6 - 7
FATMAP difficulty grade
This is the most visually stunning trail on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
Following a ridgeline that juts toward the canyon center, it deals jaw-dropping views the entire way.
When compared to Bright Angel Trail, the other major route to the canyon floor, South Kaibab takes a more direct approach and deals a better “bang for your buck” in scenery.
It is more exposed to heat and wind, however, and has no water available except for the very beginning and end of the trail. South Kaibab Trail travels from the rim to the river in the bottom of the canyon, but most people do not attempt to reach the river and come back in one day.
This is a round trip of 14 miles and nearly 5,000 feet of elevation loss then gain.
The National Park Service recommends day hikers go no farther than Skeleton Point, at mile 3.
There is a backcountry campground at the trail’s end, Bright Angel Campground, so backpackers can spread the full rim to river over two days. South Kaibab can be linked with Bright Angel Trail for a rim to river partial loop.
The most common route is to descend South Kaibab Trail, stay at Bright Angel Campground, and ascend Bright Angel Trail.
Sun exposure and lack of water are easier to cope with on the downhill journey, thus South Kaibab should come first.
The shadier and water-supplied Bright Angel Trail is the better route back up. The trailhead for South Kaibab is on the Yaki Point Road, which is only accessible by shuttle bus.
Private vehicles are not allowed.
Take the free shuttle’s Orange Route from the South Rim Visitor Center to the South Kaibab Trailhead to begin the hike.
The descent starts immediately, and dramatically, as the trail drops away into twisted switchbacks through the canyon’s sheer rock layers.
It soon levels out into a traverse, and reaches an aptly named overlook--Ooh Aah Point--in just under a mile. From here the trail turns sharply downward again, toward the flat respite of Cedar Ridge at mile 1.5, where there is a toilet.
By now you are squarely set in the expanse of the canyon, more than 1000 feet below the rim but still far from the bottom.
Remind yourself that what goes down must come back up, and decide if you wish to continue. Below Cedar Ridge the trail makes a rocky traverse below a towering butte, and finds a few spots of welcome shade.
Temperatures always rise as you go down in the Grand Canyon.
Skeleton Point is at mile 3.0, and earns a fantastic view over the top of precipitous red limestone cliffs into the heart of the canyon, with the Colorado River shimmering at the bottom.
Below Skeleton Point, a formidable set of switchbacks reach the bottom of these cliffs and the Tonto Plateau--a wide, gently sloped bench that breaks up the vertical layers. Crossing the Tonto is shadeless and scorching hot during the summer, but the relatively easy terrain and bottom-up perspective of huge walls may give false security that the worst is over.
In fact, the longest set of switchbacks is yet to come.
The trail must cut through 1500 more feet of rock before reaching the river.
The Tipoff, at mile 4.4, is the point where reality sets in.
Here, the Tonto Plateau falls away into dark-colored, jagged cliffs that end only at the ribbon of water far below.
The view is spectacular, and the end is in sight, but not yet attained. As you pick your way back and forth down the trail, the alluring flow of water and sway of green trees in Bright Angel Campground gets closer and closer.
The first real reward lies just beyond a short tunnel through the rock, where you’ll step onto the Black Bridge and cross the Colorado River.
Pause here to take it all in, then take the last few steps into shade by the creek in the campground.
Here you can fill up water, use a flush toilet, send a postcard from Phantom Ranch, and rest before the journey back up. Note: South Kaibab Trail is used by mules that carry people and supplies up and down the canyon.
Mules have right of way for safety reasons.
Always stop when mules pass and follow the driver’s instructions.