You walk along the path. On one side is a sheer layered cliff rising high above you. On the other, the canyon stretches far beyond. A zigzagged path snakes its way down into the bottom of the canyon far, far below. The scenery is overwhelming in scale and awe-inspiring in grandeur. You stop to take photos at almost every turn.
You are hiking the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park…
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Hiking the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
The Bright Angel Trail has been in use for thousands of years, first by the Havasupai people. It was given its current name by Ralph Henry Cameron in 1901. He built a hotel at the trail head, extended the trail all the way down to the Colorado River, and charged $1 (more than $26 in today’s money) to use the trail. In 1928, the Bright Angel Trail became part of the national park. Today, it is the most popular of the Grand Canyon hikes below the rim.
NOTE: I did the trail in reverse (from the bottom of the canyon up, because it was the end of my river rafting trip through the canyon), but I will describe it from its start at the Bright Angel Trail South Rim trailhead down to Phantom Ranch, since this is the way most people do it.
Bright Angel Trail Map
The Bright Angel Trail
The view of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is nothing short of spectacular. This is the only view that most people see, but experiencing the canyon from below the rim gives you a whole different perspective.
When you are at the rim, don’t miss visiting the small Kolb Studio Museum.
There are four major series of switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail – three of them in the top half, above Indian Garden.
The Bright Angel Trailhead is just west of Bright Angel Lodge. Follow the path along rim and you’ll see the trail near the mule corral. Trailhead elevation: 6,850 feet/ 2,088 meters.
There are incredible views along the entire trail, and if you stop often to take photos, as I do, you won’t get too out of breath.
The first thing of note is a tunnel, just 0.18 miles/ 290 meters from the trail head. This part of the trail is not steep and if you just want to get feel for what it’s like to be in the canyon below the rim, then this is a good fairly easy walk. 1st Tunnel elevation: 6,708 feet/ 2,045 meters.
The path starts to get steep around 0.45 miles/ 725 meters into the hike, so if you have small children, this is a good turn-a-round point. Elevation: 6,560 feet/ 2,000 meters.
There is a second tunnel 0.75 miles/ 1.2 km into the hike. Second tunnel elevation: 6,240 feet/ 1,902 meters.
There are a four major steep switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail. The first is after the second tunnel. The next point of interest, 1.5 miles/ 2.4 km into the hike, is the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. There is water (seasonally; check with the national parks service before starting the hike), restrooms and an emergency phone here. This is considered a good turn-a-round for casual hikers or if you got a late-start. 1.5 Mile Resthouse elevation: 5,729 feet/ 1,746 meters.
The switchbacks continue almost immediately – this is the second of the four major switchbacks. There is a sign at the 2-mile/ 3.2 km mark. The trail gets even steeper after that. Then at the 3-mile/ 4.83 km mark, is the 3-Mile Resthouse. There is water (seasonally) and an emergency phone, but no restrooms. Many people turn around here. 3-Mile Resthouse elevation: 4,748 feet/ 1.447 meters.
The third series of switchbacks is between 3 Mile Resthouse and Indian Garden. Take it slow.
Indian Garden is the half-way point on the trail is. This is 4.5 miles/ 7.24 km from the start. This is the point that the national parks service warn day hikers not to go past, especially in summer.
It is a shady spot that makes a nice respite and place for a picnic lunch. There are picnic tables, water year-round from a natural spring, restrooms and an emergency phone. There is also a campsite here. There are some remains of ancient structures built by Puebloan and Cohoninas native Americans, who had a garden here (hence the name). To be honest, I didn’t see these. Indian Garden elevation: 3,800 feet/ 1,183 meters.
From Indian Garden, a side trail (Plateau Point Trail) goes another almost 2 miles each way to Plateau Point. It is possible, though not advised, to do this as a day hike from the south rim IF you are VERY fit, have lots of water and leave very early. From the start to Plateau Point is 6.4 miles/ 10.3 km.
I didn’t do this side trail, but the region of the canyon here is Granite Gorge, which has the oldest rocks in the Grand Canyon. It is narrow, so the water is fast and the view of the Colorado River and the canyon is, by all accounts, spectacular. There is water available seasonally only and there is no shade. Plateau Point elevation: 3,740 feet/ 1,140 meters.
From Indian Garden down to the Colorado River is another 3.5 miles/ 5.6 km. I was hiking up and found this stretch pretty easy. This section, the last of the four major switchbacks, is called Old Devil’s Corkscrew, but most of the trail has been rerouted and the switchbacks are not as severe as the original name would have you expect.
River Resthouse is the spot where the trail meets the river, and is the official end of the Bright Angel Trail. This is 8 miles/ 12.8 km from the start of the trail. There is an emergency phone only here. River Resthouse elevation: 2,480 feet/ 756 meters.
However, if you have come this far, you presumably do not plan to go back in the same day, so you will continue to the campsite or cabins. From here, it is technically the River Trail, and it is basically flat.
The Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (Silver Bridge) is 9.2 miles/ 14.8 km from the Bright Angel Trailhead. It’s a narrow suspension bridge that crosses the Colorado River. Bright Angel Suspension Bridge elevation: 2,460 feet/ 750 meters.
