Hiking Down Into The Grand Canyon On The Bright Angel Trail
Bright Angel Trail is located on the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. It is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but also extremely strenuous. The trail has been part of the national park since 1928.
It is 4.5 miles to reach the bottom at Indian Gardens and another 1.5 miles to reach Plateau point which gives you views of the Colorado river. There is a total of 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a pretty easy trek going down, but the climb back up is very physically challenging.
The trailhead starts in Grand Canyon Village by the mule corral just west of Bright Angel Lodge. This is a steep, but well maintained dirt trail. Some things you should know before heading out:
- Give uphill hikers the right of way.
- Water is available year-round at the trailhead and at Indian Garden.
- Water is available seasonally (May – October) along the trail at 1.5 mile resthouse and 3 mile resthouse.
- Even though water is available in places ALWAYs carry water. Sometimes pipelines break and no water is available.
- Plan on taking twice as long to hike up as it took you to hike down.
- Eating is just as important as drinking. You will be expending a lot of calories and energy.
- DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, especially May to September.
- Restrooms are available at the trailhead, 1.5 mile resthouse and Indian Garden.
- Emergency phones are available at the 1.5 mile resthouse, 3 mile resthouse and Indian Garden.
- Check the weather before you start. Storms and extreme temperatures are common here.
Below is some information to follow when you encounter mules on the trail. Many visitors book mule rides to reach the bottom of the canyon. All the views, but none of the hiking. Plus, you get to ride a mule!
- When mules approach step off the trail on the uphill side away from the edge.
- Always follow the directions of the wrangler.
- Always remain completely quiet and stand perfectly still as the mules pass.
- Do not return to the trail until the last mule is 50 feet past you.
There are multiple “destination” points on the trail. I listed them below with lengths and elevation gains. This will provide you with an estimation of how far you would like to travel on the trail. Keep in mind times below are estimates. How fast or slow you hike will determine how much time it takes.
0.1 miles roundtrip / 20 minutes
1.8 miles roundtrip / 1-2 hours / 590 feet of elevation change
3 miles roundtrip / 2-4 hours / 1,120 feet of elevation change
6 miles roundtrip / 4-6 hours / 2,120 feet of elevation change
9 miles roundtrip / 6-9 hours / 3,040 feet of elevation change
12 miles roundtrip / 9-12 hours / 3,080 feet of elevation change
With a backcountry permit you may camp at Indian Garden Campground. There is a fee of $10 per permit plus an additional fee of $8 per night per person. Permits sell out fast so advanced planning is usually recommended. The camp is located right off Bright Angel Trail.
Consult a park ranger, visitor center or backcountry information center before heading down to the Colorado River for safety tips and overnight permits.
A small creek runs through the campground which is filled with cottonwood trees. Each campsite has a shade structure, picnic table, pack pole, and metal food storage cans. A ranger station, emergency phone, year-round potable water and toilets are available at the campground. Mule trains, on their way to Phantom Ranch, also stop here to rest.
Now our plan was to walk to Indian Garden and back. We only made it to the 3 mile resthouse though. The hike down to this point only took us 1 hour and 40 minutes and was pretty easy. The issue was the 3 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation we had to hike back to the top.
The trail is mainly just a series of very steep switchbacks. And while switchbacks are far easier to hike than going straight up, they were still pretty steep. I have some physical limitations due to some minor medical conditions so hiking up in elevation is difficult for me. Jamey was afraid I wouldn’t make it back up if we kept going.
I hate to admit it, but he was right. It took us 3 hours and 40 minutes to climb back up to the trailhead from the 3 mile mark.
Bright Angel Trail is tucked deep within the side of the canyon along a massive fault. Most of the trail’s elevation change takes place in the upper four miles of the hike via a series of switchbacks.
When we were hiking down into the canyon I was having a great time. I was happy as a clam just trekking along the trail enjoying the incredible views. It was such an easy hike on the way down.
On the way back up though the steep switchbacks seemed endless and I never thought I would make it to the top. I lost track of how many times I had to stop and rest. Thankfully the canyon walls do provide shade in multiple spots and there are countless rocks to sit your caboose on.
I want to really stress how hard the climb up out of the canyon and back up is. It’s extremely steep and extremely physically challenging.
There’s a reason the park suggests you plan on taking twice as long to hike up as it took you to hike down, because you’ll need it. Even without my medical problems I believe I still would of had a hard time.
I wasn’t the only one taking multiple breaks on the way back up. There were around three other groups that we leapfrogged with on the trek to the top. They would pass me resting, I would pass them resting and this went on for miles. We ended up talking to them a lot and it was a great distraction for the task at hand.
It also seemed like seeing me resting gave more people an excuse to stop and take a break too. People would approach us, see me sitting down then stop to say hi and just take a couple moments to catch their breath. We chatted with so many people that day.
Do I regret hiking the trail, absolutely not.
It was incredible!
The views you get are nothing short of breathtaking. We were lucky to have an incredibly clear day that stayed in the low 80’s so it wasn’t miserably hot. Ok, that’s a lie it was still pretty hot. Pretty sure I lost 5 pound with all the sweating I was doing.
I wish I would of taken more pictures though. Hiking down I was just in awe and truly taking in everything around me. Hiking back up I was too exhausted to take pics. With all the stops I made though I got to enjoy all the amazing scenery.
The pictures I did get weren’t the best either. I think it’s time to bite the bullet and invest in a new camera.
So should you hike Bright Angel Trail?
If you are physically able, you absolutely should spend some time on this trail.
The views alone are completely worth it. I guarantee it’s an adventure that will stay with you for years to come. Remember, you don’t have to walk the whole thing to enjoy the experience. Travel down as far as you feel comfortable with then turn around.
I’ve been working on my medical issues and hoping that our next visit to Grand Canyon National Park in the coming year will see me in better physical shape. The goal is to make it to Indian Garden next time and back up.
We would love to spend the night there and hike to Plateau Point as well. But we travel full-time with our fur babies so that’s not really a feasible option.
Maybe we’ll have to con a friend or family member into traveling with us and babysitting the furry ones while we go on a grand adventure. Any takers?
There are options to hike further into the canyon if you want a real adventure.
You can actually travel from the south rim all the way to the north rim. This obviously requires multiple days of hiking and obtaining backcountry permits. Talk with rangers at the visitor center or backcountry information center for further information.
Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year so be prepared and know your limitations. Start early to hike in the cooler parts of the day. You may also consider taking a shorter hike in the afternoon to take advantage of the shade provided by the canyon walls.
Go slowly, rest often, stay hydrated and watch your steps.
Most importantly…enjoy your hike!