5 Things I Learned Trail Running The Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

As seen on The Outbound Collective.

The Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim, or the R3, is a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon in a single setting. Endurance hikers, ultra-runners, and athletes of all ages and skill levels attempt this feat year-round. The undertaking involves over 40 miles and 11,000 vertical feet of steep and rocky terrain with unmatched scenery for one very long, very challenging day… and I was somehow talked into trying it out.

The Grand Canyon rightfully earns its place as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, and as one of the most iconic parks in the U.S. This trip would be the first time I’d ever seen the canyon in person, and amusingly enough, I wouldn’t actually see it until three hours into our run when the sun began to rise. But those first few minutes when light began to trickle into the canyon were every bit as breathtaking as any postcard or calendar I’ve ever seen.

The Grand Canyon awed me, inspired me, and it taught me a few very important lessons about enjoying an outdoor adventure to its prime potential.

1) It’s so, so important to do your research

I had the pleasure of hiking with a park ranger on my ascent up the South Rim who let me use her as a pacer on my sluggish final miles. We both had a never-ending list of questions for each other about our contrasting perspectives on the R3, but the biggest one that stood out to me was: How much research did you do?

Turns out, I was more prepared than the majority of hikers and runners she’d seen. People neglected to check the park’s website for pipeline closures, track the weather to avoid extreme temperatures, or bring insufficient gear. This trouble ranged from finding themselves thirsty for miles, or with an ailment that seriously affected their chances of returning to safety.

Really, there’s no excuse not to over-plan and over-prepare for this type of trip, especially with the abundance of easily accessible information you can find about the Grand Canyon.

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2) You can find community anywhere

Community doesn’t just exist in the wild, it especially exists in the wild. Online, there were endless resources from small bloggers, to discussion boards, to organized groups dedicated to the promotion of the Rim to Rim to Rim. Canyon veterans and newbies ask and answer questions and share news, encouraging and allowing each other to plan the perfect GC trip.

The best part? This community doesn’t end online. When I was on the trail I met more runners, hikers, and backpackers that shared so much more knowledge than I ever could have Googled. I felt instantly bonded with the people around me, even without exchanging words. When you’re sharing a rock with a stranger, squeezing your mud-drenched feet into your trail runners after wading through a knee-deep trail flood, you’re establishing a connection that needs no explanation or expression.

3) Heed advice selectively

I didn’t have to ask friends and family for advice when I told them I was attempting the R3. They felt obligated to give it anyways. I received countless opinions from folks I trusted, but who didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.  From my first days of planning for the R3, my head was filled with horror stories of twisted ankles, rattlesnakes, water shortages, and personal failure.

That’s where this community became so important to my physical and mental preparation. Listening to advice from runners who had done double, triple, and quadruple crossing of the Grand Canyon made me feel exponentially better about my own ability.  Though, this confidence probably took longer to develop than it should have.

4) Self-doubt will eat you alive

I was stressed out to no end during the weeks leading up to this trip. I had never completed a marathon, and here I was about to do double that. Combined with the anxious counsel I received from friends, self-doubt constantly weighed on me and made the planning process leading up to the Grand Canyon to be strenuous and exhausting.

This number I had built up in my head – 46 miles – seemed increasingly larger, until I broke it down. Getting over my fears and allowing myself some credit was the first step to having the time of my life on the trail.

5) It’s not as hard as it seems

Like doubting ourselves, humans have an innate sense to overexaggerate obstacles and underestimate their own personal abilities. I found myself doing just that, until I discovered that the Grand Canyon trails were equivalent to the mountains I was used to hiking – only inverted.

By comparing the canyon to what I was familiar with, moving at a pace I knew I could maintain, and keeping a large reserve of strength and energy for the final push back up the south Rim, I found the feat totally manageable. With the right gear, physical training, and nutrition preparation, it truly was a cinch.

I walked away from this experience blister-free and knowledge-full thanks to the people and resources I found along the way. Maybe next year I’ll be able to pass on some of this newfound knowledge when I return for a second shot.

