Below The Rim: Life Inside The Grand Canyon
Every year, more than 5 million people trek to Grand Canyon National Park for a spectacular view, one that’s almost too dazzling to comprehend. From the top, the canyon’s maze of cliffs and mesas can look like a painting, hard to describe in words or capture in a photograph.
But once you venture down one of its steep trails, you start enter another world. The farther you get from the crowded overlooks and gift shops, the more personal and intimate the canyon becomes. And like anywhere that’s hard to reach, the Grand Canyon’s backcountry is rich with stories.
In this series, we tell you a few of them.
For many, hiking into the humbling expanse of the Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But for a hearty few, it’s a commute.
At Phantom Ranch, the bunkhouse and restaurant on the canyon floor, employees have been helping people feel at home between these ancient rock walls for nearly a century.
It doesn’t matter what day it is. Or even what year. Every evening down here, it’s the same siren song.
The dinner bell.
“Good evening, people of stew dinner!” bellowed a 30-something bearded guy, with a ponytail and a knack for engaging the eager crowd.
Before everyone filed into the small stone canteen, he gave a speech familiar to anyone who’s eaten here. Make sure to pass that salad and stew to your neighbors, he announced, and keep those forks for the chocolate cake.
Since Phantom opened in 1922, many people have said those words and inhabited this role, serving the meals one night, cooking them another. Employees rotate through making beds, cleaning toilets, selling lemonade and all those other necessary tasks at this collection of cabins and shaded walking paths, surrounded on every side by the remote wilderness.
“Only a certain type of person could probably work down here,” said 27-year-old KT Dockery, her long hair tucked under a colorful bandana. “Not everyone could handle this, I guess.”
You’ve got be patient, she said, open to whatever’s thrown at you. That could mean dehydrated hikers or a credit card machine on the fritz. And that’s not to mention sharing a dorm with your coworkers for weeks on end.
Luckily, “everybody’s super cool and gets along,” she said. “I mean, you have to get along down here because you live together and work together.”
For Dockery, her year and a half at Phantom has been full of surprises, including meeting her new husband, who lives on the South Rim. She’s also found a confidence she had no idea existed.
“Because when you’re evening waiter, you have to speak and do, like, a speech and stuff like that,” she said. “I’m a pretty shy person, I guess, so that was pretty intimidating when I first started working here. But now I’m pretty comfortable with it and can corral people pretty well, I think.”
Building a life that’s several hours of intense hiking from a town or even cell service seems to go hand-in-hand with self-discovery.
LeeAnn Dodde, 33, wanted to throw herself into pottery for years, but never really did – until she moved to Phantom six years back.
It often shocks visitors that she has a pottery wheel down here and that mules pack out her fragile unfired cups and bowls.
“You know, I lose maybe 10 to 20 percent of the pieces sometimes,” she said, taking a break from evening dinner prep. “Sometimes I get them all out. Yeah, I just bubble wrap them and take them to my home in Prescott and glaze and fire them on the weekend.”
Dodde hopes to do ceramics full-time someday. She already has a built-in fan base down here.
But the Phantom community runs a lot deeper than that for her.
“Developing this network of people has been more than I would have dreamed of,” she said.
So many of the people Dodde knows above the rim are connected to Phantom in some way. When she was in the hospital a while ago, a man she’d never met who had worked here in the ’70s came to visit her.
Dodde knows that even after she leaves this place someday, she’ll always have a place to sleep down here.
It seems everyone uses the same word to describe the crew: family.
As Brian Couch put it, “I think once you become a Phantom Rancher, you’re a Phantom Rancher forever.”
He’s been one for seven years, since he was 50 – Phantom’s self-described “old guy.”
“I guess, instead of getting a sports car and a young girlfriend, I moved to the Grand Canyon,” he said, with a bit of a laugh.
It’s a far cry from his last life, working in aluminum factories. After years of spending his vacations in backcountry around here, Couch begged for this job.
