Rim to Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon. Photo by Stephanie Reighart.

Almost a year ago, Richard and I, and our friend Dan, hiked from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the north rim and back.

The hike was awesome. And very painful.

The only photo I took of Richard. Flattering angle, really. Photo by Stephanie Reighart.

We left camp at 5 a.m. and walked 3 miles to the trailhead. The trail we went down is called South Kaibab and you can’t park at the trailhead anymore. The 7 mile hike down only took 2 hours, so after an hour walk to the trail, we were at Phantom Ranch by 8 a.m.

Phantom Ranch is a cluster of cabins and tent sites and a store owned by the National Park Service. It is a very popular destination in the Grand Canyon and is usually booked over a year in advance. Fortunately, day users do not need a permit or reservation to visit and use the bathroom.

Technically, the three of us were using the park as “extended day users” or what the park administrators call anyone who is down in the canyon for more than daylight hours with no intention of sleeping below the rim. Our friend, Vicki, who is a ranger at the Grand Canyon, told us about this distinction. As long as you do not sleep below the canyon rim, you can spend as much time as you want down there.

We hung out at Phantom Ranch to refill water bottles and eat for about 20 minutes. Then we headed up the Bright Angel Canyon on the North Kaibab Trail. It was very sunny, so we lathered on the sunscreen. The views were pretty spectacular, to say the least. The hike toward the north rim starts in a tight canyon where you hug the walls and can hear nothing other than the roar of the Bright Angel Creek. The trail is fairly flat for 6 or 7 miles, so the traveling can be quick.

The tunnel leading to the bridge to cross the Colorado River to get to Phantom Ranch. Photo by Stephanie Reighart.

We covered about 15 miles (including the 3 from our campsite) by 10 a.m. By the time the canyon started to open up, the sun was warming the canyon floor, but it wasn’t unbearable. Clouds started to roll in by late morning as we started to regain elevation, which helped with the temperature.

Because it was technically still winter in the Canyon, most of the water sources managed by the Park Service were not yet running. There was only one source of water along the 13-mile trail (one-way) from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim.

Unfortunately, Dan, Richard and I were all in some sort of pain throughout the hike. My hip flexors were unhappy starting around mile 7 and that lasted until I took some ibuprofen around mile 22. Dan was hiking with some serious blisters and Richard was slowly losing the nails on his second toes.

Dan heading down from the north rim. The trail must have been a challenging one to build. Photo by Stephanie Reighart.

Despite pain, we made good time and had amazing weather all the way up the north side of the canyon. There were a handful of runners also making a rim-to-rim-to-rim trek. I thought the north side of the canyon was much prettier than the south. The north side gets more rain and snow, so there are more trees and other green things. The steep walls just below the rim are vertical stripes of copper, red, orange, brown and black.

And the trail conditions on the north side are awesome. Vicki said the park staffs a full time, year-round trail crew. They do great work. The trail on the north side is steep, and goes through some insane terrain from a trail-making perspective. The tight switchbacks help scale the last few miles to the top and in some places the trail is blasted into the sides of walls. We found some anchors the trail crews use to protect themselves from falling while they work on improving and building the trail.

We saw a bunch of Stellar jays along a dry creek bed. They were a beautiful blue against the red canyon walls.

We made it to the north rim by 3 p.m. That’s 9 hours from the south trailhead and 10 hours from camp. It was pretty cold on the north rim, which was nice. The north side of the canyon is higher than the south by more than 1,000 feet.

As we headed back down, there was more cloud cover and a few sprinkles, but nothing major. We were slightly concerned for a thunderstorm, as there was a chance of it. Fortunately, when we were on the north rim, the south rim got rain. But by the time we made it back across, it was clear skies again.

The way down from the north rim was pretty painful for us. My knees held up, but my feet were really sore by the end. Dan ended up with blisters surrounding some of his toes and one heel. I had a small blister under one toe, but it didn’t give me much bother while hiking, so that was good.

It was dark by the time we made it back to Phantom Ranch, so we had our headlamps on for light. We stopped at Phantom for another water refill and more eating. I brought four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for quick calories, but by the time we got back to Phantom Ranch, I was sick of them. I forced myself to eat one anyway. I also had peanut M&M’s, Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, Pop Tarts, almonds, cashews, fruit leather, power bars and chocolate covered almonds. It was too much, but I didn’t want to run out.

We left Phantom Ranch at 9 p.m. and headed up the Bright Angel Trail. It’s two miles longer than the trail we took from the south rim, but less steep. And it’s a mile closer to our campsite once we made it to the top again.

The whole way up, I kept saying “Up, up, out, out” in my mind as a mantra. It helped pass the time and keep my pace up. I also sang Queen songs in my head.

Richard was falling asleep while we were hiking, so we stopped twice for him to nap. I gave him ten minutes each time because that was all I could take before I got too cold. While he slept, I looked at the stars. They were brilliant.

We made it to the top of the south rim around 2 a.m. and back to the camp around 3 a.m. So, all told it was 20 hours in the canyon and 22 hours of hiking. We covered just under 50 miles, including walking to and from camp to the trailhead, which I count.

The next day was pretty painful. Vicki said we were doing the Canyon Shuffle, which is what rangers call the slow walk rim-to-rim hikers have the day after their hike.

We slept in a bit, took showers, which were closed when we got back to camp, and Dan started his drive back to Boulder, CO that morning. Richard and I took the free shuttle bus west along the south rim to Hermit’s Rest. We forced ourselves to walk a couple of miles on flat terrain, which I think was really helpful in getting rid of the lactic acid buildup in our legs.

The weather was still really nice, but much warmer. I was glad I wasn’t down in the canyon still.

We had dinner with Vicki and then slept really well.

The following day, we packed up camp and did the touristy thing. We went to a bunch of museums and visitor’s centers. And saw most of the buildings that Mary Coulter designed. Vicki recommended this really chill hike out to the south rim that not many people know about, so we did that too.

The rim-to-rim-to-rim hike is something that I really wanted to do, and now I really want to do it again. While I do think I prefer fast hiking over trail running, it might be fun to try a run. We will need lighter packs and more training. Our training for this hike was minimal at best, which is kind of our style, but still a bad habit.

A most beautiful place to explore and get completely exhausted. Photo by Stephanie Reighart.


4 thoughts on “Rim to Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon

  1. Lol once you do it and figure it all out (the last mile or so up on the north) you want to do it again.

    I’m doing my 3rd r2r2r 5/9.
    I’m curious about the “no parking at the SKiabab trail head” comment??? Last year we could park on the mail road, not the lot for back country permitted cars. Is that not possible anymore??


    1. Hi Brett,
      When we were there, the road to the South Kaibab Trail was closed. According to my ranger friend Vicki, they closed it because too many day hikers were hiking down the steep trail and getting farther into the canyon than they were in the shape to hike back up. Since closing it, the park has really cut down on the number of rescues. You can still park at the Bright Angel trail head.

  2. Good story. It reminded me of my R2R2R run in 2012. I see I’m not the only one to pound in the Vitamin-I for some relief. I took in 1200mg when I reached the N Rim. I stopped in at Phantom Ranch on the way back for one of their ice-cold lemonade-drinks. It was sooo welcome.

    I am impressed with your round trip time, particularly because of your stated lack of training. I trained from January in 2012, and I ran it on Oct. 9th, 2012.

    Thanks for sharing.

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