How to Run from One Side of the Grand Canyon and Back, and then Back Again By Terence Baker All explorers long to see the Grand Canyon, Arizonas massive hole and one of the United States scenic wonders, but on the two occasions I've seen it from its North Rim, impressive as it is, I always got the sense that I was only seeing a tiny slice of it. And its a slice that often looks bleached out, the strong sun exposing only a few of the many colours it possesses. There is a reason that the really great photos of it are taken by people who have spent thousands of hours, not a handful, staring at it, waiting, getting up early and become ever more familiar with this mind-blowing spot.
If you're an explorer, you'll want to get down and see it. My friend, ultra-marathoner and mountaineer, Alex Mittnacht, and Ia veteran of 20 marathons, but thus far, no ultrasdecided to do just that. Wed run across it to see all of its colours, and when we got to the South Rim, 21.1 miles away, wed run back. After all, hotel rooms hereabouts, especially at the North Rim, which opens only between mid-May and late October, get booked far in advance...and we were booked, and for dinner, too. Getting There You have two choices: Phoenix, Arizona, or Las Vegas, Nevada. Both are a fair drive away, but it is a wonderful drive through the Sedona Desert from the south or via Mount Zion National Park to the north. I have always come from Las Vegas, a city I have never understood the need for.
The road to the northeast, which swings around to Zion and the Vermillion Cliffs (look for California condors) is an epic one, the road from Fredonia rising slowly but continually to the Grand Canyon National Park ($25 entrance fee). In mid-May (runners flock here then, as it is just too warm from June onwards), the sun and heat of Arizona can quickly turn into hail, as it did when we drove to Jacob Lake, the last fuel and shops before the North Rim Lodge. Snow lay on the ground. Preparing for the Run Suffice to say, train a lot on hills. Be fit. Be prepared. Be sensible. Tell people what you are doing, when you are leaving, when you are likely to return. Stick together. Plan what you are taking. Know where the water is. Talk to other runners. This run involves 42.2 miles and a net elevation of 3,300 metres. Its tough. Some runners have done this runwhat is known as a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rimin eight hours; we were calculating 14. What to Bring Apart from a sense of adventure and a huge bag of desire, youll need to bring some stuff along, too.
A camelbak for water probably is the most important (please see the section entitled Water below). Other things? Heres a list of what we carried (and yes, you have to carry it while you run, so when you train, carry it then, too). a. Headband with a night light b. Hiking poles (optional, but a good idea to give your thighs all the help they can have) c. Extra water bladder (see Water) d. Food: we brought beef jerky, energy bars and scrunched-up salt-and-vinegar crispsboy, do you crave salt after a while (also see the section entitled The Run to read about the trails one food store) e. Warm but light clothes for the first few hours, and the last, when your body heat plummets f. A small camera g. A whistle for emergencies h. A mobile phone (but the only reception we could find was when we got to the top of the South Rim) i. Obviously, good trainers j. Plastic bin liners for all of the above if it rains (not that usual here, but you never know) k. $200 (there is a store, and if you cannot make it back once youve reached the South Rim, well, it will come in handy) Water Every year people die in the Grand Canyon, and it usually is because dehydration sets off a chain of mishaps, and the mind, usually a store of common sense, starts to cloud over. You have to drink water, and all the time, you have to carry it with you.
There is water at three places along the route, which is known as the Kaibab Trail (North and South), which meet at Phantom Ranch (see The Run below). The first is at the Artists House at Roaring Springs (1,591m; if coming, as we did, from the North Rim, it is at mile 4.7), Cottonwood (1,134m; mile 6.8) and Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground (756m; mile 14). That obviously means that there are six water stops on a round route. Use every water stop. Sometimes it is not necessary to fill the camelback completely; at other times, it is, and you need to fill your spare bladder. We started at 3:40 a.m. from the North Kaibab trailhead (2,512m; we wore our warmer clothes until the first water stop, at which point we changed into normal running attire) so carried little water for the first leg. (Warning: as all runners will tell you, when you know you need water, it is too late. Started drinking small sips immediately so as to feel hydrated at all times.) The critical water stop is Phantom Ranch. Fill up your Camelbak and a shared, spare bladder.
