Bright Angel Trail: How to Survive AND Enjoy the Hike
By Jeffe Aronson4 Min. Read
If you think hiking nine miles in or out of the Grand Canyon is as easy as walking to the store, and if you sorta-kinda get in shape in between going to the movies and making dinner, you’ll be just fine — think again. A veteran OARS guide offers insight into what it takes to hike the legendary Bright Angel Trail.
Trust me. More than a few folks have limped their way to and from the boats, missing hikes to waterfalls and swimming holes because they’re too beat up, eating ibuprofen like candy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of effort before your trip, you will not only enjoy the hike, you’ll have a pair of legs to take you to some mind-blowing places downstream. Honest.
As for hiking out, the unprepared hallucinate through an eternity of suffering; the fit have a really cool desert trail experience. Your call.
So, having gotten that bit of tough love out of the way, what to do?
The Trail of All Trails
The Bright Angel Trail follows an old Native American route into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. It follows a fault line through otherwise impenetrable cliffs for thousands of vertical feet, like pretty much every other route into “The Big Ditch.” Comfortably on the rim, you’re seeing the canyon, but not really getting it. Yet. If you’ve come down the river with us and are hiking out, you get it, for sure. You’ve also been training on all those short river hikes we’ve been taking you on.
You take 300 steps down below the rim, and the universe changes into a wilderness. All of a sudden you get this feeling of vastness. An immensity of rock and desert. And that zig-zaggy thing that goes way down there with the little bugs moving along it until it disappears in the far blue haze? That’s where you’re headed, amigo.
Before you go, take the recommendations for preparing seriously. Take daily walks, in the park, on the beach, or to the market instead of driving. You know the drill. That’s D-A-I-L-Y.
Bright Angel Trail: How To Train For It
Start slow, a half-hour or so at a time. Build into an hour. Surely you can afford an hour a day for the trip of a lifetime? It can make all the difference. Pain sucks. Trust me.
Ideally, you’ll be training on hills (or, on the Stairmaster if you live in the Midwest). That’s where the knees come in. And the aerobics. It’s critical to work your heart and knees and hips for the pounding they’re in for. Up and down, down and up. So start several months out, get some good music or your favorite podcast queued up on your smartphone, and enjoy the day. It’s a good excuse, anyway.
OK, you’re fit. Now what? In summer, when it’s about a thousand degrees and the sun is baking your brains out, you’ll want a large-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, a lightweight long-sleeved shirt and the same in pants, plus a good pair of tennies (or light-weight hiking boots if your ankles are like mine), with some cushioning in the sole.
Other Gear to Bring
Of course, a water bottle is a must, though two liters is sufficient since on the Bright Angel Trail there are plenty of watering holes where you can refill your bottle. I use a bandana as well, dunking it into the water fountains or creeks (upstream of the mule manure) at every chance. Getting wet and staying wet is the difference between heaven and hell. It takes getting used to being wet like that. But it’s like having a palm-frond fan and being fed grapes, watching all those poor heathens sweat — good desert trick to know.
During spring and fall, you just might encounter snow up on the rim. If you’re hiking you’ll probably stay warm, but not in a T-shirt. Synthetic or wool undies, a fleece for when you stop to snack or pee (and you will stop to snack and pee), and a wool cap. If you’re prepared, it’s stunning.
Did I say snacks? Your car doesn’t run without fuel, and neither do you. Fuel up, don’t get bloated, snack regularly: some carbs for instant energy, a little fat for later, and a bit of protein for the long haul.
If you take my advice, you will absolutely love the most popular trail in the Grand Canyon. If you stuff this in the “I’ll-get-a-round-to-it” pile, you will be thinking of me somewhere along your personal trail of tears.