A Winter Visit to Grand Canyon National Park's Phantom Ranch

Grand Canyon; Owen Hoffman photo.

From the Supai Formation along the South Kaibab Trail looking west into the Inner Gorge. Photo by Owen Hoffman.

Editor's note: While seeing the Grand Canyon from the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park thrills millions each year, trekking to the Colorado River far below and staying a night or two at Phantom Ranch is an experience few can manage. Contributor Owen Hoffman recently made this trek with his brother-in-law and two nephews. Here's his account.

From the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, the first view of Phantom Ranch reveals that the trees, Fremont cottonwoods, do not know that it's winter.

I suspect their signs of confusion is because of the very mild temperatures of the inner canyon in winter and the fact that Phantom Ranch gets very little direct sunlight, so the shorter photo-period has little effect on triggering the botanical urge to shed foliage.

What stays in mind after having completed this hike is that for those with sore muscles from having descended a thousand or more water breaks and stairs along the South Kaibab Trail while en route to Phantom Ranch, the need to get into the your bunkhouse early and secure a lower bunk is of utmost importance.

At men's bunkhouse Number 13 there were five bunk beds, ten beds in all. Unfortunately, all the lower bunks were taken by the time I wandered in to claim my spot. I found that after the hike down, my leg muscles were sufficiently well fatigued to the point that I had to concentrate at hoisting myself up the metal ladder to reach the upper berth. It was also a challenge to descend this thing to get to dinner or bathroom.

The chance for an hour's rest before the first seating for supper was welcomed, as was the chance for a shower to freshen up. Clean towels and were provided. Liquid soap was dispensed in the shower stall.

Phantom Ranch appeared to be filled to capacity. A few hikers who chose to stay in the dorms did not eat meals at the canteen but instead chose to cook their own fare on the ranch's picnic tables. Others, who backpacked and camped out at the nearby Bright Angel campground, had their meals provided by the Phantom Ranch dining hall. Still others backpacked and cooked their own meals at their campsites.

Although deep inside the canyon, the night sky was outstanding. After an 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. return to the dining hall for purchasing postcards and t-shirts, I took my nephews out to the vacant amphitheater to point out the stars and other features of the night sky.

Mars was up in the east and very bright. The constellation Orion was just rising behind the eastern walls of the inner canyon. Comet P17/Holmes was visible to the unaided eye a few degrees to the southwest of Mirfak in Perseus. Between Perseus and Cassiopia was the bright haze of the Double Cluster. The Great Galaxy of Andromeda was naked-eye visible as well.

Once bedtime beckons, it's a good idea to keep the dorm windows open, even in winter. The windows were closed by others during the night, perhaps anticipating an evening freeze. But instead, once all ten occupants had climbed into their bunks, the inside temperatures rose to levels that I swear exceeded summertime conditions. Most of us simply slept in our jockey shorts on top of the sheets, but everyone seemed too tired to get out of their beds to re-open the windows. So we dozed as we sweated.

I also should mention that with ten bunks to a dorm, including one john and one shower room, conditions in the dorm are not ideal for light sleepers. Fortunately, I am not a light sleeper. I was told, however, of a choir of harmonically snoring men, interrupted by periodic awakenings, one nightmarish howl, and the thumping noise of random wanderings in the dark from bed to toilet and back.

At 5 a.m. we were visited by Phantom Ranch staff to be sure we would be awake and arrive on time for the first sitting at 5:30 a.m. for breakfast. The lights came on slowly.

By the time we arrived for breakfast at 5:20 a.m., the moon was in its last quarter, Venus was in the southwest shining brighter than anything other than the moon. Saturn was in Leo, and Ursa major was high in the north pointing the way to the springtime stars, Arcturus and Spica.

After a breakfast of hearty buttermilk pancakes, bacon (the best I've tasted), orange juice, canned peaches, scrambled eggs, coffee, and toast we prepared ourselves for a pre-dawn departure and an entire day slowly hiking up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.

The Phantom Ranch-packed lunch was a plastic sack consisting of an assortment of many smaller chewable and consumable items. To an extent, the prepared sack lunch resembled a Halloween trick-or-treat bag, with the main course being a plastic-wrapped bagel with tubes of Philadelphia cream cheese on the side. We ate our lunch on the benches provided at Indian Gardens.

We took breaks at Indian Gardens and the NPS-designated 3 and 1.5-mile rest stops along the upper portions of the Bright Angel Trail. The restroom facilities at the 1.5-mile rest stop were unfortunately in serious need of janitorial attention. This is most important given the amount of visitation this portion of the trail receives.

