A Guide to Hiking the Bright Angel Trail

American anthropologist, geologist and explorer Major John Wesley Powell speaks with a Paiute Indian about the location of a water supply during a survey of Arizona in 1873.
American anthropologist, geologist and explorer Major John Wesley Powell speaks with a Paiute Indian about the location of a water supply during a survey of Arizona in 1873.
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In 1869, John Wesley Powell, scientist and explorer, led nine men down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. The expedition did not go smoothly. The group lost two boats and was forced to eat spoiled food. Three of the men quit before the journey had even ended.

Yet for Powell, the majesty of the canyon was well worth the ordeal -- and he spared no metaphor or simile in penning its description. The walls soared like a cathedral, he wrote, in "balustrades and arches and columns with lattice work and delicate carving." In color, they rivaled a rainbow: "pink, red, brown, lavender, gray, blue and black. In some lights the saffron prevails, in other lights vermilion." Even the Colorado River, which nearly drowned them and ruined their food, he likened to a mighty instrument, "swelling in floods of music when the storm gods play upon the rocks" [source: Powell].

Along their journey, Powell was struck by one small stream's unusual clarity and he christened it Bright Angel Creek. Today, via the Bright Angel Trail, hikers can witness the same breathtaking beauty that Powell did -- without risking life and limb on the Colorado's waters. The trail begins at Grand Canyon's South Rim (elevation 6,860 feet/2,093 meters) and winds down to the banks of the Colorado River (elevation 4,380 feet/1,335 meters), offering breathtaking views of the canyon along the way.

What's now a popular avenue for hikers and backpackers in Grand Canyon National Park actually began as a fault line created by seismic activity. Over the millennia, animal herds traversing the canyon beat it into a path. And in Powell's day the Havasupai tribe used the route to access a small farm they'd developed on a plateau. At the turn of the 20th century, entrepreneurs entered the picture, improving the trail and developing campgrounds, which invited the tourist trade. The National Park Service acquired the property in 1928, added rest houses and ranger stations, and a suspension bridge now spans the river.

Despite its amenities, Bright Angel Trail is no walk in the park. While it's only four-fifths of a mile (1.3 kilometers) in linear distance, it zigzags and meanders 9.5 miles (15.3 kilometers), and heat, thirst and exhaustion still threaten those who don't plan and pack wisely. How can you prepare for this unique and lovely trail?

Bright Angel Trail Hiking: Landscape and Wildlife

Although its climate is semi-arid, the Grand Canyon includes four distinct ecosystems, and Bright Angel trail runs the length of this ecological gamut, offering a picturesque array of wildlife.

The trail begins at the South Rim in a forest of lofty ponderosa pines, with Gambel oak plentiful as well. Colorful wildflowers bloom in warmer weather, and big-horned sheep and mule deer share the woods with ringtail cats and foxes. This area is the sole habitat of the Abert's squirrel, distinctive for its long, bristle-tufted ears. It's also home to coyotes and mountain lions, two people-shy predators (fortunately).

Descending, you wind through a juniper woodland and scrub desert. Hardy Utah juniper and pinyon pine thrive in the thinner soil, along with mesquite, sagebrush and cactus. Desert areas crawl with reptiles, including the pink rattlesnake and the chuckwalla, a large lizard that thwarts predators by wedging itself between rocks and puffing itself up for an even tighter fit. Peregrine falcons and endangered California condors nest in the cliffs.

The trail ends on the oasis banks of the Colorado River. Stream orchids and white-flowering redbud trees erupt from hillsides in hanging gardens, watered by subterranean springs. Year-round residents include raccoons and skunks, which feed on river trout and mollusks. Higher-dwelling animals come to drink and browse on willow and watercress.

More than a wildlife show, the Grand Canyon is a geological biography, chronicling North America's past. The oldest, lowest layers of rock go back nearly two billion years. They speak of volcanic activity, followed by periods of tectonic upheaval. They're studded with fossilized fish and ferns, recording the era's climate and dominant life forms. Each layer contains different iron-bearing minerals, creating deep or subtle hues as the iron oxidizes. The Canyon is also a geological work in progress, as the forces of wind and water continually erode softer minerals to create dramatic profiles.

Traveling Bright Angel Trail thrusts you into the story. Where the path hugs cliff walls, you pass beneath lobes of pearly limestone and jagged outcroppings of roseate sandstone, and sometimes through tunnels in the rock itself. Other stretches take you across open desert, amid slopes of green-hued shale. Crossing the Colorado, you'll see how its current has carved the basin to expose layers of steel-gray gneiss with pink granite streaks.

