I know this could be bad when I step into the hotel room to find my friend J. painting the sole of his foot with New-Skin. He did the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to rim hike (also known as the R2R2R) last year, so he knows what we’re in for.
When I ask him if he’s lost his mind, he reminds me that blisters are the enemy.
Which makes sense. We’re only about to hike 42+ miles and lose and gain 11,000 ft. in one day. Without stopping.
Running or hiking the Grand Canyon R2R2R has become a right of passage for elite athletes. But our experience shows that while it’s not exactly easy, it’s also within reach for mere mortals!
So if you’ve felt the siren song of the R2R2R, this post is for you. Here’s your complete guide to crossing the Grand Canyon twice on foot and living to tell the story.
Grand Canyon R2R2R hike facts and stats
Before we dive into the logistics, here are a few numbers to help you understand exactly what you’re getting into!
General trip stats
- Round trip mileage: 42–46 mi., depending on route
- Elevation loss/gain: 11,000 ft.
- Starting elevation: 7,000 ft. (South Rim)
- Max elevation: 8,200 ft. (North Rim)
- Min elevation: 2,400 ft. (Colorado River)
- Permits: not required unless part of a guided or commercial group
Our trip stats
Here’s a little about the trip this blog post is based on. Your results may vary depending on your fitness level, route, and the time of year you attempt the R2R2R.
- Date: March 30, 2019
- Starting trailhead: South Kaibab
- Departure time: Midnight
- Return time: 8:40 p.m. (20+ hours)
Grand Canyon R2R2R record times
The R2R2R fastest known times (FKTs) as of this writing are:
- Women: 7 hours, 52 minutes (Cat Bradley)
- Men: 5 hours, 55 minutes (Jim Walmsley)
Useful Grand Canyon R2R2R links and resources
- Backcountry hiking guide and trail map
- Grand Canyon sunrise and sunset times
- Trail alerts and closures (scroll down for a list of functioning water sources)
- Shuttle bus schedule
- South Rim weather forecast
- Phantom Ranch weather forecast
- North Rim weather forecast
Is hiking the R2R2R a really terrible, stupid, dangerous idea?
Short answer: Maybe. But you wouldn’t be reading this blog if your goal in life is to stay home on the couch and watch Dance Moms reruns, right?
But just for a minute, let’s get real about the risks.
Grand Canyon R2R2R hazards include:
- Heat illness (heat stroke, heat exhaustion, hyponatremia)
- Cold illness (hypothermia)
- Physical exhaustion and dehydration
- Heart attacks and cardiovascular events
- Dangerous wildlife (elk, mountain lions, rattlesnakes)
- Distance from rescue and medical attention
Granted, many of these factors are out of your control. But the good news is, you can definitely reduce your risk with proper planning and training. The rest of this blog post will show you how.
When to hike the R2R2R
Heat may be your greatest enemy on the R2R2R. For this reason, most people choose to make the rim-to-rim crossing during spring and fall, when temperatures are fairly mild (by Grand Canyon standards, anyway).
Spring (mid-March to mid-May)
This is a dry and relatively pleasant time in the canyon. You will also have more hours of daylight to work with in spring.
Note that after a hard winter, snowmelt may raise stream levels and require wading, especially at the stream just below Cottonwood Campground.
If hiking early in the spring, prepare for snow on the upper North Kaibab Trail (and possibly the South Kaibab Trail). Spring snowstorms can also blow in unexpectedly and deposit fresh snow on either rim.
Fall (mid-September to mid-November)
If attempting the hike in the fall, you will have fewer hours of daylight. However, this may come as a welcome relief, as it means less time in the blazing sun! On the upside, creek crossings will be easy, and the trails will be free of spring snowpack (though storms can dump fresh snow at any time).
Before you commit to hiking dates, try to wrap your brain around the idea that the Grand Canyon is a land of extremes. The elevation change makes for some strange weather variations. It’s possible to be freezing on the South Rim, baking in the Canyon, and having a snowball fight on the North Rim all in the same day. So be prepared!
R2R2R hike route options
South or North Rim start?
Most R2R2R runners and hikers start and end at the South Rim. This is because the North Rim is only open to car traffic in the summer when the inner canyon is extremely hot. (Expect temperatures over 100 degrees F at the bottom in June, July, and August).
