Bright Angel Trail  

Highlights: Long stretches near lush, cool creek beds. Drawbacks: During high season, you'll pass hundreds of hikers and some mules. Difficulty Level: Water sources, ample shade, and a wide, well-maintained surface make this the most accommodating trail into the canyon from the South Rim.

Both Native Americans and early settlers recognized this as a choice location for a trail into the canyon. First, there's an enormous fault line, along which so much erosion has taken place that even the usually sheer Redwall Limestone layer holds vegetation. Then there's the water -- more of it than anywhere else on the South Rim. The springs at Indian Garden supplied Grand Canyon Village as late as 1970.

For centuries, the Havasupai used this trail to descend from the rim, where they hunted in winter, to Indian Garden, where they farmed year-round. This went on until the 1920s when the Park Service expelled the remaining tribe members. Although most of the Havasupai now live on a reservation in the central canyon, a few of their pictographs (rock paintings made with mineral dyes) remain along the trail. Some are high on the rocks just past the first tunnel; others are on a sandstone overhang above Two-Mile Corner, the first switchback below Mile-and-a-Half Rest House.

When Pete Berry, Niles Cameron, and Ralph Cameron prospected for minerals here in the late 1800s, they improved the trail so that most people could hike it. As more visitors came to the canyon, Ralph Cameron realized that the trail might be more lucrative than gold. He bought out his partners, then used mining laws to take control of the land near and below Grand Canyon Village. Although the Santa Fe Railroad challenged his authority in the early 1900s, it wasn't until the 1920s that Cameron lost the trail. By then, he had charged countless mule riders a $1 fee to descend it.

If Cameron earned that much for every hiker on this trail today, he'd be doing just fine. More than 500,000 people hike the Grand Canyon's three corridor trails (South and North Kaibab, and Bright Angel) every year; Bright Angel is the most popular. It's busy, wide, dusty, and relatively gradual, with some occasional mule manure.

Walk down to Mile-and-a-Half House or Three-Mile House, which have shade, restrooms, an emergency phone, and seasonal drinking water. Or continue down to the picnic area near Indian Garden spring, where there's another restroom and lush vegetation and large cottonwood trees provide shade.

Watch the layers on this trail as you descend. As you move from the Kaibab Formation to the Toroweap Formation, the wall on your left gradually turns from cream-colored to pinkish-white. After the second tunnel, you'll start down through the steep buff-colored cliffs that form the Coconino Sandstone. As you do, compare the elevations of the cliffs on either side of the fault. The ones to the west have been offset and are 189 feet higher. At the bottom of the Coconino Sandstone, the Hermit Shale, deep red in color, is visibly eroding out from under the harder cliffs above it. This weakens the cliffs, which then break off along joints.

After dropping through the Supai Group and Redwall layers, the trail begins its long, direct descent to Indian Garden; as you near it, you'll begin to see plant species found near water, including willow, mesquite, catclaw acacia, even Arizona grape, a native species that produces tart but edible grapes. In spring, the redbud's purple blooms are bright enough to be seen from the rim. Fit, well-prepared hikers may wish to hike 1.5 miles past Indian Garden on the Tonto and Plateau Point trails. Plateau Point Trail eventually crosses the Tonto Platform to an overlook of the Colorado River, 1,300 feet below.

Below Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail follows Garden Creek down a narrow canyon in the Tapeats Sandstone layer. After leaving Garden Creek, the trail descends through the Vishnu Formation in a series of switchbacks known as Devil's Corkscrew. It then follows Pipe Creek to the Colorado River and the junction with River Trail. There, you'll find a small rest house with an emergency phone and toilet -- but no pretreated drinking water. After staying near the river for 1.7 miles on River Trail, you'll reach the Silver Suspension Bridge. Cross it to get to Bright Angel Campground.

Allow for 2 to 4 hours round-trip (down and back) to Mile-and-a-Half House, 4 to 6 hours round-trip to Three Mile House, 6 to 9 hours round-trip to Indian Garden, and 8 to 12 hours round-trip to Plateau Point.

Round-trip trail length is 19 miles; 4.6 miles to Indian Garden; 7.8 miles to Colorado River; 9.3 miles to Bright Angel Campground. Access: Trail head is just west of Kolb Studio, near Grand Canyon Village. Water sources at Mile-and-a-Half Rest House (seasonal), Three-Mile Rest House (seasonal), Indian Garden, Colorado River, Bright Angel Campground. Map: Grand Canyon Sky Terrain Trail Map.

South Kaibab Trail 

Highlights: Panoramic views for much of the distance from the rim to the river. Drawbacks: Mules are on the upper trail. Parking is not available at the trail head. Difficulty Level: This trail is very strenuous. You won't find water, abundant shade, or shelter. It's also more dangerous than Bright Angel Trail -- and steeper.

The South Kaibab Trail was the National Park Service's way of bypassing Ralph Cameron, who controlled Bright Angel Trail in the early 1900s. Cameron used mining laws to lay claim to the land around Bright Angel Trail and charged everyone $1 to descend it. Later, as a senator, he pushed to deny Park Service funding. In 1924, exasperated by Cameron's maneuverings, the Park Service began to build the South Kaibab Trail, which, like Bright Angel Trail, linked Grand Canyon Village with the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. Unlike Bright Angel Trail, which follows natural routes into the canyon, this one was built using dynamite and hard labor.

The South Kaibab Trail begins with a series of switchbacks through the upper rock layers. After nearly a mile of hugging a cliff, the trail opens abruptly onto a dramatic panorama at an overlook known as Ooh Aah Point (allow 1-2 hr. to get here and back). As you descend through the Kaibab Formation, you'll see a few Douglas firs, remnants of the last ice age (and part of a shade-protected microclimate). After the ice age ended 10,000 years ago, the firs retreated off the South Rim, clinging only to a few due-north slopes where they received almost no direct sunlight. As the trail descends past the Coconino Sandstone, watch for evidence of cross-bedding -- diagonal lines formed by windblown sand in an ancient desert.

Below the Coconino layer, the trail descends onto Cedar Ridge (allow about 2-4 hr. to get here and back), a platform that has restrooms and a hitching post for mules (but no water). This is an excellent place for day hikers to picnic and rest before hiking the 1.5 miles back out. Continuing northward down the ridge, you'll reach a saddle underneath O'Neill Butte, with views 1,000 feet down to the Tonto Platform on either side. The trail then rounds the butte's east flank, eventually reaching another saddle. It descends in steep switchbacks through the Redwall Formation, then slices downhill across the Tonto Platform toward the Inner Gorge. From the Tonto Platform, make sure to glance back at the natural rock bridge in the cliffs. At the tip-off, where the trail begins its drop into the Inner Gorge, an emergency telephone and toilet are available.

As you begin your descent through the Tapeats Sandstone layer, you'll see the Colorado River between the dark, sheer walls of the Inner Gorge. The pink in the otherwise black walls is Zoroaster Granite, formed 1.2 billion years ago when molten rock was squeezed into the Vishnu Schist's fissures. From here, it's a 1-hour walk to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge and Bright Angel Campground.

Note: This is a good second hike to take after you've tried Bright Angel Trail and already know your abilities. You can't drive to the South Kaibab trail head; the park's free shuttle service begins ferrying hikers from the Backcountry Information Center to the trail head at least 1 hour before sunrise every morning. Allow at least 3 to 4 hours to get down, and at least 6 to 8 hours to return to the rim. Do not attempt a round-trip in 1 day.

6.7 miles to Colorado River; 6.8 miles to Bright Angel Campground. Access: Trail head near Yaki Point (Hwy. 64, E. Rim Dr., 5 miles east of Grand Canyon Village). Water sources at top of trail head, Colorado River, and Bright Angel Campground. Map: Grand Canyon Sky Terrain Trail Map.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.