Hike To The Bottom Of The Grand Canyon - South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch - Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona
We visited the Grand Canyon somewhat early in the season, and thought maybe we could get a mule ride to the bottom of the canyon. There were no openings but there was a last-minute cancellation at Phantom Ranch which consists of cabins and dorms. So we jumped on the opportunity and decided to hike down. After three days of "practice" and conditioning ourselves for the hike, this entry recounts the details of our descent into the beautiful canyon on the South Kaibab Trail.
Well today was the day. We planned to hike from the Grand Canyon rim on the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. It was going to be a little over seven miles and an elevation drop of about 4,800 feet.
Before we left, we threw some electrolyte tablets in our water. Then we weighed our packs. With our three liters of water plus food and gear, our backpacks weighed a little under twenty pounds. I thought the were going to be more than that, and I felt like a wimp for complaining about how heavy mine was. Actually, mine was a pound or two less than Linda's.
This is going to be a long, photo-filled entry, with lots of details about the hike. We've also included several short videos taken along the way. Give yourself a bit of time for this one.
Choosing The South Kaibab Trail
For our descent into the canyon, we chose the South Kaibab Trail for the following reasons:
Getting To The Trailhead
Okay, so here was our thought process on parking and getting to the trailhead. First of all, no private vehicles are allowed at the South Kaibab trailhead. We could only get there by free shuttle bus.
So, we would have to park somewhere and catch a shuttle. Of the three regularly running shuttles running through the the park on the South Rim, the Kaibab/Rim Orange shuttle is the one that goes to the South Kaibab Trailhead near Yaki Point. We could park at the Visitors Center and get on the Orange shuttle. However, since we were hiking out of the canyon the next day on a different trail - the Bright Angel Trail - which is several miles from the Visitors Center, we wanted to be sure we could access our Jeep via a short walk just in case we made it to the top after the shuttle buses stopped for the evening.
So, we decided to take the Hikers' Express Shuttle. The Hikers' Express Shuttle runs three times a day in the early morning. It picks up at the Bright Angel Lodge, the Backcountry Information Center (where there is a lot of parking), and the Visitors Center and then drops hikers off at the South Kaibab Trailhead. We decided to park on the street near the Bright Angel Trailhead and walk back to the Bright Angel Lodge pick-up point.
It was 26 degrees when we left our rig around 6:15. We found a great parking spot and hopped on the Hikers' Express Shuttle at 7:00 a.m. We arrived at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 7:30.
At the trailhead there were restrooms and a place for everyone to take on water. The elevation at the trailhead is 7,260 feet.
At 7:40, we walked on the short, paved walkway ....
to the start of the trail.
We started out with gloves, headbands to cover our ears, and jackets. Fortunately, there was no ice or snow and we didn't need to strap our Yaktrax onto our hiking boots.
Trailhead to Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles; Elevation change 940 feet)
We started our hike at 7:40 a.m. and I thought we could make it to Phantom Ranch in about six hours, taking our time for pictures and rest breaks. Although it was cold at the rim, it was a beautiful day and we knew it would warm up quickly.
Here we go.
Right from the beginning, the trail descends steeply on a series of switchbacks.
That's Linda in the lower left a couple of switchbacks below me.
A view into the canyon from the switchbacks.
A few minutes in, we were looking down at more switchbacks.
A group of kids at "Ooh Aah Point".
Like many of the hikers we encountered, we would pass them and then they would pass us, and we kept leap-frogging the whole way.
Here's our first good look at O'Neill Butte (left) which remained as the focal point in our view for quite some time.
Linda went on ahead.
She's the teeny, tiny speck of blue on the trail (follow the trail on the far left as it makes the upside down "U" shape).
She went on ahead as she was trying to reach the pit toilets at Cedar Ridge. I followed and took photos of the trail where there were just a few rocks separating the hikers from a long fall.
But as much as I don't like ledges, I never felt uncomfortable. The trail is wide and the footing is good. Having my hiking poles helped. And it might have been a different story had it been windy.
As I got closer to Cedar Ridge, I could see the pit toilets (lower left center) and several people that had stopped for a break.
But there was still a little work to do to get there.
