Bright Angel Trail
Distance: 9.3 miles from Bright Angel Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground, 4.6 miles from trailhead to Indian Garden
Duration: 2 days round-trip to Colorado River, 7–9 hours round-trip to Indian Gardens
Elevation gain: 4,380 feet from rim to river, 3,860 feet to Indian Gardens
Effort: Moderate to strenuous
Trailhead: In Grand Canyon Village
The Bright Angel Trail begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge, near the start of Hermit Road. The shuttle’s Village Route ends here. The nearest public parking area is the dirt lot along the railroad tracks between the lodge and the depot, but if you plan on being on the trail for a few hours or overnight, an even better choice is to park at the Backcountry Information Center and take the Village Route shuttle to the trailhead.
This corridor trail is well maintained, though you will have to share it with mule parties, who have the right of way. (Step to the inside of the trail and stand quietly while they pass. Wait until the last mule is 50 feet away before continuing your hike.)
Both scenic and historic, the Bright Angel is a good choice for novice hikers. Even if you have time for only a short walk, you’ll appreciate the difference once you descend below the rim. And if you go the distance, you’ll experience the element that makes a desert hike magical—water, in this case the clear streams of Garden and Pipe Creeks.
One of the first highlights greets hikers about 0.5 miles down the trail. Before entering the tunnel carved through the Kaibab limestone cliff, look up to see pictographs in a reddish pigment, left by Havasupai Indians who used the trail into the 1900s. A second tunnel leads to the canyon’s Coconino sandstone layer. After a steep descent through reddish Hermit shale, you arrive at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse at, you guessed it, 1.5 miles. You’ll find water (available May–Sept.), toilets, and an emergency phone.
More switchbacks and more red rocks—this time the Supai layer—lead to Three-Mile Resthouse. Another possible day-hike destination, this resthouse also has water (May–Sept.), toilets, a telephone, and great views, especially from the nearby overlook perched atop the Redwall formation.
A long series of switchbacks known as Jacob’s Ladder descends through the Redwall to Indian Garden, a popular turnaround for strong day hikers. Spur trails lead to the ranger station and campground, and the westbound Tonto Trail intersects at 4.6 miles. (The trail intersects the eastbound Tonto Trail at 4.9 miles.)
The main trail continues to a rest area shaded by cottonwoods, with benches, a water fountain, and nearby toilets. This area, on the gentle slope of the Tonto Platform, watered by the springs and a creek, was once the site of Havasupai garden plots. Ralph Cameron had a tourist camp here in the early 1900s, when his Bright Angel Trail was a toll trail.
Emery and Ellsworth Kolb took photos of mule parties descending the trail. One of the brothers, usually Emery, would run down the trail to develop the photographs here, where there was clear running water, then dash back up ahead of the mule riders so that they could sell them their photos at Kolb Studio, a round trip he sometimes made twice a day (think about that when you’re heading back up Jacob’s Ladder gasping for breath).
Below the shady oasis of Indian Garden, the trail twists and turns and flirts with lovely Garden Creek, tempting you to continue. Don’t unless you’re an exceptionally strong day hiker or you’re prepared to spend the night in the canyon. En route to the river, you’ll pass the pump house that delivers water across the canyon from Roaring Springs and, at seven miles, Columbine Spring, which forms a delicate waterfall and hanging garden of fern, monkey-flower, and columbine.
After the confluence of Pipe Creek and Garden Creek, you’ll come to River Resthouse at mile 7.8. There’s no potable water here, but you’ll enjoy the shady riparian surroundings of cottonwoods and willows. Just past the resthouse the trail joins the River Trail, which follows the Inner Gorge above the river for 1.1 miles to the Silver Bridge. Interestingly, the scenic and easy River Trail was the canyon’s most difficult trail to construct, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s using ropes, jackhammers, and 40,000 pounds of gunpowder.
Continue to the Black Bridge, less than 0.25 miles. Just beyond this bridge are mule corrals, drinking water, toilets, a telephone, and a ranger station. Beyond the ranger station is Phantom Ranch. To get to the Bright Angel Campground, take the North Kaibab Trail left another 0.2 miles.
An option for strong day hikers or backpackers is to take the three-mile (round-trip) section of the Tonto Trail west from Indian Garden across Plateau Point. Here you’ll have stunning overlooks of the Colorado River, more than 1,000 feet below, and Inner Gorge, where the canyon’s oldest geological layers are revealed. Note that the National Park Service strongly discourages day hikers from attempting Plateau Point.
© Kathleen Bryant from Moon Grand Canyon, 5th Edition