Beyond the Corridor
Running the Grand Canyon's unheralded backcountry trails
Rob Krar and Christina Bauer run next to a big dropoff on the Tonto Trail above Hance Rapid. Photos by Ken Etzel.
AT THE WATER’S EDGE
As I stumbled to the shoreline and collapsed next to the thundering Hermit Rapid, I took stock of my body, contemplating its ability to withstand our daunting return to the rim. We had just descended 8.9 miles following the steep, rough and remote Hermit Trail, dropping a staggering 4200 feet of elevation, rim to river. My friends for this adventure, John Doskicz, 40, of Flagstaff, Arizona, who owns Flagstaff Climbing Center, and Matt Kelly, also of Flagstaff, were used to this kind of travel. I was not. This was my first trip running in the Grand Canyon backcountry.
I inhaled an energy bar and guzzled water, allowing the breeze to cool my beet-red face. I craned my neck toward the Arizona sky and scanned the almost 40 layers of sedimentary rock towering above us, stacked river to rim. I contemplated the geologic history dating back some two billion years, while the rock exploded in kaleidoscopic layers as sunrays broke through afternoon clouds.
Suddenly, the breeze brushing my cheeks turned into a howling wind, swirling sand high into the air, pounding us with sheets of icy rain. The canyon was telling us it was time to go.
The same narrow confines we used to access this rocky beach would be our retreat. With visions of flash-flood carnage we packed up and began running back up the canyon.
Bauer strides back to the rim along the aptly named Grand View Trail. Photo by Ken Etzel.
THE BIG DITCH
Located in Northern Arizona, the mighty Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, began over 17 million years ago when the Colorado River carved its way through the Colorado Plateau, reaching depths up to a mile. The deepest rocks date back to the Precambrian time, the earliest of geologic ages.
Grand Canyon National Park, formed in 1919, encompasses roughly one million acres and can be reached via the pine-, fir- and aspen-studded 7000-foot South and 8000-foot North rims. The remote North Rim offers few amenities and is far overshadowed by the more easily accessed South Rim, only an hour drive from Interstate 40 in Arizona. The South Rim offers dozens of viewpoints along 30 miles of scenic rim road, and urban amenities abound at Grand Canyon Village with shuttle-bus, hotel, camping and food options. Most interesting to the backcountry runner are the many easily accessible trailheads that drop from the developed rim, leading down to hundreds of secluded inner-canyon miles.
The famous Rim-to-Rim (R2R) routes, or “Corridor Trails,” follow the well-maintained and regularly patrolled Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab trails, the only trails connecting the south to north sides. As a result, these main arteries have become the key attraction for not only runners in the canyon but also the majority of day hikers, backpackers and mule trains as well.
Beyond the Corridor Trails, however, are a lifetime’s worth of rarely trod miles. “You can run some of the backcountry trails and never see a single person,” says Adam Gifford, 38, of Sedona, Arizona, and owner of the Sedona Running Company. “It is a very freeing experience, although it can also be scary, knowing that there is no one around to help if something goes wrong."