The first weekend of Dec. 2017, my husband and I collected our backcountry camping pass, a small tent, his backpack, some sleeping bags and packed the car to make the trip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. I hiked the canyon as a teenager; for him, hiking it had been a lifelong dream.
The first night we stayed on the South Rim at Maswik, and I’m really glad. We drove all day and only got to the canyon as the sun was setting. The views were incredible. From Mather Point, we tried to identify the trail we would be taking into the canyon, South Kaibab Trail.
We had a not-so restive night in our hotel room. We were both anxious about the prospect of backpacking and camping overnight, when we’d never done that before. We came up with a back-up plan. If there were any spots open in Phanton Ranch Lodge (cancellations, you need reservations at least 18 months ahead of time to stay down there), we would be first in line at the Transportation Desk in Bright Angel Lodge, right at 7 a.m. and get on the list. So we did. We were nervous because the morning of the hike three other parties were in front of us in line. But somehow we got lucky, and we got a little cabin at Phantom Ranch Lodge. I know it sounds like we took “the easy way out,” but we were relieved to go back to the car and stash the big backpack, sleeping bags and tent.
For anyone hiking the canyon, it’s essential you pack enough water. South Kaibab Trail has zero water available, and it’s more than 7 miles from rim to the bottom. Our day packs were almost all water (2 liters to a gallon each person) and then some light hiking snacks, clothes, extra socks, gear for cold weather. We did not bring clamp-ons for our shoes and we were lucky there was no ice on the trails.
The magic and grandeur of South Kaibab Trail are hard to summarize in a blog post. What I will say is this: on that trail you are rewarded because with each turn, with every four to five feet you travel towards the bottom of the canyon a new breathtaking view is revealed to you. We got to the trailhead around 8 a.m. and I got to see live elk for the first time in my life, they were searching for water. We also saw many deer, both at the rim, at Maswik our hotel and in the bottom of the canyon. They aren’t fearful and they practically come right up to humans.
Our hike was fast. By 1 p.m. we were at the bottom of the canyon, ready to check in at Phantom Ranch. Our cabin was simple and cozy. No shower, but it did have bunk beds, a heater, a toilet and sink and it came with towels and soap, basically all you need. We ate a great steak dinner at the canteen and in the morning there was delicious fresh coffee at a little pickup window for us.
The next morning, the sun rose around 7 a.m. We packed quickly, refilled all of our water bottles and hiked out on Bright Angel (9.3 miles), probably the best-known trail in the canyon. It was unique and boldly different from South Kaibab. For one thing, you are hiking along a small creek almost the entire way. There is a lot of greenery. Along the water there are various grasses, Cottonwood trees and even some quaking aspen. There actually are a few stop off points with water where you can refill, most notably Indian Gardens, a popular camping and picnicking site. Starting the trail at the Colorado River to hike out of the canyon, the grade is not so steep and hiking is fairly comfortable. But, beware those last three miles! That’s when you hit those switchbacks that have a drastic incline. We were both covered in sweat and short of breath by the time we made it to the top. It was warm at the bottom of the canyon, but cold when we climbed out, so we needed dry sweatshirts, scarves, hats and mittens and to sit by the fire to warm up.
Our trip hiking and staying overnight was perfect and fulfilled many dreams. While millions of visitors come to South Rim each year, only 1 percent hike to the bottom and back, a ranger told us. We feel privileged to be among that select demographic.