So, we did it! Heidi, Sarah, Wendy, and I completed the R2R2R on Friday. It’s now Sunday, and I’m finally starting to be able to pull my thoughts together enough to at least try to articulate what I experienced—from the never-ending vistas that just kept unfolding to the physical challenge, the jokes and hilarity we shared, and definitely the pain we all experienced too. (Update: It’s now Thursday … and maybe this will go up today. I’ve been sucked back into “real life” so quickly that time is flying.)
R2R2R was fun, amazing, horrible, awesome, painful, all the things! I think I’m going to try to unpack this by parceling the experience by sections of the trails, but first I’ll share the list of feedback we developed for the NPS. Developing this list was unendingly funny to us: you know, funny in that way that only an intense shared group experience can create. I had that on a two-week backpacking trip in the Sierras with my brother and two of his friends back in college, where we still quote some pieces from the Mad Libs we did on that trip. I hope some of the ones from the Grand Canyon stick as long.
- The Phantom Ranch canteen hours really need to be expanded. We came through too early for snacks and caffeine in the morning, and we came in too late for anything in the evening. Boo!
- The NPS should allow Amazon Prime drone orders to be delivered in the canyon. They’d make a killing on a cut of the take: We would have paid a premium for an ice-cold Coke our second time through Phantom Ranch.
- They may not realize it, but they’ve done a poor job of housekeeping on the lower parts of the Bright Angel Trail. I mean, really, they’ve let the sand build up to several inches deep! And that SUCKED after close to 40 miles. Some serious trail work with a broom is desperately needed!
- Why don’t they have emergency mule service? Like 1-800-MULE-CAB? They could make a killing on that too.
- Back to the Phantom Ranch canteen—they have beer but no sodas? What’s up with that?!
- Thumbs up on the ventilated, very clean composting toilets that are spaced every few miles, along with the potable spring water nearly as frequently provided.
For me, doing R2R2R was a goal—but perhaps more of a dream, because “goal” sounds like something you check off and this was more something that fed my heart and soul—for a couple of years. I don’t really remember when I first heard of people running it, but once I did it stuck. And last year, when my friends and I started talking about focusing on going on great adventures with great friends rather than always looking for something with a race bib and timer, I brought this up as an option. Over the spring and summer, it started firming up, and then a Facebook event page was created, and then we booked plane tickets, and then all of a sudden it was time to go do it!
R2R2R basically means you start at one side of the Grand Canyon, go down to the bottom, go up the other side, and then turn around and go right back down and then up to the side you started on. We decided to start on the South Rim, descending the South Kaibab Trail, going up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim, and then back down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail. This involves some 47ish miles and somewhere in the range of 11,000–12,000 feet of gross elevation gain and loss.
Some people run all or most of it, and complete it in very short order. The current fastest known time (FKT) for the full R2R2R is 5 hours, 55 minutes, and 20 seconds. It would be awesome to be able to run like that! We finished in just under 20 hours, and I’m not sure I would call it a run: Sure we wore our trail runners, and we used our running packs, and we did run parts, but we also did a lot of “purposeful hiking.” No shame there, but for those for whom technicalities matter I want to be clear that it’s hard for me to call this a run even though I’ll refer to it as a run throughout.
Preparation: Thursday, October 5, Phoenix to Grand Canyon Village
We started the day with a quick shake-down run in South Mountain Park, on a trail that started just outside the door of our condo. It was good to move after packing and traveling most of the day before.
After a quick trip to REI because someone couldn’t find her sunglasses when she was packing (yep, that’d be me—doh!), and a yummy breakfast at Biscuits (I totally recommend them if you’re in Phoenix), we packed up the rental car and started heading north. For lunch, we detoured to Sedona (gorgeous!) and started some new dreams looking at the trails there … but no, we had to focus on this trip’s objective first! We drove up the lovely Oak Creek Canyon, and then after running into some road construction that delayed us by 15 or 20 minutes, we were back on the main highway. We stopped in Williams to stock up on food and got a kick out of the Route 66 signs. We finally arrived at Grand Canyon Village right at sunset.
With four of us trying to sort gear and make decisions about food, clothing layers, emergency supplies (read: 10 essentials), and water, every surface in our hotel room at the Maswick Lodge was covered. How many calories would we need? What would appeal and what would we be able to eat during the run? What clothes would we need with a temperature range of 36 degrees in the morning and 85 to 90-plus degrees in the afternoon? There were some hilarious moments as we found, lost, and then refound stuff we had laid out on the beds, but we finally got it together and were in bed around 10 p.m.
