Travel: From Durango, Colorado, drive 241 miles to the west end of Highway 160 at U.S. Route 89 in Arizona. Drive south for 15 miles, passing the Cameron Trading Post. At the rotary, turn onto Arizona State Route 64 and go west for 30 miles to the Grand Canyon National Park entrance station. Follow signs to Grand Canyon Village. Drive past Bright Angel Lodge and Maswik Lodge. At the stop sign, turn right on Backcountry Road and right again into the large parking lot for the Backcountry Information Center, 311 miles and 5.5 hours from Durango. Leave your vehicle here and take the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead.
Grand Canyon National Park Fees
Backcountry Permits: If you intend to camp overnight below the rim, you must obtain a permit in advance from the National Park Service Backcountry Office. Demand for permits drops significantly during winter months after Thanksgiving. A limited number of walk-up permits are issued daily, available from the Backcountry Information Center located in Grand Canyon Village.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 36 miles; 9,100 feet of climbing
Time: Three to four-day backpack
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; mild exposure on the trail descending into Clear Creek
Maps: Grand Canyon; Phantom Ranch, AZ 7.5 Quads, or Trails Illustrated No. 262, Grand Canyon East
Latest Date Hiked: November, 2016
Quote: Traveling in this country, I have often felt that within the human psyche is a perception that goes beyond personal heritage, that sees the land in the same crucial way across thousands of years. It is the part of us that is laid open here, an unaccountable sense of awe and apprehension in the face of a tumultuous landscape. Craig Childs
The Grand Canyon is the deepest erosion furrow on the surface of our planet. Within the labyrinthine chasm, mountains invert and declivities deepen while spires and buttes rise up. The Great Unknown beckons; hearts yearn to comprehend this canyonscape, the nameless wild. The compulsion to explore enormity, to somehow touch the impenetrable entices with the power of the Siren call. Below, Bright Angel Canyon appears in deep shadow as seen from the South Rim. Sumner Butte is image-center and Zoroaster Temple, image-right. The Clear Creek Trail rests on the Tonto Plateau in front of Sumner Butte.
Route: Descend to the Colorado River on the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. Camp at the Bright Angel Campground or continue to the Clear Creek Use Area (AK9) and "dry camp" at Sumner Wash or beyond. From Clear Creek, double back to Phantom or linger to explore one of three dayhike options. Return to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail.
If you are a first-time Grand Canyon backpacker leave out the Clear Creek spur and stick to corridor trails. Secure a backcountry permit up to four months in advance to camp at Phantom Ranch (Bright Angel Campground) and Indian Garden.
South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch:
It is 7.5 miles from the South Kaibab Trailhead, elevation 7,240 feet, to the Phantom Ranch canteen. Gross elevation loss is 4,760 feet. Expect to spend three to six hours on the trail. The Park Service recommends that you descend on the South Kaibab and ascend the Bright Angel. The South Kaibab Trail is one of the few in the park that follows a ridgeline rather than a fault. It is steep and sun-drenched. Carry all the water you will need for there is none between the Rim and Phantom Ranch. It is good practice in the desert to always carry an extra liter of emergency water apart from your water bladder. Grand Canyon spring water is available at the trailhead. Designated a corridor trail, the South Kaibab is regularly patrolled and maintained.
From the shuttle stop, walk past the mule corral to the canyon threshold and plunge down The Chimney, switchbacks in the Kaibab Limestone.
Familiarity with rock formations while climbing to and from rim country is comforting. There is a certainty in the order of rock. Find a helpful guide to remembering the layers at the end of this post.
The Chimney is shaded during winter months and retains snow. The trail is notoriously icy and you must have traction devices to negotiate the upper portion safely. Trekking poles assist but are not sufficient. This holds true for the amphitheater portion of the Bright Angel Trail as well. Be prepared for blowing snow and icy wind in winter.
At 0.9 mile, 6,600 feet, the trail suspends itself at Ooh Aah Point. I have seen more expressions of joy at this location than anywhere else in the canyon. Look into an immense span of rawboned, chromatic canyon country, hallmark of the American West. If you are with children, or only have time for a short walk, let Ooh Aah be your turn-around.
