking with one or more other people, is critical. Unexpected things happen and you need to be fully independent to finish safely. This is true going both directions between the rims, but even more so when going south to north, which is more arduous. Below is what “being prepared” entails beyond the usual recommendations of don’t wear new shoes, layer your clothing, bring emergency supplies, drink plenty of water, and pace yourself.

Altitude Acclimation
One’s worst performance day when traveling from low elevations to moderate elevation, such as 7,000-8,000’ on the South and North Rims of the Grand Canyon, is your first full day at the higher elevation. Your worst performance will be to arrive in the area, spend the night, and hike between the Rims the next day. Even no nights at the higher elevation are better than 1 night for your best performance. After that, the more time at elevation, the better.

We typically have about 10 days in Flagstaff, AZ, which is also about 7,000’ and the South Rim before our first Rim-2-Rim. Bill is quite altitude intolerant and feels a marked improvement in his comfort level and performance after 3 weeks at this moderate altitude. I sense a growing ease as the days and weeks pass, but don’t notice abrupt shifts in my performance like he does.

Avoiding Dehydration
..Be very familiar with the location of the water stops and carry the equivalent of the Park Service’s map showing each water stop on the N Kaibab Trail.
..Confirm which of the water spigots on the north side are functioning the day before you hike.
..Be alert when you begin your traverse in the morning for signage on the trail announcing closure of water spigots.
..Carry a water filter and know how to use it in case of a water line break.
..Know what the forecast high temperature is at the bottom of the Canyon for your hike day.
..Be clear about your anticipated water consumption for the day. We may descent the S Kaibab drinking as little as as ½-3/4 of a liter in the morning and drink several liters ascending the N Kaibab in the afternoon. Everyone is different and gauge your needs based on your own history, not someone else’s.
..Carry extra table salt to add to your water. Carry rock salt to occasional suck on while walking: if it suddenly tastes very good, you are likely getting salt-short and should consider spiking your water with salt. We don’t bother with electrolyte packets; we only use plain table salt or table salt mixed with potassium chloride. Experiment with your salt needs in advance of your event and know your warning signs. I get dizzy if I am low on salt; sometimes even arising from bed in the morning I’ll feel tippy. Bill’s symptoms are much more subtle than mine and he still misses them several times a year. He gets overly fatigued, suffers from muddled thinking, and sometimes, becomes irritable. If you are short of salt, eating a few salty snacks isn’t enough, you need more than most snacks provide.
..Be well hydrated and caught-up on your electrolytes 1-2 days before your event.
..If you begin to feel nauseated or dizzy, it may require an hour or more of rest and rehydration to recover. Recovery can't be rushed! If you were vomiting, you could begin vomiting again.
..Don’t consume alcohol the day before your traverse.
..Continue to hydrate once off of the trail for the night, especially if you are hiking back the next day.
..Be aware that some medications can reduce heat tolerance, including antidepressants, antihistamines, and alpha- and beta-blockers for hypertension.
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Once the vomiting starts, it is hard to stop it.

Food En Route
..The canteen at Phantom Ranch sells wildly popular lemonade, coffee, and high carb snacks after breakfast and before dinner. Don’t expect to buy a “proper” meal there.
..There is no food available at the trailheads on either rim but there are water spigots at both.

Struggling to Make It to the N Rim
Park Service Rangers staff their Phantom Ranch facility at the Colorado River and the smaller one at Cottonwood Campground part way up the North Kaibab Trail, so your last chance for help if you are in trouble may be at Cottonwood. There is often a Ranger hanging around the Manzanita Springs rest area in the midafternoon, though they have few resources there and rely on those at Cottonwood.

Make a very careful assessment of your ability to carry-on to the North Rim when at Cottonwood and reassess at Manzanita. If you question your capacity to go on, the extent of Park Service assistance is to loan you a sleeping bag to spend the night on a bench and then invite you either go back to the South Rim or carry on to the North Rim in the morning.

You are expected to walk-out on your own. They will help you assess your condition but not provide any assistance for getting you out of the canyon—it’s a DIY thing. They do not provide any transportation of any kind or any escort service to stranded hikers.

We’ve overheard hikers angling for a rescue, cajoling the rangers to hail a mule to haul them out. The rangers are steadfast in their “No.” The ranger's standard response is “You got yourself down here with your heart/orthopedic/whatever problem, you can get yourself out.” They hear the pleas daily and are hardened to their position.

It’s Toughest at the End
The North Rim is about 1200’ higher than the the South Rim, over 8200’ instead of a little under 7,000’, and the thinner air is noticeable on the very steep trail towards the end of the hike. (The incidence of altitude sickness shoots up at 8,250’; Bill encounters his altitude intolerance between 6,000-7,000’).
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Nope, the empty saddles are for the mule skinners, not struggling hikers.

The 1400’ of gain over 2 miles from Supai Tunnel to the North Rim can be excruciating. A foursome we leapfrogged with on the North Kaibab Trail one year faded away at Supai Tunnel. We saw them the next day and they shared that it took them about 6 hours to complete the remaining 2 miles, finishing around midnight. They were young, under conditioned, and resorted to repeatedly laying in the dirt in the dark for 30 minutes or more at a time, multiple times, to extract themselves from the canyon.

