Not far from Grand Canyon Village, near the Colorado River, deep in the Kaibab National Forest, you will find an amazing hike. Truth be told, you can find many amazing hikes. But among those lies a rare gem: Bright Angel Trail.
This is a hike for champions. The Bright Angel trail is steep and long. It is a multi-day hike for most. Very capable hikers could make the full round-trip trek in a single day, but the Park Service issues strong warnings against making that attempt. Bright Angel Trail is not intended to be a day hike.
The route descends over 4000 feet from Grand Canyon Village to the canyon floor and river beyond. Hikers will pass through tunnels, along bluffs and switchbacks, and have several rest and shelter locations available en route.
Bright Angel trail is not a casual day hike. It is a rugged, strenuous path that demands preparation from the hiker and an understanding of trail etiquette. More on that etiquette below.
What are the Details about the Bright Angel Trail?
The Bright Angel Trailhead starts at nearly 6800 feet above sea level and descends to an elevation of 2500 feet over the course of its winding, maintained-dirt stretches. Hikers that see the trail through will reach the Colorado River about 9.5 miles below.
The trail path is naturally delineated by breaks in the cliff faces caused by the underlying Bright Angel fault. The path was known to indigenous groups that would use the oasis halfway down the fault lines for temporary encampment.
The path has been used for millennia!
The trail offers a series of turnaround points, each located at significant points of interest along the trail. Hikers can design their trip according to their ability and preference.
These markers are (in descending order):
- 1st Tunnel
- 1st Switchback
- 2nd Tunnel
- 1.5 Mile Resthouse
- 2 Mile Switchback
- 3 Mile Resthouse
- Indian Garden
- Plateau Point (spur trail off of the main path to the river)
Hikers can turn around at the first tunnel for a casual short trip inside the canyon or continue on to the increasingly steep areas. The steepest areas of the trail come in the first 4 miles of switchbacks, and again far below, after Indian Garden, in a tough section of trail called the Devil’s Corkscrew.
The average grade on the trail is a steep 10% pitch, with a maximum grade of a staggering 38%. The total trail length (one-way) is 9.2 miles and it descends 4,579 feet, with 219 feet of altitude gain on the way down.
The Park Service provides signage to reinforce distances, elevation changes, and recommendations to hikers as they follow the route. Of the two main hikes into the Grand Canyon, this is the (slightly) shadier option, as it descends along cliffs and passes through the historical oasis known as Indian Garden.
Amenities in the Wild High Desert
Bright Angel Trail is a historic trail. First established by native groups, later used by gold prospectors as a toll road, it was acquired by the United States government under Theodore Roosevelt. It has been maintained by the Park Service since 1928. For all of its rugged qualities, there are safety and comfort amenities offered along the descent.
Dealing with Limited Utilities
Water is available seasonally at various points along the trail. It is not advisable to rely solely on these water sources, however, these points do make for excellent rest points as hikers make their way ascending or descending. Water in available at Indian Garden year-round. Bringing plenty of additional water is highly recommended.
The first resthouse offers a compostable toilet to hikers. A second toilet is available at Indian Garden as well.
Emergency telephones can be found at 1.5 Mile Resthouse, 3 Mile Resthouse and Indian Garden.
How Do You Get Started?
The Bright Angel Trailhead is one of just two trails that descend the Grand Canyon from the south rim. It is a very popular trail, despite the difficulty.
An excellent starting point is the Bright Angel Lodge. The trailhead begins just west of the historic lodge. Visitors are encouraged to park either in Lot D of the Backcountry Information Center or at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, which offers shuttles to the trailhead throughout the day.
5 Essential Items You MUST Bring with You
- Water. As we’ve mentioned above, water is available seasonally at a few points along the trail. Hiker absolutely should NOT rely on these water sources for their personal hydration. The climate is arid, the way is difficult, and the water locations are spread out. Not bringing enough water is a common mistake, even for those only hiking short distance day-hikes.
- A Plan. There are many possible approaches to this hike -- many turnaround points, distances, landmarks and points of interest. It is important to come prepared for whichever length and route you intend to take. Deciding en route to extend your hike when you’ve only brought supplies for a shorter distance could place your group in a difficult situation.
- Weather Protection. You are in the high desert here. While there are some shady sections of the trail, much of it is exposed to full sun during the summer. Temperatures routinely hit 110 degrees in the summer. By contrast, the upper 2 miles of the trail stay in the shadows all day in the winter and this section can be icy. Whichever season your hike takes place in, come prepared with layers and sun shade.
- Hiking boots. Appropriate footwear is very important on this trail. The trail is graded for livestock and well-maintained, but it is also highly trafficked and is dusty year-round. As we describe above, there are very steep (38% grade) sections, areas of loose shale, and the trail itself is long. You’ll want footwear that is comfortable and stout with good tread.
- Snacks. Not only is it important to drink plenty of water, it is also important to refuel. Hikers expend a great deal of energy, both on the descent and the climb. Drink before you’re thirsty and snack before you’re hungry.
Share the Road
Pack mules frequently visit the Bright Angel Trail. Visitors can book their own trek using guides and pack mules. (This must be done months in advance). It is very likely that you will encounter such a group on your hike.
Livestock have the right-of-way on this trail. If you encounter a train of mules, step aside and wait patiently and quietly until they have passed. When you step off the trail, step away from the edge -- on the uphill side of the path.
The trail is graded for these animals and they are highly trained, but they are still animals and depending on where you encounter them, it may be a difficult and stressful section of trail. Listen to the animal wrangler for instruction and give the party as wide a berth as safely possible.
3 Don’ts to Keep in Mind on the Bright Angel Trail
- DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. The Park Service mentions this time and again in their literature on Bright Angel Trail. The trail is long and strenuous and requires water and food to undertake safely. Heed the park warnings.
- DO NOT bring pets. Pets are not allowed on this trail. The difficulty of trail, the inherent danger on the trail and weather, and the presence of pack animals and livestock make for too many complications to bring the family pet, regardless of how well-trained and well-behaved they might be. Pets are prohibited by the NPS.
- DO NOT rely on park services for water. This just simply can’t be stressed enough. This is an extreme environment. Dehydration is a real danger. Be mindful of the skills and abilities of your group and plan a hike that allows for the weakest member to hike safely and comfortably.
Additional Hazards and How to Avoid Them
Storms, extreme temperatures, difficult footing, flash flooding and encounters with wild animals are all possible while on this trail.
While an encounter with a dangerous wild animal is unlikely, as the trail itself is heavily trafficked, it is possible, and hikers should exercise caution and stick to the path as they make their trek. Err on the side of caution and safety in all your decisions on Bright Angel Trail.
Additionally, be aware of local weather conditions and pay attention to park alerts and posted signage. Prepare yourself and carry supplies as encouraged above. Preparedness and risk-aversion are the best defensive safety measures.
Make Your Hike a Beautiful Experience, Not a Trial
Hiking Bright Angel Trail can be the experience of a lifetime. The Grand Canyon is among the most stunning and humbling natural formations in the world. Consider yourself lucky to have arrived and to begin your trip.
With proper preparation and good trail sense, you and your fellow hikers can make the trek a trip to remember. Respecting the terrain and conditions are paramount in this process.
Hiking slowly, taking ample breaks, taking advantage of shade, and nourishing your body will all contribute to the experience, helping to ensure a positive outcome. Hike within the abilities of your group.
Last, do homework -- search for a map, study the trail profile, features, and landscape. You will enrich your understanding of the environment and benefit you and your travel companions.
Enjoy the park!