Iconic Trail at Grand Canyon National Park Set for a Major Makeover

View on the South Kaibab Trail.

A view down Windy Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail. NPS photo

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.

Comments

We are glad to hear you are improving the trail. We have been hiking the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails for almost 40 years. The Grand Canyon holds the most spectacular sites in the world.

I almost got trampled by mules! Need to reduce the number allowed on the trails.

Well, let's at least insist that they design mules that are not so gosh darned wide!

While we are into genetic manipulation, let's also make them pee less often on the trail.

Rick Smith

I hope that the geological interpretive signs would be restored as part of this trail renovation. When I hiked the trail in late December 2007, the former interpretive signs that identified contact zones in the sedimentary formations were no where to be seen.

Previous renovations have installed thousands of wooden water breaks across this great trail. This made for painful downhill hiking. My gait upon arrival at Phantom Ranch was more of a hobble than a walk. Perhaps, new water breaks can be better designed to allow for a shallower step when descending?

If I could genetically manipulate the mules, I'd program them to not pee in one spot. Those decade old rancid pools of mulepiss concentrate are lethal to one's boots.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

As a long-time hiker in the canyon, I am fairly alarmed over the deteriorating and unsafe condition of the South Kaibab. While it is great that it will be rebuilt, must it be without basic maintenance in the meantime?

Even though I agree with Owen Hoffman that those numerous check-dams are hard on old & damaged bodies, I understand they're needed to help retain the trail tread. Perhaps fewer would be needed if there were also many more drainage outlets. The continuous rock outlining for safety & resource protection often has the effect of keeping snow melt & cloudburst showers on the trail. It's also not uncommon in the colder months for some of the existing drains to be blocked with ice, so that any runoff continues on down the trail. Similar problems exist on the heavily used Paradise trails at Mt. Rainier, where many check dams are (geologically exotic) rock slabs over a foot high that can be difficult for some to negotiate. I'd also agree with Aaron White that NPS management often seems more committed to big restoration projects than ongoing maintenance.

I work on the trails at Grand Canyon. To answer the concerns about the log/rock checks, or retainer bars perpendiculiar to the trail...I hate them, and so does everyone else I know. BUT, they are necesary in preventing deep rutting caused by mules and rain, and used for 'pulling grade', otherwise we would never get up that steep hill. Don't forget, we build the corridor trails (Bright Angel, South and North Kaibab Trails) to accomadate mule traffic. Want a hiking trail? Go to the Grandview, Tanner, Hermit trails where you will see a fraction of the people and have a much more enjoyable experience.

A current design we are working on (one fine-tuned over the course of many years of culminated trail experience specific to Grand Canyon topography), should alleviate some of the 'high-stepping' of the checks. This includes using a cobblestone rip-rap as a sub-base to the trail tread, built into the log/rock checks 2-4" below the surface, then covered with a 2-4" cap of dirt. All materials except the juniper poles are native and found adjacent to the trail in the locations they are being installed. The Juniper log poles are cut on a Forest Service plot marked for thinning, so essentially, the logs are being recycled, and we are assisting the USFS in reducing hazardous fuels in out forests.

With re-occuring cyclic maintenance, the trail should always be covered with dirt, creating a 'ramp' effect, eliminating steps. If we lose the 2-4" dirt cap due to erosion (Grand Canyon happens to be the PRIME example of erosion in the world, and the Trail Crew there in effect are fighting it's erosion), then the trail tread will only erode down as far as the top of the rip-rap stone. The most you will have to ever step up, is 2-4".

We take pride in our work, and these trails are our passion. Thanks for hiking. =)

I have been on the Bright angel, North and South Kiabab trail with and sometimes w/o mules. I admired the work it takes to build and maintain the trails. They work 10 hour days in such heat is amazing. I d love to but at 60, not. These trails are not as hard on legs and knees as Half dome and others in Yosemite evan Bryce canyon and Zion. Erosion is what made the canyon and the mules take the whinning wimps and children down and up to enjoy and learn. If too hard to walk take one of them. If you take a river trip down the canyon you ll see how hard it is to hike where the trails aren t maintained.