Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point

Participants: Craig Cheetham and Tom Chester
Date: 25 September 1999 (Written up 30 September - 2 October 1999)

Description: This 12.3 mile, 3,216' altitude gain hike was intended to be our "short" warm-up hike before our "real" hike on the New Hance Trail the next day. The numbers come from the extremely accurate mileages and altitudes along the trail from Bradford Washburn's 1:4,800 scale map. The hike is ~13 miles including our amount of walking around at Indian Gardens and Plateau Point. As usual for the Grand Canyon, guidebook authors have a large variance in the quoted parameters of the hike. David Mazel in Arizona Trails quotes 11.6 miles, 3,080'; and nearly every other author simply quotes 12 miles with the same altitude gain, which ignores the bit of up and down along the Plateau Point Trail.

See Bright Angel Trail for an overview of the trail, including some of the interesting experiences I have had along the trail and the references for the books and maps quoted herein.

On this trip we were amazed to encounter well over several hundred people on the trail. It is conceivable that there were actually upwards of 1,000 people on the trail that day. Perhaps this large crowd was present because it was the last weekend in which there would be water available at the resthouses and Plateau Point, as well as beautiful weather on one of the last weekends before winter arrives. It was always easy to see where the trail was at any given junction since the trail was nearly uniformly covered with people.

We were a bit surprised to find the Kolb Studio access to the trail closed, and had to begin the trail at the official trailhead a short distance away at the mule staging area. We only encountered one mule team, much better than the multiple encounters expected on a summer's day. We passed them while they were stopped near the top of the trail, and within a mile they passed us on their blitz to Indian Gardens. We met them again coming back into Indian Gardens from Plateau Point.

As always, the people were one of the most interesting things about the hike. We left just before 9 a.m., and soon started meeting backpackers coming up from their overnight stay at Indian Gardens. What surprised me was that about 70% of those backpackers, as well as the day hikers going down the trail, were female, a much higher percentage than I had ever seen before on any trail. (This is just an observation - I think it is fantastic that there are this many women interested in hiking the Grand Canyon.) Furthermore, one of the large groups of 10-20 backpackers from Indian Gardens consisted almost entirely of very fit women who were distinctly older than my age of 47 years, perhaps ~70 years old and possibly even older since exercise is known to make people look more youthful. They were carrying full overnight backpacks, and making a pretty good pace up the trail. I was glad I was going down so that I didn't have to find out whether they hiked uphill faster than I do, even with their handicap of heavier packs than my little daypack!

In distinct contrast to a summer hike along the Bright Angel, nearly everybody on the trail seemed actually prepared to be there. Most had hiking boots, backpacks and water, and knew what they were doing. Hence I speculate a lot of them were Arizonans, although there were still a fair number of Europeans on the trail.

At this time of year, due to the low sun declination, nearly all of the Bright Angel Trail is in permanent shadow until about a mile above Indian Gardens. Hence the temperature hovered in the high 60s nearly the entire day. (For various temperature measurements, see the log below.) The sunny area below that is immediately next to the shade is a good 10° hotter, with much sharper boundaries between the airmasses than I would have guessed.

I carried Thayer's book and followed it on the way down. Since this is the third time or so I have followed his book on the trail, I'll only mention some of the things I concentrated on this time, which are mostly some of the less significant items I had missed on earlier trips.

There are plenty of other interesting things to observe along this trail not discussed here! For example, the first five or so hikes in the Canyon should be devoted to observing, memorizing and understanding the different rock layers, since that is the most fundamental and tremendously interesting aspect of the Grand Canyon itself and of every hiking trail there. A standard feature of every hike, and the best way to observe one's progress, is to note which rock layer you are currently in. The Redwall descent, for example, is always one of the most interesting parts of any trail, since the vertical ~500' Redwall cliffs pose the greatest difficulty to get through. And on the way out, you won't be out of the Canyon on the South Rim until you've reached the Kaibab Limestone!

The Indian pictographs are always a highlight, some seen from just before the first tunnel and others seen just after 1.5 mile house. Not much water was flowing from the Kolb Seep Springs, but that's probably why they are named seep springs.

Although I had read Thayer's book several times previously, I hadn't remembered Thayer talking about the rock actually being strengthened exactly along the Bright Angel Fault itself. This is the opposite of the usual situation where active faults significantly weaken the rock along them, as in most of California. When faults go dormant and are buried, groundwater precipitate can fill the voids along a fault with rock harder than the surrounding rock, as has happened to most of the faults in the Grand Canyon. Then when the fault is exposed, the rock along the fault can be more resistant to weathering than the neighboring rock, leaving buttresses of rock showing clearly where the fault once was active. The second tunnel along the trail is bored through such a buttress, and there are many other examples along the trail.

I spent some time studying the mud cracks in the Hermit Shale that were filled with Coconino Sandstone, and picturing the mud flats next to the sea drying up as the Permian sea retreated. Sand grains from the sand dunes of the Coconino Sandstone spilled into the cracks in the mud, forming fingers of Coconino Sandstone penetrating into the Hermit Shale.

The bag attached to my belt holding my water bottle broke just before the Three Mile House, which was a great surprise to me. I suppose I should check the condition of my hiking gear more often! There were so many people along the trail that someone just below me on the trail caught my water bottle rolling down the trail and handed it back to me. I was very glad I wasn't in a remote area next to a sheer cliff where I might have needed that liter.

Indian Gardens was filled with people when we got there at 11 a.m., including mule riders waiting to go on to Plateau Point and lots of day hikers. Amazingly, although the resthouse was filled with people, and every tree along the trail had ten or so people at its base, the three picnic tables hidden in the trees just northwest of the resthouse had nobody there. We spent a leisurely hour there eating and resting before continuing on to Plateau Point.

