When a friend first mentioned the Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch, I couldn’t believe my ears. It’s America’s most elusive hotel reservation, she said, the only lodging in the canyon itself, all 277 miles of it. A cluster of century-old stone huts nestled along a creek, accessible only by mule or by trudging nearly a mile into the earth’s crust.
“Rustic, amazing, beautiful”, were some of his words. But you need to plan well in advance. “They make lottery reservations a year,” she warned.
I rushed home and jumped in line.
When I was lucky enough to get a cabin for my family 13 months later in November 2019, I felt like I was throwing a pebble into an unknowable future. I was fending off an attack of cancer, living from scan to scan. As I went through another barrage of radiation and chemotherapy, my doctors smiled sympathetically when I kept saying I had to be fit enough to make it to Phantom Ranch.
My family of four arrived the day of our appointment, just after sunrise at the top of the South Kaibab Trail, laughing at the thought that Phantom Ranch really is the ultimate destination hotel. The whole point of the place is the experience involved in getting there.
“The lowest ranch in the world,” wrote the Coconino Sun newspaper when the accommodations opened in 1922. Pioneering Santa Fe railroad architect Mary Jane Coulter had transformed a rustic outpost where Teddy Roosevelt once camped in an oasis for the intelligent set. Her cabins and mess room (which serves as a general store and post office) are all built of native stone. Every egg and can of beer descends from the South Bank by mule train.
Now owned by the National Park Service and operated by a private entrepreneur, Phantom Ranch can accommodate approximately 90 people, in 11 private cabins and four gender-divided dormitories. But since our two-night stay, the pandemic has changed much of the experience my family had just weeks before the coronavirus hit China. Under current rules, the dorms are closed and several of the cabins are used by staff, reducing the number of guests per night to 52. Instead of traditional family-style meals in the dining room, campers must now fetch breakfast and dinner from a window to eat outside or in their cabins.
A much larger disruption is planned for next year, when the Parks Service undertakes a long-delayed upgrade to the ranch’s sewage treatment plant. From next May, the legendary pavilion will be closed for months – and possibly even a year – as workers transport new pipes and pumps by helicopter. So, for now, the lottery is no longer taking reservations, although cancellations still make cabins available from time to time. New openings are posted on the Phantom Ranch website.
On the day of our descent, we sent our single shared bag by mule train and left with backpacks filled with only water and lunch. We could see the extent of our trek through the canyon in the bands of white, yellow, red and gray stone, each marking a billion-day geological stratum.
For most of the morning, the four of us walked alone, a few hundred yards apart, while other hikers came and went. We had so much to see and so little need to talk about. We each kept our own pace, with our youngest daughter, Frances, then 22, in the lead and my wife, Shailagh, taking over. We would come to a view and stop to marvel at how far we had come or to shake our heads in amazement at the vast stone temples around us.
We had covered at least four miles of terrain and maybe a third of a mile in elevation before we got our first full glimpse of the Colorado River, the creator of it all. We were thrilled at the sight, but also at the sound of water in a land of silence. Descending the last corkscrew trail, we entered a rock-cut tunnel and crossed the elegant 94-year-old suspension bridge that spans the Colorado.
Frances and her older sister, Lilly, were already on the other side at Boat Beach, with the then 24-year-old Lilly happily ankle-deep in the river. I climbed down, throwing off shoes, socks and shirt, and dove into the river. The river’s coldness and strong westerly pull provided a finish time like few others. I surfaced to see my family there, bathed in sunshine and surrounded by unimaginable splendour. A rumbling laugh rose inside me that became like a sob but was entirely of joy and elation.
We entered Phantom Ranch along Bright Angel Creek, under poplars, alders and acacias. Our home for the next two nights, cabin 7, was a small stone structure with an elegant roofline painted green and brown, two berths inside, a sink, a small bathroom. No TV, no mint on the pillow. We could hear the creek rushing and see the cottonwood trees out the window.
The resident ranger advised us not to miss the wee hours when the Milky Way had the moonless sky to itself, so that night I snuck out around 4 a.m. to absorb the spectacle and see the day. to arrive. Sitting on the bank, I was dazzled by a bluish glow creeping very slowly along the edge to the east until it wiped out the scum of the farthest stars and left only the brightest constellations. . Came home for breakfast thinking we could all use more days that start like this.
Stuffed with pancakes and coffee, we had a whole day ahead of us to do as we pleased. That meant heading on aching legs to the winding North Kaibab Trail that skirts Bright Angel Creek to the North Rim. We squeezed through the narrow but wondrous canyon carved by Phantom Creek, one of thousands of such crevasses that formed the entire Grand Canyon. Water is the rarest commodity here, but also the artist of everything you see. We ate sack lunches perched on rocks along the creek.
On our last day, we left well before sunrise for a return hike nearly 10 miles in distance and nearly a mile in elevation on the Bright Angel Trail. Our aching legs quickly relaxed and for the next five hours we climbed through the layers of stone. Several times, looking up, we laughed to see the cliff we would need to climb, switchback by switchback, to get to the rim of the canyon.
This break in the rock has served for millennia as the main route into and out of the canyon. The whole speaks of continuity. The century-old Phantom Ranch will have its restorative break and reopen its doors, ready for the next century. From the edge of the canyon we screamed and gasped and turned to look back. It was hard to believe that the enchanted oasis was even there, at the bottom of it all.