The Phantom Ranch Hike - a once in a lifetime experience

There’s an often repeated quote that goes something like “performing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” When it comes to getting a reservation at the incredibly exclusive Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it felt like this was ringing true.

For the past few months, Cat had checked the Grand Canyon Lodges website on a regular basis, hoping something would change. It tends to book up for the whole year as soon as reservations open 13 months ahead of time. We had missed out and hoped that fate would look kindly on us and we might snag a last minute cancellation.

One of the lookouts along the way

The Phantom Ranch Hike: snagging that cancellation

It was mid February and we were in our hotel room after a sub-zero day in Zion National Park. Cat performed her routine of checking the Grand Canyon Lodges website, knowing it would be a couple of seconds before she moved on. To our suprise, the site was saying there were two spots available in two weeks time. In a moment of spontaneity, we booked it, thinking we would move everything else to make it happen. We had to pinch ourselves, we were expecting it to tell us that there was an error right up until we got to the payment confirmation.

Two minutes later, we received an email confirmation, the money was taken from the credit card and it was on! If there’s anything you can learn from this it’s that repeating the same thing can mean you get different results, perseverence can prevail!

What’s the fuss about?

You may be thinking: “what’s the fuss about? Why is this Phantom Ranch so special?”

Well, Phantom Ranch in itself isn’t that special really. It is a collection of basic cabins, dorm beds and a small canteen. It isn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton.

However, the location is everything. Phantom Ranch enables you to do something which you can’t do in a day unless you are ultra fit: hike from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. This may not seem like that big a deal and I was with you, I’ve always thought the best views were from the top. But when it comes to the Grand Canyon, this isn’t true. I’ll let this blog explain:

“Once you’ve stayed at Phantom Ranch, you become a part of an exclusive club of people who know—the ones who truly understand and appreciate the grandeur of the Grand Canyon…..the real magic lies beneath the rim”

Whilst you will appreciate the canyon from the top, hiking to the bottom was even more incredible. From up high, the Grand Canyon can seem hard to comprehend, it is just enormous and on a scale we’ve never seen before. The distance to the bottom is hard to judge and you just can’t get your head around it. However, once you start hiking down it all makes sense. You get up close to numerous mesas and experience the changing landscape. Every turn leaves you awe inspired and feeling so incredibly lucky to be have this experience.

The magic of the Grand Canyon is traversing through the hundreds of switchbacks, being dwarfed by the mountains, and getting away from the outside world to where the most advanced form of transport is a mule.

We met a guy who had chosen the South Kaibab trail (the route down) as a day hike and his first ever walk in a national park. When we saw him, he was sat on the side of the path, staring at the view and completely speechless. This was a guy from LA who on a whim thought he’d see what the fuss was about. The climb downhill had been painful: his legs were cramping, he was exhausted and his knees had felt every step of the 500m descent to this point. But he was alive with what he saw, the dark red walls surrounding him, the roaring Colorado River and the surprising greenery everywhere. This guy was fully converted. Even with all the hiking we’ve done, we felt like we’d never seen anything like this before either and could only imagine how he was feeling.

So if you want to know why we love this hike so much, read on.

The Hike Down: The South Kaibab Trail

Distance - 7.1 miles
Elevation - approx 1500m descent

The South Kaibab Trail on paper sounds like a slog. It’s not the distance (7.1 miles) but the fact that the hike has 1,500 metres of elevation change between the canyon rim and Phantom Ranch. The difference is so great that the temperature was around 15C warmer at the bottom than at the rim, not to mention we lost all the wind and rain that has been plaguing us on top of the canyon! The gradient makes this trail tough with the NPS advising that it should not be attempted as a day hike at any time of year. Obviously going down is much easier than hiking up but it is still fairly tough on your knees.

We can honestly say this trail is one of the best we’ve walked in the world. We really liked the Bright Angel Trail, but absolutely loved the South Kaibab Trail (and not because one was up and the other was down!). The trail starts from the rim and begins to descend immediately through a series of switchbacks that tightly curve around the cliff edge. In the winter the early section is likely to have snow and ice, so bring your traction devices with you to make grip easier. This isn’t one of those trails that takes a while to get going, you are instantly rewarded with huge views which stay with you every step of the way.

The start of the South Kaibab Trail

It can feel a little busy on this early section as the first portion is also frequented by day hikers, but there’s enough room and views for everyone as the trail descends steeply to the aptly named “Ooh Aah Point”. The drop from the path here is sheer and the views across the canyon are vast. You’re beginning to feel the magic of the canyon from below the rim, but you haven’t seen anything yet. We’d read that many people thought this was the best view on the whole trail - they clearly didn’t go any further!

