The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.
-John Wesley Powell
Standing atop the South Rim the day after running the Grand Canyon I deeply understood Powell’s statement. Looking down into the canyon it feels vast, barren, and harsh. This image before me did not reconcile with my experience the day before where I discovered the canyon to have lush greenery, flowing creeks, a powerful river, and active wildlife. Standing on the South Rim, I felt I held a monumental secret that I yearned to share with everyone else around me: There’s so much more to the canyon than what you see on the rim!
Of course, you can spend a year backpacking the Grand Canyon and still fall short of grasping the mystery of the place with it’s changing seasons and propensity for volatile weather or flash floods. After a year of backpacking you could experience the canyon by boat on the Colorado River for a few weeks and see the place in a totally different way. Since we didn’t have that kind of time for exploring we opted to explore, by foot, rim to rim to rim in one day on Friday, September 28, 2018.
r i m to r i m to r i m
Our alarms chirped us awake at 3:00 a.m. Our friend, Chris Odinet, stirred to life on the too- short- for- his- 6’4” frame bunk bed in our Yavapai Lodge room while Justin and I crawled out of our bed to start getting ready. It was finally game day. Plans were set seven months before and the day showed up, seemingly, without warning. We downed weak coffee, triple checking our packs and called the taxi to meet us at the Bright Angel Lodge parking lot right next to the Bright Angel Trailhead. Although the parking is only about five minutes away from our lodge the taxi driver was already there waiting for us and, boy, was he grumpy! We hurriedly parked and grabbed our gear as we jumped into the taxi van to take the ten minute drive to our starting point: the South Kaibab Trailhead. Within a couple of minutes Chris frustratedly explains, “I don’t have my phone! It’s either on top of the car or in the car. Do you think we can turn around?” The grumpy taxi driver mumbles that he already took another call so he can’t turn around. Who knew the Grand Canyon taxi services were in such high demand at 4:15 a.m.? The driver dumps us at the trailhead after we give him $10 and without a word he drives off. We all shake off his bad attitude and excitedly realize we are at the start of our journey. The starting temperature is around 40 degrees at 4:30 am and the air is filled with excitement and a touch of nervousness about what the day has in store.
Justin takes the lead down the steep and technical 6.8 mile long South Kaibab Trail. Like most of the trail we encountered that day, the trail is wide and very easy to follow. Immediately, I notice that my heart rate seems high for the minimal effort I’m putting forth. Hopefully, it’s just nerves and I settle in. About four miles in Justin takes a solid fall that I’d rank a 7/10 for most dramatic performance. He learned that trying to eat on the downhill section with lots of rocks and mule created holes doesn’t work well. His knee was banged up but he felt good enough to keep moving forward. At first light we arrive at the Colorado River crossing via the Black Bridge.
We continued on our merry way passing through the docile Phantom Ranch Campground following along the Bright Angel Creek. I simultaneously noticed how beautiful the inner canyon is and how hard it was for me to run on perfectly runnable terrain. My mental state tanked as I struggled to keep the guys in sight on such an easy section of trail. I envisioned the day differently than it was unfolding to be and I was having a really hard time accepting that. Expectations can rob you of the joy of the present moment. Repetitively, I’d coax my overactive brain, “Let go and enjoy this moment.” As we neared the Ribbon Falls junction I noticed Chris bent over looking sick. He had a mishap with some food that left him feeling ill. Justin prepped these awesome egg, potato, cheese and salsa burritos for all of us but placed them in foil at the bottom of an ice chest. Ice was then loaded, and as it melted, filled the foil packets with water. Sorry to laugh at you over soggy burritos, Chris! 😉
At some point, Justin stayed ahead of me knowing I’d catch up to him eventually at the North Rim. That helped me relax into my own groove without fear of holding him up. Chris and I stopped at Manzanita to filter water from the creek to sustain us up the grueling North Kaibab Trail climb to the North Rim. The North Rim ascent was the hardest part of the day both physically and mentally. About mid-way through the climb Chris decided that his day was going to be done once he reached the North Rim. That led me to think my day was likely done too. Between my heart rate spiking non-stop and the likelihood that Justin would soon be zooming down on his solo descent it started to sink it that it would be unwise of me to continue on my own considering how poorly I felt and, after all, this is the backcountry of the Grand Canyon. This isn’t a race with volunteers waiting for you to arrive after every few miles. I opted to hold off on making a decision until I talked with Justin. He knows my abilities and he wants me to be safe so his input was valuable to me. Once I made that bargain with myself I paid extra close attention to the canyon sights and sounds. Observing the sedimentary rock layer changes as you go down then up is pretty mind-blowing. At one point on the trail it was as if a line was drawn directly on the trail with the change. The trail transitioned from a tan, sandy terrain to a black, grainy rock surface. Pretty cool stuff!
