Below earthline lies an entire world. The Grand Canyon is the deepest erosion furrow on the surface of our planet. Within the labyrinthine chasm, mountains invert and declivities deepen while buttes rise up. The Great Unknown beckons; hearts yearn to comprehend this canyonscape and we are compelled to explore enormity.
This classic, two- to three-day journey is tailored for those unfamiliar with Grand Canyon backpacking. Two popular corridor trails, regularly patrolled and maintained, form a loop beginning on the South Rim and pivoting at Phantom Ranch. Descend to the Colorado River on the South Kaibab Trail. Camp at the Bright Angel Campground. Hike out on the Bright Angel Trail with an option to overnight mid-way at Indian Garden.
South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch It is 7.5 miles from the South Kaibab Trailhead, elevation 7,240 feet, to Phantom Ranch. Elevation loss is more than 4,800 feet. Expect to spend three to six hours on the trail, one of the few in the park that follows a ridgeline rather than a fault. It is steep and sun-drenched. Carry all the water you will need for there is none between the rim and Phantom Ranch.
From the shuttle stop, walk past the mule corral to the canyon threshold and plunge down The Chimney, switchbacks in the Kaibab Limestone. Familiarity with rock formations while climbing to and from rim country is reassuring. There is a certainty in the order of rock.
The Chimney is shaded and typically snow-covered during winter months. The trail is notoriously icy and you must have traction devices to negotiate the upper portion safely. This holds true for the amphitheater portion of the Bright Angel Trail as well.
After losing 200 feet, transition to the Toroweap Formation, a high-angled slope held in place by Utah juniper and, on northern aspects, conifer. The well-engineered trail is lined by sizable blocks on either side, a hemmed-in comfort.
At 0.9 mile, the trail suspends itself at Ooh Aah Point. I have seen more expressions of joy at this location than anywhere else in the canyon. Look into an immense span of rawboned, chromatic canyon country, embodiment of the American West.
Coconino Sandstone is perfectly vertical and silky smooth. When the Civilian Conservation Corps improved the inner-canyon trail system in the 1930s, they featured slabby stone construction. The cribbing on the treadway is sectioned with horizontal steps and confined with rock retaining walls.
Descend Windy Ridge to the Cedar Ridge Resthouse at 1.5 miles. Around a humble gathering tree, people make pack adjustments and eat snacks. The calorie burn on this downhill is astronomical, so carry more food than you think you will need. This is where the morning sun catches up with wintertime hikers.
Geologists have identified four distinct strata in the Supai Group. But it looks like one unit of rust-red sandstone that tends to form blocky masses. Cedar Ridge is in the Supai as is O’Neill Saddle and Butte.
Mormon Flats at 2.6 miles affords a reprieve from downhill punishment for half a mile. From Skeleton Point, enjoy the first glimpse of Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River nearly 3,000 feet below. Condors favor the big corner that hangs on top of Redwall Limestone. The Red and Whites are an extended series of switchbacks that capitalize on a rare break in the Redwall.
Stand to the inside for passing mule trains. The park’s concessionaire takes clients to Phantom Ranch down the Bright Angel Trail and back up the South Kaibab. Riders spend one night at Phantom in the summer and two nights in the winter. The concessionaire also sends a string of pack mules with supplies for Phantom. These mules carry out the trash and your postcards! Additionally, Park Service mules pack in supplies for rangers and trail crews once a week.
Muav Limestone presents in fine horizontal lines with hues of olive, mustard and eggplant. The canyon’s massive interior bench, the Tonto Platform, is comprised of Bright Angel Shale. Arrive at the Tipoff at 4.6 miles, elevation 4,000 feet.
The Tonto sits atop Tapeats Sandstone which can go on for long stretches without an access break. The route makes use of a weakness at the Tipoff to dive into the Inner Gorge, the river 1,500 feet below. Some people will have an uncomfortable sense of exposure. However, there is nothing to fear; the generous trail has excellent footing and is well protected by a wall on the inside and blocks guarding the abyss.
The inner canyon is comprised of the Grand Canyon Supergroup and Vishnu Metamorphic Complex. Switchbacks descend from Panorama Point through flaming-red Hakatai Shale. The predominant formation is Vishnu Schist, 1.8-billion-year old rock from the basement of time. Molten rock flowed up between cracks in the near-black schist to form the igneous pink veins of Zoroaster Granite.
The River Trail joins from the left. It was explosively cleaved from schist in 1936 by the CCC. The treadway is traversed by mules to link from the Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab Trail and the Black Bridge. Because of its narrow width and grated bottom, mules never cross the Silver Bridge. But they do go through the Black Bridge Tunnel, a pitch black passage before re-entering the light 75 feet above the river.
