Bright Angel Creek runs clear and cold from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to the Colorado River. It’s a fast, boulder-strewn stream. Along its lower reach, it makes a lot of noise as it passes over the smooth, round stones lining its banks and bed. Statuesque cottonwoods grow on the edges of the creek near its juncture with the Colorado. When spring and summer winds blow up the narrow, high-walled valley of Bright Angel Creek, the dangling cottonwood leaves make a gentle rustling sound. The flapping leaves, with their silvery undersides, resemble so many butterflies trying to alight from the branches. The lower canyon of Bright Angel Creek, which is known as ‘The Box,’ is an oasis in an otherwise inhospitable land. Vegetation grows in abundance here. That vegetation in-turn attracts wildlife. Nearly tame mule deer graze the grasses growing next to the trails, while more cautious ravens perch in the high trees, waiting patiently for a fatigued hiker to inadvertently drop a scrap of food.
Since before human memory, Bright Angel Creek has carried stones and large boulders down its course to its confluence with the Colorado. The creek’s powerful flood currents pushed a mass of rock and gravel out into the channel of the Colorado, forcing the bigger river to slow down and drop its silt load. Overtime, the accumulation of boulders and silt created elevated lands above and below the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. These lands, which have formed a terrace, sit approximately 20 to 30 feet above the water line of the Colorado River. Because of its high elevation, the terrace is immune to all but the most extreme of the Colorado River’s floods. It’s atop the terrace that an array of plants have taken root. The terrace is also home to mule deer and other mammals.
Because of the presence of the flood-resistant terrace, and the resources thriving atop it, Puebloan Indians built a tiny village on the terrace just upstream from the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. The Indians occupied the site over 850 years ago. They cultivated maize in the fertile soils of the terrace; hunted game animals in the thickets and timber; drank the fresh, chilled water from Bright Angel Creek; and bathed in the creek’s invigorating waters during the hot summer months. The site’s tiny buildings faced south, enabling village residents to feel the warmth of the winter sun streaming into the stone houses from the direction of the South Rim. Also, by placing the village upstream of the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, the occupants guaranteed themselves a measure of safety from the occasional flash floods that roared down the creek. John Wesley Powell, who explored the Colorado River in 1869, was the first European-American to chronicle the presence of the small Indian village at Bright Angel.
Two known Indian trails through the Grand Canyon converge on the village site at Bright Angel. Those trails are Bright Angel and North Kaibab. Bright Angel Trail follows the right bank (facing downstream) of Garden Creek from the South Rim to the Colorado River. The North Kaibab Trail traces the left bank of Bright Angel Creek. The Puebloan village lay where those two major trails join together. Thus, the village represented a transportation hub, linking the northern and southern sections of the canyon.
In all likelihood, a ford existed at the mouth of either Bright Angel Creek or Garden Creek or both. The detritus coming down from the highlands rolled into the Colorado during flood episodes, creating shallow riffles and sandbars in the Colorado. Native Americans were then able to safely wade across the Colorado atop the riffles and bars, especially during the low water months.
The location of the two large trails, almost directly across the Colorado River from one another, indicates the existence of a symmetrical trail system within the Colorado River region. Such symmetry is displayed in other river systems throughout the American West, including the Rio Grande, Missouri, and Yellowstone. For example, within the Yellowstone basin, the Tongue River Valley, which heads in Wyoming and extends northeast to its juncture with the Yellowstone River Valley near today’s Miles City, Montana, had possessed a heavily trafficked Native American trail. Downstream from the Tongue River’s mouth, a rocky, shallow ford enabled Native American’s to cross the Yellowstone River. Once on the north bank of the Yellowstone, the Indians moved into the valley of Sunday Creek, which contained another major north-south trail.
Today, a European-American geographical system overlays the canyon’s ancient Indian geography. At the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, the Americans have built National Park Service buildings, a campground, and the lodge at Phantom Ranch. The North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails carry hundreds of hikers everyday, many who are hoping to get a glimpse of the beauty at Bright Angel Creek.