The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
7. BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL / SOUTH KAIBAB TRAIL CIRCUIT
Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
Distance: 27.3 km
Time: 2 days
The first thing that crosses the mind of many a part-time hiker arriving at the Bright Angel Trail trailhead on the South Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon is the assumption that they have aimed too high, that the gaping chasm beneath them will swallow them whole should they enter it, and that even if they succeed in making it unscathed to the canyon floor, the walk back up will somehow do them in. And that’s the moment when you have to start thinking with your head, to remind yourself of all the research you did that brought you here, all of the physical preparation, and know that if you just keep in mind a very few basic statistics relating to two of America’s greatest trails, you can do this. It is a 4,380-ft descent from where you are standing down to the banks of the Colorado River, just 2.5 km to the first resthouse, and 2.4 km to the one after that. Going down, everyone will tell you, is actually surprisingly easy. It’s the ‘getting back up’ you need to think about.
BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL / SOUTH KAIBAB TRAIL CIRCUIT
Photo: Don Graham
Bright Angel Trail is a maintained dirt trail with an average 10 per cent gradient along its entire length. It has been the most popular path down into the canyon from the South Rim ever since the Havasupai people first built the upper reaches of it centuries ago so they could access fresh water at Garden Creek, a technical canyon (meaning some rock-climbing skills will be needed to ascend and descend) a mile down from the popular rest stop of Indian Gardens. A US Senator, Ralph Cameron, improved the trail all the way to the canyon floor after coming to live on the canyon rim in 1890, which is why - for a few years at least - it was known as the Cameron Trail.
It descends from the rim along the head of a side canyon and almost immediately you are negotiating a seemingly endless series of switchbacks beneath towering cliffs as you make your way to Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse (toilets), and Three-Mile Resthouse (no toilets). The trail flattens out as you approach Indian Garden, then crosses the tough Tapeats sandstone of the desolate Tonto Platform, one of the canyon’s most impressive geological features, before following a cottonwood-filled gully to where Pipe Creek joins with the Colorado River. You have now descended almost a vertical mile from the trailhead above, and have been hiking for between four and five hours. It’s now only a half-hour walk to Silver Bridge over the Colorado River to Bright Angel Campground about a third of a mile downstream from Phantom Ranch, the canyon floor’s only lodging (bookings essential!), a beautiful mosaic of rough-hewn timbers and native stone constructed in 1922 and designed by the American architect Mary Colter.
Presuming you take the cheaper option and pitch a tent, you’ll waken at Bright Angel Campground early the next morning to be confronted with a choice you will have already made: do you climb back to the rim on the trail you just came down on, or do you take the South Kaibab Trail, which will return you to the rim to the east of the Bright Angel trailhead near the Visitor’s Center. Taking the South Kaibab Trail means you won’t be looking at the same views twice, but there is no water available and it is far more open than the more shaded Bright Angel Trail, though this openness means it is virtually free from snow, making it a year-round option. Unlike other canyon trails the South Kaibab was designed to take the most direct route to the bottom on a smooth, 4-ft-wide path that passes by the Vishnu schist of the inner gorge before going on to encounter no fewer than eight major geological formations alongside of which an exciting series of switchbacks drilled and blasted into vertical cliffs take you past the Toroweap Foundation, Coconino Sandstone, and the fine-grained, thin-bedded siltstone of the Hermit Formation and up to its trailhead at Yaki Point, back on the canyon’s South Rim.
While the Bright Angel/South Kaibab option is eminently doable with an overnight stay at Bright Angel Campground, even for a fit part-time hiker, there are several things all of us need to keep in mind before setting out. Remember to wet your hat and shirt, as this will reduce your body temperature. Take trekking poles, drink plenty of water, and eat high-energy snack foods - even if you’re not hungry. Take a 15-minute break for every hour you walk, try to elevate your legs when you stop to avoid a build-up of lactic acid, and if walking in a group always allow the weakest walker to set the pace. Don’t attempt to walk down and out of the canyon in the same day, especially in the warmer months from May to September, and never hike back up in the mid-afternoon heat, if only to avoid the lower elevations with their walls of dark grey schist that radiates the heat of the afternoon sun the way a cast-iron stove throws off the heat of a roaring fire. More than 250 people are rescued from the Grand Canyon every year. Don’t become one of them!