I (Rachel) completed my second double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (R2R2R) on Monday June 3rd, 2019. This is a trail that goes down the South Rim of the Canyon, up the North Rim, and back to the South Rim. It’s roughly 47 miles total with almost 11,000′ of climbing. Only two hills to climb though! It’s not a race, it’s a “do at your own risk” adventure.
The first time I did R2R2R was in 2016 with a group of friends. One girl from the group had done it before and coordinated everything for us. It was an eye opening experience in so many ways. Nothing quite bonds runners together like 17 hours on your feet in the midst of something so beautiful. It’s a journey that is hard to put into words. I’ve wanted to go back (just to make sure it was all real, haha) since the second I stepped out of the Canyon two years ago. I’ve done three 100 mile runs and a handful of other hard races since then and there is always a certain feeling I pull from the Canyon when I go dark during these events. Josh has been with me during these rough spots and I always reflect back on this almost indescribable feeling. Because of this, R2R2R has been something I’ve wanted to share with him so he can understand what I’m talking about.
This write up includes info about our entire 8 day trip, not just the Grand Canyon. If you just want the logistics on the double crossing, then scroll down to “GRAND CANYON R2R2R LOGISTICS”. There’s a lot of other details in between.
In December, I asked Josh if he wanted to hop in a van with me over the summer and do this epic road trip. He said absolutely, but had a thousand questions about times, dates, minutes, seconds, reservations, clocks, physics, climate change – to the point that I got overwhelmed at the thought of planning the trip. Finally I just booked a flight into Vegas, rented a camper van and trusted that it would shake out. Problem solved. This led to more questions about even more things, and I told him to just roll with it. This is not his style, but he grew his tree a little and put some faith in me. I did give him somewhat-ish of an itinerary a couple weeks out just so his head didn’t explode, but this was strictly for his benefit. My plan was this: No plan.
We flew into Vegas because the fares were less expensive versus Phoenix or Flagstaff. I also wanted Josh to get a little taste of Sin City and it did not disappoint. Our flight was through Allegiant. They go directly from Louisville to Vegas, so that was a no brainer. It was the first time either of used a discount airline and you literally got what you paid for. Your ticket is admission onto the plane and everything else is a la carte. Want to pick your seat? $. Carry on? $$. Water on the plane? $$$. Snack? $$$$. As long as you know this ahead of time, it’s all good though. It was still the most affordable option, even after all the nickel and diming. The staff was great and we didn’t crash on the way to and from, so I consider that a win.
The van rental was through Outdoorsy (like an Airbnb for campers). First time renter, and I was very pleased! The van owner, Kay was a great communicator and her boyfriend Paul picked us up from the airport. I’ll admit, two things made me anxious about this trip. The first, it would be the longest I’ve ever been away from my kids. The second – this van rental. I didn’t want to be tied down into hotel check-ins since I had no real plans, but I was a bit concerned about not having a place to park, sleep, shower, and didn’t want to be stranded on the side of the road somewhere. Paul was such a fun guy and really put us at ease. German through and through with lots of good stories. His one about scorpions in his house led me to snagging this beaut… our one and only souvenir from the trip.
Paul gave us a tour of the van, a Ford Econoline 15-passenger. Very few amenities – It had a built-in pump-faucet/sink, countertop, cook-stove, cooler, under-bed storage, black-out curtains, and a super comfortable king sized bed.
Friday, Day 1 “Planned”: Arrive in Vegas, drive to Hoover Dam, camp at one of the free Lake Mead campsites.
Friday, Day 1 “Actual”: Arrived in Vegas, parked in Treasure Island’s parking garage, hit The Strip, got our fill of “T n’A” by people watching, ate, and slept it off in the parking garage. 99% sure we were the only sober people in the city that night.
Saturday, Day 2 “Planned”: Wake up with the sun over Lake Mead, hit up the Hoover Dam early, hightail it to Flagstaff for a shakeout run, set up camp just outside the Grand Canyon, relax, prep for a 3am R2R2R start.
