Tour of the Canyons Part 3: Grand!!!

Our third and final stop (step?) on the Grand Staircase was the unparalleled, Instagram-will-never-do-it-justice, [insert well-deserved hyperbole here], Grand Canyon.

I will never forget the first time I saw the canyon (admittedly it wasn’t that long ago – we wrote about our first stop here in 2015 – the visit that just *happened* to coincide with a blood moon/super moon/ harvest moon eclipse). I remember when we were driving up, asking myself the question of whether or not I would *really* be impressed when I first saw it? I mean, I had seen so many photos of the canyon – its river and wind-eroded cliffs were familiar shapes that had been etched into my mind since grade school, featuring prominently in so many textbooks, nature shows, etc.; I was wondering if, given this familiarity, I would still be privileged enough to have the same awestruck sense of wonder that so many claimed to captivate them?

Of course, the answer was – and still is – a wholehearted, full-throated, resounding YES. There is a reason the Grand Canyon is one of the Natural Wonders of the World. Apart from its stunning vistas that make even the most amateur photographer look like Ansel Adams, the canyon is a geologic marvel that tells the tale of the growth of the continent – a violent story of clashing of massive plates, of rising and falling seas – in varying shades  of sandstone, limestone, granite, and shale.

In short, there is a reason why the Grand Canyon attracts more than 5 million visitors from around the globe every year. And there is a reason why, on a hot weekend in July, we found ourselves returning yet again.

The last time we visited, we only stayed for a night, and were afforded only a brief trip down the Bright Angel trail – an all-too-quick out-and-back 10 mile jaunt that left us wanting more. *This* time, we had a few more days – and we wanted to make the most of it with a longer rim-to-river-to-rim expedition.

The route we opted to take was down the South Kaibab trail across the Colorado to Phantom Ranch, and then back across the river up the Bright Angel trail. All-in-all, the route would be about 17 miles – with over 5,000 feet of climbing.

Two of the most important things to keep in mind when running or hiking in the canyon in the summer: pay attention to the water and the heat. In 2017, the park had over 1,100 emergency service requests – many due to cases of overheating and dehydration. These challenges can easily be mitigated by planning ahead: leave early in the day to beat the heat, carry plenty of water, and know where you can replenish it.

We were very careful to plan ahead, and started our run just after 5 in the morning. At peak summer hours, it was already light enough to see without a headlamp.

Descending the South Kaibab trail in the early morning hours was both surreal, and a bit scary. Surreal because of the views – seeing the canyon turn varying shades of gold and pink as the sun slowly rises over it is nothing short of magical – and scary because you realized that one misstep on the dusty, loose gravel trail could send you skidding over the side into nothingness. Nevertheless, it was incredibly peaceful in a way, as you were so focused, so attentive to your surroundings and footsteps, that you could not afford to pay attention to anything else. It was an exercise in mindfulness.

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Descending the South Kaibab on a clear morning in July.

With that said, it is also a *long*, 6 mile descent into the canyon, and as we neared the end, I was very mindful of the fact that my quads were feeling it.

But then, I saw the river.

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Catching our first glimpses of the Colorado River, with the Silver Bridge in the distance.

I almost completely forgot any discomfort, and was completely absorbed and amazed by the fact that we were at the source of it all – that this seemingly humble, slightly muddy ribbon of rushing water was the force that had carved this massive, 277 mile gorge and intricate network of cliffs, and slot canyons into the earth, indelibly changing the face of the landscape forever. It was just as impressive as the canyon itself.

We crossed the river on the Black Bridge, a narrow, swinging suspension bridge that took us from South to North Rim, and then on to Phantom Ranch. Here was our first water stop, and after a 1 hour+ descent, we were already thirsty and knew we needed to refill our bottles – as the next part was the hard part.

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Roger crossing the Black Bridge.

Coming back on the River Trail and then the Bright Angel Trail was admittedly much more difficult than I had initially thought. The long downhill on the South Kaibab had already tired my legs, and the way back up was essentially 5,000 feet in 8 miles. It was also much, much hotter than it was when we had started; in just a few hours the temperature had risen 30 degrees. And it was only getting hotter.

I just focused on keeping a steady effort, and getting to my next water station at Indian Garden. Once I had, I was nearly out of water – after only a few miles up from Phantom Ranch. Fortunately, the final few miles were up the Bright Angel Trail, which has periodic water stops every few miles. I knew I would be fine with water – but this was also the steepest part of the trail.

I was already tired, and continued to focus on maintaining a consistent, relaxed pace alternating running and power hiking – with occasional unexpected but very welcomed words of encouragement from friendly hikers – including AIR’s president!

We ended up finishing our rim-to-river-to-rim run in just over 3.5 hours, and just before the peak heat of the day. It will rank as one of my all-time favorite runs. Check out our route here!

One note: The National Park Service does not recommend doing the rim-to-river-to-rim in one day for most people. We definitely do not advise attempting this, either; it should be noted that we are experienced trail runners and trained to undertake events like this. However, the route can easily be broken into a multi-day adventure, which many do, with an overnight stay in Phantom Ranch.

Interested in going? While summer months are some of the most popular times to visit the canyon, they are also hazardous, as overheating and dehydration are common during this time of year. Be sure to leave early and carry plenty of water – and chart your water stops in advance!

Check out the park website here for more information on planning your visit.

And as always, a huge thanks to the NPS and rangers for everything they do to protect our parks and park visitors alike.

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