5 Best Grand Canyon South Rim Hikes

The Grand Canyon is a hiker’s paradise with some of the most beautiful vistas in the entire United States.

While the hike down to the bottom of the canyon is best left to expert hikers, there are several easy to moderate Grand Canyon day hikes worth the effort!

The combination of utter exhaustion and triumphant accomplishment can bring a special sense of clarity and peace to a troubled mind. 

The Grand Canyon has provided that combination to many adventurers over the centuries.  The first humans to see the Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans, are estimated to have looked over the edge some 12,000 years ago!

Today, the Grand Canyon has hundreds of miles of hiking trails to offer all fitness and adrenaline levels, and just one look at any vista is enough to tell you why this is a place you must visit at least once in your life.

No matter your challenge, physical or emotional, the grandest of all canyons has a gorge, a side canyon, a drainage gully, or ravine to draw you in and wrap around you, and bring you peace.

This post covers only hikes in the South Rim; I have a few North Rim hikes mentioned in this post comparing the South Rim to the North Rim.

Beginner Grand Canyon Hikes

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There are two main “corridor” hiking trails along the South Rim: the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails.

Corridor trails are well marked and well-maintained, albeit heavily traveled. 

You won’t find solitude on these trails, but you will find solace. The Bright Angel Trail has the most options for a variety of skill levels. 

Not wanting to go beneath the rim? For those who are completely new to hiking, there is a 9-mile trail along the South Rim that provides spectacular views of the Grand Canyon along the full length of the trail. 

The Tunnels

Distance to First Tunnel: 0.5-mile roundtrip
Elevation Change: 300 feet
Estimated Time: About 30 minutes

Distance to Second Tunnel: 1.5-miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: Around 800 feet
Estimated Time: About 1 hour – 1.5 hours

A great first Grand Canyon hike below the Rim on the Bright Angel Trail takes you about a quarter of a mile down the trail to the first of two tunnels along the trail.  This is a very popular spot for families with young children and offers plenty of photo options of the Canyon and the hikers. 

Because of the popularity, the walk down may feel a bit like the line at an amusement park, but the thrill at the destination is much different. 

The chattering of hikers on the trail drops off dramatically as everyone stops at the tunnel to take in the scale of the Grand Canyon from below the edge. 

Even in just this short distance, you know you have walked into something extraordinary! 

Continuing down the trail approximately another half of a mile will bring you to the second tunnel which is equally as spectacular.

At this higher elevation, you can see junipers and pinyon thriving between great gaps in the rock.  The occasional shrubs and wildflowers scattered between the trail proper and the rock wall are a testament to nature and her ability to create life and beauty in the most unlikely of places.

Further down the trail, the multicolored cliffs are as inviting as they are imposing and the pull of the wonderful views can make it easy to forget that what goes down must come up.

Any Grand Canyon hiking trail below the Rim requires a significant effort to return to the top.  A safe estimate is twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down. 

The walk back to the surface from either tunnel is not terribly steep, however, any hike out of the Grand Canyon should be celebrated. 

The trail does steepen after the second tunnel, so don’t let the easy stroll down the trail trick you.

Unlike mountain hikes where you do the climb and then get an easy hike back down, in the Grand Canyon hiking down the trail is easy, but then you have to turn around and go back up.

As the park signage reminds hikers, “Down is optional, up is mandatory!”

1.5 Mile Resthouse

Distance: 3 mile roundtrip hike, as the name suggests!
Elevation Change: 1,300 feet elevation
Estimated Time: 2-3 hours

A great turnaround point, and a very popular Grand Canyon day hike for beginners, is another three-quarters of a mile down the trail to the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. 

This stop has composting toilets, seasonal water in the warm months, and an emergency telephone. The small “resthouse” structure has shade and plenty of space to enjoy a snack and a good rest before the climb back to the top. 

The view northward in front of you from this stop includes the full length of Garden Creek drainage gorge, which the trail runs along, and the formation called the “Battleship” directly west of the gorge.

In the Canyon proper, you can see the Bright Angel Canyon scoring the North Rim and providing a stage for the l, the only corridor trail on the North Rim.

Each peak in front of you has a name.  The two most prominent features in the view from 1.5 Mile Resthouse are the Cheops Pyramid to the west of the Bright Angel Canyon, and Zoroaster Temple to the right.

This is my favorite Grand Canyon hike for a beginner.  You get a good feel for the lure of the Canyon and the effort to return to the surface, without waking up sore the next morning. 

