It’s not often one can do an extreme day hike by going down to a river and back up the same day. The Bright Angel Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon affords that opportunity and has incredible views. A word of caution: Do this in the wintertime during good weather and be in shape. This hike is famous for people getting in trouble during hot weather along with their tendency to underestimate the uphill climb.
You may want to make an advanced reservation in one of the hotels on the rim. Even a restaurant reservation may be warranted for the evening after your return. This is a relatively easy hike if you follow the Day Hikers principles: Go early, go light, go fast. There is water year round at Indian Gardens, about half way, minimizing the need to carry much except in the summer months.
This writer’s (the Day Hiker) first time doing this hike was 12/27/98 at dawn’s first light. It was a little above freezing, warming later to about 50-º F later – perfect weather. The descent in the summer is usually into a scorching desert. So while the winter hike was a little on the chilly side, some light clothing layers made it comfortable. An extra bonus in the middle of winter is the opportunity to walk the first half-mile of frozen green mule dung. Trekking poles are useful to prevent slipping on the way down, and a great advantage going up to take weight off the knees and lower back.
The trail is well maintained, with thoughtful improvements along the way. Highlights include Three-Mile Resthouse, Indian Garden, Bright Angel Campground, and the Colorado River. Elevation change from rim to river is 4420 ft, along a 7.7-mile trail.
The Day Hiker’s pace was 3 hours down to the river (River House) and 3 ½ hours back up to the rim, with an additional ½ hour sitting by the river.
Rim – 6860′
- Indian Gardens – 3800′, 3060′ below rim
- Colorado River – 2400′, 4460′ below rim
The upper section of trail starts out with wide trails, long switchbacks and has panoramic views into the canyon. Once you pass beyond the first resthouse the switchbacks come a little closer as the canyon narrows. The section of trail between the first and second resthouses is very scenic. The Three-Mile resthouse has water in the summer time only. There is a very nice spot for viewing just beyond the resthouse. Beyond Three-Mile Resthouse the trail there are a series of steeper switchbacks. Once you are beyond this the trail levels out for the remaining 3/4-mile or so to Indian Gardens. Indian Gardens makes for shorter day hike and a great place for a picnic. From here you can also take the trail out to Plateau Point, 1.5 miles each way, for an awesome view of the Inner Gorge and the Colorado River. To head to Plateau Point take the fork in the trail to the left just beyond Indian Gardens. But for the trip to the river and back take the fork to the right, which will keep you on the Bright Angel Trail and take you to bottom.
After another 1/2 mile or so the trail really starts to head down again. The slope is really gradual until you get to the Devil’s Corkscrew, a spectacular drop into the Vishnu Schist. This is the area in the summer time as the temperature can easily reach 130 degrees. Beyond the Devil’s Corkscrew the trail levels out again for maybe another 1/2 mile that will bring you to the Colorado River and the River House. This technically marks the end of the Bright Angel Trail though some people consider the River Trail that takes you to Bright Angel Campground, 2 miles beyond, to still actually be part of it.
After such a large drop in elevation, it is almost pleasant to begin the upward ascent from the river back to the rim. As in most long rigorous hikes, the key is to develop a steady pace. If you are stopping often then you are going too fast. You may see many folks who have backpacked into the canyon, often staying at the Phantom Ranch for the night, then hiking out the next morning. They will envy you as you pass by them, lightly loaded and propelled by your trekking poles. Rub it in by telling them you slept in a soft bed last night at the lodge, and have dinner reservations at the best restaurant on the rim in a few hours … such is the life of a day hiker!
Update February 2009 – Did this again. The trail was icy the first mile and trekking poles were needed. Great hike, very few people.
Image by By Murray Foubister – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mfoubister/8645178272/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51850121