The Grand Canyon is so perfectly named, and yet so widely and commonly known that we frequently pronounce the words without the emphasis that the reality of the canyon deserves. To see it in person, however, still takes the breath away. To become immersed in it - over the edge on a back-country trail, tossed in a raft by a Colorado River rapid, or silently counting down the terraces of geologic time while watching the sun set from our own private pinnacle along the rim - is to realize what a wonder we are privileged to behold.
Albert Atchison, "A Wilderness Called Grand Canyon"
According to the National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park hosts about 6 million visitors per year. Just 2% descend the rim for 15 minutes or less, and less than 1% visit the canyon floor a mile below the rim. The Grand Canyon is a time machine. For 6 million years the Colorado River cut through the earth, exposing layer after layer of ancient stone. The river divides the park into the North Rim (closed in winter) and South Rim (open year round), each overlooking the 10-mile-wide canyon. The buttes, spires, mesas and temples in the canyon are, in fact, mountains that you can look down upon from the rims.
Peering over the edge for the first time creates a permanent memory. Nothing you have experienced in life prepares you for this initial view. The Grand Canyon is simply enormous. The river below carved a wound in the earth's surface that is 277 miles long, 10 miles, wide and 1 mile deep. The river exposes mountains and mesas hidden under the earth, just as Michelangelo exposed David hidden in solid marble. Everything here is big - the rim, vistas, horizon, mesas, history, explanations, treks, emotions, imagination, fears, dreams, and even your appetite if you make it down and up.
It is a privilege to visit the Grand Canyon. Looking down fills you with wonder. How did this happen? How old is it? A visit to the Yavapai Museum of Geology can answer some of these questions, and you can watch Ranger Clint from the geology museum explain the magic of the area.
Wonder what it is like to be on the bottom and look up? We will do our best to tell you.
Around the middle of December my wife and I decided to head to the Grand Canyon. Chief district ranger John Evans said, “You’ll more or less have the place to yourself.” Not quite; however, last minute lodging is available in the park as well as in Tusayan, the small town directly outside of the South Rim entrance. We are Grand Canyon newbies apart from a short 4-hour visit 25 years ago. My secret heart's desire was to descend to the desert oasis at the bottom and stay at the legendary Phantom Ranch. If you are in decent physical condition, a pilgrimage to Phantom Ranch is a bucket-list experience.
Early visitors to Phantom Ranch emphasized that having a "sturdy and adventurous" constitution is necessary to make it from top to bottom to top. And while you shouldn't expect five-star accommodations, you'll find everything you need: hot water, hot food, fresh water, and a bed with a pillow, sheets and blanket. It is important to remember that "sturdy and adventurous" applies to your time below as well as the journey down and up. All provisions (except water, which is piped in) are supplied by the mule trains each and every day. While hiking gear has improved since those first brave souls descended, once you begin your pilgrimage you'll understand that getting to Phantom Ranch requires digging deep to find your reservoir of effort and grit, similar to the pioneers.
There are two ways to overnight in the canyon: tent camping, and reserving space in a Phantom Ranch cabin or dorm. Campers obtain "same day" permits at the Back Country Office at 8 a.m. (it is best to get there a little early). Those wanting a real bed can book a last minute ranch reservation at the desk located in the Bright Angel Lodge at 7:45 am. You'll want to book breakfast and dinner when you make your reservation; campers may also dine at Phantom Ranch, but they MUST have a reservation. After hiking for eight hours, the hot dinner fills your belly and soul, and the next morning's hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes will provide fuel for the day ahead.
We'd heard that a ranch stay is complicated and requires committing to a specific date almost a year in advance, which was true and not our travel style. We decided to research whether it would be possible to secure a slot due to a 24-hour cancelation. With our fingers crossed we checked and scored a cabin for one night! With our reservation secured, we drove back to Tusayan, packed for the hike and checked out, got some breakfast, snacks and water for the day, and drove to the parking lot next to Bright Angel Lodge to start our hike. We finally began our descent around 11:00 a.m.
Note that the Kaibab Trail is a few miles from Bright Angel Lodge, and there is a free hiker express shuttle that goes directly to the trailhead in the morning. If you miss this shuttle (like we did), spend $10.00 to take a taxi to the trailhead. If you take the regular free multi-stop shuttle, you'll forfeit an hour of precious daylight. We could not afford to do this. The desk at Bright Angel will order a taxi for you. Bring cash.
There are two trails from the South Rim to the bottom. The recommended route is to descend the South Kaibab Trail and to ascend the Bright Angel Trail. South Kaibab is shorter (only 8 miles) and a little steeper. Every ranger and canyon veteran we spoke with shared that the way down is easier than the way up. You need to be self aware and self reliant because there are plenty of opportunities to twist an ankle if your mind wanders. No one is going to hold your hand or get you a drink of water on the Kaibab because no water is available until you reach the canyon floor. The general rule is carry about a gallon of water per person for the hike down. It is usually warmer at the base, so if you go in the summer, bring more water. The Kaibab snakes down the ridgeline with expansive and breathtaking views. As you descend, you'll gradually begin to get a sense of the massive abyss. The canyon layers are like a time machine, each stone layer older than the one above it, and you'll notice the rocks change color and structure. When you finally reach your destination, you will be surrounded by some of the oldest visible rocks on earth, some of which date back almost 2 billion years.
