The view from the top of the Grand Canyon is a breathtaking sight. But to really experience the magic, you must hike deep down into the canyon to see all the geological formations up close.
There are two hiking trails the reach the Colorado River from the south rim of the Grand Canyon: Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail. On the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can get to the river via the North Kaibab Trail.
In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about hiking the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park!
Bright Angel Trail VS South Kaibab Trail
The Bright Angel Trail is 2-miles longer than South Kaibab. But it has rest stops with water refill stations along the way. Bright Angel is a more comfortable hike with some shaded areas and shallower switchbacks. It also begins in a convenient location–right next to Kolb’s Studio and nearby popular hotels.
South Kaibab Trail is a more difficult hike. It’s slightly steeper with no water stops and minimal shade.
The Bright Angel Trail Down To The Colorado River
Bright Angel is the most popular route to the river below. The full trail takes you 9.3 miles one-way, and 4,500 feet down.
From the trailhead to the riverside, and back again, you can expect to travel nearly 20 miles total, making this more of an overnight hike than a day trip. In fact, park rangers strongly discourage everyone from attempting a round-trip hike between the rim and river in one day, especially in the summer months.
Most overnight visitors spend 2-3 days backpacking the trail, taking their time to travel to each point, and enjoy all the views along the way.
Shorter Hikes Down The Bright Angel Trail
Awesome views and downhill hiking makes the Bright Angel Trail easy to underestimate. It’s not uncommon for the journey back to take twice as long as the hike in.
Fortunately, you don’t have to complete the full hike to get a sense of the depth of the canyon.
Bright Angel is an out-and-back trail commencing at the Bright Angel Bridge. There are many great stopping points along the way making it accessible for all types of hikers.
- 1st Tunnel: If you don’t want to wander too far, the first tunnel provides wonderful views from the top of the rim. This is a great place to do some photography and get a sense of the canyon without having to throw on a pair of hiking shoes.
- 1st Switchback: When traveling with young children, the first switchback is a good turnaround point because you’ll get to avoid the steep terrain that lies ahead.
- 2nd Tunnel: For a quick 1.5-mile hike, turn around at the second, lower tunnel. This is right before the steepness of the canyon really starts to pick up.
- 1.5-mile resthouse: Available seasonally, the 1.5-mile resthouse is the first fill-station on the way down the Grand Canyon. This is the perfect turnaround point if you got a late start to the day or if you’re just planning on a casual hike. The journey should take around 2-4 hours round-trip.
- 2-mile switchback: The switchbacks in the canyon get steeper and steeper as you go down. If you’re already feeling the legs get wobbly, the 2-mile switchback is a good place to turn-around. Remember that the hike back out of the canyon is going to be significantly tougher than the walk down.
- 3-mile resthouse: Another seasonally available water stop is at the 3-mile Resthouse. This provides a round-trip hike of 6 miles that is perfect for the experienced hiker. This is a 4-6 hour round-trip journey.
- Indian Garden: At 9-miles total, Indian Garden is the maximum recommended day trip. It’s also only possible for hikers in excellent condition who leave early enough in the morning to complete the trek before nightfall. Indian Garden is the only spot at the bottom of the canyon with water available year-round.
Indian Garden Campground
Picnic tables, drinking water, toilets, and an emergency phone await you at Indian Garden. This stop is also a campground where you can stay overnight if you have the proper permit.
The next campground is the Bright Angel Campground at the end of the trail after it crosses the Colorado River. There is a 5-mile stretch between the two campgrounds with much fewer switchbacks than in the first half of the trail — with the exception of Devils Corkscrew.
“The Loop” Hike
Backpackers hiking to the Bright Angel Campground alongside the Colorado River will often hike South Kaibab Trail down the canyon, and Bright Angel Trail up and out of the canyon. This popular combo is considered “The Loop.”
What To Pack For The Bright Angel Trail Hike
The trail conditions shift considerably through every season, making each hike different from the next. In the winter, you may experience snow at the height of the canyon. In summer, temperatures can rise to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a number of items you shouldn’t leave without before your trip on Bright Angel.
Obtain A Camping Permit
Hiking the Bright Angel Trail does not require a permit, but if you want to stay overnight–either backcountry camping or at Indian Garden Campground, you must secure a permit from the Backcountry Information Center. The information center issues permits on a first-come, first-served basis, starting each month on the 1st. You should submit an application early because spaces are limited. A permit can be reserved up to four months in advance.
You do not have to stay in the established campgrounds if you’re backcountry camping, but you do need to give an estimated schedule of where you’ll be when filling out the application. Park rangers divide up the canyon into sections and limit the number of people spending the night in each area.
Whether you are going the full 20 miles or taking a shorter hike, make sure to wear a sturdy and supportive pair of hiking boots!
You should also dress in layers with moisture-wicking garments underneath progressively warmer clothing. You may encounter snow at the top of the trail only to end up in sweltering heat at the bottom. Bring a strong backpack with you to put all your extra clothing and carry your other items.
Since you need to carry it the whole way down and back up again, pack a lightweight tent. In the winter, a sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees along with an insulated pad will be the most comfortable. Through the summer, you can ditch the sleeping bag in favor of a light blanket but keep the pad.
The path going down the canyon is hard and rocky, which doesn’t create the most comfortable mattress.
Food and Water
To stay hydrated throughout this strenuous trip, pack at least one gallon of water per person for each day you will be there. Although the trail has year-round and seasonal water sources, you should not solely rely on them. Freezing temperatures and other adverse weather conditions can put the pipes out of commission without warning.
Also, bring plenty of nutrient-dense snacks, including:
- Beef jerky
- Dried fruit
- Peanut butter
- Trail mix
- Protein bars
- Freeze-dried meals
If you plan to stay at the Bright Angel Campground, consider making a reservation well in advance at Phantom Ranch Canteen to enjoy a hot meal.
A first aid kit is a must, so you can handle any minor injuries, care for your tired feet, and soothe achy muscles.
In your kit, make sure to bring:
- Butterfly closures
- Antibiotic ointment
- Oral and topical antihistamines
- Blister patches
Put everything in a watertight sack and attach it to the outside of your backpack for quick access whenever it is needed.
No matter what time of year you visit, always wear 30 to 50 SPF sunscreen. Throughout the summer, you will find very little shelter from the sun all along this trail, resulting in serious sunburns if you are not well protected. Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours to maintain the right level of protection.
Getting To The Bright Angel Trail
With your supplies ready to go, you can choose to arrive at the trailhead by bus, shuttle, or with your personal vehicle.
If you’re driving your own car, park in Lot D, which is about 1/3 mile away from the trailhead near Grand Canyon Station.
Next to the trailhead, you will find the mule corral where you can sign up for a guided tour if you wish. The mule tours last about two-hours and trek all the way down to the river and back.
Mules have the right of way if you encounter them on the trails. They are well-trained, but the trails are too narrow to let them pass safely otherwise.
Hiking Bright Angel
The trails on Bright Angel are narrow and steeper than they look. Only once you start to head back up will you notice their 10% grade. So, make sure to allow twice as much time to reach the top than it took to make it to your destination.
Before you start down the path, take a moment to peer across the parklands, and soak in the breathtaking view. Then, as you begin your journey, keep an eye out for rock art and other artifacts left by the Havasupai Tribe who created the trail.
Across the first four miles, the trail snakes along the cliffsides, leaving little room for passersby and offering incredible views of Garden Creek.
Switchback after switchback will come your way in this first half of the hike, making you walk a lot further than you actually travel into the canyon. Along the way, you will quickly become accustomed to the packed dirt surface. But beware of areas with loose rocks and pebbles.
In the first mile, you will pass beneath two tunnels cutting through the stunning Coconino sandstone. Watch your step over the wood and stone stairs as you marvel at the sights all around you.
Shortly after the tunnels, you will encounter the 1.5-mile resthouse, giving you a chance to use the refill your water. The purified drinking water is typically available between May and September. However, pipelines can break or get shutoff during any time of year so you should never rely solely on piped water.
For casual hikers, this is a good turnaround point.
Expect the trail to get a bit steeper as you travel down to the 3-mile resthouse. There is another seasonally available water supply located here. It’s also a common turnaround spot for day hikers. Round-trip, you can expect the hike to the 3-mile resthouse to take about 4-6 hours.
The next stop is Indian Garden!
Once you leave the 3-Mile shelter, you’ll descend Jacob’s Ladder, which is a series of switchbacks past Redwall limestone formations.
Shortly after, the trail evens as you hike into the valley. Stay on the path to avoid encountering pokey cacti lurking between the bushes beside the trail.
Indian Garden brings even more spectacular views. You will see buttes and cliffs in the distance, showing off their gorgeous colorful rockfaces.
There is water available year-round at Indian Garden. You’ll also find vault toilets and some shady benches to relax on. If you sit quietly, you may even catch a glimpse of wildlife traveling through their native habitats, including herds of deer.
Upon departing the Indian Garden, you will travel beneath towering cottonwood trees until you reach Devils Corkscrew. This is an area of switchbacks that cuts through dark rock which is the oldest in the park. It’s also the last set of switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail. Devil’s Corkscrew can get particularly hot in the middle of the day because of the black walls.
After dropping nearly 500 feet in elevation, the path will level out and you can work your way toward Pipe Creek.
Shortly after Devil’s Corkscrew, waterfalls and small pools begin to flow around you. A short side trail leads to the shore of the Colorado River where you can rest and enjoy the view. The last section of the hike is the easiest.
The Bright Angel Trail continues 1.5 miles across sand dunes along the river. All of this leads up to a suspension bridge where you can finally cross it.
Not long after the bridge, you’ll find Bright Angel Campground. And about 10 minutes past that is Phantom Ranch.
At this point, you’ve made it! It’s time to sit down for a meal and gear up for the hardest part of the hike–the climb out of the canyon!
Hiking the Bright Angel Trail is not to be underestimated. It may seem like a walk in the park on the way down, but climbing back out of the canyon is strenuous, hot, and will take a much longer period of time.
Be realistic with your goals and choose a turnaround point that won’t stress your body too much. As with any outdoor adventures, there are always risks and the potential for injury. If anything goes awry, you can quickly reach out for help using the emergency phones at the 1.5-mile resthouse, 3-mile resthouse, and Indian Garden. You may also come across park rangers, mule tour guides, and other adventurers willing to lend a hand as you travel down the trailside.
Most importantly, have fun! Every angle of the Grand Canyon is special.
- Camping in Grand Canyon National Park
- Exploring the Grand Canyon North Rim
- Our favorite travel map → National Geographic Road Atlas: Adventure Edition