Grand Canyon R2r2R

Grand Canyon shadow and light

Somewhere in the flurry of recent FKTs and friends doing it, the dream of running the Grand Canyon from one rim to the other and back took ahold of me. I wanted to do something that would match the epic natural beauty of the Mt Rainier run we did two years ago, but in a completely different way. The canyon is the opposite of a mountain, and its desert environment is the opposite of the Pacific Northwest’s lush rainforests.

I did a little research and was surprised that the distance (43-47 miles, depending on which trails you take at the South Rim) and the elevation gain (an 5740 ft climb up the North Rim and a 4340 ft climb up the South Rim for a total of 10,500 ft) seemed doable. Hell, those are stats we’ve already done: a circumnavigation of Mt Hood on the Timberline Trail gains 10,000 ft in about 42 miles.


My gear laid out the day before-- didn't use half of it

Next was timing. With a bit of searching, I learned that the best times for a rim-to-rim-to-rim are as close to the water cutoffs as possible. Water is on at the North Rim from 15 May until 15 October. The winter can be bitterly cold and the summer is brutally hot, so sticking close to those dates is best. October, after a long summer of great running, felt easier to be trained up for than May. And so I chose the last weekday before 15 October, with the hope of lesser crowds.

Finding a place to stay wasn’t easy. Everything in Grand Canyon National Park books right when it becomes available, a year in advance. By January, when I was looking, there were only a few hotels available in Tusayan, the town about 15 minutes south of the park. The South Rim is vastly more touristed than the north, with amenities to match. Still, lodging is fairly scarce. Camping might be easier to come by, but I don’t sleep well even in my own bed at home, so I want a cozy place to sleep and a hot shower. I booked a room for three nights at the Best Western Squire Inn, with the expectation that my family would join me and Ann would book her own place.

4am and 27 degrees F at the start

A few months later, my husband changed plans to go on a trip with friends at the same time. Ann & I decided we’d share the room, but we moved the reservation up by one day so that we’d have a free day after our arrival to take care of anything we might need to, before running and then leaving the next day. That turned out to be a brilliant decision.

We flew in to Phoenix on Wednesday, 11 October, and met Ann’s husband, John, at the airport. From there we picked up a rental car and drove to a nearby vegetarian restaurant I loved my last visit to Phoenix: Green. After stuffing ourselves silly, we went next door to Numi, the related bakery/dessert spot, and loaded up even more. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach, but it’s nice to have treats waiting after a big run.

Top of the Bright Angel Trail in the dark

Then it was on to Flagstaff. My friend Kim told me what a neat town it was, after going to a running camp there. She recommended the running store Run Flagstaff, so that was our first stop. What a great shop! They had hydration packs right by the door, and a woman working there helped me try on and fit two options. Neither one was right for me, but she didn’t pressure me at all.

I wasn’t ready to leave. I had a recent bad experience buying Hokas for cheap online, so I vowed to only purchase them after trying them on, even if it costs more. It’s hard to find the trail models in Portland, but they had them all here.

First light

The woman helping me asked specifically what I was looking for, and explained several models to me. I tried on the Hoka Speedgoat and tested them on the in-store treadmill. I also tried a Brooks shoe (Mazama? Cascadia?), which she recommended as similar. While they were nice, they didn’t have the marshmallow bounce of the Hokas. I bought the shoes, as well as a store logo tank top. As I paid, I noticed they had trail maps by the register. My kind of store!

Next we went to the brewery Ann scoped, Mother Road, where we enjoyed a beer at an outside table. It was fun to see beer names related to the Grand Canyon and try a few things. Then we went to Whole Foods and [over-] stocked up on snacks and a few meals. There’s not much choice in Tusayan or the park itself, especially being healthy eaters and vegetarian (Ann & John)/ vegan (me). We agreed that if we had known better, we’d have spent at least one night in Flagstaff. It’s a neat little mountain and college town with everything we enjoy: a great running store, breweries, coffee shops, FOOD, etc.

Here we are at a water crossing

As the sun set, we drove to our hotel in Tusayan. We settled in, ate some of the food we had just bought, and made it an early night.

The next morning, Thursday, we drove to Grand Canyon National Park. Entry is $30 USD and is valid for a full week. We parked at the main visitor center, which didn’t open until 8:30 am, so we wandered around reading the plethora of signs: many warnings about risk of death by dehydration, falling, and getting lost; about the various trails; native flora and fauna; and the weather forecast for today and tomorrow at both rims (27 F low, 30 mph winds) and at Phantom Ranch (87 F high) in the bottom of the canyon.

