Hike Grand Canyon Via South Kaibab Trail: Jun 15, 2011

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

For our first real vacation together outside of MA, we visited AZ. Part 4 of the trip centered on hiking within the Grand Canyon National Park. For other segments of the trip click on the hyperlinks below.

1. Apache Trail

2. Sedona

3. Grand Canyon

4. Hike Grand Canyon Via South Kaibab Trail

5. Lake Powell

6. Route 66

7. Las Vegas


Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP), located in northwestern Arizona, is the 15th site in the United States to have been named a national park. The park's central feature is the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River, which is often considered one of the Wonders of the World. An estimated 6 million people visit the GCNP each year, making it the second most popular national park following just behind the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Some fun facts about the Grand Canyon:

  • The Grand Canyon is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. The Grand Canyon is a mile deep, 277 miles long and 18 miles wide. While the park doesn’t include the entire canyon, it does measure in at a whopping 1,904 square miles in total. In comparison, Rhode Island is around 1,212 square miles.

  • Despite being the most famous, the Grand Canyon is not actually the world’s deepest canyon. Depending on how the depth of the gorge is measured, the Arizona landmark actually comes behind the Cotahuasi Canyon in Peru and the Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal.

  • The Grand Canyon offers one of the most visible examples of a worldwide geological phenomenon known as the Great Unconformity, in which 250 million-year-old rock strata lie back-to-back with 1.2 billion-year-old rocks. What happened during the hundreds of millions of years between remains largely a mystery.


South Kaibab Trail

Hike Distance: 10 miles (Trailhead to Panorama Point). So close to the Colorado River but we knew it was not going to happen today.


Elevation Loss: 3,640 feet (7,260 to 3,620 ft) and we felt every foot once we started returning to the trailhead.

The South Kaibab Trail, the best and least traveled of the two maintained Grand Canyon South Rim paths begins along the side road to Yaki Point. Steep and strenuous, the South Kaibab Trail is the South Rim’s most direct route to the bottom of Grand Canyon (6.3 miles). While most Inner Canyon trails follow side canyons, the South Kaibab Trail follows open ridgelines, providing spectacular views in all directions, which is great for day hikers.


The trail descends 4,820 feet in total; there is drinking water at the start and at the river but not in between. We stocked up on water, our camel backs were full and we carried a few extra water bottles.


We arrived at the trail head about 7:30am, made a final pit stop, and then started our hike. The beginning of the trail was in shade, it would be a while before the sun reached the ravine.

The South Kaibab Trail is the first trail from the rim to the river that was built by the Parks Service. When the Grand Canyon became a National Park in 1919, the popular trails like the Bright Angel were privately owned and charged a toll. The Parks Service tried to purchase the Bright Angel, but it was cheaper just to build another trail, so they built the South Kaibab.


The trail starts with a dramatic drop in elevation via many switchbacks.

As we were still walking on the switchbacks, the walls began to open with great views of the canyon in both directions.

The morning sunlight flooding the canyon is a sight not to be missed.

We were descending quickly and having to looking upwards to see the South Rim.

After hiking 0.9 miles and descending 600+ feet, we reached the Ooh Aah Point vista. Even if you aren't into hiking this is a great adventure. If you can handle the physical demands, start in the morning to take advantage of the shade and to get great hazy-free views of the inner canyon.

Dave has such a sense of direction, I wasn't sure which way to go from here. It's another 0.6 miles to the next way-point...Cedar Ridge.

Back in 1924 when the trail was being constructed they had to blast through ledges to deal with the elevation changes and uneven topography.

Despite the incredible heat during the summer months, desert wildflowers grew along the sides of the trail and in rock crevasses.

As we hiked further, the canyon expanded in every direction with amazing panoramic views.

Heading to our next waypoint - Cedar Crest and O'Neill Butte (right of center). From the picture below you can see how the trail makes its way down the spine of the ridge. In wide-open spaces, it's difficult to judge distances.

He still had super powers at this point in the hike and there are no sweat stains yet. At this point the temperature was still in the 70s.

As we approached Cedar Ridge we could see a scattering of cedar trees on the hillside.

After an hour, we had hiked 1.5 miles and descended 940 feet rom the trailhead.

If you review the A QUICK LESSON ON GEOLOGY OF THE GRAND CANYON section at the end of this blog, we were located at the transition point between rock formations #4 and #5.

