Months before our family's December hike to Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon we didn't expect road closures and blizzard like conditions on the trail, but plans and eventualities don't always coincide. Over years of camping on the South Rim during Memorial Day Weekends with young children the Grand Canyon became a special place for our family.
As the children grew older a tradition developed for the children to backpack to the Phantom Ranch around the age of eight. Our family has since moved from Arizona, but the December hike was to be the chance to return and for my two youngest and wife to finally make this trip.
We were planning on an itinerary similar to the earlier trips where we would hike to the bottom of the canyon the first day, possibly stay and extra day around Phantom Ranch and then hike to Indian Gardens, stay there for a night and then hike out the following day. Before leaving our home in northern Utah we checked road conditions and learned that the east entrance to the Park had been closed due to snow. We didn't even know if we could make it to our hotel in Tusayan the night before our hike without a long detour to the south entrance, but we had already invested enough time and money into this trip that we decided to hit the road.
The east entrance was open and the road passable to Tusayan, but the weather was not ideal for camping. In the morning the cold wind and blowing new snow made me doubt the sanity of starting this endeavor. We knew that the bottom of the canyon, if we could get there, would be considerably warmer than the top, but if our gear got wet on the way down the trip could still be utterly miserable. We called about reservations at Phantom Ranch and while none of the cabins were open for the night we found that enough hikers had cancelled reservations in the bunk houses due to the weather that we could stay there for the night. We took that opportunity. We cancelled our camp site reservations, pulled our sleeping bags and tents from our packs and decided on a one night trip.
I still hesitated to get onto the trail because of the blizzard conditions, hoping that if we stalled the conditions might get better. That didn't happen and we made our way to the visitor center where we would catch the bus to the trailhead. We were still questioning our sanity when we were dropped off at the trail head. The conditions were absolutely miserable. We started down the trail telling ourselves that would could turn around if things didn't get better after a mile or two. We were really glad we all had Yak Tracks on our boots for added traction. The sight of hikers emerging from the canyon encased in ice didn't encourage me. As they hiked out of the canyon the rain at lower elevations had turned to snow and by the time we saw them at the top there was a layer of ice covering them and their packs. It reminded me of a good midwestern ice storm.
Fortunately after a couple of miles we got under the clouds and the canyon spread out before us. That was a welcome change compared to just seeing the trail a short distance and clouds ahead of us. As the weather got better our confidence lifted and the uncertainty of our decision disappeared.
Bad weather days often mean lots of opportunities for photographs and many of us had our cameras out for much of the day and we saw interesting contrasts of light and dark, shafts of light punching through the clouds and even a rainbow. This was one of the most beautiful days I had ever spent in the canyon.
Another couple of miles into the trip we started to warm up so we stopped and took some layers off. One child was convinced that he was overheating to the point that he stripped down to his underwear to get his long johns off.
If you get to Phantom Ranch near dinner time you cannot get you bunk room assignment until after dinner so we were anxious to arrive before dinner.
After another couple of miles we could see the river. A little while later we could see the bridge across the river so we hurried along, arriving at Phantom Ranch just in time. Most of the lower bunks were claimed by the time we arrived which suited my younger sons just fine. It was quite a different and very pleasant experience to have a warm shower waiting at the bottom of the canyon.
The boys thought the bunk beds made the ideal place to play hot lava which I feared would not endear us to the other guests so we quickly went back outside. We cooked up our traditional backpacking meal of lasagne soup which was delicious as expected.
Our family has established at least two traditions as we have made trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We stop in the store and buy post cards and stamps. We write to friends and family and send the cards via U.S. Mail carried by mule. We also buy t-shirts. The shirts at the bottom have unique designs that cannot be purchased at the top of the canyon. They are vacuum packed into very small packages that make them easy to carry out, but makes them unbelieveably wrinkled.
In the morning we cooked oatmeal, packed up and were on our way. We knew that the seven miles to the top of Bright Angel trail would be difficult. We started the day with sore calf muscles and would end with sore thighs as well. Again the scenery was spectacular and we enjoyed being on the trail together.
The storm had cleared the haze from the canyon and it was beautiful. We stopped at Indian Garden and ate bagels for lunch. For our family there is an ebb and flow to a hike. The leaders seem to change over time so I naturally get to spend time with each member of my family.
We got to the top with enough time to stop at most the overviews on the way to the east entrance. It was a long drive back to northern Utah, arriving at 1:30 am the next morning ready for bed.
Maybe next time we will get a cabin at Phantom Ranch.