Changes Coming For Grand Canyon Runners

Will the Grand Canyon's trails be devoid of runners after a new backcountry management plan gets implemented this fall? Photo: Paul Laeseke

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.”

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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.

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