The hardest part about visiting Phantom Ranch isn’t getting there, but getting back. There are no welcome signs, no strategically placed words of encouragement. In fact, just the opposite. The one and only sign we saw was ominous at best – it didn’t so much state its message as it did shout it.
“WARNING! Do Not Attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day! Each year hikers suffer serious injury or Death from exhaustion.” It was not subtle. If you dared to pass, then you acknowledged the risk.
With most risk comes reward, and the Grand Canyon does not disappoint. There are many trails down to Phantom Ranch, but we chose the shortest and steepest, South Kaibab Trail. We started down before daybreak and were rewarded for our early entry by dawn’s artistic light show. The morning sun splashed a multitude of colors against the sandstone rocks and formations, making the nighttime shadows melt away amid an ever-changing wheel of color.
Nature is kind to those who appreciate it. The hike was hard. It was dirty, dusty and jarring. Halfway down we were almost run over by a young mountain goat that came sprinting over a rocky outcrop. It was a danger we had not anticipated, yet the moment passed so fast one had to question if it really happened. Although, if possible, I actually believe the animal was more surprised than we were.
South Kaibab initially starts down with gentle meandering curves, which are replaced with more severe snake-like switchbacks as you near the river. The trail was desolate and almost abandoned save a couple of other fellow hikers and a team of 10 mules lined up single-file, hauling out tourists from the depths of the canyon.
At the bottom of the trail is a bridge that leads into a tunnel with a small hobbit-like opening. After several yards of cooled darkness you emerge on a bridge spanning the Colorado River. It is gentle and beautiful here, not the heaving rapid-infested body of water further downstream.
Past the bridge lies Phantom Ranch. Of the 5 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year, only 1% make it to the Ranch. The degree of difficulty, the discouragement and the almost impossibility of booking a room or campsite dissuades all but the most determined to reach this remote destination.
At first you come to the mule corrals; a small stream separates them from the human campground. Further ahead, the restaurant and cabins appear. The word "rustic" is kind. Other than the National Park’s roofed shelters, the structures are old, with the restaurant composed primarily of rock and mortar. Inside, wooden floors support picnic tables and a small kitchen. Food and drink is expensive, the furniture uncomfortable. Were it not for the fatigue of the hike, it would not be a place to loiter. Like the canyon itself, the ranch is not a soft place.
We chose to return to the rim of the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail. It’s almost 3 miles longer than our decent, but with a gentler incline. (All things being relative, as 10 miles of uphill climbing awaited.) As we pushed off, the phase “Between a rock and a hard place” seemed apropos.
Bright Angel follows the river at first before taking a hard left into the rocks. The trail is less severe than South Kaibab, with an aha moment at “Indian Garden” – best described as simply an oasis amid a lunar landscape. Despite the beauty, fatigue sets in. It’s now when water, sports drinks and food become extremely important. Did I mention the water? Very important!
The trail became more heavily populated as we neared the top, people moving in both directions. Many curious as to what lies around the next turn, others stumbling upward, regretting their initial foray into the canyon.
At the rim we smiled and hammed for the camera next to the sign we had passed so much earlier that morning. Not willing to jinx ourselves then, but more than happy to flaunt our bravado at trip’s end.
Nature is kind to those who appreciate her. She certainly smiled on us that day.