North of the Zoo

Article and photos by Jack Olson

Grand Canyon Lodge offers spectacular views from large lobby windows.

Grand Canyon Lodge offers spectacular views from large lobby windows.

Many, perhaps most, of you have visited our glorious national park, Grand Canyon. If you haven’t, put this down and make a reservation now……I’m waiting. If you are like most visitors you’ve stayed at and enjoyed the South Rim. There’s lodging in and out of the park: the El Tovar at the top tier, cabins and lodges, and many motels just outside the park. You can come by car, or even train. It’s great in every way. But it’s also a zoo.

Just 10 miles as the crow flies to the north, but nearly 300 miles as the crow drives, is the more relaxed and much less crowded North Rim. The road in from Jacob Lake, Arizona, ends at the Grand Canyon Lodge, where there are a few rooms as well as nearby cabins. Camp spots are available in the lodge area and there’s a motel just outside the boundary of the park. That’s it.

If you haven’t made reservations well ahead you can still drive in some 40 miles from Jacob Lake or Kanab, Utah, another 35 miles to the north. It’s worth it.

Sunrise picks out a tower deep in Grand Canyon from Point Imperial.

Sunrise picks out a tower deep in Grand Canyon from Point Imperial.

On my second, and last, trip to the North Rim I was staying at the motel, Kaibab Lodge, on the boundary of the park. It seemed like Point Imperial would be a good place to view the sunrise and avoid the crowd at Bright Angel Point, right near the park lodging. It was a bit of a drive so I took off in the dark. You snake through the woods and there’s nothing to see anyway. So I slapped a tape of the “Grand Canyon Suite” in the player and just hummed along with the mules and the thunderstorm.

Since it was early October fewer visitors were in the park. The only other people at the viewpoint were a honeymooning couple. I’m not sure if they were happy that I showed up, but I did shoot a photo to send them. The view from Point Imperial is mainly to the east, great if there are clouds to light up but not ideal if you want to photograph what the sun is hitting. Nevertheless, I thought it was a great experience to be almost alone. I’m sure in mid-summer more people would collect there.

Cape Royal is an excellent viewpoint to scan the canyon east to west. That’s also true of Bright Angel Point, despite the crowds that gather from nearby lodging. I mean, why do you suppose they built Grand Canyon Lodge right there? And rebuilt it after it burned?

The Supai Tunnel, a good turn-around point along the North Kaibab Trail

The Supai Tunnel, a good turn-around point along the North Kaibab Trail

There are several dramatic trails along the rim. I recommend picking at least one. But the trail of renown is North Kaibab. I really suggest hiking it at least to the Supai Tunnel (4 miles round trip, and 1,350 foot vertical drop). This will give you a feel for the enclosing sandstone walls of a side canyon. Troop on farther if you want. Trek all the way to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch, if you have reservations. I have a friend who has run the Rim to Rim to Rim (south to north and back to south) in eight hours. Don’t do that.

However, something to be sure to do is take enough, and drink enough, water. You’re in the hot desert here. There are water stations along major trails into the canyon and you should fill up your water bottles each time. The Park Service also adamantly urges hikers not to hike from the rim to the bottom and back in one day. I won’t tell you who might have once happily accomplished that from the South Rim. For shame. But the Park Service knows best.

Partly because of its higher elevation and partly because the road to the North Rim runs through the dense Kaibab National Forest, facilities in the park are closed from mid-October to mid-May.

For detailed information on Grand Canyon National Park, go to: www.nps.gov/grca. For maps of the North Rim, click on Plan Your Visit, and then go down to North Rim Guide. Here you’ll find much valuable information, including roads and trails.