Preparing For Your First Grand Canyon R3 (rim-to-rim-to-rim)

Most of us have one crazy thing on our bucket list that we can’t wait to conquer and cross off, right? For me, running/fast hiking across the Grand Canyon was definitely one of mine! I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied just visiting this natural wonder and looking at it from the rim. I wanted to truly “experience” the vastness of this most wondrous place!

Like most people, I really didn’t know where to begin!

Do I need a permit? How long will it take? What gear do I need? How many miles is it again? I can do this in one day, right? What time of year is best? And of course, who wants to do this with me??

I got really lucky back in 2013 after completing my first ultra marathon, I met someone who had done it before and was organizing another group to run a R3 the following month. I was hesitant to just say “YES!!” because I really didn’t know what was involved. I would be going with some first timers…yay for not feeling like I was going to be left behind and I was reassured that because I had just run a really strong 50K and had multiple marathons under my belt, that I would do just “fine”.

So, I went for it because I knew opportunities like this don’t come along often and sometimes I just do better when I don’t over think things.

With about a 5 weeks to prepare, I put the hurt in the vert and made sure I had the right type of gear. I had the best experience of my life & knew that I would be back to run it again and again! It’s truly life changing and sharing my experience with others and helping them prepare brings me such joy!!

First things first…are you ready??

  • Have you run a few marathons, an ultra or all day hike with lots of vertical gain and loss?
  • The distance will be just under 50 miles with 11,000′ of gain and and 11,000′ of loss in one day. Get your legs ready for the descent and your mind ready for long, arduous climbing.
  • This isn’t just your ordinary 50 miler…this place will chew up and spit you out in a heartbeat! Think of it like running down a mountain, back up a mountain, down a mountain, and then back up! You’ll trash your quads in the first 7-8 miles because of the descent. Get accustomed to running on tired legs, especially fried quads! Your calves & hips may fatigue on the ascents but I find that a little more manageable for some reason. Perhaps it’s the slower pace.
  • Once I have a good mileage base, I put a lot of time and energy into training for the climbing and and descent. If I don’t have time for a really long, far away trail or mountain to train on I do repeats on a shorter trail (2 miles) with about 1,000′ of gain. I go up and down the trail about 3-5 times, depending on the time I have. It’s good mental and physical training and the crazy looks from other hikers is just a bonus!

What gear do I need?

  • Good trail shoes. Test them out and make sure they’re comfortable on long trail runs!
  • A good pack for carrying water, fuel, and supplies.
  • Lots of water and I also bring electrolytes with me. I start out with about 60oz of water in a bladder. I also carry at least one 20oz water bottle that I keep just water in. I can drink from it or use it to cool off with during hotter months.
  • A buff or bandana. If you’re running in a group and the conditions are dry, windy, and/or dusty, you’ll be glad to have something to cover your mouth/face with. You can also wet it in the creeks, water stops, or with your spare bottle of water to cool off. It’ll feel so good since it’s a “dry” heat in the canyon.
  • Depending on the time of year you may need crampons, especially on the North Rim.
  • Sun protection! Hats, sunglasses and sunblock are all necessities in my book!
  • Food! Gels and liquid nutrition are great, but you might appreciate some “real” food after a few hours. Pack a sandwich or some saltier snacks so you don’t get burned out on the sugary stuff. (You can assume you’ll need about 200 calories/hour. Some people need more, some people less)
  • Bring layers. It will be much colder on the rim and much warmer once you drop below the rim. So, do your best not to overdress.
  • Bring two headlamps/flashlights. Why two?? You never know if one will malfunction or if one of your buddies will need one. Unless there is a full moon, it is pitch black in the canyon. If you dropped your light or needed to change batteries, trust me, you’ll want a spare. Just being two.
  • Money for the store at Phantom Ranch. If you time it just right and arrive before 4pm on your way back to the South Rim, you may want to treat yourself to a lemonade or tea. It’s a nice place to refill water, have a snack and relax a little before the big climb back out of the canyon. It closes at 4pm though, so time it right!
  • You do not need a permit unless you have a very large group of people or plan on camping in the canyon. You do need to purchase a pass to enter into the National Park, however. Although, if you have a 3am start time, let’s say, no rangers are working so you can bypass purchasing a pass. (Shhh, don’t tell the rangers I told you this)

A few accommodation recommendations…

  • If you want to stay close to the South Rim, you can book a room or camp at several places within the National Park.
  • You can stay just outside of the park in the nearby town of Tusayan on the South Rim. It’s about a 20 min drive to the trails.
  • The Lodge on the North Rim is a great place to stay if you’re starting on the North Kaibab Trail. There is also a campground about a half mile from the trail head. However, the North Rim is closed mid October through mid May so this is not a year round option.

