If you’d like to stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, you typically have to enter a lottery, and you
might get a room within the next year or so. But it just so happened that Carol was looking at the Phantom Ranch site and a night on the calendar changed color, signifying “available.”
From the other room, Carol screamed to me “we’re going to Phantom Ranch on December 16th — not negotiable!” Staying at Phantom Ranch has been on our bucket list for a long time.
I’d camped overnight at The Ranch while I was in college, but a bed and indoors would make it a
very different experience.
Early morning December 16 and it’s a sobering 11ºF at the trailhead. The South Kaibab Trail would take us 7.5 miles and 4,726′ down to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River.
The South Kaibab Trail seriously drops into the canyon, as demonstrated by “the chimney,” an extensive series of switchbacks; their purpose, to lose elevation quickly.
Our first stop down the trail was at Ooh Aah Point — aptly named due to the first clear view both up and down the Canyon. There was a slight smoke layer in the Canyon due to a wildfire on the North Rim. And yep it was still really cold, but slowly getting warmer as we went down in elevation.
A mile and a half down the trail we arrived at Cedar Ridge, a small flat area before the trail dropped off again. From here the trail follows a ridgeline for quite a while, offering spectacular views of the Canyon.
But the ridge walking doesn’t last forever and it’s time for more switchbacks. Only these switchbacks have unevenly-spaced water bars which have been beaten up by mule traffic. Which means you are stepping up and over and down each waterbar — not as simple and more strenuous than good ol’ stairs. Good Lord, we had to pay attention!
Shortly before arriving at the Tip Off, we passed the first uphill mule train. Since the late 1800s, mules have carried everything needed at Phantom Ranch, from most of its building materials in the early days, to food, mail, and supplies today. You name it, the mules carry it into the Canyon.
Our first glimpse of the Colorado River was 1,400 feet below us. Nestled in the yellowish Cottonwood trees in the lower right is Bright Angel Creek and our destination, Phantom Ranch.
We approached the Colorado River, we slowly caught up to another mule train of tourists crossing the Black Bridge.
The Black Bridge was completed in 1928 — since the remote location was not accessible by trucks, 122 tons of materials for the construction of the bridge were carried into the canyon by mules. The bridge’s one-ton, 550-foot- long suspension cables were carried down the canyon on the shoulders of Havasupai tribesmen who walked down the trail while carrying the cables.
Once we hit the bottom, we’re not home free yet. We still had about a mile hike up Bright Angel Creek to get to our overnight accommodations. Since the elevation here is only around 2,500′, the cottonwoods are just beginning to change color for the winter, while daytime temperatures remained in the 60s.
Waiting mules greet us at Phantom Ranch. They will be carrying fat tourists back to the South Rim the following day.
Our compact cabin at Phantom Ranch was not made for lounging. It had two bunk beds …
… two wooden chairs, a small table, a sink, and an added-on water closet. Hot water and showers were available in a nearby communal building.
Once we were hunkered in, Carol spent some time addressing postcards to friends from Phantom Ranch which would be stamped, “Mailed by mule at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch” while I ate some hiking bacon.
The Ranch was designed by American architect
Mary Colter and opened in November 1922. Colter created the buildings using on-site rock and rough-hewn wood in an architectural style that would come to be known as National Park Service Rustic. The Ranch originally consisted of a central cooking and dining hall surrounded by three guest cabins.
That night we enjoyed a reserved dinner of hearty beef stew with all the fixin’s. Bedtime was not far away.
The next morning came early, and we were off on the River Trail, and then connecting to the Bright Angel Trail for our 5,000′ assault to the South Rim and our waiting truck, only 10 miles away. Our first task was to cross the Colorado River on the fairly contemporary Silver Bridge.
Hint: watch for that Elf on the Shelf thing.
Climbing up on the Bright Angel Trail. Unlike the South Kaibab which follows ridge lines providing excellent canyon views, the Bright Angel stays in a box canyon of sorts — great views looking “out” but not up or down the canyon. The water bars continue by the thousands.
When you come upon a resting uphill Mule Train, then you have a great excuse to rest too.
On the way up the Bright Angel we saw numerous Bighorn Sheep who weren’t particularly concerned by our presence.
A truly awesome sign on the South Rim warning tourists of the dangers of hiking into the Canyon. Throwing up on your shoes is one of those dangers.