Coconino Sandstone is perfectly vertical and silky smooth. When the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) improved the inner-canyon trail system in the 1930's they featured slabby stone construction. The cribbing on the treadway is sectioned with horizontal steps and confined with rock retaining walls. This image looks back at Windy Ridge at 1.2 miles.
Reach the Cedar Ridge Resthouse at 1.5 miles, 6,100 feet. Around a humble gathering tree people make pack adjustments and eat snacks. The calorie burn on this downhill is astronomical so carry more food than you think you will need. Cedar Ridge is an understandably popular dayhike. This is where the morning sun catches up with wintertime hikers.
Geologists have identified four distinct strata in the Supai Group. But to me it generally looks like one unit of rust-red sandstone that tends to form blocky masses. Cedar Ridge is in the Supai as is O'Neill Saddle and Butte, shown.
Mormon Flats at 5,240 feet, 2.6 miles, affords a reprieve from downhill punishment for half a mile. From this vantage point there is a far-away view of the Tonto Plateau on the north side of the river. Image-center is Zoroaster Temple, and image-right is the Clear Creek drainageway.
Skeleton Point is marked with a sign at 3.1 miles. Enjoy the first glimpse of Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River nearly 3,000 feet below. Condors favor the big corner that hangs on top of Redwall Limestone. The Red and Whites are an extended series of switchbacks that capitalize on a rare weakness in the Redwall. Which, of course, is the only reason this trail is here and has been a route since prehistoric times.
Stand to the inside for passing mule trains. The park's concessionaire takes ten clients with two wranglers to Phantom Ranch down the Bright Angel Trail and back up the South Kaibab. Riders spend one night at Phantom in the summer and two nights in the winter. The concessionaire also sends a string of pack mules with supplies for Phantom. These mules carry out the trash and your postcards! Additionally, Park Service mules pack in supplies for rangers and trail crews once a week.
Muav Limestone presents in fine horizontal lines with hues of olive, mustard, and eggplant. The canyon's massive interior bench, the Tonto Platform, is comprised of Bright Angel Shale. Arrive at the Tipoff at 4.6 miles, 4,000 feet. There are compost toilets here.
If you have only one day to hike and want a rewarding but not outrageous effort, from the Tipoff, turn left onto the Tonto West Trail. Walk 4.1 miles on the Tonto Plateau to Indian Garden and then take the Bright Angel Trail up to the South Rim, 13.7 miles total. There is 570 feet of rolling elevation gain to Indian Garden with an additional 3060 gross gain to the Rim. This was my teenager's first hike in the Grand Canyon and I was jogging to keep up. This hike is for people in good physical shape carrying plenty of food and water. It will give you a taste for the Tonto Trail which extends 95 miles!
The Tonto sits atop Tapeats Sandstone which can go on for long stretches without an access break. The route makes use of a weakness at the Tipoff to dive into the Inner Gorge, the river 1,500 feet below. Some people will have an uncomfortable sense of exposure. However, there is nothing to fear; the generous trail has excellent footing and is well protected by a wall on the inside and blocks guarding the abyss. This image was taken at Big Panorama Point.
The inner canyon is comprised of the Grand Canyon Supergroup and Vishnu Metamorphic Complex. In the image below, switchbacks descend from Little Panorama Point through flaming-red Hakatai Shale. The predominant formation is Vishnu Schist, 1.8 billion year old rock from the basement of time. Molten rock flowed up between cracks in the near-black schist to form the igneous pink veins of Zoroaster Granite. In 2016, I saw a bighorn sheep resting on a suspended ledge in this area. Note the Black Bridge in the image below.
The Train Wreck is a Tapeats jumble sitting on Hakatai Shale.
The River Trail joins at 2,640 feet. It was explosively cleaved from the schist in 1936 by the CCC. The treadway is traversed by mules to link from the Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab Trail and the Kaibab Suspension Bridge, the Black Bridge. Because of its narrow width and grated bottom, mules never cross the Silver Bridge. But they do go through the Black Bridge Tunnel.
The tunnel is pitch black before re-entering the light. The bridge hangs 75 feet above the river.
