Imagine being a construction worker in the early 1920s when you get assigned to a job in the Grand Canyon. You’ve heard that it’s great view, the kind of place few people will see for themselves but it’s remote, hot as can be in summer, snowy and cold in winter. When you get there you find out that you won’t be working off the main road, near the towns and hotels, with access to modern goods but rather you’ll be 9 miles away, almost a vertical mile down at the bottom of the canyon. And there you’ll be building on the ruins of Native American and then prospector sites, errecting buildings designed by a famous architect with stone and wood reminiscent of a time that’s in the past even for you. Almost a hundred years later, that place is still very much in operation, taking in nearly 100 guests a night and it’s called Phantom Ranch.
History lesson aside (and really, it is a fascinating read), Phantom Ranch is an iconic destination, known by travelers around the world. It’s a piece of civilization in an otherwise remote land and yet not too developed to take away from the wonders of what’s around it either. Rustic yet modern (they even added a/c a few years back!). Perhaps that’s why the resort often as soon as rooms become available, 13 months in advance.
If you are lucky enough to get a space whether on your own or as part of an epic tour or even a whitewater trip, what you’ll find is a mix between hostel, camp cabin and hotel depending on the options you pick. Remote as Phantom Ranch (aka PR) may be, it’s well supplied, well built and has a remarkable number of amenities. The staff at the ranch is, in my experience, even more fantastic than the place and great to go to for day activity tips, history and just to chat with. It’s truly worth a visit!
No luck making a reservation? Try calling near the last minute, especially early and late season and around storms. It doesn’t take much to scare people off and their loss is your gain… especially when the weather ends up nice anyways! Also lower your group size to squeeze into odd ball dorm openings which are much more available than cabins.
Getting in and getting out
There are essentially two ways in and out of Phantom Ranch: Your foot or a mule’s… hoofs.
Most visitors hike in from the South Rim, down the South Kaibab Trail, to the ranch and then back up the Bright Angel trail though you can reverse that loop, come in from one of the other south side routes or the North Kaibab trail when it’s open, connecting rim to rim and earning the rights to buy a sweet tshirt. That’s the human powered option and really, the best for 99% of visitors.
The alternative is a mule ride which beyond being pricey is also less than comfortable as you bounce around for 4-5 hours each way. Of course faced with a big hike, for some it is the only viable option so take it if you need it by all means. Mule rides limited both in availability and in who can go (i.e. you have to weigh under 200lbs and that’s fully dressed.) On the plus side, Mule trips come with Cabins.
Either way, you’ll be traveling through the ages as you descend down and climb up, in the midst of one of the most impressive sights in the world.
Cabin & Dorm Accommodations
All bookings for Phantom Ranch are done by phone and handled via Xanterra who I’ve found to be very helpful in going through the options for a trip.
That said, accommodations are pretty straight forward at Phantom Ranch: there’s private cabins or gender separated bunkhouses. While the cabins hold anywhere from 2-10, have a sink and toilet with their own sets of shared showers, dorms are community style. There are 2 men’s and 2 women’s dorms each of which houses up to 10 people in pretty tight quarters. Dorms have a sink, toilet and shower as well plus access to other restrooms by the Phantom Ranch community buildings. There are also both air conditioning and heaters depending on the season though with the crowds, the dorms get mighty toasty all on their own, even in winter.
Another perk of Phantom Ranch is that you won’t need to haul down your bedding, everything from a basic blanket and pillow to a small towel is provided with your room. You can also skip a few layers since you’ll have indoor accommodations for the night but do bring flip flops or slippers of some sort, the floors get cold (and dirty.) Headphones or earplugs are also a good idea since, you know, community dorms. Power outlets are available in the dorms, cabins and canteen though there’s no wifi or cell signal around, just a single payphone if you really must make contact.
Aside from a night’s sleep and perhaps a mid afternoon nap or quiet place to read, you probably won’t spend much time in the dorm unless the weather forces it. With numerous picnic tables outside, the canteen open for many hours of the day and of course The Grand Canyon all around you, these are functional spaces.
The Canteen / Shop
Whether you’re staying at Phantom Ranch or camping down at Bright Angel, the Phantom Ranch Canteen Shop is well worth a visit. The historic building is a place for meals morning and evenings and a casual hangout in the afternoons as well (hours were 8:30 – 4pm and then 8pm – 10pm as of my visit so be sure to buy whatever you want before your morning hike back up.)
Inside the canteen you’ll find a host of snacks and trinkets both trail related and just to take home. Thanks to the mule teams, there’s everything from candy to energy bars, chips to beer. You’ll almost certainly want a lemonade when you first hike on down (save your cup for cheap refills) and again, beer, though it’s not cheap. Don’t expect an extensive selection however and there’s no soda, no lattes around.
