My wife, her cousin, and I did the one-day South Rim to river and back in one day. It all went splendidly but we’re quite fit and had prepared and trained extensively. I’d advise that people really think twice (or more) before attempting this, because as well travelled as this route is, you’re really on your own to get yourself back, and you really could get hurt. But for us, who really almost over prepared (is there really such a thing), it was a wonderful experience. The only iffy moments being the scary thunder and lightning.
We visited the South Rim two years ago on a day trip from Vegas and resolved we’d be back to hike down. This year, with a trip to Phoenix we decided to do it, but couldn’t get a spot at Phantom or a campsite so decided to take a shot at a one-day down and out. From all the research, I could see that this was potentially risky. But figured with moderate October temperatures, with our fitness, and with preparation it was doable.
So in the month before the trip, we did three long hikes in the mountain trails north of Vancouver BC, Canada. Including a 3km mountain stair climb called the Grouse Grind, a 9-hour forest with a bit of elevation, and an 8-hr hike on Cypress Mountain from the top, down then up, to closely approximate the canyon. We also equipped ourselves with good gear and snakes from MEC (the Canadian REI): 3L hydration packs, hiking poles, headlamps, good boots (I wanted lots of support because I’ve twisted my ankles a few times years ago and felt that was a risk for me….my wife, also a trail runner, felt safe on that count and wore light trail shoes).
The cousin, age 34, hadn’t prepared other than a couple of runs in the weeks before, and we were helping her get equipped right up until the night before.
So on hike day with rim temperatures predicted in the teens (Celsius) — perfect — we rose before 5am in our Tusayan motel, drove to the village, and caught the first (6am) hikers express to South Kaibab, hitting the trail down a little after 630. The first mile or so, during sunrise, was absolutely breathtaking and we stopped a fair bit for photos and to just take it all in. After Cedar Ridge we started booking it, especially after storm clouds started rolling into the Canyon and we got pelted with a good hour’s dump of rain, hail(!) and some pretty close and scary lightning.
We reached the Colorado River around 9:30 and Phantom Ranch at 10:00 (so 3.5 hrs). Took a 40minute break for snacks and a hot coffee (what a nice friendly guy running the canteen) then started the route back, the standard Bright Angel Trail return. By now the weather was sunny and warm and we found the hike to Indian Garden comfortable and beautiful (though our cousin was now starting to feel it, we could see). Another short break at the Gardens (20m) and then we were ready to tackle the oft mentioned Wall.
Again, not as bad as I’d feared. The thin air at elevation from our sea-level home and practice ground wasn’t at all a factor. And I really didn’t feel so bad at all. (I hurt and sweated way more during my Grouse Grind stair hikes back home). But I think a big factor was that the temperature was pretty much perfect. If it had been hot, or even warm, instead of the cool day we enjoyed, I’d have had a harder time.
But we cruised back out around 3:30 pm, 9 hours total (including a full hour stopped for breaks and a fair number of stops for photos, videos, and looking around at the glorious scenes). Way better than the 10-12 hours I was estimating we’d do based on other accounts and our own training hikes.
Mind you, our cousin really struggled the last hour or so. I gave her my poles for the Wall climb, which she really appreciated. And all three of us were hobbling around pretty stiffly that night and the next day. But my wife and I at least didn’t hurt nearly as much as we expected (though she had a pretty bad headache the day after, possibly from dehydration). So all was great and we look forward to other epic hikes in the future (Camino Santiago?)
BTW: Food and hydration wise, I went through 3 of the 4.25 liters of water I had on me, including about 250ml of electrolytes solution. Add to that an apple, a banana, two Cliff bars and a small bag of trail mix.
All told a glorious and memorable experience (what a magical, awesome place!) and a great physical challenge. Definitely not for everyone, but certainly doable if your very fit, equipped and prepared.