Our first day in Grand Canyon National Park we decided to tackle the toughest hike on our list – the iconic Bright Angel Trail!
Bright Angel Trail is a 9.3-mile trail down to the Colorado River. The National Park Service recommends that day hikers only go down 6 miles before hiking back out (for 12 miles roundtrip). There were warnings everywhere, primarily about the safety considerations of hiking during the summer in the heat. However, a fair number of signs offered the reminder that regardless of the time of year, the farther you hike down, the farther you have to hike up!
We opted for half the recommendation, hiking down to the 3 Mile House and back for a 6.4-mile hike with 2,102 feet of gain. It took us 4 hours with around 30 minutes of resting time.
The trailhead was a short walk from our private cabin so we woke up, ate some breakfast bars we had packed, and set out for our hike into the canyon.
As we were approaching the trail, a couple park employees shouted for us to let them pass. We turned to find two women leading a pack of mules toward a corral by the trailhead where people were already starting to gather for their guided ride.
There was a sign at the trailhead explaining why mules have been the ideal animal for taking people and supplies in and out of the canyon since the 1890s. Brian’s favorite quote:
“If the mule should slip, all would be over. BUT – the mule doesn’t slip.
The trail is never as narrow or as steep as you will describe it when you get back home. If it were, no living animal could possibly make the trip safely.”Fred Harvey publication, 1909
The first section of the trail was snow-covered, and we were glad we had our ice trekkers and poles, which we put to immediate use. There was no one around and it was very peaceful and quiet as we left the mules and people behind and started winding our way down into the canyon.
The snow disappeared soon after so we pulled our trekkers back off and hung them from Brian’s backpack as we continued down. Occasionally I would pause and just look out over the canyon, which was beautiful in soft blues, purples and pinks.
We came around one switchback to find a baby big horn sheep standing in the trail! We all paused and looked at each other, when two other babies came slowly up the trail from behind the first one. We watched them for a while – they eventually jumped off the trail and climbed up toward a straight rock wall. When we got closer, we saw they had joined a mid-sized female big horn sheep! No one seemed to mind us quietly saying hello and continuing on our way!
We stopped at the 1.5 Mile House for a quick break and then continued on without any major issues until we arrived at 3 Mile House.
At this point, several things happened. First, we saw people climbing out of the canyon with lots of gear – they had spent the night at Phantom Ranch and were already to 3 Mile House on their climb up from the canyon floor!
Second, the sky started to clear and we caught glimpses of blue between all of the clouds to the south. The weather forecast had not looked good when we set out, which is why were were trying to do our hike first-thing, but for a moment we thought maybe the forecasters were wrong – it was really nice out during our time at our turnaround point.
We had just finished our break and were starting our climb to the rim when the mules caught up with us! We stepped off the trail toward the inner wall – as we had read we were supposed to do – and we shared good mornings with the group heading down on their guided ride.
I was intrigued by the mule ride, but after the mules had passed by and we were on our way, Brian remarked that none of the riders had appeared all that comfortable – most didn’t look like they were particularly enjoying their experience! I had the same reflection and am not sure if it was the early morning, or the ride itself, but in either event, I thought we had made the right choice to hike rather than ride!
I would by lying if I said the hike out was easy – I felt like I was constantly having to take breaks to catch my breath. This was compounded by the fact that I had to leave my mask on because the trail was getting busier and we were passing more people. There was no way to stay 6 feet apart on the trail and inhaling my mask every few steps was not an ideal way to hike.
When we reached 1.5 Mile House again, there were people everywhere having picnics and taking a break. We skirted around them and kept winding our way upward, noticing that the sky was becoming a blanket of clouds once again and that the wind was picking up.
Sure enough, the moment we arrived back at the trailhead the sky started to get dark, and we had barely made it through the door of our cabin when it started to hail. What perfect timing! We settled in to grab some lunch from our cooler, warm up, take a nap, and wait out the worst of the weather before deciding how to spend the rest of our day.
Bright Angel Trail was an awesome introduction to the canyon, which has been on my bucket list for a very long time! I recommend keeping an eye on the weather and setting out early to avoid the crowds – you’ll feel like you have the Grand Canyon all to yourself.