When a friend first mentioned the Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch, I couldn’t consider my ears. It’s America’s most elusive hotel reservation, she said, the one lodging throughout the canyon itself, all 277 miles of it. A cluster of century-old stone cabins tucked along a stream, reachable only by mule ride or by trudging down nearly a mile into the crust of the earth.
“Rustic, amazing, gorgeous,” were a few of her words. But you need to plan well upfront. “They do reservations by lottery a yr out,” she warned.
I dashed home and jumped online.
Once I was lucky enough to secure a cabin for my family for 13 months later, in November 2019, I felt like I used to be throwing a pebble into an unknowable future. I used to be warding off a cancer attack, living scan to scan. As I plodded through one other barrage of radiation and chemotherapy, my doctors smiled sympathetically after I kept saying that I needed to be fit enough to get to Phantom Ranch.
My family of 4 arrived at our appointed day, just after sunrise at the highest of the South Kaibab Trail, laughing at the concept that Phantom Ranch is, truly, the final word destination hotel. The whole point of the place is the experience involved in getting there.
“The Lowest Down Ranch within the World,” wrote the Coconino Sun newspaper when the lodgings opened in 1922. The pioneering architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, Mary Jane Coulter, had turned a country outpost where Teddy Roosevelt once camped into an oasis for the smart set. Her cabins and dining hall (which seconds as a general store and post office) are all built of the native stone. Every egg and may of beer comes down from the South Rim by mule train.
Now owned by the National Park Service and run by a personal contractor, Phantom Ranch normally sleeps around 90, in 11 private cabins and 4 dorms which are divided by gender. But since our two-night stay, the pandemic has modified much of the experience that my family had just weeks before the coronavirus first cropped up in China. Under the present rules, the dorms are closed and several other of the cabins are getting used by staff, reducing the variety of nightly guests to 52. As a substitute of the normal family-style meals within the dining hall, campers must now fetch breakfast and dinner from a window to eat outside or of their cabins.
A far larger interruption is ready for next yr, when the Park Service will embark on a long-delayed upgrade of the ranch’s wastewater treatment plant. Starting next May, the fabled lodge might be shuttered for months — and possibly even a yr — as staff shuttle latest pipes and pumps down by helicopter. So, for now, the lottery isn’t taking further reservations, though cancellations do still make cabins available infrequently. Latest openings are posted on the Phantom Ranch website.
The day of our descent, we sent our single shared duffel down by mule train and set out with daypacks stuffed only with water and lunch. We could see the measure of our mountain climbing across the canyon within the bands of white, yellow, red and grey stone, each marking a geologic strata of billions of days.
For a lot of the morning we walked alone, the 4 of us, separated by just a few hundred yards, as other hikers got here and went. We had a lot to see and so no need to speak of it. We each kept our own pace, with our younger daughter, Frances, then 22, leading the best way and my wife, Shailagh, picking up the rear. We’d come to a vista and pause to marvel at how far we had come, or to shake our heads in amazement on the vast temples of stone around us.
We had covered at the least 4 miles of ground and maybe a 3rd of a mile in elevation before we caught our first full glimpse of the Colorado River, the creator of all this. We thrilled on the sight, but in addition on the sound of water in a land of silence. Down the last corkscrew trail, we entered a tunnel burrowed through the rock and crossed the elegant, 94-year-old suspension bridge that spans the Colorado.
Frances and her older sister, Lilly, were already on the opposite side, at Boat Beach, with Lilly then 24, gleefully as much as her ankles within the river. I got here down, tossing off shoes and socks and shirt, and plunged into the river. The river’s chill and powerful westward pull provided a moment of arrival like few others. I surfaced to see my family there, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by unimaginable splendor. A rumbling laugh rose inside me that became like a sob but was entirely of joy and exaltation.
We walked into Phantom Ranch along Vibrant Angel Creek, beneath cottonwoods, alders and acacias. Our home for the following two nights, Cabin 7, was a small stone structure with a sublime roofline painted green and brown, two bunks inside, a sink, a small bathroom. No TV, no mint on the pillow. We could hear the creek rushing past and see the cottonwoods out the window.
The resident ranger advised we not miss the wee hours when the Milky Way had the moonless sky to itself, in order that night I sneaked out around 4 a.m. to soak up the spectacle and see the day arrive. Sitting on the riverbank, I used to be dazzled as a bluish glow crept ever so slowly along the eastward rim until it erased the froth of probably the most distant stars and left only the brightest constellations. I walked back for breakfast considering how we could all use more days that start like that.
Filled with pancakes and low, we had before us a full day to do as we pleased. That meant heading out on achy legs to the winding North Kaibab Trail that runs along Vibrant Angel Creek to the North Rim. We sneaked up the narrow but marvelous canyon carved by Phantom Creek, one in all 1000’s of such crevasses which have formed the entire of Grand Canyon. Water is the scarcest commodity here, but in addition the artist of all you see. We ate bagged lunches perched on rocks along the creek.
On our last day, we set out well before sunrise for a return hike nearly 10 miles in distance and shut to a mile in elevation up the Vibrant Angel Trail. Our sore legs soon loosened, and for the following five hours we loped up through the layers of stone. Persistently, looking up, we laughed to see the cliff face we’d must ascend, switchback by switchback, to get to the canyon’s rim.
This break within the stone has served for millenniums because the major path out and in of the canyon. The entire of it speaks to continuance. The century-old Phantom Ranch may have its restorative pause and reopen its doors, ready for the following century. From the canyon’s rim, we whooped and gasped and turned to look back. It was hard to consider that enchanted oasis was even there, way down at the underside of all that.