Intermediate Grand Canyon Hikes

3 Mile Resthouse

Distance: 6 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 2,240 feet
Estimated Time: 3-4 hours

For those with more hiking experience under their belt, there are two great Grand Canyon day hike points further down the trail. Another 1.5 miles down the trail is 3 Mile Resthouse. 

This resthouse, like 1.5 Mile Resthouse, also has composting toilets, seasonal water in the warm months, and an emergency telephone.

The shade structure is slightly larger than at 1.5 Mile Resthouse and I have spent many hours reading, writing, and sketching from this location.

If you’re lucky enough to reach the stop after hikers going down have made their way through, but before the hikers coming up reach the location, you can spend 2 to 3 hours here with very little company. 

Otherwise, this stop is an extraordinarily popular turnaround point and is a bustling location for Grand Canyon hikes!

The view of the Canyon from the 3 Mile Resthouse is not much different than 1.5 Mile Resthouse because the trail is still hugging the walls of the Garden Creek gorge and hasn’t yet turned to a more open view of the main Colorado River gorge. 

However, if you turn around and look back up at the Rim from where you started, the view is very different. 

The cliffs looming from where you came from are spectacular and humbling.  This is when you realize you are merely a guest here and you do not want to overstay your welcome. 

Take your photos, finish your journal entry or sketch, and after a good rest, start the return climb up the trail.  

This is a 6-mile round trip Grand Canyon hike and is the perfect combination of canyon immersion and a good workout.

Indian Gardens Campground

Distance: 9.6 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 3,000 feet
Estimated Time: 5-6 hours

Another great turnaround point for an intermediate to advanced hiker is the Indian Gardens Campground.  This oasis in the Canyon is 4.8 miles from the Rim, so a round trip hike is almost 10 miles in a single day. 

This hike takes an average of 2.5 to 3 hours to get to the campground so plan on 5 to 6 hours for the return trip.

For those with the time, this is a beautiful hike.  Indian Gardens is a stunning riparian area filled with cottonwood trees tucked in the crevices of the Canyon walls.

The small creek, Garden Creek, that created the drainage gorge the trail has been hugging, passes through the campground on its way to the Colorado River.

As with both rest houses, there are toilets and an emergency phone.  Indian Gardens also includes a ranger station, a mule corral, and year-round potable water.

The campground here contains 16 tent campsites, each with a table, two ammo boxes for food storage, and a shade structure. 

A backcountry permit is needed if you care to spend the night and be sure to plan ahead as this is a premium backpacking stop and the campsites fill up quickly. 

Despite the time commitment to reach this spot, the effort is well worth it.  This surprising water hole surrounded by the formidable multicolored cliffs is refreshing and energizing.

If planning to turn around here, be sure to leave early enough to reach the top before the sun sets. 

The Expert Grand Canyon Hike

Plateau Point

Distance: 12.2 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 3,200 feet
Estimated Time: 8-12 hours

This is the further point you’re recommended to do as a day hike in the Grand Canyon.

You can apply for a permit to hike to Indian Garden if you want to break up this into two portions, or if you want to attempt to hike to the river (which is not recommended as a day hike)

The trail from Indian Gardens to the Plateau Point is considerably less steep than in the upper 3 miles of the trail. 

Can You Hike to the Rim to River and Back in a Day?

In a word, no. The National Park Service adamantly discourages hikers from going to the Colorado River and back in a single day. 

The river is 9.3 miles from the trailhead so a round trip hike is almost 20 miles in a single day!

Of course, there are many visitors to the Canyon who take the risk, and each year, approximately 250 need to be rescued. 

NEVER try to swim in the Colorado River – the water is very cold and moves very fast.  The river water is not drinkable without some form of treatment so plan accordingly if you want to fill up at the River.  

There is an emergency phone and a primitive toilet, but no water at the River Resthouse.


Final Notes on South Rim Grand Canyon Hikes

Irrespective of your turnaround point, the hike down into the Canyon is the easy part.  Spend time on the trail taking in the panoramic views. 

Notice the changing colors of the rock as the sun and shadows move across the Canyon.  Allow your mind to quiet itself. 

Enjoy your turnaround point related and in high spirits.  Then start back up the trail with a singular focus.  The euphoria as you take that last step on to the rim surface is immensely satisfying and cathartic.

The physical and emotional effort to hike the Grand Canyon is an accomplishment at any distance and any fitness level. 

Every time I take a hike into the Canyon I shed a little more discontent, and bring home a little more comfort and joy!

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