It was a great sensation to look back at the South Rim and see how far we'd traveled. You can see the trail outline wrapping around the ridge. The small building left of center was constructed by the National Park System and contains pit toilets building constructed by the Park Service but no drinking water is available here or anywhere along the trail. After passing O'Neill butte the number of day hikers we saw dropped off dramatically.

From the ridge it's a straight shot half-mile to O'Neill Butte.

O’Neill Butte, is a prominent sandstone summit admired by every hiker who passes it. Not surprisingly, O'Neill is one of the more highly photographed features in the park. If you know where to look, it's visible from the South Rim.

It was so much bigger than it appears in these pictures except when you look at the two hikers trekking around the base of the butte. It was incredible to think that we were walking on rock layers/formations that were over 300 million years old.

The trail from O'Neill Butte to Skeleton Point continued hugging the ridge line and fortunately was relatively flat for a mile or so.

Looking back at O'Neill Butte.

This section of the trail had an increasingly green landscape of low shrubs and small flowering desert plants.

Look at the size of this desert agave!

Skeleton Point is reached at the 3-mile mark from the rim and lies at an elevation 2,000+ feet below the trailhead. On this incredible adventure, it's another amazing spot with views of the canyon.

We could see the Colorado River for the first time on the hike, churning through the inner canyon another 3,000-feet below. The canyon dominates the view in every direction here...up, down, right, left. The landscape here is so immense. With no other hikers and only the faint sound of the Colorado it felt very 'isolated and remote'.


With these views its hard to accept that the average park visitor never leaves the Canyon Village. They roll up in their rental car, park, stroll to the guardrail rim, browse the gift shops, and then head to the next national park on their checklist. The park estimates that the average visit lasts less than four hours. What a shame!

From Skeleton Point, the trail drops straight over the edge of the Redwall Limestone cliffs. If you review the A QUICK LESSON ON GEOLOGY OF THE GRAND CANYON section at the end of this blog, we were located at the transition point between rock formations #5 and #6.


These switchbacks were by far those most intense section of the entire trail. A quick 500 foot drop through 20 switchbacks is the only route to the Tonto Plateau that lies at the foot of the cliffs. Take a glimpse at just a portion of the switchbacks. Simply put they were hell and what a challenge especially when we'd be hiking back up.

Fortunately, there's a lot of eye-candy to take your mind off the work at hand. This was the view as we started the switchbacks.

If you think we'd get tired of this scenery or that it had gotten old by this point, you're wrong. Now we were beginning to get glimpses of the inner gorge. The Colorado River was down there somewhere.


At times the switchbacks literally clung to the sides of the cliff face.

We also got our first "smell' of a mule train coming up from the Phantom Ranch camp grounds.

A second mule train passed us on their return to the South Rim. When you encounter mules you are suppose to step off the trail on the uphill side away from the ridge.

We were making descent progress at this point even though the temperature was really starting to rise.

Looking straight ahead, we could see our progress as the Redwall Limestone cliffs steadily rose above us the further we descended.

We came across this sign on the switchbacks and thought...holy sh*t, we haven't even reached the Tonto Plateau and if we turn around now we are going to have to hike 3.5 miles uphill and gain 2,760 feet in elevation. We paused took a deep breath and realized we had trained well for this hike and had plenty of food and water - we had planned for this moment.

Taking a short break in the only available shade we could find and reapplying sunscreen.


We continued on. At this point, the only people we saw were a young couple who were who were considerably higher up on the switchbacks.

The end of the switchbacks were in sight but it was still a ways to go.

These were the views that keep us going. The switchbacks finally cam to an end and the trails straightened out a bit. There was no one on the trail in front of us to show how the 3-4 foot trail hugs this rock face.

Looking back, the cliff doesn't look that high but the cliff face was over 500 feet high.

Approaching the beginning of the Tonto Plateau. In A QUICK LESSON ON GEOLOGY OF THE GRAND CANYON section at the end of this blog, we were located at the transition point between rock formations #7 and #8.

We still had a significant distance to go until we reached the end of the Tonto Plateau where we could peer directly into the inner gorge of the canyon. The yellow arrow highlights the trail we'd follow as we traversed the plateau.

Unlike the previous terrain, the Tonto Plateau color varies but it is mostly various shades of green with some gray and brown. It looked completely different than any of the layers above it.


If you go back 4 pictures, you will see this same rock formation with the pyramid-like summit but at that point on the trail we were looking down at the summit. Now we were looking up at the same pyramid summit. How the views changed as we continued trekking down into the canyon.

