As we stepped out of the warm Park Service bus, the subfreezing air hit us hard. Although the sun had now fully risen, we could still see our breath as we slung our backpacks onto our shoulders. Once we began descending the South Kaibab Trail we knew that we’d be hiking in shade and on snow. As I was trying to determine what layers I wanted to keep or shed, our two boys took off.
The South Kaibab Trail
This was our third hike at Grand Canyon National Park on this trail. The first time had been three years earlier, when our boys were 10 and 7 years-old. It was our first visit to the Park and it was Thanksgiving morning. Our fellow hikers were mostly bound for Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River. One had bananas in his pack, another carried a turkey. These two were part of a larger party camping in the Bright Angel campground. Others were going to the Phantom Ranch cabins, where a holiday dinner awaited them. We hiked only part way down the trail, turning back, as do most day hikers at Cedar Point.
Our next visit to the Park was two years later, again for Thanksgiving. This time, my father hiked with me and our boys, again to Cedar Point. My husband, freed of fatherly and spousal obligation, ventured further, setting a fast pace to the junction where the South Kaibab meets the Tonto Trail. Just a short way further down the trail is the Tip Off, the first point at which South Kaibab hikers can see the river. He was running out of time and didn’t get to see the water, but his enthusiastic recounting of the trail and his kindled desire to get to the bottom “next time” inspired us all.
To The Bottom
“Next time” turned out to be just one year later, on the first weekend of December. Arriving at Grand Canyon Village the night before our hike, we’d walked along the rim near the Bright Angel trailhead where we looked down five trail miles onto golden cottonwoods at Indian Garden. We were in snow. Standing in winter, looking upon autumn, we made a bet that it would still be summer at Phantom Ranch.
As we hiked the next day, the sun rose higher, and while it took some time to get warm, we shed layers as we descended. Leaving the pinion-juniper forest on the rim, we hiked down into a landscape more barren than we had imagined. There is no water along the South Kaibab trail. It follows no drainage and for several miles the trail passes through a barren escarpment of sage and sand. Arriving at the Tip Off for lunch, my husband and I finally caught our two sons, now 13 and 10. Although we were hiking fast, our sons were faster. The lure of a new discovery around each corner, a new vista and the thrill of self-propelled adventure had them running on pure enthusiasm.
An Endlessly Changing Landscape
Undoubtedly, the Grand Canyon is inspirational. Hyberbole notwithstanding, each time I view the Canyon, I find it breathtaking, otherworldly in its scope and beauty. Amazingly, of the nearly 4.5 million visitors who pilgrimage to the Canyon annually, only 5% venture below the rim for at least 100 yards. As for hiking to the bottom, that number is 1%. in part, the numbers of visitors taking a trail is low because the average stay at GCNP is only 3 hours. Three hours?! I could stay for three weeks, or three months and never tire of hiking up and down in time, passing through a vertical trajectory of geologic history, from the pale limestone at the top to the dark, cold granite of the Canyon’s birth at the bottom, passing through an adolescence of sandstone and shale along the way.
After the Tip Off, the trail leaves the barren headlands and drops into a side canyon of darkest red sandstone. The river sparkled up in the sun and as we soon saw, the cottonwood trees are Phantom Ranch were still green. While it was December at the top, it was September at 2,550 feet.
The trail’s arrival at the river is dramatic. After a relentless descent, the trail suddenly flattens and enters a mining tunnel, emerging on the other side onto a suspension bridge. Phantom Ranch and the campground are still a good half-mile along the river, but the end is in sight. When we arrived at the Phantom Ranch cookhouse to check into our cabin, our boys were lounging on the porch, packs dropped, shoe and socks off. We’d set a relatively torrid pace, but they had still beaten us by 45 minutes, quite a victory in their minds. We agreed. It had taken us 40 years to get here. At their ages, they each have a lifetime to return, explore and discover. Having joyfully reached the bottom, the Canyon is theirs, open to them wherever their boots may lead.
When You Go…..
Although December is not a wildly popular month at Grand Canyon National Park, the cabins at Phantom Ranch book quickly year-round. Reservations are taken on the first day of the month, one year in advance. We didn’t want to camp on this first trip to the bottom, primarily because we weren’t sure how much the boys could carry. Ha! They could’ve carried everything.
Instead, we sprang for a four person cabin, which barely fit us and our backpacks. With the sun setting early, and the evenings quickly turning chill, it was a bit claustrophobic. Still, on our second night, a record cold front moved in, turning September properly into December, and we were happy to be inside.
Meals at Phantom Ranch are served in the cookhouse, which doubles as a game room/bar after the food crew cleans up. There are two seatings for dinner each evening, one serving steak, one serving stew. Breakfast is hearty and you can buy sack lunches to take on your wanderings into side canyons and along the river or for your hike back up to the rim.
We spent two nights at Phantom Ranch and thank goodness. When we awoke the first morning, we could barely walk. Our calves, having been relentlessly contracted on the descent, had seized up. Visiting with a Park Ranger at the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station, I asked him how many trips he’d made to the bottom before his legs no longer hurt. “They still hurt. After all of these years, they still hurt,” he confided. “But each time you get over it faster.”
For our ascent we took the Bright Angel Trail back to the rim, thus making a loop. The Bright Angel Trail is gorgeous. It follows the Bright Angel Fault into the Pipe Creek drainage and is lush, verdant and muddy, compared to the South Kaibab Trail. But the best part of the ascent was that our calf muscles were stretched in the opposite direction, providing some relief and balance. As we topped out at the Kolb Studio, it was snowing. Hightailing it over to the Bright Angel Lodge, we dropped our packs outside and rushed in to warm ourselves at the fireplace. As we rubbed our hands and stretched our shoulders, we laughed, filled with wonder and appreciation for an adventure well-completed.
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