South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trail?
There are two main trails between the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River 4,500 ft. below. Both have pros and cons for R2R2R hikers.
South Kaibab Trail
This trail is 2 mi. shorter than the Bright Angel Trail and arguably the more scenic of the two. However, it is steeper, more exposed, and may not have a reliable water source in the spring or fall.
Another disadvantage of the South Kaibab Trail is that it’s located a couple of miles away from Grand Canyon village. So you will need a ride if you start and/or finish outside regular shuttle hours.
Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail is longer but less steep than the South Kaibab Trail. It has the added advantage of topping out in Grand Canyon Village right at Bright Angel Lodge. There is a year-round water source halfway up the Bright Angel Trail at the Indian Gardens Campground.
Your route up and down the South Rim will probably depend on your lodging, access to car shuttles, and personal preference. If you have a chance, consider going down one trail and up the other to get the full experience.
How to train for the R2R2R hike
Training for the R2R2R is similar to training for a summit hike like a Colorado 14er. Focus on building up your stamina, endurance, and confidence on long day hikes with lots of elevation gain.
Here’s a simple R2R2R training plan you can use as a starting point.
Aerobic base building (4–6x/week)
Perform these long, moderate-intensity workouts at a 3–4 on the 10-point intensity scale (with 10 being all out-effort). Your focus should be on sport specific exercises like:
- Running (especially with hills)
- Trail running
- Climbing stairs
- Walking uphill on an incline treadmill (add a pack to increase the workload)
- Cycling (great for cross-training and for people with joint issues who need a low impact option)
One aerobic base workout each week should be a long hike with a pack. Gradually build this long hike to a distance of 20–24 miles.
Lactate threshold training (1–2x/week)
These workouts boost your stamina and speed by raising your lactate threshold and helping your body to adapt to acidity. To realize these benefits, exercise at a 6–7 on the 10-point intensity scale. Lactate threshold training can be performed as a steady-state workout or as longer intervals (5–20 minutes).
High-intensity interval training (1x/week)
Both rims of the Grand Canyon are high enough in elevation to fatigue you if you don’t prepare! HIIT is a great way to improve your overall endurance while adapting your body to the higher elevation. It involves exercising in short bursts (30 seconds to 3 minutes) at near maximum intensity (8–9 on the 10-point intensity scale).
The best HIIT exercises work multiple large muscle groups. Try sprints, battle ropes, squat thrusts, burpees, and box jumps to find out what really gets your heart pumping!
Many R2R2R hikes and runs fail at the planning stage! Taking some time to think through the logistics of your trip will drastically increase your chances of success. It will also free up mental energy so you can focus on the R2R2R itself.
How long should I stay at the Grand Canyon?
The hike itself will take about a day for most people. However, if you are training at sea level, you may want to spend 1–2 days acclimatizing to elevation at the South Rim before attempting the R2R2R.
To decrease your drive time and enjoy more of the canyon, consider flying into the Flagstaff Airport. It’s much closer than Phoenix.
Cell phones and Wi-Fi
Don’t count on being able to use your cell phone anywhere in Grand Canyon National Park, even in Grand Canyon Village! If you will be meeting up with friends, set a meeting time and location before you leave.
Internet access can also be a tricky issue in the park. While the hotels will insist that you can use Wi-Fi in their lobbies, the systems have limited bandwidth and quickly become overloaded.
Pro tip: If your loved ones are anxious about your R2R2R, remind them that they may not hear from you until you finish the race and are on your way home!
Where to stay at the Grand Canyon
There are plenty of good lodging options in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
Probably the most convenient option for R2R2R hikers is the Bright Angel Lodge. It’s located right at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, which can save you a car shuttle. Rooms range from rustic cabins with shared baths to more standard lodge rooms. There’s also a restaurant on site, which you will appreciate after the hike!
- Bright Angel Lodge prices, availability, and booking
Check out the Grand Canyon website for additional lodging options.
Mather Campground on the South Rim offers year-round tent and RV sites (but no hook-ups). It’s super popular, so reserve your site ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
Rescue and travel insurance
Before you leave home, verify that your medical insurance covers trail running and any other adventure activities you will be doing in the Grand Canyon.
