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Best Grand Canyon Hikes-The Bright Angel Trail

Part 2 of Our Epic Fool’s Trip to the Grand Canyon

If you haven’t yet read Part 1, you can link to it here.

Looking across the Grand Canyon from below the South Rim

I sat above the exposed rockface high above the floor of the Grand Canyon, peering anxiously below me. The sun shone brightly, making me squint under its face. I searched for any sign of my two companions and grew nervous as the minutes passed. It had been over two hours since I’d seen them.

The trail snaked and twisted along the cliff below me, following the contours of the canyon wall. Here and there, tiny figures moved along the snowy trail. Most of them were tourists wandering down the Bright Angel Trail from the rim. The first mile down was alive with movement, but I could not see Ric and Steven among the small figures. I tried not to imagine the worst.

Looking along the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim

My mind wandered back over the last two days. It was amazing to think how far I had come in that short time, literally and figuratively! From limping sack of pain and misery to standing at the top of the trail, having completed one of the best Grand Canyon hikes, triumphant and euphoric. How different I felt!

We crossed the Colorado River two days earlier, heading out from our campsite at Bright Angel Campground. The sun was shining and the temperature was nearly perfect, in the low 70’s. Once over the river, we turned right and stayed on the River Trail as it followed the course of the Colorado. Much of the trail here travels over sand, deposited over eons by the Colorado River. A little over a mile later the trail turned at a small stream called Pipe Creek. A short while later we came upon a small stone rest house crouched against the cliff face.

River Rest House next to Pipe Creek

There’s No Escalators In The Grand Canyon

The lower sections of the Bright Angel Trail see relatively gentle elevation changes as it follows the creek and it’s spectacularly carved rock gully. We had the trail almost completely to ourselves. Shortly after we left the rest house the mule tour group we had seen in front of Phantom Ranch caught up and passed us.

At this point it occurs to me that one of the best pieces of gear you can carry is not often mentioned in equipment guides for hiking the Bright Angel Trail. A bandana! These mule trips generate an incredible amount of dust. While quietly standing to the side of the trail to allow the mules to pass, you’re going to breathe in a ton of this dust. Tie a bandana or head scarf around your face to lessen the hazard. And keep your eyes closed!

One of the things that makes Bright Angel Trail one of the best Grand Canyon hikes is the types of vegetation found along the route. This beautiful hike passes through several geo-climactic zones. You’ll see everything from Douglas Fir to prickly pear cactus. The trail is markedly different from the exposed and arid South Kaibab Trail we took into the Canyon. Walking this stretch of the trail as it followed the creek was incredibly relaxing. The water bubbled cheerfully over rocks, and a light breeze rustled the leaves of the shrubs along the path. It felt miles away from the stark and desolate beauty of the South Kaibab Trail.

Presently our relaxed hike along the pretty stream came to an end as the trail turned from the watercourse and went straight toward a cliff. We looked up, following the trail. Our jaws dropped. Our spirits quailed. I looked around for the nearest escalator. When none appeared I sat down and cried.

The Devil’s Corkscrew

Looking back down the Devil’s Corkscrew from above. Yes, we did manage to get above!

I didn’t really cry, but I wanted to. I looked at my companions. Ric shrugged and Steven laughed. I mean, what else could we do? Needless to say, there really was no choice in the matter. After all, going back was not an option.

The National Park Service website for the Grand Canyon makes reference to this section of the trail this way;

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.

National Park Service

I’m not sure I would refer to this section “affectionately”! Who knew the NPS had a sense of humor? I guess it’s up to me to provide the sober no-holds-barred assessment for the Devil’s Corkscrew.

This section of trail, appropriately referred to as the Devil’s Corkscrew, will tax even the fittest hiker among you. If you’re a smoker, haven’t worked out for the last year, or you don’t do hill sprints 6 times a day, I suggest you turn back, throw in the towel, give up, and never return. This part of the trail REALLY SUCKS!

Michael the Hapless Hiker
Need I say more?

Garden Creek

Once at the top, we paused just long enough to have a drink of water and bring our pulse rates back down to a reasonable 160 beats per minute. The trail still continued uphill, but the nasty switchbacks were done. From here the path cut across an open slope before dropping into the Garden Creek drainage and the last stretch before the Indian Garden Campground.

The creek bubbled beside and below as we worked our way along the mini canyon created by Garden Creek. This stretch of the trail is part of what makes Bright Angel Trail one of the best Grand Canyon hikes. The twists along the high walls provide ample shade, and the scenery is stunning.

Garden Creek, just below Indian Garden Campground

The afternoon was getting on as the sun dropped below the canyon rim above us. A group of mule riders passed us, headed down toward the river. Dusty and saddle sore, they were undoubtedly looking forward to a nice cold beverage at Phantom Ranch. I tried not to think about a cold, frothy pint of beer. And a medium-rare steak. And a long, hot shower. I tried, but obviously failed. Dinner on this night would consist of dehydrated pasta and lukewarm water.