Montara Mountain from Graywhale Cove State Beach

This weekend I ventured to a popular seaside trail that’s just 20 minutes south of San Francisco. Leaving the city using I-280, I took the Highway 1 exit for just about 10 miles to one of the northern-most trail entrances. There are actually four different routes you can take up to the peak of Montara Mountain, depending on which trailhead you choose to park at:

  • 3.5 miles from San Pedro Valley County Park trailhead.
  • 3.9 miles from Mc Nee Ranch trailhead.
  • 4.1 miles from Farralone Cutoff, Montara.
  • 4.8 miles from Graywhale Cove SB.

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This parking lot will get full as the day goes on – this is what it looked like at 10:30 am. The first quarter-mile of the hike climbs upwards and then slopes out into a flat trail that continues around the hills. This trail makes for a very popular and crowded place for day hikers, trail runners, and cyclists.

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Follow the path south, until it turns inward. Within a half mile the trail will fork into two directions: A steep upward slope to your left (an unofficial “shortcut” that will take 1.5 miles off), or continuing to the right, where the trail makes a slow, windy ascent through some shade on a fire road.

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On the fire road, looking up a few miles and about 2,000 vertical feet to the top of Montara Mountain.

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At the top of this forested section, the fire road runs into the end of the shortcut before continuing up incredibly steep, exposed, dusty slopes. There’s no shade for the last few miles here, so you’ll want to bring some kind of sun protection.

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This dusty, rocky trail continues up a few more miles to the summit. Along the way are cutoffs to other trails, and I ran into a lot of other hikers and runners who had joined up near the top from different directions around the mountain.

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At the top, you’ll enjoy valley views as well as a stretched-out look at Pacifica and its popular beaches. Since this was a pretty grueling incline without any place to hide from the sun, I promise you’ll enjoy the way down much more than the ascent!

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QUICK STATS

  • Length: 9.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: ~2,000 ft.
  • Time: 2 hours

Muir Beach to Rodeo Beach via the Coastal Trail

With six weeks left until my upcoming North Cascades climbs, I need to intensify my endurance training. I’ll be doing two back-to-back climbs on mountains averaging around 10k ft. in altitude, and as I’ve learned from past experiences, the only way to prepare for that is to run, hike, and climb with as much elevation gain as possible on my weekend training days.

Muir Beach is one of the first trails I discovered when I moved to SF, and has stuck to be one of my favorites. I’ve brought my parents, out-of-town friends, and regular hiking buddies here. Its out-and-back style makes it an easy route to shorten or lengthen based on your mood. Here’s a distance breakdown of popular turn-around points:

  • Muir Beach to Coastal Fire Road intersection: 2.2 miles
  • Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley: 3.1 miles
  • Muir Beach to Hill 88: 4.5 miles
  • Total one-way from Muir Beach to Rodeo Beach: 5.9 miles
Quarter-mile into the hike, looking down at Muir Beach.

Quarter-mile into the hike, looking down at Muir Beach.

I chose the perfect day, with San Francisco’s famous fog hanging overhead for most of the morning. It was chilly, but easy to warm up with the waterfront hills.

The first half mile is steep. The entire trail follows the coastline and winds up and down its peaks, and in and out of its valleys. You’re essentially walking (or running) from a lower elevation to a higher elevation and back the entire time, which some may find completely exasperating, or to others, as a challenge.

Shoreline views from the Coastal Trail.

Shoreline views from the Coastal Trail.

About halfway between Muir Beach and Tennessee Valley is a turnoff for Pirate’s Cove, a hidden little beach surrounded by tall, wind-swept and sea-swept rocks. At this intersection you’ll find one of two sets of rugged, wooden stairs on the trail that will slow down traffic a little. When trail running, this is one of the only spots that I’ll need to halt my speed to trudge up each step.

Just one more up-and-over and the trail widens as it merges with a fire road for the final stretch into Tennessee Valley.

Top of the fire road, looking down at Tennessee Valley - shoreline hidden by the hills.

Top of the fire road, looking down at Tennessee Valley – shoreline hidden by the hills.