Saturday, Day 2 “Actual”: Woke up around 1am to the sounds of Vegas, cleaned up in a casino bathroom, hit the road to Hoover Dam. Arrived at 2:30am, said f**K it to finding a campground, and slept in a hotel parking lot. Woke up with the sun, cleaned up in the hotel lobby bathroom, saw the Hoover Dam, then headed to Flagstaff.
Flagstaff was really cool! This place does exist! Josh has a man-crush on elite ultra-runner Jim Walmsley. Walmsley lives in Flagstaff. So of course, he wanted to hop on one of his frequented training routes just to do it, with the hopes of mayybbbeeee catching him in action. To Mt. Elden we went. I wasn’t too keen on doing this. Sure it was only 6ish miles and about 2k elevation gain, but it was also the day before a very hard effort, and the terrain just didn’t look too pretty. I was wrong. The trail was actually gorgeous and challenging – one of the most technical ones I’ve been on. Also the highest I’ve climbed- right around 9300’. It was a hard hike up, and a harder run down. There is a fire tower at the top of the mountain you can climb. The view was breathtaking. Literally. The wind was so bad up there that you held your breath out of fear. There was actually a wild fire about 13 miles east of Flagstaff, so seeing a fire on a fire tower made me feel like I should be earning a salary for standing guard. The most impressive part – Josh. I know he has a fear of heights. When we got to the steps, I handed him my hat and water bottle and told him I’d be back. I’m not afraid of heights and I was a little on edge, especially feeling the structure shake and sway in the wind. I stood up there for a few, soaking in the fire, the San Francisco peaks, and the flats of Flagstaff. I turned around to head down and almost tripped over Josh. He crawled up the fire tower (see picture proof), knowing he would kick himself later for not doing it. Granted, he didn’t quite get the elevation gain I did because he wouldn’t stand up all the way, but it was damn impressive. I could tell he was terrified and to push past that fear on your own is very respectable. Josh was riding that adrenaline high the rest of the day and all I could think of was “just you wait.” I knew firsthand what he was about to witness in the Canyon as far as heights go and I was excited to see how he handled it. We found out later via Strava that we missed Jim on the trail by less than an hour. He started just after we left (and did it about 3x further and faster). Swing and a miss.
Unfortunately, Mt Elden took out my Altra trail running shoes. I got a huge hole on the outside! Not good considering it was day 2 of 7, so we stopped in at Run Flagstaff, a local running specialty store for a new pair of kicks. The owner was a great guy, super chatty and knowledgeable. It was a lot of fun talking shop with him about our upcoming R2R2R and the learning about the local (elite) running scene in Flag (the locals just call it “Flag”). He hooked me up with a pair of Hoka Torrrent trail shoes, which I absolutely loved and wore the remainder of the week.
The plan after Flagstaff was to head to the Grand Canyon and rest up for our 3am start the next day. Instead, we headed south to Sedona because the actual plan was, “no plan.” The drive was stunning. We scored a sweet last minute campground spot within walking distance to the town, set up shop, and headed out on some trails. Sedona’s beauty is unmatched and there is no doubt it can cure anything that ails ya. The scenery just doesn’t even make sense. Sedona’s trails were soft and red and gentle and calming, total opposite of the raw Flagstaff trails. They were the perfect nightcap to day 2.
Sunday, Day 3 “Planned”: Start the double GC crossing at 3am. Finish at 9pm-ish.
Sunday, Day 3 “Actual”: Morning road run in Sedona, coffee at Starbucks with the most beautiful backdrop I’ve ever seen, and a bouldering adventure up to the Chimney Top vortex. Then drove to Grand Canyon.
Upper Chimney Top was another feat for Josh that impressed the hell out of me. I assumed it was a short trail (one mile) to a good view. Instead it was a mile of scrambling up steep rock. I see where someone with a healthy fear of heights would be a little anxious and it took him a bit longer to overcome this one, but he did. We made it to the summit, which took us to a sheer drop to the valley below. It’s a good thing there was an “end of trail” sign because we wouldn’t have figured that out on our own 😉 We sat and took in the vortex, left all of our woes there, and scurried back down reluctantly leaving Sedona behind. This unplanned stop was his favorite and we can’t wait to get back out to Sedona for more trails, mountain biking, and soul searching.
