The Phantom Ranch campground.
#9 Phantom Ranch, AZ -- A Planning Guide for Obsessive-Compulsives (March 2014)

Hiking from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and spending a night at the rustic Phantom Ranch is a bucket list activity for many hikers. There are 2 challenges in visiting Phantom Ranch: the first is the physical effort of getting down and back up the approximately 20 miles of trails RT with about 5,000' of elevation gain ending at 7,000' and second, having a place to spend the night to divide the physical effort over 2 days.

If you camp, there is far less competition for a place to pitch your tent than to lay your head on someone else's pillow. I have been told that reservations for the Phantom Ranch campground open in November each year. Those reservations are made directly through the National Park Service and I haven't researched that process.

Indoor lodging at the Ranch is managed for the Park by the concessionaire Xanterra Some hikers seem to have the magic touch for easily getting reservations for lodging there but not me. I know 1 woman that has swung it twice, for 2 nights each time, with only a few calls made and another woman who has secured beds for herself and her husband 5 times and considers it no big deal to get reservations. My yield has been far, far lower given the hours I've spent on hold when calling though I did manage to get a cabin from a last minute cancellation. Do not make the mistake of some and hike down to Phantom Ranch without reserving a bed in advance--you WILL be turned away and be expected to hike back to the Rim for the night.

The S. Kaibab Trail is quite a trail.
Indoor Sleeping Options
There are 11 cabins at Phantom Ranch: 2 with a queen bed; 2 cabins that accommodate 10 people (presumably in bunk beds); and 7 cabins that sleep 4 in bunk beds. In addition, there are 4 10-bunk bed dormitories: 2 for men, 2 for women. That adds up to accommodations for 92 but I've been told that they have the capacity to sleep a total of 90. I don't know what the difference is between the 10 person cabins and the 10-bed dormitories though I suspect it is a matter of square footage and vintage.

I peeked inside a 10-person dorm and it looked functional but miserable. The small, newer building was positively stuffed with bunk beds. Each person had 1 hook for their backpack and that was it for personal space beyond their bed. It hardly looked like enough air volume for 10 people and there certainly wouldn't be space for unpacking a duffel and doing meal prep like we were enjoying in our cabin. Like in the cabins, there was 1 toilet and 1 sink for the guests. From what I've read, there is also a shower in each dorm. Needless to say, a bunk in a dorm is easier to get than a private cabin though for us it was a cabin or nothing for a number of reasons.

Almost to Phantom Ranch if you've come down S. Kaibab.
If you book a cabin that sleeps 4, you are in charge of who stays there. The minimum price is for 2 people and there is an extra fee for persons #3 and #4. But Xanterra won't fill it with strangers; it's your choice if you sleep 1 or 4 people there. The double occupancy price for us was just under $122/night and it's about $149 for 4 people in a cabin. A dorm bed is about $46, which makes a 4 person cabin cheaper for 4 people than sleeping in a dorm--if you can get a cabin. But exact prices on everything at the Ranch are difficult to nail down--I've seen a 4 person cabin quoted as being a maximum of $138.

The cabins and dorms all come with bed linens, pillows, blankets, and hand towels. If indeed the dorms have a shower, I'd assume each guest is also given a bath towel. Our cabin door key gave us access to the pleasant shower house where we helped ourselves to a big, thick bath towel. There was liquid soap available in the shower stalls. I never had to wait for 1 of the 3 showers though we made a point to bathe during meal service in the Canteen. The nice showers had an abundance of hot water, which was very welcome after a day on the trail. The shower house is not available to backpackers.

Don't worry about bringing items like toilet paper--the facilities were well-stocked. The dorms and cabins have air conditioning and heating. Check-out time is 7:30 am.

Ways to Reserve A Bed
Securing reservations for a bed at Phantom Ranch is in part a "time vs money" matter. The easiest but most expensive way to book a bed is to hire a guide. You can join a guide's group for a hiking trip down to the Ranch and back or hire a guide for your own private group of family and friends. Alternatively, you can book a mule ride trip through Xanterra. Whether on foot or on a mule, your package deal will include lodging in the price and without your further involvement in reservations.