South Rim: South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Creek (6.4 miles, net –4,860 feet)
Alarms rang at 3 a.m., and we got ready pretty efficiently. We had the phone number for a taxi service that runs in Grand Canyon Village, and the taxi picked us up right at our planned 3:45 to take us to the trailhead. Our taxi driver was a bit odd, but he got us to our destination at 3:59 a.m. (We were one minute early—a miracle!) When we asked the taxi driver to take our picture, he said no, he had another call waiting for him, and he took off. Hmmmph! Fortunately, a couple walked up just then, and we got our preadventure group picture after all.
To us city-dwellers, it was dark-dark out, but once our eyes adjusted the harvest moon illuminated the outlines of the canyon and various formations as we descended. There was lots of whooping and hollering, we were so excited to finally be on the trail!
It was such a thrill to see the Colorado River as the sun rose, realizing we were close to our first major milestone of the trip. After another 20 (or 30? or 40? or 500?) switchbacks we crossed the Colorado River on the Black Bridge.
The river is brownish from the sediment it carries downstream and flowing fast. There are plenty of signs suggesting that trying to swim in it is a really bad idea. My National Geographic map warns that “Swimming [in the Colorado River] can be fatal.” Guess I’ll skip that adventure!
As I look back on it, I think I found South Kaibab to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I’m the one who loves letting loose on the downhills, right?, but it was steep, with lots of waterbars and rocks, and I know I was being conservative because I was worried about getting injured so early into the adventure. It was also kind of emotional, because it marked the first leg of the adventure that I had dreamed about for so long, and there were times when I couldn’t help but stop and soak it in, thinking, “We’re finally really doing this!!!”
After crossing the Colorado, it was a quick scamper down the trail to Bright Angel campground. The campground sits along the banks of Bright Angel Creek, just upstream from where it joins the Colorado River. We’d be following Bright Angel Creek for much of the next portion of our journey. After our first water refill of the day, and a quick stop in the fully plumbed bathroom, we turned toward North Kaibab Trail and Phantom Ranch.
I loved seeing Phantom Ranch; it’s been kind of mysterious and “far away” since I had first visited the Grand Canyon with my mom on a mother-daughter trip some 20+ years ago. It’s actually not that exciting of a place, but I enjoyed the resident deer nibbling on the ranch’s trees and grass … especially this determined one who was using the fence designed to protect the trees as a way to reach the tree’s apparently yummy leaves.
Colorado River to North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail (14.3 miles, net +5,790 feet)
The Grand Canyon isn’t a canyon that’s singular. Everywhere you go, new canyons appear, new features are exposed, and new springs and creeks pop up. For the next seven and a half miles we trekked along the cheery and gurgling Bright Angel Creek, which has carved its own subcanyon that veers away from the Colorado River to the northeast.
These seven-plus miles are a delight, with around a 1,000–2,000 feet gain spread over the distance. Bridges took us across the creek numerous times, and we encountered probably 30+ day hikers, backpackers, and trail runners along the way. We were able to see Ribbon Falls from the trail and decided to skip the side trip because we were behind schedule.
We refilled all our water bladders and flasks at Cottonwood Campground, prepping for the big climb as the sun (and the temps) continued to rise. The climbing is gradual at first, and slowly steepens toward Manzanita, which has water and a ranger facility, and then gets serious about ascending from there.
It’s really hard to put the climb to the climb up North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim into any kind of coherent sequence or frame.
I remember marveling over the changing colors of the earth—reds, whites, blues, greens, oranges, blacks—not only on the cliffs towering above but even in the dirt of the trail. I’d hike on orange dirt, and then it’d turn black, and then white, and then orange again.
There were cliffs that I can’t even describe, towering above us and carved by wind and water over the millennia.
There were places where the trail was carved into the cliffside, with a huge drop on one side and more towering cliffs above us.
There was Roaring Springs, another place for water—which we foolishly skipped—where a spring-fed waterfall cascaded down the cliff across from us.
And there was heat, and sun, and I started to suffer. I was hot and starting to feel a little woozy and off kilter. With about four miles still to go before the top, I started to worry about whether my water would hold out. I tried to just keep plugging away, but with about two and a half miles to go, I called out to the rest of the group and sat down in the shade.
