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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.


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 @

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,

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 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


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

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.


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

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