Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Day Hike: The Ultimate One Day Adventure or a Fool’s Errand?
In the darkness a man stood slumped over. His hands rested above his bent knees. His breath was labored. His head hung low. He slowly moved one leg forward. Then the next. He looked up as I approached. “What time is it?”, he asked. “It’s about one o’clock”, I replied. “You don’t have far to go.” Jim and I were moments into our Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Day Hike. Hiking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim had been at the top of my list since my first visit to the Grand Canyon. I was glad that Jim, a friend and trusted hiking partner, was with me for this epic adventure.
In the middle of the night we descended into the Grand Canyon via the empty Bright Angel Trail. At 4:23 AM, approximately three and a half hours after starting, we arrived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We crossed the Colorado River and hiked past Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. Both were dark and quiet. With the first leg of our Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike behind us, we began hiking the North Kaibab Trail. The North Kaibab Trail passes through Bright Angel Canyon before making it’s way to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The North Kaibab is the only trail that leads to the Grand Canyon North Rim from the Colorado River. Night gave way to day as we hiked through the Bright Angel Canyon. We were surrounded by giant cliff walls on one side, and the Bright Angel Creek on the other.
It was a 14 mile hike from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim, but the first 11 miles were forgotten as we neared the top. The last three miles were steep, fully exposed, and hot. Turning around was the only option that made sense, but we in the midst of hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim; we were beyond doing things that made sense
During the first 11 miles of our climb to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, we were passed by trail runners that were running the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. And while arrogance has no place on the trail, it felt damn good passing those same runners on the difficult three mile stretch at the end of the North Kaibab Trail. As the desert gave way to forest, we knew were were getting close. Then without warning, we emerged in a clearing. We had arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon! It was 11:00 AM and we had just finished hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim! We were halfway there.
On the top of the North Rim were a few runners and another hiker. Grand Canyon National Park doesn’t open the North Rim until mid-May, so everyone arrived via the North Kaibab Trail. We congratulated one another, laughed, and shared stories.
Jim and I ventured to the North Rim Backcountry Office to fill our Platypus water bladders. The quiet and empty buildings were in stark contrast to the throngs of tourists that were surely lined up at the South Rim. We filled our water bladders and returned to the trailhead. We bid adieu to our fellow Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim adventurers. It was time to begin our journey back to the South Rim. 24 miles completed. 24 to go. It was 11:38 AM. The hike down the North Kaibab Trail was easier than the hike up, but the war my body was raging with itself began to intensify. The war began with my unprecedented midnight reveille, and was amplified by the physical toll the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike was taking on my body. I managed the discomfort thanks to the restrooms conveniently spaced out along the trail, but I was getting worse. Hiking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim was no walk in the park.
By the time we reached Cottonwood Campground, six miles from the North Rim, I was not feeling well at all. The last three miles to the North Rim where physically harder, but the seven miles from Cottonwood Campground to Phantom Ranch were the most uncomfortable. Those seven miles seemed to go on forever. Around each corner I expected to see Phantom Ranch, but I didn’t. My mind began playing tricks on me. Jim and I barely spoke. The one saving grace was that it had started rain, cooling the entire canyon down. After what felt like forever, we arrived at Phantom Ranch. People were walking around, families were playing, and dinners were cooking. The smell of food from Phantom Ranch called to us, but the South Rim’s call was louder.
We stopped just shy of the Colorado River to rest. We made use of the restrooms and enjoyed some snacks. There, we befriended a pair of trail runners. The two men were running the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. They mentioned that they didn’t have any headlamps. I wished I had one to spare, it would have been a fitting way to repay the trail angels from my Disaster in Escalante. Unfortunately, all I could do was wish them luck. They remained behind as we resumed our hike. We would never encounter them again. It was 5:47 PM when we crossed the Colorado River for the second time. All that remained was 9.5 miles, and one hell of a climb.
As we began the climb to the South Rim I felt something strange. I felt good. I felt damn good! I started fast packing up the switchbacks. My eyes darted from the trail below to the scenery at eye level. I hiked one step after another, effortlessly climbing the Bright Angel Trail. Jim struggled to keep up. My GoPro pictures turned blurry. This was my wheel house. This was how I hiked. It was the first time all day I felt good; the first time I felt myself. It took me 36 miles, and the better part of a day for me to find my groove. I wondered if I was going to burn myself out, but I didn’t care. I felt good, and I was going with it. As we approached Indian Garden, the only camp between Bright Angel Campground and the South Rim, I started to slow. I hadn’t eaten anything since we stopped at Bright Angel Campground. I was hungry, but I could not eat. The mere thought of eating made me feel sicker than I already was. I nearly threw-up, but there was nothing to come out. Instead, I let out a series of loud belches. This made Jim laugh, so it wasn’t all bad.
I synched the hip belt on my daypack. And then I synched it some more, until I synched it as far as it could go. This had been my pack for years, and I had never done that before. With no fuel coming in, my body was running on stored fat. I appeared to be running out of reserves. We reached Indian Garden, shells of the men that had passed through hours earlier. We were tired and sore, but that didn’t matter. The prize was within sight. We had four and a half miles and 3,000 feet of vertical remaining. I turned on my phone. Surprised to have service, I sent out a tweet.
We turned on our headlamps for the final push. We broke up the remainder of the hike into three 1.5 mile segments. Our focus turned from the South Rim to the 3-Mile Resthouse. It was a long and difficult mile and a half. Every now and then my headlamp caught the outline of the cliffs. The remaining vertical looked daunting, but our focus remained on getting to the resthouse. When we arrived at the 3-Mile Resthouse, we set a new goal. Only a mile and a half to the 1 & 1/2 Mile Resthouse. But it sure didn’t feel like a mile and a half. I even stopped to check my map, convinced we must have missed it. We hadn’t. When we did make it to the 1 & 1/2 Resthouse, we didn’t even stop. We were almost to the South Rim. As we hiked the last segment, I thought of the man we encountered when we began our hike. We were in rough shape, but we weren’t him. We were walking upright. Our heads were held high. We were hiking out on our own terms. We turned the corner on the last switchback. Up ahead was the conclusion of our epic Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. Up ahead was the climax of the biggest physical and mental challenge of my life. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell. Unlike marathons I’ve ran, there were no cheering spectators, no tears of joy. It was just two men, hiking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, in the dark. With an extra bounce in our step, we passed the Bright Angel Trail sign. This is where our epic adventure had begun, 21 hours, 48 miles, and 23,000 vertical feet earlier. I put my arm around my friend. “We did it.”
Live the Adventure
There are three options for hiking Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. From the South Rim, you can take either the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. Both have pros and cons. We elected for the Bright Angel Trail because the climb on the return wouldn’t be as steep. The third option would be to combine the trails (down South Kaibab Trail and then up Bright Angel Trail). The North Kaibab Trail is the only trail from the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.