Stargazing Without the Crowds on the Grand Canyon Floor

A strenuous trek to Phantom Ranch—the only lodging on the base of the Grand Canyon—shows a different, less-crowded side of this world wonder. But you’ll have to work for it.

Night sky from the Rim Trail

Stargazing at the Grand Canyon is now one of the site’s most popular activities.

Photo by Stephanie Vermillion

Sweat stings my eyes; my calves scream with each step—although, four hours into this steep December hike to the Grand Canyon floor, my gait has become less of a step and more of a hobble. Yet burning muscles won’t tamper my joy. My husband, Frank, and I are about to hit the day’s long-awaited milestone: the Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge.

This 440-foot behemoth crosses the Colorado River, the mighty waterway that’s largely responsible for carving the Grand Canyon. The bridge, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark constructed in 1928, connects North Kaibab and South Kaibab trails, the main arteries within the canyon. It’s also a symbol that our cabin at Phantom Ranch, the only lodge beneath the canyon rim, is within reach.

“Let’s stop over there for water,” I say as we teeter across. The bridge begins dramatically with a roughly eight-foot-tall tunnel through the canyon wall. The structure is wide enough for one hiker, and with a tightly tethered wood-beam floor and tall chain-link fence, it feels secure. Still, as I peer down 70 feet at the rumbling river, I feel that nagging fear of heights creeping in.

South Kaibab Trail Bridge, viewed from underneath

Just remember to breathe while crossing the South Kaibab Trail Bridge.

Photo by Stephanie Vermillion

I pick up the pace, and sense my shoulders relax once we reach the dusty boulders, which we use as makeshift benches, on the other side. We set down our packs, sip the last dregs from our Nalgene water bottles, then gawk at the layer cake of salmon-tinged rock that envelops us.

I’ve seen the Grand Canyon from myriad vantage points—the Desert View Watchtower, the Rim Trail, and the Hermit’s Road overlooks—but nothing illustrates the enormity and grandness of this nearly 300-mile crack in the Earth like staring up at the colossus from its base. And, as I know from the Grand Canyon’s DarkSky International certification, this blue-sky view is merely an opening act for the astronomical awe in store tonight.

First (thousand) stars I see tonight . . .

From national park star parties to a boom in stargazing-centric hotels, astrotourists, like me, increasingly chase night-sky wonder around the world. This year, the astrotourism excitement is nearing an all-time high. Up to 4 million people are expected to travel to see April 8’s total solar eclipse, according to the experts at Great American Eclipse. The interstellar marvel, when the moon slides between the Earth and the sun, blocking all but the latter’s outer fringes, will bring eerie midday darkness to a 100-mile-wide path of North America. It’s the last total solar eclipse over the contiguous United States until 2044.

Adding fuel to the astrotourism fire is a boom in northern lights activity; this year and next are expected to bring some of the most vivid aurora displays in decades. In fact, Expedia data says aurora hunting is now “the most sought-after experience of 2024.”

This fanfare extends to national parks. “Interest in stargazing is not only increasing at the Grand Canyon—it has become the most popular programming we offer,” says Rader Lane, Grand Canyon National Park’s Dark Skies program manager. The park’s eight-night Grand Canyon Star Party alone draws thousands of visitors each June with speakers, laser-guided constellation talks, telescope sessions, and astrophotography workshops. It’s become the largest night sky festival in the entire national park system; park rangers also runs several free stargazing events per month.

It’s easy to see why. On the night prior to my canyon-floor jaunt, I did exactly what you shouldn’t do before an intense, multi-hour workout: I stayed up late to admire shooting stars and planets along the Rim Trail, a path that snakes between hotels along the canyon’s south lip. I spent over an hour in solitude, distracting myself from winter’s biting wind and below-freezing temperatures by identifying constellations, planets, and star clusters while my camera snapped away on time-lapse mode. That star-splashed dome above the maze of rock left me speechless. It also made me even giddier for the nightscapes in store at the canyon’s base—a perspective few visitors get the chance to see.

Stephanie, writer of story, on South Kaibab Trail, wearing large red backpack, with canyon in background

Stephanie on the South Kaibab Trail

Photo by Stephanie Vermillion

Of the Grand Canyon’s nearly 5 million annual visitors, only around 1 percent reach the canyon’s bottom—and that’s understandable. The vertiginous trails into the Grand Canyon are grueling. Our path, the South Kaibab Trail, boasts a knee-crushing 4,860-foot elevation loss on its roughly six-mile descent from rim to river. (The Bright Angel Trail is more gradual, losing 4,460 feet over 7.8 miles, but it’s closed for maintenance until at least April 2024.) Hikers regain every lost foot of elevation on the lactic-acid-packed journey back up. That’s why the NPS warns against attempting rim-to-river out-and-backs in one day.

Instead, travelers can sleep on the canyon floor with a backcountry camping permit or the crown jewel of national park reservations: Phantom Ranch.

