A few months ago, Mike and I started planning this year's brutal wilderness adventure to follow on last year's Point Reyes to San Francisco 50+ mile single-push hike. Early on, we landed on doing Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in under 24 hours. Quick Google searches revealed that this was indeed possible, and that there was a small fraternity of ultra runners and regular crazies like ourselves who had done this before. We put out the message and over 60 of our friends expressed interest in a trip of this variety. For the final count of 38 attendees doing a mix of 24-hour, 2-day, and one-way Rim to Rim [to Rim] trips, we rented 3 black E-350 vans from Bandago and headed out on the morning of May 24th.
We headed out from the South Rim campgrounds at about 4:40 AM on the 25th. Temps were cold but manageable, and we didn't need insulating layers except long sleeves and a hat. We blew the parking beta and parked at the Visitor's Center about 2 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead. We quickly made our way along the paved path to the trailhead and started heading down.
The South Kaibab trail is steep and switchbacked, and I was glad to have a pair of trekking poles along to ease the stress on my knees. The sun was already lighting up the sky and as it crested the horizon, we stripped off layers as the temperature began rising. The miles passed quickly, and we made good time getting down to the Colorado River.
I guess it takes a certain type of person to think that hiking/running 45+ miles with 11,000+ feet of elevation gain in a single under-24 hour push is a good idea.
Anyway, before it felt like we had really even gotten started, we were into the flats and making good time across the bottom of the canyon. Sometime after we passed through Phantom Ranch, we met up with my mom, who was on her return leg of a 2-day R2R2R trip of her own. I hope I'm badass enough to be doing that when I'm her age.
Our morning timing worked as planned and kept us out of the heat of the day, for the most part. We had maybe 5-7 miles of walking in direct sunlight, and we were all pretty happy to have brought along our dork hats to keep the sun off. At each water stop, many of the group drenched their hats.
After our stretch in the sun, we started up the biggest climb of the day to gain the north rim of the canyon. The climb is unrelenting and felt steeper than the south rim, but all things considered, the grade isn't that bad and the trail quality is good except for the occasional lake of donkey piss. Side note: people ride donkeys down to the bottom, and you have to get out of the way when they pass, which slows the pace considerably. Also, the donkeys smell exactly how you think donkeys will smell.
At the top of the north rim, we stopped and ate lunch, drank lots of water, and elevated our legs. Temps were quite cool, which felt nice after a long and taxing climb. Our total rest time on the north rim was about an hour and a half - longer than we had planned by about half an hour.
While our moving pace had been good during the first half of the day, we knew the second half was really our chance to make good time. Using our poles to mind the footing and leap over the aforementioned lakes of donkey piss, we jogged and ran at a good pace to the bottom of the canyon, then adopted a walk/jog pace through the bottom of the canyon and through the slot canyon, arriving at Phantom Ranch quite tired but making solid time.
Phantom Ranch was a much-needed water fill-up and bathroom break. It also marked the end our our running. We clicked on our headlamps shortly after Phantom Ranch, and paused for a minute to turn them off and admire the stars as we crossed the bridge spanning the Colorado River and marking the beginning of our climb out of the canyon along Bright Angel trail.
That's when shit started to get weird. We walked as a group, making good time up the mild but sustained climb. Along the way, a few people bonked to varying degrees and required either rest and nutrition or a helping hand to make sure they didn't pitch off the edge in their stumbly state.
But that's relatively normal - what was weird were the other people we encountered along the way. First, we passed a family of 3 or 4 with enormous backpacks and cheap sandals for footwear. One of them had a vintage steel Coleman lantern lashed to the outside of his backpack. Their shuffling, delirious pace *might* have gotten them to the top by sunrise. It couldn't have been more than 1 mile per hour, and that's being generous. After assuring us that they were fine, we had no real option but to continue on our way. As Phantom Ranch was only a couple miles back, and they would have descended Bright Angel to reach wherever they had been camping, it's hard to imagine how they ended up in that predicament.
That wasn't even the weirdest. That prize goes to the 65+ year old father and 30+ year old daughter pair whom we met with a few miles to go. The father was struggling seriously, and we were worried whether he'd be able to finish at all. His daughter insisted they were fine, and they would rest as needed but continue plodding toward the top. Again, lacking any real recourse to help them in a meaningful way, we continued to the top. Mike led the group and I took the rear to make sure we were all together and keep an eye on everyone
As he retrieved the van from the campsite, the last of our core group topped out, and I ran into the daughter of the struggling senior citizen as she topped out - without her dad. Concerned, I asked her where he was, and she indicated that he was seeking shelter from the dropping temperatures in a tiny emergency shed we had passed alongside the trail, and that he would top out by himself in the morning.
What?? How is that even remotely acceptable behavior for not just an adventure partner, but someone's own daughter? I was floored and tried to convince her to go back down to be with him, and nearly went myself. It was really only when she told me that they had been in touch with NPS rangers that I let her find her way back to her hotel room.
After a needless-to-say-great night's sleep, we returned to welcome our 2-day R2R2R hikers up the Bright Angel trail. They had an arguably harder hike, since they had to hike the whole climb in the 90+ degree heat and full sun exposure. All around, it as an awesome trip.
For those planning their own R2R2R
Here are a few stream-of-consciousness tips from our experience:
- Make sure you go after they turn the North Rim water pump on, usually around the weekend before we went. It's the last water fill-up before the north rim climb, and it's pretty critical to doing a single day R2R2R.
- Hiking poles really help take stress off the knees during the long downhills, and they speed your pace on the uphill. Not a must-have, but we were really happy to have them. Anecdotally, they seem to have reduced next-day soreness quite a bit.
- Hiking boots are definitely not required. You'll move much faster in trail runners. Wear an ankle brace if you have bad ankles.
- Headlamps are a must-carry item.
- No need for any water purification - there are plenty of fill-up points along the way.
- You can park right at the South Kaibab trailhead - don't do what we did and park at the visitor's center then walk an extra ~2 miles.
- An early start really helps. Getting on the trail by 4:30 or 5:00 AM would be ideal
- Big, dorky hats are great. Wear one and love it.
- Probably you won't need any warm gear beyond a thin long-sleeve shirt like a Patagonia Capilene 1. As long as you're moving, temps didn't get cold for any of us to want more than that. Of course, weather varies every year, so make prudent decisions for your forecast.
- Campground reservations at the canyon fill up fast, so get them early. There are also some doable options outside the park by a few miles.
- The drive from San Francisco is doable, but definitely not the most scenic. If you're crunched for time, consider flying to Vegas and driving from there.
- It should go without saying, but carry very little. Nobody in our group had a pack larger than about 16L, and most people carried 2-3L of water at a time.