Where to start?

  • If you’re starting on the South Rim, you have two options with advantages and disadvantages to each.
  • If you start at the Bright Angel Trailhead, you have parking available and if you choose to return on this trail your car will be waiting for you. There are big advantages for most people to choose coming up (finishing) on Bright Angel trail because there is water available and since it is more of a “canyon” it isn’t as exposed as the South Kaibab trail.
  • If you choose to start at South Kaibab, there isn’t really parking available. So you have a few options. You can Uber or take a taxi which will take you near the trail head. If the shuttles are running, you can ride one to the trailhead. You may have to run a mile or more to actually get to the trail, so even though it may be a “shorter” (& steeper) way down to Phantom Ranch, you have to consider where you are truly starting from. Water is not really available on this trail, which isn’t an issue if you start early and it’s not hot yet. It could be an issue when you finish and the temperature is higher. If you finish here, and it’s not too late you can take a shuttle back to Bright Angel Trail head or your lodging if it’s within the Grand Canyon Village. Cell service can be unreliable within the park and near South Kaibab trailhead, so I wouldn’t want to rely on being able to call a taxi or Uber.
  • You really can’t go wrong with starting on either trail head. It works out great if you can park a car at Bright Angel Trailhead and have someone drop you off at South Kaibab to start.
    There is parking on the North Rim so if you choose to start/end there, the logistics are easy. There is water available along the North Kaibab Trail, as well.

What about the water sources? Do I need a filter?

    Always bring a lifestraw or water filter!
    Don’t filter from the Colorado River! Do filter from the creeks that feed into the Colorado.

Know your main water sources: Bright Angel Trail should have water at the 1 mile and 3 mile rest houses, Indian Gardens, a few options at Phantom Ranch. North Kaibab should have water available at the Cottonwood Campground, Manzanita, Supai Tunnel and sometimes on the rim at the start of the trail head. If you’re desperate and the campground on the North Rim is open you can go there for water, as well. My first time, I wrote down the names of these stops and the mile at which I would encounter them. This would be dependent upon your starting point but is very helpful to have. When you’re tired and thirsty, you may not be able to think about this clearly.

How long will it take me? Well, that’s a great question! It could take you less than 10 if you’re a speedster, maybe around 16 hours if you keep a steady pace and enjoy taking pictures and maybe making friends at the water stops, maybe longer if you encounter some type of injury or mishap. Let’s face it, this place is unpredictable. You take your fist step down into the canyon and you are no longer in control. There’s no telling what may come your way. Wildlife, a fall, a sore knee, sprained ankle, dehydration, upset tummy…just be prepared for anything!

If you’re going with a group of people, I always advise to meet beforehand and go over different scenarios. If one person gets hurt or can’t go on…does everyone stay together or split up? Difficult question, so don’t wait until you’re in that situation to come to a solution. Prepare beforehand and see what different people are comfortable with and capable of. Communication is key!

Still not feeling ready to tackle the whole R3? Not really familiar with the Arizona dry heat, high temps & rough terrain? Why not begin with a rim to rim? You’ll be able to enjoy all of the beauty and experience the wonder of this canyon without putting yourself at too much risk. If you love it, you can always come back for more!! There are shuttles that can take you to the rim you want to start at and you leave a vehicle at the opposite rim. As I stated earlier, there are plenty of lodging options at each rim.

There is no “wrong” way to enjoy the canyon! There are so many trail options and ways to come away with an incredible unforgettable experience! I’ve experienced it with groups of friends, just one other running partner, and solo. It’s never the same and it never gets old! I hope these tips help you make the decision to conquer this goal or dream of running across the Grand Canyon!

Always check the website and look closely at the weather, trail closures, and breaks in the pipeline which could affect one or more water stops.

Good luck!