South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel loop is one of the most challenging hikes we have ever done, and if you are considering doing it, we strongly advise you to prepare. The terrain is very unforgiving and needs to be taken seriously.
South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel loop is a 13.8-mile, strenuous hike with over 3000 ft. elevation change. It can be done in one day starting off at South Kaibab trailhead, descending over 4 miles deep into the canyon, then another 4.6 miles across to Indian Garden and up over 3000 ft to the rim of the canyon at Bright Angel trailhead.
With all that out of the way, if you are looking for a challenging yet rewarding one-day hike in the Grand Canyon, this is it! It is an absolutely beautiful hike. All you need to enjoy it is to be prepared. The primary thing to consider is elevation change and temperatures – it can be well over 100 degrees F in the canyon.
Shuttle Schedules for South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel Loop
If staying outside of the Grand Canyon Village, you will want to park in parking lot D by the Backcountry Office (close to the Bright Angel Trailhead) and take the Hikers’ Express Shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead. It runs year-long.
Hikers’ Express Bus Leaves Bright Angel Lodge at:
- 8 am and 9 am in December, January, February
- 7 am, 8 am, 9 am in March and November
- 6 am, 7 am, 8 am in April and October
- 5 am, 6 am, 7 am in May and September
- 4 am, 5 am, 6 am in June, July, August
Another option is to take the blue and orange shuttle lines. The shuttle service starts at 4 am every morning between May and September.
If you are staying in the Village, you can use just the orange shuttle line between the Visitor Center and the South Kaibab trailhead that starts at 4 am and runs until 30 minutes after sunset.
Tickets are not necessary for the shuttle.
NPS.GOV is an excellent resource for all park information.
There is a large population of Elk in the Grand Canyon National Park, use caution when driving around, especially early in the morning or late at night.
What to bring and not bring with you On South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel Loop
Bring the least amount of stuff possible with you!
When we got to the shuttle stop it was 56⁰F, a dramatic difference from 100 ⁰F it was in the canyon that day. As much as you want to be bundled up and comfortable in the morning waiting for the shuttle, do not bring a heavy jacket with you. It just adds more unnecessary weight, and you will regret it.
Bring a lot of water! The South Kaibab and Tonto trails do not have water filling stations, meaning your water supply needs to last you at least 9-10 miles. The Bright Angel Trail has water filling stations about every 1.5 miles, but these are shut off in the wintertime. We each carried 3 liters of ice water in our hydration packs and it was just enough to get us to the Indian Garden on Bright Angel, however, if you can bring more do so.
You can also bring a water bottle with a water filter. The water at the filling stations on Bright Angel trail tasted like pool water and made us gag every time we drank it. We also brought salt tablets to replenish electrolytes, they are much lighter than carrying jugs of Gatorade, and we took one every couple of hours.
Bring only the amount of food that you will eat. Something that is refreshing and will give you energy but not make you feel sluggish. Salty chips, pickles, nuts, crackers, fresh fruit, or freeze-dried fruit (much lighter) are good options. Toward the end, when we were more than ready for the hike to be over, we found celery and peanut butter to be refreshing and it gave us that last boost of energy. Just a reminder, whatever you bring with you, you have to carry and every ounce counts.
Bring an extra bag or two for all your trash! You are responsible for your own waste and bringing it back with you – Leave No Trace.
Bring sunscreen and apply it regularly. It’s easy to forget when you are exhausted.
Bring hand sanitizer and/or hand wipes.
For people with longer hair, make sure you bring something to control your hair, it can be really windy coming down South Kaibab and the wind kept knocking our hats off, so I (Dana) had to improvise and use my BUFF as a headband at times to keep the hair out of my eyes.
As much as you love your fancy professional camera, do not bring it with you! Even the lightest ones are too heavy for this hike. We made the mistake of bringing it, and had an urge to leave it behind many times.
Protect your toes! Coming down your toes will be pushing against your shoes the entire time so wear thick wool socks and make sure you properly lace your hiking boots.
What to wear?
We each wore a dry-fit tee shirt, lightweight BUFF for our neck/converted into headband at times, brimmer hat, convertible hiking pants, thick wool socks and hiking boots. We also carried our hiking poles which helped a lot.