Bright Angel Trail Hiking: The Main Route

As hikers descend, they take in wonderful views of the Grand Canyon.
As hikers descend, they take in wonderful views of the Grand Canyon.
Angelo Cavalli/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Bright Angel is the most improved trail in the Grand Canyon. It's been graded and widened, with rest houses located 1.5 miles (2.6 kilometers) and 3 miles (5 kilometers) below the trailhead on the South Rim. Both rest houses have drinkable water during the summer; however, water pipes occasionally break, so packing iodine tablets or filters to purify alternate water sources is advised. The first rest house also has a composting toilet. It's 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) to the next one; otherwise, you'll need to hike well off the trail and dig a hole to answer nature's call [source: National Park Service].

There are two ranger stations, one at each campground. The first is at Indian Garden Campground, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the Rim. The second station is at Bright Angel Campground, which marks the trail's end some 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) farther along. Both campgrounds have first-aid clinics and emergency phones.

The terrain, while safe, is taxing, with numerous switchbacks below the Rim and then a long stretch through the desert to the river. You'll have to carry food and water -- up to 4 quarts (4 liters) of water in the summer -- and allow for rest breaks [source: National Park Service]. You should avoid hiking altogether between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the summer due to the heat. Also, temperatures rise as you descend, so you may have to pack entirely different clothes for higher and lower elevations. Speaking of packing, the "leave no trace" rule strictly applies. Everything you bring in -- even used toilet paper -- you must take out. The National Park Service suggests the 6-mile (9.6 kilometer) round trip between the Rim and Three-Mile Resthouse as a day trip for physically fit hikers; otherwise, plan to hike in, camp and then hike back out the next day.

In the Grand Canyon's high-altitude desert climate, the weather can be a wild card. Snow may fall in October, while ice may linger in shaded recesses into March. Summer temperatures can easily top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the interior. Localized summer storms can be violent, triggering flash floods. Spring and fall are popular hiking seasons; however, conditions are less predictable at those times.

Bright Angel Trail Hiking: Popular Side Trails and Sights

A view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim
A view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim
Giorgio Fochesato/Photodisc/Getty Images

Sure, you're hiking through a desert, but that certainly doesn't mean this trail is devoid of special points of interest. For example, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) along the trail you come to Indian Garden Campgrounds. Even if you don't camp there, Indian Garden offers a refreshing break in the summer. You can eat a cold lunch in the shade of cottonwood trees. You can dip your feet in Garden Creek -- and your shirt as well, to keep cool. Plus, you can take advantage of running water and composting toilets year-round.

If you're interested in archaeology, you'll appreciate the remains of an ancient garden plot, cultivated by Native Americans, which is how Indian Garden got its name. Remnants of granaries and walls used for erosion control suggest it was the Puebloans who first tilled the soil as many as 1,700 years ago [source: Biggs]. Petroglyphs (symbolic drawings) mark the rocks nearby. After the Puebloans, the Havasupai tribe worked the land into the 1930s.

Just past Indian Garden, Bright Angel intersects the Tonto Trail. A 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) hike along this rougher, rockier side route takes you to Plateau Point. Plateau Point is part of the Tonto Platform, an unusual flat feature in the Canyon's terrain. From this plateau you can look back, and possibly marvel, at the distance you've traveled. Almost the entire Bright Angel Trail is visible. The view ahead, taking in the Colorado River and beyond, deserves a few photos, too.

After the demanding but memorable hike down Bright Angel Trail, you might treat yourself to a stay at Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch is a privately-owned resort hotel with simple amenities -- bunk beds, showers and hot meals -- in keeping with the environment. But you can rest, recharge and enjoy the beautiful setting before starting the hike back to the Rim -- and the real world.

On the other hand, if your ideal vacation includes a more formal, but fun, educational experience, consider signing up for a Grand Canyon Field Institute tour. Guided tours combine hiking with learning from biologists, geologists, artists and other experts on the Grand Canyon. The intellectual stimulation is a fitting compliment to the soul-stirring experience of traveling Bright Angel Trail.

Author's Note

Hiking Bright Angel Trail sounds like a spiritual retreat from today's speed-obsessed, ASAP mentality. You spend two days and 9 miles (15 kilometers) to reach a destination that otherwise requires one-tenth that time and distance, with the very legitimate excuse of "I'm going as fast as I can." And when you consider that it took millions upon millions of years to create the stunning beauty around you (and it will be there long after you're gone), it puts time in a whole different perspective.

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