EUrunner - Arizona 2016
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Arizona: May 2016

Sedona: Hangover Trail
Last May my colleague Zdenek and I went to Phoenix to participate in a corporate event. We decided to take a few days off before the actual event in order to get in some Arizona running and climbing. I must mention that Zdenek is an avid climber, so we had agreed to equally divide our time between running and climbing. With regard to the nature of both activities, the town of Flagstaff seemed to be the perfect location for a basecamp - at least according to our internet searches. What we forgot to take into account was that it takes three hours or so just to get there from Phoenix International Airport. Given the fact that we had spent the entire night on a transatlantic flight with just a few short naps and (due to the time shift) arrived late in the evening, the decision turned out not to be so wise.

red sandstone mountain scenery

Having made it to our basecamp the same night, we could at least sleep in the next day. Jet lag had no power over our exhaustion, and we slept on instinct. We began the next day with a meager breakfast, then we drove to Sedona, a small town surrounded by breathtaking red sandstone walls. We decided to start the day with a short run, picking a 14 kilometer loop called “Hangover trail”. Arriving at the parking lot, we discovered that a small parking fee is charged there. Unfortunately, as in many other places in US, the machine did not accept our European credit cards. As a result we had to risk a penalty. Later in the afternoon we bought a parking permit at a local store.

When you travel to the US from Europe, be aware of the fact that your European card might not be accepted at some places (gas stations, some restaurants, parking lots etc.) It is wise to have a backup solution just in case.

After a brief spell of maneuvering through bushes, we reached the base of a rocky hill. From here the trail continued, skirting the hill. The trail surface was rather flat and dry, so we didn’t have to focus on our feet and we could fully admire the exquisite scenery. The only thing we had to pay attention to was cacti. A few hours later I learned for myself how badly the stings can hurt.

As it turned out, the trail was not very well marked. Even with the navigation file in my Garmin we couldn’t find the right path, ending up several times above or below the marked trail. The hill resembled a stack of dozens of uneven pancakes with gradually decreasing diameters. There were many natural trails around the hill at different levels, and it was tough to determine which one was the official marked trail. Finally, at a point where the trail passes a rock saddle, we lost our way completely. We decided to split up and go in different directions in order to try and find the marked trail. It turned out that I headed in the right direction, but now, despite shouting and phoning, I couldn’t locate Zdenek. I decided to stick to the marked path and hoped we’d reunite some place further ahead.

hangover trail path

Approaching the parking lot, still thinking Zdenek was ahead of me, I assumed he would be at the car. I emptied the rest of my canteen. That was a mistake, because I still had almost an hour of running ahead of me, I just didn’t know it at the time. When I arrived, Zdenek wasn’t there and the couple I met there had not seen him either.

After a few minutes of lingering I decided to follow the loop in the opposite direction, hoping to meet Zdenek somewhere along the way. Thirty minutes of running passed by, and he was still out of reach. I felt thirsty and started considering running back to the town in order to hydrate. I tried to call again, and this time I finally reached him. He had taken a detour around a nearby hill, and, in the end, the distance he tracked was twice as much as he had expected. It was no surprise to me when on the following day he refused to run again.

All in all, despite the difficulties, it was a wonderful trail. You can see from the pictures that this part of the world is truly worth seeing. I definitely recommend this particular run as well as the entire area. In the afternoon we walked through some other locales and even lifted Zdenek’s spirits with some climbing.

Grand Canyon: Rim-To-Rim
Of course we could not miss the Grand Canyon. This is simply the must-see attraction when visiting Arizona. We got a strange surprise when leaving Flagstaff that morning: it was snowing! When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, the ground was covered by a thin white carpet. But my first impression was marred by disappointment. The clouds were low, severely limiting visibility. I could only surmise that there was a deep canyon somewhere beyond the guard rail. Anyway, I packed my stuff and started off (here I am intentionally using the personal pronoun “I” because, as mentioned above, this time Zdenek refused to join me and decided to wait at the top of the canyon.)

rainbow streatching over Grand Canyon

We had parked close to the Bright Angel trail head, but as the Bright Angel was my exit trail, the first forty minutes of running was along the canyon’s rim in order to reach the Kaibab trail. It was still quite cold, but the snow was gradually melting and even the clouds were tearing apart. Then, just for a moment, I suddenly glimpsed the bottom of the canyon. It was unbelievably deep. As a bonus, there was a rainbow stretching over the valley. It looked almost unreal.

