The Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim (to Sleep) to Rim

My sister, Rondi, and I on the South Kaibab Trail of the Grand Canyon.

In the Fall of 2017, the idea of a marvelous adventure was born. This adventure is known as the Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R for short. It consists of beginning at the Rim (North or South) of the Grand Canyon, running/hiking down to the bottom, across, and up to the opposite rim, and then turning around and running/hiking back to where you started. The overall mileage for this is said to be approximately 48 miles, with about 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss (although Strava calculates it much higher than these numbers).

Having never been to the Grand Canyon, and having friends that had done this adventure before in one day, I, along with my friends, decided it would be more enjoyable to split this into a two day adventure so that we could complete all of it in daylight and not miss out on any of the beautiful views. The plan was set and hotels were booked for October of 2020 more than a year in advance, due to high demand for lodging at the Grand Canyon.

Then, Covid hit.

We went through a variety of options for how to make our plan work with our lodging at the North Rim cancelled due to park workers needing use of the lodge where we had reservations. After going through the options, including renting an RV, doing it all in one day, waiting another year, and more, we decided to start at the North Rim by staying at a hotel in Jacob’s Lake, about an hour from the Rim.

So, the new plan was set. On day one, we would run down the North Rim across the bottom and up the Bright Angel trail on the South Rim (where we had a hotel less than a half mile from the trailhead). Then the morning of day two, we would take the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead and run/hike back to the North Rim, where our car was waiting to drive back to the hotel at Jacob’s Lake.

Our group of 6 at the first overlook, about a mile down the North Rim Trail. (Left to Right: Me, Rondi, Lori, Steph, LeighAnn, Elizabeth)

Originally, we were a group of six friends and sisters that were going to set out to complete the R2R2R. However, a week before, Lori decided she wasn’t properly trained to do it (she had completed it the year before and knew how difficult it was). So, after the first couple of miles, she headed back up the North Rim and the rest of us continued our long journey across the canyon.

It was absolutely beautiful and unlike anywhere I had ever been.
The switchbacks to get to the bottom of the Canyon seem endless.
Every time we came to a bridge, I thought we were definitely almost at the bottom. This was not accurate!
Much of the trail is like this, with a wall on one side and a cliff on the other.
The terrain was “easiest” across the bottom of the canyon, but it’s never easy.
Look closely and you will see Rondi in the center of this picture. This is near the bottom of the Canyon.
Just when you think you’re at the bottom, you continue to go down and down and down…
But then, you cross the river and immediately begin to climb back up.
Switchbacks for days.

Day one proved to be a huge challenge. It honestly never felt like we had a flat section across the bottom of the canyon, which is what we were somewhat expecting. Also, the trail is very challenging with continual railroad like planks across it, so it’s difficult to get into a groove. It was a hot day, and we took advantage of every water access to dip in our hats and buffs and arm cooling sleeves, but they dried very quickly. We took full advantage of our break at Phantom Ranch to enjoy the ice cold lemonade and lots of snacks. Water access was not an issue on the first day, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to stay well hydrated in the heat.

During our climb out, Steph began to feel sick.

Steph and I are the tiny people/specks on the lowest switchbacks in this picture.

The climb up the Bright Angel Trail is brutal. The switchbacks seem to never end. We were not sure how long it would take to climb out, so I stayed with Steph, and Rondi, Elizabeth, and LeighAnn went ahead to make sure they could finish in daylight and secure food for the evening and replenish snacks for day two.

Steph having a moment during our climb up Bright Angel.

Steph had trained consistently for this challenge, and yet, that didn’t seem to matter. There was puking. And more puking. But, the only option was to keep climbing. We took it slow. For a while, Tailwind helped. But that stopped working and we couldn’t find anything to settle her stomach.

Eventually, we made it to the top and celebrated with all of the pizza.

Unfortunately, we realized that it would be irresponsible for Steph to join us on the return trip across the Canyon on day two. You can’t start that kind of a journey being severely dehydrated. Luckily, Lori was able to make the 4+ hour drive from the North Rim to the South Rim to pick her up the next day, because the Park Shuttle Service was not operating due to Covid.

So, we were down to just four of us making the trek back to the North Rim on day two. We realized that we had over packed a bit and were happy to get to leave some clothes and supplies behind with Steph, making our packs a bit lighter for round two of the canyon crossing.

