Grand Canyon, Again?!

January 30, 2018

Three and a half years ago we visited the Grand Canyon to complete a bucket-list item, a rim-to-rim hike. While we didn't think we'd be back soon, we found ourselves back at the canyon in May (read about it here). Now that we're in Tucson for the winter, we are only a few hours' drive [Jane's note: Six long hours--even longer when your legs are stiff] away from the canyon, and we decided that if the opportunity arose, we'd do the hike down to Phantom Ranch (at the bottom of the canyon) again, this time in the winter. We had only been down the South Kaibab trail a bit past Cedar Ridge, maybe two miles or so from the rim, and we've heard that it's a spectacular trail as it plunges down to the Colorado River. So we've been periodically calling to see if there are openings for an overnight at Phantom Ranch.

We discovered that there were a number of cancellations, possibly as a result of the government shutdown, and so we grabbed a night in the dorms and headed up to the Grand Canyon. Here we are at the South Kaibab trailhead. It's about 30 degrees or colder, and there's a bit of a wind [Jane's note: A lot of wind], which is why we look cold.

There's a bit of snow and ice on the upper parts of the trail, but only for the first half mile or so, and even then, the ice was covered with a fair bit of trail dirt. So we didn't even break out the over-shoe grippers that we had along. [Jane's note: Because if we returned them unused, we could get our money back.]

Hat, gloves, and a goose-down sweater were the order of the day, at least at the start. Soon enough we were down into the sunshine, out of the wind, and into much warmer temperatures.

The South Kaibab trail is very different from the Bright Angel trail. While the Bright Angel follows side canyons down to the Colorado River, the Kaibab follows a ridge line that is almost all in the sun. (Read the history of the South Kaibab trail here). This gives the Kaibab trail some very spectacular views, and as it is almost all in the sun, it is better done in winter than in summer. 

Here are some of the views along the route.

Along the ridge line

The trail hugs the side of the ridge.

Skeleton Point

This mule train was carrying gravel for trail maintenance.

Trail to nowhere? This is one spot where the trail goes from one side of the ridge line to the other, and appears to fall off into space.

Here's a view looking down at the Colorado River, with a couple hikers taking a break at an outcropping of rock along the trail. The trail continues down and to the right, and eventually goes along the brown mesa you see on the right side of the picture.

Here we are walking right along the edge of the inner gorge.

Here's one spot where we are looking just about straight down at the river, with the silver bridge visible.  It's hundreds of feet below us still.

Another view looking down at the river, with a section of the trail visible.

 Yes! We made it!

The reward for all this hard work.

If you consider doing this hike, and we highly recommend it, here are a few tips.

  1.  Phantom Ranch books up 13 months in advance, and it is almost always sold out. But sometimes people can't make it and cancel. They can cancel as late as 2 days before their planned trip and still get all their money back, so while you can find availability due to cancellations, it's usually only a few days in advance. So you have to be ready to go on short notice.
  2.  In the past you could only book Phantom Ranch by phone, but now you can do it online, and you can get the availability online. including meals. Here's the link:
  3.  We'd recommend going down the South Kaibab trail and up the Bright Angel. You do more vertical on the Kaibab, so going down is preferable, plus you get great views in front of you, not over your shoulder.
  4.  If you prefer to backpack and camp, the campground at Bright Angel (near Phantom Ranch) does not generally fill up in January and February. We saw mostly empty campsites, with only a half dozen or so taken. Stop by the backcountry office for a permit. 
  5.  Phantom Ranch has dorms and cabins. We opted for dorms as it's a bit cheaper, and we are glad we did. The dorms have their own shower, while the cabins have only a sink and cold water. You need to go to a different building for a shower. Plus you get the camaraderie of other hikers in the dorm. [Jane's note: Think girltalk and sleepover. :) ]
  6.  In the winter, you may need grippers that go over your boots so you don't slip on ice on the trail. In the past you could rent these from the General Store, but now they no longer rent them. We purchased ours, but did not use them and kept them clean, so we were able to return them for a full refund.
  7.  Unlike in the summer, when you need to start hiking at 5 am and finish by 11 am to avoid the heat, in the winter you can enjoy the entire day on the trail. So get the late breakfast (7 am) at Phantom Ranch, and not the early breakfast (5:30 am).

That's all the tips for now.  Happy hiking!

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