North Kaibab Trail
Distance: 14.5 miles (one way)
Type: In and out
The North Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park is one of only three maintained trails in the park, and like the others, has no shortage of phenomenal natural beauty. The trail is most easily accessed from either the North Rim area of the park, or by connecting to it at the Colorado River from the Bright Angel Trail, or its southern counterpart.
Note that a round trip hike of this trail should not be attempted in one day. It is steep, strenuous, and unendingly long. It’s highly recommended that if you want to hike the trail in its entirety, you should have a reservation at Cottonwood Camp, roughly halfway down, or at Phantom Ranch near the Colorado River.
North Kaibab Trail Description
North Kaibab Trailhead to Supai Tunnel
From the North Rim, begin descending the trail through the chilly ponderosa pine forest. As you descend, like it or not, you’ll receive an outstanding lesson in geology. From the top of the trailhead, you’ll be descending to the most recently deposited layers, the Kaibab and Toroweap Limestone.
As the canyon begins to engulf you as you steadily switchback down, the limestone is quickly replaced with Coconino Sandstone. Elevation is rapidly lost as the trail swings you back and forth deeper into the lush green canyon, heavily forested with pines, firs, and aspens, and a remarkable diversity of ground brush. It’s not long before you reach the Supai Tunnel, location of the first rest stop along the trail. During the regular season, you can find running water at each of the rest areas, along with outhouses of the fancier sort.
Supai Tunnel to Roaring Springs
Back on the North Kaibab Trail, heading through the short tunnel carved into the rock reveals a view unlike any other. On the other end of the few dozen feet, a gargantuan canyon drops down in front of you, your trail snaking through its depths so far that it completely disappears out of sight. The trail below makes an unfathomable amount of switchbacks downward, forcing you to question your commitment to hiking the entirety of the trail. After all, you’re only a couple of miles in with a dozen more to go, and you’ll still have to come back up.
The views down never disappoint. Down one switchback after another over the course of hundreds of vertical feet, you soon reach a large bridge spanning the depths of the canyon you’ve been hiking down this entire time. Those with a fear of heights will want to keep their eyes focused straight ahead. Continuing on the other side of the canyon, the trail rambles along, gradually heading down through the base of the sandstone layer. Throughout this section, the colorful sandstone and limestone above, combined with the vibrant green of the plantlife, create a bold and vivid palette of color bursting from virtually every direction. Even below, you begin to see the Hermit Shale layer with the Supai Group, a muted beige, yet somehow still adding to the colorful display.
As you begin to reach the junction with Bright Angel Canyon, an enormous waterfall inspiring visions of Hawaii comes into view on the opposite side. Roaring Springs explodes from within the shale, creating a dramatic and lush waterfall environment. This waterfall is not only a major source of water for Bright Angel Creek, but also for all the drinking water in Grand Canyon National Park. As you descend down opposite from it, it’s worth considering a stop in to appreciate it’s flooding waters.
Roaring Springs to Ribbon Falls
From the spectacle of a waterfall, it’s a relatively short distance to the next rest area, the Manzanita Rest Area. Here you’ll find another outhouse and potable water. It’s here you’ll notice the trail changing again, descending into the Redwall and Muav Limestone. Massive canyon walls remind you just how much elevation you’ve descended up to this point, as the canyon slowly begins to widen in its base. Along the way, Bright Angel Creek rushes by, feeding the canyon a surge of much needed water for the increasingly desert environment. It doesn’t take long along this path until you reach approximately halfway, Cottonwood Campground.
Just beyond Cottonwood Campground, Bright Angel Canyon becomes significantly wider, opening up into a more desert-like ecosystem with the distant wall of the South Rim obstructing any horizon. Brittlebrush wildflowers and prickly pear cactus line the trail as the canyon walls rise high into the sky. It’s as if you just traveled from Canada down to central Arizona on your way to Mexico. In fact, this trail is known for doing just that: giving you a glimpse of what it would be like to go through all the different ecosystems from mountainous pine forest of Canada, down to the arid deserts of Mexico. By now you’ve descended through the Bright Angel Shale layer and into the Tapeats Sandstone layer, the final layer that sits on top of the Vishnu Basement Rocks, exposing some of the oldest rocks on Earth. This also puts you in the vicinity of the popular spur trail to Ribbon Falls.
Ribbon Falls is such a short distance off of the North Kaibab Trail, that there’s really no reason not to go, especially given how spectacular it is up close. A waterfall pours dozens of feet from a cliff high above and onto a 30-foot travertine mound that has built up over time. This mound is covered in moss and algae, giving it a remarkable green vibrancy that’s accentuated by the water flowing all over stalagmite-like limestone. Ribbon Falls makes for a great destination for many people, coming from both the South and North Rims, so be sure to soak in some of its splendor and take a break from the trail, whether you’re on your way down or up.
Ribbon Falls to the Colorado River
Beyond the Ribbon Falls spur, the North Kaibab Trail begins to constrict as you leave the Tapeats Sandstone and enter the Vishnu Basement Rocks layer, as mentioned, some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth. This layer is particularly dark and has an eerie mood about it. The dark rock is also infused with Zoroaster Granite, leaving bold streaks of red slashing through the otherwise charcoal rocks. As you descend further, the trail tightens in around you even more, leaving the walls steep, foreboding, and closing in all around you, much like a wider slot canyon. Bright Angel Creek rushes through, in some places squeezing every bit of space along the trail, while also exposing some incredible patterns in the rocks’ geology. As the miles continue, the walls only get higher.
Once all the snaking and bending ends, the canyon widens as it approaches the popular, Phantom Ranch. For some, this is their destination, for other, the Bright Angel Campground, just ahead beneath a canopy of cottonwood trees will be theirs. Regardless, enjoy the easy walk to the Colorado River, and both the Black and Silver Suspension Bridges. Whatever you wind up doing, enjoy your stay and be sure to get some rest. The North Kaibab Trail climbs 14 miles of non-stop uphill on its way back to the trailhead over the course of more than a vertical mile!
From the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, head back north along Highway 67 for 2 miles and look for the parking area for the trail. The North Kaibab Trail will begin on the south side of the road in a large bend in the highway.