The national park will release a new draft of its backcountry management plan this fall to deal with overcrowding issues.
During his second year as a ranger at the Grand Canyon back in the late 1970s, Wayne Ranney got a call from another ranger stationed at Phantom Ranch—the lodge at the bottom of the canyon. “You won’t believe this,” he told Ranney, “there’s a guy from New Zealand running all the way from one rim to the other and back!”
“That sounded like the craziest thing in the world,” says Ranney. He went on to work as a geologist and a trail guide there, and for years that lone insane runner remained the only crazy person he saw attempting the steep 42-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim journey. He’s now the president of the Grand Canyon History Society, an international tour guide with Smithsonian Journeys and has written multiple books about the canyon. And, running across the Grand Canyon no longer sounds like the craziest thing in the world to him. In fact, it’s disturbingly normal. “Now, every day there’s someone running the canyon,” he says.
Certainly, not many people are running across in the middle of the summer. At least they probably shouldn’t be. But according to park staff, there can be up to 800 people inside the canyon on peak weekends in May and October. (Those numbers aren’t limited to runners or categorized by speed of movement.)
Phantom Ranch lodge is rustic and only designed for about 85 people. The campgrounds hold another 90. That overcrowding is forcing the park to address some of the problems the runners bring with them.
And many park users think those problems are plentiful.
Tales abound of exhausted runners and fastpackers—at some point on the speed continuum, the line between the two blurs—collapsing at the doorstep of Phantom Ranch or vomiting in the campgrounds. In their desperation and delirium, they cut to the front of water lines, clog trails and picnic areas by lying down, and leave things behind them. Rangers and more experienced visitors have to attend to struggling crossers and drive them the long way back around the canyon if they can’t make the return journey. These are not runners deliberately doing anything wrong; these are simply runs gone awry. But in the daily grind of overwhelming volume, these small transgressions become too much for the canyon to endure.
“They’re using the Grand Canyon as their gymnasium,” says Ranney. Even though his wife is a runner, he doesn’t believe running has a place in the canyon, where other extreme sports like mountain biking, paragliding and motor boating have already been banned. “I think running through the Grand Canyon should not be allowed.”
This fall, the park will release a new draft of its backcountry management plan, with the process so far garnering hundreds of comments—including the calls to ban runners. The plan is expected to address not just running, but other growing adventure sports like canyoneering and packrafting. This past spring, the park released courtesy guidelines for runners, covering things like cleaning up your trash, yielding to mule packs and not using the canyon as a bathroom.
“I don’t think everyone understands what their impacts are,” says Rachel Bennett, the park’s environmental protection specialist.
They’ve also begun preliminary data collection and a pilot survey, says Linda Jalbert, wilderness coordinator for the park—counting the people on trails and asking them questions about their use. While the information still needs to be analyzed, they have seen an overall increase in the number of people in the canyon and in large groups doing events or crossings, such as a charity fundraiser group that dropped off busloads of people to hike/run from one rim to the other.
Unfortunately, some of those groups are not always prepared for what they’re getting into.
This past May, Jalbert says, “there were quite a few more people needing medical attention.” That puts a burden on limited staff and resources. One ranger was up all night, says Bennett, taking care of sick or injured people.
In 2004, Margaret Bradley, a 3:04 marathoner, died from dehydration on the backcountry canyon trails. Her picture now greets people at the trail entrances on the popular South Rim, as does a sign warning against attempting to cross there and back in just one day—a feat that is exactly what the growing number of runners are doing.
After the highest volume on peak weekends, Jalbert says, they get phone calls and letters complaining about the trash, crowds and rudeness as people rush past on the trails. Some of these problems are specific to runners, but many of them are simply a result of more people (whether running or not) on narrow trails and in facilities built for far fewer.
“The park has not put the money into upgrading facilities in reflection of the increased use of the park,” says Benedict Dugger, an Arizona coach and trail running guide specializing in Grand Canyon runs. Despite the fact that use in the park has increased across the board recently—4.5 million people visited the canyon last year—most of the facilities remain as they were built decades ago.
“Phantom Ranch is the exact same as 100 years ago, except they take Visa and Mastercard now,” Dugger says.
A Growing Interest In Ultrarunning
After his own breathtaking runs along the canyon floor and from rim-to-rim-to-rim, Dugger started a Facebook group for Grand Canyon runners to share tips. It’s one thing to chastise runners for being ill-prepared; it’s another to try and find all that information in one place. Many people end up relying on word of mouth or friends who have done the runs before.
Emily Hanlon, an experienced ultrarunner, ran rim-to-rim-to-rim this past spring with a group of friends, most of whom had already done the crossing previously and shared their knowledge with the quizzical newbie. “It was nice to go with people who had done it before,” she says.
