I am not going to lie. Peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon as I stood at the Bright Angel Trailhead was deeply intimidating. Alongside of me were my husband and my 11-and-13-year-old daughters wearing heavy packs. We were about to start out on a four-night backpacking trip to the very bottom of Grand Canyon National Park — and all 5,000 painstaking feet back up.
Far below us, a brilliant splash of green cut through a wide shelf in the land. It was Havasupai Gardens where we’d spend the first night. I looked down at my day hikers, and my heart sank. Light and comfortable, my shoes probably weren’t up for the job. In fact, I’d learn rather quickly my ill-fated choice was like wearing flip-flops for a winter sledding expedition. Within 24 hours, my shins would be radiating with pain, making me walk like an arthritic hunchback penguin, wobbling from side to side.
But that pain was unknown to me as we surveyed the great abyss that is the Grand Canyon. My mind raced with the names of the places we would be hiking to: Devil’s Corkscrew, Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground. There’s a lot of death imagery associated with these names, I thought. Why didn’t the park staff choose more optimistic names like Happy Camper Campground or Desert Twirly Trail? The truth was the names scared me.
As a national park travel writer covering the Grand Canyon, I receive every Google alert when someone fatally slips off a ledge or dies of heat exhaustion. Some stories are impossible to forget like the fit mom who died of heat exhaustion on the trail; the retiree who slipped off the ledge; and the optimistic millennial who plunged to her death moving out of the way for others.
I couldn’t help but think of my 11-and-13-year-old daughters. Was a place like Devil’s Corkscrew, which sounds more like a dangerous street drug than a hiking trail, a safe place to bring them? Our entire route to the Colorado River would be along a precipitous ledge lining a canyon so deep astronauts can see it from space. What if one of my kids tripped? Ice often covers the Bright Angel Trail in March and with each of us carrying full backpacks, our balance would be off. In my most-panicked moments, I wondered to myself if we should skip the trip altogether. After all, what was so wrong with spending the week lounging by the pool in Florida at my parents’ house? Our biggest worry would be whether to order the veggie burger or Greek salad off the snack bar menu.
Chance of a Lifetime
But I imagined reaching the Colorado River after hiking 5,000 feet and nine miles total to get to it. And then there was Phantom Ranch, one of the most exclusive destinations in the world. You can only reach it by foot, mule or raft. It’s a collection of rustic cabins and a dining hall nestled in a meadow 15 minutes from the river. The ranch was designed by architect and designer Mary Jane Colter who was born in 1869 and lived until 1958. During an era when women were not “supposed” to be architects, Colter forged a new style, one that took into account every location’s cultural and natural settings. Her exceptional works at the Grand Canyon alone include Desert View Watchtower, Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House and Lookout Studio.
With temperatures in the 40s, it was too cold to loiter at the trailhead, so we started down Bright Angel Trail loaded down with a tent, sleeping bags, food for four days, clothes and cookware. From where we started, the trail quickly disappeared into the canyon. I nervously glanced over the edge of the trail as the canyon’s sheer walls swiftly tumbled thousands of feet down around us.
The Havasupai people, who once lived in the South Rim area, built the Bright Angel Trail in what must have been a daring and painstaking effort. There’s no way to trace the entire trail with your naked eye. And even as you hike down the trail, it’s difficult to predict where it will lead 800 feet in front of you. The canyon walls seem to close in on the path, making every step feel near miraculous.
There are traces of the Havasupai everywhere along the Bright Angel Trail, if you know where to look. And we totally missed every trace on our way down. Later, park rangers and veteran canyon hikers gave us tips on where to see rock art, granaries and other ruins, but I got the sense they knew so much more than they were sharing. Like everything in the canyon — water sources, shade or a good campsite—you have to earn this insider knowledge by spending time there.
For the first two miles, we wore Yaktrax to give us stability on the icy sections. Any slip off the trail would end up in serious injury or worse. I told my kids to walk on the inside side of the path, and before long, they were out of sight, chatting away as the trail unraveled like a ribbon downwards. My husband and I blamed our slower pace on our heavy packs, but I think we both realized a larger truth. We had reached a critical milestone in our lives—the day our kids overtook us in an outdoor activity that we had always been stronger, faster and more knowledgeable.
We didn’t catch them until Mile-and-A-Half Resthouse and then later Three-Mile Resthouse where we took off our packs, ate some snacks and used the pit toilets. But we didn’t stop for long at either rather crowded spot. Havasupai Gardens was calling us.
A Desert Oasis
Walking upon Havasupai Gardens after hiking down 3,000 feet in 4.8 miles is like stumbling upon a secret oasis. It’s where the canyon’s sheer walls finally lean back, giving way to shade-giving cottonwood trees and bright green grasses. There are peculiar plants that look like giant palm fronds and brilliant purple flowering trees with giant black bees flying in and out of the flowers. There’s also ground flat enough to set up tents.
