Running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is the most scenic way to get the full experience of the Grand Canyon, and is a trail running dream route. Complete with narrow cliffside trails, towering canyon walls, the emerald waters of the Colorado River, and waterfalls for those who are lucky, this route will leave you 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.
The R2R2R Route:
R2R2R has two trailheads to start from, Bright Angel or South Kaibab. Whichever you choose, you’ll want 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. You may download the GPX file for this route 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 you enough time to pass the daily mule train. Also worth noting is that unless you are 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, but astounding beauty. 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.
As soon as you cross the bridge, you’ll feel the air get a bit more humid and see the scenery get a bit more green. Within a mile you’ll arrive at Phantom Ranch. There is a well here to fill up on water, and you can pay cash for basic trail food and hiking accessories inside if needed.
Shortly after leaving Phantom Ranch you will run in to 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.
You’ll be gently climbing at this point. There may be a flowing river near mile 16. Near mile 17, the trail splits left to detour to Ribbon Falls, a bonus mile, or 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, you may hire the Trans-Canyon shuttle to take you back the to 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.
How to Train for R2R2R:
First things first, this is a very serious adventure. You may be exposed to temperature swings of 80+ degrees, lack of water, elevation, sun exposure, narrow ledges, sharp rock, uneven trail, many hours between water stops, elevation, cliffs, dangerous wildlife, fast moving water, unpredictable weather, and other forces of nature. On a lighter note, this is a truly incredible experience when trained properly.
Access your free R2R2R training plan using the form below!
See all of our virtual plans!
-14 week plan
-Starts at 10 mile long run and builds to a 24 mile long run
-Assumes experience with marathon or 50k distance
-Trains six days per week with Wednesday as a rest day.
Camping at Grand Canyon’s R2R2R
Grand Canyon NPS has two campgrounds within the park, Mather and Desert View. Both fill up months in advance. You may make reservations for camping inside of the park at Recreation.Gov.
Ten X campground is more primitive, but has a variety of options for fee-based camping.
A couple miles south of Tusayan, Fire Road 688 and the next unnamed roads south of there are popular places to drive in to the national forest and camp for free. There are no amenities out in the woods, and Leave No Trace should be practiced, as well as proper food storage.
The town of Tusayan is just south of the park. There is a general store here with produce, meat, dry foods, camping supplies, and a large beer bottle selection. Multiple restaurants can be found in town. Wifi is available at many places. Hotels are available as well. This is a tourist town, and the only one for miles, so expect to pay a premium for everything. You can fill up on water in town at the RV park, but they will charge you. The same goes for showers. Loading up on groceries at the Walmart in Flagstaff is a good idea as you drive in from Phoenix.
Water on the R2R2R Course
This table from the 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.
Gear Suggestions for R2R2R
-Layers. Arm sleeves, waterproof jacket with hood
-Lifestraw or similar portable filter
-Sunscreen and lip balm
-Hat with neck cover
-Spare pair of socks
-GPS Beacon with communication options
-Maps of the canyon
-Credit card, ID, and cash
If you tackle Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, we would love to hear about it. If you have questions, ask questions! Leave a comment below!
Just for fun:
Rob Krar, below, previously held the record for R2R2R. Take in the views!