So I've actually be writing up a guide for the GCR3 based on my 4.5 trips across and back. I'm not quite finished with it yet, but here's what I've got so far.
The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim
by David S. "Hoot" Gibson
The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (GCR3) is the most beautiful and challenging run or hike you’ll ever do! The basic concept is get across the Grand Canyon and back in a day. By the shortest route the round trip is 42 miles with an elevation gain of over 10,000 feet and, of course, over 10,000 feet of downhill. The current fastest known time for the GCR3 is 6 hours, 21 minutes, and 47 seconds, run by Rob Krar of Flagstaff on May 11, 2013. Bethany Lewis currently holds the women’s record of 8 hours, 15 minutes, and 51 seconds. For most people in good shape, hiking the GCR3 in under 24 hours is a worthy goal and awesome accomplishment.
Attempting the GCR3 should not be taken lightly. Each year park rangers rescue hundreds of people, many who over-estimate their abilities and do not prepared adequately for the challenges of hiking in the canyon. In fact, the park service highly discourages visitors from hiking from the rim to the river and back in a single day. Doing the GCR3 requires more than twice the effort of hiking to the river and back in a single day. Only well-trained distance runners and exceptionally fit hikers should attempt the GCR3 in a day.
Much of the year, the Grand Canyon is either too hot or too snowy to attempt the GCR3. The best times of the year for the GCR3 are late March, early-mid April, mid-late October, and early November. However, in any of these months, the temperatures at the bottom of the canyon can be brutally hot and the trails near the rims can be covered with snow and ice – on the same day! In addition to a high level of fitness and careful planning, a successful GCR3 also requires a bit of luck with the weather.
The CGR3 nearly always beings on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim as the North Rim is typically closed with no services from mid-October through mid-May. Ultra marathon runners gunning for time, take the shortest route from the South Rim to the North Rim and back. The shortest route starts at the South Kaibab trailhead, descends the South Kaibab trail, crosses the Colorado River on the Black Bridge, ascends the North Kaibab trail to the North Rim and then follows the same route back to the South Kaibab trailhead for a total of about 42 miles. A very attractive, but longer alternative to the South Kaibab trail is the Bright Angel trail. The South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails join just north of the Silver Bridge across the Colorado River near the Bright Angel Campground at the start of the North Kaibab trail. Bright Angel Campground is 7 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead and 9.5 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead. Starting and ending the GCR3 at the Bright Angel trailhead makes the round trip 47 miles.
So why even consider adding 5 miles to the GCR3 by using the Bright Angel trail? There are several reasons. While 2.5 miles shorter from the river to the rim, there is no water and almost no shade available on the South Kaibab trail. Water is available halfway up the Bright Angel trail at Indian Garden and sometimes at rest stops above Indian Garden. Furthermore, in the heat of the afternoon, many sections of the Bright Angel trail provide much welcome shade. The Bright Angel trailhead is 400 feet lower than the South Kaibab trailhead. While there is bus service to and from the South Kaibab trailhead, the closest (non-handicap) parking is about two thirds of a mile from the trailhead which may be the best option for very early morning starts. There is parking very close to the Bright Angel trailhead. Finally, while both trails offer spectacular views, the Bright Angel trail is more varied and scenic. For those not obsessed with their time, an interesting GCR3 variation is descending South Kaibab in the morning and ascending Bright Angel in the afternoon when the water and shade are needed most. This variation is approximately 44.5 miles long. But if you are going to go that far in a day, why not make it an even 50 miles? Descending Bright Angel, tagging the North Rim, then ascending South Kaibab to the Tonto Trail, taking the Tonto Trail from South Kaibab to Bright Angel at Indian Garden and then climbing to the South Rim on Bright Angel makes for a total of just over 49 miles. Add in short warm-up and cool-down hikes to make it an even 50 miles!
Here is a summary of trail distances and elevation changes.
