Imagine the scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation where Chevy Chase takes a two-second look at the Grand Canyon then walks away ushering his family back into the car. While that may be a gross exaggeration, this is how the majority of the six million tourists who visit the Grand Canyon each year experience the national park — 99 percent of them to be exact. Strolling along the rim to take their selfies then moving on to the next event.
So how can you become part of the one percent and experience the Grand Canyon in all its glory? Easy. Hike down to the bottom and back out again. It’s virtually impossible to appreciate the sheer scale and depth of the canyon unless you drop below the rim. And I mean all the way down, past the near 40 rock layers representing almost two billion years of time, to the Colorado River still carving its way through the Vishnu schist.
While some may argue the ultimate experience is rafting the entire 277 miles through the canyon on the Colorado or joining the hardcore hikers and runners on the “Death March” — completing the 42-46 mile rim-to-rim-to-rim in under 24 hours — I chose to spend more time within the clutches of her walls and stay the night at the iconic Phantom Ranch, the only lodge below the rim. I wanted to be able to take my eyes off the trail, feel the rock and search for things like ancient reptile tracks or flora and fauna such as the towering Utah agave, banana yucca, and maybe even a condor or two.
For this trip, I joined OARS on one of their Rim to River offerings. While famous for their rafting trips, this long standing California-based outfitter also offers plenty of interesting hiking tours across the world for the need-to-always-be-moving set like myself. Joined by a group of hiking enthusiasts from across the US, our two guides were local Arizonans, fun and extremely knowledgeable on all things Grand Canyon.
We chose the South Kaibab Trail for the descent as even though hard on the knees, it provides the shortest and most direct route from the South Rim to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the gorge. Several hours of downhill slogging takes you down 6.4 miles and 4,749 vertical feet to the river, with another mile or so to the ranch.
For the middle of April, the temperature was unseasonably cold. I’m talking below freezing with gusty winds that knock you sideways kind of cold. As we suited up at the trailhead near Yaki Point, we could not wait to drop into The Chimney switchbacks in order to start heading down into the warmth — you can easily see a 20-degree difference between the rim and the canyon floor on any given day. While waiting for everyone to hit that one last bathroom and water stop, I pondered the white limestone crumbling beneath my feet, once an ancient sea complete with shell fossils and even sharks teeth. Yes, you can find sharks teeth at the Grand Canyon.
Roughly one mile and 600 feet down, we hit the aptly named Ooh Aah Point where the trail opens up along down to Cedar Ridge with panoramic views of all the rainbow colored buttes jutting out of the canyon. Thanks to geologist and connoisseur of eastern religions Charles Edward Dutton, one of the early pioneers to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, these buttes have interesting names like Zoroaster Temple, Buddha Temple, and Shiva Temple.
After three miles and over 2,200 feet down, we caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River at Skeleton Point, before plunging down yet another steep set of switchbacks to the Tonto Platform and the Tip Off. We started to run into the mule trains on their way up, either carrying mail and supplies — everything in and out of Phantom Ranch is transported by mule — or people opting for the more leisurely albeit skittish way out of the canyon.
We were now in the Inner Gorge, below the Tapeats Sandstone and Grand Canyon Supergroup rocks, placing us 1.7 billion years back in time. Yet another knee-busting set of switchbacks finally brought us to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge, better know as “black bridge,” that spans the Colorado River to the other side of the canyon.
Across the bridge, we picked up the North Kaibab trail for the last mile into Phantom Ranch, passing by rafts parked on Boat Beach and ancestral Puebloan ruins, now home only to flowering beavertail cactus.
We arrived at Phantom Ranch in time for a late lunch and a well-earned lemonade and Bright Angel IPA from the canteen. I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling up the North Rim Trail along Bright Angel Creek through an area known as The Box before heading back to Boat Beach to stick my feet into the freezing cold Colorado River, watching the sun slowly dip behind the rim and pinyon jays swarming overhead.
Dinner at Phantom Ranch is the same every night (yes, every night) — beef stew, cornbread, salad, and chocolate cake for dessert. The legendary beef stew recipe hasn’t changed since it was first served in the 1970s, with the supposed secret to its delicious give-me-another-bowlful flavor the blackening of the stew meat.
