I walk along the path. On one side is a sheer layered cliff rising high above me. On the other, the canyon stretches far beyond. A zigzagged path snakes it’s way down into the bottom of the canyon far, far below. The scenery is overwhelming in scale and awe-inspiring in grandeur. I am taking photos at almost every turn, so my pace is slow and I am not as out-of-breath as I had expected.
I am hiking the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park.
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Hiking the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
The Bright Angel Trail has been in use for thousands of years, first by the Havasupai people. It was given its current name by Ralph Henry Cameron in 1901. He built a hotel at the trail head, extended the trail all the way down to the Colorado River, and charged $1 (more than $26 in today’s money) to use the trail. In 1928, the Bright Angel Trail became part of the national park. Today, it is the most popular of the Grand Canyon hikes below the rim.
You can combine this with hiking in Bryce Canyon and The Narrows hike in Zion National Park and Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park for a complete southwestern USA hiking experience. Check out other hikes I’ve done here.
NOTE: I did the trail in reverse (from the bottom of the canyon up, because it was the end of my river rafting trip through the canyon), but I will describe it from its start at the Bright Angel Trail South Rim trailhead down to Phantom Ranch, since this is the way most people do it.
Bright Angel Trail Map
The Bright Angel Trail
The view of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is nothing short of spectacular. This is the only view that most people see, but experiencing the canyon from below the rim gives you a whole different perspective.
When you are at the rim, don’t miss visiting the small Kolb Studio Museum.
There are four major series of switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail – three of them in the top half, above Indian Garden.
The Bright Angel Trailhead is just west of Bright Angel Lodge. Follow the path along rim and you’ll see the trail near the mule corral. Trailhead elevation: 6,850 feet/ 2,088 meters.
There are incredible views along the entire trail, and if you stop often to take photos, as I do, you won’t get too out of breath.
The first thing of note is a tunnel, just 0.18 miles/ 290 meters from the trail head. This part of the trail is not steep and if you just want to get feel for what it’s like to be in the canyon below the rim, then this is a good fairly easy walk. 1st Tunnel elevation: 6,708 feet/ 2,045 meters.
The path starts to get steep around 0.45 miles/ 725 meters into the hike, so if you have small children, this is a good turn-a-round point. Elevation: 6,560 feet/ 2,000 meters.
There is a second tunnel 0.75 miles/ 1.2 km into the hike. Second tunnel elevation: 6,240 feet/ 1,902 meters.
There are a four major steep switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail. The first is after the second tunnel. The next point of interest, 1.5 miles/ 2.4 km into the hike, is the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. There is water (seasonally; check with the national parks service before starting the hike), restrooms and an emergency phone here. This is considered a good turn-a-round for casual hikers or if you got a late-start. 1.5 Mile Resthouse elevation: 5,729 feet/ 1,746 meters.
The switchbacks continue almost immediately – this is the second of the four major switchbacks. There is a sign at the 2-mile/ 3.2 km mark. The trail gets even steeper after that. Then at the 3-mile/ 4.83 km mark, is the 3-Mile Resthouse. There is water (seasonally) and an emergency phone, but no restrooms. Many people turn around here. 3-Mile Resthouse elevation: 4,748 feet/ 1.447 meters.
The third series of switchbacks is between 3 Mile Resthouse and Indian Garden. Take it slow.
Indian Garden is the half-way point on the trail is. This is 4.5 miles/ 7.24 km from the start. This is the point that the national parks service warn day hikers not to go past, especially in summer.
It is a shady spot that makes a nice respite and place for a picnic lunch. There are picnic tables, water year-round from a natural spring, restrooms and an emergency phone. There is also a campsite here (see below). There are some remains of ancient structures built by Puebloan and Cohoninas native Americans, who had a garden here (hence the name). To be honest, I didn’t see these. Indian Garden elevation: 3,800 feet/ 1,183 meters.
From Indian Garden, a side trail (Plateau Point Trail) goes another almost 2 miles each way to Plateau Point. It is possible, though not advised, to do this as a day hike from the south rim IF you are VERY fit, have lots of water and leave very early. From the start to Plateau Point is 6.4 miles/ 10.3 km. I didn’t do this side trail, but the region of the canyon here is Granite Gorge, which has the oldest rocks in the Grand Canyon. It is narrow, so the water is fast and the view of the Colorado River and the canyon is, by all accounts, spectacular. There is water available seasonally only and there is no shade. Plateau Point elevation: 3,740 feet/ 1,140 meters.
From Indian Garden down to the Colorado River is another 3.5 miles/ 5.6 km. I was hiking up and found this stretch pretty easy. This section, the last of the four major switchbacks, is called Old Devil’s Corkscrew, but most of the trail has been rerouted and the switchbacks are not as severe as the original name would have you expect. River Resthouse is the spot where the trail meets the river, and is the official end of the Bright Angel Trail. This is 8 miles/ 12.8 km from the start of the trail. There is an emergency phone only here. River Resthouse elevation: 2,480 feet/ 756 meters.
However, if you have come this far, you presumably do not plan to go back in the same day, so you will continue to the campsite or cabins. From here, it is technically the River Trail, and it is basically flat.
The Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (Silver Bridge) is 9.2 miles/ 14.8 km from the Bright Angel Trailhead. It’s a narrow suspension bridge that crosses the Colorado River. Bright Angel Suspension Bridge elevation: 2,460 feet/ 750 meters.
Next along the River Trail is the Bright Angel Campground, 9.5 miles/ 15.3 km from the start. See the Where to Stay section below for details. Bright Angel Campground elevation: 2,480 feet/ 756 meters
Finally, you will get to Phantom Ranch where there are cabins, a basic restaurant and shop.
Total Bright Angel Trail length
This is 9.9 miles/ 15.9 km from the start. Phantom Ranch elevation: 2,460 feet / 750 meters.
Total elevation change: 4,390 feet/ 1,338 meters
Total Bright Angel Trail hiking time
We were hiking up and out, so we set off from Phantom Ranch about 5:30am, after a 5:00am breakfast. How long does it take to hike the Bright Angel Trail? Officially, the average time is 5-6 hours. It usually takes longer going up – often as much as double the time it takes to go down. We hiked up and took our time, taking lots of photos along the way. The first half to Indian Garden took us about 3 hours, where we stopped for lunch. The total hike took us just under 6.5 hours.
Bright Angel Trail Difficulty
This is a strenuous trail, but the good thing is that you can do part of it only and it would still be incredible. As the national park signs say – going down is optional; going up is not.
Most of the other people who had been on our river trip took less time than us, though a couple took longer. I figured there was no rush – it was a pleasure and privilege to be inside the Grand Canyon. I was moderately fit and with frequent stops, was not in bad shape at the end, though the last mile was tough and I was ready to be there. Some who rushed a lot more than we did were in pretty bad shape at the end. Others who were fitter than us felt totally fine. So, I would recommend having at least a moderate level of fitness if you plan to do the whole hike.
The verdict: The Bright Angel Hike
This is definitely one of the world’s must do hikes. Being surrounded by the Grand Canyon is a completely different experience from seeing it from above.
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PRACTICAL TIPS: Hiking the Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail
Three Options for Hiking the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
The Bright Angel Trail is the most famous of the Grand Canyon trails and the most popular route for hiking down the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the Colorado River. The other Grand Canyon hike to the bottom from the South Rim is the South Kaibab trail. Either of these trails can then be combined with the North Kaibab Trail to form the Rim to Rim hike. However, hiking the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon is the most popular hike in the Grand Canyon.
As mentioned earlier, you should not attempt to hike the Bright Angel Trail in one day from the rim to the river and back, especially in the summer. There are a few different options:
1. Take a river trip down the canyon. They either start at the beginning of the canyon and end at Phantom Ranch, in which case you will end up hiking up the Bright Angel Trail as I did, or they start at Phantom Ranch, in which case you will be doing this Grand Canyon hike from the rim to the bottom. Either option means you do the whole hike once only. This is what I did, and it meant that I got to overnight in Phantom Ranch without needing to try and get a reservation (the boat company did that for me), and I hiked up. Many people prefer hiking down, but I find that hurts my knees, so I would rather take my time and hike up. Plus, when you hike down, you don’t get to stay at Phantom Ranch, which I enjoyed.
