Bright Angel of Death

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Optional. The Bright Angel Trail winds through the bottom of a canyon, eventually meeting the Plateau Point Trail in the distance, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 70mm, 1/180 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64.

Despite the fact that I lived in Arizona for 29 years, I have only been to the Grand Canyon three or four times. In my defense, it is about a six-and-a-half hour drive to get there from Tucson. In many ways, the Grand Canyon is a difficult place to photograph just because it is so mind-bogglingly epic that it is hard to do it justice. My personal preference when photographing big cliffs is to be somewhat level with them rather than at the top or at the base. (In this regard, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a nightmare to photograph…a topic for a different post!) Fortunately, there are some good trails at the Grand Canyon that wind their way down and provide plenty of photographic opportunities. On the Bright Angel Trail—undoubtedly the most popular—there are even a few rest houses with water and restrooms; if you look carefully in the image above, you can see one in the lower right. Unfortunately, there is no easy way back up.

In the spring of 2017, I hiked down to Plateau Point with my daughter and one of her friends. The Plateau Point Trail—visible in the upper left of the image above—splits off of the Bright Angel Trail. Two of my friends were also on the hike and they continued down the Bright Angel Trail to the river before returning (a harder hike than mine and they suffered for it). But having done this hike once, I talked my wife into doing it with me in October of 2020, when I took the pictures in this post.

The next image, taken somewhere on the descent, but looking back the way we had come, gives a good look at what much of the trail is like working down the cliff. The trail is wide and amazingly well-maintained—it is the most popular trail in one of the most popular natural wonders in the world, after all—but there is a lot of it. The bad thing about this trail, of course, is that you go down first and it’s easy. As the posted sign at the top says, “Going down is optional. Coming up is mandatory.”

I clearly was in better shape in 2017 than in 2020, because this second ascent was pretty rough. Despite drinking lots of water, we still ended up a bit on the dehydrated side which is not a good thing. Early in the ascent I was doing better than Susan, so I helped her out by carrying her (not very large) backpack. That, however, took its toll and late in the ascent she had recovered and I was the one that was struggling. Fortunately, stopping to rest for a while did wonders and no one had to strap my carcass to a mule to haul me out. One thing to keep in mind when hiking the canyon is that the rim is much cooler than down in the canyon, which on this day was a good thing. My two hikes were in April and October, which are probably the best months. In the summer once you get down in the canyon it will be very hot; in the winter, the rim can have snow.

Mandatory. The Bright Angel Trail ascends towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S at 38mm, 1/40 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64.

Once down on the plateau, looking back towards the south rim, the cliffs were beautiful below an amazing sky:

Cliff and Clouds. Cumulus clouds spread over the cliffs of the south wall of the Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64.

There are trails that go both directions along this plateau, following the canyon upstream and downstream. I’m not a backpacker, but if I was these would be amazing trails to explore. If I do this hike again I will probably go one way or the other for a mile or two rather than out to the point.

The next image is the view across the plateau over the inner gorge (out of sight) towards the north side of the canyon. One of the things that makes the Grand Canyon special is the way it is always changing with the light and the weather. It can be so colorful.

The Far Side. Trees line Garden Creek as it descends towards the Colorado River with the north side of the Grand Canyon in the background, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64, three-shot panorama.

After our hike, we stayed another day and I took some (less grueling) images from the canyon rim. On this day, smoke had blown in from a wildfire somewhere and the clear air of yesterday was a memory. Even with the smoke, the colors are amazing in the late afternoon, although they took a little post-processing persuasion. There is no denying, however, the sense of depth in this photograph.

Grand Smokies. The setting sun tries to cut through the smoke from distant wildfires that blankets the Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR 1/60 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64.

For this next image the cliffs were closer and I was looking further away from the sun, so the smoky haze was not as prominent. Like the previous image, this one was taken with a telephoto lens to isolate a (still massive) piece of the massive landscape. I find longer lenses easier to work with from the canyon rim. Unless there are massive thunderheads or something like that to provide interest in the top half of the frame, it is hard to pull off a wide-angle view even though it seems like the right thing to do.

Butte Full. The setting sun bathes a series of cliffs in magenta light at the Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Nikon Z7 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR 1/45 sec, f/8.0, ISO 64.

The Grand Canyon is challenging both physically and photographically. Artistically, I think the primary source of the challenge is that the best compositions are when you hike down into the canyon, but the best light and drama comes from crazy thunderstorms. But you only want one of those things at a time, because combining them is a good way to die.

It was fun to put this post together and, despite the challenges, I remember the trip fondly. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I look forward to going back. But next time I want to explore the north rim.

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4 responses to “Bright Angel of Death”

  1. These might be some of my favorites! Good thing you didn’t get decoyed on all the clouds… 😉

  2. Sounds like pretty tough going even for someone like you who thinks nothing of carrying heavy equipment all day!

    Like Grand Smokies for the layers and Butte Full (!) for the alignments.

    Have you ever tried the helicopter options, or do they not interest you?

    • Rest assured that I did not bring a lot with me on the hike! Two lenses, both small! You can do helicopter tours over different parts of the canyon but not in that immediate area. I don’t know…it’s an unforgiving area to fly and tour operators don’t have the best safety track record so I feel a little squeamish about it to be honest. I think I would rather do one of the photographically-oriented rafting trips…that would be a trip of a lifetime in my mind. Interesting that you liked the images taken from the rim!

      Thanks for commenting!