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Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail offers a hike of a lifetime

Posted by: Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim on August 3, 2017

“It doesn’t take long to understand the appeal of the Bright Angel Trail. Above the rim, you’re a spectator. Below the rim, you’re a participant.”

Wiping sweat into an already drenched bandana, you feel a dam of perspiration down your back cracking open into a flood. Boots scuff along the rocky, dusty path playing a gritty soundtrack with every step. You never lose track that the next footstep is the most important of all because just a single misstep could mean a stumble, a twisted ankle, or worse.

From a distance it all looked much easier. But now you’re actually hiking Grand Canyon’s eight-mile-long Bright Angel Trail, the park’s most popular. Heading down is exhilarating. Climbing back out is exhausting. But everything balances out since the demands of physical exertion are rewarded with view after magnificent new view.

Sunrise from Bright Angel Lodge

The Appeal of the Trail

You can fly over it, step up to it, and walk along it, but you haven’t really experienced Grand Canyon until you’ve walked into it. Tracing the footsteps of others, you’ll follow the curves of the Bright Angel Trail and enter an entirely new world. When you explore the canyon below the rim, rock walls that seemed so remote are now so close you can simply reach out and touch them.

The allure of a canyon hike goes back centuries, from the Havasupai who originally built the upper part of the trail to the first wave of visitors arriving to witness one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. At the Kolb Studio, which overlooks the Bright Angel Trail at the west end of the historic village, I peeked through the same window where the Kolb brothers positioned their camera to snap souvenir photos of tourists entering the canyon via the trail. A vintage photograph caught my attention. A determined-looking man led a procession of travelers astride mules. Overdressed by today’s standards, he wore long pants, sported a watch tucked into a vest pocket, and topped off his wardrobe with a dark jacket and a Windsor-knotted tie. The picture was inspiring. It told me I’d soon be following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt. But it told me more than that.

The picture was snapped in 1903 when Roosevelt witnessed for himself Grand Canyon’s mystery and majesty. He determined it should be preserved forever and made it a national monument in 1908, saying, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every America should see.”

With few changes, you can still see it as Roosevelt intended. And you’ll see it nearly untouched when you hike the Bright Angel Trail.

Cabin

Find Your Way

What makes the trail worth exploring is what it reveals. Not just about Grand Canyon, but also about yourself: your desire to explore, your sense of adventure, your quest for new experiences — and even your stamina. Not so much going in as on the way out.

Located on the South Rim, the trail begins just west of Bright Angel Lodge. Starting at an elevation of 6,850 feet, the hike gets off to a great start, taking you to and then through the Upper Tunnel, a broad arch that’s a natural for a photograph. The trail ahead is wide — several feet across — but don’t get careless or overconfident. For one thing, the average grade is a steep 10 degrees. For another, you have to navigate around the human and animal traffic along the trail.

While it’s considerate to stay to the right when passing others, stick to middle or the wall-side of the path when the way is clear. Be sure to focus. Watch where you place your feet and steady yourself with a staff or hiking poles. Don’t be distracted by visitors who appear oblivious to the potential for injury. They may back close to the edge for a better photo, let children walk unattended, or enter the canyon in high heels, of all things.

It doesn’t take long to understand the appeal of the Bright Angel Trail. Above the rim, you’re a spectator. Below the rim, you’re a participant. You pass others and even if you don’t say a word (more than likely because they’re out of breath on their way up), there’s a kinship in this shared experience. You’re seeing the canyon from a different perspective, one that reveals a new angle on it — not just straight across as on the rim. On a hike, there’s a new view with every step and around every switchback and bend. The change in elevation as you descend will constantly bring the canyon floor closer or move the rim farther away.

Gradually you adapt to the environment. Your pace settles into a rhythm, you learn to walk flat-footed to improve stabilization, and you’ll recall the hiking maxim: “Around then over then on.” In other words, to conserve your energy, if there’s an object in front of you, walk around it. If you can’t walk around it, then step over it. If you can’t step over it, then step atop it and keep moving.

You’ll also start to detect places where you can rest — most often a shady area beneath the wall or overhang or wide rock that looks as inviting as a recliner. That’s the time to replenish your body with the snacks you were wise enough to pack.

By the time you reach the 1.5 Mile Resthouse, you’ll know it’s a natural final destination for an average hiker. There are restrooms and seasonal water and plenty of places to relax. Having made it this far, the canyon floor has come into sharper focus and you can see the distant rim overhead and savor views relatively few Grand Canyon visitors enjoy.

And you’ll enjoy it all the more because you have walked here… and they did not.

Plan Ahead

Unless you plan to spend the night on the canyon floor, prepare for a shorter day hike. That means following the advice of the rangers who’ve rescued more than their fair share of stranded hikers. The beauty of the canyon camouflages its potential dangers. Even though the Bright Angel has water along the trail, you need to carry your own water, even when hiking in a group. Remember to eat as well as drink while hiking, since you use a lot of energy hiking the canyon.

Park rangers suggest carrying at least two liters of water; protein bars, salty snacks, and trail mix; hiking poles or staff; proper footwear (preferably hiking boots); a hat and sunglasses; sunscreen; a map or trail guide; a flashlight or headlamp; a whistle for emergencies; and a small first aid kit with ointments and bandages for blisters.

Also, it’s best to start early. Even in the spring, I wanted to reach the trail as close to daybreak as possible to avoid the high heat of the day. Summer conditions can be quite grueling. For additional hiking information make sure to consult the National Park Service website: nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/day-hiking.

Finally, to ensure your safety and that of other trail users and mule riders, follow these guidelines when encountering mules on the trails:

  • Step off the trail on the uphill side away from the edge.
  • Follow the direction of the wrangler.
  • Remain completely quiet and stand perfectly still.
  • Do not return to the trail until the last mule is 50 feet past your position.

How to Explore

When hiking the canyon, consider staying in the park. Grand Canyon National Park Lodges provides the premier in-park lodging, managing six distinct historic lodges. From the El Tovar hotel, long considered the crown jewel of national park hotels, to Phantom Ranch, the only lodging on the floor of the canyon, you’ll find accommodations to help you get the most out of your visit. For more information and reservations, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.


Written by: Gary McKechnie

The author of the best-selling Great American Motorcycle Tours, Gary McKechnie also wrote National Geographic’s USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks. He lectures on American travel and history aboard the ships of the Cunard, Seabourn, and Silversea lines.

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SR Watchtower with Dead Tree and Canyon
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