The Bright Angel Trail: From Phantom Ranch to the South Rim

On the morning of January 8, Karen and I awoke by the alarm set in our cabin at Phantom Ranch. We had opted for the late breakfast, scheduled for 7:00–scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, peach halves, with orange juice and coffee. Checkout was at 7:30, so after breakfast we hurried back to our cabin to retrieve our backpacks and set out on the trail.

As you leave Phantom Ranch, you find no sign pointing the way to the Bright Angel Trail. You must simply cross the bridge over Bright Angel Creek into the campground, and as soon as you do so, you’ll find yourself on the Bright Angel Trail, heading toward the silver bridge that crosses the Colorado River. On the other side of the river, you walk eastward along the river trail, which is very sandy in places.

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Ultimately, the trail leaves the river behind and enters a gorge. Here you follow Garden Creek, crossing it half a dozen times. “The devil’s corkscrew” is a series of switchbacks by which you gain considerable elevation on your way out of the gorge onto the Tonto Plateau. Along Garden Creek, Karen and I met up with our two friends who were also on their way out of the canyon, Joe and Jack H. We were glad to have their company for a short while, but we insisted that they keep to their own faster pace. While walking along Garden Creek, one appreciates the fauna and the places where the rocks create little waterfalls. Here the Bright Angel Trail has its own beauty, though without the panoramic vistas of the S. Kaibab.

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By about 11:00 we had reached Indian Gardens, and Karen and I had our lunch break. The sack lunch that we purchased from Phantom Ranch included a sliced bagel, cream cheese, strawberry jam, peanuts, pretzels, Craisins, Oreos, a beef summer sausage, and Vitalyte, an electrolyte replacement drink mix.

We had backcountry reservations to camp at Indian Gardens. In fact, we had been carrying much additional weight specifically for the purpose of camping here: I was carrying the tent and stove, Karen was carrying our food supply, and we were both carrying sleeping bags and liners and cold weather clothing intended to keep us warm through the remainder of the day and into the night. But we had not supposed that we would arrive at Indian Gardens so quickly and with energy to spare. Moreover, we felt especially cold at Indian Gardens, shielded (as it is) from the sun by canyon walls and cottonwood trees, and we dreaded encamping where our chief activity would be an effort to keep warm.  So, we deliberated and decided to hike the next four-and-a-half miles out of the canyon. Rather, dividing the trail by its rest stops, we decided to hike the three one-and-a-half-mile sections that would bring us to the top. (After all, anyone can hike one-and-a-half miles! We simply had to do that three times.)

The next mile and a half brought us to the three-mile rest stop. This seemed the longest mile and a half we had yet walked, and the increase in elevation had left us feeling exhausted. We took a break for about five to ten minutes and continued on. Yet, from here to the end of the hike I slipped into survival mode and took very few additional photos. All of my energy had to be reserved for the sole purpose of hiking.

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Karen and I took our time hiking those last three miles up through the constant switchbacks. There were times when I could not take more than ten steps without pausing for a minute. Karen too was exhausted. Finally, the Kolb Studio came into view, and we knew that we had made it to the top, having hiked the Bright Angel Trail in eight hours.

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