First view of the Colorado River

We walked to Mather Point, the lookout next to the visitor center and the most-visited place in the park. The scale and magnitude of the view was breathtaking in both senses. It’s gorgeous, but you’re also at 7,200 ft altitude and if you have any reservations about heights, your mind will reel.

I felt overwhelmed by the sheer height and vastness, and worried about running with that feeling of near-vertigo, until I realized that it wasn’t just the immensity of the Grand Canyon: I was having a visual migraine. It might’ve been the altitude, the dryness, or the drop-offs, but I’ve also been prone to them for most of my life. So I took a deep breath and told myself that we had a whole day to acclimate—enough time to get over a migraine and get used to the altitude.

The sun hits the high buttes as we run a sandy section of trail along the river

After taking in the view, dazzled, we went back to the visitor center and waited in line to talk to a park ranger. They gave us a nice, simple map of the trails in the park, described the difference between the two trails down from the South Rim, and told us we were crazy.

Tell us something new.

First view of the bridges

We had already decided to start with Bright Angel Trail, which is the most popular in the park. It’s about 2 miles longer than the other option, South Kaibab Trail, but less steep and a bit better kept. It also has potable water in three places, while South Kaibab has none. Many people take South Kaibab down to save on miles, and Bright Angel back up for the water and “gentler” climb. We planned to start at 4am, so we wanted the less treacherous terrain for running in the dark.

We drove through the park to check out the Bright Angel Trailhead. We parked near the Backcountry office, so we stopped there first. The ranger there was loud and dismissive. She said we shouldn’t do rim-to-rim-to-rim and that she’d had “bazillions” of medical calls for rim runners in the past few days. She told us that it would take an hour per mile to get back up the canyon, so we should do a shorter out-and-back.

Downstream, the sun hits

We left and walked to the trailhead, where we saw very normal-looking people starting down the switchbacks, and others covered in dust and saddled with huge backpacks, just climbing out of the canyon to end their journeys. A ranger there on a knee-scooter talked to tourists of all kinds, and we made a beeline to her. I can’t remember what questions we asked, but she said that she knew we’d run rim-to-rim-to-rim and have fun doing it. I appreciate that ranger.

We went on to the Desert View Watchtower, which I had visited on my previous trip, 15 years ago. It was farther from the main visitors center than I remembered, but worth the trip. The building is beautifully integrated into its surroundings and full of Native symbols and artwork.

Upstream, still in shadow

After a late lunch at our hotel, we readied our gear. It felt strange to get ready before dark, but it left us time to rethink our choices and game everything out. For dinner we went to the pizza restaurant in Tusayan. I ordered one without cheese and was thrilled when the person at the register said they had dairy-free cheese.

When my pizza came, it was glorious and delicious. Then I realized that the cheese was a little too realistic. I sent it back and it turned out that they had put the fake cheese on top of the dairy cheese. I didn’t eat very much of it, but when you have avoided dairy for 20 years you don’t really want to eat any at all the night before waking up at 3am to run the Grand Canyon!

On the Silver Bridge-- that black thing at top is the pipe that carries potable water for the whole canyon

Back at the hotel, we tried to sleep. I could not stop vividly imagining being blown off the trail in the cold darkness. After finally drifting off near midnight, I woke for good at 1:30am with a nosebleed that would last the entire day.

We got up at 3am and got ready. John did too—he would drop us off and go for his own hike. Bundled in all of our warmest gear, we took off in the dark with the car’s heat turned way up.

Selfie on the Silver Bridge

We drove past the park’s eerily deserted and open gates, and stopped right by the Bright Angel trailhead. Reluctantly getting out of the car, full of jangling nerves and giddy to get the damn thing over with, we took a quick selfie and were off.

I was never once cold (after our initial jaunt from the hotel to the car, that is). In fact, as soon as we dropped below the top of the rim, there was very little breeze at all, and we were so warm that we kept having to stop to take off layers. All those readjustments and the reality of running in the dark on a trail neither of us know meant that we were much slower than we anticipated.

Coming in to Phantom Ranch

This part—our initial descent—should’ve been our fastest segment, but it wasn’t. I busily re-calculated our time to the river, to the North Rim, and back; meanwhile Ann was descending into a bad mental space from time anxiety and lack of sleep.

