When researching things to do at Grand Canyon National Park, I found a whole bevy of trails, hikes, historic buildings, scenic overlooks, and activities that could keep you busy for as long as you want. Hikes that are so long you need to camp out and do it over multiple days… check. Trails that take an entire day to do… check. Easily accessible historic places of interest, short hikes, and scenic overlooks with jaw-dropping views… check.
- If you’re a backpacker or multi-day hiker, you’re going to want Bright Angel Trail on your list of must do Grand Canyon experiences. Bright Angel Trail leads all the way down into the canyon to primitive campsites and Phantom Ranch — it’s the same trail used by the mule team that carries visitors almost 10 miles to Phantom Ranch.
- If you’re a casual hiker, you’re visiting with family and seniors, children, or inexperienced hikers, or you’re visiting Grand Canyon for a short period of time, you still need to put Bright Angel Trail on your list of things to do! Why? Because you can just hike a small portion of it to see breathtaking views and an amazing rock tunnel.
We had two full days to experience Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim before we left bound for Petrified Forest National Park. Two days gave us plenty of time to visit the Desert View Watchtower, the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, and all of the scenic overlooks along Desert View Drive, as well as all of the most popular spots in Grand Canyon Village, like Verkamp’s Visitor Center and Museum, Hopi House, the historic El Tovar Hotel, Lookout Studio, Kolb Studio, and the Yavapai Geology Museum. We also had time to hike the seven mile stretch of the South Rim Trail along Hermit Road to Hermit’s Rest, stopping at several remarkable scenic overlooks along the way.
While we didn’t have time (or the right gear) to hike into the canyon, we did follow the famous Bright Angel Trail a ways to get a feel for what it’s like beneath the canyon rim, see some petroglyphs, and check out an incredible, gorgeous rock tunnel — and A LOT of families were doing the exact same thing!
Hiking The Bright Angel Trail
The Bright Angel Trail begins in Grand Canyon Village on the south rim of the Grand Canyon at 6,850 feet elevation. It descends 4,380 feet with an average grade of 10%. At the trail’s end, the River Trail continues another 1.9 miles to the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch, totaling 10 miles.
It typically takes 4-5 hours to hike to the campground and double that for the hike back up to the rim. Here’s a breakdown of the trail:
- 1st Tunnel: 0.18 mile one way, 0.36 mile round trip, 6,708 feet elevation at tunnel. Trail ins’t too steep on this stretch, so it’s a good place to experience a view from within the canyon.
- 1st Switchback: 0.45 mile one way, 0.9 mile round trip, 6,560 feet elevation at switchback. Good place to turn around with small children as the trail begins to get steeper from this point on.
- 2nd Tunnel: 0.75 mile one way, 1.5 mile round trip, 6,240 feet elevation at tunnel. Steep switchbacks begin after the tunnel.
- 1.5 Mile Resthouse: 1.5 miles one way, 3.0 miles round trip, 5,729 feet elevation at resthouse. Water is available here seasonally only. Restrooms are available. This is a good place to turn around for first time canyon hikers, casual hikers, and late starters.
- 2 Mile Switchback/Corner: 2.0 miles one way, 4.0 miles round trip, 5,490 feet elevation at switchback. Trail sign marks location, trail will get steeper from here.
- 3 Mile Resthouse: 3.0 miles one way, 6.0 miles round trip, 4,748 feet elevation at resthouse. Water available seasonally only. Good turn around point.
- Indian Garden: 4.5 miles one way, 9.0 miles round trip, 3,800 feet elevation at Indian Garden. Water available year-round. To reach this spot, you need to get an early morning start and be in good condition. There are restrooms, picnic tables, and water available here. Do not go past this point on a summer day hike.
- Plateau Point: 6.0 miles one way, 12.0 miles round trip, 3,740 feet elevation at the point. There is a view of the Colorado River, seasonal water only, and no shade. This hike is extremely strenuous due to the distance.
- River Resthouse: 8.0 miles one way, 16.0 miles round trip, 2,480 feet elevation at the resthouse. There is a restroom and emergency phone available.
- Bright Angel Campground: 9.5 miles one way, 19 miles round trip, 2,480 feet elevation at the campground. There is a restroom, drinking water, an emergency phone, picnic tables, food storage cans, and pack poles available.
- Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles one way, 19.8 miles round trip, 2,546 feet elevation at the ranch. Reservations are required for food and lodging. There are pay phones, drinking water, restrooms, and a ranger station on site.
Bright Angel Trail History
The upper portion of the trail was originally built by the Havasupai people for access to the perennial water source of Garden Creek. The Havasupai settled seasonally in this area, now known as Indian Garden. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered them to leave the area, but it was not until 1928 that the National Park Service forced the last Havasupai out.
Ralph H. Cameron, who would later become a United States Senator, settled on the canyon rim in 1890 and began improving the old Havasupai trail, extending it to the Colorado River. When Cameron gained official control of the trail, he named it Bright Angel Trail and began charging a $1 toll to access it, plus additional fees for drinking water and the use of outhouses at Indian Garden.
Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon to work at the Bright Angel Hotel in 1901. The next year, he invited his brother Emery to the canyon. Emery discovered a photography business for sale in Williams, Arizona, purchased it, and moved the operation to the Grand Canyon. He and Ellsworth took photographs of visitors on the mule rides down Cameron’s trail, charging a fee for the pictures.
Emery leased a small piece of land near the trailhead from the Cameron family and the brothers set up a photography studio in a tent to develop and sell their photos. The business was profitable and a few years later the Kolb brothers built their permanent studio on the rim of the canyon.
To compete with Cameron, the Fred Harvey Company and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway improved the Hermit Trail in 1911. Then in 1924, the newly created National Park Service began construction of the South Kaibab Trail near Yaki Point as another bypass for Cameron’s tolls. After a long series of legal battles, the trail was turned over to the National Park Service in 1928.
Know Before You Go
- The Bright Angel Trail trailhead is located on the edge of the Grand Canyon South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona 86023, Coconino County in Grand Canyon National Park. It sits just west of Bright Angel Lodge between Kolb Studio and the Hermit Road shuttle bus stop.
- Restrooms and a water bottle filling station are available at the trailhead.
- Even if you’re hot hiking the Bright Angel Trail or riding a mule to Phantom Ranch, if you’re at the Bright Angel Trailhead, between Kolb Studio and the Hermit Road Shuttle Stop, in the morning, you’ll get to see the mules begin their day!
- Read the Frequently Asked Questions about hiking at Grand Canyon.
- Download the Bright Angel Trail Guide.
- If you are hiking from the South Rim to Bright Angel Campground and back, a popular option is to take the South Kaibab Trail down (6.8 miles to Bright Angel Campground) and the Bright Angel Trail up, turning your hike into a loop hike.
- Any time you are hiking at Grand Canyon, be sure to bring plenty of water, food and snacks, sunscreen, and a hat, and wear sturdy hiking shoes and layers of clothing.
- Walk west to reach Hermit Road and Hermit’s Rest, or east along the Canyon Rim Trail to Kolb Studio, Lookout Studio, the El Tovar Hotel, Hopi House, Verkamp’s Visitor Center, Yavapai Geology Museum, Mather Point, Grand Canyon Visitor Center, and Desert View Drive.
- The Grand Canyon South Rim, including Grand Canyon Village and Desert View, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
- A free shuttle bus system operates on the South Rim connecting the visitor centers, parking lots, lodges and hotels, historic buildings, museums, and campgrounds with canyon overlooks. The Blue Shuttle serves Grand Canyon Village.