From dawn to dusk: navigating Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim

Longing and a profound sense of connection drew me back to the Grand Canyon. This is a place that left a long lasting mark on my soul and I had been getting a calling to get back there. The idea of conquering the Rim to Rim to Rim (R3) run had always been something in my mind, ever since I visited last time. My annual visit to the AWS Re:Invent conference in late November would most certainly happen and I had been wondering what would be my personal adventure this time. San Francisco and the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park were serious candidates but the Grand Canyon kept summoning me.

The daunting distance and elevation of the run made me hesitant to embark solo on this journey. Fate intervened when my friend Stefan secured a speaker slot at the conference and would be coming to Las Vegas as well. The idea quickly moved from a prospect into an irresistible adventure, the perfect opportunity to turn the dream into reality. And when my friend Cristina took a spontaneous decision to join us, I knew we had something wonderful to look forward to.

I’ve arrived to Las Vegas on a Wednesday and had a good night sleep in town, prior to picking up my friends the afternoon after. It is a good 4,5 to 5 hour drive to get to the Grand Canyon Village, where we would be staying in the Yavapai Lodge, same place I stayed last time. Good value for money and a place with a fantastic canyon atmosphere.

Piece of guidance: if you’re travelling during the Thanksgiving timeframe and are planning a stopover for dinner, call the place to verify if it’s open. A lot of locations close early for the holiday season and finding a spot can be extremely difficult. As we stopped in Williams, which is a bit more than half-way to the destination, nearly all places were closed. We ended up having some amazing mexican food at Obregón City Tacos. They were full but we were welcomed with open arms.
Piece of guidance: if you’re getting in by car and arriving out of hours, you can get the Grand Canyon Pass at the South Entrance Station (open 24h) in an automated machine. It lasts for 7 days for South and North Rim ($35 vehicle, $20 individual). Alternatively buy at Tusayan (e.g. Canyon Plaza Resort). There are no online passes.

We arrived to the hotel at dark, super tired and really happy with the decision to have planned next day as a rest day. Taking the time to stroll around and acclimatise after a long journey is more than just a pause – it’s an invaluable time to revitalise, get new energy and ultimately awe with the stunning views. For me personally it was great to experience the Grand Canyon again Such excitement. Such wonder. Such reverence…

Piece of guidance: looking for a good carbohydrates place to load? I’ve recalled my own advice about food quality in the Grand Canyon Village and decided to hit Tusayan this time. We Cook Pizza and Pasta is a simple and efficient location, just at the entrance of town, with guess what? Yes, great pasta and amazing pizza! Additional insight: the pizza I took with me into our running adventure the day after was de-li-cious!

Following a snow storm on Friday afternoon, which made us rest even further, we started our adventure on Saturday early morning. We left at 5:45 with -6ºC temperature, heading to the South Kaibab Trail, relying on headlamps to navigate the pre-dawn darkness. Carefully in asphalt terrain, as black ice was often found. As we descended, the sky transformed from pitch black to a mesmerising blueish hue. We took the first switchbacks, down the winding trail, gulping steps easily downhill, along the slope of the canyon. When reaching a wide, open area, Cristina got utterly flabbergasted with the view. “Ooh!!!!! Aah!!!!!!!”. The canyon’s grandeur made its revelation, as there was enough light to grasp all its might. A guy standing by, his tripod in place for the perfect morning shot, promptly stated “Yes!! That’s exactly the name of this point!”. You got it right, we were at the “Ooh Aah Point”. Hilarious! 🙂

Our journey continued downward and the sight of the Black Bridge over the Colorado River was an emotionally charged moment, fulfilling a longing that had persisted in me. After crossing the river, we passed the Bright Angel Campground and the Phantom Ranch. The terrain shifted and our pace turned to a hike, basking in the 17ºC warmth. We knew we wouldn’t have a lot of daylight, as end of November we’re not that far away from the Winter Solstice. Turns out I found out the day before that I didn’t visit in November… my last time there was March, with temperatures a bit more enjoyable and more daylight. We took a long time deciding the evening prior how early we’d start. Running in the dark was certain but cutting it short would endanger the possibility of doing the whole distance, from South Rim to North Rim and back to the South Rim again. We had to find the right balance between seeing and enjoying the Canyon, versus navigating it in the dark for the sake of completing the distance.

