Running the Grand Canyon has been a big bucket-list item for runners for years. And with good reason. It’s one of the crown jewels of the U.S. National Park System, and running 42 miles from rim-to-rim-to-rim—that’s across the entire canyon and back—can be a truly epic and memorable experience.
Whether starting on the South Rim or the North Rim, most runners typically begin very early in the morning and run down into the canyon to the top of the opposite rim and back during the heat of the day—when temperatures can range from 85 to 125 degrees—and return to the place they started by early evening, albeit pretty beat up from the duration and exposure. Even though there are several places to fill up with water in the bottom of the canyon, the heat can be unbearable and the long downhills absolutely wreck your quads. Ultimately, it’s about the trials of the miles—and doing your best to stay well-fueled and optimally hydrated. (When shuttle buses are running or if you have someone who will drive you, it’s possible to do a 21-mile one-way run from rim to rim, but then you have to endure a four-hour drive to get back to where you started.)
So why not run it at night when temperatures are cooler and the sun isn’t a factor?
That’s exactly what Mike Wardian and I were thinking in late October when we flew into Las Vegas at about 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, rented a car and headed south by southeast toward Williams, Ariz. We stopped at a grocery store to stock up on trail snacks, water and electrolyte drinks and then high-tailed it to the exit for Highway 64, which would lead us to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon just before sunset.
If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon—or never been there with the intent of running across it—there’s an awesome yet rather precarious feeling that wells up from the pit of your stomach the moment you first look over the South Rim. In front of you is a much-better-than-a-postcard view of something you might have only seen in postcards—or the internet equivalent, namely someone else’s Instagram, Facebook or Twitter pics. While it looks as if the view in front of you absolutely had to have been Photoshopped, it’s that anxious feeling coming from your gut, chest or brain that lends credence to the idea that what you’re looking at is as genuine and real as it gets.
It’s about the time you realize that merely looking across the Grand Canyon is making you ache with anxiousness so much that a noise suddenly chortles from deep inside of you and seems to resemble you uttering the words, “Um, am I really going to run across this f#%@-ing thing?”
The answer, of course, is yes, you are, but at the moment there’s a decided lack of synergy among your five senses and what most people would consider common sense. For runners planning to run across the Grand Canyon and back (aka rim to rim to rim), the anxiety of the first-glance visuals typically dissipates as you cram down a big meal, organize your gear and log a few hours of sleep before the early-morning wake-up call. That was certainly the case for me on my previous three trips across and back during the daytime.
But for me and Mike on this particular night, there was no time or energy to be lost to anxiousness. By about 7 p.m., we pulled into to a parking lot at the edge of the South Rim and, with all kinds of non-running tourists from around the world, we briefly soaked in the sights and endured just a twinge of the awe-inspiring apprehension. But with the sun setting and the need to organize our packs, we blitzed away from gawker’s galley (in a way that would have made Clark W. Griswold proud) to a parking lot where our white Chevy Cruze wouldn’t get towed or ticketed in the wee hours of the morning while we were running down in the big ditch.
Daylight was diminishing so quickly that I had to turn on one of my headlamps in order to stuff my Ultimate Direction pack with Honey Stinger Energy Drops, fill a pair of soft flasks, shove a peanut butter sandwich down by throat and lock up the car. I laced up my Hoka One One Challenger 3’s and in a few moments, we were running about 3 miles across the top of the South Rim to the South Kaibab Trailhead. The overlook anxiety was long gone as we strode toward the trailhead, and it was instead replaced with pure giddiness for the adventure we were about to embark upon. (And yes, there was a different sense of anxiety for me because, even though we had both run the Chicago Marathon a week prior, I was still dead-legged and, well, Mike, a guy known for running back-to-back races for weeks on end, is never dead-legged and is a much better and faster runner than me on my best days. But more on that later.)
Just like that, we reached the top of South Kaibab and started descending the rocky trail into the darkened abyss. It was as dark as midnight and even with powerful LED headlamps we could only see what was right out in front of us. There was no visual indication of the massive, gazillion-year-old gorge that began just off the edge of the trail, only a moonless sky full of stars overhead.
Unlike my previous rim-to-rim-to-rim runs in the scorching heat of the daytime, there was no logjam of stumbling tourist hikers in street clothes or mule trains carrying supplies, in fact, there was nary a soul almost the entire 6.7-mile, 4,600-foot descent down to the Colorado River. The first person we came across was a lone backpacker near the bottom who was content with being the last man out for the day.
