Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom | Amazing Phantom Ranch

UPDATED February 2, 2024 — While many people come to admire the views from the rim, few venture a Grand Canyon hike to bottom down into the depths of the natural wonder. However, for those who are willing to take on the challenge, hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon can be a life-changing experience that offers breathtaking scenery, physical exertion and a deep connection to the natural world.

In this article, long-time Canyon hiker Diane Hedrick explores the joys and challenges of hiking the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, including tips for planning your trip, selecting the right trails and staying safe during your adventure.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a first-timer, hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with an overnight at Phantom Ranch is an experience that should not be missed. 

Table of Contents

Pinterest graphic with text: that reads: Grand CAnyon Trip Planner in green n a white circle. Overlays photo of the Grand Canyon that shows green pine trees, gold and purple layers of rock - cartoons of car, plane, map, compass and backpack decorate the graphic

Phantom Ranch Hike on the Bright Angel Trail

It felt so right, so comfortable, so easy. The planning, the drive, the camaraderie of a diverse group of friends. An adventure that few attempt to do but once—if ever—in their lives.

We were hiking into the Grand Canyon. One must understand that the Canyon calls to my companions and me. I, for one, need to challenge myself with this strenuous walk and have vowed to hike it every year. I only missed one year: 2006, when compelled by the constraints of living and working in Chicago. So now that I live in Arizona, how can I NOT keep this promise to myself?

Grand Canyon from Yaki Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon | Bill Ferris photo

I lucked out with a call to Xanterra, the company which manages Phantom Ranch, the “resort,” at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The only way to get to Phantom Ranch is by foot or mule train. Reservations are necessary and awarded by lottery, so when I called to find out if there were any availabilities due to cancellations, I was thrilled to hear the news. A cancellation for a four-person cabin was available for the night of November 8.

A quick call to my buddy, Roy, confirmed what I wanted to hear: “Let’s do it!!!!” So I contacted friends who might want to join us. Roy later called and reserved a spot for his boyhood friend, Bill, AKA Billie, a letter carrier in the Phoenix area who’d undergone heart bypass surgery seven years before.

“Yikes,” I thought. But Roy eased my mind by saying that Bill walked miles every day and was in shape.

My two friends Rita and Bobby both wanted to go. So I acted quickly and got a single dorm bunk in the Phantom Ranch women’s dormitory for Rita, our fifth hiker. We were now officially a group. I did my due diligence of sending the deposit and confirming four days ahead that we were indeed coming.

RELATED: Challenging Day Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Roadtrip from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon Up the Back Way

5 people stand in hiking boots, hats, sunglasses, hiking boots and hiking poles before Grand Canyon Hike to bottom
Rita, Bobby, Diane, Roy and Bill (L-R) before Grand Canyon hike to bottom and Phantom Ranch | Diane Hedrick photo

After working a long day at our respective jobs, Rita and Bobby drove up with me from Phoenix on November 7. Rita is the head nurse for an assisted care facility, and Bobby is an engineer for a defense contractor.

We drove up the back way into Prescott through Wickenburg and Yarnell, meeting my husband Bob at Casa Alvarez for margaritas and delicious Mexican food.

Thursday morning, November 8, was clear sunny and just cool enough to think about wearing long pants—Bobby was the only one who did. We left Prescott at 8:00 am and drove to Chino Valley, where we picked up Roy and Billie, Billie having ridden his Harley up the day before from Tolleson, Arizona, where he lives.

Two and a half hours later, we ate a late breakfast in Tusayan, the so-called “Door to the Grand Canyon.” Afterward, we drove into Grand Canyon National Park and parked the Yukon SUV in my favorite place behind the cabins of Bright Angel Lodge.

Bright Angel Lodge, where we needed to check in, is right on the South Rim, next to the Bright Angel Trailhead, where we would end our loop hike. We went to the Transportation Desk at Bright Angel Lodge, picked up our tickets, and took the Grand Canyon shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead where we would begin our Grand Canyon hike to bottom and the Colorado River.

Hiking to Phantom Ranch

3 large black birds sitting on light colored boulders tearing at dead goat
3 large black birds sitting on light colored boulders tearing at dead goat

By 1:00 pm, we were hiking to Phantom Ranch down the South Kaibab Trail. I mentioned that I would like to see a condor, and shortly after that, Billie sighted one.

It was huge, with a 9-foot wingspan and the unmistakable flying pattern of such a creature. We marveled and recalled the fact that condors are considered a good luck sighting in many cultures, namely the Aztec culture, where Rita and I had seen them on our four-day hike to Machu Picchu. This began the many fortunate wildlife sightings we would encounter during our 26 hours in the Grand Canyon.

An hour later, we passed a couple of rangers and a young man. Not particularly uncommon on one of the most popular hiking trails in the US.

