This is a piece I wrote for my blog, Right Kind Of Lost, detailing my trip on the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. It was published on April 27, 2017. For the original post, click here.
By Mara Kuhn
In March Lagena and I took an impromptu trip to Grand Canyon National Park. Our original plan was to explore Arizona. And we thought since we were there, “Hey might as well go see the Grand Canyon.” When I began researching the trip, I read that you cannot get to the river without backpacking and permits are very hard to come by. Then I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I love seeing places that I have to work for and that not many people get to see. The Bright Angel Trail seemed like the perfect hike to do – if we could only get those backcountry permits.
I love to plan trips. One reason is because I love looking forward to the trip. But I did not have a lot of hope to secure backcountry permits in the Grand Canyon, so I didn’t research the trip that much.
There are a few ways to secure permits. One is to snail mail or fax a request into the backcountry office four months before your trip. This does not guarantee you a backcountry site, but puts you into a lottery. Because this was an impromptu trip, we way missed the marked on that chance.
They do keep some permits on hand for walk-ins. But you’ll want to examine how much you want them. Lagena and I were lucky, it only took us two days to secure permits.
We got to Grand Canyon National Park late Sunday night. I got up at the crack of dawn (not literally, but it was early), checked into our car camping site, and went straight to the backcountry office. I then stood in line for about 20 minutes. All the permits for that night and the next night were filled, so I got a number to go back on Tuesday to apply for permits for Wednesday night.
The next morning Lagena and I got there about 7:45 a.m. – the office opens at 8 a.m. We were number nine, so I wasn’t that hopeful. Had they been full by the time our number was called we could have exchanged that number for a lower number and have come back Wednesday morning. Fortunately, numbers three, four, and eight were no-shows. We were able to secure backcountry permits for the Bright Angel Trail for Wednesday night. We were ecstatic.
God was watching out for us. Because I didn’t think we could get the permits, I didn’t research the trail.The backcountry officer mistakenly split the hike back to the rim into two days. He made reservations for Bright Angel Campground on the river and Indian Garden in the mid-range. I didn’t realize there was a campground half way up. We were ecstatic again.
I was a little nervous because the Bright Angel Trail is extremely steep. The distance from the Bright Angel Trail trailhead to the Bright Angel Campground on the river is 9.3 miles. It has an elevation gain from the river to the rim of 4,460 feet.
There are two paths from the rim to the river on the south rim in Grand Canyon National Park. The Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. Grand Canyon National Park has an amazing shuttle service, so it is possible to hike down one trail and back up the other. However the South Kaibab Trail is higher in elevation at the rim and a shorter trail – meaning a steeper trail.
Also the South Kaibab Trail looked a little scarier to us. Lagena is afraid of heights. We consulted with a park ranger and he told us most people who are afraid of heights have no problem hiking the Bright Angel Trail. So we chose to hike down and back up that trail.
The steepest parts of the Bright Angel Trail is fairly wide across so if you were to trip, your chances of falling off the cliff face diminish. This is one thing Lagena liked about it.
Before tackling the trail, I was nervous about the elevation gain on our return trip to the rim. I was not prepared for how the hike to the bottom was going to kill me. Our trail guide said it takes four to five hours to hike to the river. It took Lagena and me six hours. I was so exhausted after that first day, I went straight to bed. My calves, right above my ankles, were killing me.
If you only have time for a day hike, you can hike to Indian Garden and back. However, it is not advised to go this far during the summer months. This will take you more than halfway into the canyon. You can still experience being surrounded by the canyon walls and get an appreciation for the magnitude of the canyon by hiking to Indian Garden and back.
This is also the steepest part of the trail. From the Bright Angel Trail trailhead to Indian Garden it is only 4.6 miles, but has an elevation change of 3,100 feet.
However with that said, it is a very well built trail. It has several steady sets of switchbacks, and on the hike up, I barely got winded. There are no stairs as on some trails, but only a slow incline which I think made it easier, especially with a 30-pound pack.
