A Virtual Hike in the Grand Canyon

Down the South Kaibab Trail and Up the Bright Angel Trail


Click on the thumbnail pictures to view them at full size

Because of the great response from my story about hiking down and up the South Kaibab in 2002, I thought I would post a set of pictures and descriptions from the two both major trails into the canyon: down the South Kaibab and up the Bright Angel.  For this very hike I made in mid-February, 2003, the weather looked very promising the day before so I bought extra film so I could shoot 8 rolls of film (back before I had a DSLR). Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate being fairly overcast, not conducive for "Kodak" moments. I returned on April 13th for the sole purpose of taking pictures under fairly clear skies and subsequently put together my first virtual hike in the Grand Canyon featuring 194 pictures.    Fast forward to April 4, 2008, when once again I took this hike, but this time armed with a digital SLR and this time took over 600 pictures.  Any more than that and I might as well have taken a video recorder!  

The map at the left (taken from an excellent article in the Arizona Republic, "From Couch to Canyon" shows my exact route starting down the South Kaibab to the Colorado River, onto Phantom Ranch, and then returning to the rim via the Bright Angel. The total distance for this hike is 16.7 miles!  This is the most popular route to the river and back (for good reason), and always a test of endurance and a hike that always needs to be taken seriously and not done on a whim!

I've put these pictures together in the hopes of providing a virtual hike into the Grand Canyon since I have pictures from nearly the entire trail. Many of the pictures have additional information which you can read by hovering your mouse over the thumbnail picture. But as good a any picture might be,  anyone who's been there will tell you they can't do the place justice. I'm afraid my most appreciative audience will be those who've had the privilege of hiking these spectacular trails and will get a trip down memory lane.  Having said that, over the years I've received an incredible amount of email from readers using the virtual hike as part of their planning for a future hike.  Never in my wildest imagination did I anticipate this, but since it is a reality, I have added more information to help would-be hikers. 

The topographical maps show a more detailed view of the route and they are numbered to show the approximate locations where the pictures were taken.

The Superhighways

Your tour guide, Gene.

The South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails have been aptly called the "superhighways" into the Grand Canyon. These two trails are basically identical in terms of their raw composition. They are at least three feet wide, but almost never wider than four and are lined with rocks which help to both mark the trail and to keep hikers on it. They are maintained trails so they are closed from time to time usually because of rain damage.  Though the look and feel may be the same, there are important differences which every would-be canyon hiker should know.

The South Kaibab Trail (SK) is said to be a ridge trail whereas the Bright Angel Trail (BA) is a ravine trail. The views on the SK of the overall canyon are much better. The trail is high and there are no trees to get in the way of the view which you can clearly see in the pictures. The downside becomes readily obvious to anyone attempting a hike during the summer: no shade! Not only does the BA offer relief from a relentless sun, there is water available midway at Indian Garden. During the summer months there is also water available at the One and a Half and Three Mile Resthouses. There is absolutely no water available on the SK! Finally, the SK is steeper and almost 300 feet higher. For these reasons it is also recommended that hikers go down the SK and back up the BA.

Obligatory Disclaimer

Are you planning on visiting the Grand Canyon? Are you actually contemplating a hike into the Canyon? If so you should read the following disclaimer and some of my personal thoughts about the danger. 

 

Start down the South Kaibab Trail

How can you describe the view from the South Kaibab Trail? If I had to level it down to one word it would be "spectacular." That's what I think when I look at these photos. When you are actually there at the canyon on the trail, however, it practically leaves you speechless. Words cannot adequately describe it. But as nice as these pictures are, even they are inadequate! They don't capture all the colors and they definitely do not purvey the magnitude of it's size. The sight, the sounds, the smell, and the feel of the trail overload your senses.  Many of the pictures have further descriptions which you can read by hovering your mouse over the thumbnail image.

 

Map 1, Pictures 1-85

 

The map above gives the overall route for the hike. The map at the left shows a more detailed view of the first part of the hike. I have numbered the pictures on the detail maps to indicate the locations where they were taken. Most of these locations are fairly accurate, but there are some that I must admit are just "best guesses."

Click on the map to view it full size.

Click here if you want to see the entire map showing the entire route with the pictures marked. 957K.

A Note About the Pictures 

The pictures for this version of the virtual hike actually come from 3 different hikes, but primarily from the 2008 hike.  If you hover your mouse over the picture you'll see the picture number and many times further description.  Unless otherwise indicated, the picture is taken looking in the direction of the hike (i.e., forward).  If the photo is taken looking back from where I was, (Back) will be indicated, although many times that would be obvious.  Also, (Right) and (Left) will designate looking in those directions.     

   

Unless you're hiking during the winter months, the road to the South Kaibab trail head and Yaki Point is closed to vehicles. You must board a bus at the Visitor Center that leaves at 20 minute intervals. In the very early morning this bus is not generally crowded and most of the riders are doing an overnight hike. I might generally like to start earlier, but this was another picture hike and I wanted maximum sun so I'd planned for an equal 2:50 on each side of noon. Our bus was packed and it pulled into the parking lot at 9:00. There is a short path from the parking lot to the actual trail head.  For me, this is when the real excitement begins. There is a mule corral to the right, but there were only a few mules to be seen. Presumably, the rest were all in the canyon. During the summer months there is a water spigot, but I would never depend on this!  You should have all your water bottles filled before you board the bus. 

