The Bright Angel Trail
If you are not already familiar with the Bright Angel Trail, it will probably help to read Bob Ribokas' Trail Description and view his Trail Map before reading my description. When viewing his trail map, remember to click on the "pink arrow" scroll icon to see the rest of the trail. Also see his (558 kB) 3D rendering of the trail.
The Bright Angel Trail is the "world's most famous footpath" (Washburn 1981). It is a wide pathway lined with rocks along much of its distance and groomed by a mini-bulldozer. This well-maintained trail is more akin to a dirt road than a hiking trail. The usual dangers of a backcountry Grand Canyon trail - poor footing, obstacles along the trail like landslides, nearby precipitous drop-offs, and/or losing the trail - are almost entirely absent. Thus hiking boots are not required for this trail, a good thing since probably more people hike it in street shoes and sneakers than use hiking boots, due to the large number of tourists that venture at least partway down. Nonetheless, the trail is still a delight to hike.
The biggest danger of this trail is stepping into a giant lake of mule piss ("ammonia warning!" is how one woman warned her companions of the next one) or the numerous piles of mule droppings along the trail. (A very small danger is posed by runaway mules!) The most common dilemmas are:
- "Should I try to get around that stopped mule train?" and
- "Where am I supposed to stand to let the mules past me?",
- "How am I going to get around that obstacle?" and
- "Where did the trail go?"
Because drinking water is available at the 1.5 and 3 Mile Resthouses (except during the winter), 4.7 mile Indian Gardens (also with Resthouse), 6.2 mile Plateau Point (using a side trail from Indian Gardens), and the 7.7 mile River Resthouse at the end of the trail, this is by far the easiest trail to hike in the Canyon, requiring the hiker to carry very little water. The Resthouses, each a wood-roofed rustic stone cabin with benches inside, allow weary hikers to rest in what passes for luxurious comfort compared to a normal trail.
These qualities make this the perfect first trail for novice Grand Canyon hikers to tackle. They can test themselves against the defining physical challenges of a Grand Canyon trail, without also having to worry about such other challenges as mentioned above. The essential challenges are:
- the aerobic and muscular challenge of gaining altitude at the rate of about 700' per mile, up to a total of 5,000' for the entire 7 miles from the River to the rim;
- the foot- and muscle-challenging steepness, involving a relentless downhill followed by a relentless uphill, that will severely test how well your feet and boots are used to each other; and
- the possible physiological stress of high temperatures, which sometimes leads to two major problems:
- Heat exhaustion due to dehydration from intense sweating. Symptoms are pale face, nausea, cool and moist skin, headache and cramps. Hikers can lose 1-2 liters of water per hour at high temperatures. Rangers at both Phantom Ranch and Indian Gardens treat as many as 20 cases per day in the summer! Treatment is to rest in the shade, drink water, and eat food.
- Hyponatremia (water intoxication) resembles the early stages of heat exhaustion, but is due to drinking too much water without adequate salt replacement, causing low sodium in the blood. Symptoms are nausea, vomiting, altered mental states, and frequent urination. The treatment is to eat salty foods or drink water containing a small concentration of salt. This problem is actually best studied in the Canyon, since it also occurs with fairly high frequency.
These conditions are common enough that I have personally seen people with both problems (not simultaneously) on my hikes in the Canyon, including people in my group. I have probably bordered on getting both problems on some of my hikes where the temperature was around 100°. I now try mightily to avoid hiking in temperatures above 90°.
A relatively uncommon problem is Heatstroke, with only 2-3 cases per year seen at the Canyon. However, it is a life-threatening emergency where the body loses its temperature-regulation ability.
This trail has many charms:
- the usual stupendous scenery and geology of the Grand Canyon;
- the specific attractions along this trail (petroglyphs, the resthouses, Jacob's Ladder, Indian Gardens, the side-trip to Plateau Point, the Devil's Corkscrew, among others);
- the clear visibility of many parts of the trail, especially from the upper parts of the trail, enhanced by the number of people and mules on the trail, allowing one to see where the trail is going; and
- the tremendous variety of people one encounters along the trail.
I very much enjoy the people encountered along the trail. I have seen some amazing sights in the eight times I have hiked this trail. Some of the most interesting derive from the first-time hikers who had no idea what they were getting into when they came down the trail. Here's a small sampling of some of the memorable encounters:
- The unhappy families who journeyed a bit too far down the trail in summer, and who are yelling at each other and trying to place blame on "whose idea was this" as they struggle back to the top. These people usually carry no water and thus can only drink at the resthouses. Hiking 1.5 miles with 1,131' altitude gain is a long way to go in the heat without water.
