|A brief guide to Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim
to the River (and to Plateau Point)
and thoughts about making the hike in a single day.
Rim to River to Rim as a day hike.
On a recent visit to the Grand Canyon I walked along the rim the day before my hike. A ranger was giving a talk and
he said that you should never, ever, attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day. All of the Park's
publications contain dire warning against making the hike in a day. The Park's day hiking website warns: "Over 250
people are rescued from the canyon each year. The difference between a great adventure in Grand Canyon and a
trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU. DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day,
especially during the months of May to September."
The dire warnings are understandable. The Park does not want to perform rescues and the Park does not want to
be sued for injuries to hikers. However, the Park also estimates that 400 to 600 people a weekend make a hike or
run, not from the rim to the river, but from the South Rim to the North Rim, a distance of about 23.5 miles if you use
Bright Angel Trail and 21 miles if you use South Kaibab Trail. The Park Service even issues permits for non-profit
groups making the rim to rim hike. The distance from the South Rim to the River on Bright Angel Trail is about 8
miles one way, or 16 miles round trip.
I remember decades ago my brother making the hike to the river and back as a college student and saying it was no
big deal. I started visiting the Grand Canyon regularly in my 50's and regretted not making the hike to the river and
back when I was young and it was no big deal.
I have never been an athlete. However, conversely, I am active for my age and in fairly good shape. At age 56, I
decided I would like to try the hike to the river and back in a single day. Because I live close to the Grand Canyon, I
was able to test my ability to make the hike. The first time, late in the afternoon, I hiked to the 1.5 Mile Rest House
and back. On the next trip, I hiked to the 3 Mile Rest House and back, once again in the afternoon. Then, I hiked to
Plateau Point and back, the longest hike the Park recommends as a day hike. Plateau Point is a 12 mile round trip.
Finally, I made the hike to the river and back. Since then I have made thirty-nine hikes from rim to river and back as
a day hike, as well as six more hikes to Plateau Point. I acknowledge that for a mature hiker it is a challenging hike,
but I am a bit surprised by the Park's dire warning not to try. If 400 to 600 people a weekend hike rim to rim, why
should the Park say it is impossible to make a hike to the river and back, about half the distance of a rim to rim hike?
Only you know your physical abilities and only you know the risks you are willing to take. The decision to hike to the
river and back is a personal one. Understand that the National Park Service says you should never take the risk, and
they are probably right. Make this hike based upon your own research and at your own risk.
Bright Angel Trail Guide: Rim to River to
Bright Angel or South Kaibab? Two main trails lead
from the South Rim to the river, Bright Angel and South
Kaibab. To me, Bright Angel is the far better choice.
First, South Kaibab can only be accessed via a bus. If
you stay at a rim lodge, you must either take the hiker's
express or two separate buses to get to the South
Kaibab trail head. Second, South Kaibab is very steep,
with large step-downs, and it is not as well maintained
as Bright Angel. Third, South Kaibab only has water at
the trail head (Summer only) and at Bright Angel
Campground/Phantom Ranch. Finally, South Kaibab is
totally exposed to the sun and wind. Although the trip
to the river is shorter on South Kaibab (less than seven
miles), the eight mile trek on Bright Angel Trail is
Rim to 1.5 Mile Rest House. There are two entrances
to Bright Angel Trail from the rim. The first is alongside
Kolb Studio. The second is near the mule corral and
features a photogenic stone sign announcing the trail.
Both entrances join up a few hundred feet down the trail.
Be sure to note your departure time, you can refer to it
to evaluate your progress on the hike and decide how
far you want to go.
If you start before sunrise, this part of the trail will be
blissfully deserted except for a few hiking parties making
the same early start. Later in the day, this part of the
trail will be packed with tourists making a short trek into
the canyon and crowding the trail.
This section of the trail is heavily shaded and in colder
months you can expect hard-packed ice. Be sure to
check trail conditions the day before your hike to see if
you need crampons. There are two notable markers on
the way to the first rest house, tunnel #1 and tunnel #2.
These will be welcome sights as well on your way back to
the rim. Tunnel #2 is about half way between the rim
and the first rest house. The Park Service estimates it
will take you 10 minutes to get to tunnel #1, 30 minutes
to get to tunnel #2, and one to two hours to get to the
first rest house. If you are moving anywhere near that
slow, stick to the Park Service's guidelines and do not
hike to the river and back in one day.
The trail descends 1,121 feet from the rim to the first
rest house. Other than ice, the trail is in good condition.
If you find it too rough or difficult, you should shorten
your hike. Further on, the trail will get a bit rougher, but
not too bad.
1.5 Mile Rest House to 3 Mile
Rest House. If you started early,
you will find some solitude on the
trek between the first and second
rest houses. But by the second
rest house you will encounter many
uphill hikers who spent the night at
Indian Garden, and even a few
who got an early start from
Phantom Ranch. Three Mile Rest
House seems to be a popular
place for a snack and a break. It
offers nice views of Indian Garden.
The Canyon walls are much taller
here, you have descended 2,102
feet. If it has taken you more than
two hours to reach the 3 Mile Rest
House, you should consider
shortening your hike. Like the first
rest house, 3 Mile Rest House
offers composting toilets, an
emergency phone and water in the
3 Mile Rest House to Indian Garden. Beyond 3 Mile Rest House, there is a final steep descent before you hit Indian
Garden (1.7 miles). I call the tight switchbacks "the escalator." Once you hit the bottom of the escalator, the trail becomes
less steep, the plants become desert-like, and the temperature rises. As you reach Indian Garden the trail is surrounded with
cactus and lizards, snakes, squirrels and chipmunk become much more abundant. On a recent hike I saw a rattlesnake near
Indian Garden, so it makes sense to watch you step here.
