Last weekend, an out-of-state hiker died while trying to complete the incredibly strenuous Rim-to-Rim trek of the Grand Canyon. He had nearly completed the 24-mile trail before succumbing to what I can only assume was heat and dehydration (official accounts may never be known) with just over a mile to go near the North Rim.
At the top of both rims of the Grand Canyon, summer is one of the most beautiful places you can be. The temperature is perfect, and the views are immaculate, making it one of the top vacation destinations in the US.
But the same can’t be said once you venture below the Rim. Hiking into the Grand Canyon during the summer can be a perilous activity, especially if one hikes much further than the 1.5-mile house or the 3-mile house during the heat of the summer day.
The park even warns visitors of the risk of hiking during the summer months.
“In the summer, temperatures on exposed parts of the trail can reach over 120°F (49 °C) in the shade. Park rangers strongly advise not hiking in the inner canyon during the heat of the day between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” NPS said.
“Be aware that efforts to assist hikers may be delayed during the summer months due to limited staff, the number of rescue calls, employee safety requirements, and limited helicopter flying capability during periods of extreme heat or inclement weather.”
What is Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon?
Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon is exactly what it sounds like. You start on one side of the canyon, usually the north, with the goal of finishing on the other side. This requires you to hike down approximately 14 miles on the North Kaibab Trail and then up the Bright Angel Trail on the south side.
This is one of the most demanding and physically challenging hikes in the United States. In all, it is 24 miles and around six thousand feet of elevation gain, in addition to about 6,000 more on the decline. (It’s similar to summiting Mt. Whitney without the thinning air.) Most people who do it will add a night or more at the bottom to break up the trip.
Others, though, will do it in a single push.
I was one of those people in 2019 who wanted to push themselves and also check something off the bucket list.
What’s it like to hike across the Grand Canyon in a day?
It’s a tough son of a gun hike, that’s for sure. However, it’s not technical, nor do you have to carry a ton of gear and supplies if you’re doing a single push. (We saw a guy with a fanny pack and two water bottles do it.)
This is because there’s adequate water for the entire trail. When I did it in 2019, the longest stretch without a fill-up station (you’re still walking along the creek, so you’re not far from water if you need it) was the seven miles before Phanom Ranch on the north side. On the south side, there’s water at the 1.5, 3, and 4.5-mile points.
Besides that, you only need to carry enough water for about two to three miles at a time. Because your pack is never too heavy, you can go fast and light. This attracts a lot of endurance hikers looking for one heckuva day trip.
North to South
Most who embark on this trek start on the north side just after sunrise as it’s 1,000 feet higher than the south rim, and why not make it slightly easier? The first seven miles is a steady decline, with a long walk on the canyon floor to Phantom Ranch for another seven.
It’s a stunning area that few people experience compared to the South Rim trails. In total, it is about 14 miles, and it took us a little over five hours, including breaks.
This is “halfway.”
At the bottom, there’s shade and picnic tables at Phantom Ranch. Here, you can eat food, put your feet in the water, and refuel. For our hike, this was around noon. Afterward, the group packed up and began the 10+ mile trek out.
Those 10 miles are wholly exposed until the sun moves behind the canyon wall, with arguably the worst part being the Devil’s Corkscrew – a series of switchbacks near the bottom where you feel all the sun’s rays with little reprieve.
However, there is a glimmer of hope. Once you reach Indian Gardens, there’s water and shade. It also means there are only 4.5 miles left, and every 1.5 miles has water and a place to stop. For most, you can limit your water and pack weight.
While I can’t remember the exact temperatures, it was a cold start to the day, and I don’t remember it being too overbearing. Yes, it’s always “warm” in the canyon, but it was pretty doable for us overall.
The Dangers of Hiking the Grand Canyon During the Summer
There are several reasons why hiking in the Grand Canyon can be dangerous or even deadly.
The first and most pressing issue is if you try to hike the Grand Canyon during the summer. As mentioned above, the top can be cool at 7,000 feet. But 5,000 feet below, temperatures skyrocket into the triple digits or higher, creating an ovenlike atmosphere that bakes hikers alive.
Some visitors don’t realize that the bottom of the canyon is like being in Phoenix during the summer. Completely and utterly unbearable.
The second issue is you’re hiking down to start the trip. This creates the allure that the hike is “easy,” without realizing that every step down is one that you have to hike up. So, some people will hike 3-plus miles down, begin to hit their wall and realize they have 1,800 feet of gain of the canyon on tired legs.
How to stay safe hiking the Grand Canyon
Staying safe in the canyon requires knowing your abilities, being prepared, and staying away if temperatures are too hot.
If you’ve never done a hard hike before, why do it in the Grand Canyon? You’re setting yourself up for an unhappy situation.
Secondly, you should have all the proper sun protection gear, including a wide-brimmed hat, loose-fitting clothing to allow airflow, and sunblock. Plus, lots of water, electrolytes, and salty foods to replenish your body after it sweats.
However, the most important one is to stay away from the bottom during the summer months. Yes, it’s possible to hike and be down by 11 am. But you’re going to be baking down there. If you’re set on doing this tip, plan it for the spring or fall.
That’s when I’ve done all of my trips. Rim to Rim happened in late May, with Rim to River (up and down, but you stay on the south side, and it’s only 17 miles) in September and October. (Temperatures were cool enough for the September one.)
If you decide to hike across the Grand Canyon, talk about conditions with the rangers, overprepare so you have enough food and gear, understand the risks, and, most importantly, seriously ask yourself if you are in good enough shape to do it. If not, pass on it.
There are plenty of other hikes to do that do not require you to complete 24 miles, and I promise you, you’ll have a great time at the Grand Canyon.
This article originally appeared on ExplorewithAlec.com.