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Grand Canyon: Secrets of the South Rim and Phantom Ranch

Standing at the edge of the South Rim, elbow to elbow with dozens of other picture-snapping tourists, it can be hard to think of the Grand Canyon as a real adventure. You’ve probably heard that the park swells with visitors in the summer, its roads are clogged with tour buses, and it sometimes feels more like an amusement park than a national park. All true. But the good news is that finding your own private slice of the Grand Canyon at the South Rim is relatively easy, too.

Last month I told you about the advantages of the more isolated North Rim, far and away my favorite place at the canyon. What I love about the South Rim, though, is that it offers the most direct way to reach the roaring Colorado River and the bottom of the canyon itself, where you can spend a night or two at the famous Phantom Ranch—and experience the Grand Canyon the way it was meant to be experienced.

Staying at the South Rim

Before you reach Phantom Ranch, of course, you need to start somewhere. From the South Rim, that somewhere is either the South Kaibab trail or the Bright Angel trail, both of which are accessible from the central Grand Canyon Village tourist area either by foot or shuttle bus.

Whether you’re planning a hike, trail ride, or casual sightseeing expedition, your best bet for accommodations is to stay at or near the rim. There are 907 rooms within the park, all owned and operated by Xanterra South Rim LLC, a subsidiary of the Xanterra company that manages lodging and concessions at many other U.S. national parks. The bulk of the near-rim accommodations are housed in the Maswik and Yavapai lodges, which are perfectly functional cabin or motel-style rooms.

Getting a room at the South Rim isn’t as hard as you’d imagine. Here are some golden rules.

  • In general, any two-week period immediately following a major holiday will be less crowded than other dates. This even applies to the summer high season, in which the best availability comes in the first two weeks of June (right after Memorial Day) or the first two weeks of September (after Labor Day). The last two weeks of August also see fewer travelers. January is the slowest month of the year, with November and February close behind.
  • There’s no penalty for cancellations at the South Rim until 48 hours before arrival. That means many travelers reserve rooms ahead of time, then cancel at the last minute—freeing up rooms for spontaneous (or just lucky) travelers. Most rooms can be booked online or through the general reservations line at 888-297-2757. For same-day reservations you need to call the Xanterra switchboard at 928-638-2631. Bruce Bossman, Xanterra’s Director of Sales and Marketing for the South Rim, says the park accommodates about 30 to 40 walk-ins a day, even in the summer months.
  • There are some online “services” out there that charge up to 12 percent extra to make a reservation for you. These sites capitalize on the fact that they show up in a Google search for “Grand Canyon” and fool enough travelers into booking with them. They offer no special services for that extra 12 percent. Stay away from them.

My best experiences at the Grand Canyon have come in the spring and fall months. Bossman says all four seasons have something to offer. “The South Rim feels like a different place in the winter,” he says. “It’s much less crowded and offers a better choice of lodging. It’s a totally different environment. But even in the summer months, if you’re willing to walk a short distance from the tourist spots you can find solitude.”

Getting to Phantom Ranch

Phantom Ranch is the only lodging facility below the canyon rim. (There’s also a campground nearby, but for the purposes of this article I’ll focus on the ranch.) It was completed in 1922 and is now open year-round. Overnight rooms consist of dormitory-style men’s and women’s lodges for the hikers, and more comfortable cabins that are mostly reserved for the overnight mule riders.

There are only three ways to reach Phantom Ranch: by foot, by mule, or by raft. Stays at Phantom Ranch can be reserved up to 13 months in advance, and usually are. There are some exceptions, however. Mule trips—and consequently the cabins associated with them—don’t sell out as quickly as the backpacker dormitories, so you have slightly more flexibility to book with less lead time.

November through February, excluding the holiday weeks, the number of mules on each overnight trip drops from 20 to 12 to reflect the smaller demand. That opens up some additional beds (in the cozy cabins, no less!) for backpackers.

If you’re hiking to Phantom Ranch in the summer and haven’t reserved a year ahead of time, your best bet is the month of August when the canyon’s at its hottest and demand for accommodations drops a little. In that case, I recommend reserving two nights at the bottom to make sure you have a full day to recover before attempting the climb back to the rim.

No matter when you go, it’s likely to be hot. The canyon is strenuous even for conditioned hikers, and it’s critical to carry lots of water—the National Park Service recommends you drink about a quart of water per hour when you’re hiking in the heat. I suggest a hydration pack that allows you to continuously sip water, plus some backup bottles. The safest and most diverse route for hikers is down the South Kaibab trail and up the Bright Angel trail, because there’s water available at three spots on Bright Angel and none on the Kaibab. You obviously want to be able to refill your water as often as possible on the way up.

On your way back to the top of the canyon from Phantom Ranch, start early. When I hiked out I set my alarm for just before sunrise and started out of the canyon before the sun came fully up (a good headlamp is great for this). Pace yourself and don’t rush. Hike up the trail until about 10:00 a.m., then find a shady place to stop and rest. If you take the Bright Angel trail up and are in good shape, you can probably reach Indian Garden by mid morning, and that’s a good place to rest and then take a side trip to Plateau Point while you wait out the sun before resuming the uphill. You should not attempt to hike uphill during the hottest part of the day. Resume hiking again in the late afternoon as it begins to cool down.

Pack very light, even for an overnight or longer trip. You shouldn’t need much more than water, your boots, a hiking pole, snacks for the trail, a medicine/toiletries kit, and a light change of clothes. Phantom Ranch can provide lunches and dinners if you reserve ahead of time. The National Park Service has plenty of good information on prepping for a hike.

‘Darwin Pit’

I was shocked when a park ranger told me the average visit to the South Rim lasts about 15 minutes. That’s just enough time to snap a picture, gawk at the spectacle, and be on your way. What a shame. The Grand Canyon IMAX movie showing just down the road from the South Rim offers a similar experience, and it’s air-conditioned.

The canyon is meant to be seen, yes, but it’s also meant to be explored. This is the greatest of American adventures, the jewel in the crown of our national park system. It’s so much more than a hole in the ground, but you can only discover that by venturing into its depths.

The caveat, of course, is to make sure you’re physically able to do it. There’s no shame in turning back or taking an alternate approach—like an interpretive tour or easy day hike—if you’re physically unable to complete a more strenuous trip. In fact, attempting to navigate the canyon interior if you’re not prepared for it can be deadly. One ranger referred to the Grand Canyon as a “Darwin Pit” for irresponsible hikers who don’t respect its dangers.

The right thing to do, of course, is strike a balance. Choose the kind of Grand Canyon experience that’s right for your interests and fitness level. Then use the tips mentioned here to get the most out of your time there.

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