Hike to Phantom Ranch
Grand Canyon National Park
When we tell people we’re hiking to the bottom of the canyon, most of them look at us as if we’re crazy. "You’re hiking where? Why do you want to do that?" are the typical questions we get. For us the answer is simple. We do it for renewal. Nothing refreshes the body and soul better than a visit to this incredible place and the Phantom Ranch.
Tom and I arrived at the South Rim on New Year’s Eve, ready to hike down the six-mile South Kaibab Trail. A recent snowstorm had blanketed the trailhead with several inches of snow and ice. Posted signs told us to wear crampons on our boots, but we ignored the warning and proceeded on our way, hiking sticks in hand, packs filled to capacity. The hiking trails in the canyon are very well maintained, and impossible to get lost on. Nonetheless, they are steep, especially at the top, and hiking sticks are invaluable. The recent snowfall, combined with the never-ending procession of mules taking their human cargo down the trail, had left huge pools of muddy water and "deposits" on every step. I was glad we had waterproofed our boots. I wasn’t so glad that my olfactory nerves were in good working order that day.
A pea soup fog surrounded us. For several miles, it reduced our visibility to no more than ten feet. Finally, we reached a rest stop at Cedar Ridge plateau where we walked through the bottom of the clouds and were reunited with the stunning, raw beauty of the canyon. The magnitude of the canyon is hard to comprehend and even harder to put into words. For as far as you can see you are surrounded by mountainous, craggy rock formations, striated with colors ranging from burnt orange to moss green to the densest blacks, all created by the forces of wind and water. You are walking on millions of years of geologic history. As you sit resting on ancient ground you cannot help but be reminded that you are nothing more than a mere dot on the timeline of history. It is a humbling experience.
Cedar Ridge is the first of only two points along the trail that has restroom facilities, so it was a good place to rest up and regroup. Later, after we had walked for several more miles, we rounded a corner and ran headlong into a common canyon inhabitant - a bighorn sheep standing right in the middle of the trail. We engaged in a Mexican standoff for what seemed like an eternity. I suppose he got tired of us, because just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone, bolting to the adjacent hillside, disappearing from sight. We continued on our way until we reached the silver Kaibab Bridge, which is a mere half-mile from our destination: Phantom Ranch.
The Essence of Phantom Ranch
The essence of Phantom Ranch is truly unique. Built in 1922 to house the occasional weary traveler, its purpose today is the same. Although it has undoubtedly been remodeled over the years, it is still a bare bones, get-back-to-nature kind of place. Nestled along Bright Angel Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, the Ranch sits about a half-mile back along a trail dotted by the private cabins of the camp’s personnel. Many of them were decked out with holiday lights and tinsel, and someone had hoisted the American flag high in the air.
Our first stop on arrival was check-in at the main building, where we got our cabin assignment and were finally able to sit down and rest our feet. Accommodations at the Ranch are spartan in nature and hard to come by. Plan on at least a six month wait for a dorm room, and two years for a private cabin. We had managed to get a cabin this time. After the long hike, the cabins are like home sweet home with a twist. Bare concrete floors, bunk beds made for munchkins, and lovemaking only a gymnast could perform.
In addition, the cabins have separate shower facilities, whereas the dorm dwellers get their own inside showers. Aside from that, the biggest difference between the two is atmosphere. In the cabins you’re alone with your partner and your thoughts, free to do as you please. In the dorms, strangers co-mingle in a menagerie of boots, backpacks and smelly socks. There’s a line queuing for the shower, and not much privacy, but no one seems to care. A quiet sense of camaraderie pervades the room, a shared feeling among total strangers that we survived the long trek down, that we made it. Little conversation can be found, mostly just the sounds of hot running water and aching feet being rubbed.
So you’re probably wondering, what do you do for entertainment? Put simply, you create your own. Phantom Ranch is not a resort facility. There are no TVs and only one pay phone. We relish this time to get away from all that. When we’re not catching up on our reading, we cross over the creek and hike the Clear Creek trail that runs high above and parallel to the perimeter of the Colorado. It affords great vantage points of the scene below as well as sweeping panoramic views of the cliffs and rock faces. You can even see the ruins of ancient Indian cliff dwellings in several places along the canyon walls.
