Backpacking 101: Hiking to Phantom Ranch From the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Phantom Ranch is nestled at the bottom of the Grand Canyon at the Colorado River. It boasts the only overnight accommodations at the base of the Colorado River from the South Rim’s hotels such as Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar, and the North Rim’s trail to the river (except campgrounds). Phantom Ranch also has the only hot cooked meals available anywhere in the Canyon that can be accessed from the Bright Angel Trail and North and South Kaibab trails. The only way to reach Phantom Ranch is by hiking, unless you plan to white water raft to get there on a river run. This makes Phantom Ranch an exquisite, rarely seen gem at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, one that few have the pleasure of seeing and enjoying. It’s not easy to reach Phantom Ranch, but the treasures that await make it desperately worth it Adventurous types who are decent shape certainly might wish to apply, and try out the descent into the Canyon. Here are some tips to help Grand Canyon hikers reach Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River in safety.

  1. Choosing a Trail to Reach Phantom Ranch. The easiest way to reach Phantom Ranch is to hike down the Bright Angel trail starting at the South Rim. The journey is about 11 miles on the Bright Angel, and takes hikers anywhere from four to eleven hours. Speed depends on one’s personal health and stamina, as well as the number of stops for breaks and photo opportunities. It took me seven hours the first time, which included a good many stops for personal photography shots. Hiking the Bright Angel trail is my personal choice for reaching Phantom Ranch, as the hike is less steep and seemingly more secure than the two alternatives: the North Kaibab and South Kiabab trails. The North Kaibab trail takes Grand Canyon hikers from the North Rim to the Colorado River, and the South Kaibab starts at the South Rim and descends to Phantom Ranch. The North Kaibab starts out steep from the rim, and sometimes has some hairy places to pass where parts of the trail have been washed away. However, once you reach Cottonwood campgrounds and beyond, the trail flattens out. The South Kaibab trail is much steeper in many places than the Bright Angel, and so scarier at times and not as user friendly. It does save time off the journey with a shorter distance to Phantom Ranch, but the trail and hike are not as simple and relaxing. The North and South Kaibab trails have less restrooms and water refill stations as well. For instance, the only place to find water and a restroom on the North Kaibab trail is at Cottonwood. The Bright Angel Trail has restrooms at the 1.5 mile reststop, the 3 miles resthouse, and at Indian Gardens, as well as one at Pipe’s Creek once you reach the Colorado River. Water is also available at all of these in warmer months and at Indian Gardens year round. Thus, the Bright Angel Trail is this user’s hiking trail of choice. Less experienced hikers and those making the trip for the first time will also find the Bright Angel trail to be an excellent choice.
  2. How to Reach the Bright Angel Trail. So how do you find this Bright Angel trail for your hike to Phantom Ranch from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? Go to the Bright Angel Lodge, which is on the South Rim itself, and then walk on the Rim Trail West about a quarter of a mile. The beginning of the Bright Angel trail is situated right at the Kolb Studio. To reach Bright Angel Lodge, enter the Grand Canyon National Park South Rim entrance, and following the signs to the Lodge and the South Rim. There is generally parking available near the Bright Angel Lodge. However, sometimes construction work on the trail and lots can result in areas of the parking lot being closed. Always check with the Bright Angel Transportation desk, reached at 928-638-2631 or contact the National Park Service.
  3. How to Hike the Bright Angel Trail. Once you start your decent on the Bright Angel Trail down into the Grand Canyon, you will pass landmarks that let you know you are headed the right way. The trail is a corridor trail, meaning that it is well maintained and easy to follow. You will pass landmarks on the way. The first is the 1.5 mile reststop. Next, you pass the 3 mile reststop, followed by Indian Gardens. Be careful at Indian Gardens, as there are other trails that connect at this location. Make sure to follow signs to stay on the Bright Angel trail. Other options would include the Tonto trail and the trail to Plateau Point. Tonto trail runs parallel to the Colorado River, but is at a higher elevation. Plateau Point is a unique viewing point that can be reached with a 3 mile round trip hike out to the edge of the canyon giving you a view down to the Colorado River below.

The next landmark is Pipes Creek and reststop. Here, you then head along the Colorado River towards the Silver Suspension bridge. This is considered part of the River trail as well. After about a mile, cross the silver bridge and follow signs for Phantom Ranch. The Bright Angel trail runs into the Kaibab trail here North to Phantom Ranch. Make sure to head to Phantom Ranch and not to the South Kaibab trail or to Boat Beach. First you will pass the Bright Angel campground on your left, followed by Phantom Ranch.

