Destination Run: Grand Canyon National Park
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
The Grand Canyon offers some of the most stunning scenery in the world, and it also offers some of the most challenging running terrain. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity to run down Bright Angel Trail and up South Kaibab Trail. This adventure became one of my all-time favorite runs.
It's only because I've backpacked and spent many nights in the canyon that I can justify running through the endless scenic vistas. Seeing and touching the force responsible for the deepest scar in the Earth's crust is an unforgettable experience and one sought after by millions who peer into its depths. The 1st time I stood on bank of the Colorado River in the depths of the canyon, the river seemed enormous by native-Coloradan standards.
For good reason, the National Park Service discourages the masses from being lured down to the river because for some, it's the last river they will ever see. You can only comprehend the depth of canyon until you have to climb out of it, especially in the heat.
The Grand Canyon is basically an inverted mountain, the opposite of what my legs are trained for. The steep slope (over 10%) and airy terrain requires putting on the brakes nearly the whole way down, which means you begin your ascent with toasted legs. Physically and psychologically, the climb back to the top is daunting, and inevitably it's hotter than when you started.
The most popular trails in the Park are Bright Angel and South Kaibab, and as a result, the trails are well maintained and smooth by trail running standards. Bright Angel has several drinking water access points as it drops 4460 vertical feet over 7.8 miles (10.8% grade) on its way to meet the river. South Kaibab drops 4860 feet over 6.3 miles (14.6% grade). Water is available at the South Kaibab Trailhead, but not along the trail. Both trails feel like a StairMaster, since the park service has installed endless erosion-control logs every other step. Unfortunately, the heavy mule traffic makes the trails stinky in places, especially South Kiabab.
Running from the South Rim to the North Rim (or vice versa) has become a popular endeavor known as Rim to Rim (R2R), but the logistics are challenging since you have to drive over 200 miles to get from one rim to the other. Some ultra runners avoid the shuttle hassle by running rim to rim to rim (more than 40 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain), but not many people have the ability, desire, and the training load to run that far. Most people attempt these runs in the spring or fall, to avoid the summer heat.
An easier physical and logistical option is to run down Bright Angel Trail and up South Kaibab Trail. This route provides fresh scenery the whole time and there's a short shuttle that runs between both trailheads. In addition, you can pass through Phantom Ranch at the bottom to refill your water. If this route is done during the transitional months (April, May and October), I'd reverse it to take advantage of the drinking water along Bright Angel Trail.
Late November proved to be a great time to attempt this route. There was only a short icy section at the top of Bright Angel. Since it was a holiday weekend, there was a lot of foot traffic during the 1st mile. But the temperature was nearly perfect: 40 degree on the rim and 65 degrees on the bottom.
I descended into the canyon around 11 AM wearing light fleece gloves and a light long sleeve, but after 3 miles I was running in just shorts and a t-shirt. I was surprised by the amount of sweat that dripped off my hat on the way down considering the cool temperatures and my conservative pace. I was also surprised that my heart rate was higher on the descent than the ascent.
Since I barely survived a Rim to Rim run last year (ran out of electrolytes and basically crawled the last 3 miles), I ran a bit more conservatively (and brought more electrolytes). This year, I filled my 2 liter Camelback with one packet of Perpetuem (meaning it was diluted to half concentration). I also brought 2 cliff bars, 2 packs of Gatorade chews, a handful of salted almonds, and 2 electrolyte tablets.
I traveled 4 miles before I traversed out of the South Rim's long shadow and into the sunlight. Soon after, the slope of the trail mellowed and became lined with golden cottonwoods, which are sustained by a Garden Creek, that emerges at Indian Garden. Here, the parched landscape is suddenly transformed into an oasis filled with the sound of rushing water.
The trail paralleled the desert stream into a cool, narrow canyon, which was my favorite section of the trail. Around the 6-mile point, the trail left Garden Creek and dropped steeply into the metamorphic basement rock of the canyon. A little over a mile later, the trail rejoined Garden Creek and followed it the rest of the way to it's junction with the Colorado River (nearly 8 miles from the trailhead).
Once I reached the bottom, the River Trail climbed briefly, offering great views of the Colorado River. The short uphill climb made me realize how fatigued my legs were from the relentless descent. A little over a mile later, I crossed the mighty Colorado River via a narrow footbridge that's barely wide enough for 2 people to pass. I took a break to refill my water and eat a Clif bar in sunny, 65 degree conditions (elevation 2400 ft). I topped off my Camelback and added two electrolyte tablets.
From there, I crossed over Bright Angel Creek and followed the signs to the South Kaibab Trail. South Kaibab starts at the upstream footbridge over the Colorado. This bridge terminates at a tunnel that is cut into the canyon wall. The end of the tunnel marked the beginning of my relentless climb back to the canyon rim, nearly a mile above the river.
South Kaibab Trail offered great views of the river as I ascended the switchbacks. I gained about 840 feet during the 1st mile of the climb. Having never hiked South Kaibab, I ran conservatively not knowing what to expect. I was surprised at the constant stream of sweat that dripped off my hat as I plodded up the trail in full sun. I drank liberally from my Camelback to replace my fluids.
About a mile from the rim, my calves were on the verge of cramping so I had to slow down and drink more fluids. After 3 hours and 20 minutes (3:28 elapsed time), I crested the rim 16.6 miles later with only a few sips left in my 2L Camelback. Fortunately, there was water at the trailhead. The November sun was low in the sky and temperature was back in the forties again. Chilled by the cold air on my sweat-saturated clothes, I boarded the 1st bus back to the Village, where I changed into dry clothes and warmed up with my wife by a giant fireplace in the Grand Canyon Lodge.
Overall, it was an incredibly beautiful, challenging and satisfying run. I was surprised to learn later that my heart rate wasn't maxed out on the climb, which tells me my performance may have been limited by electrolyte depletion. I'd like to try it again during the late fall, but with full strength electrolyte solution to hopefully prevent my legs from cramping.