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Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch: History, Hiking and Exploring

Sahara and I walked down the Bright Angel Trail, then stayed 2 nights at the historic Phantom Ranch which opened in 1922. Lots of history and beauty here, no wonder so many people throughout history have been drawn to this location. I hiked and explored while my mule Sahara enjoyed just munching and hanging out in the corral, watching the world and taking naps.

Where: Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Elevation: 2,470′
Date: December 5-7, 2021
Dog Hike? No

I have been waiting a few years to do this trip, putting in for it back in 2019. It is a popular trip that you have to put in for at least 1 year ahead of time. So, I planned on going in December 2020 but COVID started happening around January 2020 and I delayed the trip to 2021 so this was the year. There were modification made for this mule trip due to COVID such as limiting the size of the riders to 10, not sharing cabins at Phantom Ranch and requiring masks while in all buildings in Grand Canyon National Park, regardless of vaccination status.

Last week’s blog shared pictures and information about the mule trip down and back from Phantom Ranch. This week’s blog is all about Phantom Ranch and what I did down there for 2 nights and 1 full day. First, here is a little information about Phantom Ranch, a lodge inside Grand Canyon National Park. It sits at the bottom of Grand Canyon, on the east side of Bright Angel Creek, a little over half a mile north of the Creek’s confluence with the Colorado River. Opened in 1922, Phantom Ranch is a member of Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1903, after François E. Matthes completed his pioneering survey work of Grand Canyon for the US Geological Survey, Edwin Woolley and other investors formed the Grand Canyon Transportation Company, hoping to develop the tourist potential of the Canyon’s north rim in the same way that the Santa Fe Railroad was doing at the south rim. Woolley hired his son-in-law David Rust to improve an ancient Native American route that Matthes had used to travel down Bright Angel Creek to the Colorado River. By 1907 Rust and his crew had completed the trail work and added a small tent camp alongside the Creek at the bottom. Rust planted native willows and cottonwoods to give the camp shade, grew alfalfa (for livestock), peaches, and plums, and raised chickens and rabbits as food for guests. Theodore Roosevelt, who as president had declared Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908, traveled down to the camp during a hunting expedition in 1913; in honor of this visit the site became known as Roosevelt Camp.

Architect Mary Colter (Photo Courtesy National Park Service)

Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for Grand Canyon helped lead to its incorporation into the National Park System in 1919. Rust’s concession for the camp was transferred to the Fred Harvey Company, which hired American architect Mary Colter to design permanent lodging for the site. Here is some information about this remarkable woman:

She was born in Pittsburgh in 1869 and grew up in Texas, Colorado, and St. Paul, Minnesota. While attending the California School of Design in San Francisco she apprenticed in an architect’s office and then went into teaching back in St. Paul.

Through informal contacts with the Fred Harvey Company, Colter eventually landed a job as interior designer of the Indian Building adjacent to the Santa Fe’s new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, along the main line. Although the Mission Revival style had been popular in California since the 1890s, the Alvarado Hotel and its adjacent Indian Building (both destroyed) were the first of their kind in New Mexico. Her reputation swiftly grew, and her use of natural materials in forms that mimicked nature served as the basis for later work by architect Herbert Maier and others who designed what we now term “rustic” architecture.

As a full-time architect in the Fred Harvey Company, Mary Colter would build six buildings on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Colter was a perfectionist, who spent a lifetime advocating and defending her aesthetic vision in a largely male-dominated field. In 1948, at the age of 79, Colter officially retired from the Fred Harvey Company. On January 8, 1958, at the age of 88, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter died.

Phantom Ranch’s construction presented a major challenge, as all the building materials except rock had to be hauled down by mules. Colter’s solution was to create buildings from on-site rock and rough-hewn wood, in an architectural style that would come to be known as National Park Service Rustic. Fred Harvey officials had intended to call the new lodge Roosevelt Chalet, but Coulter insisted on the more evocative “Phantom Ranch”, taking the name from nearby Phantom Creek and Phantom Canyon. When the Ranch opened on November 9, 1922, it consisted of a central cooking and dining hall surrounded by three guest cabins and a caretaker’s cabin; other structures, not designed by Coulter, included a barn, chicken house, rabbit run, blacksmith shop, and water reservoir.