Not bad, but it gets better

After this you’ll soon come to a beautiful ridge that brings the path down to Cedar Ridge. It was slow going early on because it was hard to peel our eyes from the views! After Cedar Ridge, the majority of day hikers will disappear and the path quietens down to the lucky few that are going all the way to Phantom Ranch and the crazy ones trying to do the whole trail and back in a day.

Those ridges 😍

The South Kaibab descent takes a toll on your legs more than any trail I’ve ever walked. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to go all the way back up immediately after! Cat faired better as she used poles for the majority of the descent.

Soon we came to Skeleton Point where we sat for lunch and saw the highly endangered California Condor overhead. The sun was shining, it was a lot warmer than the rim and we were having the time of our lives.

Read next: Death Valley hikes - why you’ll love the trails in this National Park

A nice place for lunch

The mules!

It’s not long before you reach another set of multiple switchbacks and this is when the views took a back seat to a sighting of the icons of the Grand Canyon - the mules!

Every day, mules go up and down the trail bringing supplies to the ranch and sometimes people who don’t fancy the hike. Walkers naturally have to give way to the mules so we found a spot off the trail and waited. It is amazing how well they handle the rough terrain and steep gradient, all with a heavy load.

Whilst it is amazing to see them, we were a little conflicted as we don’t like to see animals being used to haul heavy cargo or people up and down. But it was hard not to be in awe of these amazing creatures who have been an essential part of life at the canyon for centuries.

After the mules squeezed past, the trail began to flatten out as we walked beneath the mesas. These huge red towers we had seen from above at the rim were now looming over us…. and we were only half way down. Although we didn’t know it at this point, we actually thought we were quite near the bottom!

The flat section takes you along a narrow clifftop before the trail begins to steeply descend again.

Read next: Alabama Hills - California’s most Instagrammable spot

On to Phantom Ranch

It was at this point that we felt so privileged to be able to stay at Phantom Ranch. This was the section which was definitely too far for day trippers and too far from the river for white water rafters to get to. The views were out of this world and the trail was blissfully quiet.

Out of nowhere, the canyon turned green with the red rock shining out from underneath the grass, shrubs and plants that were suddenly everywhere. We’d always pictured the Grand Canyon as a dry, lifeless desert, it was anything but.

The path weaved through the greenery to our first view of the Colorado River which you could hear roaring, even from hundreds of metres away. Temporarily, the green disappeared and the path began resembling the surface of Mars. We had to stop for the thousandth time to take it all in. We were averaging 1.5 miles an hour and didn’t care.

Arriving at Phantom Ranch

It wasn’t much longer before we reached the bridge which crossed the Colorado River leading us to Phantom Ranch. We were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon after nearly six hours hiking. It was only 7.1 miles in distance, but we realised that a steep descent with epic views made for slow going.

The scenery changed again and we were suddenly walking along the river surrounded by hundreds of cacti. It was a short, flat stroll until we reached the ranch itself.

We’ve done quite a few multi-day hikes around the world, but have rarely seen huts and dorms kitted out like Phantom Ranch. Unless you are lucky enough to snag a private cabin, the rooms here are standard hiking bunkhouses, but a major difference is that each 10 bed dorm has electricity (a rarity on a trail) a toilet and hot water shower inside, meaning you don’t have to trudge outdoors to go to the loo! It felt like luxury.

The welcome sign at Phantom Ranch

There is also a canteen area that serves a full cooked breakfast (yes - eggs, bacon, pancakes, the works!), lunch and even steak dinners for anyone who books in advance (veggies can have home made stew). If you haven’t booked ahead, you can buy drinks (including beer and wine), snacks and even get blister packs for your feet. Suffice to say that Phantom Ranch is at the upper end of multi-day hikes.

The main thing to look out for are the pesky squirrels that love to invade your room. I locked all my food in the boxes provided but forgot about the rubbish from lunch. Three hours later I found a huge hole in the top of my backpack and rubbish everywhere. Those squirrels are persistant.

Read next: Why you need to visit Zion National Park in Winter!

The joy of multi-day hiking

There is a camaraderie and community with people you meet in these places. You’ve all shared the same experience and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet are in these bunkhouses. People talk about the trail, where else they recommend and everyone has a collective feeling of gratitude at being one of the few who are here in this moment.

That’s why that quote resonated with me - those who have made it to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and to Phantom Ranch feel like they’ve been let in on a secret and are in the lucky few.

