Plenty of signs warn visitors to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to not attempt to hike to the river and back in one day, and that’s good advice: it’s 15.6 miles round-trip, 4,460 feet down and 4,460 feet back up—approximately like climbing Half Dome in reverse, but doing the burly ascent in the heat of the afternoon, on already tired legs.
That said, park studies have shown the average visitor spends somewhere between 8 and 25 minutes at the Grand Canyon, which means millions of people don’t experience its magnitude beyond a couple quick photos on the South Rim. If that’s your thing, there’s nothing wrong with that—but there’s a lot to be said for hiking down into the canyon a ways to get a feel for just how staggeringly huge it is. The Bright Angel Trail is the most user-friendly and accessible of the trails starting on the South Rim, which means it’s well signed, has water access mid-May through mid-October, and provides restrooms. It also means it can get a bit crowded, so start hiking early in the morning if you want some solitude.
The trail cuts down the canyon walls, switchbacking more than 100 times as it passes by three layers of geologic history—the light-colored Kaibab limestone (ca. 250 million years old), the white Coconino sandstone (ca. 260 million years old), and Redwall limestone (ca. 335 million years old)—and makes its way 3,000 feet down to Indian Garden, an unexpectedly lush oasis amid the harsh desert. Here leafy cottonwood trees grow up to 50 feet tall, fed by the waters of Garden Creek. With benches, shade, restrooms and running water, Indian Garden is a great place to take a rest after the descent and take stock of several things: how you feel, considering the climb back out; how much time you have until sunset; and the temperature.
If you’ve got the time, and energy, fill up your water bottles and walk another 1.5 miles of trail to a view of the Colorado River at Plateau Point. The trail drops only 100 feet or so from Indian Garden to Plateau Point, so you’re not adding too much elevation to the hike back out—and the view is worth it. Plateau Point is 1,300 feet above the river, close enough to see the water rushing by, and if you’re lucky, a raft trip heading downstream. Due to the viewpoint’s position in the middle of the canyon, not at the bottom, you’re treated to a 360-degree panorama of the buttes, buttresses and towering walls above—as well as a good view of your 6-mile walk back up to the South Rim.
Take your time hiking back out—the desert heat peaks in midafternoon (3pm or thereabouts), so allow plenty of time, drink plenty of water and take breaks, preferably in the shade. Indian Garden provides a respite from the sun, as do the Three-Mile Resthouse and the Mile-and-A-Half Resthouse, at 3 miles from the trailhead and 1.5 miles from the trailhead, respectively.
Since the midday sun washes out all the scenery, the ideal approach is to hike down early in the morning, enjoy a midday nap or rest at Indian Garden and give yourself enough time to finish the climb out of the canyon in the softer, golden light of late-afternoon and evening.