The Ranch’s initial success quickly led to plans for enlargement and additional features. A small orchard and a vegetable garden were planted using some of the same land that Rust had previously cultivated. In 1925 four tent cabins, each sleeping four persons, were added, followed by a wooden bath house and an electric power generator. In 1927–28 Coulter oversaw the construction of a recreation hall, eight new cabins, and an enlargement of the dining hall.

CCC Company 818 on the North Rim (Photo Courtesy NPS)

CCC Company 818 Building the River Trail 1935 (Photo Courtesy NPS)

During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps made a number of upgrades to the Ranch, including a mule corral, the Trans-Canyon Telephone Line, improved plumbing and sewage systems, and a 35′ x 70′ pond-shaped swimming pool, fed by the waters of Bright Angel Creek. The 1930s saw the Ranch’s popularity continue to grow, its isolation and relaxed atmosphere drawing many wealthy and notable guests, some of whom would stay for days or even weeks at a time.

The site currently includes nine regular cabins which sleep 1–4 persons, four or five of which are taken almost every night by mule riders. In addition, there are two large cabins, sleeping 8–10 persons, which are used by Colorado River boat groups and big hiking parties. All cabins are equipped with bedding, a cold water sink, a toilet, liquid soap, and hand towels; cabin guests shower in the centrally located Shower House. There are also four hiker dormitories (two for men and two for women), which were built in the 1970s, replacing the four 1925 tent cabins. Each dormitory has 10 beds set up in bunks, a sink, a toilet, and a shower; bedding, towels, and soap are provided. Total capacity for the Ranch is about 90 guests per night. (The dormitories are currently closed due to both COVID social distancing restrictions and the need to upgrade the sewage treatment plant.) The dining hall, now called Phantom Ranch Canteen, serves breakfast and dinner on a strict schedule and requires advance reservations; the Canteen is open to the public during non-meal hours, offering a small variety of items including snacks, beverages, stamps, T-shirts, postcards, headlamps, and first-aid supplies. Additional facilities include the mule corral, a small amphitheater, employee housing, a ranger station (with limited emergency medical services), and a heliport. Cottonwood trees, a few of which date back to the time of Rust’s tent camp, line the creek and shade the buildings. Campers from Bright Angel Campground are not allowed to use the Shower House, but may reserve meals at the Canteen.

I stayed in Cabin 7.

Cabin 7

I should have taken pictures of the inside of my cabin before I threw all of my stuff everywhere but I didn’t and I was too lazy to put it all out of sight. Please don’t show my mom.

 

 

 

 

 

Any goodies needed to be kept in the ammo box to discourage rodents from hanging out. Also, in the campground, backpacks and food were required to be hung. No bear boxes which was a bit different from the way I was used to. We were served hot breakfasts and dinners at a “take out” window off of the dining hall which was closed due to COVID. Breakfast included scrambled eggs, pancakes, link sausages, orange juice and tea/coffee. They had a steak dinner the first night that was huge and delicious, the stew dinner on the second night not so amazing. They also provided a sack lunch.

Advance reservations for meals and lodging at Phantom Ranch are required. Reservations are made through Xanterra via an on-line lottery 15 months in advance. The park’s Backcountry Information Center does not make reservations for Phantom Ranch lodging or meals. Overnight guests of Phantom Ranch who have advance reservations do not need to obtain backcountry camping permits. Make reservations on-line up to 15 months in advance at http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/phantom-ranch. An NPS backcountry permit is not required for overnight stays at the dormitories or cabins at Phantom Ranch.

