“One of the world’s natural wonders; fourth deepest canyon in the world; and a spot that should be on every bucket list”
— Caroline Cordsen
Birding · Fall Colors · River/Creek · Spring · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife · Commonly Backpacked
The Grand Canyon is a place of sheer enormity. At its deepest, the canyon plunges 6,000 feet into the earth - more than a mile! And the Bright Angel Fault, the canyon's widest spot, stretches 18 miles across. Seeing the Grand Canyon from the rim is one thing, but being able to experience it from the river looking up is something indescribable.
From the rim to the river - a loss of nearly 4,500 feet - you'll see more than a billion years of Earth's history up close, and pass through a number of different life zones along the way. You'll see and experience things you can't anywhere else in the world.
It's not any easy route, but the effort is more than rewarding.
Need to Know
Hiking from the Rim to the River and back in one day is not recommended by the park service, but it is doable if you come prepared and know your limits. If this is done as a two day undertaking, staying at either Phantom Ranch, or the Bright Angel or Indian Garden campgrounds requires a permit, which are very hard to come by.
Counterclockwise (descending the AZT - Passage 38 - South Kaibab
trail and ascending the Bright Angel Trail
) is the NPS's recommended direction of travel. Water is available year-round all along the Bright Angel Trail
, and you’ll find more shade in the Garden and Pipe Creek canyons; as well as covered resthouses at the Indian Garden Campground 4.5 miles in, and at the three mile and one-and-a-half mile resthouses. Bringing enough water and food are key to a safe success.
As a rule of thumb, for every 1,000 feet of elevation lost, you’ll gain five degrees Fahrenheit. With a loss of nearly 4,500 ft, Phantom Ranch can easily exceed the hundreds in hot month
Leaving the rim behind, the hike doesn’t take long to delve into the switchbacks. Steeper than expected and covered in a fine layer of loose sand, it's better to take these going down rather than up. After 0.2 miles, the terrain levels where the Toroweap Formation meets the Cococino Sandstone. The trail tightens to embrace the earth’s every contour on a narrow shelf, then finds a high overlook, called the Ooh Ahh Point. These first eight-tenths of a mile see the most visitors, but having only lost eight hundred feet, you’ll have to venture lower to catch a glimpse of the river.
Beyond the Ooh Ahh Point, sightings of other visitors taper off as another batch of switchbacks bring the trail even deeper through the years into the Hermit Shale. After one-half mile, the strain levels briefly at Cedar Ridge before meeting with a sharp ridgeline atop the Supai Group, then pulls away to wrap O’Neill Butte. Leveling again at mile 2.8, the trail reaches Skeleton Point, a spot morbidly named for the occasional mule trains who might topple over the edge.
Finally reaching the massive cliffs of the 240 million year old Redwall Limestone, expertly carved switchbacks called the Red and Whites delve deeper by way of a rare weak spot, then swing north into the expansive Bright Angel Shale, and the trail’s last rest area at the Tipoff. Having truly found the desert now, the sparse vegetation thins out with only scattered blackbrush. In the winter, snow seldom falls at this low elevation.
Meeting with the Tonto Trail, then passing by the emergency phone which most likely gives the Tipoff its name, the trail drops towards the lower edge of the Bright Angel Shale. The first glimpse of the river comes at the lip of the inner canyon in the Tapeats Sandstone. With careful eyes, waves and fossils can be spotted in the coarse red-stained sand from an ancient sea that long ago churned against these walls.
Entering into the Vishnu Basement rocks – the earliest exposed layers of the Grand Canyon – tight, steep switchbacks work through the Precambrian years. After 1.2 miles, a short tunnel gains access to the Black Suspension Bridge - and the river at last! From down here, you can hardly see any higher than the Vishnu Basement Rocks.
From the Silver Bridge
, the route traces the river for 1.2 miles. In full sun, with nothing but dark rock to reflect the sun’s every ray, this is the most brutal part of the journey back. But pulling into the depths of the Bright Angel Canyon, respite can be found in the deep shadows it casts.
The next mile follows Pipe Creek at an easy grade. But to find access to the higher elevations, 0.5 miles of switchbacks, known as Devil’s Corkscrew, ascend the Vishnu Basement rocks of the inner canyon. But the climb isn’t over yet. The switchbacks loosen, and over another half mile in callous heat, the trail wraps west to meet with Garden Creek, and an unexpected oasis.
Leveling, the trail widening, the hardest, hottest part of the day comes to an end as you leave the “Death Zone” behind. Running water and falls cascade downcreek, and the trail grows busier with campers lucky enough to score a permit for a night under these stars.
Surrounded by trees, and shielded under the shadow cast by the canyon’s eastern walls, the trail follows Garden Creek towards the Indian Garden Campground. Now into the upper canyon, at an elevation of 3,500 feet, the trail nears the Bright Angel Shale once again. Another set of switchbacks brings you through the Mauv Limestone, to the lip of the Redwall Limestone, where it levels at the Three Mile Resthouse. The switchbacks loosen, and over 1.5 miles, the trail reclaims the Supai Group and the Hermit Shale to find the 1.5 Mile Resthouse.
From here, the final 1.5 miles climb a little over 1,100 feet to break through the Coconino Sandstone and find the rim once again.
Flora & Fauna
This loop passes through four different life zones. With the cooler temperatures and greater precipitation at the rim, Ponderosa forests dominate. Dropping lower, between 7,500 and 4,500 feet, you'll find yourself in pinyon-juniper forests, where the canopy is shorter and the bark hardier. Nearing the Bright Angel Shale, the desert takes over. Little grows here, and snow rarely falls. At the canyon floor, the Colorado River spawns the shrubs and trees of the Riparian zone.
Wildlife at the Grand Canyon include elk; deer; bobcats; mountain lions; coyotes; big birds such as vultures, eagles and condors; and reptiles - including poisonous rattlesnakes and Gila Monsters.
History & Background
The Havasupai forged the upper part of the Bright Angel Trail
to Indian Garden, where they lived seasonally. When they were forced out by the park service, the trail was extended to the river by Ralph Cameron. Back then, you had to pay a dollar to access the trail, and Cameron charged extra to use the outhouses and water.
When the park service couldn't convince Cameron to turn over ownership of the Bright Angel Trail
, they built the South Kaibab Trail.