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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.

 

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.

Comments

Corrina Peipon

Sounds great! About a year ago, I became fascinated by this walk, but having never been to the Grand Canyon and after reading all of the warnings, I decided against attempting it. Instead, I walked down South Kaibab and camped overnight at Bright Angel campground before walking back up to the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail. I awoke at 5am to the sound of runners and walkers stopping in for water and saw a steady stream of headlamps on the path opposite my campsite, and I decided that I would surely do a rim to rim walk one day, despite all of the warnings. I’m going to split my walk in two, staying overnight on the North Rim before heading back to the South Rim. Anyway, I tell you all of that just as a preamble to asking a couple of questions: How long did it take you? What was your average pace? What time did you start out in the morning? I’m not going until June, so I’m planning on starting at 3am or 4am to start ascending to the north rim by about 7am to avoid the heat.

admin

Staying overnight on the North Rim should be a fantastic way to see the Canyon! If I were to do it, I might do as you suggest and start early to beat the heat, and then sit out the really hot hours of the afternoon at the Caregiver’s Cabin or Cottonwood Camp before ascending the last 5 miles on North Kaibab. They were pretty hot for me in mid-May and June will be even hotter. I started a little after 2:30 am and walked it in a little more than 17 hours, but people willing to run can go much more quickly. Not including breaks, I think I was able to make around 3 mph the whole trip, but was slower on the steep up to the North Rim. Good luck on your adventure!

Corrina

So helpful to hear about your walk, and thanks for the great advice!

Super Dave

I still remember my rim-to-river-to-rim hike in the early 1990’s, mostly for the argument I got from the Ranger on the South Rim when I told him of my intent to hike down the South Kaibab to the Phantom Ranch and back out on the Bright Angel in one day. He grimly told me that I probably could not do it, and that a rescue would be expensive. I told him that I thought I could do it, that I was in pretty good shape, that I did a lot of running. He sneered at me, “Running? Do you do marathons?” At that time I had never run or backpacked more that 5 or 6 miles, but it was this hike/run, which I completed the next day BEFORE NOON that made me think that maybe I COULD do a marathon. A couple of years later, I joined the marathon club, and then in 2002 started my long distance hiking career that culminated in my Triple Crown last year. Thanks, Lars the Ranger, for the motivation!

azbackpackr

I started backpacking the Canyon 20 years ago, and have rowed the river a couple of times, but I have yet to do a Rim to Rim. This is per my plan. I’m actually not too interested in it, but I will likely do it some day. I have been busy hiking several hundred miles of non-Corridor trails and off-trail routes, staying away from crowds and signs and mules and bathrooms and tourists and trail runners. I think if I do an R2R2R I will take about 5 or 6 days, so that I can explore all the side canyons, maybe spend a night at Clear Creek and do what I enjoy most: just hang out.

Marcia Powers

Now that the Arizona Trail is complete thru hikers must get a permit or hike a one day rim to rim. We chose the one day hike. Our north bound thru with its rim to rim in June was our most spectacular hiking day ever in spite of the heat. Our southbound AZT hike rim to rim in September was the second best day! I have added a rim to rim to rim to my list of hikes!
…GottaWalk

Buzz

I’ve done the Rim2Rim2Rim three times over the last four years. The forth time was cut short by a spring snow melt that caused the Bright Angel Creek to be roaring over the N Kaibab Trail. I’ve done it twice in the early spring and once in the fall (mid-Oct). Early March was interesting in that we walked atop of snow on the north side from the Supai Tunnel to the N Rim and back. We had Microspikes (excellent choice!) and timed it such that we were coming up in the early morning hours…., so no post-holing and walking on the crunchy top. Snow at the N rim was about 8′ deep. All that was visible was the top 6″ of a nearby stop sign. Our typical start time is a few minutes after midnight. We leave a car near the S Kaibab and walk down it. We pass Phantom Ranch at 2 am where the cooks are making wonderful bacon smells. We stop at Phantom Ranch on the way back and have two beers. We return via the Bright Angel where there’s a bar in the Bright Angel Lodge. It takes us about 16 hours total. And, for what it is worth, I’m 64 yrs old and work at a desk…, so one doesn’t need to be a world class athlete to hike this hike.

