Upon arriving, most visitors will dip their toe into the canyon on the ever popular and heavily trafficked Bright Angel trail. Further away from the village area though, on another likewise historic trail, the Grandview trail offers spectacular views and unique access to an old miner’s cave known as Cave of the Domes.
Before becoming a national park, this area was open to travelers and sightseers by way of two main juncture points, the Bright Angel lodge and its competitor, the Grand View lodge. Circa the 1890s, curiosity seekers could take a mule ride down an old mining route to a cave large enough to walk thru and leave their penciled signatures along the cool inner walls.
Today only informed hikers frequent this trail, and as the Grandview lodge has long since been torn down, this corner of the park is mainly used as an overlook point. This peaceful trail showcases green conifers and red ridged slopes cut into the edge of spectacular cliffs as you traipse out toward the mesa.
Another advantage of this trail is the moderate elevation change. As opposed to the more difficult corridor loop that descends roughly one vertical mile to the river level, the main stopping point here is Horseshoe Mesa, which is far above the river. The trail head begins at 7400 feet continuing to the Mesa at 4900 feet, with an elevation change of 2500 feet over 3 miles.
However, like other off-corridor trails, there are no water refill stations available. Water rationing is recommended with the use of hydration backpacks, and caching water bottles halfway down is also an option, or bringing along a filter and detouring to Page spring below the Mesa can be a useful way to resupply. Dehydration in the canyon is a constant concern, even for day hikes. One liter per hour is the recommended amount for this climate and altitude. Staying healthy as you enjoy the wonder of this canyon should be the aim of every hiker.
Weather changes should also be noted in this wild locale, as the first time I attempted this trail, there was a lightning storm brewing a few miles east in the canyon over desert view watchtower. Halfway down I decided I needed to err on the side of safety and head back up.
The second time I hiked down the Grandview, I had with me two travel companions, over three liters of water and two more cached on a mild October morning. The first few miles blends different climate zones with some steeper sections of cobblestones placed for the benefit of the mules in the early period of the trail. Pace yourself and keep track of time to plan for your hike out. On steeper trails like this, a seasoned hiker will employ trekking poles to remove some of the burden of the climb from their legs and better navigate in adverse conditions.
When you arrive at the Mesa there will be a trail leading down to the right toward Page Spring. There’s also a campsite on the Mesa, and a pit toilet if needed. Below the center of the butte you will find a ruin of a miner’s hut. Next, to find the Cave of the Domes is a tricky venture, but well worth the exploring. Continue to the left of the butte, along the flat top of the Mesa, walking almost to the end of the formation. Down a wash to the left you will find cairn markers of piled stones for a trail leading down toward the cliff side. The short trail will take you past a hollow cornice and end at the cave entrance, which is low but opens up into a large entry room.
Before you enter the cave, make sure you have at least one flashlight or head lamp, extra batteries and company. Going alone into the cave has caused problems for visitors in the past, so journey carefully as it is a less visited part of the park. We also brought a reel of line to mark our way, though it was actually manageable to navigate without. Once inside the entry room you will find the Cave of the Domes register, where you can write your name and a message for the other spelunkers like yourself. You may be the only visitors on that day, as we were. Such is the magic of this little canyon gem.
We went perhaps fifty to a hundred yards deep into the cave, scrambling over boulders and under ledges. It’s definitely a thrilling adventure in the dark, and not for the claustrophobic. We even found a wall where visitors from long ago wrote their names. The ceilings are high in most places but the scrambling can be risky without ropes, so only go as far as you feel comfortable, always noting your path for an easy exit.
You can easily spend an hour or two in the cool, dark recesses of the cave, so keep that in mind for your hike out. As ever with canyon hiking, the up takes more time, more energy and more supplies than the down. We started at 10 am, spent around two hours in the cave, and topped out a little after five. It was a full day!