Mile-and-a-Half and Three-Mile Resthouses are along this part of the trail and have covered areas to provide shade and a break from the desert sun. They also have water during the summer months. There are toilets at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse.
There are toilets and water at Indian Garden year-round, but the park advises to check availability in case a line is broken.
This was one great thing about backpacking the Bright Angel Trail, we did not have to carry all of our water or a water filter. Bright Angel Campground also has potable water.
As you begin to enter the area known as Indian Garden, the trail levels out. From the rim you can identify Indian Garden by the green stripe in the valley. There are several springs in this area and Garden Creek begins to take shape from them. Because of the moisture, cottonwoods and other vegetation thrive in this desert climate here.
From Indian Garden the Bright Angel Trail begins to follow Garden Creek. It takes hikers through a narrow valley known as the Tapeats Narrows. Here the sandstone is layered like pancakes. When viewing this section of the trail from the rim, it looks like a narrow slit in the rock.
Pay attention to Garden Creek here because there are several waterfalls and chutes that are really nice.
Following the Tapeats Narrows, the Bright Angel Trail takes you to the Devil’s Corkscrew. This is as gnarly as it sounds. Here the trail sweeps the side of the steep terrain followed by a series of switchbacks to the bottom.
Lagena said to me, “What trail is that, do you think?” I answered that it was our trail. Not being a fan of heights, she said, “No!” But it wasn’t so bad she said.
After the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail levels out in another narrow valley. Here the Bright Angel Trail follows Pipe Creek down to the Colorado River.
I really loved this part because it shows how rugged the terrain of the area is.
At the river there is another resthouse with toilets and an emergency phone.
After you get to the river, the trail intersects with the River Trail. Then the trail turns at the resthouse. So if you go down and put your hands in the river, you’ll have to backtrack a bit. The park advises not to swim in the river because the currents are too strong.
It is 1.6 miles from the River Trail junction to the Bright Angel Campground. This trail climbs a little along the cliff and the parallels the river until you get to the Silver Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Colorado River.
I loved hiking along the Colorado River and seeing all that the Grand Canyon is.
When Lagena and I were resting by the river at the River Trail junction, thunder clapped in the distance. We knew we were racing the weather, but after that we really picked up the pace. We were again blessed because not only did we not get stormed on or struck by lightning, but a big rainbow appeared and framed the river and canyon perfectly.
We were able to get our tent up before the storm came in. We had to the option of walking a third of a mile to Phantom Ranch, where we could have bought snacks. But because the hike down about killed us and the storms were coming in, we opted to just get in the tent and go to bed.
Bright Angel Campground has flush toilets and running water. This is a luxury for a backcountry site. Each site also has picnic tables.
If you do not want to carry all of your gear down to the river, you can hike down and stay at Phantom Ranch, where you can sleep in a cabin and have meals prepared for you. Or you ride a mule down to the river, or do both.
It took us six hours to get down to the bottom and only seven to hike back to the rim. Normally it takes twice as long to ascend than descend. For some reason this was not the case for us. I do think splitting the hike up into to days helped.
We got back to Indian Garden right at noon, having left Bright Angel Campground at 9 a.m. It was cold and rainy. Apparently it snowed on the rim that day. Indian Garden Campground has covered picnic tables, which was very nice. We didn’t need the shade so much, but it kept us dry.
An option we had was to hike the Plateau Point Trail from Indian Garden. But because we were exhausted and the weather was yucky, we just stayed in our tent and read. We had a really nice, relaxing day, but I kind of wish we had hiked it.
The next day, we left Indian Garden at about 9 a.m. We took it slow and steady to the top and finished the trail at 1 p.m.
I loved this trail – like really, really loved it. The terrain and scenery changed so much that each part was special. The geology and vegetation changed the deeper we got. Also I loved experiencing the Grand Canyon for all it offered. I loved looking down on it from the top, and being surrounded by its steep walls inside it.
And of course I loved the challenge of hiking from the rim to the river in the Grand Canyon.