This portion of the trail receives many canyon hikers from all over the U.S.A. and from a growing number of foreign countries. The Grand Canyon is a World Heritage site and a showpiece of the national park system. We met visitors from all over the world, including Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Romania, Russia, Italy, England, and Wales. Many were making the full hike to the Colorado River and back in one day, although this is officially discouraged by the NPS.

We finally arrived at the top of the Bright Angel Trail by 4:30 p.m. after an entire day of uphill hiking. The last mile or so required a form of elastic tire chains for boots called "Yak Trax" that worked well and helped immensely to hike over slick ice, much of which was covered in thin layers of red dust.

For myself, this was the first time in 20 years making the hike down from the South Rim and spending a night at Phantom Ranch while reserving one-day each for the hike in and back out. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have elected to descend down the Bright Angel Trail and ascend up the South Kaibab. I believe the steep downhill and thousands of water breaks are more tiring than taking a slow pace up hill.

However, by choosing the South Kaibab Trail for a descent by early morning light, it offered the opportunity for great views of the Grand Canyon and memorable experiences and photographs.

Comments

One of the really pleasant surprises of this trip was encountering NPS park interpreter Stewart Fritts while he was conducting a guided walk along the rim at the Grand Canyon Village. His walk focused on the historic architectual accomplishments of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Mr. Fritts is among the most knowledgeable persons alive from which to learn about the natural and cultural history of the park. He's worked at the Grand Canyon for 26 years.

I previously had attended his award-winning evening presentation on "William Shakespear and the Grand Canyon," 20 years ago. It was truly outstanding then, and it is still given today, according to NPS brochures. He dedicates this presentation to the beauty of the canyon and the importance of literacy in America.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Did you use hiking poles? They are motivators on the uphills (plant them alternatively in front of you and walk up to and past them) and knee-savers on the downhills. They also are help on rough, rocky or eroded trails -- like both Bright Angel and South Kaibab, which have such steady mule train traffic.

IMO, South Kaibab might be a good hike-out option in winter, but I think for most people, it would be lethal in summer. It's exposed and broils in the sun, and unlike Bright Angel, there's noplace to get water en route. You'd have to carry a lot of water just to return to the rim w/out becoming totally dehydrated.

Claire @ http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

Yes, I used two hiking poles (that I purchased in Glacier National Park almost ten years ago). Both the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab trails show signs of recent trail mainentance, so they were not as rocky or eroded as I remembered from previous trips. I recall that in 1969 there used to be two parallel ruts and a central ridge in the South Kaibab trail. Those are now gone. The trail has become more narrow, and thousands of log water breaks have been installed which, as I've said in the article above, makes downhill hiking somewhat difficult for younger and older knees.

I totally agree with you about the heat and hazards encountered when hiking up the South Kaibab Trail during the daytime hours of the summer months. During my two summer-time hikes to Phantom Ranch in 1969, I opted to hike down and back by night, resting in the shade of the inner canyon by day.

My two hikes to Phantom Ranch in 1987 were made in late fall. Those hikes were taken during the day, and were absolutely delightful. I highly recommend hiking these trails in late fall or winter, taking the slowest pace possible to enjoy the magnificent canyon scenery, which changes dramatically with each step. In my opinion, it is impossible to walk too slowly when walking into and out of the Grand Canyon.

Other than noticing the effects of advanced age and the renovated conditions of the two trails, the only other major difference I noted from past hikes was the absence of geological interpretive signs. I recall these interpretive signs from all of my past hikes into the canyon. They were quite effective in explaining the significance of the various rock formations encountered on this walk through time. I have no idea why they have now been removed from their trailside locations. I missed seeing them.

I also don't recall the squirrels at Indian Gardens having been so unusually large. They were the biggest squirrels I've ever seen in my life. Perhaps they have grown accustomed to daily access to an enhanced caloric diet composed of the remains of Phantom Ranch sack lunches? Or, perhaps these animals are simply storing a few extra pounds to survive a long, cold winter? Indian Gardens is an excellent place to stop and rest for lunch when hiking up from the bottom of the canyon.

We were in our shirt-sleeves when hiking up from Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens. However, temperatures cooled rapidly when entering the shade of the upper portions of the Bright Angel trail, which required putting on extra clothing despite the natural warmth of hiking uphill. Ice on the trail was encountered during the final mile and a half.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Owen - Andre and I are very impressed with your accomplishment. I am not sure which was harder - the trek up and down or the stay at Phantom Ranch. It doesn't sound like many women do this circuit. Did you encounter any my age?
Best wishes,
Carol

Hi Carol,

It's great to see you contributing to the commentary on National Parks Traveler. To answer your question, yes I met several women on the trail who were in our age bracket. No one in the women's dorm at Phantom Ranch complained of snoring either.