After a mile on the trail we reached the aptly named Ooh-Aah Point and realized that our journey had barely begun. We had to get to the bottom before daylight turned to dusk. Fortunately, the lower half of Kaibab is not as steep as the top, so we picked up our pace. Continuing our hike down into the canyon, the views transform. There were 1,000-foot cliffs above us and below us. Inside this chasm is sky. If you are fortunate, you will see eagles and condors fly by as you continue to descend. Time stops inside the canyon.
Phantom Ranch exists much like it did 90 years ago without many modern machines, internet or cellphones. Muscle and will provide the food and drinks you enjoy. Expert wranglers lead sure-footed, steady mule trains that transport supplies and pack out trash. Hearty souls work at the ranch cooking meals and cleaning the cabins.
Life is simple at the ranch. You check in and enjoy a cold drink at the Canteen, and then you can take off your boots and give your feet a well-earned massage. Cabins have bunk beds, a sink and a toilet. Showers are in the bath house. There are also two dorms for men and women, and each has bunk beds for 10 as well as a toilet and shower. We stayed for two nights: one night in a cabin and one night in the dorms. Both were comfortable, though we traded privacy for community when we moved to the dorm. If you are a light sleeper, consider bringing earplugs just in case you end up in the dorm.
In the late afternoon you can enjoy a ranger talk until you hear the sound of the dinner bell. There are two dinner seatings, the first at 5 p.m and the second at 6:30 p.m. At 8 p.m. the dining room opens for board games and socializing. Phantom Ranch t-shirts and hats are only sold here, and you can mail a postcard postmarked at the ranch and stamped "delivered by mule." The mess hall closes around 10 p.m., and you can marvel at the star-filled night sky as you head toward a well deserved sleep. Be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight to illuminate your way back to your bunk.
If you are lucky and spend two nights at the base, there are three great day hikes to consider. Leaving from the Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground area are the River Loop (1.5 miles), the Clear Creek Trail (9 miles each way) with plenty of scenic stops, and the hike to Ribbon Falls (13 miles round trip). Or perhaps you'll prefer to lounge at "the beach," a sandy area right next to the Black Bridge. The swirling peridot-colored water of the Colorado River is captivating.
After three days and two nights at Phantom Ranch we began to feel the healthy effects of digital detox. In our modern connected world there is an "always on" sensation. Technology companies hire armies of geniuses to try and capture your time, your attention, and your life. In "How Technology is Highjacking Your Mind," author Tristan Harris explains that FOMSI - Fear Of Missing Something Important - is a technological strategy for hijacking your attention. This played out before our eyes as a fellow camper asked the ranger if she had internet. The desperate camper believed that "something important" happened a mile above us, and she needed to know what it was. Clearly she had not been at the ranch long enough to re-learn what is really important. Our digital detox experience was so powerful that we now have internet-free days upon returning to the earth's surface.
We departed shortly after breakfast on the third day and headed past the cottonwood grove toward the Bright Angel Trail with plenty of daylight for the 13-mile trek. Crossing the Silver Bridge, we turned around for one last glimpse of the glorious desert sanctuary. The pipeline carrying water to Canyon Village on the South Rim is visible beneath your feet as you cross the Silver Bridge and head toward the Bright Angel Trail. This small pipeline provides water to 6 million visitors annually, and seeing it illuminates the fragility of the canyon and the importance of water. (You can read more about water later in this post.)
The Bright Angel Trail offers different views than the Kaibab. The first mile snakes along the Colorado before heading up the the canyon walls at the River Resthouse. Hikers enjoy gurgling streams, small waterfalls, and the pleasant sound of water moving over rock. The trail goes up the same wash that the creek descends. You might hop from rock to rock in order to cross small streams as the trek continues. While the Kaibab Trail follows ridge lines, Bright Angel follows rivers, creeks, and canyons. Kaibab is in the sun, and Bright Angel is in the shade. And unlike Kaibab, this trail offers one place to refill your water, Indian Garden, which is also a campground and a popular day hike destination. Leaving Indian Garden means only 7 miles remain!
Looking up, it's impossible to decipher how you will get to the top, which is still 3,000 feet above you. And looking down 2,000 feet, the trail is obscured. Hours pass. The mental odometer ticks off the miles. Birds soar on the thermals in the underground sky. The trail criss-crosses streams. Vegetation in the creek is vibrant and brightly colored. Peace and quiet fill the canyon. Every so often you hear the comforting sound of hooves on the trail ,so you know you aren't alone. As you near the rim, there is a cold beverage waiting for you, and it is literally a few steps away at the Bright Angel Lodge Bar.
