The Winter Side of Phantom Ranch:
Two Nights at Bright Angel

Friday to Sunday, Dec. 19 - 21, 2008


by Dennis Foster

Cara Lynn, with Yaktrax on,
near the top of the BA Trail.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     Hiking and backpacking in the winter isn't always that much fun.  It can be, but there are some drawbacks to such a trip.  Besides the cold, there are the long, dark nights.  It is not unusual to spend 12-13 hours zipped up in a sleeping bag, not exactly sleeping - doing a lot of tossing and turning.  And, wondering what time it is and how cold it is.  I have taken to bringing an mp3 player along on my hikes.  If I don't actually use it during the day, it does provide quite a bit of entertainment value when it is time to turn in for the night.  And, there is the cold.  I have recently discovered the air-activated hand and toe warmers and I give them an enthusiastic two thumbs up.  They really help, especially when getting up and started in the morning.  Still, when I am hiking up and out of the canyon, and it is cold, I find that I cannot stop for very long without getting quite chilled.  So, even though I am tired and achy, I push on and try to maintain a sustainable, if slow, pace.

     This hike was something I put together on the last day of October.  I was planning to drive up to the South Rim on November first so I could get a permit for a hike in March.  That is the first day you can apply for permits for the upcoming March, and most people have to fax/mail in their permit request.  Driving up pretty much allows you to get whatever you want.  At least, on the first day that permits open up.  So, I decided to take advantage of this 180 mile round trip drive to get permits for a couple of other hikes in December.  One of the hikes I picked was this two night stay at the Bright Angel campground, right next to Phantom Ranch.  Permits in December are not hard to come by.  Even popular campgrounds are not full, so I wasn't surprised that I got the Friday and Saturday nights that I wanted.  Once I had the permits, I also checked into getting some meals at Phantom.  I arranged for breakfast and the steak dinner for Saturday, for my wife, Cara Lynn, and I.  A first for me - steak at Phantom.  I have had the hiker stew plenty of times, but this would be a special treat.

     The hike occurred at one of the most opportune times I can ever recall.  Northern Arizona got dumped on by a huge winter storm during the week leading up to this hike.  The first sunny day was Friday - the first day of our hike.  And, another winter storm was blowing in on the following Monday, the day after we got out.  We had three beautiful days, with the canyon in its most picturesque form, as the photo above attests.  Lucky us!

     Even with nice weather in the forecast, I knew that the upper stretches of the trails would be snowpacked and icy.  I have some heavy duty Kahtoolas, and two pair of instep crampons, which would probably be enough for this trip.  But, over the last couple of years, I have noticed some other products on the market, and decided to pick some up something new.  I got a pair of Yaktrax for Cara Lynn and some Kahtoola micro spikes for me.  Both worked great!  We didn't have any trouble with our footing.  But, we did need to use them.  Going down the Bright Angel trail, I wore my Kahtoolas to just below the three mile resthouse, while Cara Lynn wore her Yaktrax all the way to Indian Garden, some 4.5 miles from the trailhead.  On Sunday, we came up the Kaibab trail, and donned our traction devices atop the Redwall, about 3 miles from the rim.

     We got our usual parking spot behind the Bright Angel Lodge, although it wasn't fully plowed.  Snow was up to our knees, but there was a reasonably wide path beaten into the snow.  It wasn't too icy, but we learned later that the mule trips were held up for a couple of days.  And, even this day there were only a handful riding the mules - they passed by us at the three mile resthouse.  We saw very few folks on the trail, and mostly they were coming up.  Along the trail, we did find these odd sort-of round shaped icy disks (see photo to the right).  It puzzled me, but Cara Lynn figured it out - they were icy clumps that formed in the horseshoes of the mules.  They would build up and then drop off.  Well, you learn something new every day!  There was just a little sun along the first stretch of trail.  Otherwise, shady all the way down to Indian Garden.  And cold - the temperature was in the mid-30s at the three mile resthouse.  Still, the views were awesome, especially with the upper canyon covered in snow.  We had gotten a bit of a late start - we left the trailhead at 11:45 a.m.  But, it was only 2:15 p.m. when we reached Indian Garden.  We stopped there for for about a half hour, eating a late lunch.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

The mile-and-a-half rest house nestled beneath an imposing Coconino cliff and buried in the snow.

Restroom near the mile-and-a-half resthouse, along the Bright Angel trail.

Bright Angel parking lot.

The Battleship.
Mule riders heading up. Temperature at 3 mile resthouse. Snow at Indian Garden.

