Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Grand Canyon - The Bright Angel Trail

Old Faithful. Half Dome. Angels Landing. Most National Parks have an iconic feature with instant name recognition, and Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon certainly falls into this category.  Nearly anyone who has ever ventured even a few steps into the abyss has likely walked this well used path which leads eventually to the bottom and the Colorado River.

Due to its location in the exceptionally busy South Rim Village, Bright Angel entices many casual visitors to take their first and possibly only journey below the rim.  For those who dare to go all the way it is here that most hikers will discover if they have what it takes.  And while there are no "easy" trails in and out of Grand Canyon, there are trails that are "easier" than others.  For beginners Bright Angel makes a good first choice. 

With ease of access, seasonal water, high likelihood of human contact, and a wide, well maintained trail tread, the Bright Angel is the logical route for anyone who wants to experience what Canyon hiking is all about.

Bright Angel Trail Origins

The Bright Angel trail owes its existence to a significant geological rift - the Bright Angel Fault. The presence of a generally east-west displacement here allows for one of the few natural trans-canyon routes. Wildlife first began using the contours of the fault to reach the bottom, and nearly 12,000 years ago early human inhabitants of the area followed their trails.  More recently the Havasupai people utilized the path to reach crops along the perennial waters of Garden Creek, in a place known today as Indian Garden.

Ralph Cameron (courtesy photo)
The arrival of settlers and prospectors in the area in the late 1800's heralded an era of trail construction.  For the most part the path we use today was improved by Pete Berry and brothers Ralph and Niles Cameron to reach mining claims below the rim.

Of the three men Ralph was more entrepreneurial, and he was quick to recognize the potential in extracting money from early Canyon tourists.  Ralph fortuitously became sole owner of Bright Angel trail when Pete Berry transferred title to him in exchange for rights to the Grandview Toll Road, another improved trail to the east that served other Canyon mining claims.

Christened as the Bright Angel Toll Road, the (somewhat) improved trail offered visitors a chance to go below the rim for the modest fee of $1.00 per person.  In conjunction, Ralph also developed a hotel on the rim and camping facilities at Indian Gardens.  As Ralph saw it, the Canyon itself was likely to be much more profitable than any minerals it might contain, and he took advantage of all opportunities that came his way.

Bright Angel Toll Road Gate (courtesy photo)
In the early days competition for tourism dollars was intense, and the resulting rivalry was bitter.  The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad (ATSF) at the South Rim in 1901 facilitated an easy and comfortable way for the average citizen to see this natural wonder, and the age of popular visitation had arrived.

Sadly for the railroad Ralph Cameron had gotten there first, and his exclusive control of the only viable trail into the Canyon and development of tourist camps on the rim and in the Canyon became the subject of constant litigation.  Lawyers for the ATSF tried repeatedly without success to wrest control of the lucrative holdings away from Cameron, and their efforts only served to increase the animosity between the parties involved.

To circumvent the stranglehold of Cameron's empire, the railroad and their partner the Fred Harvey Company built the luxurious El Tovar Hotel in 1905 as alternative lodging for their guests.   Additionally in 1910 they constructed the Hermit Trail with access to Hermit Camp below the rim to compete with amenities operated by Cameron at Indian Garden.  The railroad and Fred Harvey Company spent enormous sums of money to make sure the guest experience was far superior, and passengers could walk or ride a mule on their trail at no charge.

The establishment of Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 and the subsequent transformation to National Park status in 1919 led to federal efforts to decertify claims exerted by Cameron over the Bright Angel Toll Road and Indian Garden below the rim.  Much to the regret of the Park Service, by this time Cameron had thoroughly insinuated himself into Arizona politics, and as territorial legislator, County Supervisor, and eventually Senator he continued to exert a strong influence over the fate of "his" trail for years to come.

Despite Cameron's interference, the Mining Law of 1872 declares that claims must be constantly worked or "proved" in order to maintain legal ownership.  Since Cameron was not doing any actual mining (except of the tourists), one by one his claims were revoked.  After repeated appeals failed to reverse the outcome, Cameron lost direct control over the trail in 1913, and ownership subsequently reverted to Coconino County.  Rather than accept defeat gracefully Ralph used his political clout and local anti-government sentiment to persuade the county to continue to operate Bright Angel as a toll road, keeping it out of the hands of the Park Service as long as possible.

For their part, the long struggle and subsequent failure of the Park Service to obtain title to Bright Angel resulted in a decision in 1923 to build the South Kaibab Trail, another amazing Canyon landmark.  In retrospect the South Kaibab trail is probably the only real positive that resulted from the conflict, for without the decades long legal battle it would never have been considered, let alone constructed.

The contentious fight over who owned Bright Angel finally came to an end in 1928 when the Park Service was granted ownership of the trail by the county in exchange for a new road to the South Rim.  The next two decades saw significant rebuilding and improving of the route by the Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps, leaving us with the path used by hundreds of thousands each year.

The Bright Angel trail is considered a "corridor" route, meaning that it receives regular maintenance and is frequently patrolled by NPS Backcountry Rangers. It features seasonal water at various points, and is heavily used making encounters with other people very likely.  It is one of only two trails (South Kaibab is the other) that offers a means to cross the Colorado River on a suspension bridge, and it has direct access to Phantom Ranch, the only established lodging facility at the bottom of the Canyon.

Even so it is still a challenging hike. It drops nearly 4400 feet from the rim to the river, and has an average grade of 10%. Temperatures at the bottom of the Canyon run generally 20 to 25 degrees warmer than at the top, and in summer the intense heat, lack of shade, and the demanding physical effort can lead to problems for unprepared hikers.  Despite all that, the Bright Angel is one of the most popular and heavily traveled trails at Grand Canyon.

The Trail

Beginning near the Kolb Studio, the trail begins a 9.5 mile trek to the Colorado River with a seemingly endless sucession of switchbacks that last nearly all the way to Indian Garden.  In the first 4 miles the Bright Angel loses 3000 feet of elevation, almost 3/4 of the total drop. 

A wide, well maintained trail tread is a hallmark of the Bright Angel Trail

The upper sections of the trail sees many casual hikers

Looking down into the abyss

Switchbacks make the grade more manageable

Canyon walls rise quickly as the the trail makes steady downward progress
Anyone tackling the challenge of hiking Bright Angel will appreciate the placement of frequent excuses to stop and take a break, like Mile and a Half Resthouse, with shade, composting toilets, and potable water (seasonal).  Another opportunity presents itself further along at Three Mile Resthouse, and again at Indian Garden.

Mile and a Half Resthouse with seasonal water offers a chance to take a break

Remember - what goes down must come up!

Indian Garden is nestled below the Redwall in a grove of cottonwood trees

The relatively flat bench of Bright Angel shale forms the Tonto Plateau

Looking back reveals a significant loss of elevation
After many zig-zags traversing sheer Canyon walls, the trail begins a shallower approach along a broad terrace of the Tonto Plateau as it heads for Indian Garden.  This welcoming and shady oasis harbors a campground and Ranger Station, as well as trail options for trips down, out, east, or west.

Entering Indian Garden
Indian Garden sits alongside Garden Creek, and is characterized by mature cottonwood trees planted by Ralph Cameron.  Historically the waters of the creek were used by native peoples to grow crops, and later provided drinking water to early tourists.

The campground at Indian Garden is useful to overnight Canyon hikers in two ways.  As a destination for those who want to spend the night below the rim without making a trip to the Colorado River, it may be a more reasonable goal for first time backpackers at 4.5 miles each way.  It can also be utilized as part of a multi-day trip, either as an overnight break on the way in or the way out.

Ambitious hikers also pass through Indian Garden enroute to Plateau Point, a there-and-back trip to a viewpoint perched on the rim of the Inner Gorge 1200 feet above the Colorado River.  The distance overall is 12 miles, with an elevation loss/gain of over 6000 feet.  Although a fair number of people make the journey as a day hike, the trip is physically demanding and should never be attempted in the hotter summer months.

Indian Garden also sits at the nexus of the only established east-west Canyon route, the Tonto Trail.  Here backpackers can turn east or west, heading deeper into less visited parts of the Canyon.

Corrals and ramada at Indian Garden
Another item of note is the pump house at Indian Garden.  Most visitors to the Park don't realize that all drinking water at the North and South Rims comes from within the Canyon.  This scarce and precious resource originates from Roaring Springs, located at the base of the Redwall on the north side of the River.

A 12 mile pipeline constructed in 1963 carries water that is pumped to storage tanks on the rim.  In many locations the pipeline follows the same route as Bright Angel, allowing for seasonal water to be provided to thirsty hikers.

Pumphouse at Indian Garden

Plateau Point and Tonto West trail junction at Indian Gardens

Tonto East trail junction at Indian Gardens
After departing from Indian Garden, the trail continues a modest drop through the upper end of Pipe Creek.  The horizontal ledges of Tapeats sandstone form an attractive corridor, and the presence of water allows for some greenery in an otherwise austere landscape.

Though there are many places along this section where it is possible to reach the creek, the water is not recommended for drinking without treatment or filtering.  It is suitable to use creek water to wet shirts, hats, and other garments to keep cool on a hot day.

Tapeats sandstone ledges give Canyon walls a "terraced" look

Pack mules carry supplies in and out of the Canyon

California King Snake, one of many reptiles in the Canyon
The Bright Angel emerges from the narrows of Tapeats sandstone and begins the final approach to the rugged Inner Gorge.  The last 1200 feet or so of elevation loss to the River cuts through a dense, tortured metamorphic rock known as the Vishnu Schist.

This erosion resistant material has been submerged beneath the earth where tremendous heat and pressure have recycled and remade what used to lie on the surface.  At around 1.2 billion years old it represents the oldest layer found in the Canyon, and is quite different from the many types of sedimentary rock found above it.

As harsh environments go, the Inner Gorge is about as unwelcoming as it gets.  The dense rock resists fragmentation, and little to no soil exists for plants to take root.  Even if a seed were to find a toehold, lack of water and intense heat keeps all but the hardiest vegetation from making a go of it.  Still, nature abhors a vacuum and there are a few specialized plants that manage to exist in spite of the limitations.

Constructing a useful trail in this part of the Canyon necessitated liberal use of explosives to blast a channel in the rock.  A section with the colorfully descriptive name of the Devil's Corkscrew consists of many switchbacks carved into the schist which lead to the bed of Pipe Creek. 

First look at the section known as the Devil's Corkscrew

Despite the width there are still sections where empty space lies mere steps away

Last shade before dropping into the Inner Gorge

The trail carved into Vishnu Schist, a dark metamorphic rock

The trail was blasted into rugged walls of dense metamorphic rock

Final descent to the creek bed

The Inner Gorge - a landscape of naked rock and low desert plants
Once the trail reaches the stream, the grade becomes much less severe as it winds through the channel to the River.

Water flows in Pipe Creek
An old mine adit (shaft) along the trail

A narrow passage offers welcome shade in the morning and late afternoon

Lower Pipe Creek
Near the mouth of Pipe Creek the noise of the Colorado River is heard before the water comes into view.  At this intersection we meet the River Trail for the final 1.5 miles to Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel campground.  There is also a composting toilet here at River Resthouse (no water available) to accommodate those who have the urge, as well as an emergency phone to summon help if necessary.

River Resthouse

Looking back - the rim of the Canyon
The River trail is also blasted out of the gneiss (schist), and there is a modest gain in elevation as it climbs away from the Colorado.  In summer this section of trail is best tackled in early morning or late afternoon, as it is exposed and brutally hot with nothing but heat reflecting rocks all around.

The River Trail connects Bright Angel to the South and North Kaibab trails
After about a mile of walking (sometimes in sand) the Silver Bridge crossing the River comes into view.  The bridge was constructed in the 1960's and is a vital link in the earlier mentioned trans-Canyon water line from Roaring Springs.  The pipeline carrying 500,000 gallons of water each day to the South Rim is suspended beneath the bridge structure.

The Silver Bridge

The trans-Canyon pipeline is suspended beneath the Silver Bridge

To Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Campground, and the North Rim (via North Kaibab trail)

Looking upstream on the Colorado River
Once across the River, the path leads a short distance to Bright Angel Creek as it emerges from the north.  Parallel trails on either side of the creek lead to Bright Angel Campground on the west bank, and Phantom Ranch on the east side.

Downstream footbridge over Bright Angel Creek
Bright Angel is the name bestowed on the creek by Maj. John Wesley Powell after his epic voyage of exploration along the Colorado in 1869.  He initially referred to the clear water stream as Silver Creek upon the first encounter, but changed it to Bright Angel as counterpoint to the name Dirty Devil, which was a foul smelling and murky water course located upstream of the Grand Canyon.  Since then many locations and features bear the name Bright Angel, much to the confusion of first time visitors.

Bright Angel Creek
A developed campground exists here that is nearly always fully occupied, as it is the only facility where camping is allowed in this part of the Canyon.  Accessed by the Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails, Bright Angel campground is where 99% of first time backpackers will experience a night below the rim.

Incidentally, all overnight use of the Canyon (except for staying at Phantom Ranch) requires a permit from the Backcountry Office.  Since the Park Service recommends first time hikers use corridor trails such as Bright Angel, getting a permit to spend the night at Indian Garden, Bright Angel, or Cottonwood campgrounds can be very difficult, especially in the spring, summer, and fall when Park visitation is at the peak.

There is a lot of information available from the Grand Canyon National Park website, including when and where to apply for permits, but be aware that demand greatly exceeds supply in high use areas like Bright Angel.

Bright Angel Campground
If you are fortunate enough to get a permit, the sites here are spacious, flat, and feature picnic tables.  Unfortunately there is also a serious rodent problem, since decades of careless campers have spoiled rock squirrels, ring-tailed cats, mice, and ravens with the reward of food, whether intentional or not.

In years past, various means of depriving these critters of snacks have been tried with varying degrees of success, but the most recent iteration is the food storage locker.  Of course to be effective ALL edible items have to be placed in the box - woe to the hiker who takes a midnight snack into the tent, only to discover that nylon walls are no barrier to hungry mice.

On the prowl

Food locker
As utilities are available nearby, the facilities include restrooms with running water and lights.  Although spending the night here is still "roughing it", it could be more challenging.  Consider true backcountry camping, where water has to be located and then treated or filtered, tables consist of whatever flat rock you may find, and going to the bathroom requires techniques most folks are unfamiliar with.

Running water, flush toilets, and a roof - what luxury!
For those who have no desire to carry a heavy pack or pitch a tent, there is another option - Phantom Ranch.  Although the area had been used for millenia by native peoples as a place of habitation, the modern day version of this rustic yet comfortable facility has it origins in 1902.  That year a man named David Rust began planting trees along the creek and constructing a tent camp in the hopes of attracting visitors from the North Rim.

The location gained some prominence in 1913 when Teddy Roosevelt stayed here as part of a hunting trip, and the name was briefly changed to "Roosevelt's Camp".  In 1922 the Fred Harvey Company took control of the area and gave architect Mary Jane Colter the task of redesigning and constructing a more permanent lodging facility.

Using native stone and timber and a style known today as National Park Rustic, Ms. Colter created a setting where individual cabins surround a central dining hall.  Colter also suggested the current name, borrowing the word Phantom from an upstream tributary of Bright Angel Creek.  In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps made many improvements to the area, including the construction of a swimming pool.  Unfortunately for hot and weary hikers, the pool has since been filled in.

Cabin at Phantom Ranch

Cabin interior - many have been converted to dormitories to accommodate more guests
By and large Phantom Ranch exists much the same as it did when first built, although some changes have been made.  This includes the installation of such creature comforts as evaporative coolers in the cabins and cantina, as well as electricity for lights and modern plumbing.

Food and lodging are available by reservation only, as all goods must be delivered in and out of the Ranch via pack mule and space is limited.  Incidentals like snacks and beverages are sold to non-guests after the Dining Hall has served scheduled breakfasts or dinners, so hungry or thirsty backpackers are not left out entirely.

The Cantina at Phantom Ranch

Cabins and dormitories at Phantom Ranch

Looking up to the South Rim from Phantom Ranch
Hikers also come into the area using the South Kaibab trail, the other "corridor" route that crosses the River to the east on the Black Bridge.  Many visitors to the bottom use South Kaibab as the descent portion of the hike, as it is somewhat shorter at 7 miles (although steeper) from the rim, and hike out on the Bright Angel because of available water and potential for shade.

Looking east towards the Black Bridge and South Kaibab trail
Of course for some the visit here is not simply an "in and out" experience.  The North Kaibab trail continues up Bright Angel Creek for 14 miles to the North Rim, and many backpackers use the campgrounds at Bright Angel and Cottonwood to complete a rim-to-rim hike. 

Early morning light illuminates the Inner Gorge

All in all the area around the Ranch is very scenic and comfortable, with stands of mature cottonwood trees lining the banks of cool Bright Angel Creek.  With a developed campground or a place to stay featuring 4 walls, a roof, and climate controlled comfort there is something for just about anyone intrepid enough to make the hike to the bottom.

That said, with all the options to make the visit as pleasant as possible, you still have to get here, and more importantly you have to get out.  As hard as it may be to make the long trek up and down the Canyon walls, at least there is a wide, well used trail with some provision for water and shade.  Go ahead - try it.  You may surprise yourself.