I was really hoping to impress Josh with his first Grand Canyon sighting. We ended up just playing tourist and followed the crowd to the main viewing area though. I forgot how big this place was. I forgot how unimpressive it is from the top, knowing what’s waiting for you in the shadows. We spent the evening exploring Grand Canyon Village via shuttle and planning our run the next day. Josh got a little impatient with my “winging it” technique and started locking down all of the details. He organized our packs and made sure everything was in order. I know the importance of being prepared for this, and yes- I had a plan and knew what was necessary, but I sat back and let him do it because it’s what he does. Check, double check, and recheck. Three times. I always appreciate this about him because I know without question that he will have everything covered. All I have to do when I’m with him is follow his lead. All he has to do is plan for another person. It’s a fair trade.
Instead of camping outside the Village as planned, we slept in the parking lot next to the trailhead. Bright Angel lodge is open 24 hours, so we used that as our staging area that night and the next morning.
Monday Day 4 “Planned”: Wake up after R2R2R, leave the Grand Canyon and head to Bryce for the day.
Monday Day 4 “Actual”: 4am R2R2R start, 9pm finish. The best Coke I’ve ever had in my life. Best finish line pic too.
GRAND CANYON R2R2R LOGISTICS
- 4am start at the South Kaibab trail. We took the 24 hour taxi from Bright Angel lodge to the trailhead. The driver was there within 5 minutes and charged us $10. Our backup plan in case the taxi was busy- jump on the free shuttle hiker’s shuttle that picks up at Bright Angel at 4am. We chose to start at the South Kaibab (instead of just doing an out and back) because the views are totally different vs. Bright Angel. Seeing the mule trains headed down to Phantom Ranch is pretty cool too, and this is the route they use.
- South Kaibab trail starts at 7260’ and is a 6.7 mile trek down to the suspension bridge over the Colorado. Total descent is 4660’ Lots of steps. Lots and lots.
- It was completely light by 515am. Don’t forget to turn around often to watch your progress as you go downhill. It’s incredible to see how quickly you get swallowed up in the Canyon.
- We ran a bit and hiked a lot. It’s tempting to bomb that downhill, but be mindful of the stress it puts on your quads. I chose to use trekking poles the entire time and would do it again next time. Josh did too, thought they were a burden, and would leave them behind next time. He is also much stronger on trails than I am.
- Once you cross the suspension bridge, it’s only about 0.4 miles to Bright Angel campground/Phantom Ranch. Take your time. It’s a cool vibe. The canteen doesn’t open until 8am, so our 6am arrival was too early for coffee. This was our first spot to refill water.
- From here, you just follow the same trail 14 miles up to the North Rim.
- Cottonwood Campground is your next water stop. Its 6.7 miles from Phantom Ranch. This is a really cool section along Bright Angel creek. You’re sandwiched between the canyon walls for the first part. The second part is full valley sun exposure. It’s a subtle climb, about 1620’. You won’t see it, but you’ll feel it. The sun, heat, gradual climbing, and still being early in the day can attribute to some mental darkness. Be prepared for this section to be a little challenging!
- From Cottonwood Campground to the top of the North Rim is 6.9 miles and 4161’ of climbing.
- Roaring Springs is 1.9 miles past Cottonwood Campground. This is the last “flat” section before you actually feel like and see that you’re going up. The creek is beautiful and powerful here, hence the name. We had access to water here.
- Supai Tunnel is the next stop. 3.3 miles from Roaring Springs, 1.7 miles below the Rim. The water at Supai was off, making a 5.2 mile stretch with 3000’ of climbing with just the water on our back.
