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?