Route/Leg Distance Elevation change
South Kaibab trailhead to Phantom Ranch 7.4 miles 4714 feet
Bright Angel trailhead to Phantom Ranch 9.9 miles 4314 feet
Phantom Ranch to North Rim 13.6 miles 5695 feet
GCR3 with South Kaibab start and end 42 miles 10,409 feet (x2)
The best training for the GCR3 is – surprise – to get a lot of miles on your feet in the months before the big day. Ultramarathon runners know the drill. Running for hours on hilly trails will serve you well. Training at altitude also helps as the North Rim is 8241 feet above sea level. For hikers, getting lots of hiking time on your feet is critical. A few long hikes of twenty miles or more are great training, even if they are on relatively flat terrain.
The best time of day to start the GCR3 depends primarily on your anticipated round trip time and when the sun will be rising. For runners planning to do the round trip in under 12 hours, starting at the South Kaibab trailhead at first light is a good strategy. However, mule trains often start from the South Kaibab trailhead at 5am. To avoid getting held up behind a mule trail, starting before first light with a headlamp is worth considering. For those planning to do a significant amount of hiking along the way, starting well before sunrise with a headlamp is a good strategy to increase your chances of finishing before dark. Starting out at the trailhead at 2am or 3am is not uncommon. Even if you do not finish before dark, you may want to make sure you finish before the last of the South Rim bars and restaurants close for the night!
One of the most important considerations for the GCR3 is how much water to carry and where to get it. Under ideal conditions – a cool day when the water is flowing at all spigots along the trail – a runner can get buy carrying just two water bottles and refilling them when needed. Hikers with a backpack can more easily carry significantly more water and probably need to. It is a good idea to check with the backcountry office on the South Rim the day before to find out the status of water availability along the route. However, in past years, the Park Service’s report on water availability has occasionally been inaccurate in early.
You can count water being available at the Indian Garden Campground, 4.8 miles from the Bright Angel trailhead, at the Bright Angel Campground just north of the river and 7 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead, and Phantom Ranch just 0.4 miles north of the Bright Angel Campground. In early spring, water is very likely to be on at the Pump House residence 5.4 miles below the North Rim. This is a critical water station as there likely will be no water available beyond the Pump House residence in early spring or late fall. Thus you must ensure you carry enough water beyond the Pump House to go 10.8 miles with a climb and descent of 3650 feet. Some years water is also available in early spring and late fall at the Cottonwood Campground which is 1.4 miles before (south of) the Pump House residence. If the water is off at Cottonwood and the Pump House residence, you either need to carry a lot of water north from Phantom Ranch, or come prepared to treat water drawn from Bright Angel Creek between Phantom Ranch and the Pump House.
Note well that there is no water available along the South Kaibab trail in the 7 miles between the South Rim trailhead and the Bright Angel Campground. This is generally not an issue when heading down South Kaibab in the morning. But it can be a major issue when climbing South Kaibab in the heat of the afternoon.
With the above in mind, here is a general water strategy for running the GCR3. Head down South Kaibab early in the morning with at least one liter of water. About half a mile after crossing the river, fill your water bottles or bladder at the pump in front of the General Store at Phantom Ranch. If water is available at Cottonwood, fill up just in case the water is off at the Pump House. Drink up and fill up at the Pump House, your last water until you return. To save on weight, consider dropping some water a few miles below the North Rim and retrieving it on your way back down. Fill up again at the Pump House or Cottonwood. Drink up and fill up at Phantom Ranch with enough water to get to the South Kaibab trailhead 7.4 miles and 4700 feet up the trail. If you are facing very hot conditions headed up from the river, consider taking Bright Angel instead of South Kaibab so you can get water at Indian Garden and have access to shade on your climb. If you plan to hike versus run most of the GCR3, plan on carrying at least 3 liters of water.
Clothing is a personal choice, but here are some things to consider. In spring and fall, it may be below freezing when you start out at the South Rim and over 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon. The temperature increases rapidly as you descend into the canyon so plan on starting out cold as that won’t last for long. A couple of light layers may be all you need. If there is a chance of rain, carry a light shell. Convertible pants are convenient if you’ll be on the trial before sunrise or after dark. Thin glove liners are nice if it’s cold. A cap or sun hat is important to block the sun. In general, light reflective colors work better than dark when it’s warm. GC3R runners and hikers alike will do fine in supportive running shoes. The round trip is too long for heavy hiking boots unless you are hiking with a big pack. A change of socks is a nice luxury some will appreciate. In early spring and late fall, there may be snow and ice on the trail which could warrant microspikes or the like.