The trail was much nicer than I had hoped. It was wide and well graded. We even passed a number of people, some heading down like we were, some coming up the other way after starting much earlier (one couple had left the North Rim at midnight and were doing a rim-to-rim-to-rim the more difficult direction. Badasses!). It felt surprisingly safe. We even saw a few pairs of eyes glowing in the light of our headlamps—two were mule deer, another one or two were far enough away that we never saw what they were.

First bridge over Bright Angel Creek

The Bright Angel trail has plenty of water, toilets, and signs, which helped keep things interesting when we couldn’t see much of the scenery—although that did help us realize just how slow we were going, causing some anxiety. It was easy enough to find our way except for one spot where the trail ended in a stream. I thought there was no way a desert trail would send people splashing through precious water. We cast around, looking for where we might’ve gone wrong. Finally, we forded on a bit and realized that, indeed, the trail was the stream for a bit before climbing back to the bank.

Soon we reached sight of the river. It was mucky and murky, but exciting to behold in its speed and power. There were lots more people here, hiking up from Phantom Ranch. We had a longer, sloggier run along the river than I had thought—a few climbs in sandy soil that didn’t feel great.

Creek, trail and rising sun panorama

At this point, Ann was ready to turn around. I convinced her to cross the river and see Phantom Ranch. The crowds didn’t help; with this kind of adventure it’s most fun to feel like you’re in wilderness. It doesn’t feel as special surrounded by people who have paid, rather than planned and trained, to be there.

The Silver Bridge was impressive. It’s longer, narrower, and higher than I imagined. And you can see straight down through it, to the big pipe underneath that holds pressurized water from a spring at the North Rim for the whole Canyon, to the raging Colorado River far below.

Into the sun

Once across, there were more signs of civilization: fences, outbuildings, signposts. We saw mule pens and campgrounds, and stopped at the Phantom Ranch toilets. North past the ranch, the surprisingly flat trail ran close to Bright Angel Creek, wandering back and forth over small bridges in the narrow canyon.

I kept pushing Ann, still having a mentally tough day, because I wanted to get to Ribbon Falls after seeing a photo the day before. When we got to the trail turnoff, a sign said the bridge was out, but I couldn’t even find a bridge, climbing over rocks and pushing through bushes. After hunting around for a while, I joined back up with Ann on the main trail. We agreed to turn around, but I was too low on water to make it back to Phantom Ranch, so we had to push on to Cottonwood Camp, 16.7 miles from our start and 6.5 miles from the top of the North Rim.

Great buttes

When we finally reached Cottonwood, it was a sweet oasis. Toilets, fresh water, and a sweet little picnic bench in the shade of a tree next to the creek. We sat down, ate a bit, rested, and refreshed our water. Knowing that we were about to hit the steep climb up to the top of the North Rim made it easy to turn around. We were on course to get back after dark if we did the whole thing, something I wasn’t looking forward to. Now we’d be done by 4pm, able to take the shuttle and go out for dinner. We started fantasizing about the margaritas we’d have after our long, hot showers.

It felt much faster getting back to Phantom Ranch. We tried again to get to Ribbon Falls via another side trail, and this time saw the very busted bridge. At Phantom Ranch we stopped for lemonade—which I could barely drink and Ann enthusiastically enjoyed a refill of— and bought and sent a few postcards, charmingly stamped with “Sent by mule.”

Ann on the North Kaibab

Ann wanted to return via the South Kaibab trail, the shorter and steeper one. We made our way back to the Colorado river and took the time to check out the little beach where we had seen rafts parked that morning. Past the beach, we topped off our water, knowing there is none available on the South Kaibab trail-- we figured that two liters of water would be enough to get us the 9 miles up.

Past the beach is the Bright Angel Pueblo ruins, dating from around 1050 AD. Thousand-year-old ruins at the bottom of the Grand Canyon—who knew! It was beautiful and unexpected, and we had the time to enjoy it.

Ann silhouetted in the shade of Bright Angel Canyon

From there the trail runs under the Black Bridge and switchbacks up to the deck. I was happy to not be able to see straight through the bridge, so I could enjoy the views and take lots of photos. The Black Bridge ends right in a sheer cliff face with a hole blasted through it. From there we immediately began the steep climb. There were plenty of lookouts on the switchback corners and the views were immediately spectacular. Knowing the many layers of the canyon we’d be passing through that we hadn’t been able to see in our dark descent, we soaked it all in.