Friends are wonderful, and going on adventures with friends is wonderful. But, I think sometimes you realize the depth of the friendship you have with some people only when you’re at a dark moment. Heidi handed me a flask of Tailwind, Wendy gave me some gulps of water from her flask and some life-saving Sour Patch Kids (who knew? in “real life” I think those things are disgusting!), and I suddenly felt better.
In this section of trail, the earth is orange-red but above us the cliffs were a fascinating white striped with blacks, grays, and greens. This was one of my favorite features, so striking. We continued on and after another half mile or so, we hit our next landmark, the Supai Tunnel.
Just beyond the tunnel is another water fountain—hallelujah!—and we doused our OR ice sleeves in water, filled up again, and headed up. We hit our first mule train a few minutes later, but they passed us quickly, and we were quickly able to continue.
As we gained altitude on North Kaibab, we moved from cactus and manzanita to juniper trees and other high desert plants. In the last mile, we were surprised with the red and yellows of fall colors decorating aspen and maple trees.
As we climbed, I tried to avoid thinking “I’m almost there,” because as the canyon unfolds there seems to always be another layer to ascend that you couldn’t see before. But as the number of day hikers increased and the sky opened up again, I knew we had made it! We popped out at the trailhead of the North Rim and oohed and aahed over the views, ate some, and refilled water (although little was needed since we’d refilled only two miles previously).
There’s a bit of a side story here too. Our friends, Angel and Tim Mathis, have a venture called Boldly Went. They host adventure storytelling forums, connect adventurers, and produce a weekly podcast, among many other related things. On our drive from Phoenix the day before, we had listened to a few episodes of the Boldly Went podcast. In one, Angel describe the term “yogi-ing”; it’s used by through-hikers (people going the full length of trails like the PCT or Appalacian Trail) to describe the subtle approach to bumming yummy snacks off other hikers. Well, at the North Rim, we encountered a couple of people who were supporting several R2R2Rers and who just happened to have a cooler of cold drinks. We decided to give yogi-ing a try, and managed to bum an ice-cold can of Coke from them. Seriously, this Coke—which the four of us shared—was the best thing in the universe.
Wendy texted this picture to Angel, celebrating our success with yogi-ing, and I texted my husband, Mike, with a progress update, and then we were off!
You would think that going downhill would be easier than up. In a way it is, but it also becomes grueling when you’re doing it for miles. My BD z-poles became crutches as I navigated hundreds of rock drops and water bars.
We were now descending the same nearly 6,000 feet that we had climbed over the previous several hours. Our landmarks were the same, but they came up more quickly, and we focused on maintaining our fluids and food as we still had a long way to go. At a water stop at Manzanita, we signed the message board: HHRG R2R2R Wendy, Heidi, Sarah, Ellen. Who knows how long it will be there or who will see it?
After Cottonwood Campground, we had the seven and a half miles along the Bright Angel Creek to traverse again. Here, Sarah and I felt the urgency of the waning daylight and set getting to Phantom Ranch before needing headlamps as a goal. Sarah and I ran most of this section together. It was fun to run a bit and feel good, and the four of us did arrive at Phantom Ranch without needing to don the headlamps.
The canteen at Phantom was once again closed, so we dug into our packs desperate to find something that would appeal and did some sharing and comparing. With water refilled, headlamps on, and stomachs sort of filled, we headed off to the Silver Bridge to cross the Colorado River again and start our journey along and up the Bright Angel Trail.
Bright Angel Trail to South Rim (9.6 miles, net +4,460 feet)
After Silver Bridge, we encountered the beach trail. As in lots and lots of sand. In all honestly, the sand was HORRIBLE after 40 miles and on now-tired legs. This is when we started getting goofy and detailing our list of improvements that we would send the NPS once we finished this thing. Seriously, didn’t they know there was this much sand on their trail? They needed to do a much better job sweeping the sand away for us!
We traversed the gently rolling trail along the Colorado for about a mile and then started heading up along Garden Creek. It was pitch-dark at first and we paused to turn off our headlamps and gaze at the stars. It was beautiful. The moon rose again and started to show us the shadows of the cliffs above us. The rocks continued to radiate the heat of the day, and we stayed warm despite the sun’s having set. Garden Creek gurgled along next to the trail, the crickets chirped, and despite being tired, I think we were all excited to be on the last leg of our journey.