You will want to pack light for the long trip, but some gear is essential. Obviously you’ll need water bottles or a bladder and a way to carry them. Carry a small amount of sun block and a small first aid kit (e.g., bandages, wipes, water treatment tablets, pain relievers). You should carry a reliable headlamp, even if you plan to start and finish in daylight – because you might not. Some hikers may want to carry a trekking pole which can help on the many, many stair steps. And you definitely want to carry a small camera to record the event and the amazing scenery!
Gels and energy bars can get you across and back, but plan to put down a lot of calories during the GCR3 as you’ll need them. Adding electrolyte drink powder to your water is a great way to get electrolytes, calories, and better tasting water. A sandwich or two will sure hit the spot after 20-30 miles! While there is food and lemonade available at the General Store at Phantom Ranch, check the operating hours before counting on it. The store often closes at 4pm. And don’t forget to carb load before the GCR3. For runners, it may be best to think of the GCR3 as an ultramarathon with no aid stations – plan on carrying more that you would for most long runs.
If you are flying to the Grand Canyon, the nearest major airports are Phoenix, 235 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas, 275 miles west of the Grand Canyon. The most convenient commercial airport is the small Flagstaff Pulliam Airport just 90 miles south of the Canyon. I’ve flown into Flagstaff on all of my trips to the South Rim and have found rental cars to be far less expensive in Flagstaff than in Phoenix.
There are a lot of lodging options in the South Rim area although many fill up quickly during the peak spring and fall seasons. The best rooms in lodges overlooking the South Rim may require reservations as far as a year in advance. The Yavapai Lodge, spread out across many buildings, provides the most economical rooms in the park on the South Rim and often has rooms available after the other park lodges are fully booked. There are several chain hotels located a few miles south of the park in Tusayan. The South Rim’s large Mather Campground is the choice of many and is conveniently located on the park’s shuttle bus route.
Getting to and from the trailheads on the South Rim is aided by the park’s reliable shuttle bus service. The park newspaper and web site provide the shuttle schedule for different times of the year. Located in the central lodge area, the Bright Angel trailhead is easy to access with a shuttle bus stop and parking available nearby. A shuttle bus also stops at the South Kaibab trailhead throughout most of the day. However, there is no open parking right at the South Kaibab trailhead. For a very early morning start on South Kaibab, your best may be to park at a picnic area just east of the intersection of Desert View Drive and Yaki Point Road. From the picnic area it is a six tenths of a mile hike to the South Kaibab trailhead. Parking along the side of Desert View Drive a little west of Yaki Point Road may also be an option.
What to Expect along the Trail
On the trail, expect to see some of the most beautiful scenery you will ever see! The Canyon’s main corridor trails, Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab, are well-traveled and well-maintained. There are good signs at the trail junctions and it is fairly easy to follow these trails even when traveling in the dark with a head lamp. Nevertheless, these trails are steep and rocky in places. Runners need to be careful of ruts and divots in the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trail created by the mule trains. The wear and tear on the trails is most noticeable in areas with switchbacks and steps. You also should watch out for mule droppings and the occasion mule puddle along the trail. Due to the heavy use, the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails are often very dusty when dry. If you are in a group running down from the South Rim, you could end up sucking in a lot of trail dust.
There is no water available along the South Kaibab trail between the trailhead and the river. Water and restrooms are available at the South Kaibab trailhead and at the river near the Bright Angel campground. There is one pit toilet at the intersection of the Tonto Trail about three quarters of the way from the Rim to Bright Angel. Although the steep top and bottom sections of South Kaibab switchback next to high walls, much of the middle section is wide open and provides spectacular views to the north. At the bottom of the South Kaibab trail, a tunnel drilled through the rock leads to the Black Bridge, a large suspension bridge that crosses the Colorado River. On the north side of the river, a sandy trail runs between the Black Bridge and Bright Angel campground where it intersects with the North Kaibab trail. From this intersection, North Kaibab leads north to Phantom Ranch and south back across the river on the Silver Bridge to the Bright Angel trail.
