Grand Canyon hike - 4th trip to Phantom Ranch

March 08, 2020

by Steve

You'd think we would have just about had our fill of hiking down into the Grand Canyon by now. But we saw an opportunity to book at Phantom Ranch and decided to do another winter hike to the bottom. 

Here's Jane at the rim. We arrived right after they had a snowfall of around 2 feet in early December 2019.

It's fairly difficult to get in at Phantom Ranch, the dorms and cabins at the bottom of the Grand Canyon inside the national park. You can book 13 months in advance, and there's so much demand that there is a lottery for available spots. Some people try for years to get in without success. But as we wintered in Tucson again this year, we are nearby enough to take advantage of any cancellations that might show up. So in October when we saw an opening at Phantom Ranch for early December, we decided to do the hike again. We have done this hike in January, June, and October in earlier years. We thought that December might be cool and crisp at the rim and sunny and warm at the river. We hadn't counted on an early-season snowstorm.

The snowstorm that hit in early December dropped around 2 feet of snow at the rim. This was an unusually large amount for this early in the winter. Typically in the winter, any snow and ice on the trail tends to be gone once you've descended a mile or mile and a half into the canyon. This time we had snow for around 4 miles of the trail. In the picture above, you can see snow all the way down to Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail. The snow in Indian Garden was so heavy and wet that it caused lots of the cottonwood trees there to lose branches, prompting an evacuation of the campground.

Jane confidently navigates a snowy section of the South Kaibab trail.

Here we are descending the South Kaibab trail. As you can see, there's lots of snow and ice on the trail, and if you know this trail you know there there are areas with a fair bit of exposure (drop-offs). Fortunately we had purchased good quality snow grippers for our boots, which made us feel confident hiking on the snow and ice. [Jane's note: "Confident" does not necessarily mean fast. Our hike out of the canyon took longer than any we've done before.]

This is a view from the Tonto Trail junction, about 4 miles from the rim and only 2 miles or so from the river. The snow extended down this far, almost to the Tip-Off. 

Here's the last bit of ice on the trail. After this bit of white-knuckle trail there's sun on the trail and the snow was mostly melted off.  After 4 1/2 miles of hiking in snow, we were happy to finally remove our crampons.

Here we are arriving at Phantom Ranch. The trees still had their fall colors and had not all dropped their leaves.

Of course we rewarded ourselves with the steak dinner at the canteen.

The next day we hiked out using the Bright Angel trail. Here we are coming into Indian Garden and are greeted by a rather large buck. Fortunately he was willing to share the trail with us.

Here's someone up in the trees at Indian Garden cutting off branches that have broken and are poised to fall onto the campground below. The cottonwood trees that are growing there are actually not native and can break easily. So the park service replaces them when they die with a native variety of tree that will still provide shade.

We had hoped that after a couple days of sunshine that the Bright Angel Trail would be a bit more free of snow and ice. But no. We hit the snow about 1 mile below 3 mile resthouse (4 miles from the rim) and were wearing crampons the whole way after that. In the picture above you see the view from mile and a half resthouse. While it was hard work hiking the last 4 miles in snow, it did keep the trail pretty free of other hikers. 

I think we've decided that if we were to hike the Grand Canyon down to Phantom Ranch again, we would be doing it in the spring time (March or early April) and staying in a cabin rather than the dorms. And we'd do it with a couple of friends to make for a social hike.  Let us know if you're interested.

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  1. Beautiful! Were there a lot of "no shows" at the camp due to the weather? Do the staff live there and how are supplies brought in? Would love to join you sometime!

  2. That's a tough hike in good conditions. I'm sure the snow made it more challenging. Love photographing the Grand Canyon with snow.


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