Our plan while building in rest in the middle with a night's stay also brought with it its own complications. The one day R3 crowd is able to travel as light as possible carrying mostly only food, water, and some bare essentials. We would have to bring sleeping gear along for a tent night. Some could shoot for rim lodging to bypass this problem but we didn't make plans far enough in advance to solve the problem that way. We debated at length which rim to start the R3 from with good arguments being made for both directions. If we were to take our overnight at the South Rim there are for more amenities to take advantage of, plus slightly warmer overnight temps. The challenge here would be a long grueling uphill hike on the more tiring second day on the North Kaibab. Plus we'd finish the R3 at the North Rim with minimal amenities. If we started at the South we'd have easier travel plans in and out of Phoenix as well as the load of amenities for the return trip. We'd also get to hike the middle canyon at a downhill on the second day. We opted for the South Rim to be our base of operations.
The only remaining hurdle for us was dates. We knew we wanted to go early to avoid as much of the summer heat as possible, yet other personal obligations factored in to dictate availability. We ended up settling on the first full week of June with hopes of being early enough in the summer. What follows will be a trip report of our epic R3 journey with thoughts and lessons learned as well as a description of the trail using the photos we took. Enjoy!
June 5 -- South to North
Route Name: South Kaibab to North Kaibab Trails
South Kaibab Trailhead Elevation: 7,207 ft.
River Elevation: 2,461 ft.
North Kaibab Trailhead Elevation: 8,238 ft.
Distance: 22.37 mi. (GPS minus corrections)
Elevation Gain: 6,000 ft. (estimate)
Start Time: 5:10am
River Time: 8:04am
Cottonwood Camp Time: 11:25am
End Time: 4:00pm
We arrived in Phoenix about 9pm having taken flights from the Midwest and Midsouth. A quick grab of a rental car, some groceries along the way, and an into the drive to the Canyon we arrived at the National Park at about 2:00am. Things were quiet and dark, unless you were an elk. We found a quiet spot to grab a quick 2 hour nap and then proceeded to the BackCountry Info Center lot (Lot D) to ditch our car and catch the 5am Hiker's Express Shuttle. This particular shuttle was slated to leave the Bright Angel Lodge at 5am and then be at the BIC within a few minutes and it was.
We each had daypacks on with all our needed gear crammed in and attached. I had my red REI Lookout 40 pack with an REI Quarter Dome 2 ultralight tent strapped to the bottom. I had a sleeping bag, minimal clothes, 2 liters of water, about 5000 calories of food, and a few other basic personal items on me. I had debated whether to strap on my mattress pad and opted against. I also went against bringing my gore-tex jacket given the 0% chance of forecasted precip and the warm temps. I was wearing a long-sleeve Fila tech shirt which was white in color with my zip-off pants sans leggings. I was also wearing a white Outdoor Research running hat and my Salomon Speedcross 3 trail-runners. The plan was to wear this same clothes for the whole R3 hike changing only for the overnight at the north rim into dry/clean clothes.
The shuttle got us to the South Kaibab TH in good manner and we had a nice chat with the drive along the way. He was friendly and giving out advice to us and the other pair of hiker's on the shuttle. He also warned us that the water spigots at the TH weren't in good shape and may not be working. Upon arrival we grabbed some photos and were ready to be on our way. It was 66 degrees and just past sunrise at our start.
The early miles of the South Kaibab are both smooth and quick and rocky and rutted due to the mule caravans. The trail is always easy to follow and to walk, but the unevenness at times breaks up the rhythm one likes to get into. As the sun slowly made its way into the sky we were treated to beautiful morning views and a mostly pleasant atmosphere. We ran into minimal hikers all the way down to Cedar Ridge.
For this lengthy hike we each opted to carry two trekking poles with the hopes this would help the legs out by absorbing impact and providing balance on the downhills and adding lift on the uphills. We would use double poles the whole time and agreed this was a great move.
