You don’t really know the Grand Canyon in Arizona until you’ve explored its uncrowded, unforgettable North Rim
The last leg to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a 44-miledrive on Arizona’s State 67 that passes through forests ofponderosa pine. It runs along rolling meadows that in spring fillwith shallow lakes, where herds of mule deer dissolve into themorning mists.
Beautiful as it is, this highway made me crazy some 10 yearsago.
I was impatient because the North Rim represented both the endof a long day on the road and a culmination of a more profoundkind. Like most Americans, I grew up with the Grand Canyon. But,long past a childhood of clicking through reels of View-Masterimages, I had never actually visited.
In contrast, my Canyonhead friend had made 30 trips here. Hesensed a rare opportunity: Not only could he introduce me to theGrand Canyon, he could do so at the North Rim. Higher, lusher, andless crowded than the South Rim, the North Rim is the connoisseur’scanyon.
We reached a remote point, and he told me to do the unthinkableand nearly impossible: “Okay, don’t look.”
When I finally opened my eyes, there it was: the Grand Canyon.Sort of. I was surprised to be looking through a stand of pines outat tree-studded mesas, not the arid, red plateaus of my imaginings.I tried to take it all in, then declared, “That’s not what Ithought the Grand Canyon would look like.”
“You got it,” he said. “Welcome to the North Rim.”
Though just a 10-mile cross-canyon glide from the South Rim forthe local condors, the North Rim is much farther away for the restof us: a full 215 miles by road. The North Rim is in fact closer toZion National Park across the state line in Utah than it is toGrand Canyon park headquarters. The comparative remoteness ―and the heavy snows that limit its season to mid-May throughOctober ― keeps the number of visitors down.
Whether you’re a first-timer or have visited 100 times, theNorth Rim is never anything less than a revelation. And so, adecade after that first glimpse, we’re back again.
Exploring the rim
No two trips are the same and this one is different even beforewe reach the North Rim. State 67 has been completely transformed.In the summer of 2006, the Warm Fire burned through 58,568 acresand portions of the once-dense forest are now black.
But at the Grand Canyon Lodge, the center of North Rim life,it’s a mellow afternoon. Visitors rock slowly in the shade of cabinporches, while others gather in the main building’s sunroom,peering out into the canyon from this soaring space of limestonewalls and timbered ceilings. Beyond it, the lodge’s veranda isfilled with laughing hikers toasting their completion of thedaunting 23-mile rim-to-rim hike, while new arrivals gaze out, toostunned by the view to say much of anything.
With the skies promising a major sunset, we head to one of therim’s best viewpoints, Cape Royal. To reach Cape Royal, you drive23 miles, mostly out along the Walhalla Plateau, until there’s noroad left to drive. The view takes in an array of stone monolithsnamed for figures of antiquity: Apollo, Vishnu, and, mostprominently, the curving rampart of Wotans Throne. Truth be told,it looks more like Wotans Settee, assuming the Norse god of warwould ever settle into such an angle of repose.
The towers and temples pick up the last light through thebreaking clouds, the rocks’ reds deepening within the violet fogthat fills the chasm. Lightning flashes along the horizon, whileWotans floats off the edge like an island and the South Rim fadesinto the darkness: a distant shore. It’s curious that a few canyonoverlooks are designated as capes rather than points. But certainlytonight Cape Royal is the ideal name for a purple place seeminglyat the far edge of the world.
It’s easy to spend a North Rim visit hiking through its forestsand along the scalloped edges of the eroded plateau. But that’slike spending a day at the beach without ever getting into thewaves, and so we take the part-trek, part-plunge down the NorthKaibab Trail. Once we set off, we go down and down and down anddon’t stop going down until we reach the Colorado River: 5,750 feetbelow and 14 miles distant from the rim ― a hike throughroughly 2 billion years of geology that is the climatic equivalentof going from Hudson Bay to Mexico. And then back up.
Yes, it’s a lot to cover in one day.
There’s no need to go all the way down; in fact, the NationalPark Service strongly advises against it. But beware. Even quickwalks can turn into longer hikes because it’s almost impossible tofight either gravity or the urge to go around one more corner. Justto see what’s there.
