Thursday, July 9, 2015

Backpacking the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail

We first backpacked down from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch in 1985, and we loved it so much we returned in 1989 and hiked round-trip, South Rim-to-North Rim-to-South Rim.

The trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail is at Yaki Point, about 4.5 miles east of Grand Canyon Village via the Rim Trail.  A free shuttle bus will also take you to the trailhead.  This trail is a ridgeline descent to the river meaning you follow ridges rather than side canyons. The trail is steeper than Bright Angel and offers little shade and no water, but it is the fastest route to the river and offers the best vista views.  It is also the most dangerous to ascend in the summer since it is steeper, has no shade and no water, and hikers are discouraged from using it for a return trip to the rim.  Following that advice, we backpacked down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel our first time here in 1985.

In this photo you see the trail hugging the cliff with a hiker on the trail.

The next two photos show mules carrying passengers back up the South Kaibab Trail. This trail is also used by the pack mules which supply Phantom Ranch with all of its supplies and pack out all of its waste.

Backpackers be aware: The mules have the right of way, so you must step off the trail, when possible, or near the downhill side of the trail, and let them pass. The mule wrangler will give you directions. When ascending the North Kaibab Trail in 1989, just after a cloudburst, a mule coming down lost its footing and slid into me, nearly pushing me over the edge. Fortunately the mule caught itself and stopped sliding, but I'm not sure who was more frightened, the rider on the mule or myself.

Mules use the South Kaibab Trail for a two day overnight trip to Phantom Ranch. The mules which are deemed not of the correct temperament for carrying people are used as pack mules to resupply Phantom Ranch and carry our garbage. Mule trips also travel down Bright Angel Trail as far as the Plateau Point Trail overlook and then return to the South Rim. Partial-day mule trips are also available from the North Rim partway down.

The mules need breathers on the steep switchbacks, so the wrangler stops the procession as needed. They always have the mules stand sideways on the trail during these rest stops. As one wrangler explained: "These mules only have eyes at one end, so we always have that end facing out so it knows exactly where the edge is," and if you look closely, you'll see that's how they are positioned on the trail in the photo below. And if hikers come upon a group taking a rest stop, they must wait until the mules resume moving before they can continue. As you can see in the picture, there's no room for hikers to pass the mules easily or safely when they are straddling the trail sideways.

Cedar Ridge, about 1.5 miles from the rim, has a pit toilet available, and you are nearing O'Neill Butte which is prominent in the next 2 photos.

This magnificent vista is indicative of all the views from the South Kaibab Trail. As mentioned earlier, the trail follows ridge lines which affords countless breathtaking panoramas, but which also necessitates the navigation of steep downhills as one descends. 

This section below, called the "red and whites," consists of 23 successive switchbacks, about half in the red limestone dirt and half in white limestone dirt. The photo below shows only 11 of the switchbacks, and this section is one of the reasons they do not suggest using this trail to exit the canyon, especially during the hot summer months. The employees at Phantom Ranch work 10 days and then have 4 days off, and on their first and tenth days they are allowed time to hike in and out (commute!) They are all in such good shape that they exit via this trail since it is the shortest and fastest way up, but they are carrying minimal gear and are in really good shape!

The North and South Kaibab Trail system was completed by the National Park System back in 1928. After years of unsuccessful attempts to gain control of the then privately-owned Bright Angel Trail, the NPS began construction of the South Kaibab.  Ironically, they received jurisdiction of the Bright Angel the same year they finished building the South Kaibab!

The photo below is your first view of the Colorado River as you descend the South Kaibab Trail. Only a dozen or so switchbacks remain and can be seen in the photo. If you look real closely, you can see the black bridge crossing the river just right of center in the photo. A view of this area from a vantage point across the river is shown in the second photo below, and it really shows these final switchbacks.

The photo below was taken from the Clear Creek Trail on the Tonto Plateau looking across the Colorado River back at the final segment of switchbacks which bring the South Kaibab Trail to the Black suspension bridge (located bottom center.) Again, you get an idea of the difficulty of hiking back up to the rim on this trail. 

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