We fell asleep that night, knowing we had the hardest part to come - 1,500 metres straight up with legs that were already aching and the knowledge that sleep is unlikely in the bunkhouses (there are always snorers!).

However, after a day like that, we didn’t care.

Read next: Waterholes Canyon - a slot canyon without the crowds

The Bright Angel Trail

Distance - 11 miles (as measured by our Apple watch, the offical trail length varies depending on where you read about it)
Elevation - approx 1500m ascent

Across the world, bunkhouses always have early starts. Phantom Ranch was no exception and for some reason the majority got up at 5am, a full 2.5 hours before sunrise. As we didn’t get much sleep, we were up not long after, tucking into the cooked breakfast and eating as much as we could for energy for the upcoming climb.

There are two routes back to the south rim of the Grand Canyon - back up the South Kaibab, or up the longer, but overall shallower Bright Angel. To keep things varied, we went up the Bright Angel.

The track started off by following the Colorado River, passing the occasional Joshua Tree (something we didn’t expect down here) and undulating gently along the way. We had hiked for over one mile and were still at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This “easier route” was surprisingly straight-forward so far.

The riverside section of the Bright Angel Trail

The path took a sharp left and continued into a narrow canyon. It was incredibly pretty, like entering a secret glen. This was the main difference between the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab: the South Kaibab offered panoramic views in different directions from the beginning, whereas the Bright Angel was a more closed in, intimate hike through a narrow canyon and into ever changing landscapes for a large portion of the hike. We really enjoyed them both as they offered very different experiences.

The trail didn’t seem to be ascending much though and we were flying through the miles, slightly worrying as the further we went without climbing we knew the steeper the climb would be when we eventually got to it. It wasn’t long before we reached Indian Garden, the halfway point on the trail and a good lunch stop. It’s also the only place that has water on the trail during winter.

Indian Garden to the Rim

Indian Garden is not a place you’d associate with the Grand Canyon unless you’d been here. This small area is an oasis, full of deer, birds, running water, trees and life.

A musk deer chilling at Indian Garden

We had a bit of food, drank up and thought about what we were in for. This in itself wasn’t the best of ideas as any period of rest on a trail like this makes your legs seize up, especially in the cold. Even though we’d not climbed much at all, the cumulative effect of the past two days had caught up with us. My legs felt like rocks that had to be dragged along and we hadn’t even started the uphill bit.

We also made the mistake of talking to a ranger here who told us from here the trail was ‘brutal’.

A little while on we saw the south rim and the switchbacks leading up to it. Looking up, it seemed like an almost vertical ascent. It’s a strange feeling to be just below where you are due to finish, but know you have four miles to go. That means a lot of switchbacks!

Once we were into the rhythm, things were ok. You know the next two hours are only uphill, there’s nothing you can do but put your head down and keep moving. It wasn’t too long before the markers started appearing and we passed the imaginatively named “3 mile reststop”.

We stopped briefly before continuing on. We soon reached the 1.5 mile rest stop and decided to take a proper break. Up to this point we’d been finding the climb fairly easy. We ate, drank and then felt a new world of pain when we got going again.

3 mile reststop from above

We only had 1.5 miles left to go, but were really feeling it. The final mile and a half was a slow slog. And then came the snow!

The top of the Bright Angel had been hit with snow in the morning and the hikers had helped to turn that into slush, and ice, aka very slippery track. When you have a 15kg backpack on, a narrow path of ice can be the stuff of nightmares.

Read next: Lower Antelope Canyon - what to expect and Bryce Canyon in Winter - what to expect

But after a few more switchbacks we could see the Bright Angel Lodge art studio at the top which was all the motivation we needed. We knew we were only moments away and had made fairly good time. We’d read horror stories of 8 hours+ to do this section, but we’d managed to sneak in at just under 6, not long off our downhill section time. We began to feel the cold now and had to quickly throw on our cold weather gear and rush for the car. We felt ecstatic, but also a whole new level of tiredness. All we wanted to do was have a warm shower and collapse into a clean, quiet bed.

It’s an experience we’ll never forget.

Read next: Cathedral Rock - what the trail is actually like

How to book Phantom Ranch

Snagging a cancellation

Booking Phantom Ranch is all about luck. Reservations go on sale 13 months ahead of time and sell out quickly. However, if you miss them first time round, you may still be able to sneak in. There are cancellations that happen, so check the website as often as you can and have the flexibility to jump on the dates that become available. This is harder during the summer months, but is a lot more realistic in the winter, spring and autumn (these are the cooler months with a lot nicer hiking conditions).