- The Europeans and Japanese who arrive at the Canyon in the evening, and whose only chance to hike the Canyon is to hike down the Bright Angel at night. Hiking the Bright Angel at night is also a very enjoyable experience, so these people have some of the best tourist hiking experiences. And they don't have to worry about heat problems in summer!
- The hikers who thought they were in good enough shape to travel down to the River and back in one day in the peak of the summer heat, and who now find themselves struggling to walk even 10-50 steps without stopping.
I know just how they feel, since I once was a na´ve 18-year-old Kansan who saw the canyon for the first time and was compelled to go to the bottom and back in one day. In brief, I and my companions ran to the bottom, and quickly discovered that we would not be running back up to the rim as we had thought on our way down with our teenage hubris. Somewhere along the ascent, my pulse started going over 200 beats per minute, which even as an 18 year old I thought was a bit high. Thirty years later, I vividly recall resting until my pulse went below 200, then taking only about 10-20 steps before my pulse went back over 200 and I had to rest again. My companions and I made it out, but not without considerable struggle.
Some of the memorable encounters since that time were:
- One summer we were pacing another group up the canyon, each taking turns in the lead, when the other group started falling behind. One of their party caught up to us and asked us for help for another one of their party, who thought she was in serious trouble. I went back to her and introduced myself as Dr. Chester, something I virtually never do but thought that this would immensely help her mind-set. After "taking her condition" through some questioning, observation and taking her pulse, my diagnosis was that she was simply an exhausted hiker who could make it out given enough support. She was much like my 18-year-old self, being a summer employee of the Park who decided to hike to the River, without any previous hiking experience, before she returned to school. All I did was talk reassuringly to that hiker, make sure she rested enough on the way out, and get her to consume enough liquids to restore her hydration.
- Another summer we were resting along the trail just above Indian Gardens, when we observed a group of people hiking past us, with full packs, but who were hiking in their socks. We caught up to them, and verified that their feet simply hurt too much to put on their hiking boots due to numerous painful blisters from the trip down. We showed them how to take care of their blisters with a sterile needle and moleskin, and they were overjoyed to be able to put their boots on again.
- Two people from New York City who were hiking the Canyon sans any backpack or water, who ended up not making it out before dark. I and another group of hikers were worried about them after we made it out, so I went back down with my flashlight to help them out. It turned out that the woman found a small flashlight in her purse that she carried down with her, but they were quite grateful to have the larger beam of my flashlight to guide them, as well as simply having another person with them on the hike out.
Another interesting story was told at an evening Campfire talk at Phantom Ranch in the 1980s by a young Ranger, who was a very fit runner. She, like my 18-year-old self, decided to run down to the River and back from the Rim on a hot summer's day, soon after she arrived at the Canyon. She made it to the River, and part of the way back up, but was found passed out along the side of the trail by other hikers, due to problems with the heat. You can imagine how embarrassing it would be for a Ranger to be found in trouble along the trail.
By far the best resources to have along on this hike are:
The maps may now be combined in Bright Angel Trail - Hiking Map and Guide for $3.95, but I haven't seen this new publication. It can be ordered online from Grand Canyon Natural History Association. Thayer's delightful book is unfortunately out of print.
- The Bright Angel Trail, Bradford Washburn, 1981, Museum of Science, Boston. This is a 1:4,800 map with mileages quoted to hundredths along the trail from extremely accurate surveying. $1 in the 1980s.
- Geologic Map of the Bright Angel Trail, George H. Billingsley and William J. Breed, 1986, American Association of Petroleum Geologists. ~$1 in the 1980s.
- A Guide to Grand Canyon Geology Along Bright Angel Trail, Dave Thayer, 1986, Grand Canyon Natural History Association. Thayer's book not only discusses the considerable geology seen along the trail, but it is also a great field guide to all points of interest along the way, such as the locations of petroglyphs that are clearly visible from the trail.
I have only written up two of my hikes along the Bright Angel Trail so far. On 20 October 1997, on a day hike to the River and back, I recorded the mileage from my pedometer at most of the 70 points with highly-accurate mileages from Washburn 1981. The log of that trip gives the mileages and my time to those points. I used that to compute the measured accuracy of my pedometer.
On 25 September 1999, I went to Plateau Point and back.
Copyright © 1999 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Last update: 8 October 1999.