The nearly dead-flat journey to Plateau Point was delightful, since I always enjoy hiking the Tonto Platform and Trail a lot, despite higher temperatures. I failed to record my temperature reading, but I recall it was in the high 80s.

We were surprised to see a sign taped over the "Tonto West" trail sign that warned that the waters of Horn Creek, one canyon to the west, had been found to have a high radioactive content. The long arms of the EPA reach even deep within the Grand Canyon...

The view from Plateau Point was stunning as always. This time I concentrated on finding fossil trilobite trails and tubeworm burrows. The best samples are just west of the guardrail, but are also in several other locations. Don't leave your pack alone, since the resident rock squirrels show no fear of humans in their attempt to nab the food in your backpack!

We stayed at Indian Gardens for another hour, since this was our "easy" hike. One hour was as long as I could stand to sit still.

We hiked out in the sun, with my thermometer reading 84° (in the shade) at Indian Gardens at the same time as a thermometer in full sun along the trail read 105°. The only reason I can think of that the Rangers would place a thermometer in full sun, giving quite erroneous readings, is to encourage people to drink lots of water and think twice about attempting long hikes without adequate preparation. Or maybe just because it makes people feel better to think that the reason they feel so bad is that it is 20° hotter than it actually is.

Within a mile we had reached significant shade. About 40' or so away from the shade, the cool breeze from there felt like air conditioning. The temperature inside the rock-wall-shaded area was a full 10° cooler than in the sun, 72° vs. 82° measured in the shade of my body in the next sunlit area.

On the way back up, I paid special attention looking for two things I had missed on the way down, and observed both. First, the slickensides, rock polished by movement along the Bright Angel Fault, one switchback below the Three Mile House. Second, the upside-down rock with the Coconino Sandstone cast of the mud cracks in the Hermit Shale just before the first switchback above the Three Mile House.

As we returned to the Rim later in the day, we met a very large group of people who were going to Plateau Point for the sunset, and who of course planned on hiking out by moonlight. However, I wasn't confident that everyone in that large crowd was prepared for the hike out.

Some jerks coming down the trail seriously disturbed the peace of the Canyon by frequent yelling and singing at the top of their lungs, a first in my 18 trips in the Grand Canyon. Later, these same jerks, or other similar ones, set up a string of firecrackers in the Canyon. But the Grand Canyon is so beautiful, and the Bright Angel Trail so delightful, that even such boorish behavior caused only temporary irritation that quickly vanished as these people disappeared below. One consolation was that they probably weren't going to repeat their behavior on the way up!

At the 1.5 Mile House, I met a couple who was doing the S. Kaibab - Tonto - Indian Gardens - Rim day hike who told me that their party was knocked down by a loose mule on the Kaibab, something I had never heard of before. One of the mules in a pack train apparently got uncoupled from the others, and began to make a mad dash for freedom downhill. This party was unlucky enough to be in the mule's way, and the wife and another lady in their party were knocked down. The wife cut her hand and the other lady received a cut on her leg.

At the top, there was a sign saying that the North Kaibab Trail was closed from Roaring Springs to Phantom Ranch due to trail work. However, at the 1.5 Mile House, I met a woman who had hiked to Ribbon Falls the previous day.

Trail condition: Beautiful as always, and in a bit better shape than usual since recent rains had consolidated the usual thick dust layers on the trail into a fairly firmly-packed surface. No obstacles other than mules, mule piss and mule droppings. One poor mule had diarrhea, strewing the droppings over a larger area than normal!

Plants in bloom: Since this was just after the summer rainy season, many plants were in bloom. Even at the top of the trail, in permanent shade, there were many white and purple daisies so much in bloom that Craig accused me of planting them there. Goldenrod and rabbitbrush bloomed in places along the trail. The rim has fields of mountain mahogany in full seed, with their beautiful seeds looking like a sea of flowers.

Weather and water consumption: Fall is a delightful time to hike the Canyon. Although temperatures reached the high 80s on the Tonto Platform, nearly all the hike above that was within 5° of 70°. As a result, my water consumption was only 2.25 liters, compared to the ~4 liters I would have consumed in the Summer on this hike.

Bugs: None, as almost always is the case. Craig was bothered a bit by a housefly or two at Indian Gardens that probably accompanied the mules.

Number of ticks: I've never seen a tick in the Canyon.

Number of rattlesnakes: None.

Other pests: None.

Key for all trip logs

Recording numberMileageTime arrivedTime leftAltitudeComments
00.008:41 6750Trailhead Parking Lot
11.989:33 56001.5 mile house
23.5710:20 46003 mile house. Water bottle bag broke just before here.
35.3711:08 3700Indian Gardens Day Use Toilet. 78°. Drank 0.55 liter on arrival, 0.80 liter at end
45.45 12:083700Leave Indian Gardens to Plateau Point
56.7512:43 3750Plateau Point
67.05 1:123700Leave Plateau Point
77.751:27 3700Jct. Tonto West Trail. Sign: "Horn Creek - Danger - Contaminated Water due to radioactivity"
88.281:43 3700Indian Gardens Day Use Area. 1.1 liters / 1.55 liters. 84°. No bugs again on entire trip so far.
98.50 2:423800Left Indian Gardens. Thermometer just uptrail from toilet read 105° in sun!
109.303:06 4100Back in shade. You could feel the coolness 40' away! 72° in shade, then 82° in the next sunlit area (in the shade)
119.823:25 4500USGS 4610' marker
1210.003:31 46503 mile house. 1.85 liters.
1311.404:214:3156501.5 mile house. 2.05 liters.
1411.804:44 600067°
1512.905:21 6800Trailhead
1612.955:24 6800Car.

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Copyright © 1999 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Last update: 30 September 1999.