Grand Canyon, Day 1: South Kaibab Trail

The South Kaibab Trail follows a ridgeline from the south rim of the Grand Canyon all the way down to the Colorado River, where it terminates at Bright Angel Campground. Along the way, one can see views that give a sense of the vast space of the canyon, while introducing one to the ever-changing rock layers, the subtle colors, and the knee-jarring, sun-blasting descent.

Distance: 7 Miles
Elevation Lost: – 4,750′
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 4:30 (est)
Critters: Bighorn sheep, lizards, hawks

Get there like this. 

Note: There is a $20 fee to enter the Grand Canyon by car.

Also note: during the busy season, there is no parking at South Kaibab Trailhead. Take a shuttle bus to get there.

The last three months have been spent in preparation for this trip, in which Kyle and I would cross the Grand Canyon to the North Rim and then return by foot. Along the way, we would camp at the established campgrounds along the main corridor trails. All told, the trip would be about 45 miles from rim to rim to rim, and it would all begin here on the South Kaibab Trail.

Of the two routes to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, South Kaibab is easily the best way to go down and by far the worst way to go up. It is more strenuous, adding 500′ of elevation gain. It is also almost entirely exposed to the sun, which can scorch and exhaust even on cool days. In addition, the expansive views of the canyon, set against the more limited views of the Bright Angel Trail, make this trail a great way to kick off a Grand Canyon sojourn. I didn’t see a single person coming up this trail, although I saw hundreds going down.

The trail starts out switchbacking down from the precipitous edge of the canyon. For the first mile or so, we saw a number of people eager to get a little further into the canyon. You’ll come across all types at this point, from long-distance backpackers to dayhikers to the merely curious who don’t normally venture onto the trails. This section is a little crowded, and, initially, it is a bit of a struggle to get going with so many people going different paces and with different goals.

However, it is a Grand Canyon maxim that “what goes down must come up,” and by the point we reached Cedar Ridge about a few miles into the hike, the crowds thinned out considerably. A few hardy dayhikers, a wandering troupe of Boy Scouts, and a pack of mules were our only company by the time we reached Skeleton Point, which marks the point where the trail begins a serious descent down to the Tonto formation that forms a secondary plateau just above the Inner Gorge.

Today was a fairly windy day, and with full packs and full water bladders, this hike was probably the second most difficult on the trip. Much of the time, people look at going downhill as the “easy part,” which is true enough if you’re walking from the top of Torrey Pines to the beach. However, when you’re descending 4,700′ with a 40 pound pack in sporadically high winds, you are going to murder either your knees or your calves. My calves were tremendously sore after this stretch of the trip, and, for the most part, this was the most pain the canyon caused me.

Bighorn Ram

After the long descent from the Skeleton Point, the beige rock gives way to a vivid purple rock layer right as you reach the Tip Off. I don’t know exactly what “Tip Off” means, other than to suggest that the vertiginous cliffs leading nearly straight down to the Inner Gorge over 1,000 feet below are not something one would want to tip off of. In spite of the endless views of buttes, temples, rock layers, and vast space, the views of the Inner Gorge, framed in brilliant purple and red hues, with the pale-green Colorado river roaring down below may be the most exciting part of the South Kaibab Trail.

The switchbacks just keep on coming as the trail meanders through the deepest and oldest part of the canyon. After descending through sandstones, limestones, and shales of different shades, textures, and tones, the trail finally reached the rifted, multi-colored Vishnu formation, which intersperses pink granites through metamorphised sedimentary rock called schist. This rock formation runs in vertical veins and alternates dark browns and purples with bright pinks. It is brittle and hard, and this rock formation is one of the main reasons for the dramatic cliffs of the Inner Gorge.

Finally, after miles of knee-breaking descent, we reached a tunnel. On the other side of this tunnel stands a marvelously constructed bridge called the “Black Bridge.” This bridge is one of two bridges that connects Phantom Ranch and the North Kaibab Trail to the two main trails below. It also leads to the hub of all activity at the bottom of the canyon.

The activity at Phantom Ranch is far more developed than one would think, including a beer hall/cafeteria, cabins, stables, restrooms, a campground, and a ranger station. It’s a busy segment of an otherwise desolate and scorched landscape. We would stay away from the mules and cabins, although Kyle did buy me a beer at the beerhall. That would be my first beer ever on a backpacking trip, although stranger things have happened I supposed.

We had crossed through more epic scenery than a week’s worth of SoCal hiking, and we were only 7 miles into the 45 miles. Down at the bottom of one of the seven natural wonders of the world, this trip was off to a good start.

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