Actually, 6.5 Miles to be exact.
When I found out that there were open spots in the Phantom Ranch down below I could barely contain myself with excitement. We had already stocked up on provisions at the general store in the canyon village the night before so we were ready to go, we just needed to check out of the Bright Angel and store most of our stuff in the car.
By 730am we were on our way (via park shuttle) to the trailhead for the South Kaibab trail which was highly recommended by the park rangers working at the Bright Angel. Our plan was to hike down the South Kaibab and hike up the Bright Angel trail the next day, bright and early as we had to drive to California that day as well.
We started hiking just before 8am. Our knees were feeling it after hiking bear mountain in Sedona and virtually running our way off that trail. The top of the trail was cloud covered and shaded, which was a welcome respite from the potential danger of the sun. Also, the cloud cover provided wonderful shadows all along the canyon, providing interesting views that we could not get from the canyon’s rim.
About one mile and a half down the trail, the cover of the towering rim starts to fade and give way to more open vistas that reveal the enormity of the canyon below. The first of these dramatic vistas can be seen at a panoramic switchback on the trail called “Ooh-Ah Point.”
We continued down the trail, which now looked remarkably different from what it did only a half a mile above us and made our way to the next major point on the trail- Skeleton’s point. Skeleton’s point is about 3 miles down from the rim and is the last real stop before you delve deep into the canyon. It’s a good place to turn around if you are doing a day hike as it offers a large area to rest that accomodates many people, a rest room, and fantastic views of the canyon.
After we passed Skeleton’s Point, I noticed that the number of hikers on the trail decreased greatly, as did the type of hikers. Skeleton’s Point was the last place I saw a group of young college-aged woman hiking in slip on shoes, or really young children running way ahead of their parents. From this point on, any hikers we ran into were of the serious kind, with the exception of us of course. As the trail grew increasingly steep and overcast set in, there were parts of the trail that seemed particularly gloomy. But as we made our way closer to the canyon’s bottom the trail, the vegetation continued to change and so did the views and the rock formations. I had never experienced a hike like this; one with such a dramatic change in landscape and climate. It seemed as if I was on a different trail with every twist of the foot path, and I was loving every minute of it, although my knees my tell you a different story if they could speak.
After hiking a few more miles down a knee shattering trail, we got our first glimpse of the Colorado River. It is one thing to be able to see the river from above at the canyon’s rim, it is quite another to see it wedged between lower canyons that don’t seem so far away. Knowing we would be sleeping next to the river, and that we must finally be getting close, our pace of hiking picked up considerable after this first glimpse. As we came around multiple switchbacks, we were given even better views of the river from multiple angles, until eventually we could make out a susepension bridge that led to the other side.
The trail’s descent really increased at this point, and we also noticed that we found ourselves alone on the trail, with the exception of an older man who appeared to be hiking with his college-aged granddaughter. But eventually even they slipped out of sight as our hiking was indeed “pole, pole.” Around 4pm we finally reached the tunnel that leads out onto a suspension bridge which crosses over the Colorado river and connects to the River Trail on the north side. We could see parts of the Bright Angel Campgrounds and the Phantom Ranch at this point and were very much looking forward to a warm shower, a hot meal, and perhaps some beer or wine
to celebrate our hike down. Just as we came upon the tunnel however, the sky opened up and it began to down pour. We sheltered ourselves in the tunnel for a few minutes eating peanuts and drinking water from our canteens, waiting for the rain to subside. After waiting about a half an hour, for the brief moment when it looked as if it was not raining that hard, we decided to make a go of it. We quickly strapped on our backpacks and took our first few steps out on to the bridge. It is not a rickety, swinging, wooden bridge by any means, and so we felt safe; besides walking over the Colorado river was pretty f*$#ing cool too. As I walked steadily with both hands on the side railings, big smile on my face enjoying this moment, the sky opened up again and greeted us this time not with heavy rain, but hail!…The wind picked up and the bridge started to sway, and we both panicked. Michelled screamed (loud enough so that people at the ranch would have heard) “We’re going to die! I want to go home, I want to go back in the cave and live there forever!”…It was hard for me to laugh at her as I sprinted, to the best of my clumsy ability, to the other side of the bridge.
When we finally reached the north side of the river we found ourselves on the River Trail which is relatively flat and offers entirely new vantage points of the river, as well as new vegetation. Though it was raining rather hard at this point and we weren’t necessarily able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked, we told ourselves we would hike back here later.Even the rain could not damper my spirits as I finally realized I was hiking along the bottom of the Grand Canyon; something I had always wanted to do.
The River Trail snakes along the Colorado and takes hikers to the Bright Angel Campground, which is about 1/2 mile from the Phantom Ranch. When we finally arrived at the Phantom Ranch, the sun had started to peak it’s way out and we could see glimpses of blue skies.
Built in 1922, the Phantom Ranch sits at the bottom of the Canyon and provides those visitors who are not skilled in backcountry camping with a relatively comfortable place to stay and eat. There are two sets of accomodations; private cabins, and dormatory style cabins segregated by gender. Even when one books a year in advance, it is hard to get a private cabin so many people wind up sleeping in the dorms. When you first arrive at the ranch, there is a canteen where one has to “check-in.” The women in the canteen is was very friendly, gave dormitory room assignment, the time of our meals (dinner and breakfast), and some directions about what there is to do in the area.
After claiming our beds and throwing down our bags, we made our way back to the canteen where we treated ourselves to some beer and wine. The canteen is very communal and has the feel of a hostel combined with summer camp. We wound up sitting with two older ladies who somehow managed to beat us down the trail. One of them weighed 80 pounds and was 82 years old. This made me feel a little bad about myself, but at the same time I found it inspiring. After some drinks, we quickly showered then made our way back to the canteen where dinner was served. We had ordered (earlier that morning at the Bright Angel Lodge) two steak dinners, which were delicious. The dinner is served family style and there was plent to go around. I washed my meal down with another glass of red wine, not sure if I was feeling light-headed from the alchohol, or light headed from all the hiking.
After dinner, we decided to make the most of what was left of the light and went for a little hike along the River Trail back to the suspension bridge. Along the way, we passed the Mule Coral, some deer, the Bright Angel Creek and Campground, and a variety of different flowers. We were also privied to one of the more interesting sunsets I have seen.
That evening I slept like a log, exhausted from the 8 hour hike it took us to finally reach the bottom. We had a wake up call knocking on our cabin at 4:30am the next morning, as our breakfast was scheduled to be served at 5:ooam and then we would be off to hike back up to the rim via the Bright Angel Trail. Though I was excited to experience a different trail, I have to say I was a little skeptical that anything would be as beautiful and fascinating as the South Kaibab trail was on the descent. Still, I was excited and optimitic for the next day.