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Taking trail back from the runners: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

My friend Pi on a narrow part of the beautiful North Kaibab Trail down from the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon.,
My friend Pi on a narrow part of the beautiful North Kaibab Trail down from the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon.,

A classic must-do test-piece for ultra-runners, traversing the Grand Canyon from South Rim to North Rim to South Rim again is rarely within most hikers’ consideration—and perhaps wrongly so. The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in a day is a hiker’s paradise—well constructed trail, unmatched trail placement (clearly routed to give maximum views), and the ultimate lesson in geology. In one day, hikers can see one of the greatest natural treasures in the U.S. without a permit, much planning, or a heavy pack. This week, I took on the challenge long the realm of runners—and undertook it from a hiker’s perspective: I did what the signs warned me not to do and walked from the Rim to the Colorado River—twice.

Signs at the trailhead and for several miles down the Bright Angel Trail warn hikers not to do HALF of what I attempted
Signs at the trailhead and for several miles down the Bright Angel Trail warn hikers not to do HALF of what I attempted

Prospective Rim-to-Rim-to-Rimmers must time their trips within two month-long windows; a hiker traveling too early might expect waist deep postholing (sinking waist deep in snow, removing foot, taking a step, repeating) and a hiker traveling too late will have the Canyon’s infamous heat to contend with (and vice versa for fall travelers). The path is scattered with water fountains (Yes! Actual drinking fountains!) every 6-10 miles making the trip tailored to the runner and dayhiker. Two paths allow hikers to walk from the South Rim to the Colorado River—the longer but wider and gentler graded Bright Angel Trail and the scenic and shorter South Kaibab Trail. Famous hiker Andrew Skurka built a spreadsheet in hiker databook form that explains the distances on all these trails (note: Skurka’s guide omits Supai Tunnel drinking fountain 2 miles from the North Rim).

Early morning at the Colorado river
Early morning at the Colorado river

My friend Pi and I started the hike at South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail early. We made it down, crossed the river, and found that, for 6 AM, Phantom Ranch was surprisingly active. Sadly, it was too early to buy lemonade from the camp store.

The trail crosses at least six bridges on the northern part of the canyon
The trail crosses at least six bridges on the northern part of the canyon

The walk from Phantom Ranch follows and crosses a creek to Cottonwood Camp on trail that is almost flat. The path splits once before Cottonwood with a sign pointing right to a waterfall and an unmarked trail going left. The two forks meet after half a mile, although the trail left requires two fords and is slightly longer. The waterfall trail doesn’t actually go to the falls, but goes uphill to a view and then back down. Choose your poison.

Get out your LT4 hiking poles! There are better places for those afraid of heights.
Get out your LT4 hiking poles! There are better places for those afraid of heights.

After Cottonwood Camp, the trail becomes stunningly beautiful. The route narrowly skirts red rock cliffs and climbs precipitously. For me, the truly hard part of the whole trip came after the Caretaker’s cabin (be sure to get water here!), as the path becomes sun exposed and the grade gets steeper. Although the North Rim had not yet opened to the public while I was in the Canyon, trail crew were busy restoring the northern canyon trail.

The North Rim part of the trail begs the hiker to take photos constantly.
The North Rim part of the trail begs the hiker to take photos constantly.

I made the mistake of assuming that the telegraph wires that parallel the trail from Phantom Ranch terminate at the North Kaibab trailhead—the same place where I would reach the North Rim. Instead, the wires veer off, presumably reaching the rim miles before a hiker will. I was fooled and a little disappointed that my uphill was not yet over. The last two miles from the water fountain at Supai tunnel (an actual tunnel in the rock hikers walk through!) were the steepest, but enjoyable due to the shady trees that lined the trail. As I reached the sign for the North Kaibab Trailhead, I felt an overwhelming wave of accomplishment. Even though I was only half way through my journey, I knew the hardest part was done.

The trail goes through several tunnels, including Supai tunnel (with water fountain nearby). Spend some time in the rocky shade here!
The trail goes through several tunnels, including Supai tunnel (with water fountain nearby). Spend some time in the rocky shade here!

On the way down, I could enjoy the scenery more without the distraction of the physical exertion of the uphill. I saw several ultramarathoners coming up (including Rob Krar, who passed me at Phantom Ranch and near Cottonwood Camp on his way down as he attempted to beat the speed record on Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim of 6.5 hours). I also spotted several heavy packing backpackers going from camp to camp.