What’s there in the first stretch is the mountain forest thatgives the North Rim its character. As you descend, Kaibabsquirrels, an endemic species with tufted ears and distinctiveall-white tails, chatter from the trees. Deep green stands ofponderosa pine and white fir heighten the color of the golds,whites, and reds of the rim’s banded rock layers.
Massive as the drainage seems, Roaring Springs Canyon isactually a side canyon of Bright Angel Canyon, which is itself aside canyon of Granite Gorge, where the Colorado River runs.
While Supai Tunnel makes the best turnaround spot forday-hikers, some push on to the cascade that gave Roaring SpringsCanyon its name. There’s enough water here to supply both rims― and frequently a pitcher of lemonade as well. Providingwater to people at the rims was the work of Bruce Aiken, an artistwho operated the pump station here from 1972 through 2005. Youmight suppose that living in the Grand Canyon would be a solitaryexperience. But, as Aiken puts it, “The North Kaibab Trail broughtme the world every day.”
He saw a parade of humanity ― Germans and Sri Lankans,Czechs and Syrians ― all drawn to one of the world’smagnificent places. Many visitors get hooked, and what begins as aonce-in-a-lifetime trip ends up a lifelong obsession. Aiken knowsjust what that experience is like. The canyon took hold of himafter his first visit, and he jumped at the chance to run the pumpstation and the opportunity it gave to paint here. Then he waited afew years before he felt he had enough understanding to try toportray the canyon.
“It’s a difficult subject. Huge, intimidating, and beautiful,”he says. “The canyon is a nude of the earth. It shows the layers,the bones underneath the skin ― what’s beneath the vegetationthat covers the rest of the world.”
Aiken completed hundreds of works and raised his family in thecanyon as well. He appreciates the unique life the canyonprovided.
“I remember getting an email from a guy in Boston, who wrote,’Bruce. I’m here at my office looking over this bleak landscape.Tell me something good.’
“So I wrote him back: ‘The sun is breaking over TapeatsSandstone. A canyon wren is singing and Bright Angel Creek isflowing.’ An hour later, he sends another email to me: ‘Thank youthank you thank you. You made my day.’ “
The trek to Toroweap
After returning to the rim, we head out early the next day forToroweap, a remote viewpoint and primitive campground. Althoughstill part of the park, Toroweap is separated from the North Rim’smain area and is 60 miles by dirt road from State 389. While theSouth Rim gets 4 million visitors annually and the North Rim400,000, maybe 10,000 ever reach this spot.
Toroweap justifies the effort by delivering one of the grandestof Grand Canyon perspectives. At 4,600 feet, Toroweap isconsiderably lower and hotter than both rims. What it lacks inelevation it makes up for with sheer verticality. Rather than 10miles wide, the canyon narrows here to less than a mile across.Walk to the edge, and give or take a ledge or two, it’s a3,000-foot drop to a Colorado River splashdown.
If the approach to the North Rim is a stately, woodedprocessional, the final run to Toroweap is a dusty, bouncy, shake,rattle, and two-hour-plus roll through open expanses of juniper andsagebrush. We make the trip as often as we can when visiting theNorth Rim, always with the goal of snagging a campsite with aview.
Toroweap is isolated enough that among its joys is seeing whoelse shows up, then marveling at the cosmic circumstance thatdelivered everyone to this spot on precisely this day. As it turnsout, our temporary village has a unique demographic: two landscapephotographers (one of them my friend the Canyonhead), a pair ofretired B-52 pilots, and me.
We do the things you do at Toroweap, which is to say not much atall: hikes along the ledges and waits along outcrops to watch thepassage of rafts through one of the Colorado’s most fabled rapids,Lava Falls; solitary moments watching the light repaint the greatcliffs that surround us; and raucous, beer-fueled conversationsaround the campfire.
Sleeping under the stars, I think back to previous North Rimvisits. Of scanning the skies as a condor soared in the distance,appearing at first as a distant speck before swooping directlyoverhead, its great 9½-foot wingspan briefly blotting out thesun. Hiking through aspen groves still dusted with snow as thetrees’ new leaves emerge in spring, then coming back in fall to seethose same groves blaze with autumn’s reds and oranges. Watchingthe approach of the summer monsoons, and bundling up on the KaibabPlateau as the first snows of winter arrive.
The next morning, after packing, I walk