Ever since attending college in Arizona and visiting the Grand Canyon briefly I had wanted to go back and spend more time at this amazingly beautiful and awe inspiring place, but could not work it into my schedule.  Last spring, 49 years later, my son and I decided to visit with the intention of experiencing more of what the canyon had to offer.  We had a long distance to travel from Montana to get there and a fairly limited budget.  We also unfortunately needed to get back to our obligations at home and could not afford a lot of leisure time.  We enjoyed the visit and accomplished our objective.

Grand Canyon
Credit: Rob Bales

View of the Grand Canyon at the Bright Angel Trailhead

A primary reason for our success was advance planning.  We gathered as much information as we could from the National Park Service (NPS) website [1] and several others associated with this park.  The NPS was very helpful and informative.  All visitors should study the Grand Canyon National Park official newspaper called “The Guide”.  This publication gives very good detailed information on most topics you need to know.  If you plan to camp inside the park or stay at the Grand Canyon Village or facilities nearby, your planning should begin at least one year in advance because places to stay tend to be booked solid during the busy season from March through October and reservations need to be made.

Located in northern Arizona the Grand Canyon National Park covers 277 miles of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands.  It is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere in the world.  The river is over one mile in elevation below the rim.  It is not the deepest gorge in the world but many feel it is the most spectacular.  The canyon is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World[2].  The views it offers from the rim are unmatched, as millions of visitors over the years would readily agree.   We found also that hiking down the trail toward the river provides a unique physically challenging experience with views that have great appeal and are not available from the rim.

Inner Gorge
Credit: Bob Bales

The Colorado River at the bottom of the inner gorge.

The Bright Angel Trail starts at the Grand Canyon Village on the south rim and plunges (at a very sensible grade) the mile or so in elevation downward to the Colorado River in a series of many switchbacks.  The trail has a carefully planned design to provide safe passage through forbidding terrain maneuvering around sheer cliffs of hundreds of feet.  The route to the river has been used for perhaps centuries by the early Native Americans, and has been improved and made very stable by trail building experts over many years.

Credit: Bob Bales

Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail

At the bottom across a foot bridge over the Colorado is the Phantom Ranch with very good accommodations for those who have made advance reservations.  Hikers can continue north up Bright Angel Creek to the north rim.  Many elite hikers in very good physical shape have walked from rim to rim and back, but this is not recommended for everyone.  The entire trail is traversed regularly by mules carrying supplies and carrying visitors who have made advance arrangements to ride instead of walking.  We were impressed by the abilities of these animals.  They can move much faster than humans while carrying heavy loads.  We were there in late April, an ideal time of year when the temperature is moderate compared with highs over 100 degrees later in the summer.

Aside from some nervousness at first, we had no trouble with heights or doubts about safety.  The trail is at least five feet wide with numerous wider places and opportunities for resting and enjoying the scenery.  Rest areas with drinkable water are available in season at strategic locations.  Hikers are reminded frequently by signs and notes on the brochures that you are welcome to go down but you must come back up.  One sign reads “DOWN IS OPTIONAL BUT UP IS MANDATORY”. 

Each year expensive rescues have to be made of visitors who have overestimated their ability to cover the distance.  The trail begins at 6840 feet above sea level and drops to 3800 feet in 4.5 miles to the Indian Garden campground, or to 3750 feet at the Plateau Point overlook at 6 miles.  Going downhill is tiring and  can result in sore feet and knees but doesn’t take as much energy as going uphill.  It takes twice as long to come back up as it takes to go down.  It is a very good idea to make an effort to get in good physical shape, perhaps by lots of hiking, before attempting the trail.  We went to the Plateau Point which overlooks the Inner Gorge featuring the famous Colorado River where the banks are sheer cliffs approaching 1000 feet.  A rafting expedition was passing through at the time.  Several rafts with five to six people each were rallying to negotiate one of the many rapids in the canyon.

I recommend a hiking trip to this exciting and enjoyable natural wonder for all vacationers and especially those wanting a challenge along with memories (and outstanding photographs) that will stay with you for life.