Mule riders however are limited to a single night's stay at the Ranch in high season though they can stay 2 nights in low season. (Mule riders must weigh 200 lbs or less).There are no limits on length of stay for hikers except for the difficulty in securing reservations. Mule riders don't have to ride up and down with the same folks and are allowed to hike up if they choose. Presumably hikers will stick with the same guide and fellow hikers for their entire trip. From April 1 into September people on commercial raft trips also stay at the Ranch, increasing the competition for space. Guests with guides, like on mules and in rafts, get priority for the cabins over do-it-yourselfers.

Our cabin at Phantom Ranch.
Regardless whether you are booking months ahead or at the last minute, the easiest way to obtain accommodations that you book yourself is to accept a bed in a dorm. The dorm beds are far less desirable than beds in a cabin and there are almost as many dorm beds as cabin beds so they are easier to get. They aren't however necessarily cheaper than a bed in a cabin.

For the do-it-yourselfers (DIY) like us, there are 2 options: the plan-ahead and the last minute cancellation approaches. These are the least expensive options and the most time consuming strategies. They also give you the most flexibility for your trip, which we highly value.

DIY Reservations: Planning Ahead
Reservations become available for beds at Phantom Ranch on the first day of the month, 13 months in advance. Reservations are handled by the Xanterra call center in Denver at 888-297-2757 between 7 am and 7 pm Mountain Time. I haven't even tried to obtain a booking on those days because it seems absolutely hopeless. I've used Plan B, which is trolling for a cancellation on days other than the first of the month for beds sometime in the next year. I was told that evenings were a good time to call though given the long queues, I wouldn't initiate your call any later than 6:30 pm MT. We have a lot of flexibility with our calendar, so I am usually asking for 1 night from late September through early November or for 1 night in March or April (avoiding the depths of winter because of snow).

Xanterra's cancellation policy for all things related to Phantom Ranch, including beds, is a full refund for cancellations made 48 hours in advance. Deposits are forfeited for cancellations made less than 48 hours in advance unless you can move your reservations to different dates, which of course, is next to impossible.

The interior of our cabin with a queen bed.
DIY Reservations: The Last-Minute Strategy
The last minute strategy for booking a bed at Phantom Ranch demands that you be in striking distance of the Grand Canyon when you call for a reservation. You are angling for a bed for the next night--and you need around/at least 4 hours to hike down that same day.

This 48 hour cancellation approach uses a different phone number that mercifully, doesn't result in spending your life on hold. Dialing 928-638-3283 connects you with the Transportation Desk at Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. Call promptly at 6 am each morning and ask to be put on the new waiting list for the following night or show up in person for priority over callers. If you are first or second on the waiting list, I'd call them several times throughout the day because they don't necessarily let you know when space becomes available. From my limited experience, you either check-in with them or wait until 7:15 the next morning to learn that you should be on your way down to the Ranch ASAP.

The Dirt on the Last-Minute Strategy
Below is my best understanding of how and when the last minute beds become available and how they are distributed. I grilled a number of staff at the Rim and at the Ranch and this is what I have learned though the story I've cobbled together seems flawed and incomplete.

There is a well kept secret that adds to the unknowability of it all, which is that they never book all of the beds at Phantom Ranch in advance. The managers always leave an unrevealed number of beds open for the unexpected. The Ranch staff want some slack in case a hiker becomes ill and can't hike out or if a landslide or broken pipe requires extra crew to stay overnight at the Ranch. In addition to holding back some guest beds for emergencies, they also have back rooms on a couple of cabins in which they can lodge crew members.

Each morning the staff at Bright Angel Lodge calls the Ranch around 6:45 am to report any cancellations they have received for that night as well as any exceptional need for beds as seen from their end. In the meantime, the Ranch staff have rechecked their occupancy and noted any requests from current guests (like us) to stay an additional night. Any beds from cancellations or beds released from their contingency status will first be assigned to guests already at the Ranch and on their waiting list--current guests always get priority. People in a dorm bed at the Ranch also have the chance to upgrade to cabin if one is available. Then at 7:15 am the Rim staff are supposed to call people on the waiting list from the day before to notify them if any openings are available to them.

The challenge in this process is the "on standby" uncertainty. One is at great risk of not knowing until after 7 am whether you are hiking down to the Ranch that day or, if you are already there, whether you are staying another night or hiking out. That's an unsettling amount of ambiguity given all that is involved in making a hard hike.