- The ascent transpired like this: climb, climb, rest, climb, bridge, rest, rest, climb, climb, tunnel, rest, question all of my life decisions, climb, rest, climb, rest, climb, rest
- The views on the ascent were: amazing, spectacular, beautiful, awesome, insert synonym here
Upon (finally) reaching the North Rim I started crying because I thought, sensibly, it was the end of my day. Justin cheered me in and then with mass confusion on his face inquired why I was upset. I explained my dilemma and very confidently he explained that the ascent was hard for every single person and that I was more than capable of finishing what I started. Plus, he wanted to do the rest of the run with me. There was a group of about 16 people that traveled from Nashville, TN to attempt R2R2R so a sizable amount of runners from that group streamed in after Chris and I arrived. Since I partly didn’t believe that everyone struggled up the ascent I literally started asking everyone as they came in if they thought the climb was hard. I was met with many out of breathe but very articulate, “Yes!”. Sometimes, I just got a head nod. After surveying about 6-8 people I determined Justin wasn’t exaggerating just to make me feel better. As I decided I would continue on with the journey Chris jumped on the rim to rim shuttle to head back to the south rim. I refueled and relaxed for about 45 minutes before biding farewell to the North Rim. I also said goodbye to the negativity monster that had been on my back all day. This was a potentially once in a life time adventure with my life partner, I’m not letting negative thoughts steal anymore of the day!
After taking a picture at the trailhead we headed back into the belly of the canyon. The North Kaibab descent was FUN! It wasn’t nearly as technical as South Kaibab so we just rolled along enjoying the ease of this part of the run. It’s impossible to overstate the beauty of the North Rim which led me to a endless loop of gratitude for continuing my run. We stopped for a break at Manzanita again as it offers a shady respite with benches next to the creek. While there I talked to an older gentleman who hikes the canyon trails regularly as well as a lady who was taking three different groups of friends hiking in the canyon on three different days just because she loves it so much. The friendliness of the hiking and trail running community always leaves a lasting impression on me. We left the comforts of the shade to run from Manzanita to Phantom Ranch, which includes “The Box”. That section was highly runnable but completely exposed to the 95 degree temperatures and the sun beating down. While the temperature wasn’t as bad as 95 degrees in South Louisiana my heart rate continued to spike which lead to bouts of nausea. We’d run for a while then rest in the shade of a tree or canyon wall when available to let my body recover. Justin was running and feeling like a champ which is fantastic considering he has a 100 mile race on November 3rd. Our plan was to rest at Phantom Ranch for a while and re-fill our water. By time we arrived at Phantom I was feeling terrible. I made a rookie mistake of putting off eating when I should have assuming we were closer to Phantom then we were. Phantom Ranch has a cantina available with minimal snacks/ drinks for those that venture in but we missed that treat by arriving at 4:30 pm. The cantina closes at 4:00 p.m. This was a mental challenge to overcome considering my state so I ate something from my pack and laid on the bench of a picnic table and waited for the intense nausea to subside. For those reading this that aren’t familiar with fueling and ultra distance running, it’s a common malady for runners to not get enough calories in which can lead to nausea which then makes them not want to eat. It’s a vicious cycle but if you can force feed yourself in this state your body usually chills out. Sometimes your body revolts and you vomit everything up but, luckily, that didn’t happen to me. In that time one of the Nashville runners, Brad, arrived and was also battling nausea (and later lost the battle by vomiting over and over again). We departed from him with words of encouragement knowing that his friends would soon arrive at Phantom to help him if needed. Our paths had crossed Brad’s several times throughout the day so it was a bummer to see him struggling but I could tell he was tough and would succeed.
