Posted by Jim Steele
on July 19th, 2016 filed in Grand Canyon
During our year living in the Las Vegas area, I had a bucket list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do. It included trips to Zion, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley national parks, a hike up Mt. Charleston, and – most daunting – a Rim-to-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon.
The more I researched it, the more challenging the Grand Canyon trip seemed. The National Park Service bends over backwards to discourage Rim-to-Rim hikes and does everything possible to remind you that dozens of unprepared hikers become statistics every year. The timing of the trip is challenging. It’s best to avoid the middle of the summer, but the season at the North Rim is short (mid-May to mid-October), so the optimal window includes part of May, part of September and part of October. The logistics are just as tough. Even though they are only 12 miles apart as the crow flies, the drive between the Bright Angel Trailhead and the North Kaibab Trailhead takes four hours, and hotel reservations at both rims are tough to get. And the sheer distance and elevation gain involved — 22 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain (if you finish at the North Rim) – will humble all except the most extreme athletes.
But I couldn’t get this trip out of my mind. I had been teased with a view of the Grand Canyon on a flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas. I couldn’t wait to actually get there.
My first break came in late April, when I was able to secure a last-minute reservation at Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is a complex of dorms and cabins near the Colorado River at the base of the Grand Canyon, inaccessible by road, supplied by mules and originally built in 1922. It caters to hikers and people on Colorado River trips. April was too early to do a Rim-to-Rim trip, so I figured that South Rim-to-Phantom Ranch-and-Back would be a great consolation prize.
The Phantom Ranch Canteen, where meals are served.
Two trails lead into the Grand Canyon from near South Rim Village: the South Kaibab Trail and the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel Trail is more accessible and seems to be more popular, but when I checked in for my reservation at Phantom Ranch, the gentleman at the Bright Angel Lodge activities desk recommended that I take the South Kaibab Trail. Both trails are similar in length (the South Kaibab gets to Phantom Ranch in 7.4 miles, the Bright Angel in 9.9), and both lead to the same area (both cross the Colorado River on bridges that are less than a mile apart). The advantage of the South Kaibab Trail is that the views are more open. The disadvantage is that there is absolutely no water along the way. The National Park Service provides fresh water at the Indian Garden Campground along the Bright Angel Trail (and, during the summer, at additional locations), but on the South Kaibab Trail, there are no water sources between the Rim and the Colorado River. Armed with a 100-ounce Camelbak, two water bottles and a bottle of Fanta, I chose the South Kaibab Trail. And I was glad I did (although I might make a different decision if I was doing this hike in the middle of the summer).
A view from the South Kaibab Trail.
The views from the South Kaibab Trail are amazing. Sweeping. Dramatic. Humbling. Truly inspiring. Much of the Bright Angel Trail seems to be tucked into an arm of the Grand Canyon (granted, a large arm), so it doesn’t offer the same panoramic views as the South Kaibab. There are other advantages to the Bright Angel Trail, so I decided to hike up it the next day. But for now, I was beyond thrilled with my first Grand Canyon experience on the South Kaibab Trail. After a steep initial descent, the view opened up quickly at Ooh-ahh Point and the views kept getting better past Cedar Ridge (which I found to be an outstanding place to eat lunch) until the first sighting of the Colorado River from Skeleton Point.
A cactus bloom.
Which isn’t to say that the hike isn’t a lot of work. There isn’t much shade along the way. The trail is steep, losing 4,860 feet over 7.4 miles until it reaches Phantom Ranch. There are more switchbacks than you can count. There is no water. There aren’t many outhouses. But the ridgeline segments of this trail offer views that are truly exceptional. Just bring plenty of water and pace yourself so that you don’t tax your knees more than necessary.
A suspension bridge over the Colorado River. The trail goes through a tunnel before it reaches the bridge.
After about six miles, I crossed the Colorado River on one of the two suspension bridges that link the South Rim with the North Rim. These are the only bridges over the Colorado River in a stretch of hundreds of miles, and the view of the river from each is outstanding. You may see people on river trips float by. Trails link these bridges on both sides of the river, so it isn’t a problem to hike down one of the trails, cross one of the bridges, then return via the other bridge and the other trail.
A suspension bridge over the Colorado River.
After crossing the Colorado River and heading west for about a half mile, I came to the junction with the North Kaibab Trail, which continues to the North Rim. After turning to the north and hiking an additional half mile, I arrived at Phantom Ranch.
Phantom Ranch is truly unique. There are few places in the national parks where you can stay in a reasonably modern hotel setting that is miles from the nearest road. From prime real estate at the base of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch offers private cabins or shared dorm rooms (10 beds per dorm) with showers (one per dorm, or shared showers for people staying in the cabins), electricity, and a canteen that serves a hot breakfast and dinner (reservations are required for both) and sells sack lunches. It’s a special, quaint place, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not as intimate as Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park, but the feeling is similar.
Prices for snacks, goods, rooms and meals at Phantom Ranch.
I arrived at Phantom Ranch at 4:30 p.m. and quickly checked in. They assigned my dorm and told me that the beds were first-come, first-serve. I headed to the dorm, which was a single-room cabin that was stuffed with five bunk beds with two beds each. Some of the people in my dorm had hiked in, while others had just finished a river trip and were hiking to the South Rim from Phantom Ranch. It was an interesting mix of people.
A dorm at Phantom Ranch.