The other tension-generating challenge of this last-minute notification process is making use of the optional duffel service. If you
Looking back into the canyon from the lower part of Bright Angel Trail.
are on the Rim and are notified in the morning that you have a bed at the Ranch for the night, you've already missed the duffel service because the mule train leaves at daybreak. It was a scramble for us to get our duffel delivered for transport the night before but at least we made it work. And I still wonder if the cabin we were assigned when I called in the evening was one that shouldn't have been released until morning or if there were so many available that they didn't worry about it this particular time.

It's a clumsy process at best. When we arrived at Phantom Ranch, I went to the Canteen to pick-up our cabin assignment and requested to be put on the waiting list that the Ranch kept. I had tried to get on the waiting list at the Rim but was told it wasn't possible and that I'd get priority over their waiting list by being on the list at the Ranch. I was told to check-in at 6:30 am the next morning at the Ranch to learn if we could stay another night or if we should be hiking out. Then I was told to come back at 7 am. At that time I got the good news that we were in for another night but that I had to return at 8:30 to pay. They were late in opening, so it was another 15 minutes to start the payment process. Not a crisis, but it was wildly inefficient because of all of the uncertainty and the 'back & forth time to interact with the Ranch staff.

To summarize, here is how our last minute booking scenario played out:
6 am: called the Transportation Desk at Bright Angle Lodge; was first on the waiting list; clerk was coyly optimistic that I'd get beds in a cabin for the next night
3 pm: checked-in in person after driving from Flagstaff, AZ: no cabin available, given no encouragement
6:45 pm: called and was told a cabin was available for us
7:45 pm: arrived at the Bright Angel Lodge Transportation desk and filled a feed bag with our gear and food for the mule powered Duffel Service
Next day: hiked down to the Ranch, picked up our duffel, requested to be on the waiting list for a 2nd night
Following morning: had a 2nd night booked and paid for after a 2 hour-long process at the Ranch; reserved and paid for a duffel slot for the next day

Confirming Your Reservation
If you made reservations for Phantom Ranch in advance, be sure to verify your reservation confirmation information in the email sent by Xanterra. Contact them if you do not receive an email. Xanterra requests that you then use a 2-part approach to confirm your Phantom Ranch reservations. They ask that you call 928-638-3283 (the Transportation Desk) 2-4 days before your night's stay and then check-in at Bright Angel Lodge the day you hike down to the Ranch. We called the Lodge rather than dropped in on our departure day because we left on Kaibab, not Bright Angel Trail, for Phantom Ranch. (Many people hike down on Kaibab and hike up on Bright Angel: Kaibab is more scenic, Bright Angel has water en route).

Buying Meals vs Self-Catering

There are 2 seatings for dinner and 2 for breakfast each day and sack lunches are available at Phantom Ranch. The fixed menu food was expensive and not to our liking so we paid for the duffel service to transport our own food down to the Ranch by mule and saved money in doing so. Fortunately our cheese survived unrefrigerated for 2+ days and we planned menus that required no cooking. One is obligated to haul out their own garbage, whether in a duffel or in a backpack.

Do not plan on pulling together a nutritious meal from the Canteen's retail items. The Canteen is open 8:30 - 4:00 pm and 8:00 -10:00 pm but it only stocks light snacks (little of it being fresh) and booze.

Fixed Menu Meals (by reservation only)
Breakfast: served at 5:30 am & 7:00 am for $21
Sack lunches: available for pick-up at breakfast for $13
Steak dinner: seating at 5:00 pm for $46
Stew or Vegetarian Stew: served at 6:30 pm for $30
That's $64-80 per day per person for a set menu. (These prices are for planning purposes only, all prices at the Ranch seem to fluctuate a bit).
Try calling the Transportation Desk listed under "Reservations" if you want more details about the menus. They have the information on their counter top though they may be too busy to read it to you (definitely don't call at 8 pm, which is closing time.)

Reserve, Reserve, Reserve
The 88 servings of meals often sell out before the beds because folks staying in the campground are welcome to reserve meals so book your meals when you book your bed. However, when we were there in March a few steak dinners were still available but the stew's were sold out. When you think "Phantom Ranch" think "reservations." Everything must be reserved in advance if you want them: beds, meals, and the duffel service. All are subject to the same cancellation policy, which is a full refund for cancellations received 48 hours or more in advance.

