The Grand Illusion

It’s no surprise that running the main Corridor Trails into the Grand Canyon has become one of the most popular destination runs in the country and world. The entire Colorado Plateau is a place of immense wonder and beauty, and the Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular features in this otherworldly region. Despite the fact that there are no organized events in the Canyon, nearly everyone who is an avid trail or ultrarunner is aware of the routes from the South and North Rims that are used to do single, double, or even triple and quadruple crossings of the Canyon. I’m sure there are people who have done even more than four crossings. The point is, these routes are popular in the way that typically only established events are popular. A large number of runners have established a personal-best time in the Grand Canyon, and many of them return regularly to better their time, much the same way that you might run a race multiple times to see if you can out do your previous self.

Due in large part to the popularity of these runs, there has come to be a very real ‘issue’ of severely overcrowded trails in the Grand Canyon. Trails that were already crowded with day hikers, backpackers, and mule trains are now also feeling the strain of countless numbers of trail runners. These trails currently allow for unlimited day-use access for non-commercial, pedestrian groups up to a dozen people. With the exception of a 2014 rule now requiring non-commercial, day-use, pedestrian groups of more than 12 people to garner a permit, this is the way it has been in the Grand Canyon for a long time, and this all has generally worked well enough. The increasing popularity of running in the Grand Canyon has had a definite impact on the number of users in the Canyon at any one time, and seems to be one of the contributing factors of a system that may no longer be working ‘well enough.’

Although these trails have been crowded for a long time, I believe that the popularity of running these trails is playing a large part in pushing things over a tipping point. So much so that people are becoming confused, frustrated, and angry about the situation. A recent opinion piece by Marjorie Woodruff in High Country News does a great job of illustrating these emotions. Unfortunately, hers is a one-sided stance that lacks empathy for or an accurate understanding of trail runners.

Trail running in the Grand Canyon is a relatively new, popular trend as compared to other user groups, but this doesn’t mean that trail runners are any more to blame for this than are the hikers, backpackers, and mule packers who have been using these trails in huge numbers for decades. I think that it is the responsibility of everyone who wishes to use these trails to offer ideas, empathy, and open mindedness on how to better everyone’s experience in the Grand Canyon.

It seems like there is a general consensus that the National Park Service needs to do something to limit the number of total users allowed on these trails on a given day. They already do this in high-sensitivity and/or high-use areas in other parks (e.g. The Subway in Zion National Park and Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park) as well as with overnight; commercial; and non-commercial, day-use groups of over 12 users in the Grand Canyon. It seems almost certain that it’s only a matter of time before they do this with day hikes/runs of even smaller groups there, too.

Until this happens, though, there are a few simple things we all can do. We can continue to be as respectful as possible to other users and to the landscape we travel through on these trails. I have spent more than enough time on trails with hikers, backpackers, climbers, runners, mountain bikers, and others to know that we are all very good about these things. Contrary to the baseless views expressed in the column I referenced above, the vast majority of the people who are into outdoor recreation are also into taking care of the landscapes in which they like to recreate. All user groups need to continue to work together to take care of the places we use and love, but we need to be extra sure to do so in places as overcrowded and sensitive as the Grand Canyon.

The biggest thing we can do to help the ‘problem,’ though, is to run somewhere else. Yes, I know, the Grand Canyon is a magical, awe-inspiring place that has more than enough wonder to draw us back time and time again. It is a place everyone should see in their life, and the rim-to-rim-to-rim voyage has become one of the runs that many ultrarunners want to do. There is nothing wrong with running these trails, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to run them time and time again, as so many people tend to do, but if we want to be a part of the solution we might want to think about whether we need to do our 10th double crossing, or for that matter even our second one?

I have run to the river and back in the Grand Canyon. It is a really fun trail, and an insanely beautiful landscape, but it is a severely overcrowded fun trail in a vast expanse of hundreds of miles in every direction of nearly empty fun trails and beautiful landscapes.

This is all likely an inconvenient truth that a lot of people don’t want to hear: we trail runners are a part of the overcrowding issues in the Grand Canyon and we can lessen our impact on the place by not running them and instead exploring somewhere else that is less crowded.

I am not saying that I don’t think anyone should run in the Grand Canyon, or that someone is doing something ‘wrong’ if they do, but rather that the single most effective thing any of us can do to alleviate overcrowding in the Canyon is to not put ourselves into the mix as often as we currently are. This reality also applies to hikers, backpackers, and any other users of these trails. I’m only singling out runners here because this is a website whose primary audience is long-distance trail runners.