Amazing descent down the canyon
Amazing descent down the canyon

The climb up from the Colorado River back to the car was a highlight of the trip. As the sun lowered, the late afternoon rays hit the red cliffs as I ascended the trail swirling upwards to the rim. I topped out as the final glimmers of sun were disappearing with the fortune to have a band of teenage tourists cheering me on.

As the sun goes down in the distance, the canyon walls shaded me on my ascent back to the South Rim
As the sun goes down in the distance, the canyon walls shaded me on my ascent back to the South Rim

The Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim was not my longest dayhike or my greatest elevation gain in a day, yet it was a fantastic trip for both scenery and physical exertion. I hope to be fortunate enough to do it again via a different route, the shorter but more scenic South Kaibab Trail.

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in a day is hard, even for ultra-runners. (Of the ten Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim runners I saw, only about half passed me. Late in the day, I saw a helicopter come to the Colorado River. I hope it wasn’t to bail someone out.) Yet, I learned that the trip is doable for fast and light hikers, even people like me who obstinately refuse to run. Packing light, having ultralight backpacker efficiency, and possessing long distance backpacker endurance gave me the edge to conquer a trip usually only attempted by people whose mile per hour speed exceeds mine.

 

Walking the world’s first urban thru-hike

Crossing toward Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Crossing toward Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.Photo by Kevin Steele.

If someone had asked me a month ago what makes a foot-powered adventure a hike instead of just a walk, I would have said “nature.” After my most recent trip, a strenuous 5.5 day traverse of Los Angeles, I’m not so sure.

This month, I undertook what might be the world’s first urban thru-hike—a long distance hike entirely within the confines of a city. Much like a traditional hike, my urban adventure was designed to capture the world at 3 miles per hours. Despite LA’s reputation as one of the least pedestrian friendly places in the country, when much of it was built in the 20s and 30s, its early designers actually privileged those on foot by building public stairways—vertical parks formed into the hills that connect two parallel streets separated by elevation.

This stairway in Echo Park is just one of the hundreds of public pedestrian thoroughways in Los Angeles.
This stairway in Echo Park is just one of the hundreds of public pedestrian thoroughways in Los Angeles.

LA has more than 300 of these public stairways, which function as upright sidewalks connecting the knolls of the city with the flatlands we usually associate with the metropolis.  Don’t think of LA as hilly? Beverley Hills and Hollywood Hills where the Hollywood sign can be found are some well-known highlands, but the cliffs along the ocean such as Pacific Palisades and Palos Verdes also provide elevation change.

 

 

Urban hiking along Broadway in downtown. Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Urban hiking along Broadway in downtown. Photo by Kevin Steele.

The idea for a long distance stairway hike was conceived by Andrew Lichtman and Ying Chen, LA walking enthusiasts with a long distance hiking background (Ying has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail). The two hikers confronted Bob Inman, guru of LA stairways and author of A Guide to the Public Stairways of Los Angeles, who, on their urging, developed a 180-mile, 300 stairway route traveling across the city dubbed “the Inman 300.” My hike was a hybrid of Bob’s route that also includes a well-traveled course developed by another stairway guru, Dan Koeppel, called “Stairtrek.” If you’re in LA, you should go on one of Dan or Bob’s free guided walks around the stairs of LA, either Bob’s weekly walks or Dan’s annual Stairtrek or Big Parade trips.

It’s true that my experience on the Inman 300 was different than on a wilderness walk. Yet, the Inman 300 confirmed my suspicion that the answer to the question “why do you hike?” is strongly tied into my love of walking.

Hiking, whether urban or mountain, is exploring; despite living in Southern California for four years, the Inman 300 was my first visit to most of the 53 neighborhoods on my hike. On both urban and wild hikes, I get to have a fun time navigating (and the gratifying feeling of getting navigation correct). Both kinds of trail allow a walker to learn through experience. These are aspects of hiking that are universal regardless of the setting.

These stairways are as much a part of LA’s transportation system as its highways. Similar to a mountain trail, a stairhiker goes where the car can never go and sees views the driver will never know.

Crossing in front of the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Crossing in front of the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Kevin Steele.

The urban walk does have a leg up on mountain walking in some respects. Urban hikers don’t have to carry a tent or sleeping bag (there are plenty of hotels along the way). Restaurants are easily found and hikers don’t have to worry if there will be a water source in the near future. I always knew that if I became injured, that unlike a remote trail, getting help would be easy.

While these aspects might convince a veteran mountain walker to urban hike, I hope that my stories from the LA route might convince some city folk to strap on a pack and explore places on foot that can’t be reached by car, even if they’re only going for a walk in their own neighborhood.