The following is a transcript of the narration for this trail. To watch and listen to the narration, enter the project here at this location and then press the play button.
The South Kaibab Trail, along with the Bright Angel and North Kaibab trails, form what the park service calls the main corridor. Unlike many Grand Canyon trails, main corridor trails are very well maintained and are relatively easy to hike, and have amenities along the way like toilets, picnic tables, water faucets, and, here and there, emergency phones to bail you out if you get into trouble.
The North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails follow natural, historical routes, but the route of the South Kaibab Trail was determined by something very different – early 20th century power politics. Work your way through the narrations along the South Kaibab Trail and I’ll talk more about that history, but the important thing is that the resulting route of the South Kaibab Trail provides easy access to some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire park. If you have time to take just a single, brief day hike on a visit to the Grand Canyon, the South Kaibab Trail is where you want to go.
But you can’t just drive to the trailhead. The park service runs a frequent shuttle bus service from the Visitor’s Center that will get you to the trailhead in 10 minutes. But do make sure that you bring water. While there are toilets along the trail, once you leave the trailhead, there is no water to be had anywhere until you reach Phantom Ranch, 7 miles away at the very bottom of the canyon. You’ll be huffing and puffing coming back up the trail once you turn around, and you will not be a happy hiker if you don’t bring water, and in the hot summer months, plenty of water.
The South Kaibab Trail immediately drops off the rim and plunges into the canyon on a set of tight switchbacks through the top geological formation of the canyon, the Kaibab Limestone. There are three panorama points in or near the switchbacks. The first is here, just a few yards down from the trailhead, where you get your first real, but limited view, of the canyon, with Plateau Point, far down on the Tonto Platform, dominating the view. The second is within the switchbacks, though still near the top, surrounded by the yellowish Kaibab Limestone on all sides. The third is just below the base of the switchbacks, with a nice view back to them, and of Pipe Creek Canyon, the side canyon that the trail starts out within.
At the base of the switchbacks, the trail leaves the Kaibab Limestone and enters the Toroweap Formation, with gentler slopes that the trail slowly descends via a long traverse of about three quarters of a mile. Just before the end of that traverse, the trail enters the Coconino Sandstone formation, and then quickly reaches the crest of a ridge at Ooh Aah Point, one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the entire park. Ooh Aah Point is fine destination for a brief but rewarding day hike into the canyon. The project contains three separate panoramas at Ooh Aah Point from different times of day – here in the morning, in the afternoon, and, my favorite, shortly after sunrise.
At Ooh Aah Point the trail begins a dramatic half-mile descent through the Coconino Sandstone, switching back and forth between the west and east sides of the ridge, but never far from it. You pass this panorama point at one of the spots where you cross the ridge, with a panoramic view even more wide-ranging than the one at Ooh Aah Point.
When you reach the base of the descent from Ooh Aah Point, you have just left the Coconino Sandstone and entered the soft, reddish-brown Hermit Shale. You come to a nice, flat area named Cedar Ridge, with restrooms and spots to sit and rest. Cedar Ridge is another fine destination for a day hike. A long, narrow spit of land extends out from Cedar Ridge, and you can wander out on it to this panorama point, with another wide-open far ranging view, highlighted by nearby O’Neill Butte.
Beyond Cedar Point, the trail resumes its steady descent, now passing through the Supai Formation, first sloping down the east side of Cedar Ridge to a saddle between the ridge and O’Neill Butte, and then curving around the east side of O’Neill Butte. The project contains three panorama points as you pass through the Supai, first here at the saddle, looking up from the base of O’Neill Butte. The second is located a short distance down on the curve around the east side of O’Neill Butte, with a fine view back up to Cedar Ridge and all the way up to Yaqui Point. The third is located right where you curve around and first see the long neck of Skeleton Point, which the trail reaches at the base of its Supai descent.
At the base of the Supai descent, the trail begins a flat traverse, heading north towards the tip of Skeleton Point. The traverse is always near the top of high, sheer cliffs of Redwall Limestone, the next formation down from the Supai. We have a panorama point at the narrow neck at the start of Skeleton Point, with fine views both to the east and west of the Tonto Platform, now rising up quickly towards us. At the end of Skeleton Point we reach a panorama point with a dramatic view looking down at the impressive set of switchbacks the trail follows though a break in the Redwall cliffs. The end of Skeleton Point, at the top of the big Redwall Descent, is a fine destination for an all-day day hike, but one that does require a 2000 foot climb back up to the rim. Day hiking beyond Skeleton Point is beyond the ability of most hikers and is ill advised, particularly in the brutal heat of summer.
Beyond Skeleton Point the trail descends rapidly via the switchbacks through the Redwall Limestone, and continues on down additional cliffs formed by the Muav Limestone, the next formation below the Redwall. We reach a panorama point on a small platform about halfway down the Redwall/Muav descent, where we briefly pass through a small, narrow patch of Temple Butte Limestone, a formation that appears only here and there between the Redwall and the Muav. A second panorama point is located at the base of the descent, at the boundary between the Muav and the Bright Angel Shale, at a point that marks the true beginning of the desert.
The trail then begins a slow but steady descent down the northeast face of Skeleton Point, passing through the Bright Angel Shale and crossing the Tonto Platform, the wide, relatively flat area between the cliffs formed by the Redwall and Muav, and the rim of the inner canyon formed by cliffs of Tapeats Sandstone. We pass by a panorama point still fairly high up in the Bright Angel Shale, with an interesting view back up to a natural arch high up in the Redwall.
The trail reaches the rim of the inner canyon at a spot called the Tipoff, where there is another restroom, and the junction with the Tonto Trail. A panorama at the spot gives us our first good look at the Colorado River, and of the bright orange-red Hakatai Shale that the trail meanders through for half of the remaining distance down to the river.
Beyond the Tipoff the trail begins its final 1500 foot descent down to the Colorado River, and quickly reaches a panorama point at aptly-named Panorama Point, with fine views of both the Black and Silver bridges, back to the South Rim, and across to the North Rim. A second panorama spot, halfway down, is surrounded by faults and rock formations that tell the story of a supercontinent being ripped apart 750 million years ago. A third panorama point on the descent is located not far from the bottom, near the junction with the River Trail, and surrounded by the most ancient rock formation in the Grand Canyon, the Vishnu Schist.
The trail finally reaches the Colorado River, and a final panorama point, at the Black Bridge, which the trail crosses over and where it turns into the North Kaibab Trail, which continues on to Phantom Ranch and far beyond to the North Rim.