Descent via South Kaibab Trail
[Grand Canyon National Park, Fri, Nov 24, 2017]
After a restful night’s sleep in our park lodge, we woke up on Friday ready to conquer the descent into the canyon. Our packs were ready from the night before. We all ended up reducing what we took with us in order to keep the weight down. It’s amazing how little you need if you actually think about it! Olivia strapped all kinds of things on the outside of her very small pack. It was really impressive, actually. 🙂
On our way out to the car, we were greeted by some deer grazing in the parking lot. They seemed completely unfazed by our presence, even as we got close to them.
We got some breakfast and sandwiches for lunch at our lodge, then rode the park shuttle to the trailhead with a stop at the visitor center to get our national park passports stamped. We got to the trailhead around 9:30 am. The late start didn’t bother us at all. It was actually nice to let the temperature rise a bit from the low 30s at sunrise. After some photos at the top, we began our 5000-ft, 7-mile descent to Phantom Ranch.
It didn’t take long after we started for the views of the canyon to open up before us. It really is amazing how much more you can see if you just go a little bit below the rim. It was hard to not take photos at every corner. At first we did just that, plus we stopped for Laura to fix the mouthpiece on her hydration bladder, but then got into a good pace going down. Our hiking poles came really handy, providing extra support and balance down the steep incline. You’ll notice the steep switchbacks at the very beginning of the trail!
Cedar Ridge, about 1.5 miles down, was our first rest stop. We enjoyed marvelous 180-degree views of the canyon below. Another benefit of our late start was the sun exposing the colors of all the different layers of rock.
We took another break about 3 miles from the rim, at Skeleton point. At this point we were in full sun and the temperature was much higher due to the lower elevation. We were starting to feel the relentless descent in our legs. Most people not going to the bottom stop here, if not earlier. Because you’re going downhill first and then back uphill – the opposite of most hikes – it’s easy for people to get into trouble. If you’re hiking uphill, it’s no problem to go until you get tired because the downhill is easier to handle. But if you descend first, you have to be really mindful of the uphill you have to do on the way back. Despite the numerous signs and warnings posted everywhere, we still saw ill-prepared people going way deeper into canyon than they should have. We were especially worried for one guy we saw fairly late in the day huffing it up the hill with nothing but a quarter of a Gatorade bottle left.
Just after Skeleton point, we saw our first pack of mules. They transport people and goods down the canyon and take trash and mail back out. We had already seen signs of them all along the trail in the form of poop. More about the mules later. 🙂
Another mile after Skeleton point, we reached one more overlook before our last descent into the river, called the Tip Off. The rock formations people see from the rim were high above us at this point, surrounding us on all sides. We could see the last narrow crevasse that hid the Colorado river below. We stopped for lunch here and talked to other hikers heading to Phantom Ranch. A couple of guys from Pennsylvania were here with their two sisters on a sibling trip. They talked about having whiskey and cigars once they got down, which we were jealous of because we didn’t have alcohol with us. That would be so heavy to carry!
From here, the trail got even steeper. No wonder our lunch stop was called the Tip Off – we had a 1500 ft descent over the next 3 miles. We could see the Colorado river now but our legs were getting so tired! We were ready for this trail to end!
The last part was really cool though – we crossed the river via Black bridge, a suspension bridge built in the 1920s. The cables for it couldn’t be brought down on mules – men had to carry them all the way down here. The bridge was built at night to beat the heat.
We were almost down to the river now, and we could see a nice sandy beach off to the side with people frolicking in the water. We had left the cooler temps at the rim way behind… it was mid 80s down here.
When we finally made it to Phantom Ranch, it was about 2:45 pm – it had taken us 5 hours to get down with all the stops.
We checked in at the canteen. We were grateful to find out that they serve beer and wine! We sat down to refuel and take in our surroundings. The canteen is where all meals are served, and in-between those, people just hang out playing board games, talking and snacking and drinking. We were so happy to finally be down here!
Afterwards, we checked into out dorm. The dorms were in several small buildings; each housed six bunk beds, a toilet and a shower. Nobody was there when we arrived, but the building was not locked – no need for security among like-minded outdoorsy hiker-type people. We could tell which beds were occupied by the bags or other personal belongings left on them, so we just found 3 that were empty and claimed them.
As we took turns going into the shower, the rest of the dorm occupants showed up. Everyone was super friendly and immediately introduced themselves. It turned out two of the gals were the sisters of the Pennsylvania brothers we met at our lunch break! We asked if they really did bring down some whiskey, and they did but they had the mules bring it down. If you want to hike yourself down rather than ride a mule, you can still use the mule duffel service, which gives you 30 lbs of weight for about $75 round-trip. It also has to be reserved in advance, though not as far in advance as your Phantom ranch accommodations. 😉 We personally liked that we were bringing our stuff down ourselves. Girl power!
By the time we all showered, it was time for dinner in the canteen! We reserved our meals here at the same time as our accommodations; otherwise we would have had to bring food down as well. We had steak and baked potatoes and green beans and a nice salad, all brought down here by the mules. Everything down here has been physically brought down by a person or a mule. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a more remote place! Meals were served family style on 4 long tables. We all chatted while passing plates around. After dinner, our server told us all bit more about life down here in Phantom ranch. There are 14 full time park employees working here. They work 10 days, then take 4 days off. If they want to leave, they have to hike out – no free mule service! They have wifi but it’s for employees only. You could hear a groan in the canteen when he said that. There is no cell signal down here, so people have no way of going online. There is a landline to use if you want to go old school. 🙂
We had to leave the canteen after dinner for the second seating of diners to have their turn. We took naps in the dorm, then Laura and I went back after dinner service to hang out. We shared some red wine and met some people who turned out to be my neighbors in Redondo Beach! We also found postcards that we could send from down here. They’d have to be carried out of here by mule like everything else, and there was even a special pouch for you to put the postcard in instead of a mailbox! That was way too cool for us to pass up, so we spent a good part of the evening writing cards and looking up zip codes in the zip code book.
And that concludes the first day of our Grand Canyon adventure! Our feet are tired, but our souls are full.