Next along the River Trail is the Bright Angel Campground, 9.5 miles/ 15.3 km from the start. Bright Angel Campground elevation: 2,480 feet/ 756 meters
Finally, you will get to Phantom Ranch where there are cabins, a basic restaurant and shop.
Total Bright Angel Trail length
- Bright Angel Trail is 9.9 miles/ 15.9 km from the start.
- Phantom Ranch elevation: 2,460 feet / 750 meters.
- Total elevation change: 4,390 feet/ 1,338 meters
Total Bright Angel Trail hiking time
We were hiking up and out, so we set off from Phantom Ranch about 5:30am, after a 5:00am breakfast.
How long does it take to hike the Bright Angel Trail? Officially, the average time is 5-6 hours. It usually takes longer going up – often as much as double the time it takes to go down. We hiked up and took our time, taking lots of photos along the way. The first half to Indian Garden took us about 3 hours, where we stopped for lunch. The total hike took us just under 6.5 hours.
Bright Angel Trail Difficulty
This is a strenuous trail, but the good thing is that you can do part of it only and it would still be incredible. As the national park signs say – going down is optional; going up is not.
Most of the other people who had been on our Colorado River trip took less time than us, though a couple took longer. I figured there was no rush – it was a pleasure and privilege to be inside the Grand Canyon. I was moderately fit and with frequent stops, was not in bad shape at the end, though the last mile was tough and I was ready to be there. Some who rushed a lot more than we did were in pretty bad shape at the end. Others who were fitter than us felt totally fine. So, I would recommend having at least a moderate level of fitness if you plan to do the whole hike.
The Bright Angel hike is definitely one of the world’s must do hikes. Being surrounded by the Grand Canyon is a completely different experience from seeing it from above.
Three options for hiking the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
The Bright Angel Trail is the most famous of the Grand Canyon trails and the most popular route for hiking down the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the Colorado River. The other Grand Canyon hike to the bottom from the South Rim is the South Kaibab trail. Either of these trails can then be combined with the North Kaibab Trail to from the Rim to Rim hike. However, hiking the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon is the most popular hike in the Grand Canyon.
As mentioned earlier, you should not attempt to hike the Bright Angel Trail in one day from the rim to the river and back, especially in the summer. There are a few different options:
1. Take a river trip down the canyon. They either start at the beginning of the canyon and end at Phantom Ranch, in which case you will end up hiking up the Bright Angel Trail as I did, or they start at Phantom Ranch, in which case you will be doing this Grand Canyon hike from the rim to the bottom.
Either option means you do the whole hike once only. This is what I did, and it meant that I got to overnight in Phantom Ranch without needing to try and get a reservation (the boat company did that for me), and I hiked up. Many people prefer hiking down, but I find that hurts my knees, so I would rather take my time and hike up. Plus, when you hike down, you don’t get to stay at Phantom Ranch, which I enjoyed.
Another bonus – our luggage was carried up by mule, so we only carried our day pack with water, lunch and sunscreen. This duffel service can be booked with your Phantom Ranch reservation and currently costs $70 each way.
Note, you can also ride a mule to Phantom Ranch instead of hiking. Unless you are used to riding horses (or mules), I do NOT recommend this. I did a mule ride at the top of the canyon only, and after an hour, I was in so much pain I would have done anything to get off. Hiking is MUCH better!
2. Hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch/ the Bright Angel Campground and overnight at one of these options. Then hiking up the Bright Angel Trail the next day. Or hiking down or up the South Kaibab Trail to mix it up. You can also do it as part of the Rim to Rim trail, ending up (or starting from) the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail.
If you go all the way down, you WILL need to overnight on the canyon. Phantom Ranch is extremely popular and there is a lottery system to get a reservation. Read my Guide to How Make a Reservation for Phantom Ranch here.
Note that it can take twice as long to hike up as it did to hike down. If you are camping, you can also overnight at the Indian Garden campground on the way down and/ or up.
3. Hike part of the trail only. It’s not necessary to hike to the whole trail, and if you can’t or don’t want to get a reservation at the bottom of the canyon or take a river trip, this will be your only option.
Taking the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, which is half-way down, is the furthest recommended for a one-day hike.
If you are looking for something less intensive, but still challenging, the hike to the Three Mile Resthouse (a descent of about 2,100 feet/ 640 meters) is a good option. If you just want a more relaxing (but still a workout!) hike, then turning back at the 1.5 Mile Resthouse is the way to go.
Note that the trail is shared by mules. We only passed one mule train when we did the hike in May, but you may encounter more. Stay well away from the mules as they pass. Some people complain of the mule dung – I didn’t notice this as an issue, but don’t be surprised by it.
Planning and Packing for Grand Canyon hiking
This Complete Guide should be all you need for your Grand Canyon trip, but if you are travelling to other areas in the US Southwest, buy the Lonely Planet for extra information. Buy the Southwest USA Lonely Planet here.
Additional hiking resources include:
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James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He has visited all of the main national parks in the United States, as well as many national monuments and state parks.
He has rafted through the Grand Canyon; rappelled down slot canyons near Zion and Arches; hiked among the hoodoos in Bryce and the enormous trees in Sequoia; admired the waterfalls in Yosemite and the colored hot springs in Yellowstone; seen moose in Grand Tetons and seals in the Channel Islands, and much more.
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