  1. How to Obtain Lodging at Phantom Ranch. Lodging is so limited at Phantom Ranch that spots fill up the same day they become available. In general, lodging can be booked one year in advance for the month the following year. So, anyone wishing to stay April 5th, 2021 could start making a booking on April 1st of 2021. However, by the end of April 1st, many options will already be full. The available Phantom Ranch accommodations include hiker cabins, as well as male and female dorms. There are two male and two female dorms, each holding up to 10 persons in bunk beds. If reservations are full, consider visiting at a different time that still has openings. The only other option is to keep calling and hope for a cancellation. Lodging can be secured from the Xanterra website or by calling Xanterra Parks and Resorts at 888-297-2757.
  2. How to Stay at Bright Angel Campgrounds. If you can’t get lodging at the Ranch itself, Bright Angel Campground is an alternative.The Campground is less than a half mile from Phantom Ranch, and has plenty of campsites of various sizes, including ones for groups. One must obtain a backcountry permit to be able to use the campsites. These can be obtained from the Back Country Office of the National Park Service. Requests are taken a few months out by fax, and then you receive info as to whether you are accepted for your request for a permit. If the campsite is full, you can visit the Back Country Office on the South Rim a few days before your hike to get on the waiting list. You simply get on the list and then show up each morning at 8 am to move up spots in the list. So, for example, if the first day you are number eight on the list, the next morning at 8 am you may move up to number five if three campsites were available. The following day you may get to number two, and then on the third day you have a good chance of making it. If you get issued a permit, it’s generally for the next day. Although this seems like an ordeal, it doesn’t often take very long to move up the list, and the reward is a campsite near Phantom Ranch! I personally tried this a few years back and it took me until the third day to get the camping permit.
  3. Packing for the Hike. The general rule is that less is better. For an eleven mile hike that descends or ascends a vertical mile, you’re going to need all of your energy for hiking and not for carrying a heavy pack. Take just the essentials. Essentials include plenty of water, snack items including protein, nuts, fruits, something salty and something sweet like cookies, and warmer layers in case of temperature changes. Pack a jacket. Also, carry emergency equipment like a first aid kit, a change of shoes in case yours get wet crossing a stream, sunblock and a flashlight. Many hikers find headlamps to be useful for hiking in low light or after dark. Electrolyte drink mixes can help rehydrate you and give you more energy for your hike. Don’t forget your camera! Take only what you can carry. Practice ahead of time to see what your limits are in terms of weight. I personally recommend no more than fifteen pounds for an average female and thirty pounds for a male.
  4. Mules Carrying Packs. The mules will carry your pack up to thirty pounds and within certain dimensions to and from Phanton Ranch. The cost is around $130 round trip. This decreases the load you have to carry into the Canyon, and frees you up for your hiking journey. Make sure to still carry your own day pack, with emergency items like food and water, sunblock and a jacket. Mules can be booked through Xanterra as well. Consider packing items such as shampoo, changes of clothing, and dry socks and undergarments! Bring food also if you haven’t been able to book meals at Phantom Ranch.
  5. Meals at Phantom Ranch. Just like the lodging, the meals at Phantom Ranch are also limited. Reservations can be made by calling Xanterra Parks and Resorts. They handle all reservations. Breakfast is served at two seatings, early and late. Early is around 5 am and late is around 6:30. Breakfast includes pancakes, eggs, bacon and peaches. Dinner is served in two seatings, early and late. Early is at 4:30 pm and late is around 6 pm. Early dinner is steak, while late is stew or vegetarian chili. Lunch is not served, but lunch bags can be purchased with various goodies such as cookies, trail mix, chocolate, an apple and summer sausage. Reservations often sell out just as quickly for meals as they do for accommodations. The alternative is to bring your own food with you in your backpack. Some hikers carry their own cooking equipment and fix meals at the campsite.
  6. Day Hikes from Phantom Ranch. There are many options for Day Hikes from Phantom Ranch. One is the River Loop, which takes you across both Suspension bridges for a view of the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campsite and back to Phantom Ranch. This hike takes from 2 to 4 hours. Another is a day hike to Cottonwood or Ribbon Falls. Ribbon Falls is reached by hiking the North Kaibab trail from Phantom Ranch for about six miles, and veering off to Ribbon falls itself. It’s a somewhat easy hike for the first few miles on level ground, and then a somewhat hairy hike over some rocks to get to the Ribbon Falls area itself. The waterfall is beautiful and worth the trip. Give yourself all day for this hike, as it is fourteen miles round trip. Make sure you have accommodations at Phantom Ranch for that evening after your day hike, as it is 14 miles round trip. A third option for a day hike is to Clear Creek. This trail will take you to an overlook where you can see Phantom Ranch below. This trail is very narrow and quite steep at points, so its not for the weak of heart! At certain places, you’ll be climbing on the edge of narrow trails that can be frightening. This hike takes about 3 hours round trip.
  7. Activities at Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is a peaceful place, nestled in between the North and South Rims of the Canyon by the Colorado River. One popular activity includes visiting the Canteen after dinner for some board and/or card games and a beer or some wine. The Canteen is open for hikers from 8 am to 4 pm, and again from 8 pm to 10 pm. Take part in the Park Ranger presentations. There is generally one before dinner at around 4 pm and another after dinner at 7:30 pm. Sit outside of the Canteen or at any of the picnic tables located in the Phantom Ranch area.

10. Photo Opportunities at Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch itself is rich in photo opportunities. Take shots of the hiker cabins, which look like historic cabins from long ago. Take pictures of the Phantom Ranch Canteen, where meals and drinks are served. Photograph the mules that carry hiker packs in and out of the Grand Canyon. Head to Boat Beach, and capture the Colorado River and suspension bridge. The choices are endless. Take sunset and sunrise shots by the Colorado River while hiking in or out of the Canyon.

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