TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Hiking Across the Grand Canyon and Back In a Day

At 5:30 in the morning in early April, the bone-chilling wind cascading off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at 7,200 feet slices through my few thin layers of clothing. Four of us are following our headlamp beams in the dark down the South Kaibab Trail. We’re just minutes into a day that will also end by headlamp light late tonight—but only after we’ve hiked farther than any of us has ever ambulated in a single day.

That’s assuming we make it. We feel sufficiently uncertain of that outcome that we’re all carrying paper-thin, four-ounce bivy sacks, just in case we have to lie down on the ground somewhere to pass out for a few hours.

My friends Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and Carl Schueler and I have embarked on a trek that the National Park Service would definitely not approve of. Rangers and officials at Grand Canyon National Park caution people against attempting to hike from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up again in a day. We’re setting out to cover more than twice that hike’s cumulative elevation and more than three times its distance.

We plan to walk from the South Rim to the river, across the canyon to the North Rim, and back again: 44.4 miles with 11,195 feet of up and down. All before the hour hand makes one complete revolution.

I’m not sure how auspicious it is that, at the outset of this epic day, I’m shivering so violently that my teeth are clacking together like the tracks beneath a passing train. And I’m wearing every stitch of clothing I brought—which is obviously not enough.

But when you are compressing one of America’s most sought-after, five- to six-day backpacking trips down to the length of a double work shift, the crazed calculus goes something like this: superfluous ounces multiplied by mileage times elevation equals added suffering. So it is deemed better to shiver for a little while than to carry clothing you won’t need for the rest of the day.

And sure enough, about 30 minutes after setting out, we’ve warmed up. As we breeze down the narrow crest of the South Kaibab Trail, the first light of day floats down like a light snowfall onto the Grand Canyon. Below us sprawls one of the planet’s most magnificent and unfathomable landscapes, a chasm a mile deep and 277 miles long, with an infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers each standing thousands of feet tall inside this big hole. We walk swiftly but in silence, gaping.

Across the canyon, dark, gray clouds embrace the North Rim. It looks very, very far away.

I glance at my GPS: mile two. Only 42.4 miles to go.

Mark Fenton on the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail

In one sense, this hike embodies the height of absurdity. To place the distance and vertical gain and loss in some perspective, compare it to climbing the Lower 48’s highest peak, California’s Mt. Whitney. That 21.6-mile, 6,000-foot slog is usually done over a weekend—partly to acclimatize to the high elevation, but also because spreading it over a couple of days is a more realistic objective for most hikers.

We are basically attempting the equivalent of climbing Whitney twice in one day.

And yet, for hikers and trail runners who have really planned, prepared, and trained for it (see the Make It Happen section below and these tips on training for mega-dayhikes), it constitutes arguably the most amazing single huge day of hiking you can do in the country. We will see the Big Ditch from top to bottom and north to south—and we’ll see it twice, walking across and back, at very different times of day. As anyone who’s hiked or rafted the canyon understands, the play of light across this landscape of such depth and vastness ranges widely over the course of the day. Every corner of it, every view morphs from hour to hour.

Seeing all of this in a crazy-long day adds a major physical challenge. For persons of a certain mindset, that element of uncertainty enhances the experience, giving it another dimension that makes it irresistible.

Rather than the height of absurdity, I like to think of our plan as an ultimate expression of optimism.

There’s no way to even estimate how many people attempt or complete a one-day, rim-to-rim-to-rim hike or run. Such an extreme undertaking would obviously not even pop up on the mental radar of most hikers or trail runners.

But start searching the Web for trip reports and asking around and you discover the tiny yet passionate sub-culture of avid ultra-distance runners and hikers who have done what many refer to as the “r2r2r.” It feels like stumbling upon a little pub in a back alley of London or Edinburgh where everyone’s a diehard fan of the same soccer team.

I have friends who’ve made it an almost annual tradition for several years, finishing the r2r2r in a very impressive 12 hours. Through forwarded e-mails, I connected with an Arizonan trail runner who’s done it seven times. He wrote back with reams of helpful advice. His e-mail suggested that there are more zealots out there pulling this off than one would expect.

If you feel compelled to try to hike or run more than 40 miles through wilderness in a day, few footpaths are as amenable to it as the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails that we’re linking up today. (Other r2r2r hikers and runners use the Bright Angel Trail; see the Make It Happen section below for more details.) Managed by the park as “corridor” trails, the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel are all very well constructed. While there are steep stretches, the footing is mostly good enough to run—though most runners will walk sections of it.

