Friday, October 28, 2016

Grand Circle Trailfest

It finally arrived!!! My big, "treat-yo-self" race of the year - The Grand Circle Trailfest!

To quickly sum up what this epic event is - the Grand Circle Trailfest is a 3 day trail festival consisting of a 13 mile trail race near Bryce Canyon National Park, a 12 mile trail race near Zion National Park, and a 19 mile trail race near Grand Canyon National Park. We camped in Kanab, Utah each night, which sits smack dab in the middle of the three parks in southwest Utah.

Ever since moving to the Western Slope I've wanted to go check out several of these National Parks, but just never gotten around to it (you know how life is!). I'm less than a 6 hour drive from some of the BEST National Parks in the country and yet I still hadn't made it to southwest Utah and Northern Arizona yet... so this was the PERFECT opportunity! 

I headed out late Wednesday afternoon and made pretty good timing, getting into Kanab, in just about 5 1/2 hours - pretty good even with my three stops (once for a scenic viewpoint and restroom break, once for dinner, and once for gas). I was happy to see the race organizers were still there for check-in despite arriving about an hour after check-in was over, so I was able to get my bib for the next morning and ask about logistics, before getting organized in my tent (supplied by and set-up already by the race staff) and heading to bed.

Each morning they would have a continental style breakfast before we had to make the hour+ drive to each day's race. You could either take the race shuttle to and from each course, or you could drive yourself, thus making it easier to go check out more of the area post-race. Knowing me and how much I would want to see in a short amount of time, I opted for the second option of driving myself. This worked out well on most accounts and I feel like I did a pretty good job seeing as much as I could at each National Park given the short time constraints I had.


So Day 1, we headed north from Kanab on the same road I had come in on the night before. It was about 60 miles along this road before turning east for a few miles and parking at the Bryce Canyon Pines Resort. Once we were parked, we still had to wait for a shuttle to take us from the parking to the start. Given that this was the first day of the inaugural event, I wasn't too surprised that the shuttles were pretty late and we ended up starting about an hour behind schedule.

Because of the late shuttles, the race ended up having an "open starting line", which basically meant that since it was a "chip timed" event, you could just start whenever you wanted (once you made it to the start, that is). I chose to basically start right when I got there. The race quickly went from a dirt road to single track - and I think the "open starting line" was actually a good thing in that it definitely broke up the masses before getting to the single track. There were about 400 people participating in the trail festival consisting of all types of abilities from speed demon to walkers, so even with the open starting line, I still had to pass quite a few people - but I also got passed a lot as well.

The first few miles were rolling through a wooded area until we finally hit a gorgeous viewpoint of "hoodoos" ("spire shaped rock formations" - what Bryce Canyon is famous for). We then got to run in and out of the various hoodoos for several miles which was awesome. It was rolling hills, but mostly downhill until we reached the aid station at Mile 8.

The aid station was great - I grabbed a 1/4 of a PB&J and quickly headed out. We had a short section along a paved bike path and then it was back to trail with some serious uphill... lots of steep switchbacks until finally making it to the top of a section which would have more views of the hoodoos. We had a couple more rounds of this (up/down/up/down) through the hoodoos until our final descent to the finish line. I finished The Day 1, Bryce Canyon 13 Mile Race in 3:10:06 - my slowest pace for the three days - but I wasn't here to win races, I was here to enjoy the scenery, so all was good in my book (this also turned out to be the hardest course of the three, in my opinion)!

After the race I grabbed my finisher's award and food box (they had a food box after each race with miscellaneous snacks such as granola bars, not my favorite thing to get after a race but it was okay I guess!), and then quickly got on a shuttle to head back to my car and then over to check out Bryce Canyon National Park.

The race was located about 10-15 minutes or so from Bryce Canyon National Park (National Parks have so many regulations, you typically cannot hold a race "in" the park, so each day's races were just outside of the parks), so I was able to make it over to the park fairly quickly after I had finished the race.

