I am going to try to hike across the Grand Canyon in May, from the South Rim to the North Rim, and back. Unfortunately, I have discovered that I am probably too late to secure a back-country permit for the week I plan to be there.

My original plan had been to camp at Bright Angel, then 2 nights at Cottonwood (whilst I hit the North Rim and then came back), then again at Bright Angel, and back to the South Rim.

My question is, what is my best option for still taking my hike?

Here are some ideas that occurred to me, but I'd like to hear from people who have done it if any of these are feasible:

  1. Try to full cross the canyon, each way, in a single day, so as to not need it. (Is this really feasible? I'm fat, I'm 40, and I do want to see things along the way!)

  2. Pray hard that a permit is available when I show up. (I hear they reserve a percentage, but don't know how likely it is that I could secure one.)

  3. Set out even without a permit, and just find a discrete place, not in a campground, where park rangers won't look for a permit. (Dodgy in the truest sense of the term - but what happens if they do find me?)

  4. Just show up in the campground and take my chances without a permit.

On the bright side, I will be in the area from May 12 - May 22, but knowing how to plan would be helpful. (Zion and Bryce both seem too close to pass up)

For future use, backcountry permits open up on the first of the month four months prior. On February 1st, for example, all of June becomes open to reservation. I'll save you the time of calculating - May opened up in January, and by February 24th, there was NOTHING in any campground in the corridor any time in all of May. Phantom Ranch was fully booked (they open up 13 months in advance). Moral of the story - April, May, and June are busy. Make your reservations ASAP!

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    I suggest a better question title like "What are my options for hiking the corridor of the Grand Canyon when the permits are already full?" or the like. This is the nature of your question, but the title is more general - and the answer to that is: Yes, there are alternatives to established campgrounds - just not in the corridor (where you want to hike).
    – Lost
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 3:13
  • You will be so enamored of the canyon hiking by just doing day hikes from both the south and north rims, you can come back later with this reconnaissance trip honing what you want to see next time when you can score a permit. Getting out of the canyon will be extremely challenging for anyone that's not fit so you'll want to be there with a permit and in the good graces of the people that you may need for assistance if you over extend or have bad luck.
    – bmike
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 22:29
  • Dude, trust me I have dont it and I am 23. You will not make it all the way to cotton wood from grandcanyon village. you will be burnt out by the time you reach phamtom ranch. You could possibly make it to cottonwood, but certainly not farther. Phantom ranch to cotton wood is relatively flat. Make sure you bring moleskins to prevent blisters and good luck to you
    – user2666
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 2:08
  • The rangers don't even accept permit requests beyond a certain time frame-- 4 months to be precise. So, they don't accept May permit requests until next year. Call the ranger station, tell them the exact dates that you want permits for, and figure out the first day (with their help) that you can fax the request. nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm
    – Dowwie
    Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 0:05
  • Fat and 40, you're not doing a one-day rim-to-rim. Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 18:01

3 Answers 3


In the corridor zone (where you are planning) you are only allowed to camp at designated campgrounds, which are secured on a reservation basis. If they are full, of the options you list, 2. Pray hard a permit is available when I show up is your best bet.

The park leaves a percentage of permits unreserved for the main corridor (which includes the Bright Angel trail, and the North and South Kaibab) to accommodate walk-ins on a first-come first-serve basis. They are limited.

Lets look at the others:

1. Try to cross in a single day: That's how people die.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon is like no hiking you have ever experienced.

OK, people do rim-to-rims, but this is not recommended for anyone first visiting the canyon - even experienced hikers from other regions at the top of their game. The desert environment, coupled with the vast elevation loss (and gain) creates a hiking situation most people can't comprehend. Its the descent that really gets you: hiking down stairs for 7-9 miles (11-15km).

The best description I have heard from a participant on my trips: "Put on your boots, nail a 2x4 across the bottom of them, stick your feet up in the air, and have your friend pound on that 2x4 with a sledge-hammer for 6 hours."

And regarding your last criteria (seeing things), between the pain, your heat exhaustion, dehydration, and the rush, you won't see anything along the way.

3&4. Set out even without a permit, clandestine camp, or show up at the campground: Aside being illegal, that is just plain rude.

The permit system does not exist to ruin your vacation, but rather tries to maximize the number of people that can enjoy the resource without destroying the resource, OR destroying the experience of others. The main corridor is already the most highly-traveled place in the canyon.

It is also one of the most well-patrolled regions of the canyon, so your presence would be noticed. If you are caught, you will be charged with a federal misdemeanor (Federal misdemeanors can carry fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.)

