With a 4 a.m. wake up, my brother and I got up and ready for our hike down the South Kaibab Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We drove over to the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) and waited around with two dozen other hikers for the 5am express shuttle over to the trailhead. We arrived at the trailhead and got off to a 5:45 a.m. start just before the sun starting peeking over the canyon walls.
The South Kaibab Trail is seven miles from the South Rim down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. After a series of switchbacks where we quickly dropped some elevation, the trail leveled out a bit and we got some tremendous views of the canyon as the sun rose and lit up the upper portion of the canyon, leaving the lower portion in shadows. Parts of the trail were steep and exposed, but the views were incredible, almost unreal.
As we hiked down the ridgeline and then around the east side of O'Neill Butte, we stopped at several places to enjoy the views as the morning started to warm up: the aptly named Ooh Aah Point; Skeleton Point (no bones in sight); and Tipoff Point, where we took a rest and ate a snack at the 2-hour mark. After Tipoff, the trail got steep again as it descended to the Colorado River, which we saw long before we got there. At about the 3-hour point, the trail leveled out as we walked through a short rock tunnel and out across the Black Bridge.
Across the river, we headed west along a trail by a nice beach area, headed past the Bright Angel Campground, and hiked about a half mile up the North Kaibab Trail along a creek. Surrounded by canyon walls, we walked through an area with some trees and vegetation along the Bright Angel Creek and entered the Phantom Ranch area. Built in the 1920's from natural rock and building supplies hauled in by mule, it is a beautiful and peaceful setting with small cabins, buildings and a central canteen. We celebrated our arrival with a tall, cold cup of lemonade at the canteen and rested in the shade, talking with other hikers.
The day heated up quickly, so we headed back down the trail to the Colorado River and cooled off a bit by walking in the shallows of the 51 degree F water and talking with some of the rafting people (including a couple from Minnesota) that had beached for lunch. We then headed back to Phantom Ranch and then a mile or so up the North Kaibab Trail into an area of the trail known as "The Box" because the canyon walls close in tightly on the trail. Looking to get some relief from the heat, which hit a high of 107 degrees F, we headed back to Phantom Ranch and joined some fellow hikers sitting in the creek - a great way to cool off.
After spending a relaxing afternoon hanging out and drinking lots of water (about three gallons total for each of us that day), we enjoyed a great dinner at the canteen. There are two seatings for dinner - steak at 5pm and beef stew at 6:30 p.m. In a daily feat of logistics excellence, a mule train brings in all of Phantom Ranch's supplies in the morning and departs with trash and mail (one of only two towns in the U.S. that uses mules for mail delivery - we sent postcards home).
After a tasty steak dinner, complete with chocolate cake for dessert, we hung out at the picnic tables outside the canteen and talked with some hikers from Ohio before heading to our dormitory cabin at 9 p.m. for an early bedtime. The dorm cabin had five sets of bunkbeds, so we were able to enjoy a decent night's sleep.
As we had a long hike up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim in the morning, we planned on a 4 a.m. wake up so we could get rolling early and beat the heat.