Owen

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Owen--My wife and I are 75. We plan to do the GC on April 5-7, 08. Going down S.Kaibab and returning via BA trail. We have duffel service both ways for us and our son(46) and his wife. Will be staying at the BA campground for two nites. Eating our meals at Phantom. Any advice for us "oldies"? Any suggestions? Thanks

Ken,

Here are some additional pictures to wet your appetite for your upcoming trip and hike into the Grand Canyon.

http://www.parksonline.org/parks/owenhoffman/grandcanyon2007/index2.html

You won't need to worry about ice on the trail at that time of the year. The inner canyon will be much warmer than in winter, but still more reasonable than during the 110 degree plus days of mid summer.

I am writing my answer to your request for information assuming that hiking is second nature to you, even at age 75. Here's a test: If a ten-mile all-day uphill hike is relatively easy, then you are ready for the Grand Canyon. If such a hike is presently impossible to do, then I would not recommend hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back.

I am fairly fit at age 63, but I found my upper legs to be quite fatigued by the time I approached Phantom Ranch. I used hiking poles. Many others did too. By the end of the hike down, my stride walking into Phantom Ranch was more of a hobble than a gait. I don't know how I'd feel at age 75, but I hope I'll still be able to do it when I'm your age. When we did our hike in December, there were perhaps two persons that we met in your age group who were hiking and staying at Phantom Ranch.

I recommend diligently training for this hike between now and April. Walk everywhere you can. Include long walks up and down hills wearing a small pack. Pre-hike training will reduce the inevitable fatigue and pain from a 7-mile downhill journey. Pre-hike training will also forewarn you of possible physical difficulties you should be prepared for.

The views are spectacular, but even with the commercial duffle service, pre-hike training is a must. In fact, I would not recommend anyone at any age undertake this hike without having engaged in at least a few months of pre-hike conditioning. Pre-hike training will pay off tremendously, especially with regards to negotiating the thousands of stair-like water breaks when descending the South Kaibab. Before doing this hike, try hiking a few miles downhill carrying a relatively heavy pack and see how you feel.

When you start your hike, leave as early as you can after breakfast and go as slowly as you are able to walk, which will guarantee that you spend more time looking at the scenery than at the trail. See if the views along Cedar Ridge approaching O'Neill's Butte are as spectacular in the early morning light of April as they were for me in late December.

Carry at least two quarts of water down. You might be able to carry less on the return, because you can re-stock with water at Indian Gardens. However, if the weather is very warm, I would be sure to carry two quarts at all times.

Give yourselves enough time to hike down really slowly and to rest up before dinner. I might suggest a Phantom Ranch dinner seating later than 5 PM, if you can arrange it. I enjoyed having a bunk at Phantom Ranch to rest-up before dinner. Staying two or more nights in the canyon is a great idea. This way, you will be reasonably well rested upon hiking out.

During your "rest" day, try (if you are in the mood for and are able to engage in more walking) hiking up the North Kaibab Trail along the gradual incline of Bright Angel Creek and the inner Bright Angel Fault to Ribbon Falls. This is another spectacular spot in the inner canyon and makes for a perfect day hike. You can trace your steps before and after the hike using Google Earth (highly recommended).

In April, you will have more hours of daylight than we did in late December. But, I wouldn't worry at all about possible darkness. Hiking slowly is the key. Carry a flashlight or head lamp for emergencies. Carry a first-aid kit and moleskin to attend to the likely event of blisters.

Be sure to stop frequently to take lots of photos. Newer digital cameras do a terrific job on Grand Canyon moods, colors and contrasts.

I hope I've been of some help. If you do this hike at your age, it will be something to tell your great grand-children about, and I hope you will comment about your experience on National Parks Traveler. Good luck.

