The Best First Hiking Trip for Canyon Newbies – Part II The Route
As summed up on a sign in the visitor center: “After your first experience backpacking in the Grand Canyon you will be left with one of two reactions: either you will never hike again in your life, or you will find your life up to this moment has been meaningless and you are forever enslaved by thoughts of returning to this tortuous paradise.” I laughed when I first saw this, but sometime during the 4 days of our hike into/out of the Grand Canyon, I felt both reactions…and at the same time. What can I say? It was Grand, and as promised, here’s our plan for a perfect first exploration of the Grand Canyon.
Day 1: Heading into the Canyon
Hike down the South Kaibab trail (6.4 miles, 4,700ft drop) to the Bright Angel Campground.
Overnight in Bright Angel Campground.
It’s a tougher, rougher trail than you’d expect, despite being a straight descent. The South Kaibab is steeper (though 3 miles shorter) than the other corridor hike (the Bright Angel Trail), and while there are steps cut into much of the descent, the muddy wells made by a century of mules clodding up and down the same trail makes for deep steps that are tough on the knees. But the panoramic views at every outcrop and set of switchbacks are breathtaking. And there are a lottttt of switchbacks.
The constant change as we descended was astounding – you could feel the air grow warmer and saw Douglas firs at the rim turn to prickly pears at the plateaus and river grasses at the bottom. It was humbling to know that with each step we were moving through rock layers deposited in different millennia, that all of this vast and empty space was carved out from solid rock with nothing more than water, and time.
As you make it you start to hear the rushing brown waters of the Colorado River, and soon the bright spring leaves of the massive Cottonwood trees at Bright Angel creek became visible. An uncountable number of switchbacks later – so many you’re nearly dizzy by the time you see the narrow tunnel that leads you to the Black Bridge that brings you across the might Colorado over to the other side of the river and the oasis of Bright Angel Campground.
There’s no assigned sites, so come early and grab a site next to the rushing creek, beneath the shelter of the leafy Cottonwoods. It feels like heaven to put you pack down and be lulled to sleep by the gurgle of the creek. As a bonus, there’s even the unexpected luxuries of running water and flushing toilets.
Day 2: Exploring the Canyon
Explore Phantom Ranch and the River Loop trails from Bright Angel camp: we hiked both the Phantom Overlook trail (4 miles roundtrip if you go to the Clear Creek Trail overlook, 1000ft rise) and the North Kaibab trail to Ribbon Falls (12 miles roundtrip).
Overnight in Bright Angel Campground
The Phantom Overlook trail gives you a chance to climbs the canyon cliffs behind the Phantom Ranch compound and see the Colorado and South Rim from the north side. As a reward for the short steep hike, you’ll get a view of both bridges and a rest stop at a slate sofa built by the CCC. There are another 9 miles of Clear Creek trail headed east along the river for those with more time, but we wanted to head upstream towards the North Rim site.
North Kaibab is part of the corridor trail that leads from Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the North Rim, going from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground, at the bottom of the Northern side ascent. There is no water on the north side until summer, so our original plan of staying overnight in Cottonwood would have meant carrying 4-5 gallons (40lbs!) of water in addition to our full packs. We took the easy way out of that by camping two nights in Bright Angel, allowing us to leave our gear and enjoy hiking this delightful trail alongside Bright Angel creek gear-free. Not only did this give our backs a day’s reprieve, it gave us time to enjoy a bonus Phantom Overlook hike, and time to wander around the historic Phantom Ranch and grab a glass of wine at the commissary. There’s cribbage, interesting company, and the wine is a deal at $7/big glass considering it was hauled down by mules. We skipped the $60 steak dinner though in favor of some instant noodles – anything eaten under those stars and in view of the canyon walls tasted pretty spectacular.
Day 3: Following the Water
Hiking to Indian Gardens and surrounds: we followed the Bright Angel trail from Bright Angel Campground to Indian Gardens campground. (4.7 miles, 1,200ft rise) and then took a sunset hike to Plateau Point trail: (3 miles roundtrip)
Overnight at Indian Gardens campground.
This first part of the hike to Indian Gardens is lovely, as you follow the Colorado for a section, then up a side canyon along a creek where cottonwoods and green rushes dot the landscape. This older, historic Indian trail does not have the radical panoramas of South Kaibab, but this gentler walk dotted with water and greenery gives a much clearer sense of how the early Native Americans navigated the Canyon.
Indian Garden is a shady spot at the base of the steep ascent up to the South Rim, but the best part of a stop-over in Indian Garden is the chance to hike out onto Plateau Point. This trail leads you a gloriously flat 1.5 miles across a vast plateau from the canyon walls to a grand viewpoint where the plateau drops off into the Colorado and the Inner Gorge of the Canyon.
From here, you feel as if you are in the very middle of the Grand Canyon: look down you see the campfires of the rafters on the banks of the Colorado, look up and you can see bright lights from the lodges alongside the South Rim, look out and you feel touching distance to the most famous of the “temple formations” – Vishu, Isis, Rama. Watching the sun set and moon rise from this Middle Kingdom was a magical experience.
Day 4: Up and out!
Hiking the Bright Angel Trail from Indian Gardens Campground to South Rim Bright Angel Trailhead (4.6 miles, 3,100ft rise)
Overnight in a clean, soft bed.
This last phase of the hike is the most iconic and therefore the most popular decent into the Canyon, thus crawling with people as we ascended. Indian Gardens is close enough to the trailhead for many people to make it a day hike from the South Rim, and the closer to the rim we got, the more casual walkers we saw including some girls of questionable intelligence hiking in flip flops over slushy ice. But the high numbers of people do not take away from the majesty of vertical lime and sandstone layers still dusted with snow, or make the dozens upon dozens of switchbacks any less dizzying. The plateau and the now-familiar temple formations of the north side receded into the distance, as the walls of the South Rim loomed larger and the crowds grew thicker.
The last mile or so of Bright Angel trail was packed ice, a souvenir from a snowstorm the week prior, so it was gratifying to be able to use our Grand Canyon souvenirs – the emergency crampons we hunted down in the gift shops the night before our departure – as we climbed out of the Canyon.
We emerged, four days after our descent, to find the sun shining and our feet spent, but so very heart glad to have had this adventure in this Grandest of Canyons.
*This post discounts the wonders of the North Rim, in part because we went in March and the North Rim is not open until later Spring/Summer. That being said, I can’t imagine a nicer time than early Spring to hike the Canyon, when the temperatures at both the top and bottom are mild and heat is not an issue.