Grand Canyon, Day 4: The Bright Angel Trail and The South Rim

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is both the beginning and the end of this series of Grand Canyon hikes. This hike includes the entirety of the Bright Angel Trail, which descends from the South Rim to the Colorado River, where it joins with the North and South Kaibab Trails. The trail passes through lush Indian Gardens, which is a busy hub of activity below the canyon’s rims.

Distance: 17.1 Miles
Elevation Gained: 4,300′
Difficulty: Masochistic
Time: ???
Critters: At this point, I just wanted to get to the top. : )

As we wrapped our long day of hiking up to the North Rim, we settled back down at our campsite, with Kyle collecting clear drinking water and with me giving myself a Dr. Bronner’s Nalgene bath. The plan for the next morning was to hike 12 miles from Cottonwood Campground to Indian Gardens Campground. From there, it would be a relatively modest 4.8 miles back up to the rim and along on our merry ways back to civilization. During the initial planning, I figured a 12 mile day after a 17 mile day would be more than enough, and a stop in Indian Garden for the night would stretch the overall hiking out to a more comfortable measure.

And yet, secretly, I was thinking about the possibilities of getting up at 4 in the morning and hiking out in time to make it all the way back home. It would give me an extra free day before going back to work and school. Also, hiking 4.8 miles seems pretty insubstantial, and, being so close to the end, I knew I would feel antsy about getting on our way. It’s weird how antsy I can be for things to start, but equally antsy for them to end when I know the finish line is coming up. I don’t know what that’s about, especially since, right now, I would not taking a nap at my campsite after a long hike.

However, I hadn’t planned on saying anything since I didn’t want to pressure Kyle to move his hike along any faster than I had to or any more than I may already have done. There were still plenty of marvelous sites to see, after all, and there really wasn’t any hurry. Surprisingly, when Kyle made the same very suggestion that I had been thinking all along, I was all to ready to agree, even though I had an idea of what it would mean: a 17 mile hike with the hardest part tacked on to the end.

Here’s what we did: we woke up at 3:00 am, packed up, and hiked all the way back. Being in a place without time scrambles your normal habits so that 3:00 am isn’t really that big of a deal. Both of us tended to wake up fairly often through the night, so sleep was already coming in very different ways already. It seemed that, whether I slept solidly for 8 hours or woke up every 45 minutes for 5 hours, I was going to feel the same way regardless, so that part was actually a no-brainer.

Night hiking is one of those rare experiences that I wish I would do more often. The trouble is, I will not hike alone during the night. I have no problem doing so during the day, but, at night, it is too dangerous. I can’t see what’s going on around me. However, with another person, night hiking not only feels much safer, it actually becomes quite fascinating. Darkness puts an entirely spin on a landscape. During this night, we could see a thin moon’s light barely carving out details on the buttes above us. The night was cool and still, and we cruised down the canyon with only our headlights to make sure we didn’t trip and fall into a cactus. It’s amazing how completely our relationship to the night has changed as a result of electricity.

Soon, the sun started its slow rise, and we made our way through Bright Angel Canyon and “The Box.” We came out at Phantom Ranch right as the sun was shining. It was promising to be a warm day ahead. We ran into somebody who suggested dumping water on ourselves as often as we could. I made a mental note to make sure I did this when I had a good chance.

After crossing the river for the final time, we found ourselves on a new stretch of trail – at least for us. On the other side of the Colorado, the Bright Angel Trail clings to a cliff along the river until it comes to a gash in the south side of the canyon created by a trickling stream. The Bright Angel Trail spends most of its lower route alongside or near this creek, although it also spends a good amount of that time switchbacking up to the next level of rock.

After the switchbacks, the trail resumes its course alongside the creek through a gently-rising and ever-narrowing canyon. Consistent water flow creates the right conditions for trees, specifically Fremont cottonwoods and redbuds. This stretch through a narrow canyon wasn’t just memorable and beautiful though. The hot switchbacks up to this point had me overheating somewhat, and it was exhilarating to pour a gallon of water all over myself. From here on out, I was never truly “hot” for the rest of the hike.

This canyon winds its way upward until the trail emerges on the Tonto Platform. This layer of rock forms a wide shelf upon which a number of additional trails, such as the Tonto Trail, converge near Indian Garden. Indian Garden itself was only a few tenths of a mile away from this point, and, for the first time in a few days, the steep, sheer cliffs of the South Rim loomed directly overhead.

Before long, I reached Indian Garden and sat down for a rest. Kyle wasn’t too far behind me, and when he caught up, we refueled our water bottles and sat down for a re-hydrated meal. Kyle graciously offered me his Bare Burrito, which was a fantastic treat. We enjoyed shade and coolness as we fueled up for the final ascent.

Again, it is a Grand Canyon maxim that, what goes down must come up. We had reached the point, about a quarter mile past Indian Garden, where there was no more putting off the inevitable. In order to get out of the canyon, we would have to follow the 4.5 miles of switchbacks 3,000′ up to the rim almost directly above us. We had already walked 12 miles with 75% full packs following a day when we had already walked 17 miles. All told, we had already walked nearly 50 miles up to this point, and, for me at least, I was starting to feel it.

I had to hike slowly and deliberately, especially since I mis-calculated that there would be additional water available at the 3 and 1.5 mile resthouses. This wasn’t the case as they turn the water on in May. So, I conserved both water and energy as I practically crawled up the side of the canyon. The canyon definitely can humble you if you don’t respect it. It will humble you even if you do respect it. It’s not often when I have to stop every 100 yards or so to collect my strength to keep pushing forward.

Even though it felt like it was three time longer than it really was, I managed to finish this hike – eventually. I may have stopped to admire the view once or twice or thirty times, but I got up there eventually. Looking back and appreciating what I had just done might have been more rewarding, only I was fricking exhausted. It really takes a lot to climb out of the Grand Canyon, and I learned to respect this landscape and what it could do to me.

With some weary stumbling back to the car, this adventure ended. The whole experience was a memorable one, as I enjoyed several days of intense natural experiences. My body served me well, and I walked out feeling tired and content at what I had seen and done. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime hike that I would happily do again.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled SoCal hiking adventures.

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