Caffeine Hit & More
Free coffee and paper cups are set out on the east side of the Canteen at the "side window" somewhere between 6 and 6:30 am and it's over when the big pot is empty. No hot water is available for tea drinkers.

Hot water for washing, not tea, is available at the sinks in the shower house and in the pair of rest rooms near the Canteen. An outdoor potable water spigot is available for use in the same vicinity.

Picking up our 'duffel' at the Ranch.
The Duffel Service Option
The duffel service is a wonderful, though expensive, option if you want to increase your comfort while on your Ranch excursion. Anyone can use it. Backpackers can send all or part of their gear down to the Ranch or up to the Rim. Mule riders we spoke with complained of a very strict limit on their personal gear carried with them on the mule and they could open up their possibilities by using the duffel service as well. And I jumped at the option so as to adhere to our gluten free/low FODMAP (low fermentable sugars)/low carb diet that was still evolving. In addition to being guarded about our guts, we are committed to not stressing our knees or backs with heavy packs. The duffel service allowed us to eat precisely what we wanted while carrying little more weight than our usual day hike load for what became a 2 night stay at the bottom of the canyon.

The duffel service is about $67 each way. We used it both directions even though our return duffel only weighed 16 pounds. But going up is the hardest direction to hike and adding another 8 lbs each to our packs would have been noticed. For 2 people staying at the Ranch 1 night, the duffel service is close to break-even with buying meals depending on your grocery bill and whether you compare the price with that of a steak or stew dinner.

We packed enough food for a 2 night stay and luckily, we were able to book a second night when at the Ranch. Of course a 2 night stay made the duffel service wildly cost effective when compared with the Canteen meal service. And if we go again, we'll streamline our duffel contents so as to have sufficient food for 3 nights, which will further improve the price comparison for the service with the Ranch's prepared meals. If one were traveling with others, you might be able to further economize by consolidating your reduced supplies and share 1 upward bound duffel instead of each paying for 1.

Whether your duffel is going up or down, you want "FOOD" noted on the provided masking tape label if it contains food. Labeling your bag as such may increase the odds that the staff will attempt to shield your bag from rodents and ravens. The staff at the Rim will stick a strip of tape on your bag with your name, the date, and the bag's weight. Be sure to tell them that it contains food so they'll add "FOOD" to the label. At the Ranch, make the notation yourself for the duffel's return trip.

Our wire mesh bags, the feed bag, & our garbage that made the trip up.
Because of the advice on a blog, we bought rodent-proof wire mesh bags for our duffel. We bought 2 large bags for about $40 each + tax. One would have been sufficient for our food but we also wanted to protect our clothing from being nibbled upon on the critter's way to finding the food. Per the blogger's suggestion, we also put our food, including fruit and vegetables, inside plastic containers that went inside the wire mesh bags. We kept our food in the mesh bags while in our cabin. The bags were expensive, but we hope to make use of them on future trips to the Ranch.

Also note that not all duffels may be shielded from rain or snow so pack your clothing and other water-sensitive items in waterproof bags inside the duffel if precipitation is in the forecast.

Timing Challenges When Using the Duffel Service & Last Minute Bed Reservations
Coordinating last minute reservations for beds at the Ranch with the duffel service is quite the tense dance. In order to be assured that your duffle will be transported either way, you must make reservations for it in advance for one of the 25 slots on the mules. Duffel reservations are subject to cancellation fees just like the lodging and meals. This system is fine if you've managed to book your lodging in advance and you aren't relying on last minute accommodations as we did. I kept checking on duffle service availability when I checked-in about lodging--fortunately only about half of the slots were reserved so I presumed we could secure a duffel slot at the last minute.

Should we engage in this last minute madness again, we will be prepared to carry our first night's dinner down with us to the Ranch. That way if there were no slots for our duffel and it didn't go down the same day we did, we'd have our dinner and hope to get the duffel on a mule for the following day. Since the mules arrive at the Ranch around 8 or 9 am, depending on the time of year, doing so would give us access to our duffel for a late breakfast the first morning we were at the Ranch. We'd also make sure to arrange our schedule and select our duffel contents so that we could tolerate not having our duffel arriving on the Rim the same day we did. Again, if there wasn't space on mules the day we left the Ranch, we'd hope to send our duffel up to the Rim the following day.

