Getting to Phantom Ranch
Which is the easiest trail?
None of them are easy: you still have to climb in and out almost a vertical mile. The Bright Angel is preferred during the summer months because there is potable water (drinkable) at Mile and a Half Resthouse, Three Mile Resthouse, and Indian Gardens. There is a running stream below Indian Gardens in case you get really hot and want to dunk your body to cool off. There are outhouses at Three mile Resthouse, Mile and a Half Resthouse and at Indian Garden. The Bright Angel is also about three miles longer than the South Kaibab, which translates to at least one hour more hiking time, and usually more.
The South Kaibab is not recommended for climbing out in summer because there is no shade and no water. There are outhouses at Cedar Ridge and on the Tonto Plateau.
The North Kaibab is only officially open during the summer months (May 15 to Oct 15). The Park Service often leaves the North Rim road open through October, sometimes through November, snow allowing, but there will be no services thereon (water, campground, lodge, rangers). You may hike on the North Kaibab during winter to about Roaring Springs without special equipment. There is seasonal water at Cottonwood Camp, Roaring Springs, Bruce's house, and Supai Tunnel. You also hike alongside Bright Angel Creek for the first seven miles. There are restrooms at Supai Tunnel, Roaring Springs, and Cottonwood Campground.
During winter, Bright Angel will have more ice and is much colder because the upper several miles are in the shade most of the day. There is potable water at Indian Gardens in winter. The South Kaibab has better views, but is almost always more windy.
Most hikers go down the South Kaibab and out the Bright Angel.
Do I really have to be in great shape to do this?
You have to be able to hike at least seven miles and down (and then up) with an elevation change of almost a vertical mile. You don't have to be in great shape, but the better shape you are in, the more you will enjoy yourself.
What do I need to bring along?
How long will it take me to hike out?
It depends on how fast you walk. Many people enjoy taking the whole day. They like to stop and explore and just enjoy the trip. More people take the whole day, but they don't enjoy it. They are too pooped to notice anything along the way.
My friends and I take anywhere from 3 to 4 1/2 hours to hike down, and the same to hike out. Many of my compatriots who are not in stellar shape take seven hours to get out. There are also those who take ten to twelve hours out. Hiking out the South Kaibab in under three hours is a real push.
Do the math: if you hike down the South Kaibab, that is seven miles. If you walk two miles an hour (which is a good, steady pace), it will take you three and a half hours to get down with no rest stops. The Bright Angel is 10 miles. At two miles an hour, this will take you five hours. If you walk one mile an hour, it will take you twice as long.
How can I get in shape for this?
I'm glad you asked. Check out the handy, dandy, get in shape page.
If I get into trouble, a ranger will help me, right?
You will be hiking in the Corridor, which includes the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab Trails. If one is in trouble in the Corridor, there are emergency phones, water (on the Bright Angel and North Kaibab) and plenty of other hikers. However, if one is in trouble there may not be a ranger available immediately.
Do not depend on your cell phone. Some cells do work along certain sections of the Bright Angel, but DON'T TALK ON THE PHONE WHILE YOU ARE HIKING!! This is bad juju and ticks off other hikers. It also attracts carnivorous animals (kidding!).
Assuming you contact a ranger they may not be able to get to you right away. They have a whole National Park to take care of. Once a ranger does come to your aid, he or she will decide if you have a true medical emergency. If not, you walk out on your own, Clyde. If you do have an emergency, they may opt for a helicopter drag-out but it is expensive ($3,000 or more) and you have to pay for it. The helicopter cannot land just anywhere, so you may have to drag your body out to a landing site.
I was told that during the summer, there are 1,000 to 1,500 day hikers going through the Phantom Ranch area. This means that they are each hiking a minimum of 14 miles and climbing out 4,300 to 4,800 feet in the same day in temperatures up to 115 degrees. This results in five to six emergency drag-outs each and every day in the summer. Not to mention all the people who think they are going to die until the ranger gives them a drink and tells them to keep walking.