We also spend time hiking along the North Kaibab trail. This 14-mile long trail begins at the far end of the camp, and runs alongside a rapidly flowing creek bed where mule deer commonly feed. Cottonwood trees are in great abundance here, and when the sun finally peeks over the rim they light up as if on fire. The canyon is desert country, and there is an abundance of desert plant life blooming, even in the middle of winter. The most common plants are desert cacti, and I always find it odd to see them covered in snow.
Regardless of what we do, we do it without a watch. Many people, myself included, think they will never get through their day on time if they’re not wearing a watch. I don’t take my watch when I go the canyon. I purposely leave it behind, packed away in the luggage in the trunk of the car. The only times you need to be concerned with are breakfast and dinner, and they have bells for that - 7:00 a.m. for breakfast and 6:30 p.m. for dinner.
Meals are served family style in the canteen. I find breakfast the most intriguing time of the day. The winter sky is quite dark at 7:00 a.m... There is no actual sunrise this far down in the canyon, so the only light comes from inside the cabins, as patches of light peaking out from behind window shades. Sleepy campers stumble out of their rooms and wait in the predawn light for the server to announce breakfast. The same routine occurs at dinner, except the folks aren’t sleepy, just hungry from the day. The canteen closes for a few hours after dinner and reopens later for evening refreshments and communality. People play ages old board games, read books, or just sit and chat with newly made and soon to be forgotten friends.
This is one of my favorite things to do at the Ranch, meet and talk to new people. Get a new perspective on life. I love hearing their stories and experiences in the canyon. The very fact that they even made the arduous journey speaks to their uniqueness. On this trip, we celebrated New Year’s Eve under a million stars, sharing a bottle of champagne with a delightful Frenchman who had recently emigrated to the United States. Then to bed. Lights go out early here.
Leaving. . .
Departure day is a mixture of emotions sad to be leaving and anxious to set out on the long journey. We always hike the longer nine-mile Bright Angel Trail. The Kaibab trail is shorter but much steeper. Moreover, Bright Angel is immensely prettier. It makes a long gradual ascent out of the canyon, following along the banks of the Colorado until it makes a sharp left turn and follows a creek up into the hillside. Besides being easier to hike, it also affords one long last look at the valley below. One last moment of reflection. We usually hike in silence, especially on the way out.
About half way up the trail is a stopping point called Indian Gardens, which has restroom facilities and water. It’s also the rest stop for the mule teams coming down the trail, and makes for an interesting place to observe those making the trip on someone else’s back.
Three more hours of strenuous hiking brings us closer and closer to the top. My legs ache from the almost non-stop motion. I have conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I am discouraged because it seems like the trail will never end, and my energy is flagging; by the same token, I don’t want it to end. The last mile is arduous as we encounter snow and ice near the rim. Out come the hiking sticks. We slip and slide for quite a long way, and then suddenly we round a bend and there we are. Feet firmly planted on concrete. Tourists milling around take no notice of us, they have no idea the journey we’ve just made. But I do. My emotions are seesawing. I almost cry.
So now what do we do, now that we’re up? It takes time to readjust your pace with the rest of the world. We were just beginning to slow down, now we have to speed up. We turn around, take a deep breath, and pretend we’re doing it all over again.
Expect crowds during the spring, summer, and fall months. During these months reservations for camping and lodging are essential.
Staying at Phantom Ranch or Other Grand Canyon Lodges
Central Reservations Hours of Operation
Daily – 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Mountain Time
Toll-free within the U.S. 888-29-PARKS (888-297-2757)
Outside the U.S. 303-29-PARKS (303-297-2757)
Lodging in Grand Canyon National Park is always booked well in advance. Make reservations as far ahead as possible.
Lodging Outside the Park
Lodging is available in Tusayan Grand Canyon, AZ), Williams AZ (60 miles south on highway 64) and Flagstaff (80 miles southeast on highway 180). Click on city forrates, availability and reservations online.)
Grand Canyon Village (South Rim) is located 60 miles north of Interstate 40 at Williams via highway 64, and 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff via highway 180. Only ten miles from rim to rim as the crow flies, the North Rim is 215 miles (about 4 1/2 hours) from the South Rim by car. The North Rim is 44 miles south of Jacob Lake, AZ, via highway 67.
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