The Grand Canyon reveals a beautiful sequence of rock layers that serve as windows into time. The carving of the canyon by the Colorado River is only a blink in time compared to the exposed rocks themselves that took over 200 million to 2 billion years to form! Of the millions of visitors each year, fewer than 1 percent make it to the bottom by foot, horseback or mule, and quite a few have died trying, mostly through falls and heat exhaustion.
Grand Canyon Hike – October 27-29, 2014
Since 2005, I have hiked the Grand Canyon seven times with members of a hiking club from Scottsdale, Arizona that has been making annual Grand Canyon trips for over 20 years. We have hiked from either the north or south rim to the bottom and back up. One special year, we took a nine-day, 300-mile rafting trip from Lees Ferry to Lake Meade. I never tire of the awe-inspiring beauty and depth of this wonder of the world.
This past October, I took a three-day hike with nine hikers from Scottsdale. We started the first day at the south rim and descended on the South Kaibab Trail. At the bottom (Colorado River), we stayed two nights at the famous Phantom Ranch with a rest day in between. My rest day included hiking a portion of the Clear Creek Trail that ascended the north side of the river. On the third day, we made our return ascent again on the South Kaibab Trail. The distances are not great on this trail and only 7.3 miles one way to Phantom Ranch, but the vertical gain is nearly a mile high and very strenuous with no water along the way.
South Kaibab Trail Descent (First day)
Hiking the South Kaibab Trail offers panoramic views unparalleled on any other trail at Grand Canyon. It is the only trail at Grand Canyon National Park that so dramatically holds true to a ridgeline descent. This exhilarating sense of exposure to the vastness of the canyon comes at a cost, for there is little shade and no water the length of this trail. The trail begins near Yaki Point with a series of tight switchbacks. After these initial switchbacks, the trail traverses below Yaki Point to the aptly named Ooh Ah Point (the first panoramic view of the canyon). From Ooh Ah Point on, the trail follows the top of a ridgeline and is consequently without shade. Several broad and steeply plunging switchbacks later, hikers reach Cedar Ridge. From Cedar Ridge, the South Kaibab Trail traverses below O’Neill Butte without a single switchback to Skeleton Point. At three miles from the rim, Skeleton Point is the maximum distance recommended for a day hike. The trail goes directly off the end of Skeleton Point and here, where the trail has been blasted directly out of the limestone cliffs, hikers come across the most dramatic sense of exposure. The trail descends rapidly by a series of switchbacks to the Tipoff. Below Tipoff, the South Kaibab Trail descends rapidly again by a series of switchbacks and crosses over the Colorado River on the Black Suspension Bridge (built in 1921) to Phantom Ranch. Individuals in our group started at varying times from the Yaki Point trailhead and averaged 3 to 4 hours total time to reach Phantom Ranch.
Phantom Ranch (Two nights)
For the one percent who descend, this ranch is a popular destination. Its accommodations are often sold out on the first day they become available, which is 13 months before the desired hiking dates. The site now includes several cabins (one of which our group stayed in for two nights), two dormitories each for men and women, a restaurant (serving only people who book meals ahead of time, which we did!), a mule corral, emergency medical facilities, a ranger station, the Bright Angel Campground, a beach that is frequently visited by Colorado River rafters, and a heliport. Cottonwood trees line the creeks and shade the buildings. The only modes of access to the ranch are foot trails (also used by mules) and the Colorado River. The two trail bridges near the ranch (Black Suspension Bridge – South Kaibab Trail and Silver Suspension Bridge – Bright Angel Trail) are the only Colorado River crossings within a span of several hundred river miles.
Phantom Ranch’s elevation of 2,460 feet is 4,800 feet lower than the south rim and 5,800 feet lower than the north rim. There are wide temperature differentials between the rims and the bottom of the canyon. Phantom Ranch is similar to the warmer temperatures of Phoenix, AZ and the south rim is similar to the cooler temperatures of Flagstaff, AZ. The south rim averages 58 inches of snow and Phantom Ranch less than one!
All sizes, shapes and colors of people arrive at Phantom Ranch including hikers, backpackers, mule riders and rafters who usually come together at mealtime. The dinners are always tasty and usually include beef stew, vegetarian chili, salad, corn bread and chocolate cake. Wine, beer and steak dinners are available at additional cost. Breakfasts are huge with coffee, juice, pancakes, canned peaches, eggs, bacon and toast. Also, packed lunches with bagels, cream cheese, apples, energy bars, pretzels, nuts and smoked sausages are available. All of this is hauled down by mule train! There are always interesting ranger talks about the ranch and canyon history, ecology, animals, birds and critters. We were even surprised at the hundreds of scorpions around us at night when ultraviolet light is used to illuminate them!
Clear Creek Trail (Second Day)
The trailhead for the Clear Creek Trail is located about a half mile north of Phantom Ranch, just off the North Kaibab Trail. Five group members decided to hike a few miles on this trail, which is known for its incredible overlooks. From the trailhead we climbed steeply to Phantom Overlook for a great bird’s eye view of the Ranch and its environs, 550 feet below. Further along, the trail offered several magnificent views including panoramas of the Colorado River and its inner gorge, and views across to the beautiful segmented formations of the south rim. Feeling that we had seen some of the best views in the canyon, we returned to Phantom Ranch, a 4-mile round trip.
South Kaibab Trail Ascent (Third Day)
The ascent of the South Kaibab Trail is a grueling four to five hour climb. To avoid hiking during the hottest time of the day, we started in darkness with headlamps. During our ascent the colors were spectacular, particularly as the sun rose on some of the well-known formations of the north side of the canyon such as Zoroaster Temple, Cheops Pyramid, and Brahma Temple. The reward at the top for my group was a great dinner at the old and elegant El Tovar Lodge overlooking the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village!
Stay tuned for more travel tales from Trilogy Members!