When a friend first mentioned the Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch, I couldn’t believe my ears. It’s America’s most elusive hotel reservation, she said, the only lodging within the canyon itself, all 277 miles of it. A cluster of century-old stone cabins tucked along a stream, reachable only by mule ride or by trudging down nearly a mile into the crust of the earth.
“Rustic, amazing, gorgeous,” were some of her words. But you must plan well in advance. “They do reservations by lottery a year out,” she warned.
I dashed home and jumped online.
When I was lucky enough to secure a cabin for my family for 13 months later, in November 2019, I felt like I was throwing a pebble into an unknowable future. I was fending off a cancer attack, living scan to scan. As I plodded through another barrage of radiation and chemotherapy, my doctors smiled sympathetically when I kept saying that I had to be fit enough to get to Phantom Ranch.
My family of four arrived at our appointed day, just after sunrise at the top of the South Kaibab Trail, laughing at the idea that Phantom Ranch is, truly, the ultimate destination hotel. The entire point of the place is the experience involved in getting there.
“The Lowest Down Ranch in the World,” wrote the Coconino Sun newspaper when the lodgings opened in 1922. The pioneering architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, Mary Jane Coulter, had turned a rustic outpost where Teddy Roosevelt once camped into an oasis for the smart set. Her cabins and dining hall (which seconds as a general store and post office) are all built of the native stone. Every egg and can of beer comes down from the South Rim by mule train.
Now owned by the National Park Service and run by a private contractor, Phantom Ranch usually sleeps around 90, in 11 private cabins and four dorms that are divided by gender. But since our two-night stay, the pandemic has changed much of the experience that my family had just weeks before the …….