Ask any ultra runner about their bucket-list runs, and the Grand Canyon will likely top all of their lists. There’s just something epic about descending into a mile-deep hole in the earth then climbing your way back the other side before turning and doing it again in the opposite direction. What makes this run unique though, is that there’s no official event or day of the year to run it. If you can endure the extreme heat, you could run it during the middle of the summer and if you like the cold, you can run it in the winter. If you have wanted to add this run to your resume, here’s some basics you should know.
How far is it across the canyon?
If you begin at the South Rim as most do, there are 2 ways down into the canyon and they
converge near Bright Angel Campground. The Bright Angel Trail begins inside what I would consider to be the main portion of the national park. The trailhead is in close proximity to a bus stop, restroom, fresh water, and a handful of popular overlooks. From the RV park that we were staying at inside of the village, it was a 2.5 mile trek to this trailhead, but nearly 4 to the South Kaibab Trail. The Bright Angel Trail is a 9 mile descent, while the South Kaibab is only 7. Using Bright Angel, you will have a 22-mile trek to the North Rim, although the GPS on my watch read closer to 26 by the time I arrived. It’s not to say that the traverse is actually 26 miles, but it is worth noting that your point of reference for mileage on a GPS device will be a little skewed due to the GPS drift from the canyon walls.
Which route should I choose?
Taking South Kaibab down or back up will cut a couple of miles off your total distance, but it comes with a price. The trail is significantly steeper and often only used as a return trip. Since most begin the run early in the morning, it is a further trek to get there and the shuttles to the trailhead don’t begin until 5am or later depending on the time of year. When I did the run, I chose Bright Angel both ways, while my group came back up South Kaibab. It’s really 6 of one and half dozen of the other, but I would recommend descending Bright Angel and making sure that the shuttles from the South Kaibab Trailhead will be available to take you back.
How long will it take?
The last 50 miler I completed south of Tucson, AZ took me 11:47 with 7500’ elevation and I finished 10th overall. The 50 miler before that was virtually flat and I finished 3rd overall. I’d consider myself faster than your average mid-pack runner and my total moving time was 11:50 for the Grand Canyon R2R2R. For most, it would be safe to assume between 14 and 16 hours to complete the run. While my moving time was sub 12 hours, my elapsed time was a little over 13 hours because of time spent refilling my water, regrouping with my friends, and even taking pictures.
What is the elevation gain?
Round trip, you gain around 11,000’ of elevation. The South Rim is around 7,000’, the Colorado River is at 2,400’ and the North Rim is at 8,200’. If you’re not climbing, you’re descending. If you take the Bright Angel Trail down, you descend until you get to the river, then there is a small climb back up along the river to the elevation of the bridge that crosses over. The final miles up both rims are the steepest and hardest to conquer.
When do I need to start?
If you’re running in the winter months, the shuttle services are a little more limited so you will want to check with the park to see what your options are for getting a ride back to your vehicle or campsite. If you descend Bright Angel, it is important to know that a mule train descends into the canyon around 5am, so it best to start before them. We began the descent around 3:30am and I made it back to the trailhead a little before 5. Of course, the sunrise and sunset vary drastically during different times of the year so if you want to finish before sunset, you would want to start earlier. Your best bet is to check the sunrise and sunset times according to the time of year and cross reference those with your expected finish time.
How much water I need to bring?
Using Bright Angel as your route both ways, you will have water at the following places per the National Park Service website:
Mile-and-a-half and Three-Mile rest houses => May to Sep
Indian Garden => year-round
Bright Angel Campground => year-round
Phantom Ranch => year-round
Cottonwood Campground => May to mid-Oct
Roaring Springs Trail Junction => May to mid-Oct
The one problem is that the water sources are supplied by a pipeline that is more than 20 years overdue to be replaced. We ran on November 22nd, which was the day that several of the stops were scheduled to be turned off. In addition to that though, there was a pipeline break on the 21st so the backcountry office said we might have water in the morning and not in the afternoon depending on how bad the break was and what needed to be done to repair it. Cottonwood Campground for instance, had water on in the morning and off in the afternoon.
That said, there was no lack of water that day for us. The corridor trails follow rivers and streams for the majority of the traverse. The North Rim was hit by a winter storm the day before and the final 500’ was covered in snow and fresh rain water was still running off the red rocks with a large enough flow to fill up the handheld I brought along. The rivers along the trail are generally safe to drink from, but you should still filter and purify it to be safe. Both myself and the other guy I ran most of the day with drank straight from the rivers and never had a problem. In addition to that, the pipeline break was in the middle of the trail and looked like a spring had popped up in the middle of the trail. I should have filtered that too, but it’s a week later and I’m still standing.
I chose to run with a 1.5 liter pack, 2 half liter bottles, and a 20oz handheld bottle. I didn’t need the water in my pack for most of the day, but I was glad I brought it since there was the potential of having no water for a 25 mile stretch from Phantom ranch to the North Rim. The final ascent was also warmer than I expected and you also have to factor in the significant changes in elevation.
What should I do for food?
Pack in everything you might potentially be hungry for, but also bear in mind that you need to pack out your own trash. There is a small general store/cantina at Phantom Ranch that has a few drinks and food options, but you shouldn’t rely on that for your food. I packed a handful of gels and several Clif Bars, but I wish I had packed more. During most races, you can rely on aid stations to satisfy whatever you might be craving, but you don’t have that luxury in the canyon. If you get hungry for something sweet or salty and you didn’t pack it, you’re out of luck. I wish I had packed a bag of granola or nuts, some dates, and maybe even some fruit (although fruit takes up a significantly larger space in a pack and isn’t as calorie dense as the alternatives).
What kind of equipment should I bring?
Being a ‘prepared minimalist’ I had the usual emergency items like a knife, lighter, and a little duct tape. You won’t have cell reception nearly the entire day so having a printed map of the trail is necessary. As with any run, you should definitely tell someone of your plans and give them an estimated time frame of how long you will be out. The park requires backcountry permits if you are going to be camping and those permits are hard to obtain, so the park keeps no record of independent runners in the canyon. If you are running with an organized group, you now must obtain a permit, but 4 friends meeting together was somewhat of a grey area. The trail is also full of wildlife thought different times of the year. I encountered a handful of friendly deer, but I’ve also heard of encounters with mountain lions. Everyone hopes they will never face a situation like this, but there aren’t any course marshals, aid stations, medical personnel, or race directors on course to help you if something were to happen.
Are there restrooms along the way?
Almost every water stop is accompanied by a restroom. It would still be smart to pack in some toilet paper just in case.
Descending into one of the most iconic landmarks in the world is something that every runner or adventurer should experience at least once in their life. Whether you are you are just getting into trail running or a seasoned athlete, taking the time to do your research will result in a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience.