Bright Angel Trail
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BRIGHT ANGEL LODGE and KOLB STUDIO, GRAND CANYON VILLAGE, AZ – Looking back down the giant canyon from which we had just emerged after a ten-hour hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail, the thin line tracing the last leg of our trip out to Plateau Point before we turned and climbed out seems like a fragile tan thread laid across the sage green of the Tonto Plateau. (Click on the above photo) The trail was barely visible from here on the Rim Trail in front of the Kolb Studio near the Bright Angel Lodge. It had been very real to us several hours earlier, however, during the heat of the day, as we reached our turn-around point on the second major hike of this INHL Adventure to the Grand Canyon. Returning to the trailhead at the top and staggering into the crowds gawking at the view from the Rim Trail in front of the Bright Angel Lodge, the moment seemed surrealistic: hundreds of milling visitors versus the harsh physical challenge and quiet solitude of the just-completed hike.
Let’s get our bearings. Day One, we arrived late in the afternoon from Phoenix, via Flagstaff in a rented Hyundai Santa Fe. Checking in at the Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan, just outside the National Park boundary, we headed over to the Rim to catch our first glimpse of the vast Canyon of canyons! There, we acclimated to the altitude and stretched our legs with a sunset walk around the Rim Trail from Mather Point eastwards. Day Two, we started very early and hiked down the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point, a 7-mile roundtrip hike that got us used to the trails, weather and geography and gave us our first glimpse of the Colorado River rushing through the deep, dark, Vishnu Basalt Lower Canyon below the Tonto Plateau. Today was our third day at the canyon and we were tackling a major day-hike down the Bright Angel Trail, through Indian Garden to another overlook of the Lower Canyon called Plateau Point. It would be about 13 miles down and back. We started very early, the sun just topping the pines behind us as we stepped down the trail next to the Kolb Studio and began our journey.
The shadows marked huge dark swatches moving across on the canyon walls and along the trial at first, while the sun-splashed faces of rock reflected bright secondary illumination on our path and made photography a challenge due to the intense contrast. This trail down into the ancient gash in the earth was wider and less steep than the South Kaibab Trail. However, it was also filled with an incredibly soft layer of pulverized dust that liked clinging to everything, much more evident than over at the South Kaibab. This Bright Angel Trail is the route that the mule trains use to take visitors and supplies down to the Phantom Ranch guesthouses and campground at the bottom of the canyon, in a shaded grove next to the Colorado River.
The first interesting feature of the trek is the tunnel, carved into the cliff face that stretches up on the left, high overhead. You’ll find the first tunnel about 0.18 miles from the trailhead. Its an easy trail walk and turn-around spot for those who would only just “dip their toe” in this immense pond! In fact, we noticed many visitors did just that: there were fewer on the trail after the first tunnel than before it.
The second tunnel is quite a bit further down the trail, about 1/3 of a mile past the first switchback, and three-quarters of a mile in from the trailhead. There, you have descended a mere 545 feet from the start elevation, but just wait…now the steep switchbacks really begin! Keep your eyes on the huge golden cliffs to your left as you descend now, they are magnificent.
We have hiked for almost a mile and yet barely advanced into this gigantic gash in the earth. The scale of the place is daunting and reminds us that being prepared for the trek can make all the difference in the experience the Canyon affords. I recommend some basic equipment to make the adventure truly memorable, even survivable: (1) Trekking poles are a must! The balance they provide on the uneven trail and support for the knees is invaluable, and affords the opportunity to look around a bit and enjoy the magnificent walk. (2) A small backpack to carry a change of clothes (shorts and t-shirt), sunscreen, binoculars, some granola bars and fruit, and (of course) plenty of fluids. (3) We brought along powdered drink mixes with electrolytes to add to our water bottles. That one idea made a huge difference when we refilled our bottles at various points along the route. Eat little bits of your snacks along the way, not large helpings. That way, you stay energized and don’t tax your system with a lot of food to digest at once. (4) A hat is almost a necessity, especially one with a wide brim. If its collapsable, keep it in the backpack until you need it…for surely you will need it on this trek!
The body motion you find smoothest on the descent becomes a rhythm tuned to your own strings. Find that rhythm and hold onto it. With two trek poles, as I had, it was a one-two-three-four (repeat) sort of rhythm, left-foot and right pole, right-foot and left pole, etc. Breathing also is integral to that rhythm. One, Two, Three Short In-hales, then a long Ex-hale, pause, then repeat. Once the rhythms are balanced in your pace, the experience of the walk moves from the immediate steps in front of you to what is going on around you: the passing rock layers, the views of the escarpments, the beautiful sky, the birds (maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the rare Condors being reintroduced to the region), mountain sheep, deer and other animals…even bi-pedal animals: your fellow hikers. There are some pretty serious folk on those trails…and, then, there are some you have to wonder what they thought they were doing. The latter you see straggling, broken, exhausted and overwhelmed, sometimes they loose focus and slip and have to be carried out by emergency crews. The former are a sight to behold: outfitted in the finest trek gear, pushing a pace that would make Lance Armstrong proud! We fell somewhere closer to the “serious folk”.
The first rest house is 1.5 miles into the trek, where water can be had and toilet facilities are available, the only pit toilets on the trail until Indian Garden some 3.5 miles and 2,000 feet below us. It is called, appropriately “1.5 Mile Rest House”. We got there before the sun had breached the Rim, so it was still in the morning shade. The view below was mesmerizing. The details hard to grasp in its immensity, you almost had to study it intensely to “see” what was laid out in front of you. Point being: pause and appreciate the view, the smells, the sounds of this trek as you descend. We noticed many hikers used this point as a turnaround spot. We had much more to see, and many miles left in our adventure, though.
