My wife “Lisa” and I have backpacked, camped and traveled for many years together. My wife is not a fan of sleeping in the dirt anymore and prefers more creature comforts these days. She prefers a shower nightly, running water, a warm bed and a glass of wine after a hard day of working out. She is very athletic and continually works out and keeps fit. She enjoys Zumba, aerobics, weights and strength training. We both work out with regularity and have daily physical routines of at least one hour. Mine are in the moderate range and Lisa’s are more in the strenuous categories. She likes camping and hiking but prefers to stay in lodging or at least our small trailer. I, on the other hand enjoy backpacking, rough country camping with minimum gear and equipment. That to me is part of the challenge and fun; comfort and adventure while physically taxing. We each enjoy history; one of my life long heroes is Theodore Roosevelt.
My wife and I had been married 32 years up to this point and wanted an adventure to celebrate our 32 wedding anniversary and her birthday. I’m not a fan of crowded places or groups of people everywhere. Timing is everything when planning to avoid crowds at places of notoriety and mass appeal. With all of this in mind, I did some research and found the perfect place for both of us. “Phantom Ranch” in the Grand Canyon was exactly what I was looking for to suit our needs. The Grand Canyon has appeal for many, drawing folks from around the world in huge throngs. It is typically crowded and relatively expensive for lodging, particularly in the summer time when school is out.
The valley temperatures in the summer are very hot at the bottom of the canyon at times exceeding 110 degrees F. The summer the heat is brutal and not very comfortable for hiking. The best time of year for backpacking is February through April. This also avoids the crowds which can immense. The cooler temperatures in the winter on the top rim are great for hiking but caution is required. It begins to heat up fast as you drop into the valley floor of the canyon. There’s patches of snow and ice on the trail as well occasional mule trains so extreme care should be taken. I recommend cramp on cleats for your walking shoes in the winter which you can be purchased on the South rim stores in the area.
“Phantom Ranch” was originally a camp site which was established by Theodore Roosevelt during a hunting trip into the Grand Canyon in 1913. Coincidentally, we planned our trip in March of 2013, exactly one hundred years from the time Mr. Roosevelt and his expedition traveled to the bottom. The site now includes cabins, two dormitories each for men and women, a restaurant (serving only people who book meals ahead of time), 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 North Kaibab Trail leads 14 miles to the North Rim. The 9.3 mile trail to the South Rim follows the River Trail for two miles and then climbs the Bright Angel Trail to Grand Canyon Village. The two trail bridges near the ranch are the only Colorado River crossings within a 200-mile span. While Phantom Ranch has no official mail service (unlike Supai, Arizona), concessionaires have traditionally transported letters and postcards via mules. Packages are excluded from this ”mail” service.
I made reservations via e-mail and called a couple of times to confirm our lodging. Be sure to plan ahead! You need to arrange the reservations 6 months for off-season and for summer time it is recommended 12 months ahead of time. We reserved a private cabin; they are made of stones quarried from the local area of the camp. They are equipped with electric lights and a small heating stove for warmth. In addition, they have electrical power and two bunk beds that will sleep four in each cabin. For privacy purposes, cabins can also be rented for 2 people. They also have a men’s and women’s lodge for sleeping. Centered on the site are two shower buildings, one for women and one for men, both equipped with hot water. Last, but not least, in the center of the camp is the chow hall. Meals are served and you can purchase wine, beer and other snacks as needed. The meals are served group style and everyone sets benches together at set times. Food must be ordered and paid for in advance at the time of booking. The breakfast and dinner are served hot with an early and late time schedule of which each are posted. This is to facilitate seating for everyone. The guest is responsible for selecting the suitable time for his/her needs. Early breakfast was served 0530hrs and late breakfast at 0700hrs. The night prior to our decent into the valley, we stayed at the “Bright Angel Lodge” on the South Rim. It is one of the oldest hotels in the area and right on the rim. We could see the Canyon from our hotel room. The accommodations were modest, very clean, well-kept and nostalgic. It felt like a throw back in time to a by-gone era.
The “Bright Angel Lodge” is located directly on the site of Mr. Buckey O’neill’s original cabin. Buckey is another one of my heros and an amazing man in his own right. Buckey was a famous Sheriff of Arizona with a reputation for hunting down dangerous desperados and bringing them to justice dead or alive. He was feared by criminals and few dared to come head to head with him. At age 37, he volunteered and served as a Captain under Teddy. He was killed in the Spanish American war and died on the “charge up San Juan Hill” leading the famous Rough Riders.