Finally, I joined up with Linda again at Cedar Ridge. It was a little before 9:00 a.m. The three-mile roundtrip from the rim to Cedar Ridge and back is a popular day hike.
Though only a mile and a half in, we were already shedding our jackets, headbands, and gloves. And the good news was we were feeling no pain in knees, toes, or feet.
There is no water available at Cedar Ridge, so we continued to sip the water from our Camelbaks as we walked. The electrolyte tablets made the water taste like something in between Gatorade and Alka Seltzer, but we got used to it.
We heeded the park service warning to eat twice as much as we would normally and to eat even if we weren't hungry. We had trail mix, Snickers Bars, Jacks Link beef sticks, peanuts, Clif Bars, and more.
So far, so good.
Cedar Ridge to Tipoff (2.9 miles, Elevation change 2,320 feet)
From above it looked like O'Neill Butte was close to Cedar Ridge, but we still had some work to do to get there. It was a descent of 600 feet.
Linda took another short video as we got closer.
I snapped a "dead tree" photo along the way.
And Linda was getting into a pattern of needing a bathroom break fairly frequently. It wasn't easy to find privacy on the trail, but she managed. At least she managed up until the point where she didn't care any more, and she would "drop trou" with me serving as her only screen.
We continued along the eastern edge of O'Neill Butte.
Then another set of switchbacks in the distance came into view.
Once past O'Neill Butte, we could see out to the west and caught a glimpse of the Bright Angel Trail which we would be taking back to the rim tomorrow.
There were some welcome flat spots in the trail as we proceeded. The good news was the South Kaibab Trail doesn't have any up and down sections were you have to climb and then drop and then climb again and drop again. The bad news was the South Kaibab Trail provides very little relief on your downhill muscles - it's just a constant drop with only a few places where it's sort of flat.
We made it to Skeleton Point which is another decision-making point for day hikers.
Beyond Skeleton Point is that section of switchbacks we had seen earlier.
We had some wonderful views as we followed the trail along a ledge.
That was where we got our first look at the Colorado River - still far below.
And, as we continued around the corner ....
we got our first look at the Bright Angel Campground in the green ribbon that runs along Bright Angel Creek.
Linda waited at the top of the switchbacks ....
while I was, most likely, hugging the wall on this section.
It was beautiful along this stretch.
But that was enough stalling. It was time to tackle the switchbacks.
We could see a mule train coming up, so we got to a spot where we could get off the trail and watch them go by.
Mules have the right of way and hikers are supposed to get off the trail or snuggle up against the wall and stay still as the mules pass on the outer edge of the trail. After watching the mules go by, I was thinking they were pretty big animals and I'm not sure I would feel comfortable up that high. We looked into doing the canyon by mule, but I was glad we decided to hike.
There is another bit of hiking etiquette that we adhered to. Uphill hikers have the right-of-way over downhill hikers. So, we always stood to the side and let uphill hikers pass - most of them said "Thank You". We realized that many of the downhill hikers weren't aware of this etiquette or chose to ignore it.
In the middle of the switchbacks, we came upon this sign.
We were almost half way, and we had completed a bit more than half of the elevation drop. It was a "good" sign.
We completed the switchbacks and continued along the edge of the rocks.
As we prepared to round another corner, we encountered another mule train.
These guys were hauling duffels of the guests we had passed earlier. For about $70 each way, you could have your personal supplies and stuff carried by the mules.
After the mules, we noticed this natural arch high up to our left.
And then we spotted the pit toilets at Tipoff (aka the Tonto Trail Junction).
As we approached Tipoff, we saw more of the rock squirrels that are prevalent in the park.
Though very cute, they are quite bold and they will steal your food if given the chance. They have no problem chewing right through a backpack to get at the goodies they know all hikers carry.
We passed the junction with the Tonto Trail.
The Tonto Trail runs east-west and crosses both the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel Trails. Some will make a long day-trip loop by using this trail rather than going all the way to the river.
At the Tipoff, the last restrooms before the river, there are pit toilets, but no place to take on water. There is, however, an emergency phone. It's completely exposed and folks don't break there long due to the lack of shade.
By the time we arrived, Linda said her legs were feeling shaky, so she decided to lie down and get her feet elevated.