Indian Garden Campground

When preparing for a 3 day hike into the Grand Canyon, hikers should give serious consideration to their food. Smart advice. However that wasn’t what we did. We stopped in at the market in Grand Canyon Village and grabbed the first dehydrated food packs we could find, along with some granola bars and assorted trail mix.

Just remember, if you plan a trip like this into the Grand Canyon, you’re going to be burning lots of calories. Carbohydrates are critical, in addition to your water requirements. In other words, snacking and drinking regularly will serve you best throughout your hike. Keep handfuls of trail mix close at hand, so you don’t need to stop and take off your backpack every time you need a snack.

Coming into Indian Garden Campground

At last Indian Garden Campground came into view. This was the midway point on the Bright Angel Trail. The campground itself is a mini oasis of mature cottonwood trees and prickly pear cactus. Campsites scattered around the cottonwood groves, some with small shelters shading the tents. Here in early March, only a few hikers camped. A large group had set up their tents off to the side of the campground near the creek, while the rest of the sites were mostly vacant.

With our camp set up, we explored our surroundings. The late afternoon was quiet, peaceful. We followed a well-worn trail that led to an expansive view of the campground. The low sun shone on the canyon walls of the distant North Rim.

Evening approaches at Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail

Because it was late in the day when we arrived at Indian Garden, we missed an opportunity to explore one of the shorter, and some say, best Grand Canyon hikes; the trail to Plateau Point. This 3 mile, out and back side trip from Indian Garden takes you out to an exposed spot high above the Colorado River. The views of the river are said to be absolutely stunning. I wish we had taken the time to do Plateau Point.

The Elusive Plateau Point

I’ve actually made a couple of attempts at Plateau Point. I took a trip to the Grand Canyon with my wife Heather, on her 30th birthday. We planned to hike to Indian Gardens and Plateau Point as a long day trip, but she blew her knee just after the 3 mile rest hut, putting an end to that attempt. She was terribly upset that she had been defeated by a four billion year old scar in the earth. On her 30th birthday! Sometimes it sucks to get old…

To get all the details you’ll ever need about the hike to Plateau Point, I recommend The Hiking Guy website. He provides a turn by turn description of his hikes, and the photos on his Plateau Point post are breathtaking.

Presently the dusk changed to dark and the stars came out. We sat around a small campfire and chatted, feeling a little apprehensive for tomorrow’s hike to the top. We had almost 5 miles and an elevation gain of 3000 feet ahead of us. That elevation gain represented more than 100 switchbacks! Needless to say, this was going to be challenging. Shouldn’t one of the best Grand Canyon hikes be easier than this? Were we up to the test? We’d better be, because we had no choice in the matter!

The morning brought clear skies and calm winds. A beautiful, perfect day to finish one of the best Grand Canyon hikes. We ate a quick breakfast and packed up our gear. The larger group of hikers had left while we were finishing breakfast. At least the early part of the hike would be uncrowded.

How Many Switchbacks??!!

Shortly after leaving Indian Garden behind, the trail began to climb. Gently at first, but then steeper as we approached another cliff face. The first series of switchbacks, called Jacob’s Ladder, were upon us. And while it was tougher going than it had been since the day before, I found it invigorating. I had food in my belly and energy to spare. My knees were feeling strong, and I relished the sensation of stretching my quads and calves. Considering how I had felt on the way down the South Kaibab Trail two days earlier, I was feeling great. Bring it on, Bright Angel! Now I was feeling like this was, indeed, one of the best Grand Canyon Hikes!

My companions weren’t having quite the same experience as me. Ric was starting to develop blisters, and Steven was losing a couple of steps. I waited for them at the top of Jacob’s Ladder and we had a short break. They both assured me everything was fine. But as the morning wore on, I was waiting longer and longer for them to catch up.

Taking a much needed break above the Corkscrew

A Bit Too Accessible

The Bright Angel Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Grand Canyon, primarily because it’s so accessible. And given that the trailhead is at the top, it’s deceptive to most people. However, with little to no hiking experience, it’s very easy to start down the trail and find yourself a couple or three miles along.

I once met an elderly gentleman halfway between the mile and a half rest hut and the three mile hut. He was wearing leather loafers and an ankle length coat. He carried no water. I suggested quite strongly that he stop and go back. He couldn’t understand why, given it was such an easy hike down to that point. Once I explained that he was looking at a 12-14% grade going back up, he began to understand. So many people have gotten themselves in trouble in this section because they didn’t stop to think about that return hike. One of the best Grand Canyon hikes, but one of the most deceptive!

Colours And Shadows

I carried on ahead of my friends, feeling exhilarated and energized. The canyon was alive with the sounds of birds in the undergrowth. The early Spring smells were intoxicating. More people appeared on the trail, either going down or just taking photos. I had passed the 3 mile rest hut without stopping. My water bottle was over half full, so I decided to press on. Ric and Steven followed behind, some 200 yards back. They were still moving, so I wasn’t too worried.

Mid morning on the Bright Angel Trail, looking back to Plateau Point

I stopped often to look back at the canyon behind me and take pictures. A special characteristic of the Grand Canyon is the always-changing light. As the sun crosses the sky over the course of the day, the colours of the rocks change with each passing hour. The shadows cast during the Spring morning and late afternoon hours create ever shifting textures. I couldn’t help but stop every 15 or 20 minutes just to take it all in.

