A Grand Ambition, or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
By Michael Lanza
At 5:30 in the morning in early April, the bone-chilling wind cascading off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at 7,200 feet slices through my few thin layers of clothing. Four of us are following our headlamp beams in the dark down the South Kaibab Trail. We’re just minutes into a day that will also end by headlamp light late tonight—but only after we’ve hiked farther than any of us has ever ambulated in a single day.
That’s assuming we make it. We feel sufficiently uncertain of that outcome that we’re all carrying paper-thin, four-ounce bivy sacks, just in case we have to lie down on the ground somewhere to pass out for a few hours.
My friends Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and Carl Schueler and I have embarked on a trek that the National Park Service would definitely not approve of. Rangers and officials at Grand Canyon National Park caution people against attempting to hike from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up again in a day. We’re setting out to cover more than twice that hike’s cumulative elevation and more than three times its distance.
We plan to walk from the South Rim to the river, across the canyon to the North Rim, and back again: 44.4 miles with 11,195 feet of up and down. All before the hour hand makes one complete revolution.
I’m not sure how auspicious it is that, at the outset of this epic day, I’m shivering so violently that my teeth are clacking together like the tracks beneath a passing train. And I’m wearing every stitch of clothing I brought—which is obviously not enough.
But when you are compressing one of America’s most sought-after, five- to six-day backpacking trips down to the length of a double work shift, the crazed calculus goes something like this: superfluous ounces multiplied by mileage times elevation equals added suffering. So it is deemed better to shiver for a little while than to carry clothing you won’t need for the rest of the day.
And sure enough, about 30 minutes after setting out, we’ve warmed up. As we breeze down the narrow crest of the South Kaibab Trail, the first light of day floats down like a light snowfall onto the Grand Canyon. Below us sprawls one of the planet’s most magnificent and unfathomable landscapes, a chasm a mile deep and 277 miles long, with an infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers each standing thousands of feet tall inside this big hole. We walk swiftly but in silence, gaping.
Across the canyon, dark, gray clouds embrace the North Rim. It looks very, very far away.
I glance at my GPS: mile two. Only 42.4 miles to go.
In one sense, this hike embodies the height of absurdity. To place the distance and vertical gain and loss in some perspective, compare it to climbing the Lower 48’s highest peak, California’s Mt. Whitney. That 21.6-mile, 6,000-foot slog is usually done over a weekend—partly to acclimatize to the high elevation, but also because spreading it over a couple of days is a more realistic objective for most hikers.
We are basically attempting the equivalent of climbing Whitney twice in one day.
And yet, for hikers and trail runners who have really planned, prepared, and trained for it (see the Make It Happen section below and my tips on training for mega-dayhikes elsewhere at this blog), it constitutes arguably the most amazing single huge day of hiking you can do in the country. We will see the Big Ditch from top to bottom and north to south—and we’ll see it twice, walking across and back, at very different times of day. As anyone who’s hiked or rafted the canyon understands, the play of light across this landscape of such depth and vastness ranges widely over the course of the day. Every corner of it, every view morphs from hour to hour.
Seeing all of this in a crazy-long day adds a major physical challenge. For persons of a certain mindset, that element of uncertainty enhances the experience, giving it another dimension that makes it irresistible.
Rather than the height of absurdity, I like to think of our plan as an ultimate expression of optimism.
There’s no way to even estimate how many people attempt or complete a one-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike or run. Such an extreme undertaking would obviously not even pop up on the mental radar of most hikers or trail runners.
But start searching the Web for trip reports and asking around and you discover the tiny yet passionate sub-culture of avid ultra-distance runners and hikers who have done what many refer to as the “r2r2r.” It feels like stumbling upon a little pub in a back alley of London or Edinburgh where everyone’s a diehard fan of the same soccer team.
I have friends who’ve made it an almost annual tradition for several years, finishing the r2r2r in a very impressive 12 hours. Through forwarded e-mails, I connected with an Arizonan trail runner who’s done it seven times. He wrote back with reams of helpful advice. His e-mail suggested that there are more zealots out there pulling this off than one would expect.
If you feel compelled to try to hike or run more than 40 miles through wilderness in a day, few footpaths are as amenable to it as the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails that we’re linking up today. (Other r2r2r hikers and runners use the Bright Angel Trail; see the Make It Happen section below for more details.) Managed by the park as “corridor” trails, the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel are all very well constructed. While there are steep stretches, the footing is mostly good enough to run—though most runners will walk sections of it.
