Long ago adventures comfort you for years after, ever reminding you of your promise to return?
A beautiful cairn appeared in the morning, after a bushwhack down the sheer eastern amphitheatre of Isis Temple. Nothing could have been more magnificent than the lone, well-constructed cairn greeting me at the end of a drainage into Phantom Canyon. 30 hours after leaving home, I was at last in Phantom Creek. And, I have it all to myself! A fine reward for my fly hike down the South Kaibab yesterday. The express bus left the back-country office at 1005am and I was at Phantom Ranch at 130pm. Took a quick snack and water break and then headed up the Utah Flats route. No rest for the hiker.
Learned a few things about this route – my first time and solo to boot. Most notably I discovered once again that I do not follow instructions well and my route-finding ability leaves room for improvement! Thoughts to consider in planning and doing another trip to Phantom Creek – 1) Though there are no 20 foot cliffs to negotiate, the initial scramble out of Phantom Ranch is obscure and gets worse as Piano Alley, a bowling alley for grand pianos, rewards you with the same grudging insolence of the giant who once tossed these concert-grand sized boulders helter-skelter across your chosen path, whatever it may be; suffice to say it is a rough climb; 2) Definitely veer north-north-west sharply once up on top of Utah Flats, the name is apt, and contour over the flats to the north-east side of Cheops Pyramid. Eventually a trail does indeed show up and it is quite good. But until you find it, it’s all eyes on deck; 3) Water – in my case, I had to dry camp overlooking the canyon, and hopefully tomorrow’s water. I could see the canyon; it was just hard to imagine getting down into it, at least after a 10-mile day. I was probably 1 ½ miles away – but the climb down into Phantom Creek looked like rugged bushwhacking; if it was even possible. I wish I had another liter of water, but? at least it is Winter; 4) There must be a route down into the canyon and I must find it! Bushwhacking is tough physically, with emotional trials as well. They say to explore away from water, not towards it; it is good advice. 5) Oh, and routes are not trails, perhaps the most salient observation to take from this experience.
The next morning, my water gone, I peered down into the canyon and its namesake creek. Its name is Phantom, and further up it branches out to include Haunted Canyon. I had considered the imagery of these names before as I pored over maps of seldom explored and myriad side canyons of the Grand Canyon, the back country, and now they rattle through my mind as I consider trading the easy comfort of my flat cliff overlook for the steep canyon walls below that will take me inevitably to the bottom. Water is everything in the desert. So I let go and begin my controlled slide down into the canyon contouring and climbing around, over and under perches and ledges and small cliffs. Each drop requires me to remove and lower my pack first, then climb and scramble down to the next level. There are a few prayers, and a 10-foot controlled drop to climax my descent. I hope my pack was ok.
The drainage I landed in was not my destination canyon, instead a side alley just off the canyon. There were still more dry falls, broader and sometimes steeper as I descended further, no water here now, but beautiful I am sure after some rain. Each spillover requires me to stop and plan a descent. Until at last, I spy cairns signaling the destination canyon. I made it! Phantom Canyon is a paradise from the top, and heavenly at bottom. Looking forward to the out being better than the in!
The rest of the day, after food and water, I hiked up past Schellbach Butte to the Haunted Creek inlet. Beautiful view of the Shiva Temple all the way up Phantom Creek to this point. Then I returned back down canyon to the Phantom Falls – past a nice seep flowing in! It’s a beautiful canyon! Much easier today, now that I am in! And I see a route back up and out, from near the Falls, the other side of the drainage I came in on! Ha ha, that’s great. Interesting to find out how I missed it on the way in!
Above all it was a perfectly beautiful day, silent in a prayer! The Falls in Phantom Creek are spectacular, sacred. Today I am here. To think I could have been working! Oh well, soon enough I am sure.
This morning I woke up chilly. My water froze! Soon enough I took a walk back upstream. Just the other side of the volcanic rock pile, haunted? I spotted a skeleton. Found it to be a deer, two of the legs and the skull and spinal cord. Many more bones as well, one set looked like that of a badger, large flat skull and short spine? It was a boneyard. Must be a big cat around? Critters had waked me up scampering about last night. Laugh out loud. My food bag seems intact.
Hiked out today, or at least back to people. What a “route”! Definitely an experience! A couple of pointers for next time, 1) On the way in, definitely veer north after following Piano Alley to the notch. Take the Utah Flats drainage northwest along the cliffs to the right. The “trail” does appear at times, if shyly, then magically disappears right before you at times as well. It is cairned, on the right(north) of the drainage. Then following the contour, look for the Tapeats outcroppings – two on your left(west) and one on the right at the northeast corner of Cheops. Head between them north towards the Phantom Creek. The trail gets better, then literally takes you all the way down; 2) But the descent into Phantom Creek is steep and tricky. More tricky than steep. Between Cheops and Isis, look for a notch. The notch forms an amphitheatre of drainage into Phantom. There are at least four separate run-offs. Cross each of them. At the last one avoid the temptation of the false trail to the left. This one takes you higher up Isis and if you’re adventurous, more so than me, you can find the way to the Isis summit or over into the next drainage. You want the trail on the right. It will take you down and north through an initial cinder flow. This trail skirts the point and then heads west and down in Phantom Creek! Just like the “route” says! Before Isis! What was I thinking??
