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