Steve T

Some friends and I do this hike as an annual event the last week of April. We encountered extreme heat this year so yes agree the window for this hike is pretty small; a few weeks around the end of April and then again around the mid-late October.

My advice to Corrina is to keep watch on the temps and if it is slated to be >100 degrees in Phoenix the day of your hike take it slow and stay disciplined with your hydration. This is a great hike.

Keith

I think this is wrong at so many levels. I’ve seen this R2R2R thing up close when I’ve been in the Canyon on multiple R2R backpacking trips, so I speak from experience. . .
1) If you R2R2R, you don’t really see the canyon. I have moved in the opposite direction (first crossing 3 days, 2 nights; most recent 6 days 5 nights). There is so much to see both on trail and just a hair off. I never see everything I want to see.

2) I don’t think the canyon should be a venue for athletic contests.

3) R2R2R people are generally annoying. They are often trying to get around/past others and convey their impatience if they get “stuck” behind someone that isn’t going their pace.

4) It is a high risk activity. My last trip, we had to help a R2R2R couple (athletic appearing folk from Switzerland who are active in the mountains) who got into trouble. Many people make it. Some don’t. I think a much higher percentage than those who are present in the canyon and to what it is and to others who are also present to the environment. Rangers don’t really comment on the record, but the drift I get is that from what they see, they don’t really think it’s a good idea.

5) The statements about the weather “window” are certainly correct. Beyond that, you can’t absolutely count on what the weather is going to be. If it turns out that the weather will overwhelm you physically will you have the ethical gumption to change your plans so as not to be a burden on others when you crash and burn or will you plunge ahead anyway?

Sorry to rain on anyone’s parade, but that’s the way I see it. It is becoming a larger problem as more people get involved as something they need to check off some perceived list. I believe we can expect to see more rules coming down as a result.

Christy

I hope that if you do plan to do a Rim to Rim that you are in really good condition, that you are adapted & love heat & can arm yourself with all of the relevant knowledge & current information needed to have a safe traverse. Water stops can change overnight because of pipeline breaks. If descending the South Rim, one could try South Kaibab (7 miles) – North Kaibab then return, North Kaibab and possibly up Bright Angel Trail (9 miles & usually not always water/rest stops & Indian Garden Camp) along the way. Keep a close eye on the weather temps http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/fgz/Rec_Forecast/rec_forecast.php?wfo=fgz&zone=AZZ006&fire=AZZ106&county=AZC005&stns=KGCN+AT688+AT680 The Canyon was getting May temps in April this year so be careful and carry enough water, electrolites & food so you don’t bonk. Don’t be afraid to stop and take shelter from the sun if your getting too hot. Air quality can be something to watch for in the hotter weather as well. There could even be days in June where it may not be wise to attempt this at all. If I where to choose a time of year to do this, it would not be June. You could have temps of 90F in the morning if your not careful. Try and get past The Box after Phantom Ranch before the sun has time to heat it up any more. Check for this by the sunrise and sunset times. After that, if you find some good shade spots after the 5 bridges on the NK and before Cottonwood Creek Camp, take advantage of them. Do take advantage of the Bright Angel Creek to drench your clothes if you get hot. It can easily be 10 degrees F hotter than the “official” temps posted by NOA for Phantom Ranch. IMO after Cottonwood Creek Camp(headed up the NK) is where the elevation starts gettin going. I would aim for the Caregiver’s Cabin for a rest spot and water. Roaring Springs is nice from afar but you lose a lot of elevation going there for water and rest. The elevation hit me at the Supai Tunnel but I am a sea level dweller. Between Cottonwood Camp and the Cabin it can be quite sun exposed with the potential to melt. Have you tried getting an overnight permit at Cottonwood Camp as a backup plan in case you don’t make the traverse?? Never hurts to have a plan B.. Also the backcountry office can be super helpful at times even if you are to consult about the current conditions or availability of a last minute permit. Much luck. Indian Garden is also a great backup plan.

