June 7, 2008
I’d been living at the Canyon for less than 3 weeks when I found an opportunity to hike to Phantom Ranch for the first time.
There’s 2 trails that start on the South Rim and converge at the bottom of the Canyon at Phantom Ranch. The Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles) descends from the South Rim Village, and the South Kaibab Trail (about 7 miles) descends near Yaki Point, east of the Visitor Center.
The South Kaibab has no water sources – nothing at all – so the recommended way to tackle this hike is to descend via the South Kaibab and then to climb out via the Bright Angel Trail. Doing this as a day hike is not recommended. In entails almost 18 miles and almost 10,000 feet of elevation change. Most of all, temperatures can soar over 110 degrees (43 C) in the summer months.
In retrospect, I subjected myself to a number of brutal, hot summer hikes during my first years at the Canyon. I had no way of knowing I’d ultimately live and work in the area for over a decade, and wanted to make the most of my limited time.
This thermometer sits in Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the Canyon. It’s often in direct sunlight (I’ve seen the needle buried below 140), but it still serves as a sobering reminder to take precautions.
My employee housing was located at Trailer Village (near Mather Campground), so the South Rim’s shuttle bus system provided logistics to the trailheads. I started shortly after 7am, and according to the time stamps on my photos, the hike took about 10 hours.
The first landmark down the South Kaibab Trail is a place called Ooh Ah Point (the most terrible place-name in Grand Canyon, in my opinion). There was no sign marking the location at the time and I was unaware of its named significance, so Cedar Ridge was the first stop of the day.
I went all the way out to Cedar Ridge’s distant northern point. This is one of only maybe 3 times I’ve ever been out there. In the ensuing years I’d use hike the South Kaibab more as an avenue to bring me in to or out of the Canyon.
So much of this environment was still brand new and exciting to me – the lizards, the cacti, and so on.
As the trail approaches Skeleton Point, it levels out into a scenic section that (I later learned) is called Mormon Flats. I’d never seen an agave cactus before, and here they were in tall, yellow abundance. If hard pressed, I’d still say Mormon Flats is my favorite segment of the South Kaibab Trail.
Near Skeleton Point is where I encountered a classic Grand Canyon mule train for the first time. It’s novel to look back and remember how neat it was take in such an iconic sight when it was new to me, evidenced by the amount of pictures I took (only a handful of which are shown here).
This often-missed sign is located at a switchback as the trail descends through the Redwall Limestone. I failed to take note of it on more than half of my ensuing trips, so it’s interesting that I had the eye to spot it during my first time hiking here. There’s something to be said for new experiences.
I took my next rest stop at place called The Tipoff. From here the trail will descend its final 1,400 feet into what’s called the Inner Gorge, where you find the Colorado River and the oldest rocks of the Canyon.
At The Tipoff the South Kaibab Trail is crossed by the Tonto Trail Trail, which traverses over 80 miles along the length of the Grand Canyon.
I huddled in what little shade I could find near the outhouse located here, which wasn’t quite as gross as it sounds. The temperature increased substantially since I began on the rim. In later years the Park Service would end up constructing a proper shade structure here.
The Colorado River can be seen from some points farther up the trail like Skeleton Point, but it’s below the Tipoff where it really begins to call out for attention. Today it flowed in a shade of emerald green.
The bright red dirt (Hakatai Shale) and jumbled boulders (Tapeats Sandstone) caught my attention for this photo. Locals call this formation “the trainwreck.”
The “Black Bridge” was visible for long before I got to set foot upon it. The approach to the south side of the bridge is via a short tunnel, blasted out by dynamite during the bridge’s construction. For my part the tunnel was a neat, unexpected discovery, and I was thankful for the brief moment of deep shade.
This excavated Native American site is found between the Black Bridge and Phantom Ranch. Its time of occupation dates to almost a thousand years ago.
I was stunned by how tame the deer are near the canyon’s campgrounds. This photo did not require much zoom. I’d see several such deer in the vicinity, and also near Indian Garden campground along the Bright Angel Trail. The trend continues to this day, as the deer are still remarkably docile.
Phantom Ranch’s cantina as it appeared on June 7, 2008
Inside the cantina I rested and enjoyed some goodies, namely a Powerbar and a Budweiser. In retrospect these were totally odd selections, and I doubt I’d remember what I’d ordered unless I had a photo where I’m proudly holding the purchased items (see the end of the post for that one).
I was unaware that the lemonade is “the thing” to get down there and that Tecate is a Phantom Rancher’s beer of choice. My energy bar of choice was still Powerbar (a callback to my epic teenage bicycle rides in the 90s) and I wouldn’t switch over to Clif Bars until later in 2008, or maybe 09.
There were flush toilets and a pay phone available to the public behind the cantina. Nowadays the toilets are closed (with new composting toilets built a short way up the trail), and the pay phone is gone. I have fond memories of admiring this wall art and even viewing my face in the mirror, as it was often my first access to a mirror over the course of many days, or even weeks at a time.
Is it weird to have such an affection for a public bathroom?
Don’t answer that.
The “Silver Bridge” is the second of two pedestrian suspension bridges that span the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch. The Black Bridge (seen above in the background) is specially designed to be friendly to mules, whereas the Silver Bridge is for foot traffic only. The Silver Bridge also carries the trans canyon pipeline, which supplies municipal water to the South Rim Village.
The hike along the River Trail to the foot of the Bright Angel Trail was especially sandy, hot, and tiresome. These days the sand doesn’t seem as deep as it was in the past – I don’t know if this is due to wind erosion or seasonal differences, or if it’s a simple misconception on my part.
As a last stop before starting the journey up and out of the Canyon, I paused at the river access at Pipe Creek and soaked my feet in the river. I even waded out in to the water a bit, probably farther than was wise. Numerous people have drowned after having similar ideas and being swept away by the frigid current.
The lower Bright Angel Trail ascends via a side canyon called Pipe Creek, climbing up and out of it via a set of switchbacks called The Devil’s Corkscrew.
I grew weary as I approached Indian Garden, anxious to arrive for my next proper rest stop. I felt that once I began to see the big cottonwood trees lining Garden Creek that I must be close. It seemed farther than anticipated.
Along the way, I was thoroughly impressed by the stature of this singular cottonwood. Today it’s been trimmed by trail crews (or broken by natural forces, or maybe both), so it no longer bears its glory of old, seen below.
After leaving Indian Garden, I climbed a segment of trail through the Redwall Limestone called Jacob’s Ladder.
The view down the Redwall gorge of Garden Creek always strikes me as being similar to that of Yosemite Valley. The comparison is a bit of a stretch, but it can be hard to shake such an aesthetic notion once stuck in one’s mind.
After ascending the Redwall I reached the 3-mile rest house, which was the turnaround point for my previous (and first) hike in the Canyon. So the elevation gain (combined with the fact that I had seen the remaining trail before) led me to put my Nikon D40 away for the rest of the hike.
Before reaching the rim I was lucky to see the first bighorn sheep of my life! The were just hanging out here a few feet below the trail, and I managed to grab a few shots with my pocket camera.
Such a cool sighting and a perfect way to cap off my first visit to the bottom of the Canyon, the Colorado River, and Phantom Ranch!