What we didn’t anticipate on the way down to the river was that it would be so warm. When we left the rental car, the temp hovered around the lower 60s but heading down South Kaibab it was easily in the upper 70s and rising. Despite the darkness, I was starting to feel overheated and a bit nauseous, but partially because I hadn’t been drinking enough water and also suspected that aforementioned peanut butter sandwich was stuck to the walls of my stomach.
As we neared the bottom of the long, arduous descent, we passed through a stone tunnel and crossed the river on the circa-1928 Black Suspension Bridge and I sensed my quads were nearly blown. As we headed toward the Phantom Ranch day lodge and campgrounds, we could hear the last of the night’s diners mingling over drinks. “I think could use a cold beer,” I told Mike, who doesn’t drink and was in no mood for stopping or slowing down. We didn’t stop, but as we peered into the civilization through the window of the rustic stone lodge, I could see a few relaxed hiker types tipping back bottles of beer. I took a drag of water off one of my soft flasks and refocused on the task at hand.
From there, things got real. After passing the assortment of campsites and cabins in the Phantom Ranch area, we were soon running upstream along meandering Bright Angel Creek on North Kaibab Trail. There was about 14 miles between us and the North Rim, and although there was no one out there, we got the sense that the canyon was teeming with life. Once or twice I swear I saw a pair of eyeballs staring back into my headlamp, but wrote it off as late-night delirium, even though it wasn’t really that late and I didn’t think I was that delirious yet. While chatting with Mike in hopes of slowing him down a bit, we came around a corner and without warning, some type of smallish, gray rodent with a black and white tail darted across the path in front of us and disappeared near the edge of the trail.
“What the f#%@ was that! That scared the @#%$ out of me!” I blurted out, stopping dead in my tracks.
I furiously scanned the trail with the beam of my headlamp to look for it but couldn’t find it. “Was that a skunk? Did you see its black and white tail? Must have been a skunk.”
In talking about it as we resumed running, we realized it couldn’t have been a skunk because the white stripes we saw in that flash of panic looked more like a ringtail motif and we deduced that a skunk would have just stood its ground and sprayed us instead of bounding its way up the canyon wall. (We would later learn that it was a ringtail cat, also known as a bassarisk, which happens to be Arizona’s state mammal. Related to raccoons, they’re flighty animals that possess superb hearing and eyesight that help them to maneuver about at night with cartoon-like agility.) As we emerged out of that part of the rocky canyon to a wider and more lush valley, we suddenly noticed dozens of sets of eyeballs glowing in the light of our headlamp beams.
As I climbed up North Kaibab Trail trying to hang on to Mike’s pace, I was started to fade physically, but mentally I was still completely energized and present in the moment. It was right about then that realized what a thrill it was to be running in such solitary fashion through the cool, dark of night in a place that was always thick with hikers and scorching sunshine during the daytime.
When we stopped to refill our water flasks at Cottonwood Campground, I turned my head a bit and saw a large, dark silhouette just outside the periphery. This time I was definitely a bit delirious, but I was pretty sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.
“Check out the size of that massive owl,” I said to Mike in somewhat of a hushed tone so as not to startle what I thought was, in fact, a massive nocturnal bird perched on a car-sized rock to our right.
“Dude, that’s a rock, not an owl … you’re starting to hallucinate,” Mike said, laughing.
He very well might have been right. I was definitely feeling off, but when I turned my head and let my headlamp shine on what Mike suggested was a massive rock, the dark silhouette turned its head and two eyes peered back at us. In one smooth movement, the massive nocturnal bird flapped its wings and leapt off the rock, flying into the darkened abyss and out of sight.
“Did you see the size of that owl?” Mike said, chuckling with excitement. “That thing was HUGE!”
We continued on for another mile or two but I began to fall off Mike’s pace. We were 4 miles from the top of the North Rim, but reaching the turnaround point wasn’t my concern. My rational mind told me that if I turned back now and sent Mike to the top alone, I’d be better off cutting off 8 miles and then he’d catch me on the way back. Perhaps it wasn’t the safest decision to make at 12:48 a.m. in what was, at the moment, one of the most desolate places in the world. But it was the right call and we fist-bumped and, for the time being, went our separate ways. After Mike quickly motored up the trail and out of sight, I turned around and suddenly felt a bit physically and mentally rejuvenated running downhill.
I maintained a pretty good pace on the 10 miles back to Phantom Ranch, partially because it had cooled off another 20 degrees and I was doing a better job of hydrating. I had a few more run-ins with those crafty ringtail cats, but at that point I had come to expect them around every corner and realized that I was spooking them more than they were spooking me. I admit that my tired mind was starting to go sideways and several times random sounds and the moving shadows at the periphery of my headlamp spooked me terribly, which led to short bursts of survival sprinting.