Our next waypoint was the Tonto Trail crossing and Tipoff Point. The trail runs east-west across the Tonto Platform and can be used to connect with the Bright Angel Trail. If you look closely, you can see the pit toilet building (lower right of center) at Tipoff Point.

At the Tonto Trail crossing we had hiked 4.4 miles and 3.900 feet in elevation.

Another 0.2 miles of trekking and we arrived at Tipoff Point. Along with several other hikers, took shelter behind the pit toilet building and ate a quick lunch. Most of the people we met were backpacking and heading to their camp site at Phantom Ranch.

A look back at the trail we had followed to get to this point. Including breaks and photo stops, we had been hiking for about 3 3/4 hours and trekked nearly 4.6 miles and dropped 3,390 feet from the trailhead.

Still looking strong and fresh! At Tipoff Point, the South Kaibab Trail descends into the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. This had been our intended target for today's hike if everything had gone smoothly.

As we hiked, we began to discuss when should we start our return journey. Our decision was to continue beyond Tipoff Point to the edge of the next set of cliffs and look directly into the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. Of course that meant yet another set of switchbacks.


If you review the A QUICK LESSON ON GEOLOGY OF THE GRAND CANYON section at the end of this blog, we were located at the transition point between rock formations #8 and #9.

Descending further, we finally got a close-up view of the Colorado River.

We continued trekking toward this rock outcrop called Train Wreck.

As we passed Train Wreck, we came across this impressive rock outcrop and continued on.

A short distance later we arrived at Panorama Point; what an obvious name. We had sweeping views of the Colorado River and the Canyon. Not only could we see the river but we could hear it as well, churning some 1,200 feet below us.

Nothing prepared us for this moment when we could see the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.

The Black Suspension Bridge allows hikers from the South Kaibab to cross the Colorado River and reach the Phantom Ranch camp ground.

We were looking directly into the inner gorge of the canyon and staring at rock formations that were over 1 billion years old. Also directly in front of us was the geological phenomenon referred to as the Great Unconformity. In an oversimplified explanation, it's where 515-545 million year old rock layers sit directly on top rock layers that that are 1,600 - 1,700 million years old. This unconformity represents ~1.2 billion years of missing rock record. It could represent a time when no rocks were formed, or a time when rocks were formed but then eroded away.


In the picture below, the Great Unconformity exposed in Grand Canyon Tapeats Sandstone (upper center dark narrow band of cliffs) sits directly atop ancient Proterozoic metamorphic rocks commonly called Vishnu Schist or Vishnu Basement Rock (1,600 - 1,700 million years old).


Notice how Tapeats Sandstone, a horizontal rock formation laid down by a shallow sea, differ from the warped and twisted formation of Vishnu Schist. These basement metamorphic rocks were formed when the North American plate collided with an ancient chain of volcanic islands. During this collision, the rocks were pushed down to depths of up to 13 miles below the Earth’s surface. Intense heat and pressure at those depths metamorphosed the sedimentary and volcanic rocks, changing them into schist and gneiss (the dark, angular rocks found in the inner canyon near the river today).


What an amazing site to see up close.

We immediately knew that Panorama Point was the perfect place to end our hike into the Grand Canyon. We had hiked slightly more that 5 miles and descended 3,640 from the trailhead in 4 1/4 hours. It felt right and we felt confident and ready for the return journey. We had stayed hydrated and still had a good supply of water and food.


What a sense of accomplishment.

After all the pictures, we took a deep breath and began our return to the South Rim. I can tell you, we were both a little anxious as we took those first few steps. Anxious about the challenge we'd face with each step back to the South Rim.

We took advantage of the flat section of the trail and walked at a moderate pace.

Finding shade wherever we could when we needed a water and sun break.

Our pace slowed dramatically as we began the slow and steady climb up the Redwall Limestone switchbacks. No way around it; they were a killer.

We had a mini celebration after cresting the cliff face; the worst was behind us. We were still doing well staying hydrated.

After passing O'Neill Butte, Cedar Ridge and Ooh Aah Point, we were so close to the finish line. Just the steep switchbacks at the start of the trail. With great relief we reached the trailhead in slightly under 3 1/2 hours.

We had very little water left at the end but had managed to stay hydrated throughout the 7 1/2 hour journey. We quickly removed our packs and boots, filled up the extra water bottles we had carried and sat in the shade.

Proud of my red dust Grand Canyon sock mark!

Enjoying the moment and looking back at the Canyon knowing how far we had hiked and 'safely' pushed ourselves to get a great Grand Canyon experience.

These types of hikes and outdoor experiences would become our trademark for future vacations and adventures.


A QUICK LESSON ON GEOLOGY OF THE GRAND CANYON

The rim of the canyon is covered by a layer about 300 feet thick that's called the Kaibab Formation (#1). It forms an erosion-resistant cap rock that extends down to the beginning of the tree line where the formation begins to slope downward. This light gray to tan colored layer, composed of sedimentary stone (limestone, sandstone, etc.), was formed some 250-270 million years ago. This was a time when Arizona lay near the Equator and a clear, warm sea no more than a couple hundred feet deep covered this region.


The narrow 'sloping' rock layer beneath Kaibab Formation that is covered in scrub/trees is the Toroweap Formation (#2). This 255-273 million year old layer is composed of much the same materials as the Kaibab Formation.


The third prominent layer is the Coconino Sandstone (#3) rock layer which is often referred to as the 'bath tub ring of the canyon' since it stands out in sharp contrast to the red layers below. This prominent 350-foot cliff forming layer is about 260-275 million years old is composed of pure quartz sand which are basically petrified sand dunes. This wind-blown dune desert stretched from present-day Arizona all the way to Canada.

Directly below the Coconino Sandstone (#3) cliff layer is the Hermit Formation (#4). This 265-280 million year old formation is composed of soft, easily eroded shale. Because this layer is not as hard as the Kaibab layer or the Coconino Sandstone it forms a slope between the two cliffs. Although it ranges from 100-900 ft in thickness, in many places it can be easily distinguished because it’s so covered with plants/scrub or silt runoff from higher levels. The rich red color of the Hermit Formation (#4) and the Supai Formation (#5) is a sure indication that the sediment was formed in an environment with lots of oxygen to rust the iron in the mud. Running water is one of the best ways to provide this oxygen to the sediment, so rivers, floodplains and tidal flats often deposit sediment that will turn that rich red color.


The fifth formation is the extensive layered slopes and thin cliff of the Supai Formation (#5). This 285-320 million year and 1,000 foot thick layer is mostly red siltstone and sandstone. The Supai layer dominates views along the trail. Part of Grand Canyon’s picturesque value lies in the colorful red layers that make up parts of the canyon walls. The minerals that make up the red rock came from rocks that were rich in iron. As these rock eroded, the iron was oxidized to make rust (iron oxide). The red iron oxide was then deposited along with other sediment to make the red rock layer.


After the Supai layer are the tall vertical steep cliff of the Redwall Limestone Formation. This 340 million years old, 500 feet thick was deposited when the regions was covered by a shallow inland sea. The cliff is named 'Redwall' because it's surface is stained red by the upper layers. As these softer layer erode the red sediment runs down and stains the walls. If you break off the 'red layer' you'd find the true color of the limestone is a bluish-grey color.

Below the Redwall Limestone (#6) formation is the 1,250 feet thick Tonto Group. When the ocean started to return to the area 550 million years ago in the Cambrian, it began to deposit the three formations of the Tonto Group as the shoreline moved eastward: Mauv Limestone (#7); Bright Angel Shale (#8); and Tapeats Sandstone (#9).


Tapeats Sandstone (#9) is an average of 545 million years old. This formation is made of cliff-derived medium- to coarse-grained sand and conglomerate that was deposited on an ancient shore. Today it is a cliff-former, 250 to 300 feet thick.


Bright Angel Shale (#8) averages 530 million years old. The Bright Angel Shale is easily identified for two reasons. Its soft-greenish color stands out against the browns, reds, and whites of neighboring rock units. Secondly, it has a slope-forming character against mostly cliff-forming resistant rocks.


Muav Limestone (#7) averages 515 million years old. It is composed of gray thin-bedded limestone that was deposited further offshore as calcium carbonate precipitate. The Muav is a cliff-former, 250 to 375 feet thick.

The Great Unconformity exposed in Grand Canyon Tapeats Sandstone (#9: upper center dark narrow band of cliffs) sits directly atop ancient Proterozoic metamorphic rocks commonly called Vishnu Schist or Vishnu Basement Rock (#10: 1,600 - 1,700 million years old).


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