The views were spectacular and changed every few feet—horizontal and vertical! Our perspectives of the rock formations changed quickly, too. One minute I was staring in awe of a giant, towering butte I nicknamed the Castle, and not long after I had trouble finding it because it now appeared below a massive shelf of the canyon. Colors shifted as the sun began to sink, and shades of blue crept into the shadows. There were so many more plants and so much more green than I had ever imagined in the Grand Canyon.

A massive Grand Canyon century plan

We had been fortunate to this point with the sun; there was not a cloud in the sky, but we had descended in the dark and then the whole North Kaibab trail was in such a narrow canyon that the sun wasn’t high enough overhead to enter until near the end of our trip through. We had also been running along water for much of the Bright Angel trail and all of the North Kaibab trail, so green plants and even trees were always at hand for a bit of coolness and sometimes shade. Even now on the steep, exposed ridges of the South Kaibab trail, we were often shaded by the massive rock and only sometimes flipped a switchback into the blazing, arcing sun.

The waypoints on South Kaibab are nicely spaced about a mile and a half apart each, so we paced ourselves well. The Tipoff, Skeleton Point, Cedar Ridge… It was here, a mile and a half from the top of the South Rim at the South Kaibab trailhead, that we began to see a lot more people. I even saw a tourist family’s three sons pose on a big rock while the mom took a photo, and the oldest let his water bottle roll off, down into the canyon. Needless to say, she was annoyed.

Sun about to crest these canyon walls

I savored that final push. It didn’t even feel that hard, on our relatively fresh legs. We just took it as slow as we needed. Our hotel had a historic photo of the last section of this trail: short switchbacks up an impossibly sheer cliff face. I smiled in recognition and pushed to the top. There was the shuttle stop (with water, which was welcome as we were getting low) and it was around 4pm—12 hours of running and we timed it just right to only wait five minutes for the bus.

We kept checking for phone signal while on the bus to let John know where we were. We had a bit of a mixup, but hung around the visitor center until he arrived to take us back to the hotel. We each had a luxuriously long and hot shower, then we headed to the lone Mexican restaurant in Tusayan for a delicious margarita (or two, for Ann).

Back towards the river

While not a full rim-to-rim-to-rim, we had an amazing and full adventure. I felt pretty good, physically and mentally, the whole time we were running. The anxiety beforehand was awful, though, and the altitude affected me way more than I thought. Overall we both had a great trip. Cutting out the North Rim climb made it feel more fun and lighthearted; we weren’t absolutely gutted at the end.

Leaving there, though, I knew I’d be back. With the experience of how good the trails are and what to expect, I would get more sleep, have a much better time, and start earlier. We also learned that there’s a four-and-a-half hour, $90 shuttle once a day between the rims, so it would be really fun and “easy” to leave a car at the South Rim, take the shuttle to the North, stay at the lodge there and run back. One way and no fuss. The Grand Canyon is a spectacular landscape with beautiful trails— not to be missed. Here’s to our big adventure of 2017!


Trail in shade

Along Bright Angel

Ann strikes a pose

Ribbon Falls in the distance

Century Plant

Capturing the bridges over Bright Angel Creek

Ann in one of the narrowest parts of Bright Angel Canyon

One of many bridges over the creek

Sun finally hits in Bright Angel Canyon

Bridges of Bright Angel Canyon and Creek

Bridges of Bright Angel Canyon and Creek

Ann on the beach of the Colorado River

From the beach upstream toward the Black Bridge

Ann's a force of nature!

Force of nature selfie

GGWW and the Black Bridge

Colorado River Beach

Ruins near the base of the Black Bridge

Black Bridge cables

Winding under the Black Bridge

Ann on the Black Bridge while I spend a long time taking photos

Selfie on the Black Bridge

The Black Bridge ends in a hole in the rock

Sure, let's just end a bridge right through this rock

Looking back down at the Black Bridge

Phantom Ranch across the river

Back up the North Kaibab Trail

Ann enjoying the climb

River view

Quite a climb!

Layers upon layers

Butte panorama

I nicknamed the formation on the right "the castle" and used it to orient and encourage myself

The Silver Bridge, far below


Rock formation striations perpendicular

Super cool rock formation

Selfie at an overlook

Tip Off

Endless steps-- now in white rock

Dead, red dusty tree

So sculptural

Layers of color

Pano near Skeleton Point

Strange holes in the red rock

Looking down at the Tonto Platform

Lucky in shade

Steepness

Blues creeping into the canyon

Yaki Point

Looking back from the final switchbacks

Done and waiting for the shuttle at the South Kaibab trailhead

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