We found a secret vantage point, with water, set into a niche above the trail and removed from the bustle at the larger and newer 1.5-Mile Rest house. It must be the original first rest house on the Bright Angel Trail, built with native rock and accessed by a small scrub oak-hidden rock stairway off the uphill side of the trail. There, we pause and refresh ourselves in this secluded setting. The view is delightful and the aire pleasantly tinged with a musky scent. It’s not easy to notice as you stumble down the trail, looking ahead at the newer rest house on the ridge, and that’s good for it afforded a private respite.
We slip back down to the trail and head on, for we know many miles lay ahead of us.
Soon, we heard the the tell-tale sound of the mule train clacking along the trail above us and in a moment, from our perch on a rock ledge uphill and out of the way of the caravan, the dusty riders and pack animals traced past us toward their destination at Phantom Ranch far below, leaving a “mist” of fine dust hanging in the early morning air. We talked about whether it would be fun to sit on that sweaty animal for several hours covered in dust kicked up by the lead mules. The answer was obvious. Our minds might be changed by the end of this trek today, when we stagger back up this same stretch of trail toward the top, but for now we are sure that the better way in and out of this beautiful place is by foot.
The next stop is the “3-Mile Rest House” and a chance to overlook the green Indian Garden campsite and rest station well below us still. The shade begins its retreat from the trail now, and the sun becomes our constant hiking companion. The switchbacks on the trail section between the 1.5-Mile and 3-Mile Rest Houses are intense.
As with the other rest house, this one has an “original” rock and wood structure. We prefer these original structures and grab a good bench seat inside in the shade after taking the mandatory posed INHL group shot. We have now descended 2,025 feet into the Grand Canyon from the trailhead and the elevation has dropped to 4,760 feet above sea level. After the Three-Mile Rest House we descend the Redwall limestone cliffs through what is known as “Jacob’s Ladder” – a tough series of very steep switchbacks. Then, we pick our way over a bridge across a gash in the rock walls where the transcanyon water pipeline crosses. Soon afterwards, the switchbacks get less frequent and the trail flattens out and takes a straight line towards the cool leafy respite called Indian Garden.
The sunshine is now all around us, with shade coming only with the occasional ledge or tree by the trail side. Heat is becoming noticeable, whereas we had a brisk start earlier this morning at the top, now, at this lower altitude, thicker atmosphere and bright Western sunshine combine to remind us we are in a desert ecosystem. Prickly pear and other cacti are scattered among the live oak, scrub oak and piñon pine. Down below, we see real trees – Western Cottonwood – alongside what must be a year-round stream carving through the bottom of the canyon we’ve been descending. Willow trees grow thick along the stream’s banks. This must be Indian Gardenwhere the original native Havasupai inhabitants of the Grand Canyon lived and farmed maize and squash for generations and generations.
The trail meanders through a developed area with a ranger station, picnic benches under giant Cottonwood trees, overnight camping spots, and a mule corral. Under a shady tree about fifty yards off the trail we find a water fountain and refill our bottles, not forgetting the powdered electrolytes. Here, the Tonto Trail intersects with the Bright Angel Trail, and hikers and campers mingle at this crossroad to share tales of their adventures. We rest, for we have hiked 4.6 miles and descended 3,060 feet into the canyon since our early morning start. Ahead lies our destination and turnaround spot: Plateau Point, a mile and a half out onto the Tonto Plateau.
We set out on the final descent leg after a shady pause and a small meal. The trails are well marked and it actually felt good to get out of the bustle of that crossroads in the Canyon and onto the road into the searing heat of the Tonto Plateau. Its over 100 degrees Fahrenheit as we follow the flat trail to the overlook. This is late September, but the sun, crystal blue skies, rocks and desert climate combine to create a solar oven of sorts along the whole length of the Tonto Plateau! Finally, after a 1.5-mile quick-paced walk we arrive at Plateau Point. The Colorado River looks cool and inviting far below!
Before we start the 6.5 mile ascent back to the rim, we find a spot off the trail to set up a small marker, a shrine if you will, to say to those who come later “We were here!“. Maybe someday we will return and find this marker as we make our way down and further into this Canyon of Canyons!
Now, for the daunting task we have been thinking about every step of the way down this trail….the intense trek back up! Turning from the view of the Colorado River, we take a deep breath and, setting one foot in front of the next, begin the long steady climb to the microscopic speck at the top of the distant ridge: Bright Angel Lodge and the waiting trial head where we started early this morning! Pace ourselves, don’t rush. Drink plenty of fluids and take small snacks. Get into a rhythm.
Another rest stop at Indian Garden offers us a chance to take a short “siesta”! It will be hours before we can stretch out like this, so we take advantage of the shade and picnic benches. A change into a dry t-shirt and my shorts refreshes me, after dousing my head in the water fountain! Davison shows one way to rest….
The climb out from Indian Garden is marked by several features we knew from the trek in, hours earlier when the morning shade was just moving off the harsh landscape. Before getting to the 3-Mile Rest House ,about a mile and a half uphill from the Indian Garden, we would be groaning through the thigh-burning ascent of Jacob’s Ladder. That rest house never felt so welcoming as when we trudged up the shallow slope after ascending the “Ladder” and found a shaded bench to rest upon! Now, we only have 3 miles to go…and 10 miles behind us!
The afternoon thunderheads and cumulus clouds began rolling in, providing us not only some well-deserved shade, but occasional light rain to cool us with a desert mist as we continued the ascent. Steadily we climbed, mindful that we had to stop and rest frequently. The fine dust from the trail was noticeably clinging to our boots, socks and legs as we finally reached the paved portions of the trail at the top…exhausted, but thrilled!
Veni! Vidi! Vici!