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 within 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 some of her words. But you must plan well in advance. “They do reservations by lottery a year out,” she warned.
I dashed home and jumped online.
When I was lucky enough to secure a cabin for my family for 13 months later, in November 2019, I felt like I was throwing a pebble into an unknowable future. I was fending off a cancer attack, living scan to scan. As I plodded through another barrage of radiation and chemotherapy, my doctors smiled sympathetically when I kept saying that I had to be fit enough to get to Phantom Ranch.
My family of four arrived at our appointed day, just after sunrise at the top of the South Kaibab Trail, laughing at the idea that Phantom Ranch is, truly, the ultimate destination hotel. The entire point of the place is the experience involved in getting there.
“The Lowest Down Ranch in 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 rustic 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 can of beer comes down from the South Rim by mule train.
Now owned by the National Park Service and run by a private contractor, Phantom Ranch usually sleeps around 90, in 11 private cabins and four dorms that are divided by gender. But since our two-night stay, the pandemic has changed much of the experience that my family had just weeks before the coronavirus first cropped up in China. Under the current rules, the dorms are closed and several of the cabins are being used by staff, reducing the number of nightly guests to 52. Instead of the traditional family-style meals in the dining hall, campers must now fetch breakfast and dinner from a window to eat outside or in their cabins.
A far bigger interruption is set for next year, when the Park Service will embark on a long-delayed upgrade of the ranch’s wastewater treatment plant. Starting next May, the fabled lodge will be shuttered for months — and possibly even a year — as workers shuttle new pipes and pumps down by helicopter. So, for now, the lottery isn’t taking further reservations, though cancellations do still make cabins available from time to time. New 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 hiking across the canyon in the bands of white, yellow, red and gray stone, each marking a geologic strata of billions of days.
For most of the morning we walked alone, the four of us, separated by a few hundred yards, as other hikers came and went. We had so much to see and so little need to talk of it. We each kept our own pace, with our younger daughter, Frances, then 22, leading the way and my wife, Shailagh, picking up the rear. We would come to a vista and pause to marvel at how far we had come, or to shake our heads in amazement at the vast temples of stone around us.
We had covered at least four miles of ground and perhaps a third of a mile in elevation before we caught our first full glimpse of the Colorado River, the creator of all this. We thrilled at the sight, but also at 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 other side, at Boat Beach, with Lilly then 24, gleefully up to her ankles in the river. I came down, tossing off shoes and socks and shirt, and plunged into the river. The river’s chill and strong 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 Bright Angel Creek, beneath cottonwoods, 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 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, so that night I sneaked out around 4 a.m. to absorb the spectacle and see the day arrive. Sitting on the riverbank, I was dazzled as a bluish glow crept ever so slowly along the eastward rim until it erased the froth of the most distant stars and left only the brightest constellations. I walked back for breakfast thinking how we could all use more days that start like that.
Stuffed with pancakes and coffee, 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 Bright Angel Creek to the North Rim. We sneaked up the narrow but marvelous canyon carved by Phantom Creek, one of thousands of such crevasses that have formed the whole of Grand Canyon. Water is the scarcest commodity here, but also 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 close to a mile in elevation up the Bright Angel Trail. Our sore legs soon loosened, and for the next five hours we loped up through the layers of stone. Many times, looking up, we laughed to see the cliff face we’d need to ascend, switchback by switchback, to get to the canyon’s rim.
This break in the stone has served for millenniums as the main path in and out of the canyon. The whole of it speaks to continuance. The century-old Phantom Ranch will have its restorative pause and reopen its doors, ready for the next century. From the canyon’s rim, we whooped and gasped and turned to look back. It was hard to believe that enchanted oasis was even there, way down at the bottom of all that.