Wow what a trip! First of all, thanks to William in this thread and arizona_water from instagram and hikearizona. Their information on Phantom Canyon helped us have an amazing journey down the creek.
My son, daughter, and I spent four nights below the rim in mid-April. We'd come in via Las Vegas a few days earlier and done some day-hiking in Bryce Canyon. We scored a 6:30 PM reservation at the Tover (I'd had no luck securing anything reasonable by email weeks before) and enjoyed a fine last civilized meal and then a listened to a talented folk singer for quite a while in the El Tover lobby afterwards (Drew Williams).
We took it easy the first day with an 8 AM start and a site at Bright Angel Campground. The last time the three of us had camped together was in the Ouachitas about 20 years ago so this was quite different. For one thing, I didn't have to carry anyone even once!
After getting settled at the campsite we talked to a ranger there about our plans for the next few days and he and another ranger gave us some pointers. Then we wandered as far north as the box and on the way back I split off at the Clear Creek Trail for maybe a mile, just past the first river views and the beginning of the crescent sweep below the Tonto level. For some reason I love that area, maybe because it's so recognizable from the south rim Village. I got back to Phantom Ranch just in time to meet the kids for a ranger talk on geology and then we went to the river to chill for a while. We had our traditional first-night steak, cooked over a stove this time instead of a wood fire. It still tasted pretty good. We headed to the canteen when they opened and ended up shutting them down at 10 PM.
In the morning we headed up Utah Flats. I'd been part-way up the hill before to just before the 15-foot cliff. The path is looser than I care for but the exposure isn't so bad except for the cliff bypass. I think if I do it again I'll climb the cliff instead of taking the bypass to the right and pull my pack up with a rope. After that we took a break at a cool, sheltered spot and then had a blast climbing over big rocks in Piano Alley. It was like being in one of those obstacle parks. A path was well-cairned but I'm sure that there are many ways through and it's impossible to get lost. As we came out of the red slick rock wash at the top the path was less clear. I was glad I'd printed out the guide at:http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/bc/gc_tr_uf.htm
Before proceeding after we lost the cairns I climbed the hill to the north of the wash and confirmed that pretty much every direction except the one we'd settled on was a dead end. I was glad for the mild weather and that we had good directions and plenty of water, it would be a touch place to be in the heat. The rest of the way was as cactus-covered as advertised, making me question my Merrill Trail Glove shoe choice. Those shoes were just the thing, though, for the slippy path we'd just come from and even better for the wet rock hopping trip down Phantom Creek a few days later. The rest of the way to the Phantom Creek waterfall was hard but not complicated: there are a few more steep ups and downs than we'd hoped for but the trail is easy to follow once you get close to Cheops. Towards the end the path gets very steep and loose on the climb down starting at Isis's SE arm. It's sort of like log-rolling except on bowling balls instead of logs and with a much less forgiving substrate. We were glad to finally make it to the beautiful site just above the barrier falls.
We settled in at the first site just after the descent and kept that site for both nights. I wandered up as far as the Overhang Camp and the merging of Phantom and Haunted Creeks but we didn't see any reason to move our camp upstream. Dinner on the second night was my daughter's pasta recipe with real cheese and on the third night was re-hydrated Fanny Farmer Chile con Carne that I'd made and dried for the trip a few weeks before.
In the morning after the second night we packed up and headed down stream. The rope down the barrier waterfall seemed scary at first but was less so after I went first and realized that even before any hand-over-hand climbing my feet were only a few feet off the ground. It just feels strange at first. From then on the trip was fun and wet. There were a number of mandatory swims and a few water slides. I even had to go back and do one of the slides a second time. Our packs got measurably heavier along the way as our spare clothing picked up water. At least our sleeping bags were well-protected. We emerged at the North Kaibab about 3 or 4 hours after starting and dried out at Phantom Ranch over some lemonade. On the way back down the corridor trail we realized that we hadn't seen another soul in two days. I meant to ask a ranger if anyone else had permits for our section but never got around to it.
We started up the Bright Angel Trail in the mid-afternoon, spent some time at the Garden Creek Ruins, and spent our last night at Indian Gardens. There was talked for a while with Ranger Della, who told us that she has hiked UP Phantom Creek to past the barrier waterfall! There were several spots that seemed pretty one-way to us, so she must be a good swimmer and/or climber. The last night was very windy so we were glad to have a place with some blocking shelter.
All in all it was a great trip. We got lucky with the weather: lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s with low wind until the last day. I wouldn't want to take on Utah flats in anything but ideal weather, certainly not in the sort of gusty wind we had that last day. The highlight of the trip was definitely the lower Phantom Creek trek: there's something about the narrow canyon and winding cliffs that make that place really interesting and fun.