For over 80 years, hikers and mule riders have enjoyed—or endured—trips up and down the South Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park. That's a lot of footprints, and the iconic route will receive a major, multi-year makeover starting in May 2009.
The South Kaibab was constructed between December 1924 and June 1925 as a public alternative to the Bright Angel Trail, which at that time was a privately-owned "toll" route from the South Rim to the Colorado River. Initially called the "Yaki Trail," the South Kaibab takes hikers past places with names like Ooh-Aah Point and Skeleton Point.
Perhaps those names help explain why a park publication notes, "First time Grand Canyon hikers tend to react to the experience in one of two ways: either they can't wait to get back [on the trail], or they swear they'll never do it again." One description of the South Kaibab Trail itself offers some further insights about the route:
Hikers seeking panoramic views unparalleled on any other trail at Grand Canyon will want to consider a hike down the South Kaibab Trail. It is the only trail at Grand Canyon National Park that so dramatically holds true to a ridgeline descent. But this exhilarating sense of exposure to the vastness of the canyon comes at a cost: there is little shade and no water for the length of this trail.
During winter months, the constant sun exposure is likely to keep most of the trail relatively free of ice and snow. For those who insist on hiking during summer months, which is not recommended in general, this trail is the quickest way to the bottom (it has been described as "a trail in a hurry to get to the river"), but due to lack of any water sources, ascending the trail can be a dangerous proposition.
The upcoming repair work, which is expected to take anywhere from two to four years to complete, won't make the hike any easier, but it should make it a bit safer and reduce maintenance costs. According to the park:
The project will significantly improve the condition of the trail for both hikers and mule users alike, and will include resurfacing of the trail; stabilization and preventative maintenance of existing retaining walls; replacing retaining walls that have been lost to floods, slides, or erosion; and repairing and aligning existing water diversion features.
If you're looking forward to a hike on this trail for several years beginning in May 2009, there's no need to change your plans. According to the park,
The South Kaibab Trail will remain open to hikers during the trail reconstruction; however, occasional short delays may occur. Hikers will be advised to follow instructions provided by trail crew members, or through signing and other advisories.
The other primary trail from the South Rim to the river is the Bright Angel, and the upcoming rehab on the South Kaibab will result in some changes there as well.
While this project is underway, mule and stock that would typically use the South Kaibab Trail will be diverted to the Bright Angel Trail. The NPS decision to temporarily divert mule traffic during construction activities was made for the safety of both mule riders and hikers, as well as to save costs by reducing the time it will take to reconstruct the trail.
Sharing both trails with mules has been a long-standing point of discussion for hikers, due to deposits of what can be politely described as "exhaust emissions" from the four-legged travelers. The park notes,
A park concessioner uses the South Kaibab Trail for visitor trail rides from Phantom Ranch to the rim and for administrative functions, including packing supplies into Phantom Ranch. (The Bright Angel Trail, including Plateau Point, is also used ...for visitor trail rides).
Likewise, the NPS uses mules on the South Kaibab Trail to support trail work, as well as for other administrative functions. Although private stock may travel the South Kaibab Trail, only ten groups with stock camped below the rim in 2008 – most using the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails.
The discussion about how many mules are enough—or too many—depending upon your point of view, will be addressed as part of the upcoming work on the South Kaibab.
An environmental assessment (EA), planned for later this spring, will examine mule and stock use on all corridor trails to determine the appropriate level of use in the future....Initial public involvement in this EA will likely occur in April or May.
To some extent, this project is a good illustration of the "pay me now or pay me later" principle for recurring maintenance of any facility.
Inner canyon corridor trails are subject to significant annual erosion, seasonal flooding and rockslides, and acute wear from mule operations that begin from the North and South Rims. The annual operation, maintenance and frequent rehabilitation requirements of these trails require a tremendous annual effort by the park’s trail crew, which has been largely underfunded since 1998.
Grand Canyon’s park asset management plan, a document that provides a footprint of the park’s facility asset portfolio, shows over $260 million in deferred maintenance parkwide, $24 million of which is deferred maintenance on Grand Canyon trails. The NPS also has an annual shortfall of $1 million for cyclic/preventative trail maintenance.
Some of our readers will likely quarrel with those estimates, but no matter how you calculate the costs, there's no doubt a lot of work needs to be done. One of the goals of the upcoming work on the South Kaibab is to reduce the amount of annual maintenance currently required because of the poor condition of much of the route.
There aren't many folks alive today who can remember the Grand Canyon without a South Kaibab Trail, so it's easy feel that "it's always been there" and take it for granted. This project is long overdue, and as a result of the upcoming work, the trail can continue to serve visitors for many years to come.