Helicopter rescue in the event of an emergency can be extremely expensive and may not be covered by your regular medical insurance. If you’d like some extra coverage, consider picking up Search and Rescue Insurance through Global Rescue or the Austrian Alpine Club.
If you are visiting from abroad, make sure you have adequate coverage for the United States and our outrageously expensive medical system! For this purpose, I highly recommend World Nomads. Their travel insurance service is reputable, user-friendly, and covers a wide range of adventure activities via the Explorer Plan. Fill out the form below to get a free instant quote.
My R2R2R gear list
Here’s what I carried on my late-March R2R2R hike. Because I knew I’d probably be down in the canyon for 20 hours-plus, I didn’t go as ultralight as I could have. But I think the following is a nice balance between weight and safety.
Your exact mix may vary depending on the forecast. Remember that you will probably begin at night with a long descent. In spring, midnight temperatures can dip below freezing, so plan accordingly.
- Short-sleeve wicking T-shirt
- Long-sleeve wicking T-shirt
- Light, super-packable rain jacket
- Light, super-packable rain pants
- Shorts or capri-length running tights
- Light, breathable sun hat
- Buff (great for covering your nose and mouth on dusty trails)
- Sun sleeves
- Small backpack – an 18–22-liter hydration pack works well (men’s here)
- Durable wool running socks (I love these from Darn Tough, men’s here)
- Trail running shoes (mine that I love, men’s version)
- Light neoprene gloves
- Mini-gaiters (optional) – helpful for keeping dirt and rocks out of your shoes
- Hydration: 2-liter hydration system, 2-liter collapsible Platypus bottle, Potable Aqua iodine tablets, electrolyte tablets or sports drink mix
- Extra Food: about 15 snacks and a sandwich (see food section below).
- Repair: patches for hydration system, extra bite valve, tiny roll of duct tape.
- First Aid: Light first aid kit with moleskin (precut), Band-Aids, gauze, roller bandage, ibuprofen, aspirin powder, Benadryl, chemical heat pack, personal medications, toilet paper.
- Illumination: Headlamp and spare batteries. I use the Black Diamond Icon headlamp, which emits 500 lumens for 50 hours.
- Extra layers: Light down sweater.
- Shelter: Trash compactor bag.
- Navigation: Trail map, hike description, list of water sources, SPOT Gen3 satellite messenger with extra batteries.
- Sun protection: Sun hat, sun sleeves, sunglasses, 4 oz. SPF 50 sunscreen in travel-size bottles.
- Fire: None for spring conditions, but consider it in the winter.
- Trekking poles (mine, which I love)
- Kahtoola Microspikes or other foot traction (we knew there was a lot of snow on the North Rim).
Managing water on the R2R2R hike
Water is your lifeline in the Grand Canyon. If you run out of water, you probably aren’t going to make it out without a rescue.
Outside the high season (May to October), there are relatively few water sources in the park. So as an R2R2R hiker, you need to plan your refill strategy carefully!
Check the Grand Canyon National Park website for updates on water sources. (Scroll down for a list of pump locations and statuses.)
We used only two water sources on our March 30 R2R2R:
- Phantom Ranch (pump next to the ranger station)
- Manzanita (a.k.a. “The Residence,” located about 15 min. above Cottonwood Campground)
The pump at Indian Gardens (a campground on the Bright Angel Trail) was also working at that time.
For the entire hike, I was able to get by on the water in my 1.5-liter hydration bladder. However, the round trip hike from Manzanita to the North Rim and back is a long, hard stretch with no water. For this section, I added about 2 liters of water to my collapsible Platypus bottle. The bottle would also have been useful in the event of a broken pipe or unexpected shutoff.
What to eat during the R2R2R hike
After J., the experienced R2R2R hiker, finished painting his feet with New-Skin, he watched me go through all the gear in my pack and offered advice. His final verdict: take half of that stuff out and put more food in!
It ended up being great advice! I took about 15 snacks and a sandwich down the canyon and returned with two snacks. Any time I felt cranky or tired on the R2R2R, eating helped. I’m not saying eating the whole time will make it easy, but do stay ahead on your fuel!
Here are the types of foods I recommend taking:
Electrolyte tablets or sports drink
At a bare minimum, add electrolytes to your water during your R2R2R! You will be sweating out massive quantities of salt and need to replace it to prevent exercise-induced hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia is a serious condition that can result in death and may require emergency evacuation. And who wants that?