At 7:55 a.m., Mark and I pause in warm sunshine on the suspension bridge spanning the Colorado River, at 2,480 feet. Carl waits on the other side; Todd’s just a couple of minutes behind us. Two hours and 20 minutes after we started out in a numbing wind chill, the temperature has leapt into the 50s. Because it is early spring and we’ll pass through the canyon bottom in early morning and late afternoon, we won’t experience temperatures warmer than around a very pleasant 60° F—avoiding the big nemesis of Grand Canyon hikers, the brutal heat. Swapping that for a couple miles of walking in packed snow on the North Rim seems like a smart trade-off.

“I can already tell what the hardest part of this hike is going to be,” I say to Mark. He nods and laughs because we are thinking the same thing. After the pounding, 5,000-foot descent off the South Rim, we are both dreading coming down off the North Rim—a thousand feet higher and double the distance of what we just did. And we’ll start that descent 22 miles into this day.

As if on cue, Todd walks up to us at that moment and says, “Well, I can feel what’s going to hurt the most.”

Mile 6.2. 38.2 to go.

Of course, park officials have good reasons to advise people against hiking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and returning in a day—and by extension, attempting an r2r2r. Besides the fact that 250 people are rescued every year—although most are probably novices and not attempting that big a dayhike—the rim-to-river-to-rim alone is a grueling jaunt. And its taxing character isn’t really revealed until you reach the river: After the pounding of so much downhill has driven needles into your quads, calves, and knees and made your soles pulse with pain, then you have to turn around and hike back up a vertical mile.

Worst of all is the heat: Even in spring and fall, it can send a gila monster scurrying for shade. It’ll turn your brain to cooked oatmeal.

The four of us have all logged enough days of more than 20 and 30 miles to feel that this challenge is a logical next step (acknowledging my considerable stretch of the definition of “logical”). We’re all in that fortyish to fiftyish age range—still obviously capable of getting excited about lunatic endeavors, but at least knowing better how to execute them.
Mark and Todd have joined me on painfully hard treks before, including a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, averaging 31 miles a day. Todd’s a competitive distance runner. Mark is a former member of the U.S. race-walking team, which is how he and Carl know one another; Carl made four Olympic teams. Although our senior member and on his baptismal ultra-hike with this crew, he will maintain a lead pace that has the rest of us struggling to not fall too far behind.

I don’t have the credentials of these guys. But this was my idea, and when you’re throwing the party, you’re automatically on the invitation list.

Minutes beyond the Colorado River, we follow the North Kaibab Trail past Bright Angel Campground—where backpackers are just eating breakfast—and enter a tight gorge of sheer, dark walls shooting up several hundred feet to a strip of blue sky high overhead. Here in the canyon’s basement, we’re walking through the geologic layer called the Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth, formed nearly two billion years ago.

With the sun not nearly high enough to reach the floor of this narrow defile, we’re walking in deep, cool shade; seven miles into our hike, we have yet to emit a single bead of perspiration among us. Bright Angel Creek roars alongside the trail, fat and foaming with spring runoff, its noise reverberating off the cliffs. Boulders the size of SUVs sit beside the trail.

After hiking the spectacular South Kaibab Trail, you could be forgiven for expecting the North Kaibab Trail to be anticlimactic. But in truth, it’s more than twice as long, with much more scenic variety—and has relatively few people on it. Besides a couple of backpackers coming down the trail, and those in the campgrounds, we see no one—and not a single person above Cottonwood Campground on our way up or down. Ascending almost a thousand feet higher than South Rim trails, the North Kaibab Trail passes through every ecosystem found between Canada and Mexico, from arid desert to high-elevation pine forest.

More than three miles from the Colorado, we exit the gorge into a broader, sunlit canyon with red walls and talus slopes of desert scrub brush. Cliffs formed in columns stand beneath thin horizontal bands of rock resembling stacked tortillas. Thousands of feet above us, we can see the white rock and forests of the North Rim, frosted with snow.
We pass Ribbon Falls, and then another 200-foot waterfall beyond it. We take a short break to “preemptively” tape our feet and refill our water bladders at Cottonwood Campground, then continue up and up and up. At Roaring Springs, another waterfall pours over a cliff.

High up Roaring Springs Canyon, the trail traverses across a sheer cliff in the Redwall Limestone layer, then climbs relentlessly through innumerable switchbacks. At 6,800 feet, we reach a passage through solid rock. The Supai Tunnel marks a threshold of sorts; beyond it, we’re walking on two to three feet of snow for the remaining 1.8 miles and 1,400 feet to the North Rim.