One of our readers wrote in and said that's what they did in his military training. During long hikes, they would take a break and lie down with their feet up on a tree. It worked for Linda as she felt better after a few minutes in this position.
We also took time to eat. I kept vigil over the backpacks and shooed away the squirrels when they got too close.
Soon, we were ready to move on. After our break, I believe it was around 11:30 a.m. when we were back on the trail.
Tipoff to Phantom Ranch (Approx. 2.8 miles; Elevation change 1,500 feet)
Below Tipoff, the Colorado River was in view most of the time.
But it still seemed a long way down.
Linda hiked ahead a little for this shot.
We stopped for lots of photo ops.
That green valley was our destination.
But first we had to cross this black suspension bridge.
Clearly, Linda doesn't have the same issues with ledges as I do.
Back to more switchbacks.
By now, we were getting to the point where it was just one foot in front of the other.
The winding trail kept going down and around, and we could see some rafts parked at the Boat Beach.
The bridge was getting closer.
Finally, we reached the tunnel to the bridge.
We crossed the bridge and the downhill portion of our trek was complete. Whew.
We had about a mile to go to get to Phantom Ranch. From the bridge to the Bright Angel Campground was pretty flat and easy.
Then we hiked up a very gentle grade along Bright Angel Creek.
The slight uphill, was actually sort of a welcome change from the constant downhill to get to this point.
A little ways past the end of the campground, we saw the sign at a fork to bear right toward Phantom Ranch.
Yay! We made it!
and we were feeling much better than we thought we would. Linda's knees weren't bothering her at all, and our toes were in fine shape. Linda had one blister and I had none. Our feet were tired, but all-in-all, we were quite pleased.
We walked to the office/cantina where we checked in, got our dorm assignments, and had a couple of cold beverages. It was about 2:00 p.m.
Also, we got our name on the waiting list for another night's stay. We were first on the list and there was a good chance we could stay a second night before hiking out. We needed to check back around 6:15 in the morning.
So, I was thinking we could do this hike in about six hours. It was a little closer to six and a half, but considering all the photos I took, I was pleased with our pace and our safe arrival.
At the cantina we chatted awhile with Liz & Mike who we met briefly at the trailhead. They are from Lake Tahoe, and we quickly learned we were way out of their league when it came to hiking. But we enjoyed our conversation until we decided it was time to get to our dorms, take our boots off, and get showers.
We walked past a couple of the cabins ....
to get to our non-descript dorms.
Each dorm had five sets of twin bunk beds. But they also had a flush toilet and a shower inside. That was a surprise to us. We thought we'd have to walk to a community bathhouse somewhere.
I forgot to take a picture of the inside, but I found this one on the web.
We just claimed a bunk that wasn't already taken. I got a nice lower bunk, but Linda got stuck with an upper in her dorm.
After meeting some of our bunkmates, we got showers. Once refreshed and in our flip-flops, we went to the 4:00 ranger presentation on the geology of the Grand Canyon.
One thing we noticed right away was that the Phantom Ranch isn't very conducive to just hanging out. There were a couple of picnic tables and a couple of benches, but we thought there would be more places along the creek to sit. Heck, I would've rented a lawn chair if they had them.
There are two dinners each night. At 5:00 there is a steak dinner, and at 6:30 there is a beef stew dinner. When we made our reservations, only the stew dinner was available.
After the ranger presentation, we decided to go back to our dorms to see if we could get some sleep. But we ended up talking to the others and never did get our naps. Eventually, the dinner bell rang.
We had assigned tables at the cantina for dinner. Everything was served family style and it was all-you-can-eat. It seated about 45 people.
After dinner, we both said goodnight and headed back to our dorms. It didn't matter that it wasn't even 8:00 yet.
The last I heard, someone asked the time and the response was 8:30. After that I was asleep. However, it didn't last.
When everyone was bunked down, the snoring started. One person in particular was quite loud. The guy beside him kept tapping on the bed with a hiking pole. Another kept telling him to "roll over".
Throughout the night, there was always at least one person snoring and three or four others at times. I may have been one of them. Anyway, I managed to block most of it out and got quite a bit of sleep. Others were not so fortunate.
Well, that wraps up Day 1 of our Grand Canyon Hike. What a gorgeous day with fantastic scenery! Hope you enjoyed tagging along with us.
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