The Bright Angel Lodge is an excellent place to stay if you want to explore the rim. The lodge is literally steps from the Bright Angel Trail. Cozy cabins (designed by Mary Coulter in the original style of Buckey O'Neill's cabin built here in the 1890s) are a short walk to the rim. Enjoy a nice meal in the Bright Angel Lodge or walk a quarter mile along the rim and dine at the El Tovar Hotel. If you find national park hotels of interest, El Tovar will not disappoint. Dinners are pricey and require a reservation, but breakfast is reasonably priced, and the food and service is exceptional.
Next to the lodge is the Kolb Photography Studio which opened in 1905. The Kolb brothers used glass plates with silver emulsion to produce their work. Developing these glass plates required lots of water, which was scarce at the South Rim, so the brothers took their plates 4.5 miles down the trail to Indian Garden in order to develop them. There are great canyon views from the studio, and photographers will find their story fascinating.
You can also walk, take shuttles, or ride bikes along the Rim Trail, which has breathtaking views. Enjoy the morning sunrise. Sunsets are filled with color, and the night sky with stars.
The first human residents in the canyon were likely the Anazasi Indians. Remains of a 1,000-year-old pueblo are visible at the Bright Angel Creek/Colorado River juncture. In addition, Havasupai, Zuni, Hopi and Navajo congregated in the canyon for refuge as well as sacred ceremonial gatherings. John Wesley Powell, an American legend, soldier, geologist, explorer, and professor, camped here with his team during his pioneering expedition through the canyon and down the Colorado River in 1869.
The canyon was later mapped, trails were carved through rock, and pioneer David Rust established a tent tourist camp in 1906. Thanks to his foresight, visitors today enjoy the shade from his large grove of silvery cottonwoods that frame the Bright Angel Creek. At the mouth of the creek Rust constructed a fearsome cableway across the Colorado that allowed access from both the North and South canyon rims. Sightseers and hunters arrived en masse to explore the canyon. Theodore Roosevelt used the cable to cross the Colorado in 1913, and after Teddy's stay the camp was briefly named Roosevelt's Chalet. It was partially due to his visit that the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919. The Santa Fe Railroad laid rails to the canyon to allow for more visitors.
But it was Mary Coulter, a visionary architect for the railway, who transformed Rust's tent camp to a permanent settlement of stone cabins called Phantom Ranch. From 1902 to 1948 Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, an industrious architect, designed eight park buildings that are still standing. Her work includes Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Lodge, Hopi House, Hermit's Rest, Lookout Studio, and The Watchtower. Originally hired as an interior designer for the El Tovar Hotel, she quickly made her mark as chief architect. In Phantom Ranch, author Scott Thybony writes, "Colter designed buildings that drew upon the region's cultural traditions. She borrows what worked aesthetically from Spanish influences, Pueblo Indians, even miners and cattlemen. The cabins were wood-frame structures, and furnishings were kept simple."
It turns out that even though the Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon, none of the river water can be used by the park. Water rights for the Colorado River were settled in an interstate treaty in 1922 named the Colorado River Compact. Seven states signed the treaty, but the national park and Native Americans were not signatories. Because of this treaty, park water must come from somewhere else. This issue makes no sense to a casual observer: How can Native Americans be denied water rights? How can the national park be denied water rights even though the Colorado River flows right through the park? This complicated and important matter of water rights along the Colorado River is still being argued today.
In the early days the Santa Fe Railway supplied the Grand Canyon with water in tanker cars. This ended with the building of the Trans-Canyon Pipeline in 1965. ALL the water to supply the park comes from Roaring Spring on the North Rim. The Trans-Canyon Pipeline uses gravity to supply water to Phantom Ranch and to Indian Garden half way up the Bright Angel Trail. There is a pump house at Indian Garden that pumps water to the South Canyon Rim. You can read about this monumental engineering project here.
If a visit to the Grand Canyon is on your list, please check out the National Park Service FAQs to get started. Some people hike down and up in a day; however, the National Park Service offers this warning:
Hiking to the river and back in one day is not recommended due to long distance, extreme temperature changes and an approximately 5,000-foot (1,500 m) elevation change each way. If you think you have the fitness and expertise to attempt this extremely strenuous hike, please seek the advice of a park ranger at the Backcountry Information Center. Know how to rescue yourself. YOU are responsible for your safety and the safety of your family and friends. Rescue is not guaranteed and assistance may take hours or days due to weather or other emergencies.
If you decide to hike to the river, please review your plans with a ranger prior to departure.
Also, if you make the journey a sprint, you won't have time to savor the experience. Take the time to visit, and reward yourself with the luxury of stopping along the way to soak in the other-worldly views. Here are some of our favorites in our gallery. Find a bit of shade and listen to absolutely nothing for a few minutes. Marvel at the saddle-bag-packed mules ambling along with their awkward gait. For a split second it looks as if they will walk over the edge! But at each turn, their nimble hooves shift at just the right moment and they continue.