In the shade, we walk atop firm snow. But where the sun has softened the snow, we posthole calf-deep. Our pace slows as the hiking grows much more strenuous. I’m feeling depleted. A glance at my partners, each plodding silently forward and wearing the telltale blank look of fatigue, tells me I’m not alone.

I catch up to Mark, who has tapered off of his usual frenetic pace. “Should I be feeling this spent only halfway through?” he says.

Mile 21. 23.4 to go.

Sometimes, a 30-minute break with a 500-calorie snack can feel as rejuvenating as a good night’s sleep. Well, okay, not quite that good. But it can stave off the Grim Reaper or the vultures just when you need a little help.

We reach the snow-covered North Kaibab Trailhead, in quiet pine forest, at 1:45 p.m. There’s no one here—of course. A single lane has been plowed on the road. We peel off shoes and socks, sit on the dry, warm pavement and eat our lunches, retaping our feet and resting tired legs.

Thirty minutes later, we’re walking again.

Down, down, down. Back over the snow, through the switchbacks, across the cliff face where a seasonal waterfall has frozen into an ice rink across the trail—inspiring visions of sliding over the brink. In my head, I’m breaking down the hike into neat, emotionally digestible pieces: 6.8 miles from the North Rim to Cottonwood Campground, then 7.2 miles from Cottonwood Campground to the Colorado River. Trying to swallow the entire 44.4 miles in one mental gulp would be too spirit-crushing.

Despite the cramps in our quads, we can’t help but crane our necks at our surroundings. Traveling through the canyon is like watching a slide show in which a different image pops up whenever the sun inches a little higher or lower, or the clouds shift, or you round a turn in the trail. But this slide show never ends.

At some point in the lower reaches of Bright Angel Canyon, Carl and Todd pull ahead of Mark and me, even though we’re jogging down the easier stretches of trail. And I’m pushing myself just to keep up with Mark, who seems to have found some reserve of energy that I can’t locate right now.

The two of us reach the Colorado River at 7pm. Mark’s wife, Lisa, is waiting there, as planned, having hiked down this afternoon to join us for the final leg back up to the South Rim. She says Carl and Todd passed through an hour ago. Whatever they were eating, I need some.

Dusk settles over the Grand Canyon and the wind kicks up as the three of us begin the 5,000-foot climb up the South Kaibab Trail. There are two environmental factors that can produce monster winds in the morning and evening, and the Grand Canyon has both: a huge elevation gradient and big temperature swings over the course of the day. Higher up the South Kaibab, gale-force gusts will assail us; we’ll stumble forward at times, heads down, on our way to finishing our long day at 11 p.m.

But now, minutes up the South Kaibab in the dark, a park ranger descending the trail gives us a scrutinizing look. It’s late and we have a long way to go—by normal standards, anyway.

“You guys are going to make it, right?” she asks us tersely, no doubt thinking she does not want to rescue us tonight.

I glance at my GPS: mile 39. I’m tempted to tell the ranger, hey, we’ve come this far, there’s no way I’m quitting with just 5.4 miles to go.

Instead, the three of us just assure her that, yes, we are going to make it.

    See a complete photo gallery and details on planning this hike, plus other stories, photos, and videos of outdoor adventure at TheBigOutside.com.

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4 Comments»

  Jo Ann wrote @

Oh my, shades of my youth! I never hiked 44 miles, but I did the 44 km of the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park as a day hike. Now I revel in spending as much time as possible traversing beautiful places; so far I’ve managed to turn the Skyline Trail into a 6-day backpack. When you reach your 70s, there’s no need to rush through beauty.

  Ann wrote @

Having climbed in and out of the Grand Canyon a few times, I know that the r2r2r is truly an impressive accomplishment — that’s a heck of a lot of work! It certainly gives you bragging rights — kinda like completing an Ironman or something. With all due respect, however, it seems almost a sacrilege to rush thru the Canyon. On my annual backpacking trips there I savor every minute, I pause at every switchback, and rue the day I have to climb out, all because it’s so astoundingly beautiful. I guess I sound a bit maudlin, but (being from NJ) I could never get to GCNP often enough to ever wanna go 24-hours-and-out! And to the previous writer Jo Ann — I’m not in my 70’s yet, but I agree that rushing thru beauty is a mistake. Savor it!

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