Now back to the route out. Give yourself plenty of time as it’s a route-finding challenge at times and strenuous, as tough as the best of them. The initial climb out is steep talus, but it was such a treat to actually have a trail. I didn’t let it bother me. Then once up on the Tonto, the trail is good as well, though I lost it in one of the drainages. You have to watch ahead consistently to check on the contours and where the “trail” should go. In this case I should have climbed and had to bushwhack back up to the trail again. Then follow around the contours of Phantom Creek Canyon, where it’s easy until you start dropping into Utah Flats. Don’t go for the first opportunity to head East as you need to come back over a rise towards the Colorado before turning.
(Annerino and others refer to Utah Flats as the Hakatai formation and the notch is thru the Bass formation.)
Then you follow the drainage into the flats and look for the Piano Alley gap. Here the fun begins, as it is arguably harder going down than up. I had to lower my pack three times to get down Piano alley. And what a trail. It’s a rock slide in places. But what a beautiful canyon! Reminds me of Travertine Canyon, but worse! Finally the last scramble to campsite 13, and the creature comforts of Phantom Ranch!
Hiked out from Phantom Ranch. Undecided all the way to Indian Gardens on whether to spend the night there or hike on out. Ultimately decided to hike on out though. Still uncertain if I should have as it was a long haul up two of the steeper ascents. I took the South Kaibab up to the Tip-off, then the west Tonto over to Indian Gardens, and then out. I think that it’s 2 miles to the Tip-off, 4.1 miles to Indian Gardens and then 4.6 miles up to the top. Eleven miles and my legs are feeling it! Definitely the long way out of the canyon. Not recommended, unless perhaps you don’t want your hike to end?
I was running out of food. Thought I timed and planned it well. Certainly could have gone another day, but let’s be honest. I was down to a power bar, a pack of tuna and some ERG by the time I got to Indian Gardens. So I went for it and ate these last few items on the long trek up the Bright Angel Trail.
There was water in Burro Springs and Pipe Springs. I keep telling myself that I should camp here for an over-nighter some time. Easy hike, water, and great views. Speaking of views, I took the West Tonto to observe the Phantom Creek topography from the previous couple of days with a higher and broader perspective. Cheops Pyramid, Schellbach Butte, Isis Throne, and Shiva Temple all pose proudly, though the twin points of Isis’ crown begin to merge together from the south and with distance. The surprise was how large Buddha Temple looms over this vista. It stands out so boldly as the immense monument it is. I was hiking much of Thursday and Friday beneath it, but was pre-occupied with Isis and Cheops! Also surprisingly, Utah Flats is hardly visible from across the river.
Observations from home: I must go back to Phantom Creek and finish exploring the canyons – both Phantom and Haunted! It appears Haunted Canyon goes all the way back to the Transept. Also, there are a few routes up and over Tonto on the northern side of Phantom Creek; interesting to make a loop out of this back to Phantom Ranch.
The return trip was fine out of Phantom Creek (as it would have been on the way in) though finding the notch on Utah Flats in the dark would have been a problem. Need to cheat and duck it next time?
Being alone as I was for the better part of three days and facing a challenging journey into a wilderness was exhilarating, perhaps because I was genuinely anxious at times. While I was never in danger, I did face my doubts on several occasions as to whether I would have to turn back. Indeed, the scramble into Phantom Creek had me wondering if there might even be a “turning back”; a feeling adrenaline loves. Facing challenges down, with respect, is something to count as a good experience, an accomplishment.
When I did find the trail, or see another hiker, or return to a familiar landmark, I was comforted. I knew where I was and what was ahead so there was no reason to be anxious. So how do I explain this yearning to explore and go where few people have gone and the co-existing desire for security and familiarity? Is it only me?
And one more thing! I BROKE THE WALKING STICK! Can you believe it, Bob? After 13 miles in and 6 miles out, it breaks on the flat, soft, creek side path in Phantom Ranch. It just snapped! Oh and I picked up a tick in Phantom Ranch. Too many people.
Long ago adventures comfort you for years after, ever reminding you of your promise to return.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Dedicated to Bob Baird and J. Daniel McCranie without whom this would not have been possible, though for reasons as different as the light and the dark.