The signs at the trail head should be mandatory reading, but many never seem to even give them a glance. "DO NOT ATTEMPT to hike to the river and back in one day!" "No dogs." "PLEASE CARRY OUT YOUR TRASH" But there is humor to be found: "You don't write on your walls at home (do you?)" "Eat!" Eat?! Forget that diet you might be on. Here on the trails of the Grand Canyon, eating is a very good thing. In fact, you can't eat too much! You're body is going to need all the nourishment it can get. A related sign is, "Don't Feed Wildlife." That's right, don't do it! Save that food for yourself! :)

I didn't need to read the "Eat!" reminder. I know very well the importance of fueling the body. Just before departing for any canyon hike, I eat a very large breakfast. 

My plan this time was a 5:45 hike and my wife, Cindy, would be waiting for me at the 1.5 Mile Resthouse at 2:00, exactly 5 hours into this hike.

 

The grand hike begins and you serpentine down a series of sharp switchbacks in the nearly vertical limestone wall.  The floor of the trail is crushed limestone, but it's dotted with many droppings from the mules and it is the wise hiker who avoids these.  A first time hiker is justly worried that dodging these obstacles will be continuous, but for some reason the mules must have the same reaction to being at the top of the trail and looking down in the vastness, "Oh, #$@*!  We're going way down there?"  Though you share the SK and BA trails with the mules, a sign near the start lets you know who has the right of way: "When Mules Pass Stand Quietly and Follow Mule Guides Instructions."

During the winter months you may often have to contend with snow and ice on the trail.  A hiker with a big backpack may well consider a set of crampons.  The SK does get a lot of direct sun so any snow and ice does melt readily.  At the top of the BA, however, there is much less sun so snow and ice can linger well into April.   

 

 

  

The switchbacks end soon and the trail now levels and the decent for the next half mile is very gradual, following the limestone wall which is immediately on your right. As you go down it is worth several looks back towards the top and you are amazed how invisible the trail is.

As you can see looking out, it does not take long to get a great view of the canyon. But the view is going to get a lot better!  The Grand Canyon is made up of a myriad of smaller canyons and technically we are in Pipe Canyon. 

You might also be naively thinking if this your first hike, "This isn't all that bad!  We'll be at the bottom of this trail in no time at all."  The bottom is still 6 miles away!  So why is the guy at the left (i.e., your tour guide) smiling?   

 

We are now approaching the Ooh-Ahh point of the South Kaibab.  So far the trail has hugged the tall wall to the right and above this is the Yaki Point lookout.  This blocks a lot of the view.  The Ooh-Ahh point is where the trail takes a very sharp turn just after it clears this wall. The large boulders you see in picture 039 is the actual point.  

The view from the Ooh-Ahh Point! Looking at pictures on the web, there seems to be some difference of opinion as to the exact location of the Ooh-Ahh Point. The confusion is very understandable since there is no sign and plenty of view locations qualify as Ooh-Ahh scenery. The main object in this photo is O'Neill Butte. For many, it is the symbol of the South Kaibab because it is visible for almost half the trail. You can always tell where you are on the South Kaibab if you spot this landmark. From this spot you can see a lot of the trail. This is really a fabulous section of trail from here to Cedar Ridge. Click here to see another picture taken from this location with the trails in the distance marked.  If this is your first time down the SK, slow things up and enjoy every minute of this view. Besides, we're bound to be arriving at the river soon, right?   

These are typical Overnight hikers.

I must tell you I really admire the overnight hikers. I am not one of them. They carry a lot of weight and despite this they're in great spirits for the most part, even the ones that are coming out! More than just a few have expressed jealousy when they see me practically running by them carrying only my water bottle and camera equipment.

 

 

Cedar Ridge is a relatively flat area about 1.5 miles from the trail head and 1000 feet below. It is the recommended stopping point for a day hike on this trail. There is a rest house and there are hitching posts for the mules.  I've seen Cedar Ridge crowded with people and virtually deserted. It seems to be related to the time of day. The later in the day, the more crowded it is mainly because of the day hikers.  There is no water here nor anywhere else on the SK.  Besides a rain shower, the only other water would be from a fellow hiker.

It has been my experience that you really start to feel you're in for a long hike when you've arrived at O'Neill Butte and begin to transverse it's slopes.  You've already gone a long way and the river is still no where to be seen! 

 

As you traverse the side of O'Neill Butte and circle to the backside, the trail levels off considerably, providing a brief break in the relentless spiral downward into the abyss of the canyon. Don't let this fool you because one of the toughest sections is ahead just beyond Skeleton Point, clearly marked on the trail with a sign. Why do they call it Skeleton Point? I dunno. I've never seen a skeleton there; not even a single bone. Maybe it's because if you go further, the trail threatens to turn you into a skeleton! The park service is pretty good about cleaning up after any dead carcasses... ;-) But that joking aside, heed the warning. If you're doing a day hike, you should probably go no further. If you're taking the virtual hike, you might also heed this warning because to go further there is a lot of clicking left to go!

 


Not in good enough shape to click through the images on the virtual tour?  Take the equivalent of a mule ride by clicking the play button to start the slide show of the images.

previous  next  random  play  stop  slower  faster 



 YES! I'm physically fit enough to click through the rest of the virtual hike. I've got enough fluids and snacks here at the monitor to make it through okay. Continue the tour...
 NO! I've had enough. Take me back to the home page. 

 

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