The true story of one woman’s first high-endurance self-supported adventure through one of the greatest wonders of America.
The first time I ever saw the magnificent Grand Canyon I was already 4 miles down into it. Moments before sunrise, in that twilight between sleep and awake, I found myself at Indian Garden Campground, the first potable water access from the South Rim available year-round. I was groggily refilling a water bottle when I heard something approaching from behind.
Snapped alert, I turned to see a stout, gruff looking man whose classic tan and green attire clearly identified him as a park ranger. He seemed perplexed to see me, and the feeling was mutual. I couldn’t have passed him on the trail. He scanned me up and down, and in a suspicious tone, greeted me with “Where did you come from?”
Date: April 1 Time: 7:20am Temp: 40ºF Elevation: 3,800′ Location: Indian Garden, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, United States
Three hours earlier, at 4:25am and 25ºF, I’m standing at the edge of the South Rim of the canyon staring out across a gigantic hole the deepest shade of black I could have never imagined. I can’t make out any recognizable shape. The only thing visible is the Bright Angel Trailhead kiosk.
Ice crunches under my feet, and the trail glistens in the beam of my headlamp. A big warning sign at the kiosk cautions: “DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.” But… that’s exactly what I’ve come here to do. Not only that but two of my friends are setting out to run the R2R2R today.
That’s Rim to Rim to Rim. That’s a 48-mile self-supported adventure all the way down and across the canyon, up to the North Rim and back. That’s 11,000 feet of elevation change in one direction. THAT isn’t even mentioned on this sign. That they have been vigorously training 6 months to do.
A reality check flutters in my gut; I briefly question my sanity and silently think “Huh… they don’t even think to put that on the sign… who would ever do that??” I smile wide and feel a surge rush into me as if my stamina and life bars just filled before a video game battle. Here. We. Go!
Time: 4am Temp: 25ºF Elevation: 6,860′ Location: Bright Angel Trailhead, South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona USA
In the vast empty space of the dark canyon the three brightness settings on my headlamp are all the same. Dim. There’s nothing out there for the light to reflect off and return, so it just disappears.
For a few steep, sharp switchback miles all I see is an ice covered dirt packed trail. With each unsteady step, I stab my trekking poles through the ice, hoping to get a solid placement into the ground beneath. At the trailhead, another sign reads “Crampons Recommended.” I wish I had known.
Winter traction devices like Yaktrax or Kahtoola Microspikes would be a very comforting addition. The hazardous conditions make for a slow descent, and in just shy of three hours we enter Indian Garden. Now 4.8 miles and 3,060′ down into the Grand Canyon, the steepest sections are behind us until the climb out.
A nascent moment of relief is quickly interrupted by the startling appearance of the park ranger. I humbly answer that I’ve come from the South Rim at the Bright Angel Trailhead. He scans me again, assuredly noting my paltry 10L pack and no camping equipment. For perspective, the most commonly adored day-pack of weekend warriors is about 30L.
A third of that capacity, mine is stuffed with 2 liters of water, one liter of Gatorade (about 100oz total liquid), small first aid kit, snacks and energy gels, a map and rain gear. I’m wearing a jacket and beanie but will stow those soon when the sun begins to bake the canyon floor.
Questions spill out of the ranger now. “What time did you start?” 4am. “Where are you going today?” To the river. “Are you hiking alone?” No sir, my friend is using the restroom; she’ll be out in a minute. “I see.” He austerely waits for her to emerge and carefully gives her the same once over.
Just when I think we’re not leaving this campground, the ranger softens, smiles, and says “Well, you look well prepared and are making good time. Have fun and stay safe. It should be a beautiful day. Enjoy it!”
I turn around, speechless. During our time with the ranger the night veil lifted, and the golden sun illuminated a stunning backdrop. I stand motionless, captivated by the enormous magnitude and beauty of this canyon; the Grand Canyon, a top world tourism destination.
The towering red, orange, yellow and white walls, the pops of unexpected lush green trees, and the vibrant colors of blooming wildflowers extends miles upon miles.