I reached the mile and a half rest hut and took off my pack. There were several people milling about. The large group of hikers who were in Indian Garden with us were there, making breakfast. The smell of bacon was heavenly! But it was busy, and I wasn’t interested is sharing my break with so many people, so I decided to press on. Water bottle filled, I was on my way again. I looked down to the trail below, hoping to catch a glimpse of my friends. They did not appear.

Patches of snow began appearing, remnants from the storm two days previously. The trail here was dry, despite the melting snow. The snow lay in the shaded sections of the trail, up against the rock face. But as I climbed, the snow patches increased. By the time I reached the first tunnel, about 3/4 of a mile from the trailhead, the snow completely covered the trail. Now things were getting a little slippery.

“Are You Coming From The Bottom?”

My pace slowed as I navigated the treacherous trail. There was no danger of sliding over the edge. Bright Angel Trail is quite wide, with rock lined sides. But slipping and landing on my butt was a real possibility, so I took it slowly. Again more people lined the trail, some in light shoes and even flip flops! Pro tip: don’t wear flip flops on trails in the Grand Canyon.

I began to notice people looking at me. Not being a particularly flamboyant, outgoing person, I found this attention a little uncomfortable. Then a woman greeted me and asked, “Are you coming from the bottom?” I told her yes, I was. Her companion smiled and said “Congratulations!” A few other people nearby made complimentary comments like, “Way to go!”, or “Good for you!” This was unexpected!

As I approached the second tunnel, the snow lay heavily across the trail. It was not as slippery here, despite the steepness of the trail. The snow was sticky in the warm, early Spring air, providing plenty of traction for my hiking boots.

The higher I got on the trail, the more compliments I received. I felt like a minor celebrity. I reasoned that I was one of the first people up from the bottom that day. The tourists were simply not used to seeing a sweaty, dusty, pack laden vagabond walking past them. Sure, there were the folks on mules coming up from Phantom Ranch, but there’s certainly something special about seeing someone coming up from the mysterious depths of a mile deep canyon, propelled by their own two feet. Even if they do smell like a mule’s butt…

So close to the top!

Sitting On The Rim of The World

On a sunny, warm early Spring day I reached the top of Bright Angel Trail, certainly one of the best Grand Canyon hikes I had ever done. It was also the most challenging, both physically and mentally. I was exhausted, elated, and anxious for my friends, who I had not seen now in over 2 hours. Walking to the gift shop in nearby Bright Angel Lodge, I bought three icy bottles of Coke, some chocolate bars, then went back and found a nice, sunny, flat rock to sit on. I wanted a good view back down the trail so I could spot my friends.

Sitting in the sun without my backpack, I took off my boots and socks, letting the breeze tickle my sweaty toes. I think I heard my feet sigh with relief. My body felt tired but relaxed, and my mind was racing. So many emotions stirred. Three days of intense, constant physical stress, combined with the sensory stimulation of being in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. And when I let myself sink into those emotions, I was overcome. There I sat, at the top of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, having just completed one of the best Grand Canyon hikes, and the tears streamed down my cheeks.

I sat there, in the sun, crying like a baby, and felt exhilarated, ecstatic, and exhausted. It was just about perfect. The only thing missing was my friends. Where the Hell were they?

Bloody Socks

An hour passed. Then a second. And finally, down between the two tunnels, I spotted two figures different from the rest. One large, walking slowly with another slim man with long black hair. It had to be Ric and Steven. I could tell they weren’t part of the day hiking tourist crowd, because they both carried large packs. They were moving so slowly!

When they came through the last tunnel I was sure it was my friends. Barely 150 feet of elevation left to go. I silently cheered them on. If my knees had allowed it, I would have headed down the trail to meet them. But it would be many days before I tried walking downhill again.

Fifteen minutes later I greeted them loudly and warmly at the top of the trail. I handed them the Cokes and chocolate, which they received like small children getting special treats. Steven wanted to get out of his boots, so we walked to the car so he could change. Ric was limping painfully. He also removed his shoes, revealing bloody socks.

For 4 miles and three thousand feet of elevation change, Ric had pushed on with badly blistered feet. I felt terrible. Why had I been so selfish as to carry on and leave them to manage on their own? But Ric just laughed at me. “What were you going to do, carry me?” he joked. Ric is about twice my size.

From left, Steven, me and Ric, posing for the Cadillac product shot

Steaks And Cold Beers

That evening we treated ourselves to a fabulous steak dinner in the dining room of the El Tovar Hotel, one of the swankier accommodations in Grand Canyon Village. The restaurant was quite full of well dressed couples and well behaved families. And three dusty, loud, and incredibly happy fools who had somehow survived an ill-prepared, spontaneous, 3 day hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back.

So, have you been to the Grand Canyon? Have you ventured away from the rim and down into the Canyon? I’d love to hear about your own experiences in this beautiful national park. Please leave a comment below and share your story.

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