Last Saturday morning, 85-year-old Dale Sanders strode up to the Bright Angel trailhead, between the bus turnaround and a tourist lodge on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, and with a huge grin splitting his extravagant white beard, shook his trekking poles triumphantly and hollered “I survived!”
Truth is, he didn’t even look tired.
As a handful of well-wishers clapped, Sanders laid a wet kiss on an interpretive sign, marking the completion of a rim-to-rim-to-rim roundtrip through the canyon—the latest in a string of Guinness-certified records for the so-called Grey Beard Adventurer. Since his eightieth birthday, Sanders has canoed the Mississippi River from source to sea, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a 340-mile nonstop paddling race, and walked from Key West to the southern end of the AT in Georgia. He is the oldest person to have done each of those things.
The Grand Canyon roundtrip, comprising 48 miles and more than 20,000 feet of elevation change, is also a record, though it comes as something of a consolation prize. Sanders had planned to hike the International Appalachian Trail this summer to complete a 5,400-mile section hike from Florida to northern Newfoundland, but changed focus after the Covid pandemic closed the Canadian border. That one’s still to come, along with plenty of other adventures.
Since his eightieth birthday, Sanders has canoed the Mississippi River from source to sea, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a 340-mile nonstop paddling race, and walked from Key West to the southern end of the AT in Georgia.
Born and raised in Lickskillet, Kentucky, Sanders now lives in west Tennessee with Meriam, his wife of 41 years. Adventure Journal caught up with him the morning after he got home from the Grand Canyon to talk about his latest record, and a few more he’s got planned.
Sanders, trail name Gray Beard, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail at 82.
Adventure Journal: Going rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon and then back again sounds wonderful, and also brutal.
Dale Sanders: There’s quite a bit of climbing, but it’s a very well-maintained trail that even the mules can go up and down. The hardest part was right in the middle of it, going up from Cottonwood campground to the north rim. That almost 14-mile round trip was an elevation gain of a mile going up, and a mile going back down. That was the hardest day. There are some sections on the North Rim where the trail is carved literally right on the side of that cliff. A thousand foot straight up, and a thousand straight down. It’s only about a three or four foot wide ledge there. That’s a little frightening.
What route did you take?
The route I took was dictated by Guinness, because an 80-year-old set the record [for oldest rim-to-rim hiker]. So I had to take the same route he took. He started, as I did, at the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim.
I had to go all the way down south through Indian Garden, down to Bright Angel Campground, Phantom Ranch and then up the North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood, and from there on up to the North Rim. And then I repeated that that exactly, and finished where I started.
How much time did they take you?
Well the age record is not connected with time. A 90-year-old just last year—which is what inspired me—in fact a 91-year-old, did a rim-to-rim and got Guinness approval on it last year. He took seven days to do a rim-to-rim, that’s just from the South Rim to the North Rim. I said, well, if he can do a rim-to-rim at 91, maybe I can see what the Guinness record is for rim-to-rim-to-rim. They said 80 years old was the record. Well I’m 85. I said, I think I can do that.
I live here in southwest Tennessee and there’s not a lot of mountains and I needed elevation training. So we have a state park nearby called Shelby Forest and it has some real steep, hundred foot up, hundred foot down–about five in a row like that. So you just keep repeating back and forth on those and you get a pretty decent training.
How many days did it take you?
Oh, yeah, I didn’t tell you! It took [the 91-year-old rim-to-rim hiker] seven days, and it took me six days to go rim to rim to rim.
You looked pretty good coming in. How did you feel?
I felt really good. I had some allergy-related problems with the smoke coming in from the west, but other than that I didn’t have an issue at all. I didn’t have any any pains whatsoever. Can you believe that? I’m sore today from driving back, because I left the Grand Canyon and I got home last night in Memphis two and a half days later. I drove all the way myself so I think I’m a little bit sore from that.
Looking down on the Devil’s Corkscrew. Rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon adds up to five miles of vert, give or take.
So you’re so you’re sore from sitting and driving, but you’re not sore from six days of hard hiking in the Grand Canyon. I think there’s probably a lesson for folks in that.
