Everyone knows that the Grand Canyon is big - the size of Switzerland in fact - but what is it like hiking down (and up) one of its most popular trails? Read my guide to find out
Unable to talk all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing, my heart was beating ten to the dozen, every step was agony and the sun was at its hottest. But, the end was in sight: we’d almost completed the Bright Angel Trail, a 20km trek down (and up) Arizona’s Grand Canyon. A cold pint and a long-overdue rest were mere minutes away.
Eight hours earlier, at 5.30am, I had set off from Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon Village on the Canyon’s South Rim with my two companions Mark and Gemma. We were on a week-long trip round some of North America’s most diverse and fascinating national parks with adventure company Footloose. After Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon was our last stop before we headed back to Las Vegas where our trip had begun.
But as we struggled up the last mile-and-a-half of our walk Las Vegas seemed very far away. The Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point is no stroll in the park. On the advice of our tour leader, we’d set off at sunrise to give us a chance of completing a decent proportion of the hike before it became too hot.
Going equipped on a hike like this is essential. There are water sources on the trail at the Mile-and-a-half Resthouse, the Three Mile Resthouse, and Indian Garden, and it’s important to drink a lot. We were also advised to balance our fluid consumption with food so we packed plenty of sugary and salty snacks as well as suntan cream and a hat.
Right from the beginning the views were jaw-dropping. The further we got into the Canyon, the more we appreciated the stunning colours of the cliffs and the different geological layers of rock. The Bright Angel Trail itself is well maintained and follows the line of a wide geological fault. The main hazards to avoid going down are tripping or twisting an ankle on loose stones.
Some people camp overnight at Indian Garden, which is about 4½ miles below the south rim. A small creek runs through the campsite on its way to the Colorado River. Cottonwood trees, which can be seen from the rim, shade the campground and there is a small herd of deer that call the surrounding area home. To camp below the rim of the Grand Canyon you must obtain a backcountry permit in advance. Campsites on other trails include Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Springs.
Plateau Point is about 1½ miles past Indian Garden through a plain which provides a stunning 360 degree view of the Canyon. Plateau Point overlooks the Granite Gorge between Pipe Creek Canyon and Monument Canyon. It provides a view of the Colorado River from about 800 feet above, while still 3,000 feet below the South Rim. As well as being mesmerised by the dramatic view into the river gorge we could hear the roar of the water below.
After a rest stop and taking plenty of photos it was time to attempt the hike back up the Canyon. We’d been told it takes twice as long to hike up the canyon as down and we’d already taken three-and-a-half hours to get to Plateau Point. Would it really take us seven hours to get back to the top?
The walk back to Indian Garden was mostly flat and we encountered a mule ride. Mules have priority on the trail so it was time to step aside and marvel at how sure-footed the animals were.
It was after walking through Indian Garden that things got tough. The trail from the campsite to the top of the canyon is relentlessly uphill and by now the sun was beating down on us. The chatter of our walk down was mostly forgotten as we concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. By now the trail was getting busier with both people walking up from Indian Garden and walkers coming down from the South Rim.
The Three Mile Resthouse provided some welcome relief – a chance to use the toilet, fill our water bottles and sit in the shade for 10 minutes. We soaked our hats in cold water before heading off for the most demanding part of the hike up to Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse which offered the same facilities.
By now we were stopping every 10 minutes or so to grab any bit of shade we could find. Our calf muscles were burning and everything seemed to hurt. However we were making impressive time and eventually made it back the rim four and a half hours after leaving Plateau Point. Tired and emotional we staggered into the bar at Bright Angel Lodge for some air-conditioning and the pint we’d been dreaming of. Is the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point hard work? Definitely. Is it worth the effort? Without a doubt.
Where to stay
I visited the Grand Canyon as part of Trek America / Footloose’s Canyons and Indian Lands lodging tour. We stayed in the Red Feather Lodge