At 7:55 a.m., Mark and I pause in warm sunshine on the suspension bridge spanning the Colorado River, at 2,480 feet. Carl waits on the other side; Todd’s just a couple of minutes behind us. Two hours and 20 minutes after we started out in a numbing wind chill, the temperature has leapt into the 50s. Because it is early spring and we’ll pass through the canyon bottom in early morning and late afternoon, we won’t experience temperatures warmer than around a very pleasant 60° F—avoiding the big nemesis of Grand Canyon hikers, the brutal heat. Swapping that for a couple miles of walking in packed snow on the North Rim seems like a smart trade-off.
“I can already tell what the hardest part of this hike is going to be,” I say to Mark. He nods and laughs because we are thinking the same thing. After the pounding, 5,000-foot descent off the South Rim, we are both dreading coming down off the North Rim—a thousand feet higher and double the distance of what we just did. And we’ll start that descent 22 miles into this day.
As if on cue, Todd walks up to us at that moment and says, “Well, I can feel what’s going to hurt the most.”
Mile 6.2. 38.2 to go.
Of course, park officials have good reasons to advise people against hiking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and returning in a day—and by extension, attempting an r2r2r. Besides the fact that 250 people are rescued every year—although most are probably novices and not attempting that big a dayhike—the rim-to-river-to-rim alone is a grueling jaunt. And its taxing character isn’t really revealed until you reach the river: After the pounding of so much downhill has driven needles into your quads, calves, and knees and made your soles pulse with pain, then you have to turn around and hike back up a vertical mile.
Worst of all is the heat: Even in spring and fall, it can send a gila monster scurrying for shade. It’ll turn your brain to cooked oatmeal.
The four of us have all logged enough days of more than 20 and 30 miles to feel that this challenge is a logical next step (acknowledging my considerable stretch of the definition of “logical”). We’re all in that fortyish to fiftyish age range—still obviously capable of getting excited about lunatic endeavors, but at least knowing better how to execute them.
Mark and Todd have joined me on painfully hard treks before, including a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, averaging 31 miles a day. Todd’s a competitive distance runner. Mark is a former member of the U.S. race-walking team, which is how he and Carl know one another; Carl made four Olympic teams. Although our senior member and on his baptismal ultra-hike with this crew, he will maintain a lead pace that has the rest of us struggling to not fall too far behind.
I don’t have the credentials of these guys. But this was my idea, and when you’re throwing the party, you’re automatically on the invitation list.
Minutes beyond the Colorado River, we follow the North Kaibab Trail past Bright Angel Campground—where backpackers are just eating breakfast—and enter a tight gorge of sheer, dark walls shooting up several hundred feet to a strip of blue sky high overhead. Here in the canyon’s basement, we’re walking through the geologic layer called the Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth, formed nearly two billion years ago.
With the sun not nearly high enough to reach the floor of this narrow defile, we’re walking in deep, cool shade; seven miles into our hike, we have yet to emit a single bead of perspiration among us. Bright Angel Creek roars alongside the trail, fat and foaming with spring runoff, its noise reverberating off the cliffs. Boulders the size of SUVs sit beside the trail.
After hiking the spectacular South Kaibab Trail, you could be forgiven for expecting the North Kaibab Trail to be anticlimactic. But in truth, it’s more than twice as long, with much more scenic variety—and has relatively few people on it. Besides a couple of backpackers coming down the trail, and those in the campgrounds, we see no one—and not a single person above Cottonwood Campground on our way up or down. Ascending almost a thousand feet higher than South Rim trails, the North Kaibab Trail passes through every ecosystem found between Canada and Mexico, from arid desert to high-elevation pine forest.
More than three miles from the Colorado, we exit the gorge into a broader, sunlit canyon with red walls and talus slopes of desert scrub brush. Cliffs formed in columns stand beneath thin horizontal bands of rock resembling stacked tortillas. Thousands of feet above us, we can see the white rock and forests of the North Rim, frosted with snow.
We pass Ribbon Falls, and then another 200-foot waterfall beyond it. We take a short break to “preemptively” tape our feet and refill our water bladders at Cottonwood Campground, then continue up and up and up. At Roaring Springs, another waterfall pours over a cliff.
