Backpack to Phantom Ranch via the South Kaibab & Bright Angel Loop
Arizona › South Kaibab Trailhead
Added by Ted S
Standing at the top of the Grand Canyon is impressive on its own but imagine hiking to the bottom and exploring the river, the rock and the land almost a vertical mile down before you return back to the top. Add in a few nights of camping out (or cabin accommodations) and you have a once in a life adventure.
There are many ways in and out of the Grand Canyon but the most popular loop is to descend from the South Rim, heading down the steeper South Kaibab Trail and returning up via the easier Bright Angel Trail.
Your adventure starts early to beat the sun (and get the views). After getting your permits (you'll need to book these well in advance, even a year ahead for peak season) at the backcountry office, take the hiker's express shuttle to the SK trailhead. Here you'll find restrooms and a final water fillup spot, the only one on the trail down.
Follow the SK trail for 7 miles as it cuts sharply through the canyon, passing layer upon layer of rock. As you descend pass Ooh-Aah Point and Cedar Ridge, be sure to look behind you to experience a truly unique view of the canyon. By the time you reach Skeleton Point, you'll feel like you've entered another world. Shortly after passing Tip Off Point, the river will come into clear view below you as you make your way down to the black bridge spanning it. Take in the last 0.5 miles of flat trail as you complete the hike down arriving at Bright Angel Campground or a little further into the canyon at Phantom Ranch.
Spend as long as you can get a spot or spare the time for at the bottom of the canyon exploring the river trails and up towards the North side (which is a world all it's own). Camp out or stay in the Phantom Ranch bunkhouse where you should be sure to grab at least one meal, lemonade and postcard on your visit.
Start your return hike before the sun has a chance to rise, heading through the Bright Angel campground, past the ranger buildings and off to the right. The Bright Angel Bridge will take you across the river which the trail follows for another mile before entering the canyon for good. As it snakes its way up, be sure to look around at the sun rising over the canyon walls. Stop off at the Indian Gardens hiker area to refill water and use the restroom (you can also camp here with reservations and make a multi-day return) before entering the second half of the hike.
As you continue up towards the 3 mile resthouse and then 1.5 mile resthouse, you'll be stopped by day hikers asking "how far you went" and "how it was," a testament to your adventure and a sign of how close you are. Pass through two stone archways and you're at the top of the South Rim once again. Enjoy a shower at Mather Campground or just skip right to the food at Bright Angel Lodge, the Canyon Village Marketplace and Deli or one of the other many restaurants.
Note: The National Park Service is highly against hiking to the river and back in a single day. Be reasonable in your plan, consider the distance, heat and impact of starting out downhill first!
Make no mistake, the Grand Canyon is a serious undertaking and hard to measure as you start out going down (here what goes down must come up). Expect a long day descending and ascending, potentially in very hot or very cold conditions.
- Backcountry permit & campground reservations
- Backpacking gear and food for 1-3 nights (or less gear with your Phantom Ranch reservations)
- 3-4 liters of cold water + filter
- Sturdy hiking shoes, wool socks, trekking poles
- Sun protection, sun glasses, heat shield
- First aid kit & the rest of the 10 essentials
- Camera, book, batteries (there are outlets at Phantom Ranch)
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The Grandest Hike
I recently completed this hike in the middle of monsoon season. It's entirely counter intuitive to think that August in the high desert would be 75 degrees, cloudy, and breezy. The hike was a reward around each switchback, and an experience I will never forget. In terms of water, I would recommend a minimum of 3 liters for the way down, and slightly less for back up. We left Phantom Ranch at 3am, hiking beneath the Milky Way almost all the way to Indian Garden. This is a must-do for any adventurer.
I prefer taking South Kaibab Trail down because it has better sweeping views than Bright Angel but I would argue that the last few miles of Bright Angel Trail seem steeper; either way, both trails are great and the better water access on Bright Angel makes it safer choice for hot hikes up.
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