Looking at this even further I can’t help but raise the question, why do we even want to run a route that is so crowded that the experience becomes compromised for nearly everyone involved? I get that the Grand Canyon is an incredibly special place that people all over the world have on their bucket lists, but the overcrowded Corridor Trails are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of trails in the Grand Canyon and the surrounding region. Is there really a rational explanation as to why so many more people are flocking to these trails than to other trails nearby? It’s hard not to assume that the main reason is simply that this has become the route that everyone needs to do. In other words, are so many people doing this route solely because of the magnificence of the route itself, or is it fueled in large part by a trend that this is the route that you should to do?

This question is hard to answer. Any run we do may, to some degree, be a combination of these two things. The point is, though, do these trails get 50 times (or more) the use of other trails in the area because they are 50 times more spectacular than the other trails, or because of a somewhat inexplicable snowball effect of culture?

I propose, then, that it is time to start thinking a bit more outside of the box, and a bit more for ourselves. People from all over the country fly or drive hundreds, or thousands of miles to get to the Grand Canyon. I’ve done it. Many of us have done it, and on our way to the Canyon we have passed by hundreds of other magical places that one could spend days exploring. But we generally drive onward, pulled by this giant and magnificent hole in the ground that everyone else is also seeking. We get out of our cars in the predawn hours and flip on our headlamps and begin our slow descent into the canyon. By the time the day has worn on into late morning and we begin our ascent up the opposite side of the canyon, we encounter dozens, and eventually hundreds or possibly thousands of other users. No matter how crowded it gets, it still generally seems worth it because it is such a special place. More and more, though, as things become even more crowded we start to have brief moments when it seems a little less worth it. We begin to realize that the ‘problem’ might be real and more widespread than we previously understood.

Filled with as much fabricated and manipulative information as it is, it’s hard to take Marjorie’s column all that seriously, but her specific disgust toward trail runners in the Grand Canyon might be looked at as an indicator of the more general overcrowding problem that the National Park Service is encountering on these trails. This problem is not any one user group’s fault or sole responsibility to deal with, and none of the user groups that the park service allows on these trails is no more entitled to these trails than another, but there is one glaringly obvious thing we all can do to help with this problem. We can begin by questioning the validity of the pedestal that these trails have been put on. We can examine the obsession so many of us have created with running or hiking these routes, and determine if this obsession is a natural, organic thing that has sprung up in us, or if it is more a result of the obsessions of our larger trail running culture. This age of instant mass communication via the internet has largely blurred the lines between what is genuinely us and what is simply us becoming a pawn of a larger entity. We can examine these gray areas, and insist on being more individual and less obsessed with something simply because everyone else seems to be obsessed with it

And perhaps most importantly, we can find other magical and awe-inspiring places to hike or run at least some of these times when we might otherwise be in the main corridor of the Grand Canyon.

Among other reasons, we are drawn to places like the Grand Canyon because of their majesty, beauty, and remoteness. Hopefully we can all work together going forward to find ways to preserve these and other similarly inspiring landscapes. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a solution in the Grand Canyon that leaves everyone perfectly happy, but I do believe there are things we all can do to help ensure that visiting the Grand Canyon will continue to be a magical experience in the future.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

This is a sensitive subject, but one that some outdoor communities are already dealing with and that others will have to in the future. So the conversation we have here is important. It’s also important that our conversation remains constructive despite the differing opinions we all have. It is alright to disagree with this article or someone’s comment to this article, but do so respectfully. Please refer to iRunFar’s comment policy if you have questions.

  • Have you experienced overcrowding at the Grand Canyon or other natural areas? For the purpose of this conversation, let’s call ‘overcrowding’ when there are so many people using a natural space that they collectively negatively influence the resources of that space and/or other users of it. If so, can you explain what you experienced and felt?
  • Given that the National Park Service’s mission, defined by the 1916 Organic Act, says that the job of the NPS is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” and that the Grand Canyon is part of Grand Canyon National Park, what do you think of the nearly dichotomous duties the NPS has to conserve the Canyon so that people can both enjoy it and so that it will remain unimpaired for the future?
  • Do you think about the impact you have on the places through which you run? Do you ever notice it? Do you ever let the impact you have influence where or when you run?
  • What do you think might be an appropriate balance in the Grand Canyon, in terms of allowing people to use and enjoy it but preventing negative impacts on the Canyon and those users?

