The Rim to Rim to Rim Route
Running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is the most scenic way to get the full experience of the Grand Canyon. It is a trail running dream route. Complete with narrow cliffside trails, towering canyon walls andthe emerald waters of the Colorado River, this route leaves runners in awe. The Grand Canyon is the United States’ most popular National Park. Millions of visitors go there every year, but less than 1% of them ever travel below the rim.
R2R2R has two trailheads to start from, Bright Angel or South Kaibab. Whichever you choose, be sure to figure out the bus route to get back to parking on your return. The months of May and October are the most common months to pursue R2R2R due to favorable temperatures and the availability of water. This article assumes a start at Bright Angel, though you may choose either place. If you plan to finish in daylight hours, South Kaibab may be a consideration to start at so that you can utilize the water and shade along Bright Angel later in the day. A GPX file for this route can be downloaded using the button above.
Bright Angel Trail starts at 6,720ft. The trail is shared by mules that supply Phantom Ranch. It is critical to understand that mules have the right of way for safety purposes. A 4am start should yield runners enough time to pass the daily mule train. Unless a runner is in an immediately life threatening situation, the mules are not a source of aid or transportation to or from Phantom Ranch. Bright Angel bottoms out at the Colorado River at 2,440ft, having dropped about 4,300ft in 9.5 miles.
The trail is characterized by hundreds of uneven steps of various height and width, tight corners, fall-to-your-death ledges. The beauty is astounding. Roughly halfway down, stop for water at Indian Gardens campground. It will be hard to miss, as you’ll likely be greeted by other campers, lush foliage, and the sound of flowing water.
Across the bridge over the Colorado River, the air gets a bit more humid and see the scenery get greener. Within a mile the trail arrives at Phantom Ranch. There is a well here to fill up on water. Inside, basic trail food and hiking accessories are available for cash-only purchase.
Shortly after leaving Phantom Ranch is The Box. The box is a relatively narrow area of the canyon with high walls. In the heat of the day, this can easily be the hottest couple of miles of R2R2R. A river may be flowing through this area, but access points are very limited due to the cliffside nature of this part of the trail. It is best to get through here before late morning to avoid the heat-up.
At this point, the trail will gently be climbing. There may be a flowing river near mile 16. Near mile 17, the trail splits left to detour to Ribbon Falls. The spur to the Falls is a bonus mile. The normal R2R2R route continues along North Kaibab to the right.
The North Rim lies at 8,300ft, equalling 5,860ft of climbing from the Colorado River. There is water available at the North Kaibab trailhead. Keep in mind that the North Rim is at a higher elevation and therefore can be colder than the South Rim. Carrying layers is important in dealing with the wide range of temperatures you’ll experience. If you didn’t feel the altitude on the way down from the South Rim, you’ll feel it climbing the North Rim! There are many narrow cliffside areas of the trail on that offer zero margin of error should you step off the 3-4ft wide trail. Take your time.
If you get to the North Rim before 2:00pm and are unable to continue back, the Trans Canyon Shuttle may be available to hire to return to the South Rim for about $100.00. It is a four and a half hour trip back. Note that the North Rim is closed in the winter months and is dozens of miles from the nearest open road. Crew/travel access should be considered impossible if the North Rim is closed.
Take North Kaibab back down to Phantom Ranch and split left just before the Colorado River. This will take you over another bridge to begin your climb back up South Kaibab trail. South Kaibab trail is void of water and has minimal shade. Plan accordingly by filling your water, fueling, and applying sunscreen at Phantom Ranch.
Once to the top of South Kaibab, take the orange route bus to the blue route to get back to Bright Angel trailhead. Otherwise, you may add a couple of bonus miles by running the rim trail or try your hand at hitching a ride back.
Water On The R2R2R Route
This table from NPS Website shows all the potential water stops and services along the way. Be aware of any seasonal water shutoffs before you go! Bringing a portable filter may also gain you access to some streams that flow periodically through the year.