Grand Canyon National Park: South Kaibab Trail

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Welcome back to National Parks & other public lands with T! If you are seeing this on Twitter or Facebook, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking the link.

On our third day in the park, we had to rearrange our itinerary a bit. Originally we’d planned to take the Canyon Vistas Mule Ride out of Bright Angel in the morning and then hike a bit in the afternoon. But the previous day, our misguided tour guide had attempted to enthrall our group with spooky tales of mule mishaps in the canyon while driving us from point A to B. Never mind that in the entire history of the mule train, there has been only one related fatality, the 12-year-old was freaked out and hysterical at the thought of us plunging to our untimely deaths on the back of a mule. The concessionary gladly refunded us as there was a long list of people eager to take our places.

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And so we went off to the South Kaibab trailhead first thing in the morning. Private vehicles are not allowed on the road to South Kaibab, so we took the shuttle bus from the visitor center to Yaki point.

When planning our Grand Canyon vacation, we’d agreed that we really wanted to hike into the canyon, at least part of the way. Out of 5 million visitors per year, only 10% venture below the rim. My husband really wanted to hike all the way to the river and back, but I was concerned that my 12-year-old and I might not make it out. Every official website and sign in the park warns against attempting to hike to the river and back in one day. ESPECIALLY in the summer, which is when we visited. The danger of dehydration or heat stroke is real.

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After some research, we’d selected the South Kaibab trail. It is steeper than Bright Angel but has more dramatic vistas. The hike down to Ooh Aah Point (yes, it’s really named that) was an easy one mile descent…we considered going to the next stop, Cedar Ridge. But then I saw how far below Ooh Aah it was and I looked back the way we’d come and saw what looked like an almost vertical cliff that we’d have to climb to get back to the trailhead and decided against continuing on.

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A mule train making its way up the steep switchbacks

The hike back up from Ooh Aah Point was challenging. While it had been cool and comfortable at the top (7k ft elevation), it was considerably hotter inside the canyon. The ascent was so steep, it made our calves burn. We had to rest and drink water frequently, and of course, take pictures. The scenery was fantastic!

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Halfway back up the trail, we had to yield to a mule train. There are signs along the trail reminding you of the proper mule etiquette.

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A little further up, we spotted a large black bird circling and coming in for a landing. I got out the telephoto and saw that it was a rare California Condor with a tag number. Condors had been nearly extinct in the wild in the 80s and the US Fish and Wildlife Service started breeding them and reintroducing them into the wild in the 90s. At the time of our visit, there were approximately 70 living in the Grand Canyon. We showed the photo to a ranger in the visitor center on our return and he identified her as an 8-year-old female who had spent time recovering from lead poisoning.

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A rare California Condor circles overhead
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California Condor #9

Back up at the trailhead, we visited the mule corral. They were beautiful, friendly and not scary at all. Maybe we didn’t get to ride them this trip, but we did make friends with them. And the change in plans turned out for the best as it would have been too hot to hike into the canyon in the afternoon. And we got to explore the Western edge of the park later that day. My post on that Hermit’s Rest trip can be found here. And my post on Bright Angel is here.

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Location: Arizona

Designation: National Park

Date designation declared: 1/11/1908

Date of my visit: 8/21/2014

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24 thoughts on “Grand Canyon National Park: South Kaibab Trail

  1. Great post and I concur with the comment above on the picture of the condor – remarkable. Speaking of gripping and macabre stories about the Canyon, after we visited a few years ago, I bought the book “Over the Edge – Death in Grand Canyon” by Michael Ghiglieri. It was fascinating and ranges from the uninformed who blithely try to hike to the bottom of the Canyon to river rafters who make fatal mistakes including getting caught in flash floods to the passenger airline collision over the Canyon in 1956. Not summer beach reading but a very interesting read.

