When a friend first mentioned the Grand Canyon’s 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 477 miles of it. A cluster of ancient stone huts tucked along a stream, reachable only by mule ride or by trudging nearly a mile down into the earth’s crust.
“Rustic, amazing, beautiful”, were some of her words. But you have to plan well in advance. “They reserve by lottery every year,” she warned.
I ran home and jumped online.
When I was lucky enough to secure 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 fighting off a cancer attack, live scan to scan. As I plodded through another barrage of radiation and chemotherapy, my doctors smiled sympathetically as I kept telling me I needed to be fit enough to go to Phantom Ranch.
My family of four arrived on our appointed day, just after sunrise on top of the South Kaibab Trail, laughing at the idea that Phantom Ranch really is the ultimate destination hotel. The whole point of the place is the experience it takes to get there.
“The Lowest Down Ranch in the World,” wrote the Coconino Sun newspaper when the property opened in 1922. Pioneering architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, Mary Jane Coulter, had converted a rustic outpost where Teddy Roosevelt once camped into an oasis for the smart set. Her cabins and dining room (which serves as a shop and post office) are all built from the original stone. Every egg and can of beer comes with a mule train from the South Rim.
Now owned by the National Park Service and run by a private contractor, Phantom Ranch typically sleeps around 90, in 11 private cabins and four dorm rooms categorized by gender. But since our two-night stay, the pandemic has changed much of the experience my family had just weeks before the coronavirus first emerged in China. Under current rules, dormitories are closed and several cabins are used by staff, reducing the number of overnight guests to 52. Instead of the traditional family meals in the dining room, campers now have to grab breakfast and dinner by a window to sit outside or to eat in their huts.
A much bigger hiatus is planned for next year, when the Park Service will begin a long-delayed upgrade of the ranch’s wastewater treatment plant. From May next year, the fabled lodge will be closed for months — and possibly a year — as workers helicopter down new pipes and pumps. So for now, the lottery is not taking any further reservations, although cancellations from time to time will still make cabins available. New openings are posted on the Phantom Ranch website†
On the day of our descent, we sent our single shared duffel bag down on a mule train and left with daypacks filled only with water and lunch. We could see the extent of our hike through the canyon in the bands of white, yellow, red and gray rock, each marking a geological layer spanning billions of days.
For most of the morning we walked alone, the four of us, a few hundred yards apart, as other hikers came and went. We had so much to see and so little need to talk about it. We each kept to our own pace, with our youngest daughter, Frances, then 22, in front and my wife, Shailagh, in the back. We’d come to a vista and pause to marvel at how far we’d come, or to shake our heads in amazement at the huge stone temples around us.
We had covered at least four miles of ground and perhaps a third of a mile in elevation before getting our first full glimpse of the Colorado River, the creator of it all. We were excited at the sight, but also at the sound of water in a land of silence. Taking the last corkscrew trail, we entered a tunnel dug through the rock and crossed the elegant 94-year-old suspension bridge that spans the Colorado River.
Frances and her older sister, Lilly, were already on the other side, at Boat Beach, with Lilly then 24, merrily ankle-deep in the river. I came down, threw off shoes, socks and shirt and plunged into the river. The chill and strong pull of the river to the west made for a moment of arrival like few others. I came up to see my family there, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by unimaginable splendor. A rumbling laugh arose in me that became like a sob, but was full of joy and delight.
We walked into 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 bunk beds inside, a sink, a small bathroom. No TV, no coin on the pillow. We heard the creek rushing by and saw the poplars out the window.
The local ranger advised that we shouldn’t miss the small hours when the Milky Way had the moonless sky to itself, so that night I snuck out around 4am to take in the spectacle and watch the day break. Sitting on the riverbank, I was blinded as a bluish glow crept very slowly along the eastern edge until it swept away the froth of the most distant stars, leaving only the brightest constellations behind. I walked back for breakfast thinking how we could all use more days that start like this.
Filled with pancakes and coffee we had a whole day ahead of us to do as we pleased. That meant going on aching legs for the winding North Kaibab Trail that runs along Bright Angel Creek to the North Rim. We slipped through the narrow but beautiful canyon carved by Phantom Creek, one of thousands of such fissures that have shaped the entire Grand Canyon. Water is the scarcest resource here, but also the artist of everything you see. We ate packed lunches on the rocks along the creek.
On our last day, we set out well before dawn for a return hike nearly 10 miles in distance and nearly a mile in elevation along the Bright Angel Trail. Our sore legs soon loosened and for the next five hours we ran up through the layers of stone. Often we would look up and laugh to see the rock face we had to climb, switchback after switchback, to get to the rim of the canyon.
This fracture in the stone has served as the main path in and out of the canyon for thousands of years. 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 rim of the canyon we screamed and gasped and turned to look back. It was hard to believe there was even an enchanted oasis at the very bottom of it all.