As a 5th option, you can get permits to wild-camp in one of the neighboring zones.

Wild-camping is allowed in different zones, and if you head east or west on the Tonto trail a mile or two, there might be more availability. However, those areas do not have ready access to water, or other amenities, so it is imperative you are experienced with desert back-country travel.

A 6th option is to check the availability of rooms at Phantom Ranch located at the bottom of the canyon.

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    The 5th option there opened up a world of possibilities. I'm definately going to check out the Tonto trail in particular. Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 22:20

As an update, I arrived at the canyon on May 13th. They had precisely one open slot and thus I was able to hike down to Bright Angel one day, and back up the next.

A rim-to-river in a day is doable, but hard. For a first timer, it is definitely worth overnighting and going back up. Especially during May, hiking between about 11 - 3 is really uncomfortable. (As an example, it was 122 °F (50°C) in the sun at Phantom Ranch).

If you want to see anything, and not give yourself a death march in the process, going down the South Kaibab in the morning, resting / exploring in the evening, and then returning the next day is a really pleasant trip. For me, I found the return on the Bright Angel Trail to be as follows:

River to Indian Gardens - took me from 6 until 10. A more fit person could have done that a lot faster, but this was possibly my favorite part of the trail.

Indian Gardens to 3 mile (5 km) Rest House - took me about 2 hours, and was the worst part of the day, b/c I did it from about 12 - 2. I then took the ranger's advice and stopped at 3 Mile (5 km) until 4. I was passed all sorts of people doing the rim to river in a day, and many of them were grumpy. I saw at least one girl passed out from heat exhaustion (literally) and another group that was having real problems.

3 Mile to Mile-And-A-Half, took 2 hours.
Mile-And-A-Half to the Rim, took 2 hours.

In case anyone is interested, I have a fairly detailed report here.

At the end of the day, I had a smile my on my face. I can't say the same of others!

Later, I did go to the North Rim. I arrived at 4, and I talked to several of the Day-Hiking Rim-to-Rimmers. Reactions varied from "Damn, I have to go back!" to "I'm done." All in all, if you're just looking for the physical challenge, use a treadmill!

  • Too bad your website is no more, was looking forward to read the report :) Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 23:13
  • I don't understand either Damn, I have to go back or I'm done. Is this some sort of American hiking slang? You might want to clarify these.
    – anatolyg
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 23:28
  • 5
    @anatolyg Sadly, Affable Geek passed away in early 2015. He will be missed!
    – Andrew
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 17:38
  • 1
    @anatolyg "Damn, I have to go back!" means that the person enjoyed it so much they want to return and do it again someday. "I'm done" means that the person does NOT want to do the hike again (probably ever). Commented Oct 29, 2021 at 2:21

Grand Canyon National Park employ a waiting list for unreserved permits. If you have a week, you have a very good chance of getting a permit even on campgrounds in the corridor.

We visited Grand Canyon National Park in May 2018. We applied in December 2017 for overnight permits at the Cottonwood Campground, but did not get any. The morning after we arrived, I presented myself at the North Rim Backcountry Office, which opens daily at 08:00. After waiting¹ while the ranger was issuing permits to groups ahead of me in the queue, I added my name to a waiting list. On day 2, we presented ourselves again at 08:00, and by now my name was on top of the list, as everybody else either had obtained a permit, or had dropped out as they had to leave, or had been removed from the waiting list for not being there at 08:00. We obtained permits for two nights at Cottonwood, hiking in on day 3, hiking out on day 5. In other circumstances, we could have hiked from Cottonwood to the river and back, but it was going to be 40+°C that day so we settled for a lazy day at Ribbon Falls, which was quite brilliant.

Ribbon Falls

Upper Ribbon Falls (total solitude — trail on Openstreetmap but not on NGS map or USGS map)

Upper Upper Ribbon Falls — mystery spot on NGS map, no clue how to get there and whether it's possible to hike or if it requires climbing, but a double night on Cottonwood is essential to get there either way for ordinary hikers.

Apparently, many people visit the Grand Canyon (which is effectively much larger than it appears on the map) for only 3–4 days. With such a tight schedule, our plan would have not worked. If you're there for a week and willing to present yourself at the backcountry office each day at 08:00, first to register at the waiting list, then to stay on the waiting list, and then to get your permit for maybe 1–2 days later, then you're quite likely to succeed.

¹The daily wait at 08:00 is the biggest downside, as this disables any early start day hikes. You have to be there every day at 08:00: first to add your name to the waiting list, then to stay on the waiting list, and ultimately to get your permit.

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