You have a few options for spending the night at Phantom Ranch — camping, cabins, or bunkhouse. I spent the night in one of the women’s bunkhouses which comes with five sets of made-up bunkbeds, a toilet, and even a hot shower. Just don’t forget the earplugs.
Our human-delivered wake up call came early the next morning — 4:30 am for a 5:00 am breakfast. Normally reserved for alpine starts, this early alarm is an absolute necessity during summer months when you want to escape the triple digit heat in the canyon before the sun comes up. Any grumbles were quickly quieted as we were rewarded with a huge spread of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee.
Luckily for us, the mild April temperatures meant we could take our time hiking the 9.9 miles out along the River Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail back to the South Rim. We crossed the Silver Bridge just as the sun started to poke above the cliffs, creating a majestic glow that slowly crept along the canyon walls.
The trail was pretty gradual all the way to Indian Gardens, apart from a short 1500-foot section of lightning bolt shaped switchbacks called Devils Corkscrew. This was one of my favorite areas, as the rose-colored morning light began to hit the dark granite walls, providing a dramatic counterpoint to the lush streamside habitats both above and below.
After filling water at Indian Gardens, we entered into the Bright Angel fault, thanks to which there is actually a way through the normally sheer cliffs of the canyon. Prehistoric humans to more recent Native Americans have all used this trail, evidenced by the pictographs and large fire pits still visible along the route today.
We would pass by two further rest houses on the last section of trail, both named for their mile markers from the rim. As we had made good time up Jacobs Ladder through the Redwall Limestone layer to Three-Mile Resthouse, we naively thought the last few miles would be a piece of cake. Our guide chuckled as he informed us it would most likely take the same amount of time to hike straight up the last three miles as it did to get to our point now, almost eight miles in. We all turned and looked at the sheer cliff of numerous layers of sandstone in front of us. He was not kidding.
Needless to say, the endless switchbacks to the top were steep and unrelenting. After Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, we got hit by a hard dose of reality. Weary from hours of walking uphill and eager for a cold beer at the El Tovar Cocktail Lounge, we had to deal with hordes of tourists snapping photos and not yielding to uphill traffic. Normally it would have tried my patience, but instead I just smiled, knowing that I was one of only a small group of people to experience the full beauty of this powerful, inspiring landscape.
If You Go
Phantom Ranch: Reservations at Phantom Ranch are notoriously hard to get (you need to enter a lottery fifteen months ahead of your planned trip) so if you would rather be guaranteed a spot, why not head out on an OARS trip. You not only get to stay and eat at Phantom Ranch, but you get knowledgeable guides who can tell you everything from the exact type of rock in each layer of the Grand Canyon to the history of human inhabitation and exploration in the area. You are also treated to a celebratory dinner at the famed El Tovar Dining Room. Hard to beat that.
Not an exhaustive list by any means, but here are a few of the pieces of gear I found super valuable on my hike in and out of the canyon.
Lightweight, Ultra-Cushion Trail Runners: For warm, dry hikes like this I prefer wearing lightweight trail runners. And those with ultra-cushioning like the Salomon Sonic RA Max, shown here, or the HOKA Speedgoat 2 enable me to hike longer and further without overall fatigue or knee pain. I had zero problems in terms of traction, even when descending dreaded pebble dirt, and zero problems with blisters. I paired these with some Balega socks and my feet were happy the entire time.
Neck Gaiter: A Buff or some form of neck gaiter like the Columbia Freezer Zero is not only useful to protect your face from the sun, but also to keep you from breathing in all the mule-poo filled dust that is inevitable when hiking in the Grand Canyon.
Columbia Alpine Traverse Jacket: Conditions in the Grand Canyon can swing wildly from one minute to the next. This wind- and water-resistant jacket is lined with Polartec Alpha Active insulation so will keep you warm without overheating. Alpha remains one of my favorite insulations for active pursuits.
Trekking Poles: Save your knees, use trekking poles on the downhill. As our guide put it, “lower yourself down as if you are already sore.” Between my ultra-cushion shoes and aggressive use of trekking poles, I had zero leg/knee pain after our hike. I felt great.