     We headed out of Indian Garden and I spotted a jumble of rocks with some residual walls.  It was probably part of what was here a hundred years ago.  I have been interested in doing some poking around at Indian Garden to see what is left from the old days.  Well, some other trip for that.  A bit past this spot we branched off onto the Tonto trail, to the east.  Then, just over the first ridge, we left the Tonto and followed the old, original, Bright Angel trail down a small side canyon.  It is easy to follow once on the old path, and the old telephone line is still up (although, it doesn't work any more), helping us to stay on track.  This route is shorter than following the trail down Garden Creek, and it has the advantage of passing by some nearby Indian ruins.  We hooked up with the current trail at a twenty foot pouroff.  There was a trickle of water running down the rock here.  Years ago, there used to be an information sign here, titled "Polished Rock."  There are only a couple of these old signs still up, but only on the North Kaibab trail.  While this is a shortcut, Cara Lynn brushed against some cactus just before we hit the trail, and we spent about twenty minutes pulling spines out of her gloves and sweater.  She said she had moved a bit to avoid running into some Mormon tea.  "But," I kidded her, "the Mormon tea won't hurt you."  It took us a bit less than two hours to get from Indian Garden to the Colorado River, at the bottom of Pipe Creek.

     We pushed on along the River trail, since we were anticipating only about another hour of good light and we really wanted to find a campsite and get all squared away before dark.  We did well along this stretch, even though we were getting tired.  We had great views of a glowing Zoroaster Temple, lording over the river.  None of my photos could capture that - it was like shooting into the sun.  Well, we still have the memory of it.  We stopped briefly to check out the ravine that leads one up the Old Miner's trail, which we would use for our exit on Sunday.  We reached the campground in great shape - less than forty-five minutes from Pipe Creek, even though we slowed down when we passed by a few deer browsing near the Park Service corral.

     The campground was mostly empty - I can't say that there were more than five, or maybe six, groups scattered about the thirty some-odd spaces.  We located up near the bridge, closer to Phantom, on the creek side.  We fired up the stove and had our dinner in twilight, and were hitting the sack well before 7:30 p.m.  The canteen, at Phantom, opens up after their stew dinner, but 8 o'clock seemed just too long to wait for us, and we were beat.

Old telephone line along the original Bright Angel trail.  Zoroaster Temple
is in the background.

"Modern" ruins along trail.

Pipe Creek rapids.

Ancient ruins along old trail.

Along the River trail.

The view of our exit ravine, for Sunday, along the River trail.  This ravine starts us on the Old Miner's trail.

The silver bridge spans the Colorado.

Welcome sign frames Zoroaster.

Cara Lynn poses on the silver bridge as we near our destination at the
end of the day.

     We made an early morning trek to the restrooms.  It was 3 a.m. and the thermometer in the tent read 40 degrees.  Yes, it was cold!  Based on some sketchy observations, I'd say that the tent is 5-6 degrees warmer than the outside air, when we are all bundled up in our sleeping bags.  When we get up and out of the bags, but haven't gotten out of the tent, the temp inside rises by another 7-8 degrees.  Then, of course, the tent flap is opened and all the relative warmth of the tent is just a memory!

     We had reservations for the "late" breakfast at Phantom.  That would be for 7 a.m.  Late, but we walked over to the canteen with stars shining!  Well, that's what you get when you are hiking at/about the shortest day of the year.  And, what a breakfast it was.  The canteen was warm, we had chairs to sit in, and there were piles of pancakes, bowls of peaches, platters of scrambled eggs and bacon, and water, juice and coffee.  A great way to start the day.  Although, when we returned to our tent at 8 a.m., we decided a nap was in order.  How can you spend twelve hours in a sleeping bag and then be sleepy?!  Still, the nap felt good.  We stirred again when the sun was up.  I wrote up some trail notes from the previous day.  We decided to head back to the canteen and write up some post cards before doing a little hiking later in the day.  The point of making this a two night trip was so that we could just hang out and enjoy our middle day.

Picturesque campsite along creek.

Recording trail notes.

The pack bars are provided so that the various critters don't get into your packs.  We didn't have any trouble.

Morning at camp.

In front of canteen at Phantom.

     The canteen was without power when we returned.  It was off for about four hours for some repairs.  So, we had some hot cocoa using hot water they stored in an insulated dispenser and wrote out our cards by the light streaming through the windows.  And, the employee had to pull out the old fashioned manual device to run my credit card for a tee shirt I bought!