Sometimes I give motivational speeches, and I always say that if you want to live long and healthy—as much as you have control over anyway—there’s three things you got to do. One is you’ve got to find a combination to live happy. You have to do that on your own and nobody else can tell you how to live happy. And I always tell ’em, you’ve gotta have a positive spiritual life if you really want to be truly happy. Sometimes I’ll elaborate a little on that, but most of the time I leave it like that. And the third thing is you’ve got to remain active. Not in a gym, but you’ve got to get outside and exercise. Staying really active outside, that’s the way I think that I was able to hike the whole thing without really getting sore.
You’ve got a little farm out there in Tennessee that keeps you pretty active, too.
A lot of my exercise is just doing tree work, cutting firewood and things like that. And we’re building a barn. We’re putting the tin on it right now.
You’re not up on the roof right now, are you?
Well, I’m letting somebody else do that because tin roofs are really kind of technical hard to put on.
You wouldn’t catch me up there.
You know, if it’s man-made like a ladder or something I get scared, but hiking along the edge of the cliff in the Grand Canyon didn’t scare me at all. I’m not scared of nature heights for some reason.
Tell me how you came into this life, kind of a second career as the Gray Beard Adventurer. Since turning 80 you’ve done the Mississippi thru-paddle and hiked the AT and Florida Trail. What kind of adventures did you get into as a younger man?
Maybe it’s a second career, but there’s no income to it [laughs]. Before the Mississippi River and before I got into hiking, I worked in Parks and Recreation for about fifty three years.
A lot of that was with the U.S. Navy. They called it M.W.R—morale, welfare and recreation—but it’s just kind of like a city parks and rec department. That’s what I did my whole life professionally. Sports-wise, from a very young age I started in competitive swimming and springboard diving, and from that went into competitive spearfishing. I won a national championship and athlete of the year, but I had to give it up.
I retired in 2002 and started paddling, and that led to the Mississippi River. I still hold that record today, but Stan Stark is paddling right now and he’s going to break my record next week. I was 80 and he’s 81.
You know what though? I’m just thinking. I gotta have an adventure next year. I might just go up there and take that record back.
When he’s not paddling or hiking, Gray Beard is a river angel for paddlers passing his home near Memphis. He invites all of them to sign his Paddler’s Wall of Fame.
On the AT as well, there was another fella going after your record, Victor Kubilius. Pappy is his trail name.
Yeah, two different years he tried. He was 87 when he first challenged it, and then he skipped a year and challenged it again at 89. That was this year, and I think he would I think he would have broken it, but he had to come off because of the virus. What a shame!
I was rooting for Pappy. I think he deserves it. He’s got an extraordinary background. He grew up in Europe someplace and was a young boy when World War II broke out, and he ran through the mountains with messages for the allied forces. That’s basically how he got into and hiking long distance. I really wanted Pappy to get that record.
It’s not one that I would try to take back, but the Mississippi River, now—this is almost like an announcement with you, but I’ve been thinking seriously the last couple of days about paddling next summer from Itasca down to the Gulf of Mexico and get that record back.
You’re rooting for those guys. Are you in touch with them too?
We’re all friends. Stan is going to come by here after he finishes the Mississippi next week. I told him I might announce my next journey while you’re at my house. He said, I don’t want to hear it!
You’ve received a lot of recognition for your adventures, through Guinness and the media. Is that what motivates you?
Actually it’s embarrassing, but it is what motivates me. In junior high and high school I was the littlest one and the dumbest one in my class. And I was bullied an awful lot. In those days, nobody cared. Even the principal just laughed about it. So I started doing hand balancing and tumbling. Me and two other guys just started to do it, all on our own. I got pretty good at it. Matter of fact the team got so good at it they would send us around to other high schools throughout the county performing acrobatics. And as soon as I got started at acrobatics, all the bullying went away.
That just greatly influenced my entire life. I don’t go in there just to participate. I go in to win.