The next morning we had breakfast, picked up a few supplies from the local store and headed off. We hit the trail about 1030hrs in the morning. It was a brisk 32f / 0c but it was sunny and the warm sun light felt great. We took a local free shuttle bus from our hotel to the trail head. We decided to take the “South Kaibab Trail” down to “Phantom Ranch” and off we went. The first few miles we saw many hikers and several mule trains making their way up the trail. The people started to thin out the further we traveled away from the top rim and down into the valley. Soon it was “just us” and wide open wonderment and natural beauty surrounding. The trails are well maintained, traveled and we came in contact with several park rangers. The views and images were breath taking. The last three miles are the worst and the steepest. Lisa’s knees were swollen due to the impact of the steep wide steps required to trek down the canyon. This is due to her short height and reduced length of gait. As I said, she is in excellent physical condition, but impact stress fatigue like this cannot be prevented. We arrived just as the sun started going down around 1730hrs. We checked in and got squared away in our cabin, took showers, and went to the chow hall for beer and wine. It was a great experience! The customer service and the crew that works in the camp were excellent. Thankfully, Lisa was fully recovered and back in the fight the next morning. We had some anti-inflammatory medication with us in our gear. This relieved the pain and reduced the swelling rapidly. In addition, we iced up her knees which assisted in bringing down the swelling. The ice was complements of the camp hosts.
Most of the employees are younger people, college age with a few older above 25 years of age. There were approximately 20 camp workers who took shifts caring for the site, cooking the food and attending to the logistical requirements of the camp. They stay in an onsite lodge for employees. Daily mule trains bring supplies into the camp. There was also a very small US Ranger hut / station near the camp. Phantom Ranch is very secluded and it is an effort to get to this location. Make no mistake, this is not a walk for those not physically prepared. We stayed at the Ranch for three days two nights. The breakfast was great; pancakes, bacon, eggs, biscuits, coffee and juice. You get your lunch in a bag at breakfast and the bag lunch is huge and well worth the money. We packed in our dinners with a camp stove and all required gear. The morning of the third day we got up, packed and made it to the chow hall for early breakfast. The breakfast was wonderful and off we went into the darkness up the Canyon fourteen miles. We started on the “River Trail” then to the “Bright Angel Trail” it was much more gradual and comfortable on the return trip but near one third longer. Of course for us, walking up is always easier than walking downhill. It was an amazing trek and the splendor of landscape everywhere.
General observations and conclusion
We noted many of the hikers on the trail not carrying day-packs or water. Lisa and I both had packs with water, food, jackets and light sleeping bags in case of poor weather. In addition I /we carry Leatherman tool sets, compass, GPS , map of the area, flashlights, head lamps, fire making equipment, a SPOT device and a distress signal beacon among other helpful items. Mother Nature will lash out at the worst time and take your life. Never under-estimate nature or take anything for granted. I have made it a habit after many years of living in the mountains, to never leave home without water, food and some type of shelter. I have assisted people stranded / injured numerous times as a result of their own negligence. I also helped recover dead bodies through the victims own lack of forethought and preparation. Better to be prepared for the worst and carry a few extra pounds then be exposed to the weather and risk hypothermia. A little planning goes a long way. Besides, within moderate ranges of weight, it makes for a better physical workout and fitness enhancement.
I occasionally see physically unfit people attempting to climb and walk extended distance on trails. With the ever increasing popularity of backpacking and trekking more and more people are exposing themselves to undue risk. If you are going to indulge in such activities, physically prepare, start walking and exercising, then add weight and gear to increase the load thereby simulating incline and decline. If you get injured on a trek like this it may be hours for someone to get to you and take hours to extract you. Keep in mind this is a well-traveled trail, in a more remote area, it may be days before someone finds you. Have a plan! If you are new to exercise, it might not be a bad idea to seek a physician’s advice and schedule a checkup before venturing out!
I highly recommend this trek. It was an excellent short term adventure and amazing in all respects. The trek allowed both Lisa and I to enjoy the trip and was a great compromise in regard to our stated desires. It was also a great way to spend our anniversary and “get out there!” Safe travels, be safe and prepare for the worst.
Authors: Monte and Lisa Gould