A snowy descent to Phantom Ranch

Seeing the Grand Canyon in the snow was magical!

I met Klaus the mechanic in a tiny town in northern Italy called San Vigilio. My dad had driven over a nail in our rental car, and Klaus fixed it for us. Upon meeting 3 years ago, we found that we both liked hiking and climbing via ferratas, and climbed and hiked together in the following weeks. I had visited Klaus twice already in Europe and now it was his turn to come try out his English in the USA.

The Grand Canyon was on his bucket list. I had already hiked down and up the Grand Canyon in 2015 before I moved to Japan. Since Klaus had hosted me and driven me all around the Italian Dolomites a few months earlier, I felt it was only fair to take him on an epic road trip driving from Santa Barbara to the Grand Canyon!

After a few days showing him around Santa Barbara, we left early on a Sunday morning. Luckily Europeans can drive in the US for 6 months with a European drivers license, so we took turns driving the 6 hours to Las Vegas, where I had booked us one night in the Treasure Island Hotel. We enjoyed walking down the strip, seeing the Bellagio Fountain Light show, and checking out the indoor canals and the fake blue sky at the Venetian hotel.

After I took advantage of the stellar hotel gym, we got a fairly early start and stopped at the Hoover Dam on the way from Vegas to The Grand Canyon.

  • Pro tip: The Hoover Dam offers $10 parking in several places, but if you drive across the dam first, there are several free parking lots on the other side!

It was about a 4 hour drive from Vegas to the Grand Canyon. I had booked us a room for 4 nights at the Yavapai Lodge, which was a 15 minute walk from the Canyon Rim. None of the rooms had WiFi, which was a blessing and a curse, as I had to teach an online class and have a job interview from the lobby of the hotel with shoddy internet connection. The first day we did a 5-mile hike down Bright Angel trailhead, which was brown and red at the time. Lucky for us it snowed 6 inches that night, dusting everything in white.

We wanted to stay overnight at the campgrounds/cabins at Phantom Ranch but didn’t have a reservation, but after talking to a friendly hotel concierge, we found out it was still possible.

  • Pro tip: To get a last-minute booking at Phantom Ranch, go to the Bright Angel Lobby and ask at the adventure desk for any cancellations. They asked me to come back at 7am the next day, and when I did, a $200 cabin was available for the following evening! This was lucky because you oftentimes have to book them a year in advance!

Now that we had our cabin booked, we stocked up with snacks at the Grand Canyon Village Market and Deli, which is comparable to a Vons but a little bit pricier. We didn’t want to pay the $45 – $60 per meals offered at Phantom Ranch so we opted to bring our own food. Most of the food and supplies down there are carried in by mules!

Since I had gone down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel 7 years ago on my solo hike, we opted to go the opposite direction. We got an early start at about 8:00, parking my car for free at the Bright Angel Lodge, and descended 10.5 miles into the canyon. A ranger had recommended that we get micro-spikes for our hiking boots which proved to be very helpful in preventing slipping, especially on the downhill. I also used hiking poles.

The further we descended, the warmer it got – about a third of the way down, all the snow had melted. I saw a condor circling in the bright blue sky. I enjoyed chatting with some other hikers at the rest stops where I ate my hummus and avocado sandwich.

Finally we reached the Colorado river – a beautiful sight for our tired knees – and we only had 2 miles to go. The trail meandered next to the river, and we were rewarded with views of the river snaking through the canyon. We arrived at Phantom Ranch at about 3:30, with enough time to take showers and settle into our new home for the evening.

  • Pro tip: At Phantom Ranch, if you are too cheap to pay for the expensive but notoriously good food like we were, you can ask the kitchen for hot water which they give you free of charge. We used this to fill our freeze dried backpacker meal and to drink tea which we brought.

At night, the stars blinked like a blanket of bright, inquisitive eyes. Down there at the bottom of the canyon, there is no light pollution, and the walkways are lit with special red lights to preserve night vision. Luckily I brought my dad’s fluffy marshmallow jacket that he brought with him to the Himalayas which allowed me to stay outside a long time, admiring the night sky.

The hike out was about 8 miles up the South Kaibab trail, and not as bad as I expected. We left Phantom Ranch at 7:30AM and made it out by 1:00, and took the shuttle to our car by 1:30.

  • Pro tip: There are free shuttles all over the Grand Canyon, taking you from trailheads to viewspots to visitors centers, which come about every 15 minutes.

Since we made it to the car so early, we hopped in an started driving. 4 hours later when we felt tired we stopped at a random Super 8 hotel in Quartzite, woke up early the next day for a quick tour of Joshua Tree, and stayed for 1 night with my cousin in Woodland Hills before heading back to Santa Barbara. But we couldn’t miss a stop at my uncle’s McConnell’s Ice Cream store in Ventura!

I feel so privileged and grateful to be able to go on these adventures. This trip was more expensive than my usual travels – about $850 for the 8-day adventure (I split the costs of gas, food, tickets, and hotels with Klaus.) On most of my trips for accommodation I usually use couch surfing or stay with friends. But there are certain places that are just worth it, and the Grand Canyon is one of them.

  • Tips for visiting Phantom Ranch: To visit this slice of tranquility, you have to arrive on foot or by mule. I recommend hiking poles for the steep downhill hike. Try to get there before 6pm so you can take a hot shower – the showers are only open between 4 and 6pm.

And to conclude, a poem I scrawled on a piece of random paper:

Step by step
We descend
Into the canyon
My knees tired
But the rhythm of my poles
Helps me find peace.
I am one with myself
And everything around me.
The red cliffs
A sacred place
A condor circles above
Its wingspan immense
Reminding me
To breathe.

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