You may access the Colorado River at Boat Beach, 6.3 miles, 2,480 feet, the Phantom pull-out for people floating on The Grand. At the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, the trail turns up the tributary canyon and soon passes the Bright Angel Campground at 7.2 miles. John Wesley Powell, grateful for the clear and abundant stream, gave the waterway its heavenly name. Fremont cottonwood and sycamore provide essential shade. They are complimented by pomegranate and fig trees. The backpacker's campground is luxurious with water, food storage boxes, tent pads, and poles for hanging packs.
Phantom Ranch, 7.5 miles from the Rim, is an oasis and the scene is celebratory. Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919. Architect Mary Colter got right to work designing the lodge, cabins, and bathhouse. She named the ranch after nearby Phantom Creek. It opened to a well-heeled and genteel crowd in 1922. To spend the night in a dormitory or cabin, make reservations well in advance through the park's concessionaire. If you are staying in the Bright Angel Campground on a backcountry permit, use the same link to reserve in advance hearty and delicious meals in the canteen.
The temperature at Phantom will likely be sizzling in the summer, exceeding 100 degrees. Refresh yourself with a big glass of lemonade. Winter hiking is often frigid and windy. Grab a cup of coffee and hang out when the canteen is open to the public between 8:30 and 4:00. For those staying in the campground, there is an inevitable international gathering in the beer hall between eight and ten p.m.
Phantom Ranch to Clear Creek
It is 0.4 mile up the North Kaibab Trail in Bright Angel Canyon to the well-marked junction with the Clear Creek Trail. From there, Clear Creek is 8.9 miles away. Sumner Wash, the first at-large camping in the Clear Creek Use Area (AK9), is 1.9 miles from the junction. If you camp there the first night (a common choice for experienced canyon backpackers), the totals for the first day are 9.8 miles with about 2,000 feet of climbing. From Sumner to Clear Creek and back is 14 miles with 1900 feet of climbing. If you camp at Bright Angel, it is 9.3 miles from Phantom Ranch to Clear Creek, 18.6 miles roundtrip. The Clear Creek Trail is classed a threshold trail so while it is not regularly maintained, it is reconstructed as needed.
There is dependable water in Clear Creek for you to treat. However, there are NO reliable water sources on the Clear Creek Trail. On a cool November trip, I loaded up with six liters of water at Phantom to carry me through to Clear Creek with a one-night dry camp. If it is hot, you will need a great deal more.
Bright Angel Creek diligently carves away at Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite as it tumbles downcanyon.
The Clear Creek Trail maintains a consistent, pleasant uphill grade to the Tonto Plateau. Constructed by the CCC in the 1930's, the trackway is an engineering marvel. Masonry walls made of schist shore up the path and blocks of black stone protect the hiker from plunging over the edge. Nearly 100 years have passed and this impeccable wonder still endures. From Phantom Overlook at 3,080 feet, look directly down on the ranch. Across the river you can trace the entire journey down the seemingly impossible South Kaibab Trail, shown.
The route tracks under Tapeats Sandstone on a roomy ledge, curving around in harmony with the cliffs above. Sumner Butte is image-center.
Turn a corner and walk up The Ramp which carries you effortlessly through the Tapeats. This image looks back down The Ramp.
The Clear Creek Trail is the only path that traverses the Tonto Platform on the north side of the river. Reach the plateau at 3,680 feet. Summer Butte is directly above and within moments there are two stone boys (massive cairns) marking the first legal camping on the west end of the use area.
The Sumner Wash camp sites are just off-trail to the right. There are several tent pads. If it is windy, locate the protected sites on the lower level to the east. It is prudent to store your food in a critter sack. Once, I slept through a downpour at Sumner. Another time, we bedded down, faces turned to a night shot with stars. Enclosed in an envelope of warm stillness, the untroubled air was so silent I could hear the legs of a tarantula approach my face at daybreak.
If you are on a three-day backpack, hike from Sumner Wash camp to Clear Creek as a dayhike, carrying vessels to resupply water. Walking on the Tonto Plateau is so relaxing you can actually look around while progressing across the tableland. Lateral drainages delight with characteristic sandstone swirls and waterpockets, usually dry. The immeasurable view heightens the sense of walking the canyon's middle path. Zoroaster Temple is a terraced ziggurat finished with a Coconino pyramid.
