I just got back from four days at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was there with four of my favorite people, hiking and camping and challenging myself. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little bit of moral support, confidence, and training.
My parents had done this hike – down to the canyon floor – seven times already, so they were pros. The others of us were new to this particular hike but are all hiking lovers. And it was an amazing experience for all of us, both the novices and the veterans.
For those of you wishing to do this yourselves, here is how it all worked.
There are two choices for staying on the canyon floor – Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground. For Phantom Ranch, you need to call a year in advance, and from what I’ve heard, you’re on the phone for hours, on hold, using multiple phones at the same time, hoping to get through. Knowing this would be too difficult, we opted for applying for a camping permit. There’s specific timing for when you need to fax in your permit application, so since we knew we wanted to get dates in March, we submitted our application in November (four months before). Check out the link for Bright Angel Campground above and all the details are there.
We got accepted for our request about a week after we submitted the application. And all together the permit cost us $40! Pretty good deal!
Once we got our dates set for two nights (the maximum allowable) at Bright Angel Campground, we started planning – travel to Phoenix where we met up, camping equipment, plans for our meals, our itinerary.
Here was our itinerary:
Day 1: Drove up to the Grand Canyon National Park, about a four hour drive from Phoenix. Once we arrived, we went to Xanterra Livery Barn where we dropped off duffel bags that would be carried down by pack mules which had all our camping and cooking gear and food. This was a luxury we chose to indulge in because we knew it would be a challenging hike down, so instead of carrying all our stuff down on big backpacks, we used the mule duffel service. If you’re not a hardcore backpacker, this is a great option. For the rest of the day, we walked around the main areas in Grand Canyon Village, catching views of where we were headed down the next day. That night, we slept at Maswik Lodge, one of the many accommodations available in the national park.
Day 2: We awoke around 5:30am to catch the 7am shuttle nearby to get to the South Kaibab trailhead. It was a brisk morning, but we knew it would warm up through the day as we descended into the canyon, so we just made sure to have lots of layers. All we carried on our backs were our snacks, lunch, and water for the day (about 3 liters per person) for the day. It was a little over a 6 hour hike down the 7.2 mile trail. The trail going down is pretty steadily downhill, not too steep but just a continuous downgrade, which did a number on our legs and a few of us had knee challenges. It warmed up pretty quickly, and the trail was really dusty, so it wasn’t the easiest hike. But we enjoyed the views, ran into some mule packs and friendly fellow hikers, and made it down in one piece. Boy, were we tired!
Once we got to our campground, we set up our tents, got situated with our whereabouts, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, getting used to the gurgle of Bright Angel Creek, enjoying the lack of mosquitoes, and congratulating ourselves that we had made it this far. We had our first meal that evening (pretty early because we weren’t sure when it would get dark. You’re not allowed to have campfires down there, so we were going to have to rely on our headlamps after dark). Each of us brought something different – instant soup, freeze dried meals that you just add water to, and Trader Joe’s indian curry in a bag that you can heat up in boiling water. We used these great Jet Boil stoves that heat water in something like 10 seconds. And that was our day! We were exhausted, so we went to bed pretty much right after it got dark!
Day 3: We had a leisurely morning, comparing muscle soreness, hobbling around the campsite. And after breakfast, we walked the River Trail that loops around the Colorado River, just near the campground. We crossed two bridges – Black Bridge and Silver Bridge and were able to witness the mighty force of the Colorado River.
After a lunch of homemade bread and cheese, we went deep into the canyon, following Bright Angel Creek upstream on the North Kaibab Trail. The trail goes through a box canyon with beautiful canyon walls towering above you. We walked over four bridges, not quite making it to Ribbon Falls which we heard was really pretty but was just too far for us to manage, with sore legs and tired bodies. It was a nice flat walk, following the creek in a mix of sun and shade.
We got back for dinner. And this time, some of us got to eat the Phantom Ranch canteen. When you make your reservation to go down into the canyon, whether to the campsite or Phantom Ranch, it’s fun to call ahead to see if you can get a meal in the canteen. They serve pretty good breakfast and inner, all family style. You can only dine there with a reservation, so it’s best to do that when you get your permit. We managed to get a few reservations, and enjoyed some vegetarian chili, beef stew, fresh salad, and chocolate cake!
Following dinner, we sat in on a ranger talk, which they do twice a day. This talk was about the history of Phantom Ranch and was a well-told story. Here’s a video that captures some of the story the ranger told. And in fact, I think our ranger was the one in this video.
Before bedtime, we marveled at the expanse of stars we could see, including the Milky Way (though some of us could not see it!). Living in a city, I don’t get to such a multitude of stars, and I have this cool app on my iPhone that allowed us to see what constellations there were in the sky. You hold your phone up to the sky and it connects the dots of the constellations for you, even if you don’t have cell service! A must-have when traveling to places where you’ll see lots of stars.
Day 4: Our last day, we arose at 4:30am because we had to pack up all our things for the mule duffel service drop-off at 6:30am. We got our tents and sleeping bags rolled up, packed up our food which we had been storing in metal lock boxes, and wheelbarrowed our duffel bags to the drop off point at the ranch. After breakfast, we started the ascent up Bright Angel trail.
The 9.5 mile hike took us about seven hours. I was prepared for horrible, grueling, and impossible and instead was pleasantly surprised that it was just strenuous at points. The trail was prettier and more interesting than South Kaibab and was a little more of a gradual grade. We stopped at the various rest points and enjoyed the views both ahead of and behind us. The higher we got, the more amazed I was at how far we got in pretty short time. We hiked with the sun and the sky was a perfect spring blue.
The only thing that wasn’t so pleasant about the hike up was that the higher elevation we got, the more crowded it was. March is a popular time for tourists – spring break, perfect weather (before it gets too hot) – and Bright Angel trail is a popular trail for tourists to meander down for a bit before heading back up to the top.
We got to the top and celebrated with an ice cream cone and hot dog at the Bright Angel Lodge. We made it! We survived!
I highly recommend this trip if you’re into hiking and seeing the natural wonders of the world. It’s such a different experience to see the Grand Canyon from down below, a trek that they say 1% of the visitors to the park actually make. It’s beautiful and peaceful at the bottom.