Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch is One of the Most Unique Lodging Experiences in the National Park Service
If you’re hoping to be a guest at one of the most unique national park properties, Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch, you have three possible modes of transportation to get there: on a boat as part of a river rafting trip, on the back of a mule, or by the power of your own two feet. Considering this lodging is 5,000 feet and a 10-mile trek below the South Rim, it’s no easy journey, but once you arrive at this rustic oasis at the bottom of the largest canyon in the world, any aches and pains accumulated along the journey will seem well worth it.
Photo by Matt and Karen Smith
Phantom Ranch has been serving guests for almost 100 years. It was completed in 1922 and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. When the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, the Fred Harvey Company saw an opportunity to develop tourism below the rim and hired architect Mary Colter to design permanent lodging at what was previously a tent camp. Since building materials would have to be hauled down by mules, Colter decided to create structures from on-site rock and rough-hewn wood. The architectural style she used became known as National Park Service Rustic. Colter insisted on naming the new complex Phantom Ranch, not due to ghostly apparitions, as most people assume, but after nearby Phantom Creek and Phantom Canyon.
Phantom Ranch Canteen/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith
The lodging at Phantom Ranch only accommodates around 90 guests, and consists of nine cabins that sleep 1-4 people, two cabins that sleep 8-10 people, and four male/female dormitories, each with 10 beds. The ranch provides bedding, so hikers don’t have to stuff sleeping bags and pillows into their packs. The cabins are no-frills and basic, with bunk beds, a small table with chairs, and a sink and toilet, however, they do have air conditioning, which feels like a luxury on a hot summer afternoon. A building that houses the men’s and women’s showers is centrally located.
Phantom Ranch cabin/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith
Even though it seems a million miles away from civilization, Phantom Ranch has a Canteen that does duty as a gift shop, snack shop, bar, and restaurant (yes, the mules bring down daily supplies of beer and wine, and everything else they serve at the Canteen). You can buy and mail a postcard here, knowing that it will be carried out by a four-legged postal worker. That’s right, the ranch is one of the two remaining places in the U.S. postal system that sends and receives its mail by mule. And unless you’re bringing your own food, the Canteen requires advance reservations for the two breakfast and dinner seatings, which are both served family-style at long group tables.
Sign in the Canteen/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith
Due to the immense popularity of Phantom Ranch, a few years ago the park ditched their old reservation system where the cabins and dormitories sold out within minutes at the beginning of every month. Subsequently, they implemented a lottery system. Submissions are accepted online between the 1st and 25th of every month for reservations 15 months out. Winners are notified 14 months ahead of their requested dates. While Phantom Ranch is open all year round, access to the North Rim (and the North Kaibab Trail) is closed in the winter, leaving two hiking trails down to Phantom Ranch from the South Rim: Bright Angel and South Kaibab. For all the information about the lottery, visit here.
Bright Angel Trail/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith
Be sure to bring your national parks passport book, because close to Phantom Ranch is a ranger station where you can get a special Phantom Ranch stamp. Rangers on duty provide programs for guests in the late afternoon and early evening if they’re not attending to hikers in distress. The hike in and out of the canyon can be strenuous, especially in the heat. A heliport is nearby, but there are no helicopters available to ferry weary travelers out of the canyon; the Park Service only uses it for rescue missions and injured hikers. If you have to be airlifted out, your Phantom Ranch experience will become more expensive than you probably budgeted for — a whole lot more.
Like in many national park lodges, there are no TVs, Internet, or cell phone service. Guests entertain themselves in various ways: playing cards in the Canteen, hiking around the area, and cooling off in Bright Angel Creek. Others just sit and gaze at the spectacular scenery, happy to be a proud member of the One Percent Club: the tiny percentage of Grand Canyon’s millions of visitors each year who venture more than a quarter mile below the rim.
Header photo by Matt and Karen Smith
Matt and Karen Smith are the authors of the Dear Bob and Sue series of books and the hosts of the Dear Bob and Sue podcast, where they share stories about their visits to all the national parks and other public lands.