From deep down in the canyon the sky is the richest ombré of a dozen shades blue. A wave of gratitude rushes over me as I stand there, and I feel the surge of my vitality bars refilling. We’re off to the river!
Time: 9am Temp: 40ºF Elevation: 3,800′ Location: Leaving Indian Garden Campground, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
Nearing the bottom of the canyon, the ice is a distant memory. The adrenaline spike of our surprise encounter with the park ranger and the jaw-dropping sunrise, makes for fast traveling along the smooth dirt trail. After the arduous decent from the South Rim, the 3.2 miles from Indian Garden have flown by, and the landscape opens to the broad powerful Colorado River. I’m amused by my first impression:
I’ve discovered where the world’s supply of chocolate milk originates. It’s not chocolate cows; it’s here in this deep groove carved out of the Grand Canyon walls for the past 5 to 6 million years. Washed away by the spring rains, the remaining winter debris flows down the river churning up sediment turning it a rich chocolate color so opaque it doesn’t look like water at all.
We quickly refill at the River Resthouse, and a mile or so on, we step onto the bridge leading across the Colorado River connecting the north and south sides of the Grand Canyon.
At this crucial moment, it’s imperative to know the cardinal rule of long-endurance, self-supported adventures and have the discipline to follow it: “Half-way” isn’t success (though it often feels like it is.) The river isn’t our destination; we still need to return to our starting point. From here, that’s 9 miles and 4,380’ of elevation gain back up to the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim.
Standing here on the bridge, the warning sign posted at the trailhead cautioning not to hike to the river and back in a day vividly flashes through my mind. I feel like I can go on and on but know we still have a long climb out. Though I yearn to explore more, we stay true to the plan and turn back.
Time: 10:40am Temp: 60ºF Elevation: 2,480′ Location: Colorado River, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Weaving back through the wildflowers and tall golden grasses returning to Indian Garden, views in every direction are award-winning photo ops, and I need to remind myself to keep moving. An easy jaunt from the river brings us back about noon. The needle on the campground’s dial thermometer points to 80ºF.
We find a shady spot, but suddenly, out of nowhere, as I’m unpacking my lunch, a squirrel flashes down a tree and snatches my bag of cashews. Brandishing one of my trekking poles, a battle ensues. The silver thief eventually drops the bag, but before I can recover it, the squirrel ducks under a swing of my improvised weapon, reclaims my cashews and victoriously darts off.
In surprise defeat, I ponder the encounter, amazed how this savage little creature effortlessly made off with half my lunch. These are no bird-feeder bandits. These are highly competent professional pilferers. I remember back to the trailhead kiosk; there was also a sign cautioning about wildlife: “Animals that have lost their fear of humans can be dangerously aggressive.”
There was a picture of a squirrel on it. Heed that warning!
Time: 1pm Temp: 80ºF Elevation: 3,800′ Location: Indian Garden Campground, Grand Canyon National Park
Since our sub-freezing start on the rim the temperature has risen an astounding 55ºF. My friend and I agree: we don’t want to be baked alive in this canyon. We begin the trek up the rim aware that moving under the beating sun will be every bit as harrowing as navigating down the dark ice-covered trail. Shortly after departing Indian Garden all my euphoric and indomitable feelings suddenly drain away for no discernible reason.
I am tired. The sun is fierce. I look up the vertical wall after each switchback and can’t fathom how we still aren’t on the top. I’m “bonking,” a term well known in the endurance world as the sudden depletion of energy and overwhelming fatigue. Essentially, my vitality bars are nearly empty and rapidly flashing red.
Unable to consume more calories than I’m expending requires rest stops every ¼ to half mile, and my friend who is aware of the potential gravity of this situation now must continually keep me in communication monitoring my mental awareness.
I think back to the squirrel and solemnly realize it was a turning point. I really needed those cashews and wish I had somehow fought harder to keep them. Listlessly, I slowly press on and finally top out over the South Rim.