We made it to Skeleton Point at 6:36am which was similar to the time I had hiked it back in 2009. My only other hike into the canyon was on that '09 trip when I was out here with Sarah. I hiked to Skeleton Point and back having seen it as a good turn-around point and the first point you can see the river from the South Kaibab. Here we stopped for a few minutes to grab food and take in the views.
From Skeleton Point the trail descends down a number of switchbacks on the east side of the ridge. We got into more and more sun as we continued and by now temps had made their way up to the mid 80's. After the switchbacks the trail straightened out again and began to make its way north to the next rest area known as "Tip-off". These parts of the trail are all exposed to the sun with no shade to be found. The vegetation was all short and thin through here and as is widely advertised by the NPS, there is no water available along the whole trail (South Kaibab). At Tip-off we partook of the bathrooms and then continued onward. After Tip-off the trail begins to descend more in earnest down to the river. Here more shade begins as the trail winds in and out of cover. In this area the views of the river picked up and we got a number of beautiful looks. We also ran into our first mule caravan which was on its way upward. We could see a pair of rafting groups making their way along the Colorado and eventually stopping at the beach area between the two bridges. As the trail neared the river we went through a few more switchbacks and then suddenly saw the trail disappear into a cave entrance in the rock. Here we were intrigued to discover that through this short cave the path then leads out onto the Kaibab Bridge. Somehow we had missed in our preparations that the bridge actually comes right out of the rock. What a marvel of construction!
It had been our goal to be to the bottom of the canyon early in the day. We had aspirations of possibly making the bridge in 2 1/2 hours. It ended up being 2:50 which made for a really quick descent. Our studies had told us to be out of "The Box" by 10:00am and this was our target. From the Kaibab Bridge we slowly made our way along the trail and passed several signs and small use trails heading down to the beach and the river. We kept moving and then passed more signs for the junction to the Bright Angel Trail and the Bright Angel Campground. Eventually we found Phantom Ranch and followed the signs into the Ranch "Canteen". We dropped packs here and went inside for some lemonade. They took cash and credit inside and had a small variety foods for purchase. We opted for the lemonade and grabbed a glass of it for about $3.50 (refills for a $1). Outside we filled up on nice cool water in our packs and ate a bit. We probably spent a solid 20-25 minutes resting up at the ranch.
Leaving the ranch we began the hike into the "Box". The first four miles or so are in the narrow box canyon with high near vertical walls and just the Bright Angel Creek to keep you company on the trail. There were two early bridge crossings in here as the trail moved back and forth. It is advised that the "Box" gets incredibly hot, like a furnace, during the hot summer months. We gathered this must be because of lack of air flow. Strangely enough, for us today it was reasonable. The temps hovered right around 90° during our stay in the "Box" but we had one big blessing: shade.
One cannot discount the difference having shade makes on an R3 hike. The warm dry heat was bearable when we were outside the sun. We were able to keep moving well through the Box and found it much more tolerable than our exit actually. The 2-3 miles after the Box heading for Cottonwood Camp were the most grueling of our South-North hike. Here the canyon walls slope out and the sun found wide open angles to bake us. Temps here hit 100° and we worked to keep up our drinking much as possible. It was in here we finally started to soak hat, sleeves and bandannas any time we would come across some fresh water. These things really helped, even if for only 15-20 minutes.
We hit Cottonwood Campground at 11:25am. There really wasn't much to see there. We wondered what a stay there would be like. One could hike during the cool morning hours to arrive or depart but the daytime would be very rough to spend there. We did more food and refilled water at Cottonwood. To help break up the immensity of a 21 mile hike the Canyon provides several natural stops that allow for a 7-7-7 breakdown. Roughly 7 miles from South Kaibab TH to the river. The next 7 miles take you to Cottonwood. The last 7 miles up to the North Kaibab TH. It becomes overwhelming to look at the 21 miles as a whole and to think at any moment you may have 18 or 15 miles to go. The smaller breakdowns really help mentally.
We spent a little over 15 minutes at Cottonwood and then headed onward for the last segment of the day. The next stop was the Pump House Ranger Station, also known as the Manzanita Rest Area. It was only 1.4 miles onward. As we approached we heard the sounds of a helicopter and sure enough saw one taking off from a helipad near the ranger station. We would later find out this likely wasn't a rescue flight or anything emergency, it was likely a flight of supplies in and out. We hit the Rest Area and added in more cool water and more food. It only took us a bit over 30 minutes from Cottonwood to get here.
The climb up to the North Kaibab Trailhead really begins in earnest after Manzanita. The trail curves northwest and then begins to hug the side of the canyon. Just 3000 vertical feet above the trail here is the North Rim Village and lots of beer and pizza. Unfortunately for the hiker its many many miles to get there. It felt like a quick hike from Manzanita to the junction with the Roaring Springs trail. We had some nice views of the Springs as we hiked along. It was here we realized our first big mistake of the day. We were planning to supplement our water supply with more water at Roaring Springs but come to find out the resthouse and water is not on the main trail. We weren't sure how far off it was, fearing a quarter mile or more. I hoped I had enough to go on and David was thinking he would so we had no other choice but to continue. Word ahead of time was the water at Supai Tunnel was off so we knew we had to make it to the trailhead.
The trail beyond the junction becomes impressively cliffy. There were sections of big time exposure though the trail never became thinner than perhaps 8 feet. In two parts the trail moves through a gully coming down from the north rim and in these areas there are some wild switchbacks. Some are like a shelf carved right into the rock faces. In the hiking after the junction was also when I first began to realize something different was happening with David. All through the morning he had his normal jump in his step and we both were keeping a great energetic pace with each other. He had noticably slowed through this area. We made sure he continued to drink what he had, and even though we weren't able to top off at Roaring Springs, we decided he needed to keep drinking and if we ran out we ran out.
At 2.5 miles from the TH we crossed over a bridge which looks like it hangs over the depths of the canyons. This is where the trail moves from the south side to the north side of this side canyon. The depth below is actually probably over a 100 feet. A number of switchbacks climb above after the bridge. In this section we met a number of trail workers who appeared to be reconstructing or improving parts of the trail. We had heard over this past summer there was a rockfall on the North Kaibab that broke the water lines, this could have been the area. We were delighted that the workers told us the water was on at the Supai Tunnel rest area. We made our way up to the tunnel and were thankful to add in a bunch of water. Here we ran into a bunch of people as a mule train had just reached this stopping point. We poured in some more calories here and took a few minutes rest.
David wasn't showing any signs of improvement even as he tried to stomach down more water and some food. We were running through all his symptoms and it seemed like dehydration could be the culprit, but he was, at least at this point, trying to drink all he could. The last mile and a half was real slow going as David said his body was full of exhaustion. He was doing everything he could to keep moving. I imagine we were each running through our options, running through scenarios, wondering what would come next. We both knew that for a hiker in distress, particularly in the Grand Canyon, the best kind of rescue is self-rescue. With food and water at our disposal, together we thought we could get David out as long as things didn't get worse.
The last switchbacks seemed to take forever but we did make the North Kaibab TH at 4:00pm. This made for a 10 hour 50 minute South to North crossing. Almost everything went just as we had planned on our rim-to-rim today. The temps hit 100°, but never seemed to get higher which meant while it was hot, and we took on some sun, it could have been much worse. Aside from David's exhaustion down the stretch, we had a really good day.
Route Name: North Kaibab to River Trail to Bright Angel Trails
North Kaibab Trailhead Elevation: 8,238 ft.
River Elevation: 2,461 ft.
Bright Angel Trailhead Elevation: 6,842 ft.
