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Follow the South Kaibab Trail

to the Depths of the Grand Canyon
By Lakshmi & Chandra Mouli - August 3rd, 2000

The Grand Canyon attracts millions of tourists every year, but true hikers know that the ultimate experience isn't standing on the rim and snapping a photo -- it's hiking down the mile-deep gorge.

The South Kaibab Trail is an excellent choice. It is one of the most memorable and rewarding trails. But it is quite lengthy and difficult to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, which means an overnight stay in the bottom of the canyon in Phantom Ranch.

A backcountry permit and advance reservations are required for camping in Phantom Ranch. These reservations are typically booked several months in advance due to its popularity and limited facilities.

It takes about five to six hours for the descent into the canyon from the South Rim and about eight to 12 hours for the uphill climb. These figures are for physically fit people used to canyon hiking. It would take couple of hours more for people who are not used to hiking.

It takes about five to six hours for the descent into the canyon from the South Rim and about eight to 12 hours for the uphill climb. These figures are for physically fit people used to canyon hiking. It would take couple of hours more for people who are not used to hiking.

Those who find it difficult to hike to the bottom can still experience the awesome views by hiking just a few miles down one of these trails.

The South Kaibab Trail begins at Yaki Point on the East Rim. It is about 6.5 miles from the Colorado River. After reaching the river, the trail continues for another 14.2 miles as the North Kaibab Trail, which ends at the North Rim.

There is little or no shade on this trail. Carrying plenty of water is a must. Applying a sun block of SPF-15 or higher is advised even in the fall.

The trail begins with a gentle grade and soon opens up wide for a splendid view of the entire canyon. In spring and early fall, wildflowers can be seen along the edges of the trail sprouting out from tiny plants and shrubs.

As we move down the South Kaibab Trail, the color of the stratum changes. It is mostly white in the beginning but quickly turns red a few meters down due to the increased amount of iron in these layers.

The rocks on the canyon walls look like neatly cut layers, each a different color, all running exactly parallel throughout. Each layer took hundreds of thousands of years to form. Only in the Grand Canyon, can you see such stratum of rock layers -- each marking a distinct period in Earth's history.

It took millions of years for the Colorado River to carve the Canyon -- and it did so with an artistic touch, much like a sculptor would, chiseling blocks and pieces everywhere.

It left several unique islands in the gorge, each with a triangular peak. These unique formations resemble ancient Hindu temple towers. Many of these remarkable structures are named after Hindu gods. We found a Shiva temple, Vishnu temple, Brahma temple and a Rama shrine. Another butte is named Zoraster Temple and next to it, the Angel's Gate.

It also left huge boulders of rock precariously positioned and transformed into unique shapes.

After an hour of easy hiking we reach Cedar Ridge, which is 1.5 miles from the rim. This is a good place to rest and decide whether to continue further down or hike back to the rim, depending on the stamina and the amount of drinking water left for the rest of the hike. And remember that hiking up is going to take more energy and stamina than going down.

As we continue to hike down, the Plateau Point, a large stretch of flat land in the Bright Angel Trail, comes into view. The distant canyon walls have a tinge of blue as they merge into the horizon. The peaks rising from the bottom of the canyon take on a darker shade as they are silhouetted against this background.

About 3 miles from Cedar Ridge we reach the Tronto Trail Junction. From here, you can take the Tronto Trail (a 7-mile trail running east-west along the inner walls of the canyon) toward the Indian Gardens in the Bright Angel Trail or continue hiking 2 miles down to the Colorado River.

This junction is a wonderful place to watch the sunset. The dark depths of the canyon seem to swallow all the light from the brightly lit peaks in the gorge.

It is an unforgettable scene, perfectly quite and serene except for a gentle breeze and an occasional, distant call of a raven.

From the Tronto Trail Junction, the trail continues for about 2 miles to the river. A foot and mule bridge across the Colorado river leads to the Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel Campground, where you can rest and ponder the wonder of the Grand Canyon.

Trip Planner

Best time of year: Late spring and early fall are excellent for hiking. Summer (June through August) can be quite hot. Inner canyon temperatures can reach 103F during the day. During winter the trails are usually icy and snowpacked.

Backcountry permits for overnight camping: The Grand Canyon National Park Service can provide backcountry trip planners. Camping in the bottom of the canyon requires a permit. Permits are free, although this could change with current budget cuts. For additional information write to: Grand Canyon National Park, Backcountry Office, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, or call (602)-638-7888.

Phantom Ranch: Dormitories cost $21.00 per person. This figure can vary -- for current prices contact: Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, Reservations Department, P.O.Box 699, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 or call (602) 638-2401.

Bright Angel Campgrounds: Camping in the Bright Angel Campgrounds requires a backcountry permit and is administered by the National Park Service. Backcountry permits are free of charge. This might change due to budget cuts and it is better to call them in advance. The demand for permits during spring and fall and on holidays far exceed the limits established by the park service. Reservations are a must.

Access for people with special needs: The Rim Trail in the West Rim is an easy trail. Permits for visitors with mobility impairments can be obtained at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. National Park Service provides wheelchairs for use by park visitors.

Mather Campgrounds: This is the largest public camping grounds inside the park. We found this place well-maintained with clean coin-operated showers and rest rooms. It is very close to the park headquarters, yet serene and peaceful. No permits are necessary to camp here but advance reservations are a must particularly during peak season. For campsite reservations in the Mather Campgrounds, call MISTIX at 1-800-365-2267 or write MISTIX, P.O. Box 85705, San Diego, CA 92186-5705. Cost is $10 per night.

Caveats: Hiking the inner canyon trails up to the river can be challenging. Climate is extremely dry all through the year and temperatures soar inside the Canyon in summer. Adequate planning in advance is a must. During peak summer, the trails may be closed by the park service to prevent serious heat related accidents inside the canyon.


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What magic does it take to get reservations at Phantom Ranch

We have been trying for over a year to get reservations at Phantom Ranch. Any words of wisdom or advice?

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Posted on January 6, 2010 - 6:41pm
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Any luck or inside scoop at getting reservations at Phantom Ranch? Looking for 3rd or 4th week in April.
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Posted on March 8, 2010 - 4:47pm
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