It took myself 5 hours to go from Cottonwood Camp up to the North Rim in April but I am a mere mortal and like to smell flowers. I do recall it being warm all the way up which surprised me even when I was level with some snow pack in the distance. Gotta love the desert hot in the sun cold in the shade, sometimes… 🙂

Arm yourself with knowledge and make intelligent decisions with the right data. I think that people need to plan a big “day hike” like this almost more so than an overnight because of the increased potential for things to wrong, not less. Spend more time considering the options & get physically/mentally prepared for this. Make good decisions and know your alternative options.

About Ribbon Falls Trail.. You can go and see Ribbon Falls either up the hill(staying on trail continued up the East side of Bright Angel Creek) then across a bridge OR follow the sign and attempt to cross the creek(I have yet to do this). Both ways will get you to yet another junction that will lead you to see and get drenched by Ribbon Falls(a great rest stop if your hot). You need to follow some less obvious “goat” trails to get there but they are there and not too hard to find 😛

June is a little bit nuts.. I imagine a headlamp would make for a very good friend. Extra batteries?? Travel Safe

Last year I hiked in May and had 126F at Bright Angel Camp. This year we traveled in April… It was in the 90’s.

[…] put in almost 2,000 miles on long distance trails in my Altras, covering terrain as dissimilar as the Grand Canyon, the streets of Los Angeles, the glaciers of Olympic National Park, and the temperate rainforest of […]

Princess

Hi Snorkel…. My name is Princess, I met you on the PCT in 09…. I want to say Crater Lake area. I was with the large crew of Joker, Banshee, Boomer, Coach, Salty, Silver Fox, Jack, Yas, Rafici, and Dead Turkey. God that was a 4 months! Anyways…. I’m looking to hike R2R2R this spring and found this. Thanks for all the info…. and congrats on the triple crown!

And if Pi reads this…. remember sleeping in the park (in Etna?) and the sprinklers went on in the middle of the night…. Good times!

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

I remember you, Princess! I just saw Silverfox (aka Kombucha) this weekend! R2R2R is a great hike. You’ll totally love it and it’s nice that there is a restaurant within limping distance from the top when you finish.

Pi and I hang out pretty frequently. He doesn’t live too far from me in Denver and he comes out and hikes with us. I’m going to have ask him about the sprinklers! Thanks for saying hi.

Kim

Hi Liz! Am doing my first r2r2r end of August this year with a day off in the middle (I know this is not ideal but this was the only window my two brothers and I could get). We are all in good shape (1 mountain biking, 14er climbing brother, 1 tennis and hiking VT brother and me, mom of 2, half marathon runner). We are training hard and reading everything we can get our hands on to prepare. We all “get” nutrition and electrolyte replacement importance (couldn’t run half marathons without that). Reading this makes me confident that I CAN do this. Question: do you take along any type of GPS or tracking device so that you know how many miles in you are? That’s the one thing I can’t seem to find any info on. Pretty sure my Garmin forerunner won’t last the trek over much less the trek back two days later. Thanks for any scoop!

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Hey Kim, So excited for your R2R2R. One of the best hikes of that length anywhere. To answer your question, I didn’t take a GPS tracking device and figured out how many miles in I was based on the databook in that blogpost. You may want to check out one of the Garmin handheld GPS units or the Delorme handheld GPS units. The DeLorme AG-008727-201 InReach Explorer Two Way Satellite Commicator with Built in Navigation has two-way satelite communication, too, so you could potentially keep in touch with folks back home or if your group got separated, figure out where everyone is (there’s no cell reception in the canyon). Hope that helps!

Princess

R2R2R was really fun! … Even though I had to give the remainder of my snacks and water and headlamp to 2 people who didn’t know there was no water going up S. kaibab. Two weeks later I went out and connected all the trails in Bryce in a day. That was amazing as well. Might do RRR again this spring…. Or annually.

Can’t believe you saw silverfox! That’s awesome. I actually used to see Boomer often until he moved out of SD.

Congrats on that AT speed record!