In the past year, I’ve completed the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, or R3, three times. Now, I am not saying that makes me an expert, but it does give me some leverage when sharing my top 5 things to do while trekking rim to rim to rim.
Depending how many rims you want to hit, it’ll be between 20-45 miles of trails, 10,000 feet of elevation gain, 10,000 feet of elevation descent and whole lotta great views along the way. You can go fast (run it) or slow (crawl it)… the key is to just keep moving.
The group of rawkstars that joined me on this epic adventure this round were Gabby, Joan, Melinda, Jessi, Casey, Tanya, Corinne and Amanda. All the pictures I’ve included in this blog post are compiled between all of us during our adventure.
Two weeks ago, I took 8 incredible rawkstars on an R3 journey. For some, it was their first time ever seeing the Grand Canyon. For others, it was their first time doing any sorta endurance event. I’m in awe of how hard they trained and how much grit they all had those 2 days in the canyon.
No matter how well we trained, we all encountered some sort of first in the canyon. For me, it was my first time seeing so many stars down in the Grand Canyon in the dark (4:45am, baby!) AND finishing the next night in the dark (10pm).
As cold and hard as it is going up and down trails in the dark night sky, the stars made it worth it. Imagine looking up into the sky and almost feel as if the stars were so bright and so close you could touch them. It literally took my breath away with how many and how close the stars appeared. That was the canyon.
Our R3 Canyon Route
There’s a few ways you can do a Rim to Rim (R2), or a Rim to Rim to Rim (R3) through the Grand Canyon. Let me share the way we did it first in case you’re itching to see how nine ladies successfully completed an R3 in 36 hours (and one night of sleep). Yep! You read that right! All 9 of us made it through the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim.
Here’s how we did it…
Day 1: Head down the North Rim from North Kaibab Trail and descend up Bright Angel Trail.
- 23.2 miles of trails
- Elevation Descent: 5,740 ft in 13.7 miles
- Elevation Ascent: 4,340 ft in 9.5 miles
I like this route a lot because you have TONS of water station along the entire trail (and I get thirsty!). It’s also a little less steep than the other trail, which gives your body a chance to adjust to the terrain. It’s also 1,000 feet lower in elevation than the North Rim, which is a little gentler on your body and lungs. Yet by no means, was this easy. The hours of switchbacks along Bright Angel Trail defeats you physically and mentally. Yet you have no choice. You must keep going.
When we finally made it to the other rim, we slept at the Bright Angel Lodge, which is a 5-minute walk from the trail end. It’s been recently remodeled as well and is super cute and cozy. We had supply boxes shipped to the hotel with our toothbrushes, face wash, deodorant and clean clothes to change into for day 2. Once we take everything out of the box, we fill it back up with our old stinky clothes and excess supplies and ship it back home.
Day 2: Head down South Kaibab Trail and ascend up North Kaibab trail.
- 20.7 miles of trail
- Elevation Descent: 4,700 feet in 7 miles
- Elevation Ascent: 5,740 feet in 13.7 miles
Heading down the South Kaibab trail with already exhausted and hurt legs is one of the hardest parts of this day. Your quads are already wrecked and your knees are wincing each giant concrete step you take down farther into the canyon. There is no water along this entire trail, so maybe sure to carry enough on your back to make it to Bright Angel Campground.
If you leave early enough, you can make it to Phantom Ranch in time for some morning coffee and a quick rest. Yet I wouldn’t stay long, because you’ve got a lot of ground to cover as you head back up the North Kaibab Trail.
The 7-mile trek from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground will include one of the hardest stretches of the trek for you, thanks to “the box.” Which is a specific stretch of the canyon where the heat sits and the earth is dry and unshaded. It’s the hottest part of the day and longest stretch without water. So make sure to fill up your hydration pack in Phantom to get ready for the hell-ishly slow incline stretch of trail.
Once you step into Cottonwood Campground, you’ll find plenty of shade and water before you start the steep climb up the North Rim.
The Slowest Climb up the Rims
Climbing up the rims of the Grand Canyon are the hardest, slowest hours of my life. Time and distance get a little wonky in the canyon. For example, a 1-mile hike on flat trails would take about 15 minutes while whistling. Well, 1 mile of Grand Canyon switchbacks will take you 60 minutes of pure pain. It’s hard to understand how it can possible take so long and hurt so bad, until you experience it.
Depending on the type of person you are, this sorta thing might repel you… or have you packing your bags right now. I’m the latter. A true lover of endurance. Of pain. Of team work. Of being outside as much as possible. You’ll get all that and more if you choose to embark on a Grand Canyon rim to rim.
Top 5 Moments from the Canyon
If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re somewhat intrigued into actually doing the rim to rim yourself. That’s awesome! Just make sure to train well so your calves, quads and knees can handle the steepness and won’t leave you hobbling around for a few days afterwards.
Below are the top 5 places and activities I loved while in the canyon to make it a truly memorable experience.
1. Lemonade at Phantom Ranch
No where in the world does lemonade taste more amazing than after trekking miles down through the dusty hot stretch of the Grand Canyon. After leaving the North Rim trailhead 13.7 miles ago, Phantom Ranch becomes an oasis to all who cross through it. The ice cold Minute Maid lemonade is the most refreshing thing on the menu, and gets you hydrating for the climb back up. First glass is $5, then refills are $1.
2. Sending Postcards up on a Mule
If you want to create a very special gift for your loved ones, write a postcard at Phantom Ranch, put a postage stamp on it and it’ll be taken outta the canyon the next morning on the back of a mule. Now that’s pretty neat!
3. Seeing the best Stars in the Early Morning
I mentioned this above, but it cannot be overstated. Start around 3 or 4 am so you can see the best stars (and give yourself more time to dodge the heat of the day). As you descend into the canyon, make sure to have a headlamp (I like to wear mine around my waist) and every so often, stop, turn it off and look up. The stars will take your breath away and probably cause you to shed a tear or two. It’s a magical moment.
4. Dipping your Toes in Bright Angel Creek
On the way down from the north rim, you’ll pass by Phantom Ranch. Stop there to refuel. Yet don’t forget to stop further down the trail by the campground to recharge. There’s a great shady, grassy spot along the creek that I always stop at and put my feet and calves in the icy cold creek.
5. Drinking cool water from the Creek
There is one main water line that descends into the canyon and occasionally it has issues. Which is why it’s always recommended to bring a water purifier in case you need to hydrate from the creek. Even if you have access to drinking water, I highly recommend filling up along the creek to have the coolest water to drink. Gabby and I ran out of water in “the box” and happily filled up our hydration packs with 1.8 L of cool creek water that acted as our built in AC systems. I used my backcountry SteriPEN to clean the water before drinking.
Is the canyon calling you?
Have you ever dreamed of doing something soooo outside your comfort zone? Something so big and crazy, it scared you but also excited you? If you’re starting to feel like the Grand Canyon R3 might be that, I do lead a R3 training and retreat that goes to the canyon every year in May. This will give you time to train and experience the Grand Canyon with other incredible women.