Phantom Ranch: Mary Colter’s oasis in the Grand Canyon

Thursday, March 23, 2017 5:42 PM
Mary Colter worked for the Fred Harvey Co. of the Santa Fe Railroad to build tourist facilities on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Her work epitomized “parkitecture,” which was the philosophy to use local materials to blend buildings into the terrain – to fit into, not dominate, the landscape.
Mary Colter’s cabins at Phantom Ranch are a nine-mile hike or mule ride and a 5,000-foot drop from the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. Visitors love her cabins, which snugly blend into the canyon’s bottom. They are the only tourist lodging with concrete floors, beds and fireplaces for 277 miles near the Colorado River’s legendary rapids.
Mary Colter’s cabins at Phantom Ranch are a nine-mile hike or mule ride and a 5,000-foot drop from the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. Visitors love her cabins, which snugly blend into the canyon’s bottom. They are the only tourist lodging with concrete floors, beds and fireplaces for 277 miles near the Colorado River’s legendary rapids.
Mary Colter’s Phantom Ranch Canteen, or combination store and café, beckons travelers from around the world.
In the Phantom Ranch Canteen, hikers and visitors share dining room tables and swap stories about their adventures. Strangers soon become friends along the canyon’s many trails.
Mary Colter’s Phantom Ranch cabins look like they belong there. They fit into the landscape and are sought after by weary hikers.
Less than 1 percent of all those who visit the Grand Canyon see it from the bottom where the play of light on stone and canyon walls changes constantly.
This narrow bridge in the bottom of the Grand Canyon unites the North and South rims. It’s a delight to be on the bridge alone, but it’s no place to meet a fully loaded mule team carrying either passengers or supplies.
The 1928 walking bridge over the Colorado River stretches like a black line between canyon walls. Building the bridge was an engineering feat with mules packing in hundreds of yards of steel cable.
Writing postcards and letters home is a favorite pastime for visitors to Phantom Ranch. Mail goes out by mule train, and letters are posted in this leather mail pouch.
Each year the Grand Canyon draws more than 4 million tourists from around the world to stare into the abyss and to contemplate “deep time,” which is the age of the Earth.
On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Mary Colter’s cabins, each delightfully different, allow travelers to step out the door and walk just a few yards to the canyon’s rim.
Mary Colter’s Phantom Ranch cabins look like they belong there. They fit into the landscape and are sought after by weary hikers.

Anyone who has hiked the Bright Angel Trail off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim knows the pleasure 9 miles below of finding Phantom Ranch. How the ranch got there, who planted the first trees and who built the Craftsman-style cabins are part of the rich history of the canyon itself.

After hours of scorching sun, heat-baked rocks and perpetual downward steps to finally reach the river, cross the bridge and spy the cabins built by Mary Jane Colter is to encounter an oasis in the desert, a true hiker’s delight.

The Bright Angel Trail follows Bright Angel Creek, named by John Wesley Powell during his epic boat trip through the canyon in 1869. Though ancestral Puebloans had numerous trails or routes from rim to rim and along the canyon’s bottom, no mule trail existed from the South Rim to the river, and there was no way to cross the torrent. Bridging the Grand Canyon became one of the great industrial feats in Southwest history, and it began with a single cable and a cage. Entrepreneurs sought tourists but not a national park.

HHHThe deep black Vishnu schist rocks along the river are 1.3 billion years old, but Grand Canyon National Park has not yet celebrated its 100th birthday. Arizona pioneer Ralph Cameron wanted it all to himself. He paid workers to blast and cut and chip the canyon’s walls to create the Bright Angel Trail, and he sought a monopoly on the canyon’s southern edge so he could charge visitors to use the trail. Cameron secured key locations along the route at Indian Garden and other locations by filing fraudulent mining claims under the 1866 mining law.

My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, despised monopolies. Seeing the canyon for the first time in 1903, TR proclaimed to the American people: “I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country ... keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Local promoters like Cameron relished TR’s rhetoric but wanted to retain every penny of tourist profits for themselves. When President Roosevelt could not convince politicians in Arizona Territory to support a Grand Canyon National Park, he used the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare an 800,000-acre national monument. Arizona politicians like Cameron went apoplectic.