You’ll also find some very basic first aid items like Advil for after the beers and moleskin for blisters along with Phantom Ranch exclusive tshirts, stickers and the likes. There’s also a few functional items including waterbottles, hiking sticks, trekking poles, traction devices and whatever else they happen to bring down in different seasons.
While the canteen does take credit cards, I strongly suggest you ignore the advice of many sites and bring cash as well. Miles into the wild, the credit card reader is slow at times and breaks at others; you do not want to be stuck without your lemonade / m&ms! Plus, tip people, they live here and that spare change (or more) helps make up for having to hike miles to get a different flavor cookie.
Almost everyone sends out at least one postcard marked with the famous “mailed by mule” stamp (you can also stamp other items, it’s left out on the counter) and you’ll find a National Parks Passport book stamp down as well. The canteen has a small collection of books about the park for purchase, a library of very worn, left behind titles and a couple dozen table / boardgames for use.
Dining at the Ranch
Meals are available family style with advance reservations only for both breakfast (5:30 and 7am seatings) and dinner. Dinner has a choice of steak (5:30pm) or stew / veggie stew dinner (7:30pm.) While meal time is limited to allow for the next group, it’s plenty long to not feel rushed and the community seating makes for a fun conversation with other guests and local campers so book as many as your budget allows for, the food is good and plentiful (seriously, it’s a heaping serving.)
I’ve heard both great things about the steak and mixed things but I can tell you the stew is a solid choice and not just in that “I’m famished from hiking” sort of way. Along with it was a salad, cornbread and chocolate cake desert, yummy! Breakfast is pretty typical with pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee and a canned fruit of some sort that’s served basically all you can eat (also applies to the stew) which makes it easy to really fill on up for the day. Bag lunches are also available and basically feature a collection of single serving snacks so I elected to save a few bucks and hauled down my own pb&js for the day.
What to Bring on Your Stay
I’ve already gone over some of the things you can skip like your sleeping bag and towel but don’t let a little civilization lure you away from reality. Options in the canyon are very limited and you are hiking through the wild to get there and get out. Snacks can run out and so can your desire (or your leg’s willingness) to hike around.
You’ll definitely want containers for 3-4 liters of water for the big hikes, snacks to augment your meals and to support your hikes, a headlamp for nights, toiletries, some layers for cold / wind / sun, a change of clothing / washable clothing, basic first aid supplies, sunglasses and sunscreen. For amusement, take along a book, playing cards, a compact board game, and perhaps your own adult beverage.
All said, my pack was a little over 35lbs including a lot of camera gear, a stove (since I did a few meals on my own) and my emergency kit so I’m sure you can do it reasonably in about 20lbs and have everything you need and more. Just don’t forget to check the weather — descending thousands of feet in elevation can warm things up drastically while winter may mean some frigid nights!
For those not able or not interested in carrying out a more extensive kit, duffel bag service is available with an advance reservation. At $77 for a 30lbs (max) bag, it’s not cheap but if you’re worried about your pack weight on a longer trip, go for it (just don’t pack out your hike essentials!) In a pinch, you can usually arrange to drop some of your gear for the trip back too if you end up in over your head or just want to ditch the tent you brought for an r2r2r hike.
Things to Do Around Phantom Ranch
Depending on your trip length and hiking speed you may end up with a lot of time down in the Grand Canyon Valley and without a TV, internet connection or lobby, it’s up to you to find entertainment. In slower periods (yes, those do exist!), this generally is all on you while in summer, expect the canteen to be quite popular during open hours with people to chat and play with and same goes for the creek.
The most obvious entertainment is the canyon its self and whether you want to hike towards (or to) the North Rim or just wander out to the river, it’s all an amazing place. In fact, I’d strongly suggest at least walking up to the North / South Kaibab trail to see how different the canyon becomes as you cross it.
For the river crowd, you can lay out and enjoy the sun, walk around the water by crossing back of the black bridge and taking the river view trail or explore over by the campground and make some new friends. The creek next to the ranch is also said to be very popular when the temps pick up.
In the evenings it’s common for people to return to the canteen to play some cards or just chat with other guests and campers who wander in. The Canteen keeps some community entertainment from past guests who have left items behind but really there should be plenty of conversation to amuse you!
A word of caution for would be travelers… Phantom Ranch is remote! Just a few mule runs and the occasional helicopter drop support the facility with no drivable roads in or out. Weather changes in the wilderness, power lines break, and even the best plans fall apart; no one can change that reality. It’s not your local Hilton so watch the conditions, call ahead and be ready to adjust your plans if needed.