Most runners start from the more easily accessible South Rim, traverse the South Kaibab or Bright Angel Trails to the bottom, and head up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. The North Rim is only open from May 15 to Oct. 15 each year, and weather conditions can dictate when you should run. All this, plus advice on appropriate training, pit stops and gear is a part of adequately preparing for the canyon.
The Facebook group Grand Canyon R2R2R Run now has just under 3,000 members who share information and advice. Dugger has also worked to spread the park’s courtesy guidelines and his own tips about easing any potential tension between some backpackers and runners. For instance, he urges runners not to leave water bottles stashed in bushes, even if they’re coming back for them, and to say hello to others on the trail.
“There’s been some misconceptions about running and runners,” says Dugger.
He estimates that it’s really only about 1,000 people each year who run rim-to-rim-to-rim. But with the growing interest in trail running, there are more people ready to experience the beauty of the canyon in their own way.
“There are a lot of people who have always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and run, but they lack the confidence or resources,” says Dugger.
The increase in runners traipsing across previously forbidden territory isn’t limited to the Grand Canyon. The rapid rise in the popularity of trail running and ultrarunning is well-documented. According to Ultrarunning Magazine there were 15,500 ultra-finishes in 1998 and 36,106 in 2009. Last year, there were a whopping 69,573 finishes of races over the marathon distance. The Western States Endurance Run had 2,700 applicants this year for 270 spots. The Hardrock 100 had more than 1,200 people apply for 140 entries. Those organizers and land managers are being forced to weigh the natural scenery that attracted people against the crowds being attracted.
At Leadville 100 last year, the hordes of runners and backed-up lines of cars on what has historically been an untamed 100-mile course—thanks in large part to Lifetime Fitness increasing registration to 1,000 runners—prompted widespread backlash from the ultrarunning community. “We definitely heard the constructive criticism last year,” says Abby Long, Leadville 100 athlete services and registration manager. “We have cut our registration numbers dramatically, improved aid station, routes in and out for runners and organized crew and spectator traffic/parking areas for the 2014 season.”
Issues Extend To Other Parks
The Grand Canyon isn’t the only park dealing with more runners looking for rugged wilderness to run across. Death Valley National Park has had to grapple with a growing number of runners and cyclists participating in events like the famous Badwater ultramarathon. Faced with hundreds of athletes on narrow two-lane roads and packs of crewmembers and spectators gathering in inopportune places, Death Valley decided to put a moratorium on issuing any more event permits until it was able to do an analysis of its current events and create a set of conditions “so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time,” says Death Valley park spokesperson Cheryl Chipman.
This resulted in the 2014 Badwater race being pushed out of Death Valley and out of the Badwater Basin for which it is named. Runners were, understandably, outraged about the change and flooded park staff with calls and emails. But Chipman says the safety concerns and strain on park resources were too great to ignore.
“There have been a lot of near misses,” says Chipman, including an incident where a support crew member fell asleep and drove across a highway. No one was injured, but the park staff didn’t want to wait until people did get injured. “We were waiting for the train wreck to happen.”
Death Valley will announce its new plan soon and applications are being accepted for events after Oct. 1.
The problem, says Ranney, is that inherently runners are there for a different experience than hikers or backpackers. They want to move quickly—at least many of them do—and that can come at the expense of others enjoying the trails and natural setting.
In May 2013, Rob Krar set a fastest known time for running from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again at the Grand Canyon, covering the route in just 6:21. But in his race report on iRunFar, he acknowledged the growing tensions between runners and other park users.
“Rangers are rightfully concerned for the safety of all visitors venturing below the rim. If they stop you to offer their thoughts and concerns, please take them to heart. The Canyon can be a brutal place to find yourself unprepared. Please be safe, know your limits, and understand the unique challenges the Canyon presents,” wrote Krar, who had previously done a number of runs and crossings without time goals.
But many runners—even fast ones—come to the Grand Canyon simply to enjoy the experience, as another tourist to the park.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Hanlon, who spent around 13 hours with her friends crossing there and back. They took their time to enjoy the experience and the beauty, particularly as the sun came up while they descended to the canyon floor.
“It’s really an experience that has a mixture of running, hiking, taking pictures and hanging out,” says Dugger.
When the Grand Canyon staff releases its management plan, it’s likely to include some sort of regulations for Hanlon and her friends: guidelines and a park framework to handle future potential problems. It’s also possible there may be a kind of permitting system for day use, as Yosemite implemented for the Half Dome hike in 2010 when overcrowding threatened that national monument. What is unlikely to happen is any kind of a ban based on the speed with which one crosses the canyon.
“We’re not currently looking at banning those things,” says Bennett.
That’s good news for Dugger, who is likely to come back again and again and again. Two years ago, he did his first canyon run with two friends. Since then, he’s returned dozens of times. “It was like a whole new world opened up,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this five years ago?’”
About The Author:
Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.