Sitting on the edge of Plateau Point in the Grand Canyon

The Ultimate Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip for Beginners

This is the ultimate trail guide for backpacking the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon for beginners! This route will lead you down the most famous trail in the park to a historic oasis alongside the Colorado River. Then it will humble you on your long ascent back to the Rim.

I have done many variations of this backpack, but this is my favorite way to experience a more mellow adventure in the Grand Canyon. I love this because it lets you slow down a bit and really enjoy the spots that you are in. Indian Gardens often gets passed by because hikers are on a mission to get down to the river. Do yourself a favor and take your time to explore the area and dip your toes in the creek.

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Grand Canyon Backpacking Guide
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3 Day Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip Itinerary

You can choose to do this backpack in multiple ways and you should choose what works best for you. This write-up will focus on the following itinerary, our favorite:

  1. Day One: Hike down to Indian Garden and set up camp. Enjoy Sunset at Plateau Point. Camp at Indian Gardens.
  2. Day Two: Hike down, across the colorado and Camp at Bright Angel Campground – enjoying some beers at the cantina.
  3. Day Three: Hike back up to the rim via South Kaibab Trail.

ABout the Bright Angel Trail

Your Grand Canyon backpacking trip starts off heading down The Bright Angel Trail. And when I say down, I mean dooooooown. Bright Angel is considered the park’s premier hiking trail. Well maintained, graded for stock, with regular drinking water and covered rest-houses, it is without question the safest trail in Grand Canyon National Park.

There is a ranger station located at the trail’s halfway point (Indian Garden) and one at the bottom of the canyon (Bright Angel Campground). Particularly during hot weather, it makes sense to ascend via the Bright Angel Trail because of potable water, regular shade, emergency phones, and the ranger’s presence. 

Overview of Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon

Day 1 -Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens

The earlier you start, the more time you will have to take in the views and rest up at camp. It’s not uncommon for people to start their Grand Canyon backpacking trip while it is still dark out (read: 4-5am?). Don’t worry, you won’t miss a single jaw-dropping moment!

Rock Climbing along the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon

The majority of this trail’s elevation change takes place in the upper four miles of trail. Switchbacks are the name of the gamE that can seem endless. It’s 1.6 miles (and 1131ft) down to Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse followed by 1.5 miles ( and 981ft) down to Three-Mile Resthouse. Drop the pack, refill your water and strike up a convo with fellow hikers and/or a friendly park ranger.

Camp at Indian Gardens

From here, it’s an easy jaunt down to Indian Gardens (1.7 miles / 948 ft). Set up camp and chill for a bit before strapping your camp shoes on and heading out to Plateau Point (1.5 mi each way). Bring a headlamp for your walk back to camp. Indian Gardens has bathrooms, water, picnic tables, and plenty of shade.

Day 2 – Indian Gardens to Phantom Ranch

Get an early start to your day (yes, again) and start hiking your way down towards the Colorado River. Just after leaving Indian Gardens comes one of the most brilliant sections of the trail. It follows a creek through a meandering gully of water-sculpted stone and shimmering cottonwood trees.

Lower area of Bright Angel Trail just above Devil's Corkscrew in the Grand Canyon.

Enjoy it, because next up is Devils Corkscrew – an appropriately named section of switchbacks that can be brutal in the heat. There are no water stops between Indian Gardens and Bright Angel Campground, so make sure to fill up at camp before heading out. It may be downhill, but it is completely exposed and you’re still working pretty good.

At the River Resthouse (3.2 miles and 1320ft down), there is a composting toilet. Here you can take a short walk to the edge of the river to hopefully score a sight of some boats floating by prepping for some upcoming riffles and rapids.

Suspension bridge on the Bright Angel Trail to cross the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

You’re almost at another highlight!

Dramatic Pause for a Moment of Epic.

OK, let’s get back to this Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip. Once across the bridge, it is 1.5 miles to Bright Angel Campground until you reach Phantom Ranch. When you get to Bright Angel, grab your spot, soak your feet in the creek and explore Phantom Ranch! There is a Cantina there as well as very knowledgeable rangers. Usually, they have some sort of activity planned, so check the boards and make sure to attend and mingle. 

About Phantom Ranch

Early visitors to Phantom Ranch emphasized that having a “sturdy and adventurous” constitution is necessary to make it from top to bottom to top. And while you shouldn’t expect five-star accommodations, you’ll find everything you need: hot water, hot food, fresh water, and a bed with a pillow, sheets, and blanket. It is important to remember that “sturdy and adventurous” applies to your time below as well as the journey down and up. All provisions (except water, which is piped in) are supplied by the mule trains each and every day. While hiking gear has improved since those first brave souls descended, once you begin your pilgrimage you’ll understand that getting to Phantom Ranch requires digging deep to find your reservoir of effort and grit, similar to the pioneers.

Day 3 – The Long Way Back – South Kaibab Trail

Guess what? I recommend a super early start to your final day! No surprises there.

It’s a long, grueling hike, so build in some extra time to go easy on yourself. It’s 7 miles and 4500 ft in elevation gain so pace yourself, rest often and keep ya’ head up! 

Though it’s a banger of a hike with no break in incline or intensity for 6-10 hours, depending on your pace, it’s worth every step. As the signs say, “Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory.” The way back up helps burn the respect in for one of the wonders of the world.

You can definitely do this backpack in reverse, or head back up Bright Angel Trail (the way you went down). It would add on 2 more miles, but it is not as steep as South Kaibab Trail.

Grand Canyon Backpacking Permit Info

You must have a backcountry permit in order to do this backpacking trip. All the info you need can be found on this site. You can also try your luck in the off-season by showing up to the backcountry office before it opens at 8 am. Good luck!

Campsite at Indian Gardens in the Grand Canyon

What Backpacking Gear Should You Bring?

Make sure to Download our 3 Day Backpacking Checklist. Depending on the time of year, you may need to layer up a bit more. The temperatures can range vastly from the top of the rim to the bottom. In my past adventures, I started hiking from the top bundled up in a down jacket and rain shell. Most of the trail was covered in ice. Hours later, I was stripped down to a tee-shirt and sweating as the temps raised. Expect the temperature difference to be about 20-25 degrees warmer at the River.

Below you will find a list of the gear that I took on this trip. It includes almost every piece that I had with me in my backpack. I didn’t include all of my camera gear because I find that to be specific only to me or other photographers. My backpacking photography setup is covered in full in my article series: What’s in My Bag?

3 Day Backpacking Checklist
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