Time: 4:45pm Temp: 50ºF Elevation: 6,860′ Location: Grand Canyon Village, South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona USA
A triumphant celebration or maybe total collapse might have followed, but it was neither. A calm, deeply peaceful and serene feeling flowed into me as I sat down gazing back across the canyon. I made it. I just did that!
Date: April 1st
Total Elapsed Time: 12 hours, 20 minutes. Start time: 4:25am, End time: 4:40pm
Elevation change: 8,920’ (4,460’ each way)
Temp change: 85ºF (25º to 80º, and back to 50º)
Distance: 18 miles out-and-back
How did my friends running R2R2R fare? They emerged back over the South Rim about an hour and a half later. Their story is of course their’s to tell, but I’ll say they had a few mishaps of their own.
Only a mile down the icy trail one of them slid and sprained his ankle and still continued all the way to Cottonwood Campground about 17 miles from the South Rim, where he rested in wait for the other to return from the North Rim before heading back together. This guy was in the Special Forces and is a true beast of an adventurer who deserves the utmost level of respect.
When I remember the day, I’m still awed that a squirrel nearly caused me to possibly be evacuated from the Grand Canyon- or worse. And I like to imagine my friends zipped through Indian Garden undetected in the wee hours before dawn, but maybe they’re the ones who woke the sleeping bear.
Planning Your Adventure
Best Time of Year: Early April
The Grand Canyon officially “opens” on May 15th each year when all the park’s amenities and services are fully operable, but when planning a one-day adventure you MUST do the Rim-to-River-to-Rim and R2R2R off-season due to the deadly high summer heat. Depending on the year, it’s possible to do these hikes/runs in October, however, if the weather turns unexpectedly cold and snows early, completing the R2R2R would likely be impossible because navigating the North Rim would be too treacherous and impassable in those conditions.
Training Time: At least 6 months
Due to the remote setting and extreme elevation and temperature changes, both the Rim-to-River-to-Rim and R2R2R are considered extremely strenuous adventures. You should allow about 6 months of dedicated rigorous training to complete this hike/run and setting a target date in April allows you to train throughout the fall, winter and spring, avoiding the summer heat.
If you want to make a go at it in October, remember you’ll be training through the hottest part of the year. The R2R2R is 48 miles. That’s almost 2 FULL marathons, with 11,000′ of elevation change, and due to the wilderness aspect this is entirely self-supported.
Start/End Point: Grand Canyon Village, South Rim
R2R2R and Rim-to-River-to-Rim are both out-and-back treks. A South Rim start for this adventure is necessary since the North Rim will be closed. Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is open year-round, and when you arrive, you’ll want a good hearty meal at one of the restaurants here. Then you can settle into the lodge or stakeout a campsite at Mather Campground, catching some rest before the pre-dawn start.
It is essential you carry all the water you will need in the expanse between your starting location and Indian Garden Campground. If running R2R2R, you’ll also have no potable water after Phantom Ranch, but on the north side of the canyon the trail follows the creek from which you can treat water for drinking, so bring a filter.
The temperature swing throughout the day is significant, so you will need to plan for sub-freezing conditions all the way up to sweltering summer heat. Winter traction devices are highly recommended for near the rims and summer essentials like a wide brim hat and sun screen will be needed all though the bottom valley of the canyon and the exposed switchbacks of the rims.
Whether you’re up for the grueling challenge of the R2R2R or want to wade into your first long-endurance self-supported adventure by doing the Rim-to-River-to-Rim, they are both amazing experiences well worth your time and dedication, and if you’re like me, you’ll be planning your next adventure before you’ve even unpacked from this one! Peace, love and adventure on!
Grand Canyon National Park Amenities and Services:
Trail distances, elevation and other info:
Bec is a nomad at heart spending her days exploring this beautiful world. She began traveling globally when a middle school student exchange program brought her to Australia and New Zealand. She dedicates her life to helping others experience the wonders she loves through writing about her travels and professionally guiding adventure travel trips primarily focused on hiking, backpacking and climbing.