Due to the fantastic numbers of hikers moving through, many if not most of whom are sadly underequiped and underexercised, rangers are really overworked in the summer. So you cannot depend on a ranger holding your hand if you get in over your head.
Carry plenty of water and food, rest often before you become exhausted, have some emergency gear with you, and make up your mind that you will get in and out all by your lonesome.
Where do I leave my car?
There is parking near the Bright Angel Trail at the lodge, near the train depot, or near the backcountry office.
As of this writing, private cars are not allowed at the South Kaibab trailhead. You may hire a taxi (call the Transportation Desk at 928-638-3283). You may also take the free Kaibab Tram to the trailhead. There is a hiker special which leaves the Back Country Office and the Bright Angel Lodge early in the morning. Times vary, so check when you get there. Any other time, pick up the blue tram to the Canyon View Information Center, thence the orange tram to the Kaibab trailhead.
It can take up to an hour on trams to get to the trailhead and then to get back, so plan ahead. You can, of course, drive around the road barriers, but don't. If you see cars parked at the trailhead, they belong to the rangers and the Ranch staff (check the windshield stickers). If you are caught there, even if dropping people off, you can be fined.
There is a reason for this: when the Park Service closed this trailhead, it cut search and rescue calls dramatically. Once again, those of us who plan ahead and prepare are penalized by those who wander down aimlessly and haplessly.
Do not leave valuables in sight. If you have a hotel room on the rim, you may stash items with the bell person while you are hiking. Otherwise, the hotel may charge a fee to store your things.
What about a shuttle if I want to hike rim to rim?
Trans-canyon Shuttle drives hikers and runners around every day during the season. As of this writing, the fare is $65 per person one-way, $120 round trip. For groups of 8 or more the fare is $55 each. For groups of 12 or more the fare is $50 each. Some charters are available and the minimum charge for this service is $500. Charters are available for any group that needs a different departure time and one van, which holds 12 people. For children (ages 0 - 12) the fare is $50 each. Infants and toddlers must have a car seat provided by the adult passenger.
Reservations are required and can be made by calling 928-638-2820. As far as I know, the shuttle keeps running on a day-to-day basis once the North Rim "officially" closes until the roads actually snow over and are physically closed. For more details on a rim to rim hike, look at my rim to rim site.
What about a mule?
Mule rides are arranged through Xanterra one year in advance. A waiting list is available at the Bright Angel Transportation Desk. It is my understanding that cancellations are available sometimes on short notice (people chicken out at the last second when they look over the edge). When you ride the mule you must be taller than four foot seven inches and weigh no more than 200 pounds (with your clothes and gear) and you must understand and speak fluent English and not have a fear of heights or large animals. You may carry a camera, small video camera, or binoculars.
You are not allowed on or off the mule without the assistance of the wrangler (even though one of the requirements is that the rider must be able to climb on and off by him/herself).
One may believe, or be told, that the mule rides are for the aged and/or infirm. One would then be grossly misinformed. Riding down is hard on the ankles, the knees and the back. Strong core muscles are required to sit upright in the saddle for five hours, and strong thighs to grip and control the mule. If one has any discomfort with heights, parts of the trail are terrifying. Particularly at each switchback, when the mule's head continues far over the abyss, and the rider thinks: "Does he realize that there is a turn there?"
Xanterra, in fact, warns prospective riders that a mule trip is "physically strenous...Back and knee problems emerge after just a short time in the saddle. Riders with heart of respiratory problems should carefully consider the rigors..."
My personal opinion is that if the prospective rider feels he/she is not physically capable of hiking the canyon, he/she is probably not physically capable of the mule ride.
In 2010, the overnight mule trip to Phantom was $447.34 for one person, or $842.60 for two. That includes one night in a cabin and steak dinner, breakfast, and a trail lunch. From mid-November through the end of March, the mule riders may stay two nights. You may not hike down and arrange for a mule to carry you out, though many ask. For more information visit the Xanterra mule page.