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: 42 miles with about 22,000 cumulative feet of up and down. All before the hour hand makes one complete revolution.

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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 40 miles to go.

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Descending the South Kaibab Trail, early morning, Grand Canyon.

‘The Height of Absurdity’

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.

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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.

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The South Kaibab Trail.

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.

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Definitely Not Recommended

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 21 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 seven. 35 to go.

Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

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25 thoughts on “April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim”

  1. Thank you so much for taking your time out to reflect on your trip and write this.

    How many hours did it take you guys to finish r2r2r?

    • Hi Eric,

      My first r2r2r was hiking (not running) with daypacks and we took about 17 hours. My second r2r2r involved a mix of running and hiking (the steep uphills) with running vests (going lighter than the first) and we finished in about 15 hours. Certainly, many people have hiked or run faster than we did but our time is a reasonable comparison for fit, middle-aged hikers and runners who arrive prepared for it.

      • Thank you for your response. I will turn 60 this June and I am taking about ten people with me, all much younger than me, on May 10 this year to do it. We are hoping that we can do this in 20 hours.

        • Good luck, Eric. I know scheduling is hard, especially with a big group, but I’d recommend going a few weeks earlier if at all possible, for better chances of moderate temps. But May 10 may work out, too.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      We didn’t need traction on the North Rim even though we were hiking over snow and traction would have been somewhat helpful. In truth, the snow was soft and will be soft barring nights near or below freezing; and traction wouldn’t help much in soft snow, kicking steps with boots works well enough, and you’d carry the weight of spikes for most of the hike. I would check the forecast for overnight lows right before your trip to see the likely temps when you’re there and decide whether to carry traction.

      Good luck with your rim to rim run.

    • Good suggestion, LD. I’ve used Injinji socks. Although it’s a little more tedious pulling them on over each toe, they do help prevent blisters between toes. And it’s pretty comfortable feeling your toes separated by a thin wall of wicking fabric.

  2. Hey, thank you for such a well-written, pertinent and descriptive account. I’m a huge fan of hiking GC and Colorado Plateau in general, and I am very impressed. I will share this with everyone I can. Also had some questions about Kalalau trail on Kauai…got rained out a few yrs ago. Is it practical down and back in one day? 22 miles. I’m a decent hiker but not a marathoner. Thanks again, Russ

  3. Great write up. That said, I’m not sure about your Whitney comparison, suggesting r2r2r is “the equivalent of climbing Whitney twice in one day.” The altitude of Whitney makes the comparison suspect. I’ve done Whitney in a day and day hiked the GC in a day (several times). At 14K+, the altitude alone makes Whitney is way more of a butt-kicker.

    • Hi DG, yes, I agree about Whitney’s elevation, certainly. I tried to acknowledge that difference in my story, sorry if I seemed to be comparing the two directly without some caveats. But I can say that, having dayhiked 44.5 miles on the r2r2r and climbing Whitney via The Mountaineers Route, the r2r2r was much, much harder.

      • I’m not sure that I agree with you DG. I day hiked Whitney, and when I got to the bottom, I felt I could have (though would not necessarily have wanted to) done it again.
        Altitude was really only a problem after Trail Crest Junction, and by the time I was back to the Portal, it was long forgotten.
        I’ve done the GC R2R a couple of times and I was destroyed both times. Temperature and dehydration were much harder for me to cope with than altitude.
        But them I live at 1000m and often hike above 2000m. I guess we each have different strengths and comfort zones.

        • I think your points are accurate, Marcus. Dehydration and especially heat are the challenges on the r2r.
          But living at over 3,000 feet confers some advantage (I live at 2,700 feet, it probably helps a bit) as does regularly training at over 6,000 feet, when preparing for Whitney.

  4. Great story! I just got approved for a 4 day R2R2R hike in June of this year – hot, I know. Do you have any training tips or a training regimen you followed for the months leading up to the hike? We currently live in Utah and are used to the dry climate and heat, drinking plenty of water, etc. We plan to do multiple 10+ mile hikes around Zion and the surrounding areas with our packs heavy this spring. But any stairclimbing/lunges/squat exercises that you increased to prepare for the elevation changes?

  5. Thanks Michael for the excellent information. We have done R2R the past 10 years. This year we did R2R2R over two days. So it would only seem natural to do the ultimate R2R2R in one day. Thanks again for providing the detailed, well organized information.

    Chris (Fellow Grand Canyon Hiker)

  6. Michael, hats off to you and your partners. What you’ve done is crazily wonderful and I love the adrenalin rush from this. R2R in one day is already a jaw opener, but R2R2R gets the tempo-mandibular joint right out of the socket! I fell in love with the Grand Canyon 2 years ago when I did the R2R over a span of 3.5 beautiful days. There was no rush, just pure joy of getting as much time in the canyon as we could. Now I’m ready for more and new challenges. I’m planning my second trip and searching for trails I may like and be able to do in one day possibly (nothing even close to what you’ve done). I stumbled on your website and enjoyed reading about your adventure. Thank You. I hope that when I’m in my 40’s and 50’s I only get stronger and more enthusiastic to undertake such amazing trips. Cheers! Dagmara