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Images of America – Grand Canyon's Phantom Ranch

Author : Robert W. Audretsch
Published : 2012-02-13

There aren't many places in U. S. national parks where you can venture well into the backcountry by foot, raft or saddle and then enjoy a good meal you didn't cook yourself
and sleep in a bed you didn't tote.

The short list includes the Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park, the LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Phantom Ranch, located literally in the depths of Grand Canyon National Park. The latter is the subject of a new book, Images of America - Grand Canyon's Phantom Ranch, which offers a photo history of the historic hostelry, and it's worth a read.

Author Robert W. Audretsch made his first hiking trip to Phantom Ranch in 1977, worked at the park for nearly 20 years, and retired in 2009. He says he's "logged nearly 10,000 miles on canyon trails below the rim," and readers of his book may suspect he spent nearly that many hours poring over photos in archives while researching this project.

The book is part of the publisher's Images of America series, so most of the information is found in captions for over 200 black and white photos; short sections of text provide additional background and details. Audretsch has gathered an interesting collection of photos and facts from those earliest days of tourism at the bottom of the Canyon, which predate the area's designation as a National Monument (1908) and later a national park (1919).

Although the author includes some basic information about flora, fauna, geology and early history, his focus is on the development of the area near the confluence of the Colorado River and Bright Angel Creek that eventually became known as Phantom Ranch.

From Rust Camp to Phantom Ranch

The first basic facilities for tourists near the Colorado River were known simply as Rust Camp; David Rust constructed a trail from the North Rim of the Canyon to the Colorado River and developed a 2-acre campsite near the river in 1907. That same year he erected a cable car system across the Colorado, and the depths of the Grand Canyon were ready to receive visitors.

Photos in the book confirm that Rust's offerings for tourists were decidedly rustic, but they still attracted some notable guests, including Teddy Roosevelt and now-legendary canyon explorers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb. The images from that era offer some interesting contrasts, including ladies in ankle-length dresses "dining" under a simple thatched canopy.

The establishment of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919 ushered in big changes for the area, beginning with the replacement of Rust's cable car crossing of the river by a more reliable bridge. The Fred Harvey Company became the concessioner for visitor facilities in the area, and credit for the name of Phantom Ranch is given to Mary Jane Coulter, an architect and designer for the company. Her assignment, in 1921, was to "fashion a place of 'food, lodging and comfort against an austere backdrop.'"

The arid setting and rocky canyon walls that rise thousands of feet above the site create a setting that can be described as "austere," but more favorable adjectives have been applied as well, and Coulter wanted an appropriate name for the new development. She reportedly "thought the name 'Phantom Ranch' implied intrigue and romanticism, qualities which Coulter hoped would attract visitors" to the remote location. If you prefer a real-world connection, Phantom Creek flows into Bright Angel Creek less than a mile from the "Ranch."

Today's visitors to the area will find things are considerably more comfortable than did their predecessors, and the book traces the changes in both park and concession-operated facilities along Bright Angel Creek.

Cable Cars, Bridges and the CCC

In addition to evolution of facilities at Phantom Ranch itself, the author provides a good photo history of the all-important river crossings in the vicinity, including a succession of cable cars and foot bridges. If you've ever wondered where the South Rim of the park gets its water, you'll find the answer in photos and discussion of the cross-canyon waterline.

River runners, hikers and mule trains all receive attention in the book, and there's considerable coverage of the role of the CCC in development of facilities in the area. The CCC camp at Phantom Ranch was "considered one of the most isolated in the country. Everything except water …. was hauled in by mules."

Generations of park visitors have enjoyed the results of their labors, but at least one CCC enrollee from Texas sounded a bit skeptical when he finally reached the camp: "Thought I had reached the end of the world."

A primary emphasis for the CCC crews was trail construction, including the Colorado River Trail, which connects the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails in the bottom of the canyon. "Carved out of solid rock on the south side of the Colorado River, it proved to be the most daunting trail project in park history... The Williams News hailed the trail as 'One of the outstanding engineering achievements of all time in the park.'"

Hikers and Campers Outnumber Mule Riders

The author also addresses NPS facilities at Phantom Ranch, including the campground, ranger station and mule corral and shelter. Although many people likely associate the concessioner-operated facilities at the Ranch with overnight mule trips, the author points out that more visitors to the area hike rather than ride, and facilities at Phantom Ranch include a dorm for overnight use by hikers.

Phantom Ranch has seen plenty of changes over the years, and the photos, captions and text offer insights into the evolution of management policies for the park. Gone are the vegetable gardens and small herd of sheep from the early days of the Rust Camp, as are the swimming pool at Phantom Ranch and the stocking of non-native trout in Bright Angel Creek.

Other, more important, qualities that define the Phantom Ranch remain. As the author notes, "The only way there is by river rafting, hiking or mule…When travelers leave Phantom Ranch, they are never the same. For some of them, departing is as if they have just said good-bye to an old friend."

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