- The 1.7 mile climb from Supai to the North Rim is the steepest and most challenging section. The good news is, we passed a lot of hikers coming from the top, so it kept us occupied. This section houses the best view of the Grand Canyon in my opinion. The Coconino Overlook is a good pause, 1.2 miles below the rim, and is just gorgeous. You can see the San Francisco Peaks from here- all the way in Flagstaff. It was really cool knowing we were looking at those same peaks from Mt. Elden a couple days before.
- We took a break at the North Rim. Water was on, so we slammed down several bottles and chatted up some hikers. So far, we were the only ones doing the double crossing. It took about 8 hours to get to the top, nice and slow, time on feet.
- Going down the North Rim trail was a lot more runnable than South Kaibab. The grade didn’t feel as steep. You’d think that an out and back would just be more of the same- but that’s not true here. Totally different perspective from descending the South Rim and a totally different perspective from climbing out. Be sure to slow down and enjoy.
- Heading back to Phantom Ranch- you’ll realize why you were so taxed on the outbound earlier. It’s such a good, runnable, slightly downhill descent. We clicked off some decent miles during this section and it felt good to run!
- After we passed the campground, we split onto the Bright Angel trail. The intersection is marked- just pay attention. You will cross the Colorado on a different bridge. This trail is longer (9.5 miles from the campground vs. S. Kaibab’s 7.1 miles) but a little gentler on elevation (4380” vs 4780”). The main reason I see this as the better climb out is the water access- 3 potential spots if they’re all turned on. South Kaibab doesn’t have any. This is a slow climb. You’ll be on tired legs, probably behind on water from the heat, so having that access is crucial. This trail starts out with very deep sand that lasts a good mile or so. You’ll go through Indian Gardens, which is just magical. It’s so green and lush and colorful- almost has a jungle feel to it. It’s such a different vibe. Not to miss. The first time I did R2R2R, it was dark when we came through. We made it here right around sunset, and I’m so thankful we were able to see it.
- It gets dark really quickly once the sun dips below the walls. The last three miles were via headlamp, and all you can see are steps and switchbacks. Look ahead- steps. Look up, switchbacks, look at the sky- a faint outline of the rim above. Even the last mile, it’s still a shock to see how far you have to climb to get out. This is the feeling I tell Josh about all the time. It’s overwhelming. You’ve been climbing for hours and hours. You have a mile to go, and you still have so far to climb. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. I love it.
- There are two small tunnels you go through within the last 1.5 miles. When you go through the 2nd one, it’s only about a quarter of a mile out. You’re still climbing, still seeing switchbacks, still grinding… then out of nowhere, this single yellow street light surfaces- and you’re done. That’s your finish line.
Here are a few tips:
- The Grand Canyon has a pack in pack out policy. No garbage cans to be seen, even at the campsites. Be sure to take a gallon Ziploc bag or something to store your trash. It’ll make it easier on you to keep wrappers from falling out every time you open your pack.
- Check the website or visitors center for water availability. Just because there is access doesn’t mean it’s always on. Be prepared and have a backup plan.
- It was in the mid 60’s when we started, mid 90’s on the bottom, and mid 80’s at the North Rim. Be sure to check your weather and pack accordingly. Two weeks before, the North Rim had really severe winter weather, so don’t assume one way or the other!
- We packed enough food for 200 calories/hr. and used just about all of it. I got really burned out on the food I packed and started rejecting calories the last few hours. Don’t be Rachel. Pack something you know will sound good when nothing else does and save it until you reach that point. I made the last several miles harder on myself than they needed to be because I was running on fumes. Sorry Josh.
- We each had two 16oz water bottles and Joshed packed (didn’t fill) a 1.5 liter bladder. We also carried water purification tablets, several packets of Dripdrop, and Base Salt. The only time I felt like we got a little behind on water was on the North Rim climb. That Supai water stop sure would’ve been nice. In retrospect, we should’ve filled the bladder up at Roaring Springs, but there was an outdated update there that said the water at Supai was on, and we believed it.