Indian Garden has a campground, year-round water, emergency phones, a mule corral and a Ranger Station. It has been
planted with Cottonwood trees and blooming plants and feels like an oasis. It is also where the climate changes from high
country to desert and the temperature climbs. There are also thermometers posted at Indian Garden, a good chance to
evaluate how hot the day may become.
There are two sets of restrooms and water taps at Indian Garden. The one on the trail can get very crowded. But, on the way
into Indian Garden, if you take a short turn toward the campground, you can find a much less crowded rest room and water
The water at Indian Garden should be available year round, but verify this with a Ranger before you make your hike.
When you reach Indian Garden you will have walked 4.9 miles and descended over 3,000 feet. Here you will have to carefully
evaluate your progress and decide if you want to proceed to the river, to Plateau Point, or back to the rim. There is no shame
in deciding that you have walked far enough, and it is time to head back to the rim (and a cold beer or steak dinner). Indian
Garden is as far as the National Park Service recommends walking as a day hike in the Summer months. This makes sense
to me. There are some hot trails beyond Indian Garden and I would not want to bake on them in the hottest Summer months.
If it has taken you three hours or more to arrive at Indian Garden, or if you feel sore, tired or uncertain; you should either
head to Plateau Point or back to the rim.
Option: Indian Garden to Plateau Point. If you have
decided not to go to the river, you may wish to make the 1.5
mile hike to Plateau Point. The trail stays on the Tonto
Plateau and has very little elevation change. Nonetheless,
the trail has many loose rocks and is tougher to walk on than
the main Bright Angel Trail. Further, there is absolutely no
shade on the Plateau Point trail and it get very hot, even in
the more temperate months. You should be sure to dress
Water is supposed to be available in the Summer at Plateau
Point, but on my most recent hike, it was not, so be sure to
check with a Ranger or bring enough water with you.
Plateau Point provides a nice view of the Colorado River, but
no access. You can also see the "Devil's Corkscrew" where
Bright Angel Trail heads down to river level. The Plateau
Point trail is the most visible trail from the lodge area on the
South Rim, and it is fun to point to it and tell you friends and
travelling companions that you have been there.
Indian Garden to the Colorado River. In my
mind, the 3.2 mile walk from Indian Garden to the
Colorado River can be divided into three segments.
The first segment is the most pleasant. From Indian
Garden you walk along a small canyon formed by
Garden Creek. The altitude change is small, and
there is the shade of Cottonwood trees, the canyon
walls, and the sound of the creek. At the start of the
trail is a sign reminding you not to make the hike to
the river and back in one day.
The second segment of the trail is marked by a fair
sized waterfall and the trail leaving Garden Creek
and cutting across a bowl formed by Pipe Creek.
The trail is exposed to the sun for most of the day
and gets quite hot. After proceeding across the
bowl, it descends in a series of zig zags known as
The Devil's Corkscrew. In all honesty, the name
sounds worse than the reality of traversing this
section of the trail.
The final segment of the trail seems to be the
longest. At the bottom of the Devil's Corkscrew, you
walk along Pipe Creek, which is eventually joined by
Garden Creek. Depending on the season, you will
cross Pipe Creek four or five times. Because you
are close to the Colorado River's level, you expect to
see it around every corner and the trail seems
endless. You can ask uphill hikers how far the river
is, although their replies are sometimes less than
accurate. This section of the trail had formerly been
rough, but recently has been groomed. The final
segment ends at the Colorado River. A bit back from
the river are composting toilets and a covered rest
house. Please note, the river water is not drinkable
without treatment, and THERE IS NEVER POTABLE
WATER AT THE RIVER REST HOUSE. Also, the
Park Service warns that you should not swim in the
river. I take them at their word.
At the River Rest House, you will have hiked 8.1
miles and descended 4,380 feet (1,335 m). If you
are making this trip as a day hike, you now need to
return to the rim. Watch you time and the weather
carefully. You do not want to make the uphill hike in
the hottest part of the day and you do not want to get
caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. After 15 or 20
minutes of photos, snacks and water, it will be time to
head back to the rim. You have an 8.1 mile hike and
a 4,380 foot ascent ahead of you.
The Return Trip. The known always passes faster
than the unknown. The hike back to the rim takes
me about the same amount of time the downhill trip
took. I take photos on the way up (not down), which
enforces more breaks and give me time to drink
water and snack.
The hike to the rim is trying. However, with an early
start and a steady pace, I get back to the rim by
early afternoon. To me it is a great luxury to take a
bath in a rim-side room, and then head to the
Maswik Pizza Pub for a slice and a cold beer.
Remember, the National Park Service says you
should not hike from the rim to the river and back in
one day. They are right, however, if you choose to
make the trip, know your abilities, prepare carefully,
and be flexible enough to change your plans if your
health, water, equipment or the weather dictate a
shorter hike. The Grand Canyon is incomparably
beautiful and challenging. I hope you will enjoy it as
much as I do.
The 1.5 Mile Rest House is actually
1.6 miles down the trail. It provides
composting toilets, and emergency
phone and water in the Summer
months. Always be sure to check
the availability of water with a
Ranger before you start your hike.
There is a Ranger stationed year
round in Verkamp's Visitor's Center
close to the rim lodges.