Mystery of the Masked Ranger and her Hiking Companions

woman hiker looks at Colorado River from South Kaibab Trail
First glimpse of the Colorado River while hiking to Phantom Ranch | Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

However, what was uncommon was that the young woman ranger in the lead wore a mask. It was an unusual mesh-like mask that covered her mouth and was almost Muslim looking, except she wore National Park ranger garb with lots of cute black curly hair peeking out from her hat. As if she weren’t intriguing enough to occupy our trail talk for the next few miles, her companions arose our curiosity even more.

The other ranger looked like a Ken doll dressed up in full National Park military-like uniform, complete with a gun, taser and radio. He looked sharp and crisp and was setting an uphill pace that would leave most of us gasping for air.

The final member of this trio was a tall, lean young man walking between the rangers. What was most interesting about this guy was that he was NOT carrying a backpack…I mean no water, no fanny pack, no day pack, nothing. Yet both the rangers had sacks. In passing, we shared a few pleasantries. One of the rangers asked if we were the party with the broken ankle… hmmm, too weird.

The Wonders of Phantom Ranch Hiking

Desert bighorn sheep in the Hellhole Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California | Photo by Andrew Barna via Wikimedia Commons

We continued on our way, with another wildlife encounter…Bobby Gainsman was jestfully looking at an adjacent canyon wall and pointing out that it was an appropriate habitat and pathway for desert bighorn sheep.

All ten eyes turned to that sheer wall, and sure enough, there was a desert bighorn sheep right in front of us. It was just too good. Again, we oohed, awed, and counted our blessings, now seeing a condor, bald eagle, turkey vulture and desert bighorn sheep. All this was observed in the span of a few hours.

Our unhurried walk down the South Kaibab Trail was filled with superb sites that are simply indescribable:

  • Our first view of the Colorado River,
  • the bridges over the river,
  • the geologic time layers of rock.

We saw and experienced them as if we had never seen them before, even though only Billie among the five of us had never been in the Canyon before.  

Cabins at Phantom Ranch

3 small cabins with red rock wall rising behind is what you'll see on your Grand Canyon hike bottom
Phantom Ranch cabins destination of Grand Canyon hike bottom | Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

We checked into one of the cabins at Phantom Ranch—a small room with double bunk beds, a toilet and sink, windows and—best of all—mattresses. Showers were next on everyone’s agenda, as the red dirt of the Canyon trail was coating our bodies.

Phantom Ranch Dinner

Rita, Bill and Bobby ate stew and vegetarian meals while Roy and I dined on tuna and chicken at the picnic table outside. There were not enough meals to go around, which we knew about in advance. I was happy to sit outside, watch the stars come out, and see the ring-tailed cats and deer run around the grounds.

As it got close to the time for the dinner guests to leave the canteen, Roy and I watched muscle-weary diners emerge from the hall and try to walk down the four steps leading out.

It was comical to see these hikers and mule riders start walking down the steps, realize their legs were sore, and then try not to show it. Instead, most folks turned slightly and stepped down sideways, one step at a time.

We asked Bill to go up three times so that we could evaluate his walking down prowess. He did not do too badly. So we occupied ourselves with this and the local gossip about the masked ranger and her companions. We had all kinds of theories about these three.

One was that the woman ranger had the plague and was being helped out. Just two days before our hike, a resident biologist at Phantom Ranch was found dead in his cabin. Doctors thought it was either the hantavirus or the plague. So you can see where we might have gotten that idea.

Although the theory was swiftly dispelled when we realized she would have been helicoptered out if it were that serious. Roy came up with the idea that the kid in the middle was a criminal…but what kind of crime??? Bill invented the story that after his Grand Canyon hike to bottom, he had been caught peaking into the women’s shower room. 

The canteen reopened at 8:00 pm, serving beer, wine, beverages and snacks as well as providing the opportunity to share experiences with fellow nature lovers and, most importantly, to uncover the real story about the rangers and the criminal.

We picked up some tidbits—like the kid had been caught at a place called Tip Off along the trail. And that the masked ranger had a sensitive skin problem and had to stay covered. After a couple of beers, we finally ambled to bed. That’s when we noticed that Roy had put his pants on inside out after showering. Hee hee.

Rita went off to her dorm, where one gal kept herself and others awake with the loud snoring, even through Rita’s eye plugs. (The men and women dorms are currently closed, BTW) I was anticipating the same thing with my cabin mates. Roy had long suffered from restless leg syndrome, so I thought for sure I would hear or sense that since I was on the bottom bunk under him.

But wow, it was lights out and quiet until I heard the window jiggling. I eventually checked it out and saw nothing, so I assumed it was Roy’s restless leg hitting the wall and causing the noise.

Unbeknownst to me, Bill heard little scrapings and scrunching. He thought it was Bobby being funny and went back to sleep. When the alarm went off at 5 am, we were all refreshed.

Phantom Ranch Breakfast

We went to the dining hall for our 5:30 breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, OJ, fruit and coffee…yummy. Our dining companions, two gentlemen from the Boston area, told us the story about a ring-tailed cat that got into their cabin a couple nights before. It came in right across the headboard of one of the guys, startling him to almost wet his pants.

