The Grand Canyons provides a ton of options to consider even for the people who have visited it before. Now some people want to go big or go home, the kind of people who are looking to go down and come back up in a single day. Even though every NPS statement clearly states that hike from South Rim to the Colorado River is NOT a single day hike, there are a lot of people who post about completing it. The distance and elevation also suggest that it is doable, given the conditions are right.
The South Kaibab Trail is steeper and shorter with a distance to the Phantom Ranch is 7.4 miles and an elevation loss of 4860 ft. The way back up is from the Bright Angel Trail which is 9.9 miles from the Phantom Ranch with an elevation of 4460 ft. As it is obvious, time will be your enemy. You should evaluate the whole thing carefully whether you can attempt it or not.
It is recommended that you start pre-dawn to stay diligent and watch the sun come up at the Cedar Ridge. The first shuttle starts at about an hour before sunrise. But you need to make sure that you get there half an hour earlier before the shuttle comes so that you can get seats. You should start at the trailhead for more than half an hour before the sunset. Take out your headlamps and start your journey.
One thing that you might notice that even in darkness, you will definitely appreciate the size and vastness of the Canyon. The South Kaibab Trail is exposed and consists of endless switchbacks on the edge. The feeling, when the sky starts to brighten up and you start to see more and more of what’s surrounding you, is just extraordinary. With a good pace, you should reach the Cedar Ridge in about 20-25 minutes.
You can take a few pictures here and if you can, set your camera for a sunrise time-lapse. After you leave the Cedar Ridge, keep a quick pace and you will make it to the Skeleton Point at around an hour and a half mark into the hike. The rest of the way down is relatively easy and you can keep a steady and comfortable pace.
After crossing the first suspension bridge to get to the north side of the river, it’s another mile or so to get to Phantom Ranch which is the only lodge at the base of the Canyon and you need to make reservations a year in advance. Once you get to the Phantom Ranch you to buy yourself the lemonade. You will find it to be amazing. To tell you the truth, it is just a minute maid. But there is a common notion that it is something special, and rightly so, after you come down in the heat of the day. If you had a good pace throughout the journey until now, you will plenty of time to spare so you can relax and eat very comfortably.
Once you cross the second suspension bridge to get back to the south side of Colorado on Bright Angel, you will definitely notice the difference in trails. It is less straight and more covered. This is where you will realize why it is a recommended route to climb back up.
The first half is a consistent and relatively gentle climb. After reaching the Indian Garden, you will be halfway through your hike. Indian Garden has a lot of resting places which you can take advantage of.
Keep a good pace and you can make stops at both Three Mile Resthouse and Mile and a Half Resthouse with still plenty of time before the sun goes down. If you are feeling tired and uncomfortable by then, these last three miles can become thirty on you. Finally, you will reach the trailhead after all that struggle where you can get back in the shuttle and be off.
The park service isn’t wrong to discourage this hike in a day. Even in February, it is hot from 11am-4pm. Being exposed to the sun during any time other than the winter just seems stupid. But there are a lot of stupid people out there. Furthermore, most of the country high points have LESS elevation gain to the summit than from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim. Many people surely underestimate the difficulty and get stuck, or worse. Having said that, with planning and research, it is doable for someone in good shape. It is extremely rewarding. But, there is always the rim to rim trip in one day!