Distance: 26.02 mi. (GPS minus corrections)
Elevation Gain: 5,500 ft. (estimate)
Start Time: 5:06am
Cottonwood Camp Time: 7:57am
River Time: 10:50am
Indian Garden Camp Time: 1:00pm
End Time: 3:45pm
One of the more enjoyable aspects of hiking in the Grand Canyon (and this goes for most hiking in general) is the brief talks and questions that come up amongst passing hikers. On the corridor trails in the G.C. the frequent question was "well how far are you going today?". Since there are nearly endless amounts of itineraries possible for hikers, especially depending upon where you meet them, you never know what the individual you meet on the trail is planning for their day. Most folks seemed to be headed to or from Phantom Ranch, especially those encountered at the base of the canyon. Those on the trails ascending or descending from the Rims were often dayhikers. I'm not one to boldly broadcast my big ambitions when on trail, unless I see generous interest in the other party. We would tell folks "well we're headed for the North Rim" or "we're headed back to the South Rim" and it was usually only after they pressed further and asked "well did you start at the Ranch?" that we'd clarify "No, we're actually hiking rim to rim today." We got our fair shared of surprised looks.
With David having plans in place to ride the Trans Canyon Shuttle on the 7am drive this morning, I wanted to get another early start to get back to the south rim. We planned things out that he would keep my sleeping bag and the tent with him to save me unnecessary weight. I was up and ready to hit the trail from the camp just after 5am. David was up as well to bid me off.
I did do some careful weighing and praying on the prospect of solo hiking the rim-to-rim. I had an anxious night of sleep as well knowing full well the potential risks. I knew with the heat forecast that the risk of being alone and running into heat issues was possible. I also knew there's always the risk of a rolled ankle or other trail injury. On the other hand, I have great confidence in my ability to know my body and to be smart about avoiding injury and managing heat. With my running training at full swing due to a late June trail marathon in Michigan's U.P., I also had confidence in my training and fitness that I could handle a second straight day of nearly hiking a marathon. Weighing all of these factors I took the risks as objective enough that I could manage safely and proceed on ward. One must also always consider the reality, that one must simply live a little and not be held back by fear of worst-case scenario fears.
When hiking alone it provides a very different experience to hiking with a partner. Each has its pros and cons. I generally run most of my miles at home alone so I'm no stranger to quiet time with my own mind. I find that hiking alone gets me more in tune with the trail and my surroundings. It keeps me more in tune with my body and my eating and drinking as well. On the plus side I keep this focus well and I also seem to take better pictures because of this focus while solo hiking. On the down side the miles clip by much more slowly since you don't have the good distraction of conversation. It can be very quiet solo hiking and I'm not a big personal believer in headphones on the trail, especially not on the beautiful trails of the Grand Canyon.
I left our camp at 5:06am and was at the North Kaibab TH at 5:20am. It was a delightful 47 degrees at the start. I was wearing shorts and my long-sleeve tech shirt again and after hiking in yesterday's heat there was no temperature this morning that could have made me feel cold. I soaked in every ounce of that cool air knowing it was only a matter of time til things warmed up. Heading down the North Kaibab I extended my trekking poles out far and really tried to use them to absorp the downward impacts. My legs were mostly feeling really good after yesterday's long trek. I had good energy and my quads felt normal, the only residual from the day before was some soreness in my calves. I passed one couple at the Coconino Overlook who both were all bundled up and even had light face masks on. I said to them "what a beautiful morning!" and I heard the gal say "I am freezing my butt off our here." I smiled and said "enjoy it while it lasts".
I passed a few groups above the Upper North Kaibab Bridge and realized quite a number of people start in the dark to get a head start on the day and the heat. I was cruising along nicely this morning. I had some apprehensions about the cliffy sections and their exposure. It's funny, I've been through some major serious exposure in Colorado on climbs like Capitol and North Maroon and managed those well. But on trails like this which are easy, relatively safe trails, the exposure really gets my attention. I think there is a mental preparedness that goes with this, and on a trip like this my mind is not in the exposure zone.