When it comes to Phantom Ranch it is very difficult to get concrete information but it sounds like that, in general and for most of the year, there is usually last minute space available on the mules for duffels. That changes when the commercial rafting season begins and the rafters begin using the duffel service. The rafting season is approximately April through September.

Duffel Service Deadlines
Ideally, duffels should be dropped off at the Mule Barn (Fred Harvey Livery Barn) near Bright Angel Lodge by 4pm the day before you hike down to Phantom Ranch.

Duffels can be delivered to the Transportation Desk at Bright Angel Lodge between 4 pm and 8 pm for a $10 late fee per call (not per duffel).

Duffels can be delivered to the Mule Barn from 8 pm until midnight and are subject to a late fee, though it sounds like this is a trickier process.

Duffels going from Phantom Ranch to the Rim must be delivered to the loading dock by 6:30 am, though you may not know if you have a bed for an additional night by then if you are on the waiting list. Mules leave the Rim around sunrise, so their arrival time at the Ranch and hence their departure time for the Rim varies through out the year. Officially, you need to set-out your duffel for outgoing service by 6:30 am but when we were there the mule team didn't arrive until about 9 am. The mule drivers insisted that the duffels had to be ready to go at 6:30 but Ranch staff and observers like us knew otherwise. It appeared that only the mule drivers handled the duffels so any duffel dropped off before they arrived should be there early enough.

Duffels can be left for transport for the following day if you miss the pick-up.

If you are hoping to stay at the Ranch additional night or 2, it's best to pay for the return duffel service at the Ranch the day of transport to the Rim rather than in advance to avoid cancellation fees if you are able to extend your stay. Of course, without an advance reservation, there is no guarantee that your duffel will have a slot on the mules.

They take credit cards at the Ranch so last minute payments for beds, meals, or duffel service isn't' a problem.

This is why nothing can be attached to the outside of your duffel.
Duffel Limits
There is a 30 lb limit per duffel. It will be weighed if you deposit it at the Transportation Desk and I assume they also check weights at the Mule Barn. The maximum dimensions for a duffel are 36" x 20" x 13" though that wasn't strictly enforced. Do not have anything, like walking sticks, attached to the outside of your duffel, which they do insist upon. These aren't arbitrary rules, they all reflect the constraints of hauling loads on the mules.

We used the free, paper-thin feed bags available at the Transportation Desk (and presumably the Mule Barn) instead of a duffel for our gear. The feed bag 'duffel' solved a number of problems for us. Duffel bags are heavy and can easily weigh several pounds whereas the flimsy feed bags weigh only ounces. And it's amazing how quickly one can accumulate 30 lbs of food and gear for a 2 night stay for 2 people. As it was, we were right at the 30 lb limit. And at $67/duffel, it's compelling to not overflow into an additional bag.

Duffels are at risk for being chewed on by rodents, especially when sitting on the floor overnight in the Mule Barn. Holes in my duffel aren't what I wanted for a Phantom Ranch souvenir, making the expendable feed bag even more attractive. And finally, we are chronically short on storage space in our in-bed truck camper and storing a bulky duffel for 6 months that might not get used was too extravagant for us when a temporary, free alternative was available.

Mule skinner loading duffels for the trip to the Rim.
Outgoing To The Rim
To deposit a duffel for transport to the Rim, take it to the mule loading area behind the Canteen where you retrieved your incoming duffel at the Ranch, ideally by 6:30 am. Look for the green tags and supplies on the cabinet against the wall of the downstream building. Use one of the 2 scales to weigh your bag and note the weight on the green delivery tag. The staff use the weight information to balance the load on the mules. Tear off the bottom stub of the tag and retain it. Put a strip of masking tape on your duffel and write your name, the date, and the bag weight on it. Note "FOOD" as well if there is food or food garbage in the bag. And I followed someone else's lead and added "Thanks!" Leave your duffel in the "Outgoing" cabinet if there is room or on top of it if not.

The official word is that duffels can be fetched from the Mule Barn around 3-4 pm the afternoon they go up to the Rim or from 9-4 the next day. Presumably they can be picked up earlier, shortly after the mule team arrives at the barn. Our pick-up process was very informal: we walked into the barn, saw the pile of duffels, and walked out with ours a little before 4 pm. I assume the Mule Barn closes at 4 pm.

