Backpacking the Grand Canyon to Ribbon Falls, AZ

The Grand Canyon is a must-do hike for any backpacker. Even though permits for the campground at Bright Angel are hard to come by, we lucked out on walk-in permits. Bright Angel campground is gorgeous and the hike to Ribbon Falls was a great day hike. Over 4,000 feet up and down, this hike isn't easy, but the views are one of a kind.

 

Backpacking Trip Info

Dates: Mar 25 - Mar 27
Miles: 27.4 total
Elevation Change: 4,730
Trail Type: Loop

Trail map of S Kaibab to Bright Angel (missing Ribbon Falls). Photo from meetup.com
Trail map of S Kaibab to Bright Angel (missing Ribbon Falls). Photo from meetup.com

 

Getting There

We drove the 8 hours to Flagstaff, AZ and got a cheap motel to crash in before waking up early and trying to get a walk in permit at the wilderness office. After waiting in line, we didn't get a walk in for the day, so we headed out to explore the rim of the Grand Canyon, something we weren't expecting to enjoy as much as we did since it was so touristy.

We walked the rim for a little, and the air temperature was quite cold and still had snow in some places. We were all bundled up in jackets, hats, and gloves, and we couldn't explore the North Rim because the roads were still closed.

View from the south rim
View from the south rim
Relaxing on some wicker chairs with a beautiful view!
Relaxing on some wicker chairs with a beautiful view!

Since all lodging on the rim was so expensive, and camping would just be too cold, we headed back to our hotel in Flagstaff and promised to return early the next day. When we got to the wilderness office, we weren't hopeful since there was already a crowd and spring break seemed to draw a large amount of visitors. Just by luck, we managed to land a permit and camp spot for Bright Angel! Ecstatic, we headed to the TH (7,260') to pack our packs.

 

The Hike

Since this was our first backpacking trip, we didn't have hiking boots, no sleeping pads, and Kyle and I had one sleeping bag to share. Kyle even had hand surgery that month and sported a black thumb cast on the trail (so many people on the trail asked if he hurt it at the grand canyon). Looking back on this trip, we laugh at how unprepared we were. In a way this trip has made us realize that we don't need the fancy gear to go backpacking, but that having the right gear can make a trip more comfortable.

The beginning of the many switchbacks
The beginning of the many switchbacks

The South Kaibab trail is 6.8 miles to Phantom Ranch and another 0.2 miles to Bright Angel Campground, involving 4,730' of descent.

It was very cool getting to see all of the different layers and ecosystems that the Grand Canyon covers
It was very cool getting to see all of the different layers and ecosystems that the Grand Canyon covers
Stopping at an iconic tree on a plateau with a great view
Stopping at an iconic tree on a plateau with a great view

There were lots of donkey trains carrying people and packs on the trail. We often had to pull over to the side (pick the canyon wall side so they don't knock you over the cliff) to let them pass.

A creepy picture of a ghost donkey trekking past us
A creepy picture of a ghost donkey trekking past us

Hiking downhill with a full pack was harder than I imagined. After all of the steps down, my quads were shaking and we were not even close. The beautiful scenery around me definitely helped take my mind off my tired legs.

The top of the canyon walls slowly rose above us
The top of the canyon walls slowly rose above us
We hiked through a bright red section of the trail
We hiked through a bright red section of the trail
Our first view of the Colorado River. You can see the winding switchbacks descending
Our first view of the Colorado River. You can see the winding switchbacks descending
Me and Kyle coming down the trail to catch up to Clark
Me and Kyle coming down the trail to catch up to Clark

The scenery was quite diverse, and at 6.3 miles we even passed through a tunnel that emerged into a beautiful suspension bridge.

Clark emerging from the tunnel onto the bridge
Clark emerging from the tunnel onto the bridge
The bridge over Colorado River that we crossed
The bridge over Colorado River that we crossed

As we reached the campground, we were surprised how warm and picturesque the bottom of the canyon was compared to the top. The Bright Angel Creek flowed right through the campground, and white cotton wisps floated around in the wind. Bright Angel has 33 camp sites, toilets, and water. After we set up camp, we headed to the sandy beach by the Colorado River to go for a swim and cool off after our long hike.

Our camp spot at Bright Angel Campground
Our camp spot at Bright Angel Campground

That night we hiked back to the bridge to watch the stars, and we even saw some bats in the tunnel that we came from. The next day we decided to hike to Ribbon falls. The 5.6 miles to Ribbon falls was along the North Kaibab trail. It was only 1,200' elevation gain and followed the river through the canyon and through some open desert fields. We saw Ribbon falls in the distance and crossed the river to reach it.

The trail crossed the river several times on these well-maintained bridges
The trail crossed the river several times on these well-maintained bridges
Shortcut to Ribbon Falls by crossing the river
Shortcut to Ribbon Falls by crossing the river
The 3-tier Ribbon Falls in its entirety
The 3-tier Ribbon Falls in its entirety
Climbing up to the 2nd tier of the falls
Climbing up to the 2nd tier of the falls

We stayed in the shade of the 2nd tier and found a small alcove to hang out in. The view from the cave was amazing, and the moisture from the waterfall mist created a great habitat for mosses and ferns to grow. After spending several hours up there, we decided to get a head start on our hike home.

Hiking back from Ribbon Falls
Cactus man!
Where we stopped to have our pizza lunch on the way back
Where we stopped to have our pizza lunch on the way back

When we got back to our camp spot, we did some bouldering up the rocky wall of our camp spot and then went to hang out on the sandy beach again. After some whiskey and cards, we called it a night. The next morning we woke up early and headed out on the dreaded hike back up. Even though our packs were the lighter, it was still a 4,360 mile ascent over 9.6 miles.

Just leaving Bright Angel campground
Just leaving Bright Angel campground
The bridge over the CO river in the morning light
The bridge over the CO river in the morning light

We had to stop for about 10 minutes because I got a bloody nose. Trying to get as far ahead on the trail as possible before the sun reached full force, we eventually reached Indian Campground. There were about 15 camp spots, toilets, and water. We even saw a doe on the trail here!

Beautiful Indian Garden was in bloom at the time of our trip
Beautiful Indian Garden was in bloom at the time of our trip
Looking back at the canyon
Looking back at the canyon

The worst part was seeing the final steep section back up to the top. It seemed like we had already climbed so far, but looking up at the sheer cliff was quite daunting.

Facing the steep climb on the way up Bright Angel trail
Facing the steep climb on the way up Bright Angel trail

The air got icier as we climbed, and we passed some wet patches of mud and snow. We passed lots of day hikers astonished to see us lugging our large packs, and many asked whether we climbed from the canyon floor.

Just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other
Just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other
Clark and Kyle at an arch only about 100 yards from the top!
Clark and Kyle at an arch only about 100 yards from the top!

There was a group of people enjoying the view from lawn chairs set up by the trail, cheering me on the final 100 feet.

Feeling accomplished. One of the hardest hikes for me.
Feeling accomplished. One of the hardest hikes for me.

Since it was my first backpacking trip ever, the Grand Canyon will always hold a special magic for me. It was the hardest hike for me, mostly because I had never hiked anything over 4 miles before. But even so, the beautiful views the whole way through made it worth it. I would love to go back and explore the North Rim.

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