When I made it to the Manzanita Rest Area it was 7:31am and now 73 degrees outside. I had gone through a little bit of sun as I neared the Roaring Springs junction but otherwise had mostly found shade thus far. What had taken us 3:43 to ascend yesterday I was able to descend today in 2:11, so I felt I was moving well. It was hard to estimate today's times since it was assumed the rigors of the first day may slow things up a bit, yet more of today would also be downhill in the middle section of the hike.
After Manzanita the big prayer was to preserve the shade as long as possible. This didn't fully happen. It wasn't long after that I was out in the sun for several miles. The approach to Cottonwood which was open, hot and sunny yesterday also found itself in the sun this morning. Thankfully, where yesterday the temps were in the 90's, today I was right around 80. I made continuous work of the trail heading toward Cottonwood, stopping just to wet my hat and sleeves a couple of times. I made Cottonwood at 7:57am.
After Cottonwood I was still in the sun and wanted to get to the shade of the "Box" as quick as I could. I found that moving through these middle seven miles from North to South was noticably easier when it was all slightly downhill. I did this middle section 16 miles faster than yesterday, so it did indeed help. I entered the "Box" right around 9am and the temp was now 86. There was mostly shade through the "Box" with just a few parts where the sun found just the right angle to hit trail. I continued to make a brisk pace slowing only to munch on food. I was also measuring out carefully today when and how quickly to drink up my Gu Hydration drink. I had 8 tablets left to start today and every refill of my Gatorade bottle used two tablets. I wanted to continue to down this for the electrolytes. The challenge I found with this bottle, especially when in sunlight, is I had to drink up the bottle quickly or it would get hot in the sun. This especially was true as the bottle got more empty and it would reach a point where I would have to chug it or lose it to temperature.
It was 10:19am when I reached Phantom Ranch and the temp was now 97 degrees. I dropped pack on a picnic table and headed inside for one of those refreshing lemonades. Back outside I took shoes and socks off to let my feet dry a bit and check things out. I had had a blister early morning that I had patched at Supai Tunnel but it seemed to be doing fine now. I thought about changing socks but mine from yesterday were still moist so I stayed put. I filled everything up with the cooler water and ate some more making it out to be about a 20 minute break. I did check to see if I had cell signal to give David a status call but there was none.
I was excited about heading out from the Ranch as this would get me into new territory again. After walking by the campground I made the right turn to head on towards the Silver Bridge. Very quickly things were out in the thick of the sun and hot! It was 101 upon leaving the ranch and as I crossed the bridge my thermometer was registering 105. Along the River Trail was the hottest I had experienced on trail. There were sandy sections that made things feel like the heart of the desert. I was trying to sip and sip on my drink as I could just feel the sweat pouring back out. I registered a peak temp of 108. At the River Resthouse I found that a short trail spur allows one to reach a safe beach on the Colorado River. I walked down to this to get arms and head and neck and all wet with the cool river water. This was refreshing, though it wouldn't last for nearly long enough. It was 11:24a at the River Resthouse and I found I was making really slow progress after leaving the ranch.
The first mile from the River Resthouse was relatively flat and seemed to follow a dried up river bed. The heat continued to be oppressive with little airflow in there. It was evident how much extra energy it took to continue at pace when the body is also working overtime to keep cool. After a mile in a series of switchbacks begin the climb up to the Tonto Plateau level. In here a mule train was coming down and I pulled off the trail for them. At the top of this climb the trail then follows again in a river drainage heading toward Indian Gardens. This was a most intriguing part. It was like a small running oasis as plenty of green growth was taking place where there was water present. It was even curious to find algae-like growth in the water. It was only a 3.2 mile hike from the Resthouse into Indian Gardens but it was taking forever. This was a sign I was showing a little bit of fatigue here on day 2. The climbing and the heat didn't help.