When the fire road intersects with another wide trail, turn left for just 100 yards and you’ll see the continuation of the Coastal Trail on your right, with a mileage sign to Rodeo Beach. The walk from this intersection to the Tennessee Valley shoreline is 0.7 miles, which would’ve added 1.4 miles to my trip. I’ve done this option before and turned around at the beach, making the total hike around 7 miles.

Being in the valley means you’ve lost all of that legwork you did to get yourself up those hills, which also means you get to repeat that effort to get over to Rodeo Beach. To emphasize; it’s a lot of steep, steep hill climbing, and there’s not much benefit to the up-and-down nature of the path other than sheer enjoyment.

Leaving Tennessee Valley to go up, up, up and over to Rodeo Beach.

Leaving Tennessee Valley to go up, up, up and over to Rodeo Beach.

Here’s the most fun part of the trail. In the course of 1.15 miles, the Coastal Trail gains 800′ in elevation and peaks out at an exposed, windy plateau overlooking Tennessee Valley and even farther on. Continue up this hill to the tallest point of the day, and you’ll intersect a paved cycling road. Turning left here takes you a quarter mile to Hill 88. I’ve used this as a landmark too, returning to Muir Beach from Hill 88 makes a little more than a 9 mile track.

Turning right instead, the trail winds another mile and a half or so down to Rodeo Beach, which will probably be more crowded than Muir Beach. Make your way all the way down to the sand, and you get to look back and see all of the miles and elevation you get to do all over again on your return!

Overlooking Rodeo Beach, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible in the background.

Overlooking Rodeo Beach, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible in the background.

QUICK STATS

  • Length: 11.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3.5k ft.
  • Time: 3.25 hours

Purisima Creek Redwoods: Hiking over Half Moon Bay

My office is in a unique location; at the intersection of El Camino Real and Highway Bridge 92, which stretches from Hayward through San Mateo and over into Half Moon Bay. It’s easy for commuters to head north or south on the Peninsula, or even over to the East Bay, but the Half Moon Bay hills and endless trails along Skyline remain largely undiscovered. So, I took advantage of an early Friday afternoon to visit one of my favorite parks.

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Descending, still towards the top, along the Whittemore Gulch Trail

The main parking lot is right off of Skyline, which means the first half of the hike goes across the hills and into a valley, where it follows along the Purisima Creek. The route I chose circles the entire park counter-clockwise and is the longest circuit available in this open space. Here’s how the distance breaks down:

  • North Ridge Trail: 1.2 miles
  • Whittemore Gulch Trail: 2.2 miles
  • Purisima Creek Trail: 2.3 miles
  • Craig Britton Trail: 2.6 miles
  • Harkins Ridge Trail: 1.2 miles
Redwoods along Purisima Creek

Redwoods along Purisima Creek

The first two trails wind along the upper, exposed part of the hills for quite a while before dipping into the forest. Even then, it’s gradual, I had barely realized I’d entered the forest before I was surrounded by redwoods and had reached the valley floor; Purisima Creek.

There’s another major trailhead and parking area where Whittemore Gulch meets the Purisima Creek Trail, at the bridge to cross the creek. This trail becomes wider, flatter, and smoother, perfect for trail runners. I half-ran and half-hiked, slowing down over some of the ruttier areas that have been dug out by horses and cyclists. There are a lot of roots and rocks to look out for on these trails too, and areas on the Whittemore Gulch and Craig Britton can be tricky with slanting, steep slopes.

Sleep slopes along the Craig Britton Trail

Sleep slopes along the Craig Britton Trail

Craig Britton continues at a relatively flat elevation through the thick, forested redwoods until it intersects with Harkins Ridge Trail. The scenery changes as this trail goes up, redwoods falling away to thinner trees that let in more sunlight. By the time I reached the Harkins Ridge Trail and trudged up its dusty steep hills, I’d almost forgotten the entire first third of my day that had been like this – I was so used to the thick forest and tall trees.

The final views before the parking lot really reminded me how much this open space has to offer; completely different landscapes, wildlife, and ecosystems scattered between the dense valley floor and the top of the Skyline hills.