Half way up the South Kaibab Trail to the South Rim, hide your bladder in the rocks and retrieve it on the way down; believe me, the South Rim (2,213m from the bottom at 740m) is an arduous climb, and you will need all the H20 you can get. The Run Heres the fun stuff, as this run really is a lot of fun, a feat you will never forget and few have managed. When we ran in 2011, we saw only five other runners doing the rim-to-rim-to-rim. We had been given a lift to the trail head, which is a couple of miles (too much extra, especially at the end of the 42.2) from the North Rim Lodge. At 0340, with a wave, we started down in the dark, seeing only a mad straggle of Koreans who were walking what we were running and taking 30 hours do so. Take your time. Youve a long way to go, and the path is somewhat narrow and full of roots, stones and other impediments. I did fall over once, while it was light, and worry sets in for a few seconds. A broken bone down here is no laughing matter. Run with someone you trust. In the dark, on one side of you are slabs of rock and dark, brooding trees; to the other is a drop (dont dwell on it), but the eyes become amazingly quick to adjust. After 1.7 miles, the first landmark was reached, the Supai Tunnel, which for a few metres goes through the rock of the canyon. At the Artists House, we could see as though we were owls, the moon shining on the path and making us feel we were the only ones on Earth. As light gathered, and we changed, a rare bird, a scarlet Vermillion flycatcher, perched as if to say hello yards from where we were; I was to see another eight species new to me (Im a birder, too), including Rock wren, Black-throated sparrow and Lucys warbler. We already realised how lucky we were to be able to see the canyon in this manner. The next leg is less steep, a rolling run along the Bright Angel Creek, but it is downhill nonetheless, and it is tough on the way back.
The sun came over the edge of the South Rim, and even more colour erupted. Indeed, one of the greatest things in doing this was watching the sun come around you in all 360 degrees throughout the day. Gigantic cactus stand sentry on hillsides, and a waterfall can be glimpsed to the right as you run towards the South Rim. All was spectacular. One also becomes educated on geology, the thick bands of rock that diligently portray the canyons ages sometimes seeming never to end (thatd be the Supai Group (near the top) and the Vishnu Schist (at the bottom). At Phantom Ranch, there is a store, where we bought more food; it is here that many day hikers reach coming from the more-touristed South Rim. Warnings everywhere state that this hike is not to be attempted, and the fact is that many reach the bottom only to flinch at the 7.1 miles needed to be walked back up. Waiting for them is what is known as the mule taxi, which will take you and your stuff back up for a hefty fee. We met a friend at Phantom Ranch who was running the canyon one way (we would meet him for dinner) in order to run back the next.
He said he had left us some more food at the top, and you need it by then. From Phantom Ranch it is a short run to the Colorado River, where Zodiac boats await to take some people along it; of course, many of you will know that rafting down the whole river is also an epic and fraught trip, too. It was also here that we saw another threat, a Rattlesnake, which we respected and gave a wide berth to. The South Rim climb puts a capital A into Arduous. The switchbacks never seem to end, but they remain glorious, the Colorado River looking smaller but no less green as you climb. We got stuck behind the Mule Train, which also carry supplies down and refuse up, and while we thought thatd be annoying, we never could catch it up. Only on a few occasions could we run, the majority of the ascent being a healthy walk. More and more walkers passed us and cheered; when we passed them on the way down, they realised what we were doing and treated us like rock stars. What took four hours to climb took 90 minutes to run down. We tried to take our time, as the bodys need to constantly check itself takes a toll on the quadriceps. It was back at Phantom Ranch where I should have dangled my lower legs in the cold Bright Angel Creek. This would have helped flush out some toxins, but I was feeling good, so we carried on what was now a steady incline back to Cottonwood. After some 35 miles, I realised my run was no faster than my walk. Alex was about 200 metres ahead, both of us happy in our silence and the majesty of our surroundings. Every two minutes we whistled to one another to make sure we were okay. By the time we reached Cottonwood, I was unable to take my shoes off. I physically could not bend over enough to reach them. Alex asked a one-way runner to deliver a message to those waiting for us to say we would be a little late.
The man asked us to do the same as his friend (we just then saw him) was in a worse state than me. Off we went. Alex had never seen me moan before. I pulled muscles I did not know I had, but at the top was warm soup, a comfy bed, a huge burger and a beer. On we went. On the way up the last strenuous five miles, we saw the Roaring Springs waterfall, where in the morning it was too dark to do so. I knew the Supai Tunnel pretty much meant home, and a little after that we saw one of our friends, whose voice sounded beautiful. After 14 hours, Alex and I walked together across the line of the trailhead.
Of course we had become closer. A stranger there yelped for us in joy; he was waiting for hiking friends of his own but had done what he had just finished 10 years previous and knew what it took and meant. Hearing his infectious joy summed up a perfect but tough adventure. If you need advice on this expedition, please comment below or email me using the Send A Message button above.
Some of my travel obsession can be seen at www.terencebakertravel.org The content of the website is for information only and the views expressed do not reflect those of Explorers Connect. These 'How To...' guides are for information only and do not replace rigorous preparation for any expedition.