The cozy digs—reachable only by foot, mule, or river raft—have a ’70s plaid-and-plank aesthetic. Accommodations include rustic cabins with fireplaces and private half-bathrooms, mountain-hut-style dorms divided by gender, and a communal dining space, all made of wood and native stone to seamlessly blend with the patchwork of shrub-freckled crag, thick brush, and prickly pear cacti that surround it.

In the century since its construction, Phantom Ranch has become the stuff of legend among national park enthusiasts. Due to high demand, a random lottery is required to reserve a bed or cabin. Those who don’t succeed can join a guided tour; apply for a campsite permit up to 4.5 months prior; or cross their fingers for a last-minute cancellation—which is how my husband and I weaseled our way in during our December 2023 Southwest road trip.

Only a few days before the trek, Frank and I thought we’d be camping at Bright Angel Campground, a creek-side campsite adjacent to Phantom Ranch. On a pretrip whim, I’d checked the ranch booking portal. A cancellation had left a cabin (starts at $213) open for one night during our Grand Canyon visit. I jumped on it.

The nightsky from the Grand Canyon Floor at Phantom Ranch

A nightscape from the Grand Canyon floor at Phantom Ranch

Photo by Stephanie Vermillion

Now as we check in, greeted with the ranch cantina’s sugary lemonades and bland (but, at this point in our hike, absolutely delicious) PB&J bagels—all toted down via the camp mules—I’m overwhelmingly grateful the stars aligned so perfectly. Not only did we nab a Phantom Ranch cabin, but we also arrived in the midst of fall, er winter, foliage, with the canyon floor’s cottonwoods turning from lime to gold. This occurs much later in the year down here given the 20-degree difference between the high-elevation rim and the canyon floor.

We stretch our stiff legs on an amble to the river, a wide, gurgling waterway that feels much less intimidating down here at ground level. Glowing gold cottonwoods line the dusty—and, thankfully, extremely flat—trail, while the bright sun warms my cheeks. Just hours ago at the rim, we’d bundled up to endure the biting cold and light snowfall. At this point, as we dip our feet in a river eddy, I’m down to a T-shirt and leggings. We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing riverside, doing everything in our power not to think about the uphill battle in store tomorrow.

Eventually, the sinking sun signals dinnertime. We head back to the camp dining room, mingle at the long communal table with about 20 fellow hikers, and happily join our dining mates in scarfing down seconds of family-style chili and cornbread. The ranch host invites us all back for a beer at 8 p.m., but Frank and I politely decline. We have a hot date with the universe.

Back at the cabin, lounging atop our private picnic table, we let our eyes adjust to the inky darkness. As they do, it becomes clear just how different this canyon floor perspective is from last night. Up along the hotel-dotted Rim Trail, with the canyon sprawling to the horizon, the stars sparkle in every direction. Down in these remote and quiet depths, the rock walls form a natural amphitheater. It forces us to zero in on what’s visible in this dark, cloud-free swath of sky—although, after an hour, that “us” turns to “me.”

“I’ll come to bed soon,” I tell Frank as he heads in for the night, his raised eyebrow confirming what we both know. Despite the 5 a.m. alarms, and our forthcoming slog up 5,000 feet, I’m in for another long night.

Usually my stargazing routine begins by letting my mind wander down a path of interstellar awe, mesmerized by the grandness of the universe and our tiny place within it. Down here, I can’t get past this ancient dome of crag.

As I’d read back at the visitor center, Grand Canyon rocks date back some 2 billion years, if not longer. They predate not just the dinosaurs but also the earliest animals and plants—and even several of the night-sky highlights overhead tonight.

The Pleiades star cluster, a collection of blue-tinged stars steeped in Indigenous legend, first shined in our skies around 100 million years ago. Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, appeared no more than 200 million years before that. Massive orangey Betelgeuse, a shoulder in the constellation Orion, formed 10 million years ago, roughly the same time the Colorado River began its rock-carving masterpiece—a feat so large and grand that, now, you can see it from space.

Aerial view of zigzag switchbacks on the South Kaibab Trail

Just a casual hike along the South Kaibab Trail

Photo by Stephanie Vermillion

Know before you go

Grand Canyon National Park lies in a northwest corner of Arizona; the closest airport, Tusayan, is seven miles away. Las Vegas and Phoenix are within a four-hour drive. Book a rental car to get from airport to the canyon rim. To try your luck at Phantom Ranch, enter the lottery—available for 15 months out—or check general availability closer to your desired trip dates in case there are cancellations. If you can’t snag a reservation, guided tours with outfitters like REI Adventures and Four Season Guides include overnight stays at the ranch, too.

Stephanie Vermillion is a travel journalist covering outdoor adventure, culture, astrotourism, and conservation. Her work has been published by AFAR, National Geographic Travel, Outside Magazine, and BBC Travel. Follow her travels on Instagram @bystephanievermillion.
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