Justin and I had a quick chat about the remaining 10 miles. The next mile to mile and a half was runnable but we opted to power hike it to keep my heart rate down and nausea at bay before the long, challenging ascent out. The sun was finally hiding behind a canyon face but caste enough life to illuminate the many colors of the canyon walls. Observing the deep purples, pinks, reds, browns and greens was really incredible and so different from what we saw all day. As we were hiking along the Colorado River I noticed that my hydration bladder nozzle was punctured and leaking water on me. Thankfully, I had a soft flask hand held so I relied on that the rest of the day as I had to remove the hose from my bladder so that I wouldn’t get soaked. I kept the bladder filled with water in case I needed to refill my handheld before we arrived at one of the many water stops on the Bright Angel Trail. As dusk set in we found ourselves crossing a watery section that looked unusual compared to the rest of the trail. We momentarily, had a panic thinking we’d taken a wrong turn. The Grand Canyon Corridor trails aren’t necessarily marked well because it’s so obvious the route to follow so we chose to move forward as darkness flooded around us. We eventually stumbled upon a sign for the Indian Garden Campground which allowed me to finally let out the breathe I’d been holding for the previous fifteen minutes. I really, really, really didn’t want to be lost.
A little after nightfall we started seeing lots of wildlife. We encountered a beautiful bobcat, a scorpion, a coyote, and a ring tailed cat. With about three miles left to ascend we came upon a buck and doe who weren’t interested in yielding to us on the trail. We were in the canyon during deer rut season (mating season) so we were cautious about approaching them even though deer are typically not defensive. These two just might be. After yelling, slapping my poles together, and even throwing rocks near the deer to spook them it seemed like nothing would work to get them off the trail. Justin threw a rock at the buck which was enough to startle it to move up the cliff….right onto the next switchback we were heading to. Once we climbed up to the deers new location Justin used his sophisticated rock throwing technique to get them to move again. I was pretty excited to leave the two lovers behind as being mauled by a deer with only three miles to go was not in my R2R2R plan. At some point in our final hour we decided to sit down, turn off our headlamps, and stargaze. This was my favorite part of our entire experience. Seeing the grandeur of the night sky within the Canyon (which is designated a “Dark Sky Park”) broke open this feeling within me of unbelievable smallness as well as immense connection to the stars and all living things. After a moment of sitting in silence filled with awe, we clicked our headlamps back on to get the damn thing done. I was able to call Chris who was back at the car to let him know we were almost done and he told us he had a burger and fries waiting for us. My mission was to get to that food!!!
As we got close to the rim we heard several people cheering us on. I laughingly told Justin, “They think we are someone else but I’ll pretend they are really cheering for us anyway!” As we ascended this small group was whooping and hollering. After a moment one of the guys said he recognized us from the North Rim earlier in the day. These guys were part of the Nashville crew and opted to take the shuttle after doing rim to rim instead of their planned rim to rim to rim. Though we weren’t their Nashville crew, their excitement was re-newed in our finish and high fives were given all around. It. Was. Awesome. They snapped a finish picture for us at the trailhead and then I informed them we had a burger and fries waiting for us so we had to go.
