Secrets to Crossing the Grand Canyon

If you are going through Hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

grand canyon
The Grand Canyon, 24 miles across, 1 mile deep.

Why hike the Grand Canyon?  Like most large things, it is hard to fathom the size of the canyon unless you experience it with your body, all twenty-seven breathtaking, relentlessly grueling miles. Then there is Phantom Ranch, an unreal collection of cabins in the bottom of the canyon that few people will experience.

phantom ranch
Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon.

Phantom Ranch was built by hardy souls who carried building material to the camp 10 miles down from the South Rim. Among those supplies was a grand piano, now buried in the filled-in pool that once existed.  The original Phantom Ranch was a ritzy place but now serves hikers looking for a spot of peace on their two-day hike through the canyon.

bright angel
Bright Angel Trail

We hiked from the South Rim down the Bright Angel Trail, sending a duffle down on a mule and carrying  a minimum of supplies in our backpacks.  We left the South Rim at 6:30 am when it was 59 degrees.  As we climbed down, the temps climbed up.  By noon it was over 95 degrees, so we hung out at Indian Gardens for a few hours, accompanied by an incredibly trusting deer.

deer
Deer at Indian Gardens, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon.

My younger son, Cole, was done hiking at the Bright Angel Bridge.   His water was warm and, therefore, undrinkable, duh!  Unfortunately, the Bright Angel Bridge is a couple of miles before our destination for the night, Phantom Ranch, and he weighs 80 pounds.  His older brother, Gage, helped us encourage him to keep going.  When that didn’t work, we mocked him, because being pissed off helped him stomp along. By the time we were welcomed to Phantom Ranch by a sign that said, “Welcome to Phantom Ranch,” we all needed a mocker to keep going.  We spilled into the dining room/reception area/general store and ordered up lemonades.  Cole drank but looked more pale.

cole
Cole pooping out.

“I need to throw up,” Cole mumbled.  He made it out the door but left a trail of barf all the way to the men’s room.  When he returned, he looked much better. We were worried about the 15-mile, uphill hike the next morning, but he and Gage tripped up the trail, chatting away about video games, video games and oh, uh, video games.

on the way to the north rim
Gage. Brad and recovered Cole, ready to hike up to the North Rim.

Again, we hit the trail at 6:30 am.  We had to get through The Box, a deep, narrow  passage through soaring cliffs of rock called Vishnu Schist.  Sounds zen, but that Vishnu Schist acts as an oven. The guidebooks warn against being in The Box between 10 and 2 because temps can reach well over 100 degrees.  We got lucky, a mist kept us company through The Box.

box canyon
The Box.  Stay out of the box from 10am-2pm, we were told.  Temps can rise to 120 degrees.

About 10 am, we could hear running water.  Ribbon Falls means we made it through The Box.  There is a short detour to get directly to the falls, but we’ll save the detour for next time.

ribbon falls
Ribbon Falls

This second day of hiking I sensed the boys’ Boredom Meters resetting.  Around most corners the landscape changed dramatically.  Smaller details stood out more.  trail A bird lead us for miles. bird A bridge appeared. bridge on north rim trail Conversation shifted from video gaming to pointing out these small events.  A white-haired man in running shorts passed us, ran down to the bridge and ran back by us on his daily run.  That was a good sign.  How far could he run every day? grand canyon vistaPast the bridge, it began to rain.  Hard.  We pulled out ponchos but they made us feel like foiled-wrapped baking potatoes in that heat. Soaked, we trudged through the mud and mule poop.  Mule poop is good.  The more of it, the closer it is to the end of the trail. We stopped at Cococino Point and a ranger told us, “Almost there!”  Liar!  When we got to the end of the trail,a sign pointed west and announced, “North Rim Lodging, 2.7 miles.”

cabin
The boys refreshed 30 minutes after their 27 mile hike. Pioneer Cabin, North Rim.

2.7 miles.  Now we had a definite idea of how much further we had to go.  The lid came off and complaints poured out.  I started complaining, too.  Why the heck isn’t there a shuttle from the trail head?  Who runs this place?! When we arrived to the miles of log cabins that is the North Rim, we relaxed.  Cold water.  Showers.  A bed.  We were offered a golf cart to our Pioneer Cabin and we took it.  The North Rim is remote and serves lousy food.  But lousy food was fine, perfect in fact. We were happy to see that cabin.

bright angel point
My family and I in the updrafts at the North Rim. The farthest point in the hazy distance is how far we hiked in two days.

Logistics

The 27-mile trip is challenging.  Like, “Hey, can-a-Ranger-come-get-me?” challenging.  Wait until your kids are old enough to make it, but you are still young enough to make it.  A good time to take kids is when they start to beat you in basketball and ski past you yelling, “Come on, Old Lady!”  Soon as that happens, make reservations!
The canyon is one mile deep, so either direction, the last half is uphill.  You can start at the South Rim like we did, but don’t be stupid like us.  Start at the North Rim and trek 15 miles downhill.  Stay a night at Phantom Ranch, then hike 9 miles uphill to the South Rim.
The South Rim knows what it is doing.  There are hotels, services, places to eat and it’s peaceful.  It has lots of trails so spend some time here.  South Rim has enough services for the people there, but the North Rim does not.  The North Rim is managed like our middle-school cafeteria — too many people for too few tables and lousy food choices.  It’s beautiful, though.
So start at the North Rim, but leave your car at the South Rim.  Repeat, park at the South Rim and take a shuttle to the North Rim.  It’s 4 hours.  Crazy, but there’s no shorter way between rims.  When you are done with your hike you can hang out at the South Rim for a few days and then drive 4 hours to Phoenix to come home.  (If your car is on the North Rim, it will take you 12 hours to get to Phoenix to come home:  you’ll first have to shuttle 4 hours to the North Rim, then drive 4 hours back to the South Rim and then 4 hours to Phoenix to catch a flight.)
While parking at the South Rim, send a duffle bag down with the mules.  The check-in desk can help you set this up with the stable.  This will lighten your load.
Reservations
The park is only open in summer.  Reservations area handed out 18 months in advance and fill up really fast.

So, for instance, get reservations in December 2020 for June 2022.

  1.  Get a reservation first at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon by calling:  1-888-297-2757.   http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/phantom-ranch/ for info.
  2.  When you make reservations, also reserve a steak dinner right away or you’ll be eating stew.
    The same concessionaire will set you up on the South Rim.  This is for AFTER your stay at Phantom Ranch.  Our favorite is Bright Angel Lodge — cabin on the rim.  We stayed, however, at the Thunderbird Lodge, named that because Stalag 13 was already taken.  It’s the South Rim.  It’s not about where you stay.
  3. Then, make a reservation for the North Rim for a night or two before your hike.  Reservations are handled through a different vendor.  http://www.grandcanyonlodgenorth.com/
    – The Western Cabins are the cutest and closest to the rim but generally only sleep 4.  The Pioneer Cabins sleep six and are further from the rim.
  4.  Then go!  And when it seems like Hell, keep going.

2 thoughts on “Secrets to Crossing the Grand Canyon”

  1. Hilarious to read… maybe not to do though. I enjoyed your post and may??? consider doing this some time with our own family. I think the complaints would come in earlier in our trek though. Cheryl

    Like

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