Piece of guidance: use the National Weather Service to get precise weather conditions in the Grand Canyon, in particular at key points in the R3 route: South Rim Weather, River weather and North Rim Weather.

Going up the North Kaibab Trail at a slower pace meant that we would have to inevitably take a decision later on whether to press on or turn back. When the Manzanita Rest Area appeared, we knew we were, from a timing point of view, in the middle of our adventure. We lacked 7 kms and a vertical kilometre to the top, which would take us at least 2 to 3 hours to cover. Meaning 6 hours on the way back, i.e. each minute moving forward, considering the naturally accumulating tiredness, would mean two minutes on the return. We opted for safety.

Piece of guidance: the R3 has 3 key trail segments: the South Kaibab Trail, the North Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail. Follow links for full details of the routes, difficulty level and points of interest.

Piece of guidance: the Grand Canyon National Park provides a lot of information in regards of trail closures, alerts and conditions of the routes. Plan your visit accordingly and revisit the information the night before your adventure.

We took the return journey via the Silver Bridge and the Bright Angel Trail. It proved slower than anticipated, elongating our ascent in the enveloping darkness. The mood was tense. We took longer than desired. The beauty and the challenge of running as a group is…. well… running as a group. One gets to enjoy the fellowship, the camaraderie, the experience of sharing something wonderful with people you love, the talks, the food, a bit of everything you find in friendship really. One also gets to face challenges: we all have different paces, personal goals, a legacy of training on which to build on. Some better than others. Or just different. There’s a delicate balance to be struck here. And a wonderful opportunity to help each other really. In the end of the day (literally 😉 ), as a member of the group moved slower, we all moved slower. And slower meant more time. Which meant expectations not met and the need to cut through the noise, gather our inner strength and get out of it. Which we did ultimately.

Dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge gave us a much-needed rest and nutrition uptake. We ate so much! 😉 And it felt so good! The mood was restored, we reflected on the day’s adventure and started making plans for the next one. Including a future visit to the Grand Canyon to finish the Rim to Rim to Rim.

I fetched the car from the hotel after dinner, acknowledging the fatigue weighing on the group. We were pretty battered the next day but our minds were full of joy. Despite the challenges, we had a phenomenal day and I found immense happiness in witnessing the canyon anew through the eyes of my friends.

In the end, our Rim to Rim to Rim adventure covered a staggering 65 km with an elevation gain of 2500 m+ (same for descent). It was not just a physical feat but a shared experience that forged lasting memories against the breathtaking backdrop of the Grand Canyon.

Piece of guidance: a lot of analysis goes into understanding water safety and water availability along the routes. This information is absolutely crucial during a winter visit, as a considerable number of points are off during the season, have shortages or are plainly closed. Worth highlighting that the Colorado River water is only an option if purified. You require gear for this!

As you reach the end of this blog post, it’s essential to emphasise that, while my writing focuses on the highlights and the magic of the experience, meticulous planning and preparation went behind the scenes to make this happen. Running the Rim to Rim to Rim is no ordinary feat – it demands extensive experience, rigorous training and an acute awareness of the challenges that such an endeavour entails. The lady I found in 2018 going down the Bright Angel trail in flip flops, asking me how far was the river, is unfortunately no anecdote. In this visit we found people, already in the dark, in more dire conditions – not an anecdote either. We offered as much help as possible but there is just so much one can do. Understanding personal limits, being fit and having experience in self-autonomous conditions is paramount for the success of your adventure.

Piece of guidance: utilise all nuggets of wisdom provided in this narrative but don’t stop here. There’s a world out there with information about this journey.

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