Supai Tunnel is an excellent place to fortify yourself for the finish: take a rest; pee; tend to irritating clothing or socks; have a snack; get a warm top and your headlamp handy in your pack; have a drink and check your remaining water; get your head straight; and confirm your plan once at the top with your buddies. There is no sprinting to the finish, this is a long, hard slog for most of us in which you need to dig deep and set a very slow but steady pace for yourself.

If you are carrying your evening meal with you, consider eating most of it at Supai Tunnel. We are usually hungry by then but when we finally get into our cabin hours later, we don’t have much appetite. We know we should eat but aren’t interested in food so, for us, it’s best to eat when we are hungry.

After a long, hard day of exertion in the heat, my heavy sweating layers me in what I call my “salt suit.” My flesh is tacky to the touch with sweat. This salty layer retains extra moisture and I’ve learned that if I slow too much, it makes me easily chilled. Notice if that is true for you. Because of that, I need to bath as soon as possible once off the trail to avoid being further incapacitated in the evening by being chilled.

From the N Kaibab Trailhead to the Lodge
No worries if you are lucky enough to have a car and/or driver waiting for you at the trailhead parking lot when you emerge from the Inner Canyon, but the rest of us have to either walk, hitchhike, or prearrange a shuttle to the Lodge. It’s approximately 2 miles and almost entirely uphill to the Lodge.

We always hitchhike. We have hitched more times as gray hairs than we did in our youth; it’s still a small number of times, but the N Rim is one place where we always do it. I carry a handwritten sign on a piece of paper in my pack saying: “We need a ride to the Lodge. Thank you.” We always get a ride, but it’s always a near thing, and when we finish after dark, it’s really hard. Securing each ride is an amusing story in itself.

If you choose to walk, it imperative that you are very clear about your route before you head out for the Lodge. You can’t rely on North Rim signage; it isn’t very good. About the best help we’ve given fellow trail-mates is to generally wave to the left and say: “Go that way.” The trail is shorter than the road, but it’s harder to find in the dark. Be sure your headlamp can illuminate your way. (see below) now offers hiker shuttles from the N Kaibab Trailhead to the Lodge at 6:30 and 8 pm for $25. We’ve never used their service, but rides need to be reserved in advance. All but one year, we’ve popped-out at the trailhead around 5 pm, at dusk.

Until the 2023 season, the Grand Canyon Lodge offered courtesy shuttle rides to hikers from the Lodge to the N Kaibab Trailhead in the morning, but they have discontinued their service. For another $25, you can book a morning ride at preset times from the Lodge to the Trailhead through Kaibab Lodge. Personally, I'd recommend it, because if you walk, you are increasing your mileage for the long day by 10%.

Shuttle and luggage services are available for 2023 through and 928-638-2389. This is a new service company. The shuttle service we used in the past,, 928-638-2820, was bought by Kaibab Lodge in June of 2023. Transcanyon's website and phone are still active but, if you book with them, you are using Kaibab Lodges website. Things could change again so, personally, I'd book directly through Kaibab Lodge.

“Luggage service” in this setting means reserving and prepaying to have a bag, usually of a maximum weight, driven between the rims, one or both directions, on specified days and times. “Shuttle service” is reserving and prepaying for a ride between the rims. Usually, shuttle rides are possible at the last minute. If you planned to hike both directions and after getting in for the night, you decide you don’t want to walk back, you may be able to get a seat on a shuttle in the morning. Have their phone numbers with you (no internet on the N Rim) and contact the services using the land line phone in your room that night. Our new rule for deciding if one or both of us is fit to make the return hike the next day is that we must make it to the North Rim by 5 pm; any later than that reflects that we are overly depleted.

If you are booked for a cabin or room at the North Rim:
..Before making the hike, call the reservations number to confirm your booking and authorize all individuals in your group to check-in.
..Each member of your group should carry a credit card for check-in so whichever member arrives first can secure the room. It can be a 15-20-minute wait to check-in and even then, it’s a slow process for tired legs.
..Know that you are not staying at the Lodge, there is no accommodation there. If you’ve booked through the Lodge, you have half of a duplex cabin or a motel room, and it’s helpful if you know what you’ve booked when you check in. The more expensive your unit, the shorter the walk to your room from check-in at the Lodge.

Food On the North Rim
..Dinner at the Lodge is by reservation only at a fixed time. We’ve never heard good things about the food there.
..Check online in advance as to what other food service is available—it can be meager.
..If you are taking an early shuttle back to the South Rim the next day, or walking out before sunrise, there probably won’t be any food service available in the early morning.

Cell Service & Walkie Talkies
..There is no cell service in the Inner Canyon or on the N Rim as of October 2022.
..There have been 2 pay phones around Phantom Ranch: one at the Canteen, the other on the outside wall of the flush toilets building close to the river.
..Walkie Talkies only intermittently connect and you must be very attentive to line-of-sight.
..If you are using Garmin's in-Reach Mini for messaging your mates in the Canyon or on the Rims, look at your service plan carefully. We started with the basic plan and messages could take 30 minutes, an hour, or more to send or receive. Buying-up to the intermediate plan ensures our messages send and receive in 10" or less. Using Garmin's Earthmate app on your phone is phenomenally easier than texting directly from the Mini!
..Be forewarned that our Apple Watches repeatedly bounce between Standard and Daylight time when we are approaching the North Rim in October. Already feeling brain dead, the fluctuating read on the time can be baffling.
..There have been phones in the rooms we’ve stayed in and you can call between rooms, to the Lodge desk, and the shuttle services.

Be safe and have a grand crossing!