South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park
By Robert Stieve
If you're looking for a solo expedition, this isn't it — at least 100,000 people a year make this trek, and maybe a half-million more hike portions of it. If, however, you want to experience one of the most renowned trails in the world, the Bright Angel awaits. But before you lace up, you need to be prepared. The National Park Service strongly advises against doing this trail as a day hike, but it is doable. If you're going to heed the advice of the NPS, you'll need reservations at Phantom Ranch or one of the nearby campgrounds (Indian Garden or Bright Angel). Either way, you'll also need plenty of food and water, and exceptional cardiovascular health. Check with your doctor and the backcountry office for all of the specifics.
The trail begins just beyond the historic Kolb Studio on the South Rim. The trees you'll see are mostly piñons and junipers, some of which are more than 100 years old. Almost immediately, you'll come to the first of two tunnels. As you pass through, look up to the left. The pictographs are known as Mallery's Grotto. They were painted by members of various Indian civilizations over several centuries. The second tunnel is just beyond the first. From there, the trail switchbacks to the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse. As the name suggests, you'll have gone 1.5 miles at this point, but geologically, you'll have traveled for millions of years.
Moving on, you'll quickly come to the Three-Mile Resthouse and a series of switchbacks known as Jacob's Ladder. While you're winding down, take a moment to look up. California condors, which disappeared from the area in 1925, were reintroduced in 1996. On a good day, you might see one or two or more of these endangered species soaring in the sky. It's a remarkable sight.
The approximate halfway point of the trail is Indian Garden, a spring-fed oasis that was used for centuries by Ancestral Puebloans, and later, into the 20th century, by the Havasupai Indians. For day-hikers, this is the most common turnaround point, although some explorers also make the trek out to nearby Plateau Point, a short and easy side trip that offers excellent views of the Inner Gorge of the Canyon.
If you're continuing down to the river, you'll pass through Garden Creek upon leaving Indian Garden. This area, too, was used by Ancestral Puebloans, who raised corn, beans and squash. Today, it's another refreshing respite on a long journey that continues to the Devil's Corkscrew. The lengthy set of switchbacks zigzags through a vast rock formation known as the Vishnu schist. In this zone, the vegetation changes from the riparian habitat along the stream to a drier, desert region. It changes back, however, once you reach Columbine Spring, which seeps from a cliff to the left of the trail. The rest of the route follows Pipe Creek to the Colorado River. This is where the Bright Angel Trail connects with the River Trail.
The latter, which was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, parallels the river for about a mile and a half to Silver Bridge, where it crosses the Colorado River and leads to Bright Angel Campground. Phantom Ranch is just a little farther down. Either place makes a great place to spend the night. But don't show up without reservations. The rooms and campsites book up as far as a year in advance. When you share a trail with 100,000 people, that's the reality. It's worth the extra planning, though. Bright Angel is justifiably one of the most renowned trails in the world.
PHOTO: The trail begins on the South Rim, as seen in this view from near the trailhead, and leads to Indian Garden on the plateau below, before continuing deeper into the Grand Canyon. | Nick Berezenko
Length: 19.2 miles round-trip
Elevation: 6,860 to 2,400 feet
Trailhead GPS::N 36˚03.473', W 112˚08.556'
Directions: From the South Rim entrance station, follow South Entrance Road for about 8 miles as it winds around to the west end of the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village. The Bright Angel Trailhead is on the right, just beyond Kolb Studio.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Bright Angel, Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch
Information: Backcountry Office, Grand Canyon National Park, 928-638-7888 or www.nps.gov/grca