Thursday, July 9, 2015

Backpacking the Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail

We first backpacked down from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch in 1985, and we loved it so much we returned in 1989 and hiked round-trip, South Rim-to-North Rim-to-South Rim.

Three main "corridor" trails go down to Phantom Ranch located on the Colorado River at the base of Grand Canyon National Park. Beginning on the South Rim are Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails, and from the North Rim, the North Kaibab Trail.  The Bright Angel Trail starts right in Grand Canyon Village. The South Kaibab Trail trailhead is at Yaki Point, about 4.5 miles east of Grand Canyon Village via the Rim Trail.  A free shuttle bus is available.  These three corridor trails are all well-maintained though all three are also used by mule trains, so watch where you step!

Bright Angel Trail runs 9.6 miles to Phantom Ranch and South Kaibab Trail is about 7 miles to the ranch. South Kaibab follows ridge lines and is a steeper hike (and not suggested for ascents) and offers huge vistas, whereas Bright Angel follows side canyons, has more shade and foliage and animal life, and is considered an easier ascent.  The trail descends 4380 feet from Rim to river.

This photo below is taken from the Bright Angel Trail (near the top) looking down at Indian Garden campground (the lush green area in the upper center of the photo which the snaking white trail leads to) which is located 4.6 miles from the South Rim.  It's another 5 miles from there to Phantom Ranch at river level via Bright Angel Trail as it continues down into the inner gorge to the Colorado River. A second trail, the Plateau Point Trail continues to an overlook where you can look down at the Colorado River far below. In the photo below, Plateau Point Trail is the white line crossing the plateau and ending at the cliff line. 

The photo demonstrates the elevation difference from near the top of the South Rim down to the Tonto Plateau. How does one get down there? The second photo below gives the answer -- switchbacks! Lots of switchbacks.

These switchbacks provide an example of how elevation is lost as one descends to the Tonto Plateau. In just 3 miles of trail, 3400 feet of elevation are lost. The switchbacks seem to be endless when you are on them, but they make it far easier to gain and lose elevation.

People who do not carry enough water and drink it regularly can quickly become dehydrated from the heat and strenuous exertion, and it is not unheard of to have a delirious, disoriented hiker walk right off the edge of one of these switchbacks to his death.  Rangers are stationed randomly on the trail, monitoring hikers for water and proper footwear, etc.  There is water at the 1.5 mile and 3.0 mile Resthouses (except October to April), and also at Indian Garden Campground.

Indian Garden is lush and provides lots of shade. It is an oasis that has been used for centuries by Native Americans. In fact, its springs were used by the prehistoric Anasazi, and after 1300 AD the Havasupai Indians farmed here.  From here, the Plateau Point Trail takes you a mile and a half to the overlook where you can look down into the inner gorge and gaze at the Colorado River.

The Bright Angel Trail crosses the Tonto Trail and then continues descending, this time alongside Garden Creek and Pipe Creek.  Though Garden Creek is a bit hidden on your left by the slope, you'll no doubt see backpacks sitting along the trail.  Drop yours and go join in the fun just below the trail level.  I've enjoyed this locale three different times, and not everyone is necessarily clothed.

One section of the creek has as many as six cascades you can cool off in and play in.  This is a welcome diversion on a hot summer day! They caution you NOT to drink this water.

You'll probably notice sections of the Transcanyon Pipeline along the way (photo below.)  The North Rim is more than 1000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim and receives 90% of the rainfall for the canyon, but 90% of visitors are on the South Rim.  For decades, water was delivered to the South Rim by railroad, a very expensive proposition as visitation increased.  In 1932, a pump station was built at Indian Garden to pump water from its springs to the rim, but visitation outgrew this supply.  A five year construction project piped North Rim water 16 miles to the South Rim in 1970 (and also to the two resthouses.)  


Rainwater and snowmelt on the North Rim percolate through the soil more than 3500 feet until hitting the impermeable Mauv Limestone layer.  It then gushes out in great waterfalls at aptly named Roaring Springs about  halfway down on the North Kaibab Trail (photos are on my North Kaibab Trail page.)  Some of the water is captured, treated, and pumped back up to the North Rim for visitor use.  Most of the water (500,000 gallons per day) is sent via 6" pipe buried beneath the North Kaibab Trail down to Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground, across the Colorado River beneath the Silver Bridge, and up the cliff to Indian Garden. Gravity and reduction diameter piping get the water all the way from Roaring Springs to Indian Garden! A pump house then sends it to the South Rim via pipes drilled through the rock.  Large storage tanks on the South Rim contain about 3 weeks of water, so when the pipe breaks anywhere along this 16 mile route, they have time to find and replace the broken pipe.

Devil's Corkscrew shown below makes the long traverse through the Vishnu Schist geological layer (the oldest rock layer in the canyon.)

After reaching the Colorado River, you arrive at the River Trail, constructed in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Its completion made it possible to travel the 1.7 miles along the Colorado River to Phantom Ranch through a sand dunes habitat.  The temperature was nearly 120 degrees when we hit this section of the backpack and it was a rough stretch to complete.

In the late 1960s, the Silver Bridge (550 feet in length) was constructed to support the Transcanyon Pipeline, and it is a wonderful feeling to reach this bridge after the long slog through the dunes section.

Below is a photo of the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch (looking from the west) and showing the Silver Bridge in the foreground and the Black Bridge in the background.  

The construction of the Black Bridge in 1928 necessitated the transportation of 122 tons of materials down the 9 miles of trail by mules and human power. Walking single file, 42 Havasupai tribesmen snaked the one ton, 550 foot long suspension cables down 4000 feet of elevation loss via the South Kaibab Trail!  Photos of this construction are here.  The Black Bridge has wood over its floor since mules use this bridge.

Phantom Ranch was built in 1922 on a site once used by Native Americans.  John Wesley Powell and his group camped here in 1869 and Wesley originally named the creek "Silver Creek" but later changed it to "Bright Angel Creek" when he wrote about his trip. President Teddy Roosevelt stayed in this area in 1913 on a hunting expedition, and his love of the canyon helped propel it into the National Park System in 1919. Below is the canteen building which is air conditioned and offers free ice water during its open hours. We retreated to its coolness many times during our stays in Phantom Ranch cabins and also when tenting in the nearby Bright Angel Campground.

Here's one of our campsites in Bright Angel Campground which is a half-mile from Phantom Ranch. There are 32 sites available (plus 2 group sites.)

Here's a bird's eye view of Phantom Ranch from the Clear Creek Trail about 100 feet above the canyon floor. You can see Bright Angel Creek along the base of the far cliff line and the cabins dotting the landscape.

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