Another bonus – our luggage was carried up by mule, so we only carried our day pack with water, lunch and sunscreen. This duffel service can be booked with your Phantom Ranch reservation and currently costs $70 each way.
Note, you can also ride a mule to Phantom Ranch instead of hiking. Unless you are used to riding horses (or mules), I do NOT recommend this. I did a mule ride at the top of the canyon only, and after an hour, I was in so much pain I would have done anything to get off. Hiking is MUCH better!
2. Hike down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch/ the Bright Angel Campground and overnight at one of these options. Then hiking up the Bright Angel Trail the next day. Or hiking down or up the South Kaibab Trail to mix it up. You can also do it as part of the Rim to Rim trail, ending up (or starting from) the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail.
If you go all the way down, you WILL need to overnight on the canyon. Phantom Ranch is extremely popular and there is a lottery system to get a reservation. Read my Guide to How Make a Reservation for Phantom Ranch here.
Note that it can take twice as long to hike up as it did to hike down. If you are camping, you can also overnight at the Indian Garden campground on the way down and/ or up.
3. Hike part of the trail only. It’s not necessary to hike to the whole trail, and if you can’t or don’t want to get a reservation at the bottom of the canyon or take a river trip, this will be your only option.
Taking the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, which is half-way down, is the furthest recommended for a one-day hike.
If you are looking for something less intensive, but still challenging, the hike to the Three Mile Resthouse (a descent of about 2,100 feet/ 640 meters) is a good option. If you just want a more relaxing (but still a workout!) hike, then turning back at the 1.5 Mile Resthouse is the way to go.
Note that the trail is shared by mules. We only passed one mule train when we did the hike in May, but you may encounter more. Stay well away from the mules as they pass. Some people complain of the mule dung – I didn’t notice this as an issue, but don’t be surprised by it.
Other things to do in the Grand Canyon
- River rafting
Taking a raft or wooden dory down the Colorado River lets you experience the Grand Canyon in a whole different way. The river trip, combined with the Bright Angel Trail hike, the views from above and even a flight over the canyon, allows you to experience the Grand Canyon fully. I did the trip in a wooden dory, and it was absolutely amazing. Read all about this here.
- Mule ride
Xanterra, the same company that runs the lodges in the park, also offers mule rides. They can either be:
- down to Phantom ranch (with a reservation) – not recommended unless you are used to riding horses
- Canyon Vista Mule Rides
A four-mile, three-hour mule activity (two-hours in the saddle) along the East Rim Trail.
March 15 – November 30: 8:00 am and 12:00 pm
December 1 – March 14: 9:00 am.
It costs $142.83 per person and you need to call to make a reservation 1-303-297-2757 or toll-free within the United States 1-888-297-2757.
- Helicopter Tour of the Grand Canyon
It leaves from Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan which is a 15-minute drive from the South Rim. I didn’t do this because Kevin hates helicopters, but I would have LOVED to do it. Seeing the Grand Canyon from the air would have fully rounded out my Grand Canyon experience. You can book a South Rim helicopter tour here.
Where is the Grand Canyon and what is the currency?
The Grand Canyon is in the southwest of the United States. The currency is the U.S. dollar (USD)
Visa requirements for the United States
Check out visa requirements for travel to the U.S. as soon as you decide to go, so you have enough time to get a visa if you need one.
When is the best time of year to do the Bright Angel Trail hike?
My recommendation is spring and fall. Summer can be very hot and there is not much shade on the hike. Winter can be very cold, especially at the top. I did it in May and it was nice (albeit still hot at Phantom Ranch).