Finally, in 1919, Congress created Grand Canyon National Park. Tourists arrived via the Santa Fe Railway. They could stay on the South Rim at the El Tovar Lodge, but if they desired quality accommodations deep in the canyon itself, there were none. Architect and designer Mary Jane Colter of the Fred Harvey Co. changed that in 1922.

In its early days, the canyon had numerous “camps” of various sizes and qualities. Dave Rust built his along Bright Angel Creek in 1902 one-half mile from the river, moved stones to start a garden and cut hundreds of branches from cottonwood trees higher up on Phantom Creek. “The survivors of those trees, along with additional seedlings he obtained from Indian Gardens in 1909, are among those giving shade to today’s tourists and hikers who pause along the creek,” says Rust biographer Frederick H. Swanson.

In 1907, Rust used a single cable across the Colorado to operate a wobbly and precarious tram cage spanning the river. Roosevelt visited Rust’s camp in 1913, which was promptly renamed Roosevelt Camp, but it “was a crude predecessor to the much more elegant Phantom Ranch,” says Swanson. Those vernacular wood and stone cabins carefully placed and designed by Colter are now typically booked two years in advance. She named her cluster of tourist cabins Phantom Ranch after Phantom Creek, a tributary to Bright Angel.

HHHArriving by raft with a few hours’ layover, I loved exploring Phantom Ranch. I delighted in the dappled shade from cottonwoods and remnant fruit trees planted by Dave Rust. The Phantom Ranch canteen serves steak or stew, and diners eat on long benches. The 17 employees commit to a 12-month work season with 10 days on and four days off, with plenty of places to hike and explore.

Ralph Cameron wanted to monopolize tourist visits to Grand Canyon. Mary Jane Colter sought to share the canyon with the world.

She built Hermit’s Rest, the watchtower at Desert View, Hopi House, Lookout Studio and Bright Angel Lodge. My wife and I have stayed in her cabins on the South Rim, and someday we’ll spend a few days in her cabins at Phantom Ranch, which, with the bunkhouses, can accommodate about 85 folks.

Because it is physically challenging to get to, Phantom Ranch is one of those special places in the Southwest. Tourists can arrive by raft, dory, kayak, mule or on foot. Once there, no one wants to leave. Backpackers linger in the few campsites along the creek. Guests with cabin reservations wish they’d added extra days. At night, up-canyon breezes gently lift cottonwood leaves and stars reach over the canyon’s tall, dark rims. The cares of the world are left up top. Visitors to Phantom Ranch revel in their isolation and are soothed by the sounds of the creek. Strangers become quick friends.

Colter’s architecture blends in perfectly with the Grand Canyon. She avoided “formal, over-sophisticated designs that would have seemed inappropriate in such a grand domain. Instead, these buildings were small, simple and rugged and were constructed of local, even on-site materials; they rested with ease in their settings,” writes Arnold Berke in his well-illustrated book, Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest.

Her cabins and canteen, the combination café and store at Phantom Ranch, beloved and well-used, testify to her style of timeless vernacular architecture using local materials to craft a snug statement of belonging. She understood Roosevelt’s belief in “the essential democracy” of American national parks, not for the rich but for all of us.

Colter’s cabins at Phantom Ranch, 5,000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon, were built of reddish rock gathered at the site. Mules brought down wood for framing, doors and windows. Carpenters stained the wood earth tones. The roofs were a light green and each simply furnished cabin had its own fireplace with a Native American rug on every concrete and tile floor. Rooms with a blue scheme had a thunderbird pattern and, if red, a sun shield. Architect Colter epitomized what would become known as “parkitecture” – a building style that used local materials, blended in, and did not overwhelm.

HHH“Phantom Ranch may be considered as a microcosm of what is to be striven for on a grand scale – something that fits as nearly as the wit and imagination of man can devise into the greater scheme of Nature; something that ‘belongs,’” says Lewis R. Freeman.

In the heart of Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut through the basement of time, Colter’s cabins beckon us to come, stay, relax, to re-think our personal priorities and to cherish visits to national parks as patriotic pilgrimages. After all, Teddy said it best. He eloquently argued, “We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages.”

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at