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Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail is considered the park’s premier hiking trail. Well maintained, graded for stock, with regular drinking water and covered rest-houses, it is without question the safest trail in Grand Canyon National Park. There is a ranger station located at the trail’s halfway point (Indian Garden) and one at the bottom of the canyon (Bright Angel Campground). Visitors hiking for the first time at Grand Canyon often use this trail in conjunction with the South Kaibab Trail. Particularly during hot weather, it makes sense to ascend via the Bright Angel Trail because of potable water, regular shade, emergency phones, and the ranger presence.
Following a natural break in the cliffs formed by the massive Bright Angel Fault, today’s Bright Angel Trail approximates a route used for millennia by the many Native American groups that have called the Grand Canyon home. Early western pioneers at the canyon first built a trail in 1891 to reach mining claims established below the rim at Indian Garden. Recognizing that the true worth of the claims would be measured in visitation by tourists, these pioneers immediately registered their trail as a toll road and extended the trail to the river. The mining claims and use of the trail as a toll road would be the source of much controversy, first in legal battles with railroad companies that wanted to control tourism and later with the federal government. The trail was turned over to the National Park Service in 1928. Though it has been rerouted and improved considerably over the years, present day visitors on the Bright Angel Trail can sense its rich history from ancient pictograph panels and historic structures, and by marveling at the trail’s construction over some of the roughest terrain in North America.
While the South Kaibab Trail follows a ridge line, the Bright Angel Trail follows the head of a side canyon. Views on the Bright Angel Trail are framed by massive cliffs, and by virtue of being a shadier trail with natural water sources, there is more plant life and animal life along the Bright Angel Trail than on the South Kaibab Trail. These features make the Bright Angel Trail appealing to those interested in geology and in viewing wildlife.
The majority of this trail’s elevation change takes place in the upper four miles of trail via a series of switchbacks that can seem endless. Be sure to utilize the resthouses and seasonal water sources along the way. There are composting toilets at Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse (elevation loss: 1,131 feet), but no toilets at Three-Mile Resthouse (elevation loss: 2,112 feet). Whether ascending or descending, it is worthwhile to take breaks regularly. Approaching Indian Garden, the trail flattens out considerably as it crosses the shaley and desolate Tonto Platform.
Indian Garden, 4.9 miles from the rim and 3,060 feet below it, is an oasis in the canyon used by Native Americans up to modern times. Ralph Cameron, one of the early pioneers who built the Bright Angel Trail (and who would later become an Arizona senator), by 1903 had come to an agreement with the resident Havasupai allowing him to build a camp for tourists. He staked mining claims to secure the site, built tent cabins, and planted the enormous cottonwood trees still present today. Hikers camping at Indian Garden should consider the mile and a half side trip to Plateau Point.
Below Indian Garden, the trail follows a creek through a meandering gully of water-sculpted stone and shimmering cottonwood trees. The trail becomes steep once again where this gully empties into the broad, bowl-shaped Pipe Creek drainage. This section of trail, affectionately referred to as the Devil’s Corkscrew, is brutally hot during the summer months and should therefore only be attempted during the early morning or late evening hours. There are no potable water sources between Indian Garden and Bright Angel Campground. A composting toilet is located near the River Resthouse, 3.2 miles and 1,320 vertical feet from Indian Garden.
From the Pipe Creek/River Resthouse area to Bright Angel Campground, the remaining 1.5 miles of the trail is relatively flat and traverses exposed sand dunes for over a mile until reaching the silver bridge across the Colorado River. Again, during hot weather, these sand dunes become a dangerous slog.
The Bright Angel trailhead is located just west of Kolb Studio in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. It is within easy walking distance from Maswik Lodge, Bright Angel Lodge, rim lodge parking areas and from Parking Lots E and D. Out of consideration for daytime park visitors, it is recommended that overnight hikers park at Parking Lot E (the Backcountry Information Center parking lot). Though this is not the closest parking area, it is the most secure and is also where the largest number of parking spaces are located.
To get to the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, take Highway 64 north from I-40 for approximately 60 miles.