Bright Angel Trail: How to Hike the Grand Canyon’s Most Famous Path
The 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail drops from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River through some of the continent's most iconic terrain.
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The Bright Angel Trail, the best-known trail in Grand Canyon National Park, is iconic for a reason: This hiking experience is hard to beat. As you follow the Bright Angel Fault 9.5 miles and 4,500 vertical feet down a break in the canyon wall to the Colorado River, it traverses billions of years of geologic history. The views into the depth of the canyon are nothing to sneeze at, either: The stepped red and orange cliffs of The Battleship and Cheop’s Pyramid loom above, while the faint blue ribbon of the Colorado glimmers far below. Whether you’re in for a quick jaunt or the long haul, the Bright Angel Trail won’t disappoint.
Best Day Hike on the Bright Angel Trail
Start from the Bright Angel trailhead on the rim. If you only have a couple of hours, pick Mile and a Half Resthouse as your turnaround point, 1.6 miles and a 1,000-vertical-foot drop from the trailhead. The switchbacks start fast and stay steep in this first section of trail, so be sure to wear boots that support your ankles. Tucked into the back of the fault, the trail frames its views with enormous sandstone cliffs, scattered with occasional shaded pockets of plant life.
For a full day of hiking, head a bit farther down trail to Plateau Point. The 10.7-mile round-trip drops through most of the Bright Angel Trail’s elevation loss on the way to Indian Gardens, an oasis that supports orchids and redbud trees. Though the plant communities now present are wild, in the past Indian Gardens was a true garden, cultivated most recently by the Havasupai and before that by the Puebloans and Cohoninas. On the way down to the oasis the trail passes several petroglyph panels left by the people who once used this path for garden access. Ten seasonal structures built for summer farming are still scattered across the oasis. After passing through the garden, veer left for Plateau Point. The finger of stone extends out into the greater canyon, with encompassing views of the Colorado and the canyon walls.
Best Weekend Hike on the Bright Angel Trail
For a comparatively leisurely overnight, pitch camp at the Indian Gardens campground and make the last 1.4 miles to Plateau Point a day trip from your base camp. The campground has a ranger station and potable water year-round, with 16 sites available for campers (backcountry permit required). A creek winds through stately cottonwoods beneath the canyon walls, cooling the campground and providing precious shade.
To spend a weekend hiking the whole length of the trail, head down over 100 switchbacks to the canyon floor, where the Bright Angel Campground spreads 32 sites along the north shore of the Colorado. The last set of really severe switchbacks comes just below Indian Garden, on a section of trail called the Devils Corkscrew. Once you reach the shale-heavy geology of the Tonto Platform near mile 4 the trail mellows considerably. The trail meets the river at mile 8.1. The River Resthouse at the meeting point does not have potable water, but there are toilets nearby. After reaching the river, the trail crosses a field of sand dunes (during summer months, this section is best attempted during the cooler morning and evening hours), then crosses Silver Bridge to Bright Angel Campground at mile 9.5.
Ultimate Bright Angel Trail Link-Up:Rim to Rim
Put together the Bright Angel Trail and North Kaibab Trail for a 2-to-3-day epic that crosses the entire canyon, North Rim to South Rim, in 23 miles. Best done in spring or fall, when the North Rim road is open but temperatures are still reasonable. Pick your starting point (Bright Angel or North Kaibab) and set up a shuttle to return you to your car when you’re done. Then head down into the canyon, switchbacking across the cliffs until you reach the Colorado River. From there, climb back up to views deep into the canyon and across to enormous formations of red and orange sandstone. Be sure to reserve your Rim to Rim permit early, as only a set number are available every year.
Hiking Safety in the Grand Canyon
Yes: It’s possible to hike the Grand Canyon in the summer. But it’s not for the faint of heart, and you need to know what you’re doing. Most of the park’s 200 yearly heat-related rescues are on the Bright Angel Trail: Don’t underestimate either the difficulty or the heat. During the spring and summer, when temperatures soar above 100 degrees nearly every day, plan to hike in the early morning and in the evening whenever possible. Bring plenty of water with you (plan on 5-6 liters for a day of hiking) and know where the emergency phones along the trail are. On day hikes, remember that the way up is much harder than the way down; go slow, take breaks, and remember that staying an extra night is better than serious heatstroke.
Packing for the Bright Angel Trail
While it’s well-traveled, the Bright Angel Trail is still a serious hike. For the most part, your normal backpacking kit should do, with a couple of changes. You’ll want a pack with good suspension as you’ll need to carry enough water to keep you and your companions safely hydrated. Footwear that breathes well is a must, as temps can climb to blistering heights during the day. On a summer trip? Consider leaving the sleeping bag and tent at home and going with a light quilt: Temperatures don’t dip especially low even during the night and precip isn’t a common hazard, so you’re better off saving the weight and sleeping under the stars instead. A final tip: During summer, the Bright Angel Trail is one place where you may want to consider breaking the “cotton kills” rule. A wet cotton t-shirt can help keep you cool on the hottest days when you soak it.