How to get to the Grand Canyon
The nearest town with a major airport to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is Flagstaff. Las Vegas is also not that that far away and has a much bigger airport. There is a small Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan, about 15 minutes from the South Rim, but this is mostly for scenic flights over the canyon. We flew to Flagstaff via Phoenix. The leg from Phoenix to Flagstaff was in a small plane with great views, especially when we flew over Sedona. Compare prices on flights with Skyscanner.
You can also get an Amtrak train to Flagstaff.
How to get from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon
The easiest way to get from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon is by car. Rent a car in Flagstaff here. It takes about 1.5 hours.
You can also take a bus. Arizona Shuttle has three buses a day between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon from the center of Flagstaff and two a day direct from the Flagstaff Airport.
How to get from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon
You can drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon in just under 4.5 hours. Rent a car in Las Vegas here.
If you don’t have a car, catch a Greyound bus to Flagstaff and get an Arizona Shuttle bus from there to the Canyon. The other option is to take a bus from Las Vegas to William and get the Grand Canyon Railway train from there. Book the Grand Canyon Railway train here.
Xanterra South Rim operates a taxi service between Grand Canyon Airport, Tusayan, and Grand Canyon Village. Call shortly before you need a ride 928-638-2822.
How to get from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
There is a Trans-Canyon Shuttle daily between the North and South Rims May 15 – November 30 (though note that the North Rim Lodge closes October 15). Reservations are necessary. You can make a reservation online or by calling 928-638-2820. It takes about 4.5 hours one way.
How to get around the Grand Canyon South Rim
Grand Canyon National Park has free Shuttle Buses in and around the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. The major routes run year-round. The red Hermit Road route and the purple route shuttle between Grand Canyon Village and Tusayan (7 miles/ 11km south of Grand Canyon Village) run between March 1 and the end of September. No tickets are required for the shuttle buses.
Where to stay in Flagstaff
Flagstaff is a functional town on Route 66 and the Amtrak railway and is the main gateway to the Grand Canyon. It’s not known for stunning accommodation options, and you are most likely to spend one night here on your way to and from the canyon. Two options are:
Little America Hotel Flagstaff. This has good ratings on Booking.com. Book Little America Hotel here.
Highland Country Inn Flagstaff. This is the cheapest option on Booking.com and still has good ratings. Book Highland Country Inn here.
Where to stay at the Grand Canyon
The Canyon can be accessed from the North Rim or the South Rim. The South Rim is the most common place to visit and where the Bright Angel Trail starts.
Where to stay at the South Rim Grand Canyon
The main area for accommodations and services at the South Rim is Grand Canyon Village. You can stay in lodges or camp.
Lodges in Grand Canyon Village
All of the lodges in the Grand Canyon are run by Grand Canyon Lodges (Xanterra). They all follow the same reservation policy. You can make reservations up to 13 months in advance. On the first day of each month, you can make reservations for any day in the same month of the following year. So, for example, on September 1, you can make a reservation through September 30 of the following year. Advance reservations are strongly recommended. I was lucky getting a reservation in Bright Angel Lodge just a few months in advance, but I suspect that this was the result of a cancellation. El Tovar is especially popular and typically books out almost right away. You can book online here.
The lodges are:
1. El Tovar Hotel
One of the (many) great things that the U.S. National Parks do well is grand lodges. Most parks have at least one lodge that is a step above the others, and the El Tovar is that in the Grand Canyon. The lobby has dark wooden beams and mounted heads of various animals, including two huge moose, on the walls. This is your chance to unwind in style before or after your hike. They have a lovely patio with a cocktail bar, which is a great spot for drinks. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth trying to get a reservation in their dining room for dinner. We had dinner here after our hike and it was the perfect way to celebrate and gain back some of the calories we burned on the hike.
2. Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins
The Bright Angel Lodge is a rustic classic dating from 1935 and designed by Mary Colter. The main lodge has a famous fireplace in the History Room that is built from rocks that come from each of the major layers of the canyon. There are a couple of different restaurants to choose from. We stayed here and I loved the old-world western charm. The rooms are basic, motel style rooms, but sufficient. It’s located right next to the Bright Angel Trailhead, so it’s super convenient for the hike (though none of the lodges are that far away).