Well you certainly have done some impressive journeys. Of all these these adventures, or challenges you could call them—the Mississippi, the AT thru-hike, the 340-mile paddling race—which one was the toughest?
There’s absolutely no question. No question. You can guess it.
Gotta be the AT
No question about it. First of all, it took me ten months. Even if it wasn’t ten months, the AT is a very difficult trail unless you are a really young hiker and you’ve got some experience. I’d never had a long-distance hiking experience. I just got in shape and started hiking. Matter of fact, I was told told many times that because you’re not already an experienced long distance hiker, you’ll never be able to make it.
Every AT hiker has a story about starting out with too much weight, and making other rookie mistakes. So here you are—you’re an 80-year-old rookie. What did you learn?
Well, I started out like everybody else, too heavy and trying to make 20 miles a day. I was really, really fortunate because I flip-flopped. I hiked north to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, then went to Katahdin and hiked back south to Boiling Springs.
When I got to Boiling Springs the first time, I had lost so much weight because I was carrying too much. I was down to 135 pounds and not I’m not supposed to be skinny. I knew I had to make some kind of major changes in my diet and the way I was hiking.
I found another guy that had a truck and we did the key-trade program. That was the only way I was able to complete it. It’s legal to do that. The AT doesn’t care if you even carry a backpack, but I always carried a pack. I just didn’t have so much weight in it—less than 10 pounds. And I was able to finish it that way.
Every day I would sleep in my own vehicle. Have a good dry bed, good food and dry clothes, so I was starting out really fresh and well-fed in the morning. The way it works is you sleep in a trail-head, then in the morning one person would take one of the vehicles and go south to where you planned to stop that night. We had a range of somewhere between 12 miles and 25 miles. You can always find a road crossing within that range on the AT.
It’s a lot of driving. But for old people? I’m telling you, that’s the way to do it.
It strikes me that your biggest adventures, the thru-paddle and thru-hikes, are solo efforts, but you couldn’t have done them without people you met along the way.
In paddling, river angels are really crucial to being able to resupply, keeping your morale up and just having some company, because that river can get very lonely. And even on the Appalachian Trail, trail angels are-oh my gosh, it’s so nice to walk up to a road crossing and find somebody with an awning set up with food under it.
To be honest with you, for old people, paddling the Mississippi River is probably the easiest long journey you can do and get recognition for it. It’s not that hard, especially if you know how to read water and handle the barge traffic. Everybody’s scared of the barges. All you gotta do is stay away from ’em.
How about a medal for that beard?
So is it back to the river next summer?
I’m definitely going to do something next year. I’m going to either spearfish, or . . . I’ve hiked from Key West to northern Maine already. I’ve done all the trails of the Eastern Continental Trail, except for the International Appalachian Trail. And that starts at Katahdin where the AT ends, and goes to northern Newfoundland. If I can do that, that would be another major record. Even though it would be a section hike over three years, I’d be the oldest one to ever do it. That one might hang around a while.
I was going up there this summer. The only reason I did the Grand Canyon is because I couldn’t get into Canada. So if Canada’s open next year, there’s a high probability I’ll be doing that third leg of the ECT.
You’re only 85 and I don’t know if you feel like you’re slowing down at all, but do you prioritize the big ambitions? Are you trying to do the hardest ones first?
I’ve been placing the priority on which one I’m more excited about accomplishing. Let’s face it. I have physical issues and medical issues and all of the above. It’s very, very challenging, but if I’m really motivated to do it nothing is going to stop me.
And you know what motivates me is people just like you. I love it. It just really inspires me to see that somebody is actually writing about what I’m doing.
Is it the fame that motivates you? Because hiking and canoeing is a hard way to get famous.
I’m sorry to say that, but I think so. I know it’s selfish, but I guess when you get 85 if you want to be selfish you can.
You also said that when people get inspired by you, that also motivates you. Those things go hand-in-hand, don’t they?
That is really important. If people show me they’re inspired—when they say I want to be just like you when when I’m your age—I can’t tell you how many thousands of times I’ve heard that, but every time I hear it, it’s good. It’s like a shot of adrenaline.