     The morning was quite beautiful.  The skies were clear and the trees at Phantom were all golden.  I made sure that we went around and got some nice shots of the trees and cabins.  It was still quite chilly, but not windy.  The board in the canteen noted that the overnight low at the ranch had been 35 degrees the previous night.  Yes, it was cold!  During the summer, it is blazing hot down here, with temps well over 100 degrees, and overnight "lows" can be almost 90!  So, it is quite a contrast.  On our return to camp, we happened upon more deer browsing in the area.  We followed them a bit and remarked that they all seemed . . . well, fat.  Or, at least, not skinny.

     We fixed up our campsite and packed up a lunch to take with us on a short stroll up the Clear Creek trail.  It was a lazy day, as we didn't leave the campground until about a quarter to one in the afternoon.

The mail drop at Phantom Ranch is a saddle bag.  Be sure to use the stamp, "Packed out by Mule from Phantom Ranch" on your outgoing mail.

Changing colors at Phantom.

Phantom Ranch cabin.

Writing out post cards.

Dinner bell outside canteen.

Decked out for Christmas

Cliffs over Phantom Ranch.

An oasis even in winter.

     We didn't see anyone else while we were out hiking for the afternoon.  We went up Bright Angel Creek to where the Clear Creek trail starts off.  It runs for about eight miles to the next canyon to the east.  We climbed up several hundred feet to a spot where there is a stone bench and a nice point overlooking the river.  We had a few nice bird's eye views of Phantom along the way, and we saw some rafts on the river.  We had a nice spot to sit down, enjoy the river and made our lunches.  We only did about 1.5 miles round trip, but spent about 3.5 hours on this leisurely trek.

     We went to the 5 p.m. steak dinner.  There were about a half dozen mule riders there - only two at breakfast.  [In fact, the morning supply train was the first one to Phantom in four days, because of the snow.]  At our table, we ate with three Xanterra employees, who had hiked down from the rim, and four old guys (well, as old as me!) from the campground that were all from Flagstaff!  Well, this is a great time to hike when you don't have to hassle with crowds and can get meals.  Since this was the early dinner - the hiker stew follows - we still didn't have the enthusiasm to go back to the canteen during the open hours later that night and have a couple of brews.  So it goes.

     However, after dinner we did take a stroll down to the river and walk across the giant black suspension bridge, which is the one the mules cross over.  It was dark and we could see a bright star in the west, which we decided must be Venus, which is a planet of course, and not a star.  It's light was so bright that it was reflecting off of the river as a discernable point of light.  Quite an awesome sight.  It was not as cold as the previous night, and we would sleep much more comfortably as a result.

Phantom Ranch from above. Relaxing along the Clear Creek trail. Cara Lynn overlooks the river.

     Early morning temps in the tent were in the upper 40s.  We were up and fixing some hot cocoa at 6:30 a.m.  There was a bit of an overcast that is presaging the next winter storm.  Still, the day would be quite pleasant.  By a bit after 9 o'clock, we were all packed up and on our way.

     One of my favorite routes is the "Old Miner's Trail."  It nicely connects the river with the Tonto plateau on the east side of Pipe Creek.  The route begins in the first major ravine to the west of the silver bridge.  The lower section had just been a scramble, but that has been improving over time.  The old trail is not hard to follow as long as you pay attention to where you are and where you're going.  It is rather steep, and the going is slow, but you do feel like you are really gaining altitude quickly.  Not only is it a neat little trail, but as you climb, you get really great views, unmatched by the nearby South Kaibab trail.  You can see both bridges, the campground, Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Lodge all at the same time.  Also, spectacular views of Sumner Butte, Zoroaster Temple and Buddha Temple make this a very unique route.  We had a couple of rest breaks along the way, to enjoy the scenery and snack a bit.  When you top out above the Tapeats, there is a large cairn, although you still have a ways to go to reach the Tonto trail, which will then quickly get one over to the South Kaibab trail.  We reached the cairn a couple of hours after leaving the campground, and stopped here for an early lunch.

Packed up and ready to go!  Historic marker near Phantom Ranch.  River views along old trail. 

Fabulous views along old trail - the silver bridge, Phantom Ranch, Buddha Temple and the North Rim Lodge in the back, to the right.

Cara Lynn along the Old Miner's trail. 

Lunchtime?  Yes, but still an
excellent time to break out the
stove and fix a hot drink after
finishing the old trail.

Rock cairn where trail tops Tapeats. 

     At half past noon, we bushwhacked our way to the Tonto trail, reaching the South Kaibab just before 1 p.m.  We didn't reach the top of the Redwall until a quarter to three, but we had taken a long rest break at a sunny switchback.  It is cool in the shade.  At the top of the Redwall, the trail levels out through an area casually referred to as Mormon Flats.  There was snow here, so we decided to stop and put on our "footwear traction devices."  A hiker coming down the trail commented on how she had liked the Yaktrax, but had gone through a couple of pair and had decided to try the Kahtoolas, and really liked using them.  Once on our way we only saw two more hikers the rest of the way to the top.  Temperatures were falling and we were tiring out on our climb up.  We reached Cedar Ridge at 4 p.m. and stayed here about fifteen minutes.  Then, we pushed on and finished the final mile and a half to the top by 5:30 p.m., just before sunset.