3. Kachina Lodge
Kachina Lodge dates from the 60’s. It is right on the Rim Trail and many rooms have partial canyon views.
4. Maswik Lodge
Also built in the 60’s, Maswik Lodge is 0.25 miles/ 400 meters from the rim, in a ponderosa pine forest.
5. Thunderbird Lodge
Thunderbird Lodge is family-focused, is located on the rim, and has many rooms with partial canyon views.
Camping in Grand Canyon National Park (the rim)
There are three National Park Service campgrounds (tents only) at the top of Grand Canyon (two at the South Rim and one at the North Rim), plus one RV park.
The two campgrounds on the South Rim for tents only are:
1. Mather Campground
- Located in Grand Canyon Village
- Open all year
- Takes reservations. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance and are strongly recommended as they book out. You can book through the National Recreation Reservation Service here.
2. Desert View Campground
- Located 25 miles/ 41 km east of Grand Canyon Village
- Seasonal. Open from mid-April to mid-October
- No reservations. It’s first-come, first-served only. It has 50 campsites only and it fills each day by 12 noon, so get there early.
There is also an RV park on the South Rim with full hook-ups, Trailer Village.
- Located in Grand Canyon Village
- Open all year
- Takes reservations. Like many of the lodges, it’s run by a concession rather than the national park service. You can book here.
The other campground on the rim of the Grand Canyon is North Rim Campground, which is open May 15 through October 31 of each year. Reservations are possible and can be made through the National Recreation Reservation Service here.
Where to stay near the Grand Canyon National Park
Tusayan is a small town about a 15-minute drive from the South Rim. In summer (March 1-September 30) there is a free shuttle between Tusayan and the South Rim. This is a good option, especially if the accommodation in the national park is full. Two solid choices are:
Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon. This is an upscale option. Book the Grand Hotel here.
Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn. This is a solid budget option. Book the Grand Canyon Squire Inn here.
Where to stay inside the Grand Canyon
There are two option for Bright Angel Trail camping, plus a lodge (cabins). Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get spaces at any of them, as they are all extremely popular.
1. Indian Garden Campsite
This is half-way down the Bright Angel Trail. To camp at Indian Garden, you need to get a permit from the Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Information Center. They are available on a first-come, first served basis and there is a schedule for their release. You need to apply by fax, snail mail or in person and the relevant dates are on their website. Check carefully, as the Bright Angel Trail campsites book out almost immediately.
2. Bright Angel Campsite.
This is at the bottom of the canyon. Similarly to Indian Garden, you need a backcountry permit. Check out the National Park’s page for full information.
3. Phantom Ranch
This is the only non-camping option inside the Grand Canyon. Because of this, it is difficult to get a reservation at Phantom Ranch. You need to enter a lottery 15 months before your intended stay!
Read my complete Guide to Phantom Ranch here, including how to make a reservation, schedules, and the amenities.
Planning and Packing for Grand Canyon hiking
This Complete Guide should be all you need for your Grand Canyon trip, but if you are travelling to other areas in the US Southwest, buy the Lonely Planet for extra information. Buy the Southwest USA Lonely Planet here.
Additional hiking resources include:
Additional Consideration: Travel Insurance
Hiking, like all travel, has its risks, and you absolutely should get travel insurance. If you twist an ankle or fall down, you want to have travel insurance to cover emergency repatriation (incredibly expensive if you have to pay yourself) and/ or medical care.
A great insurance option is World Nomads. You can book it right here.
Enjoy the hike!
Do you have any stories of the Grand Canyon? I’d love to hear them. Comment below.
If you liked this post, please share the love and Pin it to your Grand Canyon and Hikes boards for later!
Looking for more excitement in Grand Canyon? Read about running the river rapids through the Grand Canyon!
Read about other great U.S. national park hikes:
- The Narrows, Zion NP
- Best hikes, Bryce Canyon NP
- The Congress Trail, Sequoia NP
- Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton NP
- Devil’s Garden Trail, Arches National Park
- Best hikes, Acadia NP
James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture. He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters. Read more…
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