Sincerely,

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Owen--I should have introduced myself better. I'm that 76 year old retired math teacher, football & track coach. Korean War vet, who worked for the Forest Service & Park Service for about 25 years (summers). My wife Shirley & I packed up the family of 4 boys after each school year and headed out for Yellowstone Park (Old Faithful), where I was a commissioned Federal Law Enforcement officer, AKA Park Ranger (protective). We practically lived in the back country during those years, visiting just about every cabin in the Yellowstone backcountry with our boys. They learned to hike during all the years of their lives, and so did we. So, I suppose that we have hiked several hundred miles in the Yellowstone country. Also, having been a coach all those years, we know what it means to TRAIN! Thanks for your tips. If you can think of any others, we welcome them. Thanks for your fast response. Ken

Was glad to see some "been around the block once or twice" ages posted here as I am a 58 year old woman :)

This June I will head out on a very personal journey - 2 1/2 days rafting into the canyon, an overnight at Phantom and then hiking out on the Bright Angel Trail. Obviously this trip is special by any measure but more so because in Sept. of 2006 I had bilateral hip replacement. I am feeling better and stronger than I have in years and have my Doc's blessings. My 2007 physical goal was race walking a 10K that I used to run back in the day - Got thru that with no problem and energy to spare. I have been researching a lot of training material and reading as many of these types of posts as possible to prepare as I know my upfront prep. will be the difference between an amazing journey or an agonizing one!

I am breaking in wonderful hiking boots and am starting to practice with the trekking poles. As all my "stuff" from the rafting portion will be hauled out via duffel service I will be using a Camel Bak hydration daypack with just enough room for the day's necessities. Of course, one of my items will be a camera with LOTS of memory to record my journey!

Does anyone have any additional tips and/or suggestions for me as I move closer and closer to June.

Thanks in advance for any and all information :)
Diane

Diane,

Sounds like you've got a great trip lined up! While I've hiked down into and back out of the canyon, with a stop at Phantom, I have yet to run the river.

Not sure how large your CamelBak is, but obviously you want the largest you can get your hands on. The hike up out of the canyon is a lot tougher than the one down into it. It might not be a bad idea to carry some packages of electrolytes that you can mix in your CamelBak I like the small packets of "Emergen-C," which are handy to carry. Also, a large-brimmed hat and a small assortment of Band-aids you can use to ward off any blisters from your new boots would be wise.

Something to munch on -- granola bars, jerky, hard candy, trail mix -- also wouldn't be a bad idea.

Have a great trip!

Diane,

Are you spending the night at Phantom Ranch? If so, will you be eating meals there as well? I found that the Phantom Ranch breakfast of hotcakes, eggs, and bacon was quite good, especially the bacon. If you have them prepare a sack lunch for the hike out, it will include the electolyte mix that Kurt recommends above.

Given your age and your dedicated efforts at pre-hike conditioning, the only difficulty I foresee is the extreme summer heat of the Inner Canyon. By June, the temperatures of the Inner Canyon will be quite hot. Fortunately, you will experience some of this inner canyon heat during your 2-1/2 day raft trip, and so you should be mentally prepared prior to starting your hike out.

In past years, when I've hiked into and out of the canyon during the summer months, I've opted to take the hike out in the coolness of night. If a moon is out, the trail is still easy to negotiate. Otherwise a flashlight or headlamp will suffice. You might want to inquire with your party about the earliest time that will be feasible to begin your hike out of the Inner Gorge.

The only downside to an early pre-dawn departure will be light too low for decent digital photographs, at least without the use of a tripod. But, you can solve this problem by walking much of the River Trail between the Silver and Black Bridges during the latter part of the previous afternoon as a kind of a pre-hike "warm-up." In any case, your legs might yearn for some stretching after long days aboard the raft.

If you do choose to hike out early before the light of dawn, walking slowly will help you enjoy the wonderful changes in canyon colors that occur during the hour prior to sunrise. This spectacle is especially memorable when approaching or just having ascended onto the Tonto Plateau. Once you arrive on top of the Tonto Plateau, and you find yourself up for some additional walking and scenery prior to your final ascent out of Indian Gardens, I highly recommend making the 1.5 mile detour along relatively level terrain to Plateau Point for a different perspective of the Inner Gorge, and one final view of the Colorado River. You won't see the river again until you reach the South Rim.

In years past, I recall that there were a series of trailside interpretive signs that highlighted the significance of the contact zones and the age of the various geological groupings and formations that comprise the rock strata of the Grand Canyon. During my hike this past December, I saw none of those interpretive signs I had remembered from past hikes. There were none to be seen along either the South Kaibab nor the Bright Angel trails.

Thus, if you are interested in learning some details about the geology of the Grand Canyon, I would recommend that you obtain or purchase a copy of the Bright Angel Trail Guide. Use this trail guide as a reference to review the change in geological features you will encounter as you begin your ascent through time. Keep this light-weight trail guide in your pack as a reference. This trail guide will also help you identify where you were when reviewing your photos after you have completed your journey.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Ken,

Thanks for identifying yourself. Although we've never met in person, it's indeed a very small world. When I was in college, I also ran track (middle distance, San Jose State). Sharing roots as former seasonal employees of the National Park Service, we probably know some of the same persons. If you were working in Yellowstone during the 1988 fires, then you most certainly would have known people like Bob Barbee and Dan Sholly. They were in Yosemite, now nearly 39 years ago, when I was there as a year-round seasonal park ranger-naturalist. You may have also known Ray Wauer and Stu Coleman, both of whom I met during the early 1980's when they were in charge of resources management in the Great Smokies.