Finally, approaching 2:15 a.m., I reached the familiar setting of Phantom Ranch once again, but the only sign of life was a lone mule ambling about in a circular pen. I was almost as lifeless as I considered the arduous task of running and power-hiking my way back up South Kaibab Trail to the top of the South Rim all alone. I refilled my water flasks at the final spigot, took in some calories and caffeine, crossed the river on the rustic bridge and prepared for an epic grind.
The thing about going up the South Rim is that you forget how far you descended several hours earlier, so when you think you’re almost there, well, you’re not at all almost there. It’s just short of a vertical mile spread over 6.7 miles of rocky and rutted terrain that includes hundreds of stair steps that are a tad too tall for tired legs.
About an hour into the climb, I looked back toward the North Rim and wondered how Mike was doing. I was sure he was fine, but seeing a lightning storm approaching from the western sky was a bit disconcerting. I figured the storm was an hour from reaching me, but within 20 minutes I felt the faintest drizzle and then maybe 3 minutes later it was pouring. As I scurried to pull out the waterproof shell that I hadn’t thought about since I left the rental car, an immense bolt of lightning and exceptionally loud clap of thunder exploded nearby and shook me to my core. With my heart racing, I pulled the jacket on and tried to crouch under an overhanging rock, quietly wondering if Mike and I would be reunited when he found my electrocuted carcass lying on the side of the trail.
Fortunately, the storm moved along quickly and within a few minutes the next bolt of lightning lit up the Ottoman Amphitheater rock formation several miles away, across the river. I peeled off my shell and, feeling a bit rejuvenated or maybe lucky to be alive, I found a spring in my step and continued a strong pace up the final miles. I was nearing the top at about 5:20 a.m., when the morning’s first light began to brighten in the eastern sky. Soon thereafter, I passed the day’s first two descending hikers—actually National Park Service rangers—and then a few more, and eventually the first mule train of supplies meandered down just as I was in the final approach to the top.
The moment I ascended the the final steps to the South Rim, the sky was erupting in hues of orange and yellow and red, officially signaling the start of a new day. With legs of jelly and a bit of fatigue-induced malaise, I was happy I had made the decision to turn back early. It didn’t diminish my experience in the least as the 34 miles I covered were still rich with unforgettable moments.
Appropriately, the first shuttle bus of the morning arrived just after 6 a.m. and dropped off a dozen or so hikers who were about to head down the way I just came up. I hopped on the bus with the intent of going to get the rental car so I could come back and get Mike when he finished, only to immediately fall asleep and nearly miss my stop in Grand Canyon Village.
I managed to drive back to the trailhead just as Mike was finishing and we celebrated with a fist-bump and a bro-hug. We both made it back safely, and Mike was stoked to complete the entire out-and-back in just under 9 hours.
“Wow, that was amazing—did you see the sunrise?” Mike said. “That was one of the most spectacular running adventures I’ve ever done.”
Running the Grand Canyon
Running Rim to Rim to Rim across the Grand Canyon and back is no small task and shouldn’t be undertaken without a significant level of fitness, trail running experience and knowledge of the route. It’s not the 42 miles of running that is most difficult, it’s the cumulative vertical gain and descent—and potentially the extreme heat—that can be most devastating. There’s roughly 10,550 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss in each direction of a roundtrip run. In the first 6.7 miles down South Kaibab Trail (or the first 9 miles down Bright Angel) you’ll descend 4,700 feet and, no matter how fit you are, it will beat up your quads and that will lead to cumulative wear and tear later in the day. The canyon floor on the north side of the Colorado River is generally flat (or gently sloped) and entirely runable for several miles, but it becomes steeper in the last 4 miles on the way to the North Rim (and very steep in the final 2 miles).
It will take most ultra-fit trail runners moving at a moderate pace (and stopping for necessary breaks) between roughly 5–7 hours to run one way from the South Rim to North Rim (or vice versa). Expect a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run to take 10–14 hours, given that you’ll encounter an 8-mile, 4,400-foot climb back to the top of the South Rim after you’ve already run about 34 miles.
The best times to run the Grand Canyon are October through November and March through April, when temperatures are cooler and trail traffic is somewhat minimal. Avoid the summer months, when temperatures can rise to 120 degrees in the bottom of the canyon. However, weather can change frequently in any season, and heat, cold and precipitation can have a major impact on your run. Most of the route is exposed from one side to the other, with only a few places offering shelter from rain and sun.
– Check out all of the data and virtual tour of the Grand Canyon on Trail Run Project.
– Read this runner’s guide to conquering the Grand Canyon.