Trail details last updated 2/17/2016.
If you’re wondering about making a trip to the Grand Canyon in winter / the off-season, stop debating now and book it. Sure, you’ll face the possibility of snow, ice and cold, but you’ll more than make up for it in peace, temps you can handle, space to yourself and views… oh the views. In fact, after making my latest journey to the canyon and my first ever trip to the bottom on the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail back in early February, I can confidentially say this: the off season is the only season I’d go back in and that’s doubly true if I was hiking it all again.
In many ways the trip to the bottom of the canyon in winter is a lot like summer. The same two primary trails are available with the same shuttles to help you make the classic SK (South Kaibab) to BA (Bright Angel) loop or to reverse it if you please. At the bottom of the canyon, Phantom Ranch remains open year round with it’s bunkhouses and cabins, canteen and dining room while the Indian Garden and Bright Angel campgrounds are up and running as well. What does change is the signs of civilization. Busy crowds decline to a few hikers on a quiet day and a few dozen on a more popular one versus hundreds or thousands. Mule trains still supply the canyon bottom with everything you could imagine and then some but need to run less often and carry less travelers down as well. Water is never found on the SK trail and may be reduced to just one spot on BA but when it’s cold out, that’s a lot easier to deal with. Less heat, few if any lines, almost no one to share the place with and suddenly the act of hiking down and up seems better too.
Heading down the South Kaibab trail (7 miles o/w, 4,780′, 3-5 hours down)
The standard Grand Canyon South Rim hike calls for a 7 mile descent on the SK trail which is fast, steep and sun exposed but stunning followed by a longer, 9.7 mile climb back up on the also awe inspiring BA trail. Both offer fantastic views and easy access, at least relative to the other ways down, and are popular any time of year with both valley hikers and sight seers out exploring.
In search of total freedom and a clear shot for my camera, I checked out of my hotel in the nearby town of Tusayan bright and early to make it into the park in time for the first winter shuttle with an express destination of the SK trailhead. Stepping onto the bus at 8:05 and on a -7 degree day (that’s in Fahrenheit), I joined about a half dozen others all headed to the bottom and together, we chatted as the bus picked up a few more sightseers from the visitor’s center shuttle area before heading out for the trail. The SK trailhead doesn’t offer much any time of year; a couple vault toilet restrooms and a water filling station (closed in cold weather) with a view of the trail below so, as you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I was on the trail and headed down.
With freezing temps, traction devices were not just suggested, they were downright essential out of the gate making an already exciting hike into a fun adventure (traction is a good thing for grip and actually makes things easier). Some of my other hikers had basic coil systems sold in the park but I’m a firm believer in my microspikes and slipped them on quickly, taking the lead on the trail as we all naturally spaced ourselves out to enjoy a very empty day; I wouldn’t see any of my other shuttle companions until that evening. And really, that is the perk of winter, well, that and the views. That first shuttle bus carried in nearly every person who hiked down the canyon that day, less than a dozen in total by my count. The next day was far busier with a whopping 40 or so heads making it down. Yes, that’s still less than one summer bus load.
While icy and snowy, the South Kaibab is an easy trail to follow and handle so long as you’re not the first one breaking in the boot path. Everything is well built, solidly maintained and effective though there is something about down first that just sucks and between the 7 miles of walking and the nearly 5,000 of downward force across way too many big, wooden log steps, my knees would be wrecked by the end of the day. No joke, it felt better ascending and you will want your Advil on that first night.
In any event, the trail starts with a series of intense, winding switch backs that quickly bring you down into the folds of canyon for the one bit of shade you’ll get the entire day. These end as you progress a bit beyond that first layer of rock and reach “Ooh, Ahhh Point” (the sign post for which is currently missing). At this point, the trail takes you wandering out of the protection of the cliffs above and directs you north, towards the river and in complete view of the sun. With temps still hovering around 15 degrees, this was a quite welcome change and while I snapped endless photos on all parts of the journey, the chilly day made for a compelling reason to move.
Catching up to the one hiker ahead of me, a local hiker and summer volunteer ranger, I made the briefest of stops to enjoy the restrooms at Cedar Ridge, snapped a couple more shots and then charged on to warm back up. In summer this is a popular point to stop at and spread out as it offers an expansive view north, east and west into the canyon but in winter, it was less than an hour into the long day and still plenty chilly to linger at. It wasn’t until nearly reaching Skeleton Point, 3 miles into the hike that I joined my new trail companion in taking off the microspikes and my layers as the sun had finally had enough time to do its job.
With the elevation change, sun exposure and lack of water / resources, this is as far as the NPS recommends any day hiker wander (even less in summer). It’s also about the point where the canyon experience starts to totally change. The deep, dark layers of rock that you first see hitting the trail are now well behind you while the North Rim is truly in view out in the distance ahead, towering over as a reminder of just how far you’ve come. The layers of the canyon also start to unfold and change color and texture — if you go no further, this is a great hike too.
Back onto the trail, it’s time for switchbacks once again. These ones are big steppers, divided up sections of stone & dirt to hobble over and and over and over again. It was about at this point that first uphill hikers of the day passed on by as did a few mules (always stop to let them pass!) things were otherwise quiet, save for the occasional insights and geography lesson of my sole trail companion. Wandering further and further down, I recall being amazed at how much the canyon changed at every major turn and elevation drop with signs of growth beyond the dessert shrub and of course endless rock layers.
The first view of the river was another quick break, it’s dirty and dark in winter as sentiment passes through but just as impressive. A little ways later it was another brief pause for the restroom at Tipoff Point which bisects the Tonto trail, a long, flat ridge that runs across nearly 90 miles of the Grand Canyon and connects up to the BA trail (plus way more beyond it) and has facilities dotted along the course. How many people must be to build and keep up facilities out here astounds me.
Finally, after wandering out into vast openings, down through a small slot canyon of rock and right under a structure that looks ready to topple, the trail rounded one final, deceptive bend and the giant black bridge came into view. This is not the end of the trail by a mile or more, but it was a welcome sight none the less. It’s one more series of real switchbacks and a short tunnel to the bridge and then a whole lot of stopping to play on it. If the facilities up above seemed impressive, the bridge will be something else. I’ve since seen photos of the labor process but it really doesn’t count until you step on it yourself and realize how much work this took while also being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
From the bridge to the campground is about a quarter mile and at least as much from there to Phantom Ranch. It’s not much but it’s always that final stretch that gets you wishing you were there already too, especially when it’s all in the sun and now far warmer being 4,000+ feet lower and all. But, after just a few minutes of winding around, past an old native settlement, a few sign posts and bathrooms for the campground, there was the ranch. Then again, it was only 11 something when I hit the picnic tables in front of the doors and took off my pack. 3 hours to the bottom and time for lunch.