South Kaibab Trail
The South Kaibab Trail is unique in that it’s the only trail that doesn’t follow an ancient Native American route or a fault line, nor was it constructed by early prospectors or explorers. Built by the National Park Service in the 1920s when control of the Bright Angel Trail was in dispute, it was intentionally routed along an open ridgeline, providing exciting vistas along its entire length. Because of it’s incredible views, well-maintained path, amenities, and access to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River, the South Kaibab Trail is one of the most popular Grand Canyon day hikes.
- LENGTH: 6.4 miles (one way to Colorado River)
- ELEVATION CHANGE: 5,160 feet (one way to Colorado River)
- WATER: NONE
- CAMPING: Bright Angel Camprgound via North Kaibab Trail, Indian Gardens via Tonto Trail (permits required)
- TRAIL ACCESS: Shuttle Bus Only
- DIFFICULTY: 3/5
- VIEWS: 5/5
- SECLUSION: 2/5
The South Kaibab Trail starts near Yaki Point on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and reaches the Colorado River 6.4 miles below. Here it links up with the North Kaibab Trail, which accesses Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch on the north side of the River. You can also access both the Tonto Trail and River Trail from the South Kaibab. The trail is well-maintained but steep, and offers little shade along it’s length during the heat of the day. There is no water along the South Kaibab, and camping is allowed at the Bright Angel Campground, approximately 7.1 miles past the trailhead. As with all campsites in the Grand Canyon, a permit must be obtained from the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center before camping.
Hiking the South Kaibab Trail
The South Kaibab begins with a series of switchbacks which take hikers below Yaki Point. After passing through the Grand Canyon’s uppermost rock layers (Kaibab Formation, Toroweap Formation, Coconino Sandstone), the trail reaches the aptly named Ooh Aah Point, approximately 0.9 miles past the trailhead. From here hikers have a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon and the next major trail feature- Cedar Ridge. Located about 0.6 miles beyond Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge is a great rest or turnaround and offers toilets, shade trees, and more spectacular 360 views of the canyon.
Looking down at Cedar Ridge. Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park
Cedar Ridge. Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park
Our Grand Canyon hiking tours generally turn back at Cedar Ridge, but for those who want to continue further one of the best Grand Canyon viewpoints lies 1.5 miles ahead- Skeleton Point. From Skeleton hikers can see the Colorado River and dramatic views of the surrounding Grand Canyon. Skeleton Point stands atop the Redwall Limestone, a limestone unit that acts as a regional aquifer in the Colorado Plateau Basin. Skeleton Point makes for a good turn around point for most hikers- venturing beyond here is best suited for those spending the night in the Canyon.
Just past Skeleton Point the South Kaibab Trail descends sharply through a break in the Redwall Limestone. Usually, the Redwall forms cliffs that are impossible to descend on foot. A “break” refers to a point in the limestone where the rock has been eroded or faulted so badly that it forms a slope capable of being traversed. The break along the South Kaibab is caused by a fault running perpendicular to the trail. Breaks are essential to trails in the Grand Canyon, and almost every trail from the rim uses one to descend into the Canyon. Beyond the switchbacks the trail levels out in the Bright Angel Shale before reaching the Tonto Platform, a relatively flat area just above the Colorado River.
Approximately 1.4 miles beyond Skeleton Point the trail reaches the Tonto Trail junction. Here, backpackers can make a loop up to Indian Gardens about 4.2 miles west, or head east 18 miles to Cottonwood Creek. Just beyond the Tonto junction is the Tipoff, a point where hikers can enjoy awesome views of the inner Grand Canyon before plunging down a steep descent towards the Colorado River. As the trail descends towards the River, hikers cross the boundary between rocks of the Tonto Group (550 million years old) and the Vishnu Schist (1.7 billion year old rocks). In a matter of feet hikers walk over a time gap of 1.2 billion years. This time gap is seen in rocks across the globe and is called the “Great Unconformity,” representing 1.2 billion years of missing Earth history.
Approximately 1/2 mile past the Tipoff the trail reaches Panorama Point, which is a great place to see Bright Angel Campground and the two suspension bridges leading to the North Rim- Black Bridge and Silver Bridge. Backpackers heading to Bright Angel Campground for the night will head down a steep descent to Black Bridge before they cross onto the North Kaibab Trail. From there, it is an easy walk to Bright Angel Campground. Camping here will require a permit available from the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center.
Looking down at Silver Bridge and Bright Angel Campground from Panorama Point. Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.
Hiking to the Colorado River in one day is NOT RECOMMENDED! As with any hike in the Grand Canyon, be sure to carry plenty of water, know your abilities, and never underestimate the difficulty of hiking in a high-altitude desert climate. For the average person looking to enjoy a Grand Canyon hiking tour, the hike to Ooh-Aah Point or Cedar Ridge is our recommended turn-around point. This hike offers an opportunity to get inside the Grand Canyon without over-exerting oneself. For the more experienced hikers, we recommend turning around at Skeleton Point. Overnight backpackers can choose from a variety of loops starting on the South Kaibab, the most popular being the South Kaibab to Bright Angel via the Tonto Trail.
History of the South Kaibab Trail
The National Park Service was created in 1916 with the directive “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The newly formed agency very quickly acquired the Grand Canyon; the majestic canyon in Northern Arizona was officially declared a National Park in 1919.
Construction of the South Kaibab Trail, circa 1924-1925. Photo courtesy of Arizona State University.
Map of the Arizona Trail, courtesy of the Arizona Trail Association.
At this time Ralph Cameron still held the rights to the Bright Angel Trail and was charging for use of this route to the river. After years of fruitless legal battles with Cameron ownership of the Bright Angel Trail, the Park Service began construction of their own rim to river trail in 1924, and the South Kaibab Trail was born. Originally named the Yaki Trail (after the trail’s start at Yaki Point), the trail was soon renamed Kaibab. Kaibab is the Paiute word for the Grand Canyon, and translates to “Mountain Lying Down.”
After constructing the South Kaibab Trail in just six months, the National Park Service extended their trail up to the north rim, calling this section the North Kaibab Trail. The Northern and Southern Kaibab Trails formed the first trans-canyon trail in the Grand Canyon.
The Kaibab Trail has also been included as part of the Arizona Trail, an 800 mile route stretching across the entire state from Utah to Mexico, following previously existing trails wherever possible.