I knew I couldn't do much exploring on foot, given the fact that I was racing 12+ miles each day, but I still did my best to see as much as I could within each park. For my time at Bryce I ended up driving the entire road through the park, stopping at all of the overlooks and visitor's center before making my way back to camp. Bryce Canyon was pretty incredible, the amount of hoodoos was just AMAZING. My pictures do not do it justice!

Once I got back to camp, I took a quick shower, got dinner (provided by the Trailfest - we had the option of pizza or tacos) and then set up my sleeping bag and blanket to watch the "Trails in Motion" Film Festival that was lined up as the entertainment for the evening. I was pretty excited to get to see some trail running films on this trip, as they never make it to Grand Junction, since we're such a small community!

Our "tent city"


The good thing about having such a busy first day was that I slept great the second night (as opposed to my horrible first nights sleep)! I woke up at 5am again on Friday and kept with my same routine - breakfast at 5:30 and hit the road just before 6:00am. I was thankful I left at the perfect time and ended up following several other race participants to the starting line - which meant I didn't have to pay too close of attention to the directions. My only complaint was the HORRIBLE dirt road we had to take...I was afraid for my Subaru Impreza's life after bottoming out several times... Nevertheless I finally made it to the starting line!

For the race near Zion, we got to park right at the start which meant no waiting on the shuttle! This meant I started right on time and headed out to complete Day 2's race! This race was the furthest distance from it's corresponding National Park, held on the other side of Hurricane Valley on Gooseberry Mesa. In my opinion it was the least similar to being in the park out of the three races...but the views were nevertheless stunning!

Waiting for the start!
The course quickly moved to singletrack which meant lots of congestion (especially since most everyone started at the same time today), but I didn't mind taking it easy once again and continuing to make lots of photo stops along the course! I ended up chatting quite a bit with a guy named Greg from North Carolina and he was nice enough to get a picture of me as well:

The half-way point of the course was at this amazing overlook where the Mesa came to a point and you had views on 3 sides. Lots of people were having a blast taking cool photos - that was one thing I loved about this whole event - almost everyone was just about enjoying the views and the experience and no so much about "time". It was pretty great!

My favorite picture from the course!

We continued to run along the edge of the mesa a bit before finally heading back inland. I ended up catching back up to Greg and we chatted a lot which helped the time go by. A large majority of this race was run a top slickrock, which I'm not a huge fan of, so I was happy to this was the shortest race of the three, at 12 miles - which I finished in 2:44:58.

So much slickrock!

After this race, I once again got ready to head out pretty quickly so I could go check out the day's corresponding National Park. As I briefly mentioned above, this race was the furthest away and I had about a 45 minutes drive to Springdale, Utah - which was the closest entrance to Zion National Park. Thankfully when I was chatting with Greg earlier that day he warned me all about the Zion crowds and how they offered shuttles, so I opted to not even drive into the park at all, and instead take a shuttle from the town of Springdale into the Park. This worked out well, even though I would later have to drive through the park anyways to get back to Kanab (I didn't know this at the time, but I had done a bit of a loop driving, and the closest way back to Kanab was actually to drive thru the park).

The Springdale city bus dropped us off at the entrance to Zion - where they had a "walk-in entrance". I had my National Park pass, so I quickly walked in, briefly stopped at the visitor's center, and then hopped on a park shuttle to go check out the park. I ended up getting off at most of the various stops along the route - first at The Court of the Patriarch's for some pictures, then at the Zion Lodge, where I stopped for awhile and ate lunch, sitting on the grass and enjoying the views (it was seriously the most beautiful day out too!).

Court of the Patriarch's
My lunch spot! Pretty gorgeous!

After lunch I stopped off at a few other stops and did a very short hike up to the Weeping Rock. I really enjoyed my time riding through the park (the shuttles were also nice because for the first time this trip I got a break from driving!), but I definitely left feeling like this was a park much better discovered on foot! There were several hikes I wanted to do - The Narrows, and Angels Landing or Observation Point - but with a 19 mile race the next day, I knew it would be better saved for next time!