The Clear Creek Trail is a good cool-season choice. The platform is bathed by a sun that has shed its summer weight to cast long shadows and backlight grasses. In contrast, there is little shade from a summer scorcher.
The trail maintains the contour under Bradley and Demaray Points. These buttes, as well as Sumner, are Redwall hunks. From the Sumner Wash camp to Zoroaster Canyon it is 4.3 miles. With the shifting perspective notice that Zoro wears a crown. To his right is Brahma Temple. Cross the dry, shallow wash above the dark and narrow declivity that crashes down to the Colorado.
The landscape grows ever more beautiful with the formations east of Clear Creek holding steady at skyline. Shown here are Wotons Throne and Angels Gate with Snoopy and the Dog House, image-center.
As the trail wraps toward the north, look down into the Clear Creek trough piercing the Ottoman Amphitheater. The east arm is coming in right of center in this image.
The footpath drops 600 feet to the creek on a skinny sliver of cayenne-colored, slippery Hakatai Shale. I find the platform adequate but nothing separates the hiker from a tumble to the creek. I do know of people who are terrified in this half-mile section.
Walk down a northwest tributary of Clear Creek, passing a compost toilet. The primitive campground is at 3,400 feet in the shade of large cottonwood and mesquite trees. Sites are not designated but please stay in established areas.
If you have an extra day, three hikes radiate from the campground. All of them are off-trail and none of them are safe from flash flood if weather threatens anywhere on the vast Kaibab Plateau (North Rim region). Ephemeral Cheyava Falls is the highest waterfall in the Grand Canyon at 800 feet. It is five miles, a popular hike in spring when the falls are running. You may need a rope for a 15-foot downclimb on the six mile trek to the Colorado River so do your research up-front. Finally, walk 2.5 miles up the East Fork to the Tapeats Narrows, a slot canyon. I passed through here quickly years ago but we were on a mission and I've longed to return. All mileages are one-way.
Phantom Ranch to South Rim via Bright Angel Trail
It is 9.9 miles from the Phantom Ranch canteen to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. While it is 2.4 miles further than returning on the South Kaibab, there are strong reasons for resisting the temptation to shortcut. The two canyon experiences are radically different and create a lovely loop. Water is available at Indian Garden all year and at Three-Mile Resthouse and Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, except during winter months. The grade is gentler with more shade. If you need assistance, there is a ranger station at Indian Garden. Total elevation gain is about 4,800 feet. With a backpack, the trek will take five to nine hours.
This pack string hauled down supplies to Phantom Ranch on the South Kaibab Trail and is preparing to carry out the garbage. Save the mules, carry out your own trash.
Half a mile below Phantom Ranch a footbridge crosses Clear Creek. This is the last opportunity for loading up on water. Pass by the picturesque National Park Service mule corral and cross the Silver Bridge. The suspension bridge will sway to your footsteps well above the Colorado, carrier of Western waters. Grand Canyon Village is dependent on water from Roaring Springs located high in Bright Angel Canyon. The transcanyon pipeline spans the river under the Silver Bridge. Both were constructed in the 1960's.
Cross the bridge and turn right. This trail segment through Granite Gorge affords the opportunity to closely examine the glorious interplay of river-polished Vishnu Schist and crystalline Zoroaster Granite. A hiker looks back on the two bridges, Sumner Butte and Zoroaster Temple.
Plow through a sandy patch and make a gradual 200 foot climb above a cliff band before descending to Pipe Creek. A spur trail goes down to the river at 2,440 feet. Danger! The current is deceivingly swift and will carry you away. Do not go for a swim. However, once on a 100 degree day, I laid down with all my clothes on in Pipe Creek and walked refreshed for miles. There is no water at the Pipe Creek Resthouse, 1.9 miles.
Walking upcanyon, cross Pipe Creek a couple of times on stones. Garden Creek, carrying most of the flow, joins from the right/west. The canyon constricts, angles up, and funnels into Devils Corkscrew at 2,840 feet. The Corkscrew lifts travelers out of the Inner Gorge on switchbacks through a break in the schist. The higher you climb the more dramatic the sensation.
