Ponderosa pines and upland shrub glowed in the moonlight as Suzanne Stroeer, Lexi Miller, and Christin Douglas crested the Grand Canyon’s North Rim on October 23, 2020. They’d just spent 22 hours, 27 minutes running through the magnificent ravine, to the top of the southern side of the gorge, and back. The trek included two difficult climbs, as well as two swims across the Colorado River. When it was all said and done, the trio had traveled some 46 miles and ascended more than 16,300 feet. They’d also become the only known females to finish one of the most rigorous and least-trodden trails through the Big Ditch.
Over the past decade, the traditional trail for traveling from rim-to-rim (R2R2R) of the Grand Canyon has become increasingly crowded with ultrarunners and fastpackers. Grand Canyon National Park even started requiring a special-use permit to traverse it in 2014. The route starts at the Southern Rim, where adventurers can descend the South Kaibab or Bright Angel trails, cross one of the Silver or Black bridges, and climb out via the North Kaibab Trail. After returning the same way, athletes have traveled 42 miles and ascended 10,400 feet.
“I’d run [that] Grand Canyon R2R2R before, one-and-a-half years prior,” says Douglas, who is a professional endurance athlete and landscape photographer. “It was beautiful, but really crowded.”
In an effort to take a more remote, less traveled path, Stroeer, Miller, and Douglas planned for the other trail, known as the Grand Canyon R2R2R-alt. “I thought it was really cool that there’s this other route that no one is on,” says Douglas.
Around 2:15 a.m on the morning of October 22, the trio pulled on 30-pound packs and began bushwhacking from Swamp Point down the North Bass Trail. The ground was full of loose rocks and they had GPS devices to confirm their whereabouts. They crossed creek beds in Muav and Redwall canyons, which were marked by sporadic cairns. As the orange-maroon sunrise illuminated the tops of the red rocks, they caught sight of the Colorado River, flowing northbound.
“A beautiful glow hit the widened, spiraling walls, and we could see Bass Rapids, a gnarly section of the river,” says Miller, who is a running coach and community manager for local training company Lifelong Endurance. “The water was super clear. The weather was perfect. Our spirit was high.”
Miller was not originally going to make the trek with Douglas and Stroeer, but after her plans to race the Leadville Trail 100 Run fell through due to COVID-19, she joined the squad. “The Grand Canyon is a really special place,” she says, “and I was in need of an adventure.”
The group had all met in Boulder, where they became trail running partners. (Stroeer, a professional endurance athlete, who owns and guides for Dreamland Safari Tours and AWE Expeditions, a company that organizes mountaineering and high-altitude adventures for women, has since moved to Kanab, Utah.) They’d heard about the route through the Fastest Known Time website and podcast, which was co-founded by Boulderite Buzz Burrell.
In the past few decades, Burrell has pioneered the Fastest Known Time (FKT) movement, which involves running and hiking undiscovered routes through prominent landscapes, like the Grand Canyon. In 2014, when Grand Canyon National Park introduced the day-use permits for the main rim-to-rim runs, Burrell, Charles Corfield, and the another Fastest Known Time co-founder Peter Bakwin looked for an alternative route via some exploratory rambling. During their trek, Burrell and Corfield retreated after the first river crossing, but Bakwin established the new path’s first-ever FKT in 16 hours, 15 minutes. Over the next six years, five more men established FKTs on the route. Douglas, Miller, and Stroeer became the first women do it in October.
Once the three women reached a sandy cove at the edge of the Colorado River, they put on wetsuits and inflated Miller’s packraft to cross a calm section, above the Shinumo Rapids. The 400-foot long water traverse took seven minutes. “The idea of crossing the river was the part that kept me up at night,” says Douglas. “It was the biggest unknown. There are currents, eddies, huge rapids, and the water is 48 degrees. I was expecting it to be intense and hard. It ended up being peaceful and refreshing.”
After making a successful river crossing, they high-fived each other on the opposite bank. They cached their gear and ascended South Bass Trail—which was baking in the midday sun—and returned by 4 p.m. to finish their second swim in the closing daylight.
Veiled by night and fatigue, the final five miles of the rough, near-vertical path were grueling. “This is not a typical trail run,” says Douglas. “The route-finding was tricky with lots of weird features and side canyons. You need to know how to navigate.”
But that was exactly the type of experience they had in mind. “We had a wild adventure,” says Douglas, “on the national park’s gnarliest trail.”