After 17.5 hours, 47 miles, 22,000 feet of elevation change and what felt like a lifetime of memories Justin and I sat down with Chris and victoriously ate our burger and fries. I just had to find out from Chris what happened to his phone. He recounted that he returned to the car about 12.5 hours after we departed that morning to find his black cell phone sitting on top of the red rental car which was parked in one of the busiest areas of the whole park. I’d say we all ended our Grand Canyon journey on a high note and with a good nights rest.
l o g i s t i c s
Pre- Game Day
>Phoenix (PHX)- 4 hours to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, closest large airport >Flagstaff (FLG)-1.5 hours to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, smaller airport
>We flew into Phoenix (PHX) from our home town so that we could visit family in Phoenix.
>We rented a car from the airport. The rental car facility is a short distance from the airline terminals but the airport offers a free shuttle to the facilities. Info available HERE
>In Grand Canyon Village the National Park offers convenient shuttle services throughout the day to get you around. That info can be found HERE
>We utilized South Rim Taxi for the morning of our run transportation since the shuttles didn’t operate at 4 am! For our visit we just called (928.638.2822) about 15 minutes before we needed them to pick us up. We parked at Bright Angel Lodge since we were going to finish on the Bright Angel Trail and the taxi dropped us off at the South Kaibab Trailhead for our start. It cost us $10 for the ride.
>Grand Canyon Village offers many options. Visiting THIS website you can explore what’s available.
>We stayed at the Yavapai Lodge (found HERE). We booked the lodge 7 months in advance and there were few options available even that far in advance.
>There are other options outside of Grand Canyon Village (hotels, AIRBNB, HomeAway) but I didn’t research those because we opted to pay a little more for the convenience of our location.
>I highly recommend following the Grand Canyon R2R2R! Run Facebook page. These members have actually done the trip and produce great advice.
I created this in excel and will happily forward it to anyone that wants to edit it for their run. There was a water line break two days before our run so I edited this spreadsheet to reflect the reduced water stops available. I printed and laminated this and kept it easily accessible during the run. The measurements are 3.5 x 4 inches.
Things to do the day before your run:
>Call 928-638-7496 for road closures/ conditions
>Check weather: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/weather-dangers.htm
>Check water sources: https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/trail-closures.htm#CP_JUMP_1941213 (This can still change at any moment of your run!)
>Secure shuttle/ taxi: ($10) South Rim Taxi 928-638-2822
>Charge devices (phone, watch, GPS device, etc.)
>If you have time, scope out the trailhead(s) that you will start and finish at to orient yourself since you’ll likely arrive there in the dark for your run.
>Check the hours for Phantom Ranch if you are hoping to stop there. I didn’t think to do this and we showed up 30 minutes after the cantina closed without any potential “treats” to be purchased. Sad Fawn!
>Change your headlamp batteries
>Double check that you have all essential items: food, water, headlamp, etc.
>Have cash ready for your taxi driver and call the taxi driver at appropriate time.
>If you are finishing at Bright Angel park your car near trailhead for free. South Kaibab does not have parking at the trailhead so don’t plan to drop a car there.
>Have a hydration plan and follow it! Err on the side of carrying too much water rather than risking not enough. There was a blown pipe on our trip so we had piped water access only at Phantom Ranch, the North Rim and Bright Angel trails stops. We refilled at Manzanita utilizing filters and tablets. I met people that were out of water for hours and had to end their run at the North Rim because of it. Don’t be one of those people!
>Clothes: We had temperature swings from 40 degrees on the South Rim in the morning and evening to 95 degrees in the canyon during the day. Our climate in Louisiana is typically humid which makes hot hotter and cold colder so I found the arid climate of the Southwest pleasant. I was fine in a tank top and running shorts all day. It may be worthwhile to bring a lightweight wind jacket just in case. I also brought a buff with me in case I needed it for warmth and to use as a dust shield over my nose and mouth.
>Pack a plastic bag with your hotel key, credit/ debit card, cash and driver’s license in a secure location on your pack. Chris, luckily, had his credit card to pay the shuttle provider when he opted to stop at the North Rim. My understanding is Phantom Ranch only takes cash at the cantina.
>If you pack it in, pack it out. Enough said.
>Enjoy the heck out a unique and special experience.