If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you really need to go. No seriously, like RIGHT NOW! It doesn’t matter that we’ve all seen it in countless photos, videos and movies, including the iconic final scene in Thelma and Louise. It’s truly a magical place that’s beyond description and to see it in person will blow you away.
My original intention wasn’t to go to the Grand Canyon on this trip. The plan was to relax and do some bird watching in southern Arizona. I’d discovered birding a few years ago and found that it’s a nice complement to my love of nature and travel. Plus, it’s a very civilized activity for a middle aged dude such as myself.
But this plan changed when I bumped into the owners of Animal Athletics. They had just gotten back from doing the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) in the Grand Canyon. The R2R2R is a run from the South Rim, down to the Colorado River, up the North Rim and then back again. It’s about 46 miles roundtrip with more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. These guys made it sound like it was a life-altering experience and an absolute rite of passage for ultrarunners. Oh well, so much for the bird watching.
With my flight leaving in less than a week I didn’t have much time to work out the logistics or to train for the specific demands of the route. The R2R2R has a little bit of everything: technical trail, exposure, long distance, high altitude, extreme heat, and two huge ascents/descents. But other than that, it’s pretty straightforward.
The fastest known time for the route was set by ultrarunning stud, Rob Krar, in 6 hrs. 21 mins. I was thinking (hoping) it would take me about twice that long. To get a real sense of the scale and beauty of the run, check out this VIDEO.
My adventure began on April 3rd (Good Friday) while waiting for the shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. The temperature was in the 20’s and I thought I was going to freeze to death in my thin little running shorts and windbreaker. But by 6:30am I was on the trail, slowly warming up and working my way towards the river. The South Kaibab trail is a steeper more direct route to the river and because it’s along a ridgeline, has 360 degree views.
One of the biggest challenges was to NOT check out the view while running. Every step on the rocky trail is a potential twisted ankle, so there would be no multitasking. If I wanted to look, I had to stop.
Both the South Kaibab and the more popular, Bright Angel Trail, connect the South Rim with the river. I thought it would be fun to start off with the lesser-traveled South Kaibab and then finish with the Bright Angel, when most of the tourist traffic was done for the day.
At about 2 hours I crossed the river and soon thereafter was at the Phantom Ranch, a historic lodge built in 1922. All guests must arrive either on foot, raft or mule. These cool rustic cabins often get booked up more than a year in advance. I was surprised to see they had a little canteen, so I took advantage of the situation and bought some pretzels and a Snickers. From here it was 14 miles and nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain till the North Rim. Those extra calories would definitely come in handy.
This next section was pure bliss: smooth, mostly flat trail winding along an idyllic creek in a narrow box canyon. I got into a flow state and the miles passed easily. After the Cottonwood Campground the grade steepened and I had to switch to power hike mode. As I got closer to the North Rim you could see the flora slowly change from desert cactus to alpine fir and birch.
I got to the North Rim in 6 hrs. 30 min. and even though I was pretty wiped out it was a relief to know that I was halfway done. There was still some lingering patches of snow, but I was happy to see that there was running water from the spigot at the trailhead. I chugged a bottle of water to celebrate.
It was 14 miles from here to the river, all downhill. My goal was to run at a modest, but consistent pace and not take any breaks. The canteen closed at 4pm and another Snicker would have really hit the spot.
It’s funny how the same trail can feel so different just a few hours later. I now had gravity to my advantage, but nevertheless, the cumulative fatigue was starting to take its toll. I never run with an iPod, but this would have been a good time for some inspiring music, maybe Chariots of Fire or the Rocky soundtrack.
It was 5pm when I finally arrived at Phantom Ranch. The canteen and their stash of Snickers was closed for the night. And to make matters worse the guests were all hanging out drinking beer while their steak dinners were being barbecued. It was a cruel form of torture.
As I crossed the river once again, I told myself that there was good news (less than 10 miles to go) and bad news (all uphill). Plus only about two more hours of daylight. I powerhiked this next section up to the Indian Garden campground, where I met a nice Canadian couple. They gave me a chocolate chip Cliff Bar and told me about a great pizza place right outside of the park. They weren’t sure what time it closed, but if I really pushed it maybe I could make it.
It’s a challenge to stay motivated once darkness sets in. Nothing to see, but the bubble of light emitting from your headlamp. As I got closer to the top, the light from the full moon began peeking over the rim. Eventually it got so bright that I didn’t need my headlamp at all.
It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself near the end of the long hard day, but here I was about to complete an epic adventure in the Grand Canyon under the light of the full moon. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As I drove into Tusayan, I knew the pizza place would already be closed. The only other choices were Texaco station hot dogs or the ramen back at my campsite. Neither option very appealing.
But wait, what is that on the horizon? Are those golden arches just a mirage? I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years, but was thrilled to see that it was still open. The Quarter Pounder meal with its savory/salty mix of carbs, fat and protein was just what my body needed. I even went back through the drive thru again to pick up a chocolate shake for dessert. Thank you McDonald’s! You saved my life and I promise to never make fun of you again.