As you recall from Part One, I hiked the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2010 – the South Kaibab Trail down and the Bright Angel Trail up. Not easily sated, I returned two years later and tackled the much, much longer North Kaibab Trail.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a long way from anywhere. It is over 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim, and its northern exposure makes it a dumping ground for snow for seven months of the year (the North Rim is closed to visitors from mid-October to mid-April). The flora and fauna are different, too. The access road from the one-trick hamlet of Jacob Lake passes through terrain that looks like Yellowstone. “Beefalo” – cow and bison hybrids – graze peacefully along the roadside, and sub-alpine meadows are home to wildflowers during the warmer months. The scent of pine is all around.
From the North Rim
The trailhead sits in the woods alongside the road to Grand Canyon Lodge and the main North Rim overlooks. From the trailhead itself, the Grand Canyon itself is nowhere in sight. Was I in the right place, I wondered as I applied sunscreen and grabbed trekking poles from the trunk of my car? Just then, a mule train complete with riders, “Brady Bunch”-style, passed in front of me and proceeded down the dirt trail, kicking up a cloud of dust that would make Pig Pen, of “Peanuts” fame, jealous.
I waited for the dust to settle, then followed suit down the trail. The first mile was steep as it descended through old growth forest. The smell of mule droppings countered the aroma of fresh pine. It wasn’t until reaching Coconino Overlook, one mile down the trail, that I got my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. But what a glimpse it was!
The first source of potable water was a fountain at Supai Tunnel, 1.7 miles from the trailhead. The tunnel itself, an impressive “doorway” into the deepest reaches of the canyon, marked the turnaround point for mule trips from the North Rim. It is also worth mentioning that crowds thinned out to nothing past Supai Tunnel. Indeed, I saw just four other hikers from Supai Tunnel to Phantom Ranch, another 12 miles down the trail!
The Grand Canyon is at its most impressive from this point forward. The trail contours along overhanging rock walls and crosses several bridges spanning various gaps in the river-carved canyon. The rock strata for the next two miles is largely sandstone, and is of the most striking palette of colors – pink at midday and red at sunrise and sunset.
It is a long way down to the Colorado River – 14.1 miles total from the trailhead. The majority of the 5.660-foot descent is over once you reach Cottonwood Campground, where a ranger warned me about frequent rattlesnake sightings in the immediate vicinity. From Cottonwood, however, my map revealed that there were still roughly seven (!) miles to go before reaching Phantom Ranch. GringoPotpourri note: it is important to refill your water here. Also know that shade around Cottonwood is minimal; the few low-growing trees will likely have tents pitched beneath them.
A welcome oasis about 0.2 miles off the trail another 1.5 miles south of Cottonwood is Ribbon Falls. Although I saved my visit to Ribbon Falls for the return hike, I can tell you now that this wispy, two-tiered waterfall is worth the extra effort to reach it. Be sure not to step on the thumbnail-sized frogs that often bask on the rocks.
Not far beyond the turnoff for Ribbon Falls, I felt the canyon start to close in around me. I had entered The Box, a slot canyon that was carved by the Bright Angel tributary of the Colorado River. The trail winds along either canyon wall, crossing the creek at least six times. I looked up at one point and found this striking rock totem:
The trail passed a spur trail (the Clear Creek Trail) to the left. It wasn’t marked on my map so I gave it a pass; I had a 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation at Phantom Ranch that I didn’t want to be late for. I did climb just high enough on my hike out two days later to get this aerial view of Phantom Ranch, with the sun-baked South Rim in the farthest photographic reaches:
Five minutes of southbound hiking from the Clear Creek fork and I arrived at Phantom Ranch. The main lodge was closed for registration because the first (5 p.m.) dinner was already being served, but I checked in at the kitchen and was served two large glasses of lemonade, which I drank in record time. I then submerged my body in Bright Angel Creek until I could check in for my cabin assignment and dig into my hard-earned dinner.
I was spending two nights at Phantom Ranch, and I already knew what my goal for the next day was: more hiking! To be specific, I planned on hiking the Bright Angel Trail from Silver Bridge to Indian Gardens and back. If successful, that day hike, plus the following day’s return hike back to the North Rim, would make for three times from the top of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back. (Remember in Part One, after my South Rim-to-river hike and back, I returned one week later and hiked down to Indian Gardens and beyond, all the way to Plateau Point!) Semantics.
My day hike was successful, and on the return, I dipped my feet in the shallower waters of Pipe Creek Beach, marveling at the Colorado River kayakers that paddled swiftly by.
I woke up before dawn on day three. Breakfast was at 5 a.m., and I had to take in all the carbs I could for my 14-mile hike up and out of the Grand Canyon. Not making it all the way simply wasn’t an option. My “layover” at Ribbon Falls halfway along the trail, where I crawled into a small cave carved by water erosion from the upper falls, was the stuff that great – or not-so-great – photo attempts derive from.
I was quite the worse for wear by the time I reached the drinking fountain at Supai Tunnel. I barely kept pace with a pair of knee brace-wearing septuagenarians who had hiked from the North Rim to Roaring Springs and back – 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. By the time I sat down for dinner at Grand Canyon Lodge, I felt as if I could eat a Beefalo!
About Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch, which has been around since the 1920’s, merits a few paragraphs of its own. The main building is where all meals are served, and it doubles as a late night gathering place. The dorms – sex-segregated – each feature eight or ten bunks, air conditioning, and shower facilities. Mattresses are lumpy, but I’ve had worse.
Cell service is non-existent, but a payphone on the grounds is a fun place to make a collect call from. (My dad was quite irate, though, after my three-minute call to him from here in 2012 resulted in $24 in charges on his next telephone bill.) A fun souvenir to buy is a postcard from Phantom Ranch. If you mail it from Phantom Ranch itself, the card will take several days to arrive, as all mail is carried out by mule, and is stamped accordingly.
Speaking of fun, most evenings include informative ranger talks around an outside hearth. One night’s talk regaled guests with real-life tales about the various bootleggers and treasure hunters who took on the Grand Canyon over the years with varying degrees of success. Another evening’s lecture taught us more than we ever wanted to learn about nocturnal scorpions living in the Grand Canyon. How many scorpions are there? Well, let me just say that you probably don’t want to sit on any rocks once the sun goes down….
Meals at Phantom Ranch are quite the feast. There is early and late breakfast – 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. each morning – and and early and late dinner – 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. – each day. Breakfast includes pancakes, scrambled eggs, coffee, and lots and lots of bacon, burnt to a crisp just the way I like it. Dinner is stew at 5:00 and steak at 6:30. If I have a complaint, it is that meal service can be rushed. The food, though, is incredible. Sack lunches can also be purchased for the hike out, and they include apples, raisins, jerky, and other energy-rich snacks.
All meals must be ordered at the time you make your reservation. Note that beds typically fill up 13 months in advance, although you may luck into a cancellation, as I did. Go to http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/phantom-ranch/ for reservations, or call 303-297-2757 for more information.
Around the Grand Canyon
Northern Arizona is rife with natural wonders besides the Grand Canyon. To the canyon’s north and abutting the Utah border, the Vermillion Cliffs tower over the desert countryside like a Donald Trump wall over his misconstrued image of Mexico. To the south, Bearizona houses wildlife of the southwest in a natural, open-air environment. A few hours to the east, in dry, Native American-governed Navajo County, Canyon de Chelly features indigenous cliff dwellings from centuries past. North of here, Monument Valley is a veritable Martian landscape of eye-popping geologic treasures.
Have you been to any of these astonishing natural and historic wonders. If not…what are you waiting for?