As rock transitions to Tapeats, there is a sweet place to rest alongside Garden Creek which flows through slickrock tanks.
Walk beside the creek on a soft grade amongst idyllic cottonwood and willow. In the Tapeats Narrows the trail is squeezed by raspy sandstone. When you pass Tonto East joining from the left, you are closing in on Indian Garden. Reach the welcomed shady haven at 4.7 miles, elevation 3,800 feet. People will be crowded on benches around the water spigot near the mule corral. If you scored a permit to camp at IG, veer off on a spur. Spacious, tree-shaded sites have covered tables, food storage lockers and pack hangers.
If you are staying at IG be sure to walk 1.5 miles to Plateau Point. The path is classed a corridor trail by the Park Service and is beautifully maintained. It is a spur off the Tonto West Trail. A classic, early 1900's iron railing protects the premier viewpoint. Below, I can't resist climbing a solitary block hovering over the Inner Gorge.
Leaving IG, it looks like you will run headlong into a barrier wall. In the very center of the immense amphitheater is a weakness in the Redwall and Coconino that make passage possible. The Bright Angel Fault extends from the South Rim to the North, creating a journey-way for the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails. Looking at the image below, the buff vertical wall is Coconino Sandstone. Below it is the Supai Group and finally, Redwall Limestone. Its authentic color is grey but over the eons the Supai has given the limestone a crimson wash.
Jacobs Ladder is a series of switchbacks through the Redwall break. The track is a spectacular testament to the engineering feats of trail builders, at one place squeezing between the wall and a fin.
On this December morning, two wranglers, each with five mules on a string, descend Jacobs Ladder.
Perched atop the Redwall is Three-Mile Resthouse, 6.9 miles, elevation 4,750 feet. This is a good turn-around point for day hikers coming down the Bright Angel. The yellow caution sign reads, "Down is optional, up is mandatory." Water is available here except during winter months.
I like to walk out beyond the Resthouse to the canyon dropoff. There is a limestone rib that offers a cliff-framed overlook, image-right. Redwall is my favorite Grand Canyon layer because it is formidable and the rare places where we are allowed passage feels like receiving a perfect gift.
From Three-Mile Resthouse, ascend through the Supai Group, passing Two-Mile Corner at 5,440 feet. Next, are the Coconino Switchbacks. The image below shows the contact line between the Supai and Coconino with conchoidal fracturing and crossbedding.
This portion of the trail, so close to the Rim, can be crowded. Walk through the short Lower Tunnel and then gear down for Heartbreak Hill. This is the steepest section of the Bright Angel but it is mercifully short. If the track is icy, it is impossible to get up or down without traction devices. Pass through the Upper Tunnel. A natural arch on the cliff side creates a twin opening. Kolb Studio is tucked below the Rim. And then, ready or not, top out at the Bright Angel Trailhead at 9.9 miles, elevation 6,890 feet.
I am never emotionally prepared to leave the Grand Canyon. My mind is engrossed with elemental country. I stand on rimland gazing into cavernous space articulated by effulgent light, dreaming of next time.
In this image, shot from Yuma Point in October, 2010, the Hermit Trail is zigzagging down toward the river. The Hermit Trail would be an excellent choice for your next time in the Grand Canyon.
Keep watch for birds and you may see condor (yes!), raven, eagle, canyon wren, woodpecker, hawk, and great horned owl. I have spotted deer, ring-tailed cat, desert bighorn, and elk on the Rim. Amphibians and reptiles include tree frog, bullfrog, whipsnake, and rattlesnake. There is an astonishing variety of agave, yucca, and cactus such as hedgehog and claretcup. My favorite prickly pear grow beside the trail to Plateau Point. They have purple pads and neon-pink blossoms in April.
Geology Lesson: I was told this simple phrase to recall the rock layers above the Inner Gorge. It works!
Know The Canyon's History; Study Rocks Made By Time
Kaibab Limestone, Toroweap Formation, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Shale, Supai Group, Redwall Limestone, Muav Limestone, Bright Angel Shale, Tapeats Sandstone.