I took the shuttle back to my car, and then drove back to Kanab in time to see the second half of a concert by The National Parks (a pretty appropriate band name for this event!). About a month before the event I had read about this band playing so I looked them up on Spotify and actually really like their music - so I was glad to make it back in time to see most of it! After the concert, I took a shower (the water was warm today!), then grabbed dinner and got ready for the second night events - The Trail Running Film Festival, which was once again, awesome!


The race on Day 3 was actually the longest of them all - at 19 miles (although my watch came in much closer to 18). Because of the longer distance, the plan was to have it start an hour earlier. The worst part about this was getting up at 4am today - doing my same routine, but this time hitting the road at about 5. Today's race was also the furthest away, at about 1 hour, 45 minutes.

This was also another race where we had to park and then take a shuttle to the start, so we once again started a bit late and they had an "open starting line" (the late start was because they used the same shuttles that were bringing runners from Kanab to the start, and then they came and got us, once those runners were dropped off). It wasn't too bad though and I ended up starting a little after 8am.

This course started out running among trees for a few miles before finally coming to our first section along the rim where we got our first views of the Grand Canyon! This was my first time to the Grand Canyon since I was a kid, so it was pretty magnificent! I wanted to just hang out at the overlooks, but unfortunately, the trail headed back inland several times in between views. I ended up chatting with a lady from the Midwest for several miles (there were A LOT of people who flew in for this event!) before we made it to the aid station at Mile 9. I quickly grabbed a PB&J (this has kind of become my go-to snack in trail races lately!) and headed out. I was really trying to run as much of this course as I could so that I could spend more time enjoying the view points and, eventually, get over to the National Park!

At the first overlook!

After coming to a really good view of the Canyon at about Mile 13 someone on the course (volunteer or random person, not really sure) told me this would be my last view point for 4 miles! That meant 4 miles of trees... (don't get me wrong, I like trees...but I can see trees anywhere...I wanted to see The Grand Canyon!). This was my motivation to try and keep a decent pace in these later miles - which I mostly managed to do with the exception of one giant hill! Finally I was in the downhill stretch to the finish! I ran as much as I could, waving "hi" to Greg who was stopped for photos. I enjoyed one more overlook for a brief second and then headed up our final hill and finished in 4:07:24 - my fastest "per mile" pace out of the three races!

The finish line of our last race!

I quickly got in line for the shuttle and we headed back to our cars. I then drove into Grand Canyon National Park (we were on the North Rim side) and stopped at the visitor's center and lodge for some lunch and to scope out where to go!

I decided to drive out to Cape Royal - which was 23 miles from the Visitor's Center - but along a narrow and windy road, so it took awhile, but as they said they would be, the views were totally worth it. It was gorgeous! My only complaint was that the sun was so bright, I wasn't able to really capture it with my photos. It was incredible though - I made sure to just enjoy time there without my camera in front of my face for a bit. I ended up staying out at the Cape Royal area (which has several different spots you could view the Canyon from) for at least an hour, if not longer.

On my drive back, I stopped at Point Imperial - which is the highest point along the North Rim at 8,803'. As I was heading back, I made a last minute decision to head back to the visitor's center and hike Bright Angel Point Trail - a short 1/2 mile walk from the Visitor's Center / Lodge area. I almost didn't go because it was already getting late and I had close to a 2 hour drive back to camp still...but I am SO thankful I went. I ended up catching the sunset along the canyon, and IT. WAS. AMAZING. Seriously - I thought the Grand Canyon was incredible during the day... it was about 1000 times better during the sunset. It turned a gorgeous shade of purple and the sky was yellow - I cannot even describe it. I tried to take photo's, but of course, I forgot my tripod (every time lately!). I ended up just watching the sunset over the canyon for close to an hour probably. It was totally worth it. It is views like these that leave me wondering HOW people do not believe there is a Creator!?! 

