The Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) double-crossing is an amazing 46-48 mile journey, depending on your route, with over 11,000′ of elevation gain in temperatures varying well over 70 °F (21 °C).
The run is typically done from the South Rim to the North Rim and back, often starting on South Kaibab trail down to the river and Phantom Ranch since it’s steeper but shorter, along North Kaibab trail to the North Rim and back, but then back up to the South Rim along Bright Angel trail which is a little more runnable and with frequent water stations.
It’s on many an ultra runner’s bucket list, and for good reason. The incredible views and beauty this route offers at every turn are hard to beat.
Best Laid Plans
I had been looking forward to it all season since making plans earlier this year to run it with a big group. The date was set for October 26th – with a couple of days scheduled on the back-end in Vegas.
As the date approached, our group once a dozen strong had dwindled to just four, as tends to happen. Then, just a week prior, one of our foursome broke his foot leaving just myself and friends Karl Woll and Ray Barrett. Poor Roy is the one who also hurt his foot just a couple of weeks before he was supposed to pace me at Waldo 100k (this hasn’t exactly been his year).
After a long season including my first 50 miler, several 50k races, and my first 100k race just two months before, this was to be more of a celebration of all my training and hard work than anything else.
Getting to the Canyon
Karl and I flew in to Vegas, rented a car and made the 4 hour or so drive to Tusayan, making a stop at the Hoover Dam. Ray was able to fly on points through Phoenix, which is about the same distance (he wasn’t planning on spending time in Vegas anyway).
Tusayan seemed to be the most economical place to stay, as there are plenty of mid-range hotels and the drive is only about 15 minutes to the park. The Grand Canyon National Park Lodge which is right at Bright Angle trailhead would have been a pretty nice option too – but you need to book way in advance. They’ve got a location at the North Rim as well, making a double-crossing over a two-day period a possibility.
South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch
We were up at 4:30am, so we could be on the road for about 5:15am and at the trailhead by 5:30am. This would give us a bit of time before the first shuttle from the parking lot at 6:00am. There’s no parking right at South Kaibab trailhead, but at least this way we’d have our car right at Bright Angel trailhead when we get back.
By the time the shuttle made its rounds and after taking a few initial photos and getting organized, it was close to 6:45am – much later than the 4-5am start that most runners tend to aim for. The later start had a few advantages though: We had no need for headlamps; we didn’t need our running jackets for long, and; the view of the sunrise on the way down was phenomenal.
All three of us had GoPros (resulting in the video below), which meant a lot of running ahead to set up shots, repeating sections until we got the shot just right, and running back to get the camera. We definitely didn’t set any records on the way down into the canyon, but we managed to take full advantage of the morning light.
About two hours later we finally reached the Colorado River, having dropped from about 7200′ (2200 metres) to 2,400′ (750 metres), covering about 7 miles (11 km). Through a tunnel, over the first of many bridges, with a quick stop on the banks of the river, and we were at Phantom Ranch to refill our water and get some of their famous lemonade. The temperature was still so pleasant (about 64 °F / 18 °C) in the canyon that I don’t think we even finished the lemonade, but I could see this being a godsend on a hot day.
Phantom Ranch to North Rim
North Kaibab trail from Phantom Ranch follows a small tributary of the Colorado River all the way up to the North Rim as a somewhat gradual climb until the end when it gets pretty steep. We realized we’d have to pick up the pace a little and vowed to not stop for any more photos for a couple of hours. In other words, I did a lot of running ahead and then catching up so I could keep shooting!
The trail was very runnable for the next couple of hours as we very slowly climbed under the shade of the narrow canyon. It eventually opened up into the exposed sun, the temperature climbing to the mid-20’s.
We’d been seeing plenty of hikers on the trail all morning, but were finally now seeing some runners on their way back from the North Rim who had obviously started much earlier and at a much quicker pace. For comparison’s sake, we had hoped to finish in somewhere around 13-15 hours, while the fastest known time was a mere 6 hrs 22 mins.
Aside from a quick stop at Cottonwood Campground for a snack and to refill our water, we held a pretty steady pace the rest of the way. The vegetation began to change and the trail became much more exposed, with a wall on one side and a shear cliff on the other, before turning into switchbacks for the final climb. The temperature had been climbing pretty steadily along with us, reaching a high of about 86 °F (30 °C).
We stopped for water one more time before the top where we caught up to another group of runners who’d started much earlier than us. Clean water is plentiful on the trail in the high season (the drinking water is shut off in the winter), so a 1.5 litre bladder was more than enough.
More runners were also now passing us on their way back from the North Rim and it’s at this point we realized how popular this route really had become – we’d count some 40-50 runners before the day’s end!
The North Rim back to Phantom Ranch
The North Rim is at over 8,200′ (2500m) but with all the trees around, it didn’t offer any views (the best view is about 200 metres from the top). So after a quick bathroom break, now 7 hours and about 23 miles (36 km) into our run, we started making our way back down into the canyon to retrace our steps to Phantom Ranch.
We’d passed a turn-off for something called Ribbon Falls on the way out at about the halfway point of North Kaibab trail and I figured if I felt okay I’d make the km or so detour to check it out. Karl and Ray decided to opt-out, so after a few quick photos and some footage I made my way back to catch up.
The light was beginning to fade in the canyon and temperatures were back in the low 20’s (°C). I was having a great time and was on a bit of a high, now over 30 miles (50 km) into the run and still feeling pretty fresh with all of the training I had done this season. Before we knew it, we were back at Phantom Ranch for one last water refill before crossing back over the river and making our way back to the South Rim along Bright Angel Trail, now 11 hours into our run.
Bright Angel Trail back to the South Rim
We crossed the bridge to the Bright Angel trailhead as the sun was setting so it was time to get the headlamps. It gets dark really quickly in the canyon and, before we knew it, it was pitch black.
The rest of the climb up Bright Angel to the South Rim was a little disorientating. While our headlamps illuminated only a few feet ahead, we had a sense at times that we were on the edge of a cliff. We could see the lights of the Lodge way up on the Rim which looked deceptively close, although we knew we still had a few hours and several thousand feet of climbing to go. We began to see headlamps and hear the voices of other runners and hikers on the switchbacks above that were probably just a few hundred metres above us but miles ahead on the winding trail.
I was feeling pretty good so, when the guys started hiking, I decided to press on so I could get it over with and wait for them at the top. I did hit a bit of a low point though as I ran out of water, having missed the first water station. But when I finally got to the next one a few miles later, I was able to eat and pretty quickly got a second wind.
I managed to run the last couple of miles as I passed quite a few hikers and runners who seemed entirely impressed, reaching the South Rim in just over 14 leisurely hours after covering 46. 6 (75 kms) – far from a personal best or any FKT’s, but feeling pretty good. Ray and Karl arrived about an hour later, ready for a hard-earned celebratory beer.
My immediate thought after finishing (well, maybe the next day) was that I’d have to make R2R2R an annual pilgrimage, but maybe making the trip every two years would keep it feeling more exciting. I definitely think I’ll aim for under 12 hours next time, assuming I won’t feel the need to take as many photos, and maybe one day I’ll aim for closer to 9-10 hours as a personal best. Given the 90+ miles of additional trails to explore in the canyon, I don’t think it’s a destination I’ll be quite done with anytime soon.
Gear: Salomon Advanced Skin Pro 10+3 Hydration Pack, Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire (HR)
Clothing: Salomon Trail Short, Salomon Trail Tee, Salomon XR Visor II, Salomon Trail Runner Sleeves, Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie
Shoes: Salomon S-Lab Sense