Rim to Rim to Rim (Run the Grand Canyon, in a Day)

How is running the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim like starting a made in the USA apparel brand? Maybe it’s the ups and downs? (Tho I always say that - so I really need to come up with something else.) Maybe most people have more sense than to do it? (That’s true!) Or maybe just that it’s a recent incredible journey I took that I’m psyched to share some deets about here. OK, let’s keep it at that…

Everyone knows the Grand Canyon, and something like 6 million people come there every year. Of these visitors, apparently only about 1% ever leave the rim. I’m guessing it’s a pretty small fraction of that 1% who tries to run 48 miles (49+ for me) and climb 12k vertical feet in a day. Still, since my goal with 5x5x5 (raising money for Ukraine relief - https://gofund.me/1ce72b8e) was to do five big runs this seemed like a good one to add. 

The Trip. When you read about how others have done this it can seem a little confusing, but it’s really pretty simple. Most people start from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, since it’s open year-round and closer to Phoenix than the North Rim.  From the South Rim, there are two main trails to the Colorado River – the (shorter, steeper) South Kaibob Trail and the (longer, not-as-steep) Bright Angel Trail. Only the Bright Angel Trail allows you to park near the trailhead (South Kaibob requires a shuttle). And if you wanna leave before the shuttle starts running (and you gotta leave early), you really have one choice – Bright Angel.

I left at 3 AM, which seems early – but turned out not to be early enough (more on that later).  I parked in the lot next to the Backcountry Center (Lot D) in Grand Canyon Village. It was a little tricky for me to find the trailhead, but after heading a little out of the way towards the Grand Canyon Kennels (who knew there were kennels?!), I got re-oriented and started on the trail.

Temperature-wise, it was in the mid-30s when I started, but elevation drops really quickly on the trail so it warms up fast. I had a few layers on when I started, but was down to just a t-shirt by the time I got to the bottom. Other than making sure to have on layers for sun protection, I didn’t need other layers the rest of the day.

I couldn’t see the drop-off from the trail because of the darkness but I knew that they were there… Coming back up later I could use just I could see just how far the drop-offs were. One of my main observations with the trails overall throughout the day was just how astonishing it is that they are there at all. So many times I would look ahead and see only what appeared to be in impossibly vertical cliff face with no way there could be a trail - but there always was!

Anyway, I used a headlamp for about the first 5 miles, but by 5 AM or so dawn was arriving so there was light. I passed two pairs of people who said they were also going rim to rim to rim. One of the groups I saw later; the others I didn’t see again. I’m pretty sure I would’ve crossed paths with anyone else going the distance that day, so it gives you a sense of how many people try (not many …).

Rim to rim to rim is basically this: down (to the river), up (to the North Rim), back down (to the river), then up again to where you started. (See the vertical profile image below.) It’s about 10 miles and 4,400 vertical feet down to the river, and I made it in a little under 2.5 hours.  Crossing the Colorado River and seeing the sun just beginning to touch the rock on the Canyon walls some 4000 feet up was really amazing and awe-inspiring. 

I took a break at the water spigot near the Phantom Ranch campground at the bottom, and then kept moving – now on the North Kaibob Trail.  It’s about 14+ miles and 6,800 vertical feet up to the North Rim from the bottom, with the only water available at about the 9 mile mark at the Manzanita campground.  I definitely drank tons of water at each spigot, and filled a couple of bottles before I left. From Manzanita to the North Rim is about 5 miles with 4,400 vertical feet of climbing, so you definitely feel this section! Plus, the North Rim is at an elevation of about 8,600 feet above sea level, so I noticed the altitude for sure the higher I got. 

Given the elevation and the steepness, my pace slowed down a lot – and as I got to the North Rim after about 8 hours and 15 minutes, I started to wonder if I’d actually be able to make the red-eye flight I had out of Phoenix that night. (Yeah, that was a dumb move to book a red-eye.) Anyway, I figured I ought to be able to make better time for the second half of the trip than the first – and that was for sure the case back down the 14 miles to the Colorado River – which I made in not much more than 3 hours and 45 minutes.  The last 10 miles back up to the South Rim from the bottom, though, were a killer … my legs were worked … so this also took me about 3 hours 45 minutes. 

All in all, it took about 15 hours and 50 minutes from start to finish.  Not fast enough to make my flight (I had to rebook and fly out the next day ☹), but enough that I got my first-ever alert from my Garmin watch/app basically saying I had exercised too much that day (!!).

Gear.  Hoka Speedgoat 4 GTX trail runners on my feet.  I used poles, which were super helpful.  Used some Mill & Mountain gear.  Sun buff was super helpful to protect my neck, plus kept my hat in place (the winds were fierce).

Food. PB&Js, bars, gels, chews.  I wanted to eat more “regular” food on this trip, but honestly it was hard because everything I had tasted like $h!&. One thing I know about myself is that when a chocolate brownie energy bar taste terrible, I’m in a pretty bad spot – and that’s was definitely the case this day! Anyway, I forced myself to eat and drink throughout the day – and that was super important.  I also had 4-5 hydration mix sachets during the day as well.

Other Thoughts.  Shoulda left earlier! First because I maybe could have made my flight, but more importantly because it would have kept me out of the sun for a longer portion of the overall trip.  I lucked out – it wasn’t that hot – but the sun was still intense.

Overall, it was amazing! The Grand Canyon is just like the pictures – just more intense.  Would I do it again? (Hmm, not sure about that.) But is it a super fun way to experience part of the Grand Canyon? Yes! Can you do this? Well, sure – why not?! (Just leave earlier, and book your flight out of PHX for the next day …)