It was 1:00p when I arrived at Indian Gardens and the temp was 101 degrees. I was able to get a slight cell signal here and sent David a text on my status. He had already arrived at the South Rim. I spent about 15 minutes here drinking up, eating up, and filling water. It was a more scenic area than Cottonwood camp and there were a fair amount of people around. Some were laying on benches looking completely beaten up by the heat. I slowly made my way out of Indian Gardens to begin the final big climb out on the Bright Angel trail. It was very interesting as most of the trail could be seen ahead snaking its way out of this deep canyon. The trail workmanship and design was impressive looking from below.
It was 2:01pm when I reached the 3-mile Resthouse and the temp had mercifully fallen to 97 degrees. Having just filled up water I stayed on trail and kept moving at this resthouse thinking I could hit the Mile-and-a-Half House for more. I could tell my appetite was starting to wane at this point which was another sign of building exhaustion. Not much was sounding tasty but I was still able to get in some of my CLIF Shot Bloks. The trail was now continuous back and forth switchbacks. There was never a great exposure in here but the views below continued to grow more impressive. I was greeted with a pleasant surprise at this point when I saw David coming down the trail. He was feeling well enough today that he decided to hike down and meet me. We were about 2.5 miles from the Trailhead. He drank up a ton of water before leaving and carried a bunch more so he wouldn't risk any further dehydration. As it goes, after yesterday's event, I think I have him convinced to start using a hydration bladder and drink hose to keep the fluids flowing.
About 2 miles from the Trailhead we stopped and talked to a nice ranger. They had a number of volunteer rangers hiking the upper stretches of Bright Angel to look for hiker's in distress. We told him what we'd been doing and he congratulated us and said that had been on his list of things to do someday. He also gave us the bad news that the water was not working at the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. One big thing we learned on this trip, even when the water is reported to be working (or not working) the day before your hike you still need to have Plan B's. I had called the Backcountry Office before our trip to check on these things and they said all the water except for Supai Tunnel was on. This means you can never plan to carry water too light and fill up station to station. You really have to plan to always have extra in case you have a surprise. We had also carried a Sawyer mini filter just in case we needed it but there aren't a lot of places along trail, especially on the ascent, where that would have helped.
It was 2:51p and 96 degrees at the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. My water was at a decent quantity still but it was warm. The water sitting in the hose would always warm fast and so I would often have to either push it back into the pack or spit it out. But even the stuff in the pack was getting warm. David's water was fresher and somewhat cooler so he was sharing some with me. As we neared the last mile I ate down both of my last 2 Gu gels to try and get what calories and energy I could. More and more people were on the trail up here many looking burnt out by the warm air. In the last half mile the trail became rather crowded with people out for short hikes. It was 3:45p when I finally hit the trailhead. It had taken me an hour and 45 minutes for the last 3 miles and they did feel like they took forever. I had a post-marathon feel at the trailhead where my legs are starting to lock up and I was getting light-headed feelings too. This was a sign that I didn't get enough calories down the stretch and exhaustion finally caught up with my muscles. After day 1 I felt so strong and fresh. After day 2 and 45 trail miles with the last 10 miles being in 100 degree heat, I was cooked.
In hindsight, looking back at the R3 Attempt and our Plans I would say as a whole things went very well for us. No major injuries, no heat stroke, minor dehydration, and a few sore muscles. Our preparation put is in a great place to succeed in terms of water, nutrition, and gear. We brought the right stuff and mostly left behind stuff we didn't need. My plan to have near 3000 calories for each day worked perfectly on the first day and likely went fairly well on day 2 til the very end. It also worked well carrying a mixture of food textures from the Gu gels and CLIF Shot Bloks to cheese and peanut butter crackers for sodium. Most of the drink fill-ups went well for us and the Gu hydration tablets for electrolytes were helpful (when we could keep the water cool). If we would attempt this again I think we would target even earlier morning starts to beat the heat as much as possible. All in all, very thankful for the opportunity to go out and attempt this and come home safely.