Check out our Grand Canyon National Park Candle, available now in our shop!

We recently visited Grand Canyon National Park and hiked the North Kaibab Trail down to the Colorado river and back. Wow, was this a treat! The backcountry services in the Grand Canyon stop on October 15th each year, and requires a backcountry permit to access the trails and camp in the backcountry on the North Rim. So if you are heading down there, be sure to be prepared, and check water access at campgrounds along the way. These water tap statuses are posted on the backcountry website here.

Here is the view you are greeted with when arriving at the North Rim:

North Kaibab Trail Ecology

The steep strenuous, North Kaibab Trail is the only maintained trail on the North Rim that descends into the canyon. Though physically demanding, it offers a tremendous Inner Canyon experience, passing through a stunning range of ecological zones. As you hike downward, temperatures get warmer and the plant communities change, sometimes abruptly. Elevation, temperature, precipitation, soil depth, and sunlight are all interrelated factors that determine where plants grow in the canyon. At the trail head, 8,250 feet, you are surrounded by Ponderosa pine and Boreal forests, but drop down the trail to 3,000 feet and you are standing in desert scrub. For every 1,000 feet in elevation drop, temperatures rise about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Boreal Forest at the trail head above 8,200 feet offers a mix of conifers like Douglas Fir, Engelmann spruce, and white and blue spruce trees with patches of grassy meadows. You may also see the local Dusky grouse or scrub jay birds along the way if you are lucky. We really loved the scents we encountered passing through this area.

north_kaibab ponderosa pine tree

North Kaibab Ponderosa

North Kaibab Trail Conifers

Near top of trail, conifer forests on full display.

Just 1,000 feet down in the zone of 7,200 – 8,300 feet resides the Ponderosa Pine Forest, tall, red-barked trees that often grow in pure ponderosa stands. You’re likely to see the Kaibab Squirrel here, which has a big white bushy tail and has evolved in this area, unique specifically to the canyon.

Elevation 4,000 – 7,300 feet brings forth the Pinyon Pine – Utah Juniper trees. Small conifers, or evergreens, growing with Gambel Oak, cliffrose, and sagebrush. We really loved the scents we encountered passing through this area as well.

Descending further, 1,500 – 4,000 feet brings forth the Desert Scrub environment. Low growing, widely spaced shrubs and wildflowers, often dominated by blackbrush. Once you are at the river, this area is referred to as Riparian, and the riverbanks are completely stacked with water loving plants including willow, cottonwoods, redbud, cattail, skirt springs, streams, and river edges.

It was 30 degrees F at the trail head, and 80 degrees F at the bottom! Snow on the ground in the North Rim Campground:

north rim campground snow

Snow on the ground at the North Rim campground.

Accessing the North Kaibab Trailhead:

The North Kaibab trailhead can only be accessed via I-67 in AZ from Jacob Lake, and this closes during the winter when snow fall is heavy. So always check the status of this road before heading for this trail. We spent our first night at the North Rim campground, elevation approximately 8,250 feet, and then followed this 5 day itinerary which was perfect combination of hiking and relaxing, making the whole experience enjoyable. When all said and done, you’ve descended 5,850 feet in only about 14 miles.

Day 2 – Friday, 10/19/2018
Hit the trail head as early in the morning as we can, heading for Cottonwood campground. The hike this day is 6.8 miles of trail with 4000 ft elevation change.  This hike took approximately 4 hours, and allowed plenty of time to relax and set up camp. If you are making time and feel like it, there is a slight detour to a waterfall called Ribbon Falls, just off route to Cottonwood that you can try to check out. We did not do this, because when we got to the Ribbon Falls break off point we were very motivated to just push on to Cottonwood camp. We stayed at Cottonwood camp for the night.
Day 3 – Saturday 10/20/2018
Leave Cottonwood campground behind and head for Bright Angel campground. The hike is 7.2 miles. This is located on the water, at the bottom of the canyon and marks our turnaround point.
Day 4 – Sunday 10/21/2018
Stay for the day at Bright Angel campground and RELAX 🙂
Activities & Amenities at Bright Angel Campground & Phantom Ranch:
We stayed here for two nights, which is HIGHLY recommended! Connected to the Bright Angel campground is Phantom Ranch, that has a Cantina which serves up cold beer, snacks, and other wonderful treats you will love to try after a long hiking trip! They have cabins, and dinner services here as well, but don’t count on it, as the reservations run about two years out and are assigned by lottery only. Regardless, Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground are an amazing Oasis at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, with a storied history. Just a 5 minute hike from the campground at Bright Angel is access to the Colorado river, and there are two different suspension bridges available to bring you to the other side of the river, bridging the gap to the South Rim trails.
suspension bridge over colorado river

Suspension Bridge over Colorado River

second suspension bridge over Colorado river

2nd suspension bridge over Colorado river.

Trout Fishing in Bright Angel Campground:
We wanted to do some trout fishing while we were down here, so we gave that a shot. Unfortunately, several years ago the park rangers installed a “electro fisher” grid on Bright Angel creek, which used to be amazing trout fishing grounds. This devices essentially looks like a fence in the creek, and prevents trout from heading upstream for feeding, and raising their young. They did this to eradicate trout from the stream, as they are predatory fish that were harming native fish species in the streams. It’s a bummer, because the Colorado river itself is far too muddy with sediment to fish with lures. Because of this, we were not able to capitalize on some of the best trout fishing grounds in America, and were forced with limited options for catching trout. Below the trout fence, just above the confluence (where bright angel creek meets the Colorado river) we had about 200 yards of free stream that accessed the river which offered a couple of clear shallow pools we could fish. While we did not have the best of luck, we were able to catch a few rainbow trout using spinner lures. If you do come fish here, make sure to carry a valid AZ fishing license, as there are park rangers on site that will likely want to see one!
rainbow trout bright angel creek

Rainbow Trout From Bright Angel Creek below fence

Hiking out of the Canyon:
Day 5 – Monday 10/22/2018
Leave Bright Angel campground at dawn to start our return ascent of the canyon. We’re just heading back up the way we came, on the same trail, to Cottonwood campground. Stay the night at Cottonwood and prepare for our last hike out, on Tuesday. Trying to hike all the way from Bright Angel campground to the North Kaibab Trail head in one day is NOT recommended. While possible, and we encountered several runners and groups along the way which were attempting this due to constraints on their vacation schedule, they were ALL miserable. I can safely say that doing this will ruin your trip, so my suggestion is do not try to accomplish this.
Day 6 – Tuesday 10/23/2018

The last day, we hike out of Cottonwood for the trail head. We left our campsite around 5AM and the whole party was at the trailhead by 10:15 AM. All in all, I’d have to say ascending the canyon after all that hiking was easier than descending the canyon on the first couple of days. This is of course, dependent on your level of physical preparedness so be sure the know your own limits, and pace yourself. This was one of the most enjoyable backcountry hiking experiences we’ve had in America, and hope our experience inspires others to get out there! Coming soon, we’ve got a candle inspired by the conifer forests and sage brushes encountered along the North Kaibab Trail, featuring blue spruce trees, and sage. It’s wonderful.

Inspired by this trip, check out our Grand Canyon National Park Candle, available now in our shop!

See you on the trails.