Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in a Day
In one of the recent issues of a popular running magazine, one author wrote an article about his recent experience running a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon in a single day. It was a rather entertaining essay, and the author did a pretty good job of describing the difficulty. It brought back fond memories of my “rim-to-rim-to-rim in a day” adventure I had with a buddy, Kelly Bates, back in 2004. Below is the detailed trip report I originally posted on thoos.com. I’m re-posting it here with some additional commentary and photos in case the R2R2R sounds like fun to you.
I’m including it here in this blog, because it was on my “Bucket List,” and I’m trying to document these events before I get even more forgetful than I already am.
Also commonly know to as the R2R2R. This run is not frequently done, but usually you can find a few people attempting it any April or October weekend. You can go earlier in the year (than April), but you may have problems with limited daylight hours and possible snow on the North Rim. Go much later in the year and you may have to deal with extreme temps in the canyon. I am unfamiliar with attempts and optimal times in the fall months.
The two possible starts to the run are South Kaibab Trail (6.4 miles to the Bright Angel Campground) and Bright Angel Trail (10.3 miles to the Bright Angel Campground). I suggest the Bright Angel Trail. The South Kaibab is shorter (thus steeper and tougher on your quads), but it has no water.
Starting on the South Rim (elev. 6,860 feet), if you take the Bright Angel Trail, the first sign of life you will pass after the initial 3 miles of switchbacks will be Indian Springs (with water and bathrooms) at 4.5 miles. Near Indian Springs (elev. 3,800 feet), take a few minutes to stop and read the sign that warns, “do NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river in a single day.” OK, you’ve been warned. From here the trail takes a more gradual descent for approximately another 3.5 miles to the Colorado River. Once you reach the river, you will traverse a sandy trail section for approximately 1.7 miles that looms above the Colorado River and eventually crosses the river at a large steel suspension bridge. Once you cross the bridge, you will come to a stone house and corral, and then 3-5 minutes later you cross another small wooden foot bridge. This is a good place to cache any food, clothes, headlamps or other gear that you don’t want to carry with you for the next 5-7 hours. Better make sure that your food containers are critter proof. Continuing on past the foot bridge, just around the corner is Phantom Ranch (elev. 2,440 feet), the only tourist facilities in the canyon bottom. Depending on what time you left the trailhead, you will probably catch a bunch of campers just waking up as it is starting to get daylight. The next 14.2 miles on the North Kaibab Trail will eventually dump you on the North Rim.
The first 6 miles (of the 14.2 mile North Kaibab Trail) are nice and gradual, and you barely notice any elevation gain. You will run through a very narrow slot canyon, sometimes only about 50 feet wide (just enough room for the Bright Angel Creek that flows through and the smooth well maintained gravel trail). Now the magnitude of the Grand Canyon begins to sink in as you run past 1.2 – 1.7 billion year old rock formations like the Grand Canyon Supergroup (sea sediment) and the Vishnu Group (metamorphosed sea sediment). While in the Grand Canyon, there are many times where you cannot even see the rim. Due to the many layers of rock formations and the different rates at which they have eroded, it almost feels like you are in a canyon within a canyon.
The next water stop is Cottonwood Campground (elev. 4,000 ft, 6.9 miles to North Rim). Here the trail get a bit less traveled, rockier and steeper. The valley also widens and, for the next 6 miles, you will be running through what appears to be a wide valley instead of a “grand canyon.” There are lots of interesting flora and fauna that can be spotted in this section including flowering agave cactus, prickly pear cactus, claretcup cactus, sagebrush, brittlebrush, pinion, juniper, yucca, scorpions, lizards, jays, ravens and a snake or two if you are really lucky.
Just when you are thinking you are getting close to the North Rim, the trail will get a little steeper and turn left (west) for the final long climb to the rim. This is usually where most people stop running and start power-hiking. After a mile or two you will come to a small house with a basketball net. Yes, there is a private residence in the canyon, and sometimes it is occupied by park personnel or trail crews. In the yard just off trail, is a small spigot next to a group of small trees. Take a few minutes to fill up here as it will likely (depending on the time of year you attempt the run) be the last water to be found until you get back to this point on your return. There are two other water points, but they are usually turned off until after the first of May when all freezing danger has passed from the North Rim. Just past the house you will see a waterfall cascading down the right side of the canyon which seemingly comes out of nowhere. This waterfall is the single water source for the entire Grand Canyon, North Rim Lodge and all civilization on the South Rim.
What lies next is my favorite section of the trail. At times the trail seems to be hewn out of the solid rock cliff wall. That’s because it is, and at places a 1000+ foot drop awaits any slips or missed turns on the trail. Be careful (especially on your return) through this section. As the trail goes farther, it gets progressively steeper turning at numerous switchbacks and even going through the small Supai Tunnel (2 miles from rim). Just after passing the tunnel, you will find more bathrooms and water (usually turned off until May 1) . Over the next mile and a half, you will begin to notice different ecology as the temperature drops and the trail will take you through spruce, fir and aspen.
Congratulations, you have reached the North Rim (elev. 8241 feet). Now you only have another 24 miles to run. The bad news – you still have about 4,800 feet of climbing to do. The good news – the next 13 miles will be one of the best runs in your life. The route back down to the river is almost entirely downhill on beautifully runnable trail. You really get to enjoy all the effort it took to get to this point.
On your return you will basically retrace your footsteps back to the trailhead on the South Rim picking up water at the campgrounds and gathering your cached food (if you had left any and the critters don’t get it). Chances are that you will complete this section in the heat of the day, so take caution and hydrate, eat and take on electrolytes. As it can get unbearably hot, a small bandana dipped in the creek is indispensable at this point, and chances are you will be glad you brought one. You did bring one didn’t you? Over the last six miles to the river, the canyon will begin to narrow again and you can take advantage of the shade it provides. If you have taken care of your body, you will have evaded any signs of heat exhaustion and can pick up the pace as you run back through Phantom Ranch and the gawking hikers who spent all day hiking there from the South Rim.
Take a few minutes at the river to get some water and food down as well as take in the sights of the mighty Colorado River. Shortly after crossing the river, you will be done with the running portion of your adventure. Shift into power-hike mode as the remainder of the trip is all uphill. At Indian Springs, the last 4.5 miles and 3,060 vertical feet of the trip seems to take forever as you climb steeply up the last 3,500 feet to the South Rim. There is water and bathrooms available at two locations on the last few miles (three-mile resthouse and one-and-a-half mile resthouse). These places make good intermediate goals as by now you are probably getting pretty tired and the rim does not seem to get any closer. Sooner or later you’ll pass by the Kolb Studio and the South Rim Trailhead. Congratulations, you can stop now.
The trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail (the most popular starting point) is located within the Grand Canyon National Park just west of the Bright Angel Lodge and the Kolb Studio. Depending on what time you start the run, it will probably be dark. So, if you get a chance, check out the location of the trailhead in the daylight so it will be easy to find when you start running. It is marked by a small sign at the edge of a gravel parking area behind a few small cottages. It is not hard to find in the daylight, but can provide a small unneeded challenge when you want to get started early in the morning.
The South Kaibab Trail is located off Desert View Drive near Yaki Point.
It was a NOT speed record by any means. Kelly and I completed the run in 18:42:30. The temps in the afternoon were well over 100 degrees. So, we took lots of photos and just enjoyed the trail. It depends on who you ask, but the total round-trip distance is around 48 miles with 13,500ft of vertical gain/loss.