We woke up early to be the first ones in line to catch the 6AM shuttle from the Bright Angle trail to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Rumor had it that that was the more scenic trail to descend, and we wanted to take full advantage of seeing all the views.

Sunrise on the South Kaibab Trail.
South Kaibab Trail. Absolutely breathtaking.
South Kaibab Trail.

We had wondered how this trail could be that much different or more beautiful than the others. I mean, how can there be that many different views of the canyon? But, we soon figured out that it truly was unique and absolutely breathtaking.

The South Kaibab Trail was steep, and extremely challenging. I can’t imagine climbing up it, but I HIGHLY recommend taking this route into the canyon if you have the option.

We felt like we were flying down this trail, but upon arriving at the first bathroom and checking our mileage and pace, we realized that was not exactly the case. In addition, we learned that there had been a break in a waterline, and the water was shut off at every location across the canyon, except possibly Phantom Ranch.

Say what?! We were not prepared for this. Yes, I know. I know. We were dumb. But, we had just crossed the day before and all was well. And we wanted lighter packs, so we had left our water filters with Steph and were just planning on refilling at the numerous stops along the way across the canyon. Now, that wasn’t a possibility.

For a moment, we contemplated turning around and climbing back out via the South Kaibab trail which we had just descended. But, we were nearly out of water already and there was no water available on that climb out. We decided the best option was to get to Phantom Ranch and if the water was shut off there we would need to stay there until someone came along with a filter that we could borrow to refill all of our bottles and bladders, and then we could make it back up the North Rim with that supply.

Over the next several miles, the reality of our situation sucked all of the joy out of the journey. We were scared. The heat of the day hit much harder, much faster, than on the descent down the North Rim. How could we have not checked to make sure the water was on before we left the hotel? How could we have left our water filters behind? What if the water was turned off at Phantom Ranch? We didn’t really talk over these next miles. Everyone just entertained these thoughts in our own heads. Did we really make this big of a mistake?

Continuing down South Kaibab Trail.
This was one of the most beautiful sections of the trail.
Switchbacks are the only way down. We were so relieved to see the Colorado River!

After what felt like an eternity, we finally made it to Phantom Ranch and the water was still on!!! We filled our bladders and bottles to the brims and also bought lemonade and Powerade and carried as many fluids as possible for the long journey up the North Rim. Elizabeth also purchased a Life Straw, just in case we were desperate.

And then, we continued on.

Crossing the Canyon on day two.

Somehow, what was a crossing of the Grand Canyon on day one became a crossing of the Sahara Desert on day two. It didn’t even feel like the same trail. Was it the same trail? There was no shade and the temperature was in the mid 90’s. And we only had the water from Phantom Ranch to last us uphill for 13+ miles.

This little fella seemed to be confirming that we had indeed stepped into a whole new world on day two.
We couldn’t drink this water but it felt amazing to drench ourselves in it.
We were relieved when we reached the bottom of the North Rim because it meant there would soon be shade!
The climb up the North Rim was beautiful, and we were glad to be leaving the Sahara. (This joke never got old.)
The “steps” climbing up the North Rim were brutal. Hiking on the edge was easier sometimes.
Not only did the canyon morph into the Sahara Desert on day two, but it also became Fall on the North Rim trail while we were gone. The Canyon is a crazy place.
After many, many hours, we finally made it….to an overlook that wasn’t at the top.

But we kept on climbing. And climbing.

Back at the North Rim Trailhead! We made it! (Left to right: Rondi, LeighAnn, Me, Elizabeth)

And we finally made it back to where we had started the day before. And man, did it feel good.

Throughout those two days, I feel like I was finally able to truly live out what I have said for a long time. That is, the why behind my long distance running. I want to be able to see all the beautiful places. I want my feet to take me to places that nothing else can take me to.

And on this adventure, that’s exactly what happened. I was never in a hurry. I wasn’t longing for it to be over each day. I was just enjoying every moment of it, knowing that once it was over, I would be longing to be back out there doing what I love.

Here’s to taking it all in and enjoying every moment of the pain, beauty, and adventure.

-Kendra

Lessons learned:

-Never, ever, ever leave the water filter behind.

-Cooling sleeves, Territory Run Co. hat, and a bandana were my favorite accessories.

-Tailwind for the win.

-Hiking without taking breaks is just as fast as running and taking breaks.

-I will never regret going slow and taking in all of the beauty around me.

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