High up Roaring Springs Canyon, the trail traverses across a sheer cliff in the Redwall Limestone layer, then climbs relentlessly through innumerable switchbacks. At 6,800 feet, we reach a passage through solid rock. The Supai Tunnel marks a threshold of sorts; beyond it, we’re walking on two to three feet of snow for the remaining 1.8 miles and 1,400 feet to the North Rim.
In the shade, we walk atop firm snow. But where the sun has softened the snow, we posthole calf-deep. Our pace slows as the hiking grows much more strenuous. I’m feeling depleted. A glance at my partners, each plodding silently forward and wearing the telltale blank look of fatigue, tells me I’m not alone.
I catch up to Mark, who has tapered off of his usual frenetic pace. “Should I be feeling this spent only halfway through?” he says.
Mile 21. 23.4 to go.
Sometimes, a 30-minute break with a 500-calorie snack can feel as rejuvenating as a good night’s sleep. Well, okay, not quite that good. But it can stave off the Grim Reaper or the vultures just when you need a little help.
We reach the snow-covered North Kaibab Trailhead, in quiet pine forest, at 1:45 p.m. There’s no one here—of course. A single lane has been plowed on the road. We peel off shoes and socks, sit on the dry, warm pavement and eat our lunches, retaping our feet and resting tired legs.
Thirty minutes later, we’re walking again.
Down, down, down. Back over the snow, through the switchbacks, across the cliff face where a seasonal waterfall has frozen into an ice rink across the trail—inspiring visions of sliding over the brink. In my head, I’m breaking down the hike into neat, emotionally digestible pieces: 6.8 miles from the North Rim to Cottonwood Campground, then 7.2 miles from Cottonwood Campground to the Colorado River. Trying to swallow the entire 44.4 miles in one mental gulp would be too spirit-crushing.
Despite the cramps in our quads, we can’t help but crane our necks at our surroundings. Traveling through the canyon is like watching a slide show in which a different image pops up whenever the sun inches a little higher or lower, or the clouds shift, or you round a turn in the trail. But this slide show never ends.
At some point in the lower reaches of Bright Angel Canyon, Carl and Todd pull ahead of Mark and me, even though we’re jogging down the easier stretches of trail. And I’m pushing myself just to keep up with Mark, who seems to have found some reserve of energy that I can’t locate right now.
The two of us reach the Colorado River at 7pm. Mark’s wife, Lisa, is waiting there, as planned, having hiked down this afternoon to join us for the final leg back up to the South Rim. She says Carl and Todd passed through an hour ago. Whatever they were eating, I need some.
Dusk settles over the Grand Canyon and the wind kicks up as the three of us begin the 5,000-foot climb up the South Kaibab Trail. There are two environmental factors that can produce monster winds in the morning and evening, and the Grand Canyon has both: a huge elevation gradient and big temperature swings over the course of the day. Higher up the South Kaibab, gale-force gusts will assail us; we’ll stumble forward at times, heads down, on our way to finishing our long day at 11 p.m.
But now, minutes up the South Kaibab in the dark, a park ranger descending the trail gives us a scrutinizing look. It’s late and we have a long way to go—by normal standards, anyway.
“You guys are going to make it, right?” she asks us tersely, no doubt thinking she does not want to rescue us tonight.
I glance at my GPS: mile 39. I’m tempted to tell the ranger, hey, we’ve come this far, there’s no way I’m quitting with just 5.4 miles to go.
Instead, the three of us just assure her that, yes, we are going to make it.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers with experience knocking off long day trips in the wilderness and desert hiking experience. It requires knowing how to prepare with the proper clothes, nutrition, fluids, and definitely training. Only basic map-reading ability is required; the trails are obvious and well-marked, unless covered by fresh snow. See my story “Cranking Out Big Days” at this blog for tips on how to pull off long dayhikes, and my Ask Me post answering a reader’s questions about hiking the Grand Canyon rim to river to rim.
Make It Happen
Season April to mid-May and late September to early November are the best times for attempting a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, whether in one day or spread over multiple days. Snow and ice may cover trails at the rims until mid- to late April, slowing travel and requiring some kind of traction device (like Kahtooka Microspikes) on your boots; in autumn, rim trails are generally free of snow and ice, though storms can bring snow then. The inner canyon often sees daytime highs in the 90s by mid-May. Summer highs in the canyon frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., though morning temps are often comfortable. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips.htm for average inner-canyon temperatures.