By the time I started my descent, the snow had already melted away and even the clouds had scattered. At first it felt a bit weird to start downhill. Like most people I’m used to the opposite profile: starting at a low point, running upwards, and then returning downward.

The upper part of the Kaibab trail was wet, and so I needed to pay close attention to my steps. The path was covered by slippery mud; once I had to proceed very carefully due to the steepness of the descent. After a few hundred meters the trail leveled and the surface became dry. I got the impression that it probably snowed or rained only on the upper parts of the canyon.

While the scenery was extraordinary, I felt it hadn’t been changing very much. I wondered how quickly one can adjust to such magnificent views. At least for me, it seemed there was a huge difference between the feelings I had when the parting clouds first enabled me to see all the beauty, and the feelings I had one hour into the run. I was reawakened when the Colorado River, in all its splendid color, came into view.

The Kaibab trail appeared to me less crowded than the Bright Angel trail, but maybe the reason was that I had initiated the descent early, at around nine, whereas I started climbing back along the Bright Angel trail at lunchtime. On the way down I met no more than a dozen people, most of them heading downwards. Only a ranger, leading a couple of mules, was on an ascent. Closer to the river the terrain changed a bit and the scales became more realistic again. The rocks were closer together and the view started to be more believable. While running across the bridge which spans the river, I experienced intense and conflicting emotions. I felt relieved that I had made it down, but at the same time I was afraid about whether or not I could make it up to the top again.

Kaibab trail

Note: the Internet is overloaded by articles about how exhausting or even dangerous it is to descend and climb up to the rim again. However, there are not too many technical passages, the path is well maintained, and the height, 1550 meters, is distributed over enough of a distance to prevent the terrain from ever being overly steep. Fit mountain trail runners should do fine.

At the bottom I stopped for a while to refill my water canteens. Then I crossed a second bridge to get back to the southern side, and ran a mile or so along the river. It took me another hour to get from there up to the Indian Garden campground. In my opinion, this was the most beautiful part of the trail. The path led next to a rivulet with plenty of lush green vegetation. By this time in the run, at this lower elevation and later time of day, it was much warmer. I had already stripped each of my layers one by one, ultimately down to just a T-shirt. Going upwards from the Indian Garden campground the trail was becoming more and more crowded. Every now and then I had to side-step a party of tourists on mules heading down. Moreover, for a few minutes, it was not possible to run at all, because I could not pass another group of people slowly riding up. Thus the crowds forced me to rate this leg of the trail as the least favorite.

At this place I have to admit that the run was a bit disenchanting. Don’t get me wrong, the Grand Canyon is definitely worth seeing. It’ll dazzle you. Even if you’ve seen it on TV, it’s still well beyond your imagination. But for me, having been conditioned to taking in Alpine scenes, the desert view seemed repetitive; I found it difficult to identify and appreciate its subtle nuances of beauty.

Altogether, I ran approximately 37 kilometers, returning to the starting point about five hours after I left. I’m really grateful I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, but I would probably skip it during my next trip to Arizona. While the first impression was terrific, that magical feeling faded quickly. When preparing for this run, I was considering tracking the entire rim-to-rim-to-rim trail, which stretches all the way to the North Rim and then back again. I’m glad that in the end I didn’t run the full length. For myself at least, rim-to-rim was sufficient.

The following, final day of our vacation, we drove back to Sedona for more climbing and hiking, where we visited more gorgeous sights. In the evening we returned to Phoenix. Once our business meetings started, we no longer had much time to spare. We just had a few hours each day, early morning or late evening. We still managed to explore Scottsdale and the Southern Mountains areas.

start - finish distance climb / descent duration difficulty rating
day #1 Hangover trail 17 + 5 km 715m / 715m 3:20 40% ★★★★★
day #2 South rim - loop 37 km 1550m / 1550m 4:58 50% ★★★★