On the Tonto trail.  Kahtoola time.  Atop the Redwall. 

Snow along So. Kaibab trail.  End of day - end of hike!  Sunset from the So. Kaibab trailhead. 

     Since we had parked at the Bright Angel trailhead, we had to catch the shuttle to get back to our truck.  We didn't have to wait long here, which was nice for us since it was getting darker and colder by the minute.  We did have to change shuttles at the visitor's center, waiting for about 10-15 minutes at the cold, icy, bus stop there.  We reached our vehicle by 6:30 p.m. in the dark of night - well, today is the shortest day of the year!  We quickly got situated at the truck and Cara Lynn made a call to the pizza place in Tusayan.  We were really looking forward to their hot wing pizza, which didn't disappoint.  In fact, it has become our routine to stop there after a hike for this delicious pizza.

     After returning home, I shot an e-mail off to Randy Wilson, editor of the local paper, and proposed a story about our hike.  He was quite enthusiastic and so I penned the article they titled, "Grand Canyon in Winter: Solitude, Scenery and Snow," which ran on the front page on January 13, 2009.  Click on the hyperlinked title, above, to read that article.  They also included two photos - the one of Cara Lynn on the Bright Angel trail and the one of the tent alongside the creek.

              A Kaibab Journal Special Feature            

Since Cara Lynn got her picture on the front page of the newspaper (again), she naturally got a lot of attention from co-workers and friends.  So, she decided to pen this comment, as a way to more fully elaborate on her impressions about the trip (especially since the article in the paper was brief).  I am happy to include her story, below.

Since my husband's article was published about last month's hike down to the Bright Angel Campground, I am pleased at the number of people who have asked, "Why do it?"

Indeed, why strap on a bulky pack; worry about what's in it or - worse - what's not; risk life and limb on snowy, icy cliff-side trails; carry water; freeze half to death; manage tissues; stumble around rocks in unfamiliar terrain; put up with noisy campers next door; a spouse who fusses over which park-provided ammo bin in which to safeguard the snacks while we're away... not saying which one of us that was; deer and other critters to make one scream "AHhhhhhh!" in the night; or - did I mention - freeze half to death?

Well, one of the events, among others, my husband doesn't write about is how we stepped out onto the 'black' (as opposed to the 'silver') suspension bridge over the Colorado river after dark.

It must have been cold, and we used our headlamps to get there from camp, but all I can remember after that is the beauty of the sky with all the stars lit up and of being surrounded - not too closely, but closely enough - by jet black hills breaking away on all sides, the starlight reflecting on the water below, and the black frame of the suspension bridge slicing across our view of the stars between. 

For those that don't know, this particular suspension bridge meets a tunnel at its southern end (it's the bottom of the South Kaibab Trail).  So we thumped across the bridge in the dark and scared ourselves half silly trying to navigate through the rock walls in absolute blindness.  When we lit up our headlamps again to ‘see’ it only served to scare us more because these walls suddenly appeared so dusty, rough, and... uh, close.  And, wow, that big black space down the middle doesn't help!  Much better with them off.

Then we came back and paused for a while in the dark on the bridge.  Counted our steps to the middle.  Tried to figure out if it was Venus casting the greatest reflection, what constellations we could see, and what he knew about the Milky Way.

Yeah, I know.  Some people like things outlined on a more replicable basis but aren't these the moments that make the agony of a 7-9 mile downhill journey soon to be followed by the agony of a similar uphill journey and attempting to sleep in the 41-degree cold on a rock worthwhile?  I don't get it.  It's as if the technical details such as which way we took on which trail on which day is what's important.  It's not. 

Even on our way out the next day as we grunted slowly up the near-vertical old miners’ trail from the river to catch the Tonto and then the South Kaibab - the only sounds for long minutes our own heavy breathing, whining and groaning, stones trickling, and rustling packs - I was stricken with an overwhelming appreciation for why the miners or anyone before them ever braved these trails, too. 

This is why... these moments of indescribable beauty and stark effort you can't share with anyone but the person you're with or perhaps only yourself.  Nothing that can be bought.  Nothing that can be taken.  Can't be captured on film.  Can never be adequately defined.  Can't possibly be shared with the outside world.  But can never be erased.

So, say no more.  Count me in.

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