Hiking from Grand Canyon’s south rim to the Colorado River via the popular Bright Angel Trail is rewarding, but the extreme level of difficulty should not be underestimated. Trail stats are at bottom of page.
Rim to River on Bright Angel Trail
By Daniel Anderson Jr.
“WARNING: DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.” The trailhead’s attention-grabbing sign reiterates its stern message with a picture of a famished-looking hiker superimposed over a daunting backdrop of the Grand Canyon’s limitless ascents. I pause. I’m about to attempt the very feat that the sign warns against: hiking Grand Canyon National Park’s Bright Angel Trail from the canyon’s south rim to the Colorado River and back in one day.
I pulled into the park last night and easily found an empty campsite at the south rim’s enormous Mather campground. It is the middle of September, and the busy season is quickly winding down. After waking up early, I hit the trail at 7:00 a.m. with a slimmed-down kit of Black Diamond hiking poles, my fraying red Camelback, plenty of water, and a few snacks. Even though I don’t have to deal with August’s 120° heat waves, I conserve weight by leaving most of my hiking gear behind. As an experienced hiker, it is sometimes tempting to underestimate the dangers of the outdoors. I remind myself that a staggering 13 people have died at Grand Canyon so far this year. I start the descent at a fast clip.
Bright Angel’s path is steep. It’s nine and a half miles (one-way) tumble over 4,000 feet down the cliff-like sides of one of the world’s deepest holes in the ground. The route descends a never-ending series of switchbacks cut directly into the canyon’s sedimentary face. Crumbly canyon walls rise steeply overhead on one side while cliffs fall precipitously on the other. The trail stretches a spacious five feet wide, offering plenty of room for single-file hikers but a bit of a squeeze when oncoming traffic passes by (especially the dusty and smelly mule trains which many park visitors opt for).
I am unused to this type of hiking. The trail begins with a deceptively uncomplicated descent down thousands of feet only to require hikers to turn around and climb back up during the later, hottest parts of the day. Usually the psychological reward of getting the hard part over first is one of my most important motivations during a hike. Not so with hiking Bright Angel; the realization that the preliminary 8.1 miles is just a warm-up for the grueling 4,200-foot finale is smack-dab discouraging. I quickly take my mind off the return trip and gaze at the spectacular eroded landscape.
Over countless millennia, the Colorado River eroded the bare sedimentary soils of Northern Arizona to create the Grand Canyon’s magnificent system of tributary canyons and ravines. The river’s meandering course has uncovered red shale, fossil-algae-bearing limestone, and cemented lava strata that stun the park’s five million annual visitors. From almost anywhere on the trail, views are breathtaking. After snapping a few necessary photos, I descend down the first series of switchbacks and pass the rest houses that dot the trail every mile and a half or so. This section of the trail follows the deep Bright Angel fault and echoes a similar path made by Hopi Indians hundreds of years ago.
The jostle of the south rim’s visitor areas is far removed from the abandoned wilderness days of 1540 when local Hopi Indians guided Spanish explorers to the area, or even of 1826 when mountain man Ewing Young and his fur trapping outfit became the first Americans to see the Grand Canyon. However, once I descend further into the canyon and pass Indian Gardens four and a half miles in, it is still possible to experience uninterrupted nature. My field of vision is framed by canyon walls rising on all sides; rock layers turn autumnal colors as the sun climbs higher into the sky; quiet ravines shelter streams, trees, and grottos.
The next mile or so of trail is slightly more level and passes Bright Angel shale and beautiful Tepeats sandstone formations. After rounding a boldery corner, I find myself at the top of the final three mile staircase of switchbacks which tumble rapidly down the barren Vishnu Schist. The rocky plunge is unforgiving on my calves and knees, but I finally reach the bottom of the canyon after a lightening 30-minute descent. The final mile of the trail is completely flat and brings me to the polished-stone shoreline of the muddy Colorado.
John Wesley Powell was the first to navigate the Colorado River’s 217-mile ramble through the Grand Canyon system in 1869. The experience instigating Powell to write “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech or nor by speech itself. The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse.” At the bottom, the canyon is narrow, and views last only until the next river bend. Soaring high above, I can see the same flattop escarpments that I peered down at this morning. I finally appreciate the immensity of the elevation difference between the river and canyon rim. Knowing that the longer I wait, the hotter the day will get, I cut short my break and begin the ascent back. In many ways, the hike is just beginning.
Hiking back up the ruthless Vishnu Schist staircase is immediately tiring, but I make good time. The real test of endurance comes when I stand at the foot of the final 4.6 mile ascent from the Indian Garden rest area and realize that my body is already completely exhausted. The sun is now in the middle of the sky and beats down mercilessly. As I begin to plod upwards, I finally appreciate the ubiquitous warning signs. At the Grand Canyon, hiking knowhow is inverted. Easier initial descents can deceive and lead hikers long distances from campsites, water, and help. The only way back is often unforgiving during one of the Grand Canyon’s boiling afternoons. It is trickier to gauge levels of exhaustion and pace oneself for return trips.
The final 4.6 miles are humbling. I reach the first rest house and take an unusually elongated break. Three and a half miles to go. My speed slows further, and by the last few miles I can only stare at the ground and remind myself to never stop placing one foot in front of the next. My body wants to halt at every stride. The rim approaches, and the pathway is covered with well-dressed afternoon tourists who clearly have no intention of hiking further down. After a near-superhuman last mile, I clamber over the final 20ft. of stairs to the parking lot, pull off my backpack, and collapse on the ground. Success! With amazing vistas, Bright Angel trail was well worth the extreme level of exertion. I manage to grin as I pause to take a victory photo next to the trailhead warning sign. Next time at the Grand Canyon, I won’t take the sign’s warning for granted.
October 18, 2011
Dan Points: “10” . . . it’s the Grand Canyon
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous – do not attempt unless fit as a fiddle and never in high summer
Distance: 16.2 miles round trip
Time: Five to eight hours
Trails: Well maintained
Elevation: 4,200 foot drop followed by 4,200 foot climb
Directions: From I-40, take AZ-64 from Williams or US-180 from Flagstaff. Either way, follow US-180 to Grand Canyon Village. Trailhead is next to Bright Angel Lodge west of visitor center and main village complex. Park at trailhead.