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    1. Thanks! LOL, I believe the misguided guide was quoting from that book, as I think he told us every one of those stories you mentioned. It doesn’t matter how improbable, after hearing those stories, in the child’s imagination it was an absolute certainty that riding the mules would be fatal for us. Fortunately, she overcame that fear last year and we rode into the less-intimidating Bryce Canyon.

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  2. Most Canyon photos can never do it justice, and I think you would agree, one really needs to see it to appreciate it. But your photos still are great. I particularly liked the ones with the mules on the trail and the condors, because they show something unusual — and kudos to the park service for coming up with the name ” OOH AAH Point.”

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    1. Thanks so much! Yes the mules looking at the canyon is one of my favorite photos from that trip. It’s really tough to capture the vastness of the landscape on ‘film’…you’re right, you do need to be there to fully appreciate it.
      I saw the condor because I paused on the ascent to try to catch my breath. Lucky for me I wasn’t in better shape, LOL.

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  3. Julie Dodd

    Thanks for sharing your South Kaibab hiking experience and great photos! Brought back great memories of my visits to the Grand Canyon. I’ve done the hike to Cedar Ridge, and it is a challenging hike, especially in the summer. I’ve also done the mule ride to Phantom Ranch, which was a great way to experience the Canyon and get to spend the night at the Colorado River. Even though I knew the mules were veterans on the trail, I had a few moments of anxiety. Hope you’ll get back to the Grand Canyon for future explorations.

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      1. I didn’t know they had mules at Bryce. Anyway, I didn’t see them when we were there in early June of this year. But the mules might be a good option for us since we really cannot hike the way we used to, with rocky trails and large descents & ascents. Maybe we could try the mules next time!

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      2. Bryce has an assortment of horses and mules in the stables behind the park lodge. We took the two hour trail ride. We aren’t really experienced riders but the horses and mules know the way and are very well trained. If you click on Utah in my blog’s menu, the Bryce post is in there and you can see what the trail looks like.

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  4. So lucky to see the condor. They were absent when we visited. We did see a condor near San Francisco on one trip soaring through the mist. What a lovely sight. Good on you for hiking into the canyon. This was our highlight from our visit.

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    1. Yes, we wouldn’t have seen the condor if we’d just looked out from the rim. I saw it circling in the middle of our ascent back up in one the many breaks I needed to stop and catch my breath. I yelled for hubby to get back down to where I was with my telephoto (he was thoughtfully carrying my pack for me.) Zoomed in and saw the tag…very exciting!

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  5. JD

    Traveling with a family is always an adventure! Your experience reminds me of the time we booked a trip to Glenwood Springs, CO to swim in the famous hot springs pool. Alas, one of our daughters was going through a germophobia stage and refused to swim, so none of us got to swim. On our Grand Canyon visit we did make it down the South Kaibab trail to Cedar Point, although this time it was my wife who had heard stories of people falling off the trails and was a bit apprehensive. But there is nothing like a 360 degree view from inside the Grand Canyon!

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    1. Gosh! Lol, I’m sure Glenwood Springs was still beautiful. I’m sure I drove my parents crazy refusing to go in the ocean after seeing Jaws…the imagination of the young 😂 We did get to ride into Bryce Canyon last year after we’d recovered from mule phobia. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. That’s awesome about seeing a condor! I hiked the South Kaibab trail when I was 16 as part of a school field trip. Our group of 10 (including a 7-year-old boy, the leader’s son!) hiked down to the river, then hiked more or less horizontally the next day to Clear Creek. It was difficult for me, because I didn’t have the proper boots so my feet got blistered, but it was beautiful to see areas where few tourists ever go! We camped at Clear Creek and hiked back to the river the next day and started up the Bright Angel Trail. When we reached the top, early on the 4th day, we had breakfast at the Fred Harvey Restaurant and boy, were those the best scrambled eggs I had ever tasted! I recently went to a high school reunion, where I saw the grown-up 7-year-old boy! He’s now in his 50s, and we reminisced about the trip, which he remembered very well! I’m glad I did it, because I’ll never do it again but still live to tell the tale!!

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