When I saw the girl lying in the snow next to the trail, I knew I was close to the end. Wearing sandals, skinny jeans, and a faux fur vest, she giggled and struck an on-the-beach pose for an iPhone trained in her direction. Too exhausted to avoid photo-bombing her, I trudged right by, at which point I saw—thank GOD!—my destination ahead: the rim of the Grand Canyon.
My grateful emergence from Arizona’s biggest tourist attraction occurred last December. I’d spent the previous two nights at the famous Phantom Ranch, the Grand Canyon’s only below-the-rim lodging. My friend and frequent travel buddy, Michelle, had unexpectedly come upon a reservation, and so, needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity to sojourn into the Big Ditch.
Despite Grand Canyon National Park’s (nps.gov/grca) worldwide popularity, roughly only 10 percent of its 4.5 million annual visitors ever venture below the edge of the mile-deep hole. Far fewer make it all the way to Phantom Ranch, which dates to 1922, when architect Mary Colter fashioned a design out of native stone for the difficult-to-get-to site. One of few women architects in her day, Colter created several South Rim structures in the style that came to be known as National Park Rustic, among them the Bright Angel Lodge, Desert View Watchtower, Hermit House, Hopi House, and Lookout Studio.
After the Civilian Conservation Corps improved the trails leading to it during the Great Depression, Phantom Ranch became a popular destination, though only for celebrities and the wealthy. Indeed, it had no reservations system until 1964, when 1,000 people showed up on Easter weekend, all of them intent on spending a night at the ranch.
In wintertime, travelers can access Phantom Ranch from the South Rim only and must do so either on foot or on the back of a mule. After consulting with the Bright Angel Lodge’s friendly concierge, we chose to walk down the 7.3-mile South Kaibab Trail, which is about three miles shorter than the other option, the Bright Angel Trail, and tends to hold less snow.
The pre-Christmas-holiday crowds on the rim were thin when we started our descent, and even thinner just a few hundred feet from the trailhead.
We hiked easily, carrying just the day’s food and water, having sent a mule ahead with a duffel containing our clothes and toiletries (duffel service is $70.55 each way). And even as we were making our way down—past Skeleton Point, Ooh-Ahh Point, and the Black Suspension Bridge straddling the Colorado River—the air temperature rose, becoming quite a bit warmer than the 35 degrees we’d felt at the rim.
There’s no drinking water along the South Kaibab, but this did not deter us. After all, the weather was cool, and Michelle and I were both lugging 70-ounce Camelbaks. Plenty of signs offer stern warnings about heat exhaustion, however, and I was glad we hadn’t made the trip in summer, when temps regularly climb above 100.
Accommodations at the Phantom Ranch are pretty basic, but having stayed one night in the ladies’ dorm and the other in a cabin, I’d recommend ponying up for the latter. Quarters are very close in the dorms (two for each, ladies and men, each sleeping 10 people, $49 per person, per night), both in the bunk bed sleeping area and, in particular, the bathroom; the coffin-size shower had no ventilation and made me thank my lucky stars I’d brought flip-flops. The cabin, meanwhile ($142 per night, double occupancy), was palatial by comparison, with two bunk beds but also a nightstand with lamp, a sink, a mirror, a table, and chairs. And while cabin types still share a bathhouse, it’s both clean and spacious.
A young couple from Texas, a 60-year-old rim-to-rim hiking regular, and a Canadian CEO on a solo getaway—these were some of the folks we broke bread with during mealtimes at Phantom Ranch, where wholesome fare with plenty of camaraderie was the order of the day. Guests choose from three dinner options—veggie chili, beef stew, or steak ($26.45 and $43.65 per person, respectively)—when making lodging reservations (not included in the price of lodging). In addition, both wine and beer (cold Tecate, Budweiser, and Grand Canyon Brewing Company Amber Ale) are available for purchase during dinner and when the canteen reopens in the evening at 8 p.m.
It was while at dinner on our first evening that I began to feel my calves tightening. By the next morning, Michelle and I were so sore we had a hard time navigating stairs—a classic side effect of a seven-mile downhill hike. Nevertheless, we set off on the North Kaibab Trail just a few ibuprofens later, heading toward Ribbon Falls. Relatively flat and 11 miles round-trip, the trail snakes through Inner Gorge—a black rock canyon-within-a-canyon cut by Bright Angel Creek. It apparently gets wicked hot there in summertime, although the temperature didn’t rise above 60 degrees on the December day we passed through. About five miles down the trail, a well-marked spur leads to a waterfall and grotto on the west side of the creek. One glimpse at the massive, multicolored tufa mound formed beneath the trickling water, and it’s easy to see how the striking Ribbon Falls got its name.
On the final morning at Phantom Ranch, faced with the prospect of both hiking out of the canyon and driving home, we chose the early breakfast (at 5 a.m.; the “late” one is served at 6:30). Fortified by scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, and plenty of coffee, we hit the Bright Angel Trail just before 6.
It took five-and-a-half hours and maximum effort—at least for me—to scale the 9.9 miles from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim. After passing the aforementioned gaggle of teenagers, we headed directly to the El Tovar Hotel for a well-deserved, sit-down lunch of burgers, fries, and an Arizona-size glass of red wine, an ideal endnote to a truly unforgettable bucket-list trip.