Yellowstone is another great park. When I toured through Yellowstone in 1997 as a private citizen, I visited the Museum of the National Park Ranger, which is located at the Norris Geyser Basin. There, I saw a familiar face working as a park volunteer. It was my former Assistant Chief Naturalist from when I was working as a park ranger-naturalist in Zion National Park during the summer of 1969. He had retired from the NPS and was spending some of his retirement giving time back to the NPS as a volunteer-in-the-park.

I believe that the NPS could benefit greatly by encouraging its former employees, both seasonal and permanent professionals, to return to their former parks to perform volunteer service on an interim basis. A cadre of roving volunteer interpreters would be particularly useful during the "off-season" along the heavily visited promenade of the South Rim, and along well-traveled trails, like the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails of the Grand Canyon. The presence of friendly and well-informed park volunteers on these trails would help offset the present information void created by the almost total absence of trail-side geological exhibits and roving rangers.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

A question for you veterans. I just got two nights confirmed at Phantom Ranch. Is it worth staying two nights at the bottom? I want to hike from North to South, Park at the South Rim, take the shuttle to the North Rim,camp and hike back to the south. The problem is there is no space available at the North Rim Campground. If I arrive by foot can I be assured of a place at the North Rim Campground? Another option is to delay my start by one day, that way I can get a campsite and go North to South, but will only have one day at Phantom. I can also start at the South, head down South Kaibab, spend my two nights at Phantom then hike up the North Kaibab the next day. I am fairly fit. What do you advise? Thx Avsfan

I never bothered with the schedule of the cross-canyon-shuttle before, but checked it out now and you are right. Unfortunately you always have to spend one night at the North Rim, no matter which direction you go. So my advice would be to check occasionally for cancellations till your trip and check again once you got to the park. Ask the rangers on South Rim for advice, they might be able to help you. If nothing comes up, just take the shuttle anyway and check again on North Rim, whether someone canceled in the last five hours. If not, you just walk into the campground and ask a few friendly RV campers, if they let you build up your tent for the night in a corner of their site. Chances are that they are nice and actually excited to meet an adventurous person, who will do what they only dream of: hiking through Grand Canyon. Expect to get invited to their campfire. I did just that in a California State Park on a holiday weekend some years ago, and it worked.

And regarding the two nights at Phantom Ranch: I think that's great. You will have no problem to spend a day inside the canyon, believe me. If you have no idea where to go, just ask a ranger. I haven't done Clear Creek Trail, but that would be my first idea how to spend a day in the canyon from Phantom Ranch. It's 18 miles and more than 1500 feet of elevation though! Of course you don't have to got the whole trail till Clear Creek, but there is the only source of water, so carry plenty. Please check out: http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/bc/gc_tr_cc.htm

After getting such wonderful encouragement from my post way back on Feb 24th I thought I should let you know how it went - it was AMAZING!!

The 3 days/2 nights on the river along with dinner, overnight and breakfast at Phantom set the stage for my hike out on Bright Angel. Everyone in the rafting group had their own plan and time frame in regards to the hike. My game plan was to go slowly and "enjoy" with my only concern being the heat of mid-day. I packed extra food besides the "sack" lunch, filled my 3liter Camelbak bladder and set off at 5:45am (imagine my delight in finding my backpack was lighter than the weight I had trained with) . At every creek crossing I soaked down (amazing how good that feels!). I reached Indian Gardens at 9:30am, soaked down and topped off the water bladder plus a visit to the restroom! After resting briefly I continued on and shortly after that came upon 3 other women hiking out from Phantom. One of them was having a little trouble so they had all decided to take it really slow - that worked for me so I stayed with them for the rest of the hike. Interestingly enough the heat of mid-day never got extreme even though it had been 108 at Phantom - one of several "Hail Mary" events that happened across the entire trip - guess the Universe wanted this to work out for me :)

It took us 8 hours and 40 minutes to get to the trailhead but it is definitely NOT about how long it took but the experience along the way which was absolutely amazing.

I hope other people happen upon this and other sites like it taking the encouragement that is freely offered as this experience cannot be duplicated by watching a movie or reading a book!!

2008 physical goal - complete.
Thanks again,
Diane