I located a great video with a tour of Phantom Ranch that you might want to check out: Phantom Ranch: Grand Canyon in Depth

On my full day down at Phantom Ranch, I took a short hike on the Clear Creek Trail up to an Overlook. If you click on the first picture, then the arrow to the right, you can run through the pictures quickly.

Where: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Distance: 2.34 Miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation Range: 2,539 – 3016′
Elevation Gain: 106′
Date: December 6, 2021
Dog Hike? No

 

I made it easily to the overlook where a couple that had ridden in with me yesterday were admiring the view and they took this picture of me. I could look over the edge and see Phantom Ranch at the bottom.

I headed back down the trail with a look back up at my trail buddies.

Then back down the trail.

As I entered camp, a pack string was loading up with supplies to return to the top. This is a great time to talk about how they supply Phantom Ranch. Everything is brought down by mules and everything is brought back out by mules. This includes all groceries for preparing the meals and the garbage that is generated at Phantom Ranch. The mail is also delivered and picked up by mule.

Once I made it back to my cabin, I sat outside on a bench for a while, watching deer browse and people walk by. Then I headed down to take a closer look at a very old Puebloan site that was was recorded by John Wesley Powell and his company back in 1860 when they camped on the beach at the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River.

The site of Phantom Ranch and the areas around it were used by various Native American peoples for millennia. Numerous artifacts, including split-twig figurines carbon dated at 4000 years old, have been discovered in nearby caves. Puebloan peoples built pit houses and a ceremonial kiva in the area around AD 1050, and likely survived by hunting and growing corn, beans, and squash. Paiute and Havasupai people also inhabited Grand Canyon for many centuries and probably visited the area, although no direct evidence of this has yet been discovered.

Today, fencing surrounded this archeological site which was heavily damaged by the construction of the Kaibab Trail and a flood of early park visitors, but it has been partially restored. Although this eleventh-century pueblo is in a very isolated location on the Bright Angel Creek delta, pottery and other artifacts found at the site and in the area suggest that the people had traded with other communities in the region. The design of the pueblo dwellings, kivas, and other features show that the inhabitants shared a cultural identity with other Puebloan cultures in the region.

8 rooms were in this small village that included a Kiva.

There was also a grave nearby that I later learned was the resting place of Rees B. Griffiths. He was a Trail Foreman who was 48 when he died while working on the South Kaibab Trail from the Colorado River to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. He met his unfortunate end when a gigantic boulder was loosened from a blast excavation he was inspecting. His final resting place is on the north side of the Colorado River a few feet off the South Kaibab Trail, approximately 1,000 feet west of the Kaibab suspension bridge.

Rees B. Griffiths was born October 10, 1873 and died February 6, 1922 at the age of 48 years, 4 months.

I returned back to Phantom Ranch, ate my box lunch on the bench outside my cabin where I had a clear view of the shower building. They had posted that it opened from 1-3 for showers and I watched a gal clean them, then it was 1 and I wandered over there. Then I wandered back to my cabin, cleansed of trail dust and ready to take on the world.

Dog Hike? No

Dogs are not allowed on this Trail.

Doarama:

What is a Doarama?  It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.

Clear Creek Trail Overlook to Phantom Ranch Doarama

Maps and Profile:

One way from the Clear Creek Overlook back to Phantom Ranch. The hike in had too many GPS hiccups in the sharp canyon but for some strange reason on the trip from the top down, GPS was able to find and follow the satellites just fine, one of those many mysteries of life.

Clear Creek Trail Hike From Overlook to Phantom Ranch Google Earth Image

 

Clear Creek Trail Hike From Overlook to Phantom Ranch Profile

Mule Trip Trails With Phantom Ranch Location at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon.

 

Sources:

Grand Canyon Mule Rides

Phantom Ranch Information Grand Canyon National Park

Phantom Ranch Wikipedia

Mary Colter’s Buildings at Grand Canyon

Bright Angel Pueblo USGS

Rees B. Griffiths Gravesite

Prior Blogs in the Area:

Grand Canyon Mule Trip to Phantom Ranch

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