You may access the Colorado River at Boat Beach, 6.3 miles, elevation 2,480 feet. At the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, the trail turns up the tributary canyon and passes the Bright Angel Campground at 7.2 miles. John Wesley Powell, grateful for the clear and abundant stream, gave the waterway its heavenly name. Fremont cottonwood and sycamore provide essential shade. They are complimented by pomegranate and fig trees. The backpacker’s campground is luxurious with water, food storage boxes, tent pads and poles for hanging packs.
Phantom Ranch is an oasis and the scene is celebratory. Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919. Architect Mary Colter got right to work designing the lodge, cabins and bathhouse. She named the ranch after nearby Phantom Creek. It opened to a well-heeled and genteel crowd in 1922. To spend the night in a dormitory or cabin, or for hearty and delicious meals in the canteen, make reservations well in advance through the park’s concessionaire.
The temperature at Phantom will likely be sizzling in the summer, exceeding 100 degrees. Refresh with a big glass of lemonade. Winter hiking can be frigid. Grab a cup of coffee and hang out when the canteen is open to the public between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.. There is an international gathering in the beer hall between 8 and 10 p.m. every night.
Phantom Ranch to South Rim via Bright Angel Trail It is 9.9 miles from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. While it is 2.4 miles further than the South Kaibab, there are strong reasons for resisting the temptation to shortcut. The two canyon experiences are radically different and create a lovely loop. Water is available at Indian Garden all year and at Three-Mile Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse seasonally. The grade is gentler with more shade. If you need assistance, there is a ranger station at Indian Garden. Total elevation gain is about 4,800 feet. With a backpack, the trek will take five to nine hours.
Half a mile below Phantom Ranch a footbridge crosses Clear Creek. This is the last opportunity for loading up on water. Pass by the picturesque National Park Service mule corral and cross the Silver Bridge. The suspension bridge sways with footsteps well above the Colorado, canyon-cutter. Grand Canyon Village is dependent on water from Roaring Springs located high in Bright Angel Canyon. The transcanyon pipeline spans the river under the Silver Bridge.
Cross the bridge and turn right. The trail segment through Granite Gorge affords the opportunity to closely examine the glorious interplay of river-polished Vishnu Schist and crystalline Zoroaster Granite.
Plow through a sandy patch and climb 200 feet above a cliff band before descending to Pipe Creek. A spur trail goes down to the river. Danger! The current is deceivingly swift and will carry you away. Do not go for a swim. There is no water at the Pipe Creek Resthouse, 1.9 miles.
Walking upcanyon, Garden Creek, which contributes most of the flow, joins from the west. The canyon constricts, angles up and funnels into Devils Corkscrew, which lifts travelers out of the Inner Gorge on switchbacks through a break in the schist.
In the Tapeats Narrows, the trail is squeezed by raspy sandstone. Arrive at Indian Garden, a welcomed shady haven at 4.7 miles, elevation 3,800 feet. People will be crowded on benches around the water spigot near the mule corral. If you scored a permit to camp at IG, veer off on a spur. Spacious sites have covered tables and food lockers.
If you are staying at IG, plan to walk 1.5 miles to Plateau Point, a sanctuary of silence and solitude. The corridor trail is beautifully maintained. A classic, early 1900s iron railing encircles the premier viewpoint.
Leaving IG, it looks like you will run headlong into a barrier wall. The Bright Angel Fault is in the center of the immense amphitheater. The fault extends from the South Rim to the North, creating a journey-way for the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails.
Jacobs Ladder is a series of switchbacks through Redwall Limestone. Its authentic color is gray, but over the eons, the Supai has given the limestone a crimson wash. Perched atop the Redwall is Three-Mile Resthouse. This is a common turn-around for day hikers coming down the Bright Angel. The yellow caution sign reads, “Down is optional, up is mandatory.”
From Three-Mile Resthouse, ascend through the Supai Group, passing Two-Mile Corner. Next are the Coconino Switchbacks. Find the obvious contact line between the Supai and Coconino characterized by conchoidal fracturing and crossbedding.
Walk through the short Lower Tunnel and then gear down for Heartbreak Hill. This is the steepest section of the Bright Angel, but it is mercifully short. Pass through the Upper Tunnel. A natural arch on the cliff side creates a twin opening. And then, ready or not, top out at the Bright Angel Trailhead at 9.9 miles, elevation 6,860 feet.
I am never emotionally prepared to leave the Grand Canyon. My mind is engrossed with elemental country. I stand on rimland gazing into cavernous space articulated by effulgent light, dreaming of next time.
For images and information on geology, day hikes and the Clear Creek Trail, consult: debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.