Wednesday, 14 September 2022, North Rim
Our hotel arranged a breakfast discount at Denny's - sorry, but I declined to risk my recovery there. Instead, with clouds covering the sky, we headed south to Arizona. Along the way, we found breakfast at a delightful café packed with locals in Hurricane UT. Now: time for the Grand Canyon!
I had first seen this laceration in the landscape at age 16, on a family vacation en route to Disneyland. I revisited this notable park several times in the fifteen years I lived in southern California, often while driving back to Colorado for the holidays. Each season at the rim offered its own mystique, its own character.
Each of those visits had been to the South Rim.
The North Rim - 1200' higher and more forested - had intrigued me for years. When I took on this challenge, I quickly wrote in 'North Rim' for this park. Once I found out that it lay over 200 road-miles from Flagstaff AZ and the South Rim, but only 125 miles miles from Hurricane, I scheduled it with the Utah parks. Now came the burning question: did I have unreasonable expectations for the majesty of the North Rim?
We entered the Arizona Strip at Colorado City. The Grand Canyon separated this section of land from the rest of our 48th state, with no easy access between them. Silly, straight-line political divisions like 'state boundaries' meant little in this wide-open, lightly-populated terrain.
The highway took us east and south across the Kaibab Plateau, slowly gaining elevation. The Forest Service managed much of the land, with only two small towns breaking up the expanse. They provided a rest stop at Le Fevre Overlook, a knoll from which you could gaze on the panorama of the Grand Staircase:
from the north, the Pink Cliffs (Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks), Gray Cliffs, White Cliffs (Zion), Vermillion Cliffs (Pipe Spring NM), and Chocolate Cliffs. Unfortunately, the steely gray, overcast skies muted any colors in the scene.
Soon the scrubby desert scenery lost out to alpine vegetation. At Jacob Lake (8000' elevation, 4800' higher than Hurricane), we turned off US89A onto AZ67, the only paved road to the North Rim. We now drove for miles through a wide meadow (a quarter-mile wide or more) with Ponderosa pines covering the ridge on either side of the road.
I remarked to Bill that it almost looked foreign, like a slice of Sweden, or Norway.
Entering the park, we stopped at the admin offices to meet Rangers Jesse and Lauren. When I'd called the park about giving my 60-Ways talk there, Jesse said the park had a perfect outlet for me. Every day at 3:30 at the Bright Angel Amphitheater, they hold a talk - often, a ranger interviewing a member of the community. Tomorrow, Lauren would interview me (they'd already sent me the proposed questions). Today, I got to meet them, to give a green light to the show.
Due to its remoteness, the North Rim gets far fewer visitors than the south. However, the South Rim spreads out with several lodges, museums, and more, whereas northern tourists have only the Grand Canyon Lodge at which to congregate.
Even so, it didn't feel crowded. We wandered through the Lodge, perched on the edge of the abyss, and headed out on the short, paved Bright Angel Trail.
The last remnants of Tropical Storm Kay swirled through the canyons. To the left, clouds totally obscured Roaring Springs Canyon.
Then I rounded a bend, and the Transept appeared on my right: canyons, clouds, and light combined in an ethereal dance, illuminating and veiling the land moment by moment.
I watched as the clouds rose up on one side and passed overhead.
The scene changed back and forth as I stood, spellbound. Occasionally the cloud bank would part, allowing sunlight to stream in, before closing again.
The magic continued as I proceeded to the end of the trail.
For a brief time the clouds rose, revealing the myriad of canyons below.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I called Sue to check in. "I've had a miserable few days," I reminded her, "but today made it all worthwhile. This place is nothing shy of incredible!"
Back in the Lodge, I stopped by the desk where they handled the mule rides. An elderly man sat there, effecting an attitude of 'I don't take no guff.' (On the wall behind him, he'd mounted a cartoon of Foghorn Leghorn saying, "Boy, I say, Boy! You are about to exceed the limitations of my medication.")
"I'm here to check in for tomorrow morning's mule ride. Two of us, name is Hanket."
He never smiled. "Paying together or separately?"
"Separately." I handed him my credit card, and he gruffly ran it through. "We got rules: only one camera or binoculars allowed per person. No backpacks. No water bottles; we provide water. No sandals or flip-flops. Here are the other details," he said as he pushed our tickets and a list of restrictions my way. "You can cancel until tomorrow morning, but if you don't show up, I'll sell your mule to someone else!" Given his demeanor, I nicknamed him Crusty.
We had hours left before we could get our cabin, so we headed to the scenic drive. This road ran over twenty miles from the Lodge, visiting several viewpoints into the maze of canyons. First came Point Imperial, the highest point in the park (8803'), near the northern park boundary. This marks the eastern end of Grand Canyon, with views across of the Painted Desert.
Next up is Vista Encantada, touted as a great place for a picnic beneath the Ponderosa pines.
From Walhalla Overlook, you can see the Echo Cliffs and the Painted Desert (on clear days) across the gap.
Cape Royal sits at the end of the road, offering some of the only North Rim views of the Colorado River.
A short, flat, paved trail 'leads to several spectacular viewpoints.' One large outcropping is known as 'Vishnu Temple'.
(In the early seconds of the video below, you can see the Colorado River.)
The trees on the rim provide mute testimony to the harsh climate there.
We stopped at each of the pullouts, admiring the views. The weather turned truculent, spitting rain at times, sending out a chilly wind - Kay's dying blasts. We endured it, reveling in the magnificent scenery.
On the way back, we stopped at the 'Greenland Lake' pullout. The trail led into a meadow and ended shortly at a cabin.
Googling this later, I discovered it was an intermittent lake, and it had disappeared for the season. Given the on-and-off rain and the overgrown trail, our shoes and pant-legs were soaked by the time we finished.
Back to the Lodge, to finally get the keys to the cabin. (Crusty still sat at his desk, looking with indifference at the crowds moving by.) Our cabin had a comfortable charm to it: cozy and clean, two beds, a bathroom, electricity. Despite the magnificence of the day, though, I knew we were not 'home on the range'. These skies were cloudy all day, and we heard a discouraging word when we tried to reserve a table in the Lodge's restaurant. "I'm sorry, we're overbooked for dinner tonight. You can check to see if anyone has cancelled."
That caught me by surprise. "Well, can we reserve a table for tomorrow?"
"Sorry, it's booked also. We're booked until the end of the season, have been for months. Most people make a reservation when they book their rooms."
At least we had an alternative. The deli offered slices of pizza, sandwiches, and more. Our meals both nights were delicious, with prices affordable. The other discordant notes came from the notice that the rim had no Wi-Fi, and later when the roof in our cabin sprouted a leak. To their credit, the Lodge immediately sent help, and he managed to staunch the leak. Luckily, the room had a heater, and we draped our wet shoes and pants near it to dry them before tomorrow's morning with the mules.
So glad to see that the trip has finally turned around!