We got to talking about our experience the night before, and sure enough, when Bobby looked under his bunk, there was an empty powdered beverage package and not one of ours, I might add.

So the ring-tailed cat must have come in thru the loose screen on the window, bringing with it a treat from a nearby campsite or cabin, dining among the pleasant odor of humans and then exiting thru the window after devouring the snack.

Ringtail in Arizona | Photo by Robertbody via Wikipedia

We got to talking about our experience the night before, and sure enough, when Bobby looked under his bunk, there was an empty powdered beverage package and not one of ours, I might add.

So the ring-tailed cat must have come in thru the loose screen on the window, bringing with it a treat from a nearby campsite or cabin, dining among the pleasant odor of humans and then exiting thru the window after devouring the snack.

Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom and Back Up the Next Day

4 hikers on trail during Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom , red cliffs above and below them on narrow light colored trail
Trail at Grand Canyon Hike to bottom near the Colorado River | Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

We packed up and walked in cool shaded comfort up a steady incline to Indian Gardens (now Havasupai Gardens), taking our time with five miles and three hours under our belt. We stopped for refueling and water at the fountain, munching on trail mixes, fruit, chips and caterpillars.

It really wasn’t us humans eating the caterpillars, but Bobby did try to hand-feed one to a resident raven. But then, a ranger appeared out of nowhere and sternly confronted him with, “Sir, what was it that left your hand in the direction of the raven?”

I must admit that Bobby took it well and admitted to feeding the raven a caterpillar when confronted with the unethical feeding of a wild creature via the human hand. As one might imagine, this whole episode served as good-natured fodder for jokes and kidding from passing hikers who had witnessed the event as we continued hiking upward.

black raven with large beak sits on rock surrounded by greenery
Raven at Havasupai Gardens in the Grand Canyon | Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

It wasn’t but a half-mile up the trail that we ran into the masked ranger. We learned her name was Betsy. Then, finally, we got the real story.

Mystery Solved

Apparently, the “kid” had been angered by someone or something on the shuttle bus that dropped off visitors at the various scenic points. He took his walking stick and struck the bus, actually damaging it.

He was verbally abusive, and as a result, one of the rangers tried to arrest him. The kid ran away. Down into the Canyon on the Kaibab trail (not too smart). They caught him and took him to the top, where he would be prosecuted.

Conclusion: Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom

7 switchbacks zigzag down the Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom
Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom | Photo Courtesy of Diane Hedrick

We made it out with a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. The Yukon was parked at the Bright Angel Trailhead, so the packs were quickly stowed, and we headed for the bar. Martinis and margaritas, followed by burgers, satisfied our primal urges for rewards.

Our Grand Canyon hike to bottom was really, really fun. Then, finally, we returned to Prescott and found our respective beds even more inviting. We all experienced the sore muscles of intense exercise, but it felt good, and it was nothing that a little Advil couldn’t handle. Unless, of course, you’re Rita and have a lot of Advil to share.

Rita’s husband, Dale and Bobby’s wife, Carrie, came up Saturday to pick up their spouses. Roy and Bill rode over on their Harleys on Bill’s way home. We all relived the tales of our Grand Canyon hike to bottom with our spouses. And then watched Bill get on his Harley without looking too sore.

Diane Hedrick, veteran Grand Canyon hiker

If you enjoyed Diane’s story, please leave a comment below:

Stories like this one: Challenging Day Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Tips for Grand Canyon Hike to Bottom

Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail | Diane Hedrick courtesy photo

Tips for hiking the Grand Canyon to the bottom:

  • Grand Canyon Trip Planning does not recommend that you hike from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back in one day.
  • Use the lottery system to reserve your spot at Phantom Ranch or call to learn of cancellations, like Diane did. Or get backcountry permits from the National Park for campsites below the Rims of the Grand Canyon.
  • South Kaibab Trailhead to Phantom Ranch is about 7.1 miles of desert hiking on uneven, rocky surfaces.
  • Phantom Ranch to Bright Angel Trailhead is about 9.9 miles.
  • So if you hike down the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch on day one. Then spend the night like Diane’s crew did. And hike back out the Bright Angel Trail the next day, you will have walked an approximately 17-mile loop.
  • The day I posted Diane’s story, I came upon a news article about a man who attempted the Grand Canyon hike to bottom in one day. Unfortunately, he was found on the trail unresponsive and later pronounced dead last week. Preparation, pacing and safety are serious business in the Grand Canyon.
  • Make sure to carry the Ten Essentials of Backcountry Hiking.
RELATED: How to Protect Your Skin During Your Grand Canyon Adventures
Grand Canyon hike to the bottom where Phantom Ranch sits near the Colorado River | Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was NOT provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of this guide. The Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.

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Photo courtesy of Diane Hedrick

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