The Bright Angel Trail is certainly Grand Canyon National Park’s most popular, with its steady stream of day-hikers and backpackers, and it is considered by many to be the park’s premier hiking trail. Its popularity is probably related to ease of access, with a trailhead located in the heart of the Grand Canyon Village. As one of few maintained and patrolled rim-to-river trails, the Bright Angel brings the Inner Gorge and Colorado River within relatively easy reach; and it’s one of the best connected of any trail in the park, affording access to the east-west Tonto Trail, the trail to Plateau Point, the inner canyon River Trail connecting to the South Kaibab Trail, as well as to the inner canyon end of the North Kaibab Trail. The Bright Angel is one of three “Corridor” trails designated by the park service. With regular summer-season drinking water stations, covered rest-houses, and even ranger stations located at the trail’s halfway point (Indian Garden) and at trail’s end (the Bright Angel Campground/Phantom Ranch area), the Bright Angel is undoubtedly the safest trail in Grand Canyon National Park. At-large camping is not permitted on Corridor Trails; visitors must camp in designated campgrounds. However, the Bright Angel Trail does offer some of the finest (and shadiest) camping areas below the rim, located at Indian Garden and Bright Angel Campgrounds. The Bright Angel’s corridor status also mean that it is ideally suited for a beginning backpacking experience in the Grand Canyon, but don’t worry, even if you are a hiking and backcountry guru, the trail is plenty rigorous, and it never fails to provide an abundance of scenery and unique geological features too, enough to satisfy even the most seasoned veteran of the Grand Canyon’s earthly marvels.
Most Bright Angel Trail day-hikers attempt the out and back trip to Indian Garden Campground. A longer day-hiking option includes the round-trip trail to Plateau Point and its spectacular views of Granite Gorge from Indian Garden; start before sunrise if you plan to include this extra excursion. Rim-to-river day-hikes should be avoided, especially in the heat of summer. However, if you insist on such an undertaking, a likely scenario is a predawn hike descending the South Kaibab Trail and then along the River Trail where you can connect with the Bright Angel Trail and ascend back to the rim. A well-timed trip will bring you to Indian Garden by mid-day; you can rest in the shade, continue your ascent in the cooler late afternoon, and take advantage of water stations higher on the trail. If you want to dwell on the canyon’s scenery and geological wonders, a three- or four-day outing including the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails, with overnight stays at Indian Garden and Bright Angel Campgrounds would be an excellent option. Hiking the Bright Angel could be combined with the North Kaibab Trail to make an unforgettable South Rim-to-North Rim trek of three or four days as well (staying overnight at Bright Angel and Cottonwood Campgrounds); or for the more adventurous (and experienced) hiker, your rim-to-river trek on the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails could be combined with an in-and-out trip on the Clear Creek Trail (only accessed from a trailhead just upstream from Phantom Ranch).
The modern Bright Angel Trail closely follows the route used for millennia by Native American groups that lived in and near to the Grand Canyon. Early pioneers of European descent first built a trail in 1891 along Native American route to reach mining claims established below the rim at Indian Garden. Quickly realizing that the trail’s true worth lay in providing tourist visitation, these pioneers registered their trail as a toll road and extended it to the river. The trail was eventually turned over to the National Park Service in 1928 and now 21st-century visitors hiking on the Bright Angel Trail can get a feel for its wealth of human history from ancient pictograph panels to historic structures, and it never hurts to earn the good vibrations of the canyon spirits by marveling at the trail’s construction over some of North America’s roughest terrain.
The Bright Angel Trail descends along the head of Garden Canyon, where a natural break in the South Rim’s normally impenetrable cliffs has formed in rocks weakened by movement on the massive Bright Angel Fault. Views from the upper Bright Angel Trail are framed by imposing varicolored cliffs comprised of horizontal sedimentary rock layers deposited between 545 and 245 million years ago, during a period of earth’s history known as the Paleozoic Era (Figure 1A.2.1). A hike on the Bright Angel Trail, as with all rim-to-river routes, is a hike backwards through time. Each sedimentary rock unit (called a formation) that you cross exhibits unique characteristics that enable easy identification, traits that to a geologist comprise its sedimentary facies and allow deciphering of its depositional setting. Most of this trail’s elevation change takes place in the upper four miles of trail via a series of switchbacks that can seem endless, although this section of the trail is shadier and more vegetated. As you approach Indian Garden, the trail flattens out considerably as it traverses the desolate Tonto Platform, its gentle slopes brought on by rapid weathering of the Bright Angel Shale and its lack of abundant vegetation a result of soils developed on nutrient poor mudrocks.
Indian Garden, and its enormous cottonwood trees, form an oasis in Garden Canyon long used by Native Americans. Ralph Cameron, an early pioneer and one of the settlers who built the Bright Angel Trail, secured an agreement with the resident Havasupai allowing him plant trees and build a campground of sorts for early Grand Canyon tourists; today, potable water and state-of-the-art composting toilets at this designated campground add to its shady luxury. Below Indian Garden, the Bright Angel Trail begins as a gradual descent along the right bank of perennial Garden Creek, but steepens considerably where the stream pours into the lower Pipe Creek drainage, a section of trail affectionately known as the Devil’s Corkscrew which can be unbearably hot during the summer months, so plan accordingly. It soon becomes obvious that the Bright Angel Trail has dropped below the Tapeats Sandstone, lowermost of the Paleozoic sedimentary rock sequence, and into crystalline basement rocks, approximately 1.7 billion years old (Figure 1A.2.1). Pipe Creek has cut a narrow path through dark, vertically foliated Brahma and Vishnu Schist, injected by ribbons of pink Zoroaster Granite, the depths of the tributary canyon grading to the Colorado River’s dark-walled Inner Gorge. There are no potable water sources between Indian Garden and Bright Angel Campgrounds, although filterable water occurs at the lower end of Pipe Creek and where it empties into the Colorado River just below the River Resthouse. From the resthouse to Bright Angel Campground, the trail traverses exposed sand within sunbaked walls of dark schist for over a mile until reaching the Silver Bridge across the Colorado River, a dangerous slog in hot weather. Fortunately, from the Silver Bridge, it is a short jaunt to campground or lodging, offering much needed shade, potable water, flush toilets, and even a cantina. If you have a two-night permit, a stay at Bright Angel Campground/Phantom Ranch should include a hike to the overlook on the Clear Creek Trail above the mouth of Bright Angel Canyon, the scenery and geology are phenomenal!
Figure 1A.2.1. An idealized stratigraphic column for the Grand Canyon describing the name and age of the various rock units exposed within its depths.