- We chatted with a lot of people. This is not a desolate run by any means. When we started, we could see a few headlamps behind us from people getting on the trail too. Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch were both booked and we saw several day hikers from there exploring the bottom of the canyon. The North Rim was chalk full of people hiking down and back up. We passed several rangers throughout the day. Only one other group doing R2R2R though! More details below on that.
- This is not an easy trail! To prepare- you need to get used to the footing on aggressive trails. Build your hiking legs, build your endurance, get in the heat (or overdress) as much as possible! Learn what your body needs and be disciplined in fueling and hydrating. Hire a coach maybe 🙂 Even though it’s not a race, I know a couple that can guide you in the right direction and get you ready for this epic challenge!
Tuesday Day 5 “Planned”: Spend all day at Bryce, then head to Zion to camp.
Tuesday Day 5 “Actual”: Left the Grand Canyon that morning and drove two-ish hours to Page, AZ.
Page started off a little rough. We got into town and were at a loss on what to do. It was in the 90’s and there was no shade to be seen. We were both exhausted. We agreed to get a hotel room that night to recharge and cool off. After a nap and some planning, we walked down to the Glen Canyon Dam. Again, not too impressed with the landscape until we actually immersed ourselves in it. A different kind of gorgeous, but gorgeous none the less. We had a fantastic dinner at a local Mexican joint and got a good night’s sleep.
Wednesday Day 6 “Planned”: All day at Zion.
Wednesday Day 6 “Actual”: An early morning visit to Horseshoe Bend, 4 hours kayaking (Kayak Lake Powell Outfitters) through Antelope Canyon, boulder scrambled and cliff jumped, visited Lone Rock beach, and then drove to St George UT.
We decided that the short amount of time we had to devote to Zion and Bryce National Parks weren’t enough. That will be another trip one day. I crave the water, so being on Lake Powell was perfect. I’m really glad we didn’t rush through this town. I hated it initially, but was completely in my element once we got on the lake. We did a guided kayak tour, so it was cool to get some local knowledge about the area. Seeing the canyon that way was a really intimate experience. Our guide mentioned some good cliff diving spots, so after our tour, we hiked out to them. I really wanted Josh to cliff jump too, but after the fire tower, rock scrambling, and surviving those tight Grand Canyon drop-off trails, it was a hard pass from him. I didn’t push – figuratively or literally. He had proven himself enough. We hit up Lone Rock Beach per our tour guide’s recommendation to cool off again (with ice) on our way out of town. This place had a very California vibe to it- tons of campers and tents scattered around haphazardly on the sand. People just living their best life.
The drive from Page, through Hurricane, to St George, UT gave us another change of scenery that we couldn’t wait to explore. We got a campsite right smack in the middle of two expressways that had the best showers I’ve ever been in. The owner claimed 80lbs of water pressure, and I don’t know if that was accurate but it sure felt it. Rejuvenating. We hit up a local dinner joint and planned our next day. This night was the roughest. It was really hot. We both slept very little. I gave up the comfort of a bed for a picnic table and some natural air circulation and I don’t regret it.
Thursday Day 7 “Planned”: Day 2 at Zion, drive back to Vegas, return van, get a hotel for the night.
Thursday Day 7 “Actual”: Spent half the day in St George at Snow Canyon UT, drove to Vegas, returned van, went to Anthony Cools show on The Strip, hotel’d it for the night.
Snow Canyon. So. Much. Love. Such an unexpected surprise. It was every bit as beautiful as Sedona and the Grand Canyon, but not nearly as crowded. We explored slot canyons, red cliffs, white cliffs, snowcapped peaks, hiked down into lava tubes, and climbed sandstone formations known as “the wave”. We spent a good amount of time here on foot exploring. The state park was pristine. I felt like at any time, a brontosaurs could’ve popped its head up from grazing to look at us. The way the valley formed made you feel like you were in a snow globe, just bubbled in to the environment. We want to go back to St George with road bikes and mountain bikes and running shoes and stay forever, stuck in time. I’m sure Bryce and Zion parks are equally as stunning, but the feeling of solitude here made it all the more memorable.