Consuming sports drink containing carbohydrate is the fastest way to get carbs into your bloodstream. Because of the heat in the Grand Canyon, keep carb concentrations on the low side (about 4–6 grams carbs per 1000 milliliters of fluid).
Carry plenty of high-carb foods that will absorb quickly into your blood stream. Some healthy options include dried fruit, rice cakes and crackers, energy gels and goos, and tortillas with honey and natural peanut butter.
In hot climates, your body will crave salt, so make sure you bring a balance of sweet and salty snacks! Savory snacks that also provide lots of energy include pretzel-peanut-butter nuggets, taro chips, palm oil-free plantain chips, and trail mix.
Bring at least one hearty and delicious “real food” item, even if you have to sacrifice some weight. Mine was a 6-inch Subway Veggie Delight. When I ate it the second time through Manzanita, I almost lost my mind!
Snack options on trail
The canteen at Phantom Ranch sells lemonade and snacks but has limited operating hours. Stop and enjoy if it fits in your schedule, but don’t count on refueling here.
Hiking the R2R2R segment by segment
Here’s a brief blow-by-blow narrative of our March 30, 2019 R2R2R hike. I’m planning to flesh this out for the Extreme Nomads blog and will link to it when it’s available! Hopefully this will give you an idea what to expect on trail, plus some helpful tips and cautionary tales.
The day and night before
We drove to the Grand Canyon from Denver, making an overnight stop in Fruita, Colo. and continuing through Utah. It’s an incredible drive that I recommend if you get the chance!
I arrived at my hotel room the afternoon before the R2R2R and took a short hike along the South Rim to stretch my legs. The area was an anthill of tourists and shutterbugs. This is the only view of the Grand Canyon that 99 percent of visitors see, and it will make you feel very lucky to be headed out into the backcountry!
I didn’t properly carbo load before the R2R2R (though it probably would have helped). That evening, we had an early dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge. I ate spaghetti and meatballs and also had a glass of wine. (I hadn’t been planning to drink, but my nerves got the best of me!)
After dinner, we headed back to our hotel rooms around 7 p.m. and slept until about 11 p.m. when friends arrived to shuttle us to the trailhead.
South Rim: South Kaibab Trailhead to Phantom Ranch
Temperatures were near freezing when we arrived at the South Kaibab Trailhead at midnight. We could see our breath in the air and started the hike with all of our layers on.
We left the South Kaibab trailhead in the dark and immediately began a sharp descent. In the first five minutes, we came to sign that showed a guy vomiting. Apparently a lot of people overestimate themselves and get into trouble hiking the canyon!
I hadn’t realized how dusty the trail would be and cursed myself for forgetting my Buff back at the hotel room. I would have used it to cover my mouth and nose, as I suspected 98 percent of the dust we were kicking up was actually petrified mule poop. Poop was everywhere!
Hiking in the dark was a little spooky. We were moving at a good pace, and with my head so foggy and empty of caffeine, I could easily imagine myself pitching off one of the exposed areas.
We passed Ooh Aah Point, which was underwhelming in the dark.
At the bottom of the South Kaibab Trail, we made our way across the big bridge over the Colorado River and headed for Phantom Ranch. Even in the dark, temps were noticeably warmer down by the river.
We refilled our water bottles at the pump next to the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station and took advantage of the very nice bathrooms just a little way up the trail.
Inner Canyon: Phantom Ranch to Manzanita
When we left Phantom Ranch, it was still pitch dark. To pass the time and gauge our progress, we counted the bridges on the way to Cottonwood Campground. Apparently there are seven!
Soon after Phantom Ranch, the trail enters a narrow and quite beautiful box canyon. Or so someone told me. I couldn’t see it!
Just below Cottonwood Campground, we came to a stream that was running quite high. A hiker was crashed out in a sleeping bag in the middle of the trail right below it. The water sounded so fierce, he’d decided to bivy until daybreak.
A couple people in our party explained that normally you can just wade across this creek. However, we’d had an unusually snowy winter, so melt water was running high!
We ended up removing our socks, then wading across in our boots. This strategy really didn’t work all that well for keeping feet dry. We might as well have kept our socks on.