South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel Loop Stats
|South Kaibab – Tonto – Bright Angel Loop
|Elevation at Destination (ft)
|South Kaibab Trailhead
|Tonto Trail – starts at Tip-Off Point and connects with Indian Garden on Bright Angel Trail – 4.6 miles long
|3 – Mile Point
|1.5 – Mile Point
|Bright Angel Trailhead
South Kaibab, Tonto, Bright Angel Loop
It takes the shuttle about 15-20 minutes to drop you off at the South Kaibab trailhead. There are toilets available at the trailhead and it is advisable to use them before you start hiking. The trailhead elevation is 7,260 feet. Right off the bat, the trail is steep going down into the canyon with a lot of switchbacks, and man-made steps. It helps your knees to use hiking poles going down to reduce the impact.
The first stop you come to is Ooh-Aah Point ~0.9 miles from the trailhead, elevation 6660 feet. At this point, the trail opens to wide views and is an amazing spot to watch a sunrise from. No toilets or water are available at Ooh-Aah Point.
From this point on, you will constantly be in AWE of the views around you. They are vast and breathtaking. The next stop is Cedar Ridge Point, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, elevation 6120 feet. No water, but toilets are available at Cedar Ridge Point.
Cedar Ridge Point is a good place to assess if you want to go any further or not. Your physical ability should have been challenged enough by now however, all you’ve done so far is go down, and coming back up feels 10x harder. Turn around and look at what you left behind. It is a great day hike to do and get a feel of the Grand Canyon if you want to stop here.
If you continue with this hike, at the 3-mile point is Skeleton Point which gives you your first view of the river and the switchbacks start to get much steeper. This is a point of no return. If you continue you are either committed to this hike or making it down to the Phantom Ranch and coming back up the Bright Angel.
Hiking to the Phantom Ranch and back up in one day is not advisable for first-timers. We were contemplating going to the Phantom Ranch and back in one day, and are so glad we did not do that, considering that even this hike took everything out of us to make it back up.
From Skeleton Point to Tip-Off Point, the terrain is unforgivingly steep, your toes, ankles and knees will be screaming. Before you start, once again make sure your boots are laced up correctly and your toe are not banging up against the shoes. Try to use hiking poles as much as possible to reduce the impact. At the Tip-Off Point, we sat in the shelter for a few minutes, hydrated and ate a snack, converted our pants into shorts, used the toilet and got on the Tonto West Trail.
As you are coming to the Tip-Off shelter, Tonto West Trailhead will be on your left. It is marked but can be easily missed.
The Tonto trail is mostly flat, with some up and down but not strenuous. It is an incredibly quiet trail where you feel at peace, surrounded by beauty that has been in the making for millions of years. We only ran into 5 other hikers and the trail is about 4.6 miles long.
About two miles into the trail you will come across the tiny little creek with few green trees around it. Don’t get fooled it’s not Indian Garden yet! However, it is one of the few shaded areas on the Tonto Trail and the perfect spot for a lunch break.
Approximately half a mile from the lunch spot you will come across another ‘canyon within a Grand Canyon’ and will be walking on the ridge of it. It is an amazing feeling. As mentioned earlier, the Tonto trail is pretty flat and by this time sun is already high up and beating down on you, there was quite a bit of breeze which helped a lot. However, do remember to use sunscreen.
The next green and ‘flush’ area you come to, and the next creek you see will be the sign of Indian Garden Point, which means you made it to your starting point on the ascent up the Bright Angel Trail. It made our hearts drop when we looked up and realized how much further uphill we have to go.
At Indian Garden, we took a longer break, used the toilets, filled up on water and started the climb. Bright Angel is less steep than South Kaibab and has more shade in the afternoon with frequent water stations which is why it is recommended to climb back out of the canyon this way. However, when you have 9 miles of hiking behind you and 100⁰F sun beating down on you the smallest incline feels like rock climbing.
This will be the most challenging part of the hike and it is essential to remember to hydrate, fuel your body, take frequent breaks, and take in the views.
TIP: If at this point you are still feeling good and not worried about adding more miles to your hike, you can make a detour from Indian Garden to Plateau Point, a mostly flat trail to get a better view of Colorado River.
On the Bright Angel Trail, every 1.5 miles there is a stopping point with shelter, toilets, and water. It is the most popular trail and there will be more people here than other trails, and some of those people do not know the basic etiquette of hiking which can be frustrating. The further you get into the trail, the steeper it gets, which can feel defeating at times but at this point, you just must power through it. Take as many breaks as you need and keep hydrating, it is a marathon, not a race.
“Going down is optional, coming back is mandatory” – Grand Canyon National Park
Once you climb out of the canyon, take a moment to look back and reflect as you probably have been loving and hating this hike at the same time.
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