Then there’s Vegas. Being in Snow Canyon that morning, then on the Vegas Strip that night… whew. Both of us know ourselves and each other pretty well, and the people in Vegas really reiterated to us that we would rather be with that Snow Canyon brontosaurs. The drive from UT to NV through the mountains was impressive though. We had White Castle in a casino, lost some cash playing poker, and watched Anthony Cools inappropriately hypnotize people. Good clean fun, and an entertaining way to round off an incredible trip.
Friday Day 8 “Planned”: Don’t miss the 6am flight to Louisville.
Friday Day 8 “Actual”: Didn’t miss the 6am flight to Louisville. Nailed it.
My takeaways from this trip:
It all works out how it’s supposed to. The first time I did R2R2R, my life looked totally different. I never imagined I would be back two years later with Josh, in this scenario. Life is hard, relationships are hard, kids and marriages and divorces and rumors and family and friendships are hard. Being judged is hard. Hurting people is hard. All of it gets hard, and it rarely goes as it should on paper, in your head, or from someone else’s perspective. If you plan it though, and stick to it simply because it’s what you planned, you miss these life defining, soul fulfilling moments along the way that weren’t accounted for initially. You miss the Lake Powells, the 80lbs of water pressure, the Snow Canyons, the Josh’s. Yes- the original plan, your original path would still be full of beauty, but the unplanned leaves you with a feeling of wonder and respect that it’s meant to be. The unplanned teaches you to let go of trying to control everything and trust that the way life leads you is the way that it’s supposed to be. It may take years to see, but it all works out how it’s supposed to.
I missed my kids so much. I want them to experience all of this. I want them to appreciate the freedom they have in their future and go. Live, learn, explore. Get out of Kentucky. Get away from me. Live their own lives with adventure, without fear of the unknown holding them back. We met a girl in the Grand Canyon who worked for the Arizona Conservation Corps. It was a group of young adults from all around the US, and I felt like I was talking to a future version of my daughter. My job as a parent is to encourage them to go, whatever, whenever, however and with whoever they choose no matter how different, and I will follow in whatever capacity I need to. I kept telling Josh all week that I can’t believe I missed this, can’t believe I didn’t do this when I was younger, etc, and he made me realize that it all works out how it’s supposed to. It wasn’t my path. Perhaps I learned this later in life because it’s my job to carve that path out for my children.
I found the moment I was chasing from the Grand Canyon two years ago. Déjà vu. It was a feeling of defeat. Physical and mental exhaustion, wondering how in the hell you’re going to get yourself out of that Canyon. And then you just do because you don’t have a choice. I love this feeling. It would be a safe bet to say any ultra-runner does.
Do the things you love with the people you love. Don’t wait until you have all the details. Don’t wait until you save the money. Don’t wait until the right time. Commit, do it, figure it out as you go. Life is too short and there is too much living to be done. Find your thing that makes all of your problems seem small in comparison. Be humbled by nature. Hiking through canyons and up mountains that have been there too long to fathom has a way of putting you and your problems into perspective. Find this feeling, drink it in, remember every detail and seek it out when your regular life gets in the way.
Final takeaway: Don’t be disappointed if you didn’t see Jim Walmsley on Mt Elden, because you’ll see him and 4 other bad ass pro ultra-runners prepping for their Western States podiums in the Grand Canyon! True story. We were headed back down from the North Rim, and Josh very nonchalantly goes “Oh, look. Its Jim.” And there he was, all smiles, just a runnin’ up that climb like it was completely flat. He was with Eric Senseman, Tim Feriks, Jared Hazen, and Stephen Kersh. They caught up to us again, well… blew past us actually at Phantom Ranch. 8 hour day for them, 16 hour day for us. Circle back to “it all works out how it’s supposed to.” Our path clearly isn’t the pro ultra-runner one, but the one we have chosen has led Josh and I to some pretty spectacular things and a whole lot of personal growth. We will keep rolling with it.