Bright Angel Trail is a much gentler trail than South Kaibab. The trailhead is a bit lower, and it spreads the elevation over a greater distance. Thank goodness it was gentler! Everyone’s feet and legs were starting to hurt, we were becoming less eager to eat, and it became an act of discipline to keep moving purposefully, keep hydrating, and keep eating.
Another nice thing about Bright Angel is that the campgrounds, bathrooms, and water sources are placed closely along the trail—I think the longest stretch was a bit more than three miles. As we drained our hydration bladders, we all shifted to going with less water, which lightened our packs and made for happier backs and shoulders.
There was a fair amount of delirious hilarity as we counted scorpions and mice and other creatures on the trail. There were too many crickets to count, but we did see three mice, five live and one dead scorpions, one black widow spider, and one bat. We refined our improvement suggestions for the park service and mourned the lack of emergency mules that could have carried us the rest of the way to the South Rim. And then we grew quieter and hit that silent place, where you are suffering and just want to be done, so you set yourself to the job of getting it done and we got it done.
As we neared the top, the next day’s runners and hikers started their descents, and we watched a few runners as well as ten or so hikers heading down. The wind started to blow, and I remembering noting the folks coming down were wearing a lot of clothes compared with our shorts and t-shirts. And when we topped out, oh my gawd it was cold! Our bodies were taxed and had no ability to manage the wind and cold, and we were instantly frozen.
A woman who was sitting on a bench bundled up in blankets at the trailhead asked us about two older gentlemen she was waiting for, and we provided an update on their status (they were probably still at least an hour from topping out), and then she took our picture.
Done! 12:02 a.m. Saturday, October 7
A quarter mile walk that felt like 100 miles took us to our room, and we pulled on jackets, blasted the heat, and basically fell apart. Heidi and I sat on a bed with the comforter over our legs, inhaling chips and mango salsa. Wendy filled the tub with hot water and Epsom salt and we somehow all squeezed in to soak our aching feet. We tried to open bottles of Mexican Coke and Wendy finally found a handy lamp on the wall to pry the cap off, but ended up spraying two-thirds of the bottle on the floor in the process.
We managed quick showers and then collapsed into bed. I remember Heidi fell asleep instantly, and I’m not sure about Wendy and Sarah, but my feet were throbbing and I had a rough time getting my body to relax enough to sleep. Despite our 2 a.m. bed time, we were all up by 7:30 the next morning. Stomachs were still dealing with 20 hours of trail food, and it was difficult to eat. Walking around was an exercise in mind-over-body control, and we staggered around to a few sights and gift shops. We searched everywhere for R2R2R stickers but had to settle for a MacGyvered version.
Our adventure ended with a stay in a resort in Phoenix, where we lazed by the poolside and let our bodies recover while our minds processed all we had seen and done.
Before we left Seattle, we all took the time to think about and share our goals for R2R2R. Among our top goals were simply finishing and not rushing—taking the time to savor the sights and experiences, take pictures, and have fun together. We all agree that our trip was a resounding success! If you’re going on something big with a group, I think sharing your goals in advance is imperative. If our goals weren’t aligned, it wouldn’t have been as much fun as it was.
We were also realistic about our physical abilities and the possibility that one or more of us might struggle. Being able to be open about how I was doing on North Kaibab was so important: I was able to address the issue early on, which kept me from digging myself into a hole and having a harder time recovering.
Good group dynamics are another key to a successful adventure. Whether it was easy going and tough, we laughed and appreciated our friendship and sharing that incredible place together.
As I write, I laugh a bit at all of us too: We have a list going for 2018’s adventures, and as we suffered up the last few miles and through the past couple of days of recovery, we were crossing things off the list. I bet they’re back on there within a couple of weeks!
Finally, as always, I want to recognize the support of my husband, Mike, who encourages me to pursue my dreams and covers things on the home front for my training and adventure time. I love you, babe.
My kids put up with a lot too. Abs and Meggy, you’re the best! I love you.
Plants! I always have plant pictures, but this time saved them for the end.
And Trail Signs! That’s the other thing I always include, so here they are.
NOTE: Photo credit and copyright—Wendy Abbey, Sarah Brouwer, Heidi Flora, and me. Text copyright me.