My pictures DO NOT do it justice!

This is way over saturated, but I was just trying to show how amazing it was!

The festival was over on Sunday morning, so I packed up my camp and headed out of town. I had really wanted to go back to Zion National Park and try to squeeze in a hike...but that was in the opposite direction of home and I had already ran 44 miles in 3 days and had at least a 6 hour drive back. So I decided instead to drive the "scenic route" home - which was about an hour longer, but went through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and my fourth National Park of the weekend - Capital Reef. I also stopped off in Grand Staircase for a quick run to Calf Creek Falls - a really cool trail I had heard about in the past, but hadn't been able to check out yet.

Calf Creek Falls

So final thoughts...

I loved this event! I am so glad I decided to go despite it costing a lot more than I typically spend on races and not having anyone to go with. Of course it left me with about a million things I still want to check out in each of the parks, but, it was the perfect "teaser" into the area. I definitely plan to go back someday and I now have much more of an understanding into where things are and how things work (especially Zion with the shuttles!). I have already added several trails to my "bucket list" (hello, Rim 2 Rim and The Narrows).

The races were very well organized and even though they weren't "in" the Park, I like that it gave some variety - a lot of these trails I would never know to go to if it weren't for this race! My favorite race of the three was the race at Bryce Canyon - it was just so cool running through the hoodoos and I enjoyed the terrain a lot. It was probably the most difficult of the three as well, in terms of elevation gain, but I didn't mind it too much.

Vacation Races and Ultra Adventures did an excellent job putting on this event. As I mentioned before it was very well organized and well put on. The fact that it included camping made it much more affordable and having tents already set up was just an added bonus (especially since I got in late!). Breakfast and dinner along with the film festivals and concert was also awesome (they also had yoga and some speakers in the afternoons, but I was too busy exploring the parks, so I missed these). I couldn't have asked for better weather - it was 40's at night and 70's during the day - just about perfect! The only major negative was that there really was too much to do and not enough time!

If I have to be somewhat nit picky - the showers weren't the greatest (cold the first day and just in general, not clean at all...but there were hundreds of people using them, so it's kind of to be expected), there were lines for the bathrooms, and I would've enjoyed better post-race food...but all things considered these are very minor complaints.

As far as pricing goes, I'd say I'm neutral on this front. In my opinion, it was a bit expensive, however given all that you get, I do think it is worth it. Will I be able to swing it every, but on occasion, yes. Not only does it include three days of racing, it also includes breakfast and dinner each night, two film festivals, a concert, and four nights of camping (with a tent included). So when you add all that up, it's very reasonable.

And of course, seeing all of these places for the first time is pretty priceless if you ask me!


  1. WOW. Just stunning Kate, thanks for sharing the adventure! I'm a huge National Parks fanboy (Southern Utah in particular) so this would be an amazing opportunity. Very cool too that you were able to run so close to the parks. Your photo of running on slickrock reminds me of the Moab Trail Marathon & Half (coming up this weekend, actually), which I'd HIGHLY recommend despite much of that course also being run on and over slickrock. Running Moab also gave us the chance to visit the other two National Parks in Southern Utah, Arches & Canyonlands (though I know you've been out there yourself at least once to run the Canyonlands Half). In any case, score another one for the Colorado lifestyle!

    1. I have heard great things about the Moab Trail Marathon & Half, but have yet to do it yet. I have done The Red Hot 33K there though, and a 50K that is no longer around, which are probably pretty similar (in terms of running on slickrock! Although I have heard that the Trail Half has much more of an "adventure" side to it with some running through creek beds and what not!). I do need to do it one of these years - I just wish it was not the same weekend as Rim Rock Marathon - our big local race here!

  2. Loved reading about this! Bryce Canyon is my absolute favorite of the parks for reasons I can't quite put my finger on but I love all the places you visited on this adventure. I need another trip out there soon for sure!


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