Our trip to the Grand Canyon began 13 months before it started. That’s when my guy spent an hour and 15 minutes speed-dialing to Xanterra, the company that runs all the park’s accommodations on the south rim. We got lucky and he got through before they sold out. He made a reservation for four of us for one night at Phantom Ranch — the park’s only lodging, besides a campground, down in the bottom of the canyon. This was our whole reason for taking a week’s vacation out west. We spent a few nights in Vegas and warmed up by hiking in Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon before heading to the Grand Canyon.
We stayed at the El Tovar on the south rim the night before our hike down into the canyon. After a hearty breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge we caught the hiker’s shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead.
It was probably in the 30s when we started our hike but we were so excited that the cold was the last thing on our mind. There was snow in the vegetation all around but the trail was in good shape. The views on the way down were beyond words (and photos) to describe — the most beautiful trail I have ever been on. Unlike the Bright Angel trail that we would climb up out of the canyon the next day, originally a Native American and then a miners trail, the park service blasted the South Kaibab out of the ridge, resulting in incredible vistas for hikers.
It’s 7.1 miles down to Phantom Ranch from the rim. My quads were still a bit tight from our hikes in Death Valley and Red Rock, but I never spent too long dwelling on them. The views were too stunning — canyon after canyon, mesas, buttes, red rock — absolutely stunning. After a while the Colorado River eked into view, and then got closer and closer. We crossed a suspension bridge to get to the other side. Now the Ranch was only about .7 miles in.
We spent some time on a little beach, cooling (more like freezing) our bare feet in the ice-cold Colorado, and then ate lunch at another spot along the river. Soon we arrived at Phantom Ranch – a collection of cabins, bunkhouses, campground and canteen. We had reservations in the bunkhouses — the three of us girls in one and Jim in the other.
We dumped our stuff on an empty bunk and headed to the canteen for a celebratory beer. As Jim and Lesley went for a walk along the river, Patty and I went to a ranger’s talk that turned into a question and answer session with a guy who worked for Xanterra since the ranger canceled. He had all kinds of insider stuff and old stories to tell us, and for an hour we were a rapt audience. They work ten days on and four days off but have to travel to and from work within those four days. Traveling to and from means hiking up and down the canyon, just as we did. The rangers do the same except they work eight days and have six off and travel during those six. During the summer he leaves at 2:00 in the morning to avoid the heat. Everything goes into the Ranch either by mule or on someone’s back unless it’s a new AC unit or stove, then they hire a helicopter.
He told us that no one ever dies from falls while hiking, but that two people die a year, on average, from heat complications. Usually these victims are young guys who take on more than they can handle in the heat and don’t have enough water. There are several signs on the trail within the first few miles down from the rim that warn people to return to the rim unless they have enough water, but so many think they’re invincible.
Soon it was time to eat, yay! Our hiker’s stew hit the spot and came with a really good salad (with broccoli rabe), cornbread and chocolate cake. Everything was served family style at long tables so it was a fun chatting with others. We hit the sack early and exhausted.
The next morning we were woken up at 4:30 a.m. – breakfast time. We weren’t going to breakfast since we had ordered a pack lunch for the trail, plus we still had leftover food in our packs from the hike down. We got going around 6:00 and hit the Bright Angel trail by 6:30. We crossed the other suspension bridge over the Colorado and then trudged through sand for a long time along the river’s edge. But eventually the real climb up began. Switchbacks after switchbacks, oy. The trail often had timbers lying across, like stairs, some close together, some with about a yard or more in between. And some were about a foot tall — those were killers, even with poles. I rather just climb a steep trail without those steps but they’re needed to prevent erosion, I guess.
As we were hiking up some switchbacks we heard what sounded like a stampede above us and then Jim’s yell, “mules!” We scurried back to the nearest turn where we could get off the trail. The mules have the right of way so you have to hustle to give it to them, and stepping to the side would have been challenging since there were steep inclines on both sides of the trail. The mule train went by rapidly, led by two riders looking mighty rough and western.
The Bright Angel Trail is tough, 9.6 miles of climbing up canyons. There’s respite about halfway up at Indian Gardens, an oasis with water supplies. But then the slog begins again. The trail is quite different from the South Kaibab. Instead of grand vistas, the views are more limited, but they are beautiful. Soon the rim came into view and we knew that it was only a matter of a few more miles — up.
We took our time getting up, stopping a lot to eat jerky, trail mix, apples, bagels and other snacks. After about seven hours we reached the rim and the Bright Angel Lodge. Tired and sweaty we headed to the lounge for our well-deserved post-hike beer, in my case a Grand Canyon Brewing pilsner, which just about knocked me out. We spent that night at Kachina lodge — an early night again.
I’ve hiked in a lot of beautiful places both on the east and west coast, in the Sierra Nevada, Shenandoah and many other ranges, and there is no comparison. It was definitely my most memorable hike ever. Beauty that is beyond words and my limited photography skills. If you are at all tempted, get into reasonable shape (I wasn’t in my best shape but I managed), plan ahead so you can get a reservation at Phantom Ranch and go. It’s an experience you will cherish.