Keep heading to this page, click “Search Phantom Ranch availability” on the Grand Canyon Lodges’ website and hope you’re in luck!

The canteen at Phantom Ranch

The lottery

Like a lot of National Parks attractions, places at Phantom Ranch can be booked by a lottery system too. They operate 15 months prior to your stay (yes, that’s a long time in advance!) and tell you whether you have been successful in the month following when you entered the lottery. You then have a short time to confirm your booking or you’ll lose it.

The lottery is incredibly popular and getting a spot is pretty hard, but not impossible. If you know what you’ll be doing 1 year and 3 months out, this is the best method to try first. You can read more about it on this link.

Check on the morning at Bright Angel Lodge

The other alternative is to check at Bright Angel Lodge early in the morning and see if there has been a cancellation for that same day. Sometimes beds do become available on the day. We were asked if we wanted to extend our stay at the bottom as there were 5 people who hadn’t turned up for their multi-day stay and hadn’t cancelled in advance. You may get lucky, so it is always worth checking.

Facilities at Phantom Ranch

There are three types of accommodation at Phantom Ranch - private cabins (which have shared bathrooms), male & female dorms or camping spots (Bright Angel Campground). All have to be booked in advance, so don’t expect to be able to turn up and luck out.

The dorms at Phantom Ranch

The shower in the dorms

The shower in the dorms

The cabins at Phantom Ranch

The camping spots - next to the river, a beautiful location

The ranch has electricity, running water, shared bathrooms with hot water as well as showers in the dorms and a canteen that serves three meals a day as well as packed lunches to go. You can also buy some snacks, alcohol or even send a postcard by mule. Prices are fairly high for the meals owing to the fact that everything has to be brought in by mule ($50 for a 3 course steak dinner for example).

There are ranger talks that happen twice a day on most days and a few extra hiking trails you can do from the bottom (in case you haven’t done enough).

Read next: Awe-inspiring things to do in Page, Arizona and Upper Antelope Canyon Tours - just how bad are they?

Entrance Fee for the Grand Canyon

If you plan to visit more than three US National Parks in a year then we highly recommend purchasing the $80 America The Beautiful Annual Pass.

If not entrance for a car and all passengers is $35, valid for seven days. If arriving on a motorcycle the fee is $30.

What to pack for Phantom Ranch

We recommend stocking up on hiking gear to make sure you’re comfortable on the hike to the bottom. We both wear Merrells and they have served us well for years. We also use Osprey backpacks and carry a resuseable water bottle to cut down on single use plastics.

You can check out our recommendations on Amazon below.

Where to stay before and after Phantom Ranch

For a fully comprehensive guide, check out our separate article on where to stay in the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, here’s a brief summary.

Grand Canyon Village

If you possibly can the best place to stay is in the park itself. In peak season it is notoriously difficult to get reservations so book as far in advance as you possibly can.

Bright Angel Lodge

We stayed in several lodges (travelling in low season meant we could make last minute bookings but we couldn’t get all the dates we wanted in one lodge) and our favourite was definitely Bright Angel. The rooms were really lovely and clean and had a good feel about them. We had shared showers which were always spotless.

Maswik Lodge

Maswik Lodge was ok if you can’t get into Bright Angel, it’s pretty tired and dated but does the job. The rooms are larger than any of the others and come with 2 queen beds which make it an attractive option for families.

El Tovar

My parents stayed in El Tovar which is the most luxurious lodge on the rim and it was nice, but we felt it overpriced. The rooms are not very big and they aren’t fancy, so apart from proper mugs and some sweets in your room we don’t think it’s worth the upgrade from Bright Angel. The restaurant at El Tovar was by far the best in the village.

Outside the village - Tusayan

If you can’t get into the park itself then the nearest village, Tusayan, is around 15 minutes from Bright Angel and only 2 minutes from the entrance to the National Park. The hotels tended to be similar prices to those inside the park, so we didn’t go for this option. We did eat here though and surprisingly the food was more expensive than inside the park.

The best option is the Best Western Premier - Grand Canyon Squire Inn. The rooms here are spacious, comfortable and come with everything you’d expect from the better Best Western brands.

Outside the village - Williams

If you can’t get reservations at any of the above then your next best bet is Williams. It’s around an hour from Bright Angel Lodge and is significantly cheaper than anywhere near the park. We stayed at Red Roof Inn Plus and it was pretty reasonable, especially as it was the cheapest accommodation we had in the whole of our American trip.

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