There are 14 comments

  1. Steve_Hawkins

    We should all understand that the Grand Canyon is absolutely HUGE. All the commotion is about two over utilized corridor trails. We trail runners are a hardy bunch, so why not take to the other dozens of trails in the ditch, and infinite number of potential adventures. Or, why not run outside of prime time (April/October), again we are an adaptable lot. There is huge potential in the Grand Canyon for solitude and adventure if we just step off the corridor trails.

  2. mutantultrarunning

    Totally agree with Steve about off season and off corridor adventures. Lots of books and maps are out there to help runners plan where else to go and highlight options for a variety of skill levels. There are lifetimes worth of adventuring to be done in the GC and even more just beyond the park's boundaries (many without mules and throngs of people). Be creative, have fun.

  3. Meghan Hicks

    I’d like to respectfully add a thought piece regarding the suggestion of running the Grand Canyon’s Corridor Trails in off-peak times. To my knowledge, the NPS at the Canyon has not qualified or quantified the breadth of issues resulting from overuse of those trails, so we don’t know specifically what we’re looking at yet. If we’re talking about resource damage like wildlife adapting their behavior, trail erosion, toilets being unable to handle the capacity of their long-term use, and more, those issues are not necessarily solved by the same number of people temporally spreading out their usage of the Corridor Trails. Off-peak use may work to address some issues in some ecosystems, and may work in the Grand Canyon, too. I don’t think we yet know all the human-created problems that we now need to surmount there.

  4. @RuhnauSteve

    There are few things worse than loving our special wild and natural wonders to death with overcrowding and destruction. However, there are some other considerations…
    1) Growing Demand for Wilderness – yes the Canyon demand has grown but the same is happening in so many places here in CA… including little wild patches in urban areas. We need more natural areas under protection and accessible for use.
    2) Changing / Advancing Use Methods – ultra running or fastpacking can create new loads which doesn't make them bad. Perhaps permitting to manage loads is called for but these methods/modes of access should not be discouraged nor banned. One could argue the impact footprint of someone running through 45 miles is less than someone slow packing or horse packing for several days.
    3) Insufficient Trails – One of the draws of the rim-to-rim route is the ability to fully traverse the canyon by trail. Old constraints likely didn't create demand or justification for other cross canyon trails. Maybe times have changed and the park should consider adding or connecting other trails to meet the need.
    4) Packstock Impacts – Most of the trail destruction I have seen in the parks and wilderness of the Sierra Nevada over the last 40 years has been due to packstock… including incredible trail building destruction to accommodate stock… and the agencies that oversee these areas don't seem to bat an eye. I wonder if packstock use in the Canyon is appropriate… or the supports required to supply Phantom Ranch in a national park appropriate?

  5. arcticglasspress

    "I don't think we yet know all the human-created problems that we now need to surmount there."

    This is the key, and the question I have is whether the National Park Service has conducted any kind of environmental impact statement or even a daily use assessment. All of this hand-wringing over the Grand Canyon is based largely in personal perceptions. In fact, the Bright Angel and N-S Kaibab Trails are well built to handle higher impacts, include utilities along the way to discourage off-trail travel and catholes, and quite possibly are capable of handling many times the use they currently see (management, of course, becomes more difficult, and NPS may need to implement permits just to deal with increased rescues, etc.)

    I've hiked the Grand Canyon on the same popular weekend (second in October) nearly every year since 2004. It's never been a solo experience, but in my observations, the trails aren't necessarily more crowded now than they were 11 years ago. There are about the same number of people at rest stops, and we pass the same number of people on the trails. Perhaps because I'm moving at hiking speed, my experience is different than trail runners. But I've never witnessed much in the way of behavior the HCN writer so hyperbolically points out, and the runners who have passed me have never been anything but courteous.

    I'm all for finding unique adventures rather than treading the same tired trails, but there is something truly special about those extremely well-designed, easy-to-travel, bridged river crossing, incredible 3 trails in the Grand Canyon. Rather than discourage people in the running community from visiting based on what's largely conjecture, perhaps we should advocate for better understanding.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      arcticglass/Jill, it is my understanding that the NPS remains in the long process of updating its Backcountry Management Plan. I had previously understood that a Draft Environmental Impact Statement was to be made public at the beginning of this year, but it seems like there has been a delay in its production (not uncommon based upon my previous experience working in national parks and observing management process in others). I think that’s what we’re all waiting on now, is that Draft EIS which will propose several possible updates to the now-outdated Backcountry Management Plan on how to manage all users in the backcountry. From there, I think public comment will be solicited on the plausible options, and then the NPS will create a finalized plan. The permit process for non-commercial, day-use groups of over 12 people was an interim permit process implemented last fall to address a specific issue as the multi-year Backcountry Management Plan update takes place.