I had chosen not to eat dinner at the canteen (options were a steak, beef stew or a vegetarian meal). I hiked the loop that is comprised of the two suspension bridges and the trails on each side of the Colorado River that link these bridges, then found a quiet spot above the river to eat the sandwich that I had packed down. I watched a few people floating down the river while I ate. I also watched the last rays of the sun slowly climb the walls of the canyon. It was a serene scene, and I enjoyed every moment.
The Colorado River from one of the two suspension bridges that link the South Rim and the North Rim.
In the moments after sunset, I headed back to Phantom Ranch. The canteen sells some basic food items, basic supplies (walking sticks, pain relievers, etc.), souvenirs like T-shirts and hats, and postcards, which are carried out by mule and then handed off to the Postal Service. They come pre-stamped saying “Hauled by mule at Phantom Ranch,” and I was excited to send a few out. It was dark after I mailed my postcards, and I took a short walk to the river, enjoying the view of the stars from the base of the canyon. After that, I headed back to my dorm – and was surprised to find that my nine bunk-mates had already gone to bed. The first breakfast is served at 5 a.m. to accommodate people who want to get an early start (avoiding the heat of mid-day is a solid strategy), and I was bunking with a group of early-risers.
The next morning I had breakfast at 6:30 a.m. with the late group, picked up my sack lunch from the canteen, filled my Camelbak, and set off to gain 4,460 feet on my way up the Bright Angel Trail.
After crossing the suspension bridge, the trail follows the river and gains little elevation, making for a pleasant segment of the hike – but one in which I kept wondering when the pain would begin. It came soon enough.
The view of the Colorado River from Plateau Point.
Partway up the canyon, I came to Indian Garden Campground, which is filled with cottonwood trees and is situated along a small creek. It would have been a gorgeous place to pitch a tent. Indian Garden Campground is also the trailhead for the Plateau Point Trail, which spurs off to an amazing view of the Colorado River after 1.5 miles. I was feeling good, so I made this side trip. Plateau Point made for a great place to eat lunch, and the view, both of the river and the canyon walls, was absolutely first rate. During my hike in late April, there were also quite a few wildflowers, including waxy blooms from cactuses. If you have the time and the stamina, I highly recommend this side trail. If you’re looking for a great hike without going all the way to the river, the Bright Angel Trailhead to Plateau Point would be an excellent choice.
The wall that the Bright Angel Trail ascends.
The higher I got in the canyon, the steeper the grade of the trail became, and I began to feel this after Indian Garden. Up to Indian Garden, the elevation gain was reasonably modest. I definitely was getting a workout and broke a sweat, but it wasn’t excruciating. After Indian Garden, the trail got increasingly steeper, and the true pain began. Fortunately, the views helped take away the sting.
The view from the Bright Angel Trailhead. The trail to Plateau Point is visible near the center of the photo.
Then, finally, after passing through two short tunnels and hiking switchbacks that seemed to defy the laws of nature, I reached the top, arriving at the trailhead behind Bright Angel Lodge. My first Grand Canyon adventure was fantastic, although my thighs were exceptionally sore. I knew that hiking out would be a challenge, but I was still surprised by just how sore I was. It was a reminder not to underestimate the challenge of hiking out of the Grand Canyon.
But the views were worth the pain.
Coming Soon: I managed to put a Rim-to-Rim hike together after all. My next article will tell the story.
Note: A quick Google search shows that there is no shortage of advice on hiking into the Grand Canyon. I’ve only done it twice, so I don’t claim to offer any unique expertise. I am posting this article in hopes that someone can benefit from my perspective, but with the caveat that there are many different Grand Canyon adventures to be had, and what worked for me may not work for you. With this in mind, here are some more tips:
- There are resthouses about 1.5 miles and about 3.0 miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead, and water is generally available at these resthouses during the summer. Water is typically available year-round at Indian Garden. Each of these three locations also has outhouses.
- To get to the South Kaibab trailhead, you have to take the free bus system. Parking at the main lot at the visitor center will save you from having to make a transfer.
- Phantom Ranch inevitably books out far in advance. If you have any flexibility, rooms sometimes open up due to last-minute cancellations. Phantom Ranch reservations are currently only available by phone.
- Bring a calling card – there is one pay phone at Phantom Ranch and another located near the river.
- Breakfast at Phantom Ranch on my trip consisted of pancakes, bacon, canned fruit, coffee and orange juice.
- Check-out time from the dorms is 7:30 a.m. My dorm had a couple of power outlets.
- The temperature at the base of the canyon will tend to be 20 degrees higher than at the South Rim. If you are doing this hike in the middle of the summer, it’s best to time your hike so that you aren’t at the base of the canyon at the hottest time of day.
- The elevation at the South Kaibab trailhead is about 400 feet higher than the Bright Angel Trailhead. Since the South Kaibab Trail is also shorter (7.4 miles to Phantom Ranch, vs. 9.9 miles on the Bright Angel Trail), the average grade of the South Kaibab Trail is materially steeper. Per the National Park Service, Rim to river elevation change on the South Kaibab Trail is 4,860 feet and elevation change on the Bright Angel Trail is 4,460 feet.
- There is some cell service at South Rim Village, and some of the signal bleeds into some areas of the canyon. Depending on who your carrier is, you might get some coverage on some sections of this hike. There isn’t any connectivity at all at Phantom Ranch.
- A backcountry campground, Bright Angel Campground, is located near Phantom Ranch.