As we entered Cottonwood Campground, the first rays of sun hit the canyon wall. The alpenglow was amazing, and it was heartening to see sun after about six hours of hiking in the dark!
We passed a camper who told us the North Rim was under four feet of snow. But hey, tourists tend to exaggerate these things. We kind of rolled our eyes at the drama.
About 15 minutes past the campground, we stopped at the pump at Manzanita and took on extra water for the longest, hardest section of the hike.
North Rim: Manzanita to North Kaibab Trailhead
The trail to the North Rim snakes up exposed, somewhat treacherous terrain. We climbed ladders, traversed exposed shelves, and scrambled over ice beneath waterfalls. This part of the trail was also incredibly beautiful, so we stopped often for pictures.
Just above Manzanita, we got a view of the Roaring Springs which supply Grand Canyon Village and all the pipelines in between with water. Because of all the snow melt, they were really roaring down the mountain side! I guess normally they’re more like a trickle.
A couple hours up the canyon, we came to a high bridge over the river. The section of trail right after the bridge was probably the hardest, steepest climb of the entire day. We slowed down a little and took it easy, as the elevation was getting pretty high at this point.
Just past Supai Tunnel, we started encountering deep snow pack that made the hiking hard going. We slogged on.
Our friend B. (another R2R2R veteran) told us that when you see the “box of rocks,” you’re on the last switchback. We were stoked AF when it came into view!
When we finally reached the North Rim, it was indeed buried under about four feet of snow! We sat on the trailhead sign — the only thing not buried — to have a snack and celebrate.
The return trip
Coming down the snow-packed trail on the North Rim was sloppy and wet. Most of us were carrying microspikes, which helped things immensely.
Back at Manzanita, I ate my Subway sandwich. I thought I might cry because it tasted so good.
It was now past noon, and the heat was on as we descended into the inner canyon. We actually had a relatively cool day, but the heat was still strong enough to sap my energy. I personally can’t imagine doing the R2R2R later in the season when it’s really blazing!
The box canyon, though endless, was a welcome respite from the heat. We counted the bridges backwards.
To our dismay, we arrived at Phantom Ranch at 4:10 p.m. — 10 minutes too late for canteen snacks and lemonade! At this point we had traveled about 35 miles. I sat down on a rock to eat some goldfish crackers, and when I stood up again, I could barely walk! I recommend staying on your feet at this point.
We ascended the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail (again). The ascent took about 4 hours. On the way up, we were treated to one of the most amazing sunset vistas I have ever witnessed. It lives in my memory, because at this point, I was way too tired to take a picture.
By the time we passed Ooh Ahh Point, it was full dark again! Maybe someday I’ll see it in the light.
We topped out at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 8:40 p.m. By this point, I was feeling pretty wasted, so the rush of happiness I felt kind of amazed me!
The short walk to the car was miserable — mostly because temperatures were once again near freezing and I was too tired to put on my layers.
Recovering after the R2R2R hike
Back at the hotel, I laid in my bed and waited for like an hour to fall asleep. I think at that point I’d blown a circuit in my central nervous system. Also, my feet were throbbing pretty hard! But it finally happened, and then I slept like the dead until J. and J. got up for their flight the next morning.
We drove back to Denver the next day. It’s a 12-hour car ride, which gave everyone a chance to really stiffen up and get sore. We tried to get out and walk a few times and entertained ourselves in Monument Valley by reenacting scenes from Forrest Gump.
A word of warning to R2R2R hopefuls: if you are training for anything else, expect a long recovery time! It took about a week for all the soreness to work itself out of my quads and glutes and two weeks for the fatigue to lift. It definitely set my marathon training back a bit!
I also developed the nastiest cold I’ve had in years right after the R2R2R. I blame it on a combination of immune suppression and inhaled mule poop-dust.
But overall, the Grand Canyon R2R2R hike was magic.
I was so happy I found the nerve to go for it.
In the weeks leading up to the hike, I’d been having some trouble with weight gain. My initial reaction had been to hate on my body and try to punish it into submission.
But after the R2R2R, I found myself being a lot kinder. It was like, “Well body, if you can hike 42 miles without stopping, you’re all right with me.”
So I hope you enjoyed reliving the Grand Canyon R2R2R hike with me!
Thanks for reading. If you’ve got questions or additional tips, definitely drop them below.
Originally published June 14, 2019.