The Bright Angel trail is the most heavily traveled trail that descends into the Canyon. This is because its trailhead is located in the tourist-filled South Rim lodging area. Bright Angel’s impressive set of initial switchbacks are clearly visible from the South Rim overlooks and act as a magnet to tourists looking experience the canyon below the rim. Despite all the signs warning of near certain death from exhaustion, many tourists descend far down the Bright Angel trail, some unprepared for the challenge of climbing back out of the canyon. There are two short tunnels near the top of Bright Angel and rest stops with restrooms and seasonal water at 1.5 and 3 miles below the trailhead. The cool oasis of Indian Garden is 4.9 miles and 3060 feet below the trailhead. There is a reliable water spigot next to the trail at Indian Garden. Below Indian Garden, the Bright Angel trail descends another 3.2 miles and 1320 feet along Pipe Creek to the River Reststop on a bench above the Colorado River. This section is very scenic but has a reputation for being very hot in the middle of the day. From the River Reststop, it is another mile along a very sandy trail paralleling the river to the Silver Bridge, one of the two suspension bridges which cross the Colorado River. On the north of the Silver Bridge is a restroom, a water spigot, and the Bright Angel Campground where the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab trails intersect.
The North Kaibab trail climbs 14 miles and 5761 feet from the Bright Angel campground at the river to the North Rim. The half mile from the river north to Phantom Ranch is well-traveled by hikers and mules. At Phantom Ranch you can get water, use the restrooms, and even buy food and supplies in the camp store when it is open (usually from 8am to 4pm). North of Phantom Ranch, the North Kaibab trail is much less traveled and provides some of the most beautiful scenery in the Canyon. Immediately north of Phantom Ranch the trail follows the Bright Angel Creek through a narrow section of canyon called the Box. The excellent trail is relatively flat through this section and crosses the creek several times on bridges. North of the Box, the canyon opens up and the trail climbs gradually on rolling terrain. About 6 miles north of the river, the trail crosses Wall Creek which drains into Bright Angel Creek from the east. Most of the time it is easy to stay dry when crossing the Wall Creek by stepping across on a few rocks. However, when Wall Creek is running high, as it occasionally does in the spring or after a recent rain, some care is required to cross safely. At Cottonwood Camp, 7.3 miles north of the river, there are restrooms and water spigot which may be on in the spring and fall. The Pump House residence is just 1.4 miles north of Cottonwood Camp. The water spigot next to the trail at the Pump House Residence is usually on in the spring and fall.
From the Pump House Residence, the North Kaibab Trail veers northwest into the incredibly beautiful Roaring Springs Canyon and ascents more steeply for 5.4 miles and 3641 feet to the North Rim. Roaring Springs, the park’s primary water source, is just north of the Pump House high on the north wall of Roaring Springs Canyon. The trail gets more and more interesting as it climbs, hugging the south wall of the canyon. In a few places the trail is a little exposed and may make those bothered by heights just a little nervous. In a wet spring, water may be falling onto the trail in several places from the canyon rims high above. About 1.7 miles below the north rim, the trail crosses a bridge to the north side of Roaring Springs canyon and gets steeper. This section of the trail, around the Supai Tunnel 3 miles below the north rim, often suffers from erosion and rock fall over the winter and requires repair in the spring. Runners need to exercise care when speeding down the trail in this area. In early spring, the top few miles of the North Kaibab trail, climbing to 8241 feet, may be buried in snow. The North Kaibab trailhead marks the North Rim and the halfway point of the GCR3. To make your arrival at the North Rim official, tag the pavement on the road if it’s not buried under snow. The North Rim section of the park typically does not open to tourists until Memorial Day weekend. Before then, exiting the Grand Canyon to the north may be very difficult and very expensive.
To be continued …