Final view over Half Moon Bay before the last stretch to the trailhead parking lot

Final view over Half Moon Bay before the last stretch to the trailhead parking lot

QUICK STATS

  • Length: 9.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1.8k
  • Time: 2.5 hours

Redwood Regional Park: West Ridge Trail to East Ridge Trail

It’s difficult to have a car in San Francisco. But it’s oh-so worth it when it comes to weekend getaways, especially with all the Bay Area has to offer. I’ve been to Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais, and Stinson Beach more times than I can count, so a few weeks ago I decided to check out what’s hiding in the East Bay, and found the perfect day trip less than 30 minutes outside of the city.

Redwood Regional Park, part of the East Bay Regional Park District, is a huge open space that’s super accessible, tucked away in the East Bay hills just a short drive from Oakland. From San Francisco, take 580 East off of the Bay Bridge and turn left off of the 35th Ave exit. This road turns into Redwood Road, which will take you to the main entrance of the park. There’s plenty of parking for a $5 fee, or you can squeeze in between other cars on the side of the main road just outside the entrance, which is how I entered the park today.

I created my own loop based on recommendations I’d read and convenience to my car location, but you can view each trail and loop more closely on Mappery.

When I first entered the park on foot, I found a couple of ways to jump up on a trail to my left that ran along a creek bed. This area of the park is lush with green plants and glows under a canopy of trees, with a very small one-track trail lined with rocks and roots. I managed to fall flat on my face within the first five minutes of my day.

 

Winding up towards the West Ridge Trail

Winding up towards the West Ridge Trail

I followed this trail up the left-side ridge and hit my destination, the West Ridge Trail, and continued on higher up. The path widens here to accommodate equestrians, bikers, and more hikers, and goes for miles and miles – and steeper and steeper. The West Ridge Trail narrows and widens again, snaking through thick forests and leveling out at look points with stunning views. I passed through so many ecosystems, from the thick green forest you see above through tall redwoods and up above dusty pastures covered in wildflowers.

More uphill on the West Ridge Trail

More uphill on the West Ridge Trail

These first few miles were the steepest of the day, and I was regularly alternating between trail running on flat surfaces to cutting my pace in half up hills. The bulk of my elevation gain was condensed into just the first third of this hike, which means ending the day at 1.6k total gain made a strenuous beginning. At the highest point of the West Ridge Trail, the path crosses a road that leads to Chabot Space & Science Center, and from then on, it’s pretty much all downhill.

Looking back up the West Ridge Trail, winding through the redwoods.

Looking back up the West Ridge Trail, winding through the redwoods.

Just about halfway through my hike, the windy trail through the redwoods evened out to a gaping valley on my right, and a parking lot up emerged ahead on the left. This is where the West Ridge Trail becomes the East Ridge Trail, and where I found many more people either starting or ending their day. There are a lot of leisurely trails that fork off of the main one and many people wander down these for shorter hikes or picnic spots. It’s easy to get stuck here, enjoying the views.

View from the East Ridge Trailhead

View from the East Ridge Trailhead. Naturally, the photo does not capture the beauty of this spot.

The last half of the hike was easy, and mostly downhill. The East Ridge is unlike its other half in that it’s largely exposed, dusty, and out of the redwoods. But both of these things also mean that I was able to see farther because of the lower tree line, and I paid more attention to the hills on the horizon since I was looking their direction, heading down. There’s something about a view like this, when I’ve stopped long enough to feel the blood in my limbs slow and my lungs open and I feel like I’m seeing this distance for the first time. It’s like taking that first breath of air when you come up from an ocean dive.

Afternoon rest spot on the East Ridge Trail, Redwood Regional Park.

Afternoon rest spot on the East Ridge Trail, Redwood Regional Park.

It was a beautiful, easy day that wasn’t completely inundated with crowds (unlike other Bay Area hiking options), and it reminded me of how lucky San Franciscans are to have so many options in this area.

QUICK STATS

  • Length: 7.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1.6k
  • Time: 2.25 hours