The Itinerary Whether done in one day or as many as five to six days, a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike begins on either the South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim, connecting to the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. The shortest route entails going both ways via the South Kaibab (and the North Kaibab): 44.4 miles with 11,195 feet of elevation gain and loss.
However, many hikers descend the South Kaibab but return via the Bright Angel because the latter is less steep, reduces the uphill climb by 500 feet (the Bright Angel Trailhead is at 6,785 feet); and there’s an intermediate campground, Indian Garden, that allows you to spread out the climb to the South Rim over two days. The total distance of this itinerary is 47.8 miles.
Another option for fit hikers and runners: Dayhike from the South Rim to the North Rim, spend the night at the Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim, and then dayhike back to the South Rim or take a shuttle bus back. The North Rim’s Grand Canyon Lodge is managed by Forever Resorts, (877) 386-4383, grandcanyonforever.com/lodging. Daily transportation between the rims is available from May 15 through Oct. 15 through Transcanyon Shuttle, (928) 638-2820, trans-canyonshuttle.com; reservations required.
See the park’s corridor trails brochure at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Corridor_Brochure.pdf.
Getting There Grand Canyon Village on the park’s South Rim is located 60 miles north of Williams, via AZ 64 off I-40, and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, via US 180. The South Kaibab Trailhead is near Yaki Point, about two miles east of the village, just off AZ 64 (watch for signs). Parking is not permitted at the trailhead, but there are early-morning hiker express shuttles; see the seasonal schedule at http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses.htm. Although the road to the trailhead isn’t normally open to private vehicles, you could have someone drop you off there very early in the morning without a problem. The Bright Angel Trail begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village.
Permit A permit is not required for dayhiking, but is for overnight camping in the backcountry. You can apply for one beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (e.g., on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April). A Grand Canyon backpacking permit is one of the hardest permits to get in the national park system. Fax in your application early in the morning on the first day you can submit it. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm for details and the application form.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon map no. 207, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
• Water In early spring, you’ll find water flowing at several points along the North Kaibab Trail; treat it. Potable water is available at the North Kaibab Trailhead, Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, the Pumphouse Residence, Cottonwood Campground and Bright Angel Campground; all are turned off by sometime in mid-autumn except the water at Bright Angel Campground. There is no water available along the South Kaibab Trail, but from early May to mid-October there is water near the trailhead (at a spigot near the bus stop). On the Bright Angel Trail, there is potable water at Bright Angel Campground and Indian Garden Campground year-round, and from early May to mid-October at Three-Mile Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse.
• Food Plan food wisely—it should be varied, high in calories per ounce, provide a good balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, and be something you’ll want to eat later in your hike, when you might find yourself unable to stomach some foods. Plan on eating about two pounds of food, or roughly 4,000 calories. Experiment on long training hikes with what revives you and remains palatable to you after many miles. In the desert, you need salty foods to replace depleted sodium levels.
• Heat Avoid severe heat by planning a r2r2r hike for early spring or late autumn, or hiking only in the morning and evening on hot days. Wear a wide-brim hat. Drink plenty of fluids.
• Fitness A 40-plus-mile dayhike in the Grand Canyon or anywhere should really only be attempted by very fit people who’ve previously done 20- and 30-mile hikes. See my story “Cranking Out Big Days” for tips on how to pull off long dayhikes.
• Weight Minimizing daypack weight is critical. Some tips:
1. Although it sounds counterintuitive, don’t carry a lot more water than you need. At prime times of year for hiking these trails, water sources along the North Kaibab Trail are not terribly far apart (in the context of a huge dayhike). Water weighs more than two pounds per liter and the amount you’re carrying will greatly affect your comfort and stamina.
2. Take only the clothing you really need. For example: We did not bring lightweight puffy jackets because we would only have worn them for the first 20 to 30 minutes of the hike, descending the South Kaibab Trail in the early-morning cold; the insulation would not be needed during the day or on the evening ascent of the South Kaibab because we’d be going uphill.
Contact Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888, nps.gov/grca. Backcountry office, (928) 638-7875.