Trailer Village
If you are staging your Phantom Ranch trip from an RV, it's easiest to use online booking to get a space in the only RV park at Grand Canyon that has full hook-ups. Xanterra is the concessionaire for it as well as Phantom Ranch. All of the slots in the RV park had been paved since we were there in 2012. The 2 restroom buildings are heated in the winter and have hot water at the sinks but there are no showers. Showers and a laundromat are near the Canyon Village Market & Deli though we bathe in our camper when there.

Don't miss this sign at Bright Angel Lodge.
You can also inquire about reservations for Trailer Village at the same Denver call center that is used for booking beds at Phantom Ranch, though you could be on hold for a half an hour to an hour. Trailer Village has a last minute cancellation line that you access through the same line as for last minute Phantom Ranch reservations. Call the Xanterra switchboard at the Park at (928) 638-2631 and then ask to be connected with Trailer Village to determine availability. The woman staffing Trailer Village the day we arrived said that she never committed to having open slots until after 12:00 pm. Like at Phantom Ranch, she wants to make sure that there aren't any emergencies preventing campers from leaving by the noon check-out time before making spaces available to arriving campers.

All RV slots at Trailer Village were $35 per night as of March 2014 regardless of the length of the space or vehicle. We left our rig there while we were down at Phantom Ranch which meant that we were paying twice for those 2 nights. We were happy to do so, however. It was freezing at night on the Rim while we were there and we wanted our rig to have the benefit of electrical hook-ups in our absence. Our batteries and solar panels should have been sufficient to supply the electricity needed to keep the propane furnace running to heat the camper to 55 degrees but we wanted the peace of mind of those being back-up systems, not the primary system. Keeping the rig warm overnight prevents the water tanks and lines from freezing.

I've been told that Phantom Ranch hikers with RV's can leave their rigs in a particular parking lot for free (presumably, only if unoccupied) while overnighting at the Ranch. We didn't pursue that option because being in the RV park simplified matters so much during a time of chaotic, last minute preparations. First, it eliminated the need to move the rig the morning of our hike. And we wanted to be in the Trailer Village for a few days after our return from the Ranch. For us, the additional $35 or $70 (one or 2 nights at the Ranch) we spent on duplicated lodging fees was worth the peace of mind, the certainty it bought us, and the extra comfort that came with hook-ups before and after our visit to the Ranch. And, by the time we came to making that decision, it was clear to us that nothing about having a Phantom Ranch adventure was cheap.

The National Park Service also operates no-hook-up campgrounds in the Park--book those sites through the Park Service.

The General Store at the South Rim's Canyon Village Market & Deli is surprisingly well equipped. If you weren't too picky and not too price sensitive, you could show up at the Grand Canyon empty handed and completely outfit yourself with quality gear for a backpacking trip. The General Store had a selection of camping equipment, clothes, and footwear to do the job. In addition, they had an impressive selection of smaller items to rescue anguished campers or hikers in need of a good sun hat, crampons, or a can opener. The prices were reasonable but certainly weren't bargains.

The supermarket section of the Market & Deli was impressive. I did a virtual shopping trip to re-provision our pantry and was as successful as I am at an average store. There was no frozen kale, in fact, there weren't many frozen foods, but the fresh produce section was surprisingly well stocked. Our staples, like canned black beans and cheese, were easily double what we normally pay and I made a mental note to always come well-supplied on those items. But even as very picky eaters, it was a grocery store from which we could sustain ourselves for an extra week or 2 and be satisfied--as long as we closed our eyes at check-out.

The day to day temperatures variations are significant at the Grand Canyon and the differences between the South Rim and Phantom Ranch can be greater still. The temperatures for our first 2 days on the Rim got our attention. It was in the teens at night with the daytime highs ranging between 65° the first day and 51° the second. The highs at Phantom Ranch for the same days went from 82° one day to 67° the next. The overnight lows at Phantom Range were more steadily in the mid-40's. And that was in mid-March. We overheard stories of mule riders passing out on the trail in the summer heat that can reach 120 degrees. The NOAA website is the only service where I found forecasts for Phantom Ranch.