A perennial stream, Garden Creek, cuts through Havasupai Gardens, which is great for soaking aching shins. But there’s an even more significant water source here—a pump house. Without this pump house, there would be no water on the South Rim where a large portion of the 6.38 million who visited the park in 2018 flushed toilets, took showers and filled water bottles.
Getting water to the pump house is no easy feat. Water travels through a 16-mile pipeline from Roaring Springs, a natural spring some 3,500 feet below the North Rim, across the Colorado River and up to Havasupai Gardens. From there, it is pumped to the South Rim. It’s a herculean effort.
But there’s something else about Havasupai Gardens that’s just as miraculous. There’s no cell phone reception. We set up our tent in mid-afternoon and before long, we were lounging on our insulated sleeping pads out in the sun, reading, playing Uno and swapping stories. On a stroll around the campground we read interpretive information about Havasupai Gardens, including the fact that Havasupai tribal members lived and farmed corn, beans and squash here until 90 years ago. Evidently, in 1928, the U.S. government forced Big Jim’s and Billy Burro’s families to leave Havasupai Gardens. They moved near Grand Canyon Village or to Havasu Canyon.
Curiously, at the way bottom of the information, there were three lines. They looked lonely, as if they had slipped down the page by accident. “Burro wept loud for all spirits of the canyon and the spirits of the animals when forced to leave his home.” I reread the words, imagining the forced march out and Burro weeping as he walked reluctantly up what is now known as “Bright Angel Trail.”
I didn’t need to be here, I thought. None of us, meaning backpackers and day hikers and rangers, needed to be here. Not at the expense of a people who had spent more than 1,000 years here. But I was here, and it felt like a sacred spot. It clearly was sacred to Billy Burro and Big Jim and their families nearly 100 years ago and their families before that and their families before that, stretching back to 300 AD. There are ruins left from ancient people in pockets near Havasupai Gardens and while I never saw them, I felt their presence.
A Rare Sighting
The next morning, we set off early to walk the remaining five miles to Bright Angel Campground via the infamous Devil’s Corkscrew. I’ve hiked a number of so-called “world-class trails”: the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, the Lomosho route up Mount Kilimanjaro, the Jomsom Trek in Nepal. The Devil’s Corkscrew is up there with all of these. From the top, you can see the trail as it dramatically zigzags down past 2 billion-year-old rock, the oldest in Grand Canyon. It looked like a snapshot out of the Andes. We were in awe.
Not too much later, we reached the Colorado River, and then farther up the river, Bright Angel Campground where we spent two nights. With a riverfront beach to relax along, Bright Angel Creek chortling through the campground and Phantom Ranch a 10-minute walk away, we felt like we had landed in a rustic paradise. On our day off, we watched mule trains arrive and depart and headed to Phantom Ranch where we sat at picnic tables under the shade of trees and played cards. At night, we ate house-made cornbread, veggie chili, salad and dessert at Phantom Ranch Canteen where we had made reservations months in advance. For days afterward, my two finicky daughters couldn’t stop talking about the delicious meal.
We left Bright Angel Campground the next morning to hike back to Havasupai Gardens. As we ascended Devil’s Corkscrew, I thought of the vibrant community of people who make up the fabric of the inner canyon. There’s Tom, the Phantom Ranch cook we met, who has worked there for 14 years. There’s Sjors Horstman, a former TV repairman from LA, who has spent more than 30 years volunteering at Phantom Ranch, including as caretaker of the trees. There are backcountry rangers like Cori Oakes and Jeff Schwartz who have spent years patrolling the Grand Canyon. None of this world is visible from the rim.
During our last evening in the canyon, we hiked from our tent site in Havasupai Gardens to Plateau Point, a Colorado River overlook. It’s an easy three-mile-out-and-back. We passed fields of deep purple prickly pear plants. To the east, the leaves of the cottonwood trees sparkled from the sinking sun. It was magical.
But when we reached Plateau Point, we saw something extraordinary: a California condor. The largest of North American land birds, it was lying on a huge sandstone rock ledge next to the fenced off area of the point. It noticed us but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. Condors are one of the park’s best comeback stories. In 1982, there were only 22 California condors left in the world. Today, thanks to reintroduction efforts, there are about 80 condors in northern Arizona and Utah.
I watched it from about 30 feet away as the rest of the family went to the end of the point. After awhile, it stood up confidently, its white feet so bright compared to its black body. Then it readjusted itself and lay back down where it remained when we left.
That night we could see a few lights gleaming from Bright Angel Lodge on the rim so far above us. The black sky seemed alive, pulsating with the light from hundreds of thousands of stars. I thought about the condor and how ancient it looked and how it held itself as if it had been sitting at the point since the beginning of time. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was old Burro, back to his rightful place in the universe — a sun-drenched canyon painted in purples, reds, pinks and even blacks where the shadows are.
Need a Hiking Map?
If you need a detailed map to help you plan and visualize where you want to go in the Grand Canyon and to map your backpacking routes, you can buy one of three Grand Canyon maps made by Trails Illustrated at REI.com.