      1. arcticglasspress

        Thanks for the reply. (Don't know what's up with my user name. WordPress, sigh.) It makes sense that the current management is outdated and needs to be revised. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the next few years.

  6. melissa

    Thoughtful article that doesn't just identify one thing to do that will entirely resolve the issue, but rather highlights some issues, identifies some options and initiates discussion. And while the scale differs, I find this topic entirely relevant to many of our local popular trails here in Vancouver, BC (incl those in the Squamish-Pemberton corridor) that are shared by hikers, runners and mountain bikers and are experiencing increasing volumes in the last several years. For me, this triggers the thought of "right vs privilege" when it comes to outdoor and wilderness and the need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. (sorry, i had to)

  7. northacrosseurope

    There was a follow up opinion piece in High Country News to the article Geoff referenced, written this time from a runner's perspective:

    http://www.hcn.org/articles/anger-against-trail-r

    Within the comments after both articles are explanations given by several people that detail why they resent/dislike runners, that explain why they feel that runners are doing it wrong, that explain the ways that we (trail runners) have more environmental impact (in their view). While most of these 'explanations' would be easy to argue against rationally, they DO exist, and that they do is something I for one will be bearing more in mind. I may not entirely respect the logic behind the arguments, but I WILL make extra effort to respect all other trail users, whether they have any understanding of what trail runners are or not. I'll respect them even if they refuse to respect me.

    I wonder how many of us – being completely and soul-searchingly honest (always a dangerous thing!) – have ever approached other trail users and expected them to get out the way? How many of us haven't been quite as appreciative as we should have been when they do? How many of us have run in groups at busy times when perhaps we shouldn't have? How many of us have picked popular trails for weekend runs when we could have chosen a less obvious path?

    I applaud Geoff's suggestion that we find other magical places to go. Personally, I honestly thought I was a light-treading hyper-considerate trail user, but on hard reflection I can see that I Can Do Better.

    I bet we all could…

  8. paperoverrock

    I once took a history class on this subject. It focused on the creation of National Parks and even predicessors such as Adaronacks State Park. It's a lofty and high minded idea to only view these spaces as preserving wilderness for the sake of nature. Not to over simplify the creation process of every National Park as a place were white city dwellers decided to remove native peoples and squatters from scenic areas; however, the "human" history of the Grand Canyon is most certainly a collection of one group of people telling other groups they are doing it wrong. Anyone who goes to the Grand Canyon to find solitude and spends more than two seconds looking at a human ultra runner (except to admire their efficient form) is doing it wrong. National Parks are marginal and uninspired for providing individual solitude. Not to mention the whole popularity of Rim to Rim to Rim is made worse by social media, since your personal achievement can easily be explained to non runners with a single instagram. I'm all for running other places! As for the various cases "back lash" against ultra runners, we need to have some thicker skin as most of the hate is people wishing they were having as much fun.

  9. SeanMeissner

    I disagree that the corridor trails have been put on a pedestal, or that there is an obsession with running or hiking these routes. I think people flock to the corridor trails because that's where the services are, mainly water, but also, Phantom Ranch. If there were other 40+ mile routes in the Canyon with as much easy access to potable water as the corridor trails have (i.e., where one doesn't need to treat the water, assuming the chosen route even has access to water), more people would use those other trails.

    I've lived about an hour away from the Canyon for a little over 2 years. In that time, I've gone to the Canyon 15 times, so, on average, about once every other month. August is the only month I haven't visited it. The fact is, for me personally, below the upper 2ish miles on Bright Angel Trail, I just haven't experienced what I would consider over-crowding on the corridor trails; and only a couple times on those upper 2 miles of Bright Angel has it been what I would consider crowded.

    Now, that said, because I am fortunate to live close enough and have the luxury of playing in the Canyon on a whim, I don't have to choose just one route to run for a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I have been able to explore some of the lesser-traveled trails, and they are incredible. I love the remoteness, ruggedness, beauty, and solitude of those other trails. I also love the corridor trails. Parking near Bright Angel Lodge, running the Rim Trail to South Kaibab, running down South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch, taking a break to eat a Snickers and cool off in the creek, then running up Bright Angel Trail is a pretty sweet, and logistically easy, morning adventure for me.

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