The Earth yawns in front of me, opening to one of its grandest chasms. I can’t see this hole or the rest of the world, for that matter. All of it is gobbled up by the velvety black curtain of very early morning. I turn on my headlamp so it illuminates a circle of light on the path in front of me and begin to run. I’m descending into the Grand Canyon from its South Rim but, because of the darkness, I only know it from the map.
If you decide to run, hike, hobble, crawl, or scratch your way from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other and back again in the course of one day (This trip is called the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim or, more simply, R2R2R.), I recommend a dark start. This big ditch is neither shy nor made of just one canyon. Almost every inch of its one-mile depth and six-mile width is visible in a forever view of rippling mesas and gorges. Multiple trails crisscross the Grand Canyon, but a R2R2R on any route requires at least 42 miles and 10,000 feet of both elevation gain and descent inside this pink sea of sandstone and shale. Because of this, it’s best not to see it all before you begin.
Three sets of green eyes glare at me through the first sensations of light and my heart leaps to just behind my uvula. Before I can swallow it back down, the eyes disappear into a whisper of ground litter and hooves on rock. Mountain lions, the predators of the mule deer that just ran off, prefer to slink around rocky hoodoos and prickly pear cactus at this time of day. I am certain that the deer, thus, are more afraid of me than I am of them.
I’m descending the Bright Angel Trail, a wide trail made of switchbacks carved into the Grand Canyon’s walls. A few points of light blink below, the flashlights of campers in Indian Gardens, the backcountry campground just ahead. The trail is well worn, and I stir up dust with each footfall. In my headlamp’s beam, dust forms curlicues resembling those that frothy milk makes when poured into coffee.
From Indian Gardens to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the place where the Colorado River ambles its erosional voyage toward the Gulf of California, the journey is a relative hop-skip-jump. A bit ago, direct sunlight hit the tops of the canyon walls and began washing down them, one rock layer at a time. Twilight still reigns here, in this earthen abyss, and the river runs a shade of murky green more fitting of a Minnesota pond than a river that’s dug a mile-deep gorge. Using a metal suspension bridge that sways under my weight, I cross the Colorado.
At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab Trails merge, lays Phantom Ranch, a historic lodging facility and watering hole. The ranch has a wee general store open during roughly business hours with water, soda, beer, and snacks to fulfill savory or sweet appetites.
Potable water spigots exist along some of the canyon’s most popular trails, though they aren’t always in operation. Depending on the time of year, you may also encounter running streams as water sources. Chemically treat, filter, or give the ultraviolet light zap to any water you find in the canyon that doesn’t come from a spigot before drinking it. Since this big ditch is also a big desert, and water is a necessary aspect of survival, call or stop by a one of Grand Canyon National Park’s visitor centers to get the latest scoop on water.
The desert gets hot to a dangerous extreme, with summer temperatures rising well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit everyday. Spring and fall yield the best climate for a successful and healthy R2R2R. Winter storms occasionally drop snow on the higher portions of the canyon, making trails impassable.
From Phantom Ranch, I begin the long haul up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. The uphill grade is gentle for seven or so miles as the trail traces the drainage of Bright Angel Creek. At the entrance to Cottonwood Campground, another backcountry campground, I spot a bald eagle in a leafless cottonwood tree. Absolutely still it perches, this statue-ed pose extending to multiple minutes. When the bird hasn’t moved for what seems like a silly amount of time, I begin to wonder if it’s real. This internal dialogue is, apparently, the bird’s cue for action, as it opens its yellow beak and extends a pink tongue. I laugh, I can’t help it, at the sight of a bald eagle’s tongue. The bird spreads its wings into silent flight. I’m giggling when I begin to run again.
Beyond Cottonwood Campground, the trail gets more serious about its climbing. In the next seven miles to the North Rim, I’ll lift myself 4,000 feet closer to heaven. I’m surprised the find the trail’s grade still runnable, so I keep hoofing it. I’ve been told by friends to watch for the Supai Tunnel, a short tunnel through which the trail passes about a mile-and-a-half before the North Rim. They’ve told me that, at the tunnel, I should feel like I’m approaching heaven because I’m so close to the North Rim. When I do pass through the coral-colored tube, I’m riding on elation that doesn’t disagree with my friends’ expectations.
When I arrive to the North Rim, I expect to dance with the freakish exuberance that reflects where I am and the effort it took to get there. Instead, I’m quiet. Not a soul is nearby and I notice only the noise of two conifers squeaking against each other somewhere in the woods. I eat the Snickers bar I packed for this moment and kick around a dingy pile of snow in the parking lot, a remnant of an early-season storm on this fall day.
When the sugar hits my brain, I understand my tepid reaction to the North Rim. I just traveled about 23 miles, most of it by running, descending into and then out of a grand gorge. But, here at the North Rim, I’m only half done.
Some folks run very fast in the Grand Canyon. The R2R2R Fastest Known Time, as it’s called for these record-setting fun runs, is just under seven hours for men and 8:25 for women. Mortal folks run the R2R2R much slower, finishing in somewhere between 10 and 15 or more hours.
This much wilderness travel in the Grand Canyon is not for the under-prepared. Beyond the fitness level required to move for this long are managing the endeavor’s logistical necessities, such as food, appropriate clothing, a lighting device, and an emergency/first aid kit, at the very least. You never know what might happen out there, so you’re best to expect and plan for the unexpected, too.
I complete my R2R2R in exactly 12 hours, arriving back to the South Rim as sparkles of sunset light the cliff tops a color of red I’ve not seen in nature. The moment contains more beauty than my little heart can handle and I’m just about to break into tears.
A man with a huge camera and tripod asks me if I’m okay in between clicks of his camera’s shutter. He must see what I feel pulsing into the marrow of my bones, the ache of fatigue, and pride, and this new shade of sunset red, and mule deer fear, and eagle tongues, and the goodness of strangers who wonder if you’re alright.
Sitting next to him is a Styrofoam carton of takeout food, open and displaying a burger and fries. He offers me a French fry and I inhale it into thin air, like magic. He grins, sliding the carton in my direction. I eat fries and, together, we watch the black curtain of nighttime close on another day in the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park (http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm, 928-638-7888)
Grand Canyon National Park is managed by the National Park Service. It contains the Grand Canyon proper, including hundreds of trail miles to keep a runner busy for a lifetime.
Tips for Hiking Smart in the Desert (http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips.htm)
Be prepared for trail running and hiking in the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon R2R2R Fastest Known Time Information (http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=west&action=display&thread=13)
Learn more about the speedy folks who have set the R2R2R’s Fastest Known Times for men and women.
Photo 1: The mesas and gorges that compose the Grand Canyon do go on almost forever (author photo).
Photo 2: Bright Angel Creek flows next to the North Kaibab Trail (author photo).
Photo 3: The author descends from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (photo courtesy of the author).
Photo 4: The author approaches the bottom of the Grand Canyon during the second half of her R2R2R (photo courtesy of the author).