Running the Grand Canyon: Logistics
by John Medinger
The Grand Canyon is almost perfectly set up for ultra runners. The classic rim-to-rim-to-rim double crossing is between 41 and 48 miles long, depending on the route. It’s all trail, has fantastic scenery, and
only has two hills! Mid-pack runners can expect to be able to almost the entire run in daylight during the long days of late spring.
The scenery on this run is like nowhere else. You’ll see vast vistas of the red-rock canyon from every turn in the trail. There are places where it almost doesn’t seem possible that the trail could have been cut into
the canyon wall. And on the final ascent on either side, the lip of the canyon’s rim seems interminably far away and doesn’t seem to get much closer very fast, despite how hard you are working. The rim-to-rim-
to-rim is a demanding but approachable run, and worth every bit of effort it takes to get to the Grand Canyon.
Planning your own double crossing of the Grand Canyon? The logistics are relatively simple.
First, of course, you need to decide which rim you are starting from. The north rim, about a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas, is only open from May 15 to October 15. The south rim, about a 3-1/2 hour drive from
Phoenix, is open year around. In addition to National Park lodges and campsites, there are a variety of inexpensive chain motels in the nearby town of Tusayan. The south rim is often over-run with tourists,
especially so in the summer, but the vast majority of tourists stay along the rim and never set foot on a trail. Since most runners start on the south rim, we’ll proceed here with instructions from there.
Leaving from the south rim there are two basic routes: the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail. Upon entering the National Park (and paying the $20 entry fee), you will be given a map that clearly shows
both trails. There are no permit requirements for day use in the Park.
The South Kaibab route is shorter, steeper and rockier. It is 41.2 miles roundtrip. There are two drawbacks to this route: the mule train that supplies Phantom Ranch and the lack of water between Phantom Ranch
and the south rim. The mule train leaves the South Kaibab trailhead daily at about 5 a.m. These are not the well-trained mules that carry tourists down to Phantom Ranch. These mules are working pack animals
and the mule skinners are perhaps understandably annoyed at runners who chase down the mule train and often spook the animals. On either route, the mules have the right of way. To avoid any unpleasantries,
locals who use this route will often leave at 4 a.m. to make sure that they are ahead of the mules. It 6.9 miles from the trailhead to Phantom Ranch via this route.
The Bright Angel route is a more gentle way down to the bottom, though plenty steep enough in places. A round trip using Bright Angel in both directions is about 47.5 miles. The big advantage to the Bright Angel
route is that there is water year around at Indian Garden campground, at 4½ miles, about halfway between the south rim and the river. In the summer months, there is also water 1½ and 3 miles below the south rim.
These are turned off in the winter months. There is more tourist hiking traffic on this trail, but like most trails anywhere, once you get a mile or two from the trailhead, you pretty much have things to yourself. My
recommendation is that you leave at dawn; you will have the trail all to yourself and can take full advantage of the daylight.
Trail quality is generally pretty good. It is consistently slightly rocky, and very occasionally quite rocky, but most of the trail is runable. Most of the trail is about half again wider than a typical single-track trail.
Water is a major issue on this run. The water sources are strategically placed so that you should be able to get through the run with a Camelbak-type backpack (see chart).
The two trails join up at the bottom, where there are two suspension footbridges over the Colorado River. After crossing the river, Phantom Ranch, which is open all year, is about a half mile up the trail headed
toward the north rim. Phantom Ranch has a canteen (open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) that has packaged snack foods (cookies, chips, etc.) and lemonade for sale. They do not sell sandwiches or anything very substantial,
so you should plan on carrying the food that you will need. There is a water fountain in front of the canteen.
Leaving Phantom Ranch and heading toward the north rim, you are now on the North Kaibab Trail. Though there are a couple of potential short side trips, there are no other trails, so it is nearly impossible to get lost.
You will pass through a spectacular box canyon and a shallow but long climb up to Cottonwood campground, 7.1 miles from Phantom Ranch. There is a water fountain here on the far side of the campground, just
left of the trail. Once you leave Cottonwood, things start to get steeper.
In 2.2 more miles, you will come to a ranger’s cabin just below Roaring Springs, home to Bruce Aiken, an accomplished artist who has achieved quite a following with his canyon paintings. There is water available
here also, and Bruce often leaves a cooler of lemonade out for hikers.
From Roaring Springs to the north rim is 4.7 miles. It will seem like more: it’s virtually all uphill, and you will gain more than 3000 feet in elevation. There is water at the north rim, but it is turned off from October 15 to
May 15. During this time of year, it will be about a 4-hour roundtrip to the top and back to Roaring Springs, so tank up before you leave. There are a couple of places on this section that have some modest exposure,
and those with severe acrophobia may have some difficulty.
The best time of year to run the canyon is either in the spring – late April and early May – or the fall – late October and early November. The summer months are usually well over 100F at the bottom of the canyon and
in the wintertime there is usually snow on the trail near the top. There is longer daylight in the spring. In either case, you would be foolish to attempt a double crossing without carrying a flashlight.
Weather-wise, you will get a little of everything. During the prime running times, it will be freezing or below on the south rim at dawn and in the 80s or 90s at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon. Although it is desert,
rain or even snow is not unheard of. Typically the rim temperatures are similar to Flagstaff and at the bottom it will be more like Phoenix. You should come prepared for everything and plan on being self-sufficient as
there are no aid stations and no sweeps to help if you start having problems.
How long will it take? Well, first of all, it’s not a race. It would be crazy to do this run and not take some time to enjoy the incredible scenery. A mid-pack runner should plan on at least 13-15 hours.
It is a tough run, with a little bit of everything as obstacles: some rocky sections of trail, some exposure, two BIG hills, heat, cold, altitude (7000 feet at the south rim, 2400 feet at the bottom, 8200 feet at the north rim).
You will definitely feel like you’ve accomplished something when you finish. And you will see the Grand Canyon as few have ever seen it!
Available Water Locations
(location, elevation, total miles, miles to next water)
Bright Angel Trailhead, 6860, 0, 4.5
Indian Garden campground, 3900, 4.5, 5.3
Phantom Ranch, 2560, 9.8, 7.1
Cottonwood campground, 4000, 16.9, 2.2
Roaring Springs, 5200, 19.1. 4.7 (9.4 in winter) 19.1
North Kaibab Trailhead, 8241, 23.8, (water May 15 to Oct 15 only)