Wandering Lizard

An online magazine with information related to attractions, lodging, dining,
and travel resources in selected areas of the Western United States

A Hike to Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

It was early March and there was still a little snow in the shady areas at the top of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I consistently underestimate winter in sunny Arizona - even late winter. The afternoon that I arrived on the South Rim the sun was shining brightly as advertised by the Chamber of Commerce, but the wind was howling up out of the canyon and the flag in front of the El Torvar Hotel was whipping violently. The air temperature was hovering in the high twenties and that night would go down below seventeen degrees. With wind chill it was cold enough to get you thinking about the possibility of frostbite and to reconsider the advisability of going for a multiple day hike, particularly in as much as I did not intend to carry anything more than a camera, water, and a bag of peanuts. Even so, I knew that I was going to make the descent come heck or high water because I had a two night reservation down at the bottom at Phantom Ranch. One does not make reservations at Phantom easily. The place is booked solid for a year in advance.

Grand Canyon

I had accommodations at the Bright Angel Lodge for the night of my arrival and for the night that I would be coming back up to the South Rim. Bright Angel is not the fanciest of the lodges on the South Rim, but it is comfortable and definitely the most convenient to use if contemplating this hike. After checking in, I had an early dinner at the Lodge, confirmed shuttle bus schedules, left a wake-up call at the front desk, and turned in early. Next morning I was up at the crack of dawn, had breakfast at the Lodge and then checked in at the Bright Angel Trail Desk as required by Park regulations. (I presume that they want to keep track of who is on the trail.) The staff gave me tickets for my meals at Phantom, updated me on weather, and the desk clerk saw that I would be returning from Phantom. He made a note for housekeeping and told me that they understood that I "might be tuckered" so my room would be ready when I arrived at the top. At the time I thought that it was a nice gesture, but saw no reason why I could not just hang out until the housekeepers had had time to do their thing.

Grand Canyon

Outside I was delighted to find warm sunshine and no wind. Chilly but no frostbite - even in the shade. The free shuttle bus delivered me and about a dozen others to the trailhead and I was on the trail by nine o'clock, hoping that the mules had softened the ice a bit. The mules are very helpful to hikers. They wear shoes with nails that chop the ice and their poop makes for better traction. Even so I was very glad that I had taken my trekking poles. The top quarter of a mile of switch-backs was frozen solid and because I did not want to slide off of the trail it was very slow going. All of my fellow hikers made it with a little sliding around but no serious problems. Later, I learned that one poor soul who came along after us had slipped and broken his elbow. First lesson learned was that one should take crampons when hiking the Grand Canyon in winter. Once past the ice, the trail became a relentlessly regular down staircase with fantastic views from every twist and turn. Within a mile or two my knees began complaining and my trekking poles became increasingly useful in navigating the ever more challenging down slope. Second lesson learned - trekking poles are good.

Grand Canyon

The trail is quite civilized in that there are a couple of toilet facilities along the way, but there is no water on the South Kaibab. Even in winter dehydration is a fact of life and even going down hill this trail generates enthusiastic perspiration. Because of knee problems I was all about saving weight in my pack and I carried the minimum amount of water that I calculated would be needed. I successfully rationed my water so that it lasted the entire trip, but I was seriously dehydrated at the end of the day. Had it been summer I would have been in significant trouble about half way down. Third lesson learned is to pay attention to the Park Rangers' advice to carry plenty of water. The trail is one mule wide so it is easy to pass fellow hikers along the way, but it is not a good idea to challenge a mule's right of way. The rule is obvious. Mules have the right of way. Fourth lesson learned is to get off of the trail and out of the way of all mules. One fellow did not follow the rules and got stepped on by a mule wearing those shoes with nails. Ouch.


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