The South Kaibab Trail is generally preferred to the Bright Angel Trail: it is more direct, and thus shorter; and the trail itself is more exposed, leading to better views of the Canyon, particularly eastward.
The Bright Angel Trail is not as relatively exciting: the views are more limited, and the section along the Colorado River is not especially dynamic. However, the Bright Angel may make for an easier ascent because it features four water sources, whereas the South Kaibab Trail has none.
Reaching these trailheads is equally convenient: the South Kaibab is close to Village Marketplace and the Bright Angel is adjacent to Grand Canyon Village.
From the Colorado River, the only logical trail to the North Rim is the North Kaibab Trail. If you are planning to overnight, other routes become feasible: the Tanner, Grandview, and Bass Trails all descend from the South Rim and can be connected to the North Kaibab Trail via the Tonto and Escalante Trails (the latter only if you descend via the Tanner Trail).
Time of Year
There are two primary factors in determining the ideal season for a RRR hike or run: temperatures and snowpack. Hours of daylight and water availability are secondary factors. In short, Spring and Fall are the most ideal seasons; Summer and Winter are doable but less desirable.
South-to-North-to-South, or vice-versa
The experience is different depending on where you start from, particularly in when you reach the steepest sections (at the start and end, or in the middle) and for how long you must go between water sources. But it is recommended to disregard these differences and to choose the most convenient starting point given your travel plans. For most people this will be the South Rim, which is easily accessible from Flagstaff and Phoenix. The remote North Rim is less popular, though it is more convenient for those driving from points north (notably Las Vegas, Salt Lake, and Denver). Note: you may not have a choice about where you start: the North Rim is only open mid-May through mid-October, depending on weather and snow conditions.
The speed record for RRR was set in early-November 2007 by Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colo., in 6:59:57. Traveling at a more recreational pace, most runners finish in 10-14 hours. Hikers can expect a minimum of 14 hours, with 16-18 hours probably being the norm. Overnighters will want to budget 1.5-2.5 days, depending on your fitness level, the type of experience you want (i.e. intensity), and the backcountry campsites that are available when you apply for a permit. Speaking of…
According to official park rules, backcountry permits are required for any “overnight use,” which includes not only camping but also night hiking, though I’d be hard-pressed to believe that Park Service rangers are patrolling the trails at night looking for bandits. Therefore, if you plan to crisscross the canyon in a day, you do not need a permit. If you plan to overnight—and, officially, if you plan to hike in the dark—then you need to get a permit from the Backcountry Office (see External Links, below).
If you start from South Kaibab, try to park at the picnic area immediately east of the junction of Desert View Drive and Yaki Point Drive. If you start from Grandview Point, park near the Bright Angel Lodge. (If parking spots are sparse, you may want to leave your car where it is and take the park shuttle.) At the North Rim, you can park at the North Kaibab Trailhead or at the Visitors Center.
Camping along the RRR route is permitted in designated areas only. These include: Mather Campground (about 2 miles from Bright Angel TH and 3 miles from South Kaibab TH), Indian Gardens, Bright Angel, Cottonwood, and North Rim (about 1 mile from the North Kaibab TH).
A detailed topographical map is recommended—while the junctions are clearly marked, a mistake could be disastrous. National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map (no. 207) is adequate. To reduce your pack weight by a few ounces, I recommend printing a color copy of your route area. (If the copy is not bleed-proof, store it in a waterproof bag, like an Alokosak.)
National Park Service—Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center (BIC)
I’ve run the Grand Canyon a couple of times and it is beginning to become one of my favorite places to run. I think it’s ideal for running because the Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail are well designed and well maintained. There is a lot of downhill running and the elevation is relatively low at the bottom which makes you feel like a running God. But where there is a lot of downhill there is a lot of uphill which makes the Grand Canyon a tough run.
Is it just me or does the National Park website make it difficult to find those other routes that aren’t in the main corridor… Even their backcountry hiking PDF doesn’t show those other routes you mentioned. As it turns out, there are more campsites than the ones they mention on main pages. I’m planning a trip to do this hike over several days, and I thought I was restricted to the main corridor. If those permits are already taken, wouldn’t it make sense to try an alternate route? I do see more planning required for water carrying and connecting trails, but it seems like there’s a better chance of getting an open campsite when not using the main corridor.
I’ve not tried to pull a permit for the Grand Canyon in a long time, but I’ll propose two theories:
1. They provide the most information on the areas/trails that nearly everyone is interested in. Of course, this is self-reinforcing, because it ends up being the only areas/trails that people readily know about, but the corridor trails have been the most heavily used since recreation started there.
2. The non-corridor regions are more rugged and wild, and less accessible, and so the park intentionally provides less information so that less informed users don’t get themselves into trouble by developing a false sense of security about them or so that interested parties need to speak with the backcountry office about their plans (which gives the office a chance to vet them).
I thought so too! We can’t know for sure, but they also have warnings on the specific trail pages, stating to contact the park rangers before going on the Tanner trail and warning about lack of water. I think it totally makes sense given how many people must go to the Grand Canyon on vacation not knowing about the dangers. The corridor also has facilities along the way, so it’s safer in that sense too. I figure that anyone who is going out there for a sufferfest is going to have to do more research to find the information that’s not in the main pages. The navigation instructions for those trails honestly scare me!