Wearing a faded Phantom baseball cap over his graying hair, he smiled as he gestured to his manager, sitting a few feet away.
“Bless Joni there, she hired me, and I’m forever thankful. I’m forever thankful for her. She changed my life,” he said. “And this place, definitely, will change your life.”
And you’ll never know how until you become a Phantom Rancher yourself.
The Mules That Fuel The Grand Canyon
Thousands of years ago, in what’s now the country of Turkey, historians say someone decided to breed a horse with a donkey. The mule was born. The sturdy hybrids were soon used all over the world.
Cars and trucks have mostly replaced them by now, but the beasts of burden still reign supreme at the Grand Canyon.
This is especially true on the South Kaibab trail, where you’ll see young mule packers leading a lumbering line of the creatures, all carrying full bags. Every day, supplies and souvenirs go down the South Rim. Trash comes up.
But that’s not the only cargo the mules carry.
On a recent afternoon, a group of smiling tourists, each riding their own mule, whooped as they crested the trail, returning from a one-night trip to Phantom Ranch, the bunkhouse at the bottom of the canyon.
John Berry was there to greet them.
“How was it?” he asked.
“It was wonderful!” yelled one woman, as another woman hollered loudly, like a coyote yipping at the moon.
“Now there’s a bunch of happy people,” Berry said.
With his bushy mustache and cowboy hat, Berry looks the part of a livery manager, who works with the mules for the company Xanterra. He gives a lot of credit to the wranglers who guide these trips, but he knows who truly makes the rides possible.
“I kind of think of a mule as a four-wheel-drive pickup truck,” he said, “where a horse would be more like a Cadillac.”
Mules are sure-footed and tough, Berry said, and they don’t spook easily. They’ve carried an estimated one million people in and out of the canyon since the late 1800s. The rides are daily, stopped pretty much only by dangerous weather and government shutdowns.
Berry was here when the government stopped running for two weeks in 2013.
“And these mules were so bored, out here in the corral,” he said. “They were fighting each other and kicking each other. They were just bored. I truly believe that they love to work.”
And lots of people in the canyon love to work with them, like Josiah Dryer, a packer. He grew up around horses and donkeys, as well, but describes himself as a “mule guy.”
As he strapped bags onto his mules behind Phantom Ranch, Dryer said he likes how intelligent the animals are.
They don’t freak out on the trail, he said. They also don’t forget.
“If you do something to a mule, that mule will get you back seven years later, and you will know why it did that,” he said.
And he didn’t seem to be kidding. Phantom maintenance man Joseph Kendall can also vouch for their smarts. He’s befriended a giant mule named Kaibab Bob, who’s convalescing right now at the bottom of the canyon.
“Make sure you eat all that, all right?” he said, handing carrots and lettuce to the big mule, with its brown body and white around its mouth.
Kendall brings him veggies every day – and also brushes him. Kendall said the mule was a little shy at first, but loving.
“I don’t know, he’s just a good guy,” he said, smiling.
Kaibab Bob stumbled off the trail – and every once in a blue moon, a pack mule will. That’s not true, however, for the mules that carry people.
Every morning, John Berry tells a fresh crop of riders the same thing, that in more than 100 years, these tourist rides have never lost a visitor due to a mule.
During a recent safety talk, held right before the group headed down the trail, he was often funny, but also frank.
“This is no pony ride at the county fair,” he told the crowd, huddled against the wind and cold of a snow flurry. “This is a tough, hard ride.”
He went over how to get the mule “to brake” and how to keep your cool by not looking down into the intimidating vastness of the canyon. By the end, a little girl from Boston was in tears.
“She’s really scared now,” said her mom, before trying to give the kid a pep talk.
Magically, within minutes, the girl summoned her courage. As Berry helped her onto her mule, her eyes were still wet, but she was trying to smile.
“Now, you take care of John S for me, okay?” Berry said, and she responded with a barely audible “Okay.”
A few minutes after the group disappeared below the rim, Berry radioed one of the wranglers, who was riding just in front of her.
“How’s she doing, Cindy?” Berry said into the walkie-talkie.
“She’s good,” a calm voice said over the receiver. “We’re talking about cats.”
Berry chuckled, looking relieved.
“Well, good,” he replied.
A few hours of riding later, the little girl declared that someday, she wants to be a wrangler, too.
The People You Meet At The Bottom
For the vast majority of those who peer over the edge at Grand Canyon National Park, it’s the only view of the canyon they’ll ever get. Of the more than 5 million people who come to the park every year, far fewer explore it on one of the canyon’s well-worn trails — and only about 1 percent spend a night at the bottom.
They’re called the "1 percenters.”
Becoming one is no small deal. From the South Rim, you can either hike a rough-and-tumble 10-mile trail or a steeper, gnarlier 7-mile route, with no drinking water available.
Either way, you get hours of intense beauty, aggressive switchbacks, and — finally — a bridge leading across the Colorado River.
Where you land next, as described by hiker Natalie Lambert, is “such a little oasis” in a “very dry, hot place.”
Like almost everyone who takes this journey, she was cooling her heels at a shaded picnic table at Phantom Ranch, the only lodging within the canyon. She was camping nearby. Lambert, who’s from Montreal, said it was her first time down here.
“But yeah, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a canyon, really,” she said.
That’s because you’re tucked too far in to see the top, nearly 5,000 feet above. It feels more like a serene, rocky valley down here, with shimmering trees and a creek running through. There’s also a canteen that sells postcards and lemonade.
For 63-year-old Kathy Moates, it’s a place to just be.
“People come in and out, and you can just watch humanity go by, and then you get to meet some of them,” she said. “And everyone has such an interesting story.”
Moates felt that way since she visited in 2004 with her young kids and husband, who was already an experienced backcountry hiker. Stephen Moates, now 71, admits he was skeptical then about the crowds and amenities.
“I was a pretty arrogant purist about the whole thing,” he said.
But once he got down here, he was charmed.
“And to have the experience with an 8-year-old and coming-up-12-year-old children, and seeing how they reacted and how they grew into it, and what took place, was a thrill,” he said.
When they got home to Indiana, they couldn’t stop talking about it. They’re now on their fourth trip.
This place has a way of collecting regulars.
Before Chris Hupman, 59, left her home in Mesa for this trip, she heard the same thing from a few friends.
“I’ve had people ask, you know, ‘Why are you going for the third time?’” she said.
But Hupman has a question for them, too.
“As soon as you step onto the trail and see that vast expanse ahead of you, it’s, like, why wouldn’t everyone want to do this?” she said.
The canyon doesn’t get old. It stays incredible, she said — and actually gets more so. And this time, there was a little more a sense of being alive added in. Hupman was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer. She underwent a hysterectomy January and is now in remission.
“And so this is sort of a victory lap for me,” she said, "being able to say, ‘OK, cancer, take that!'"
There are always so many fascinating folks down here. On this afternoon, they included a young woman who just goes by Lia. She had a giant bag of potato chips strapped to the top of her pack.
She and her buddies had been hiking for months on a route that links national parks across the West.
“It’s a weird thing that happens when you’re out for so long: people, you can smell them from a mile away, like, the scent of clean people,” she said, before breaking into a small chuckle. “Yeah, it’s really weird. I wonder if they can smell us. I hope they can’t.”
Not too far away, two former female river guides in their 60s — friends for decades — were contentedly reading their books by the creek.
Being here, said Jeni Sue Willburn, is a chance to get back to the basics, “of your basic, raw emotions.”
After a few nights in the dorms, which were great, Wilburn said, she and her friend Raven were offered to spend their final night in their own cabin, because of a cancellation. They were ecstatic.
“Where else would somebody saying something like that make you so completely happy?” Wilburn said. “And it lasted all day!”
The simplicity here seems to impact almost everyone. Steve Moates said people tend not to talk about politics or their jobs. Or even other national parks. They talk about the canyon.
“And as I’ve told people, I say you’ll have one of two reactions when you come out of the canyon,” he said. “It will be ‘never again’ or ‘I can’t wait to get back.’”
Moates knows what his answer will always be, for as long as he’s able.
Rim To Rim, And Back Again
After hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, most people are ready for a big meal and a deep sleep. But for an elite few, that’s just a warm up. Increasingly, the canyon is becoming a destination for trail runners wanting to push their limits.
Cool your heels at the bottom of the canyon, and you’ll spot them. Tiny packs on their backs, water bottles strapped to their chests, focused looks on their faces.
The rim-to-rim-to-rim uniform.
Jocelyn Briggs ran down the South Rim early one morning, then ran across the canyon floor, up the North Rim, then back down.
It’s been “tough! Really tough!” she said, taking a walking break. “Yeah, that was a tough climb. Yeah, it beat us up pretty bad.”
When Briggs reaches the top of canyon again in a few hours, she’ll have tackled almost two marathons worth of steep, rugged trail.
“That’s a good question,” she said, laughing. “A friend of mine wanted to do it, and I said that I would do it with her.”
Since it doesn’t require a permit, there’s no official data on how many people take this challenge — which ranges between 42 and 48 miles, depending on which trails you choose. But what’s clear is that its popularity has exploded in the past five or so years, with countless articles and Facebook groups highlighting its beauty and pain.
In 2014, it hooked now-famed trail runner Cat Bradley.
“It’s so humbling,” she said, speaking from Boulder, where she lives. “You know, the canyon never ends, and so you, you know, you have no choice but to feel small.”
The route was 25 miles longer than she had ever run, but still, she beat her buddies up the trail.
“I just had this totally new understanding what my body was capable of,” she said.
That jump-started Bradley’s trail-running hunger. In 2017, she won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. And a few months later, on her eighth rim-to-rim-to-rim run, she smashed the women’s record by more than 20 minutes.
But Bradley says her favorite canyon memory was actually a few years before, when her headlamp went out somewhere between the two rims, and she had to navigate the empty trail by the full moon.
“I just felt so connected to where I was,” she said, “and I felt so lucky to be experiencing that moment, you know, completely alone in this vast, vast place.”
That sweet solitude draws athletes from all over the world. And some of them, inevitably, wear headphones, talk loudly in the wee morning hours, and aren’t courteous to hikers and mules.
Canyon rangers say that since the running boom began, bathrooms have gotten more crowded and more litter has appeared along the trail. Rescues have increased, too, with one ranger saying that runners often don’t understand the simple, vital importance of salty snacks.
For many who love the canyon, making room for the runners is a big shift.
One of their favorite pit stops is the Phantom Ranch canteen, where Brian Couch was working one afternoon.
“I’ve never ran through a museum,” he said, with a laugh, “So I’ve never come and say, ‘Oh, I got through the Smithsonian in two hours!’”
Couch has hiked the backcountry here for decades, always savoring it.
“I think it should be experienced, felt, you know?” he said. “This go rim-to-rim one day, I don’t think you get the experience.”
At a spigot just outside, runners had been filling up their bottles all day long. One of whom was Toby Estler, who hit the trail at 4 a.m. He said he’d watched people challenging themselves today, including fellow runners and hikers that range from very young to very old.
“I can see people doing things that 20, 40, 50 years, it just wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
And Estler thinks that desire to push past old boundaries creates such a sense of possibility.
“When I go back into the real world and feel despondent and hopeless, I think about the people who are out here doing this stuff, and I think the world does change,” he said. “It takes time, but it happens. And that’s inspiring.”
He was only a few hours of intense climbing from that real world, with beer, pizza and family waiting at the top.