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)|
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)|
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.
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|
|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|
|Entering Indian Garden|
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|
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|
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|
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|
|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|
|Looking back - the rim of the Canyon|
|The River Trail connects Bright Angel to the South and North Kaibab trails|
|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|
|Downstream footbridge over Bright Angel Creek|
|Bright Angel Creek|
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|
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|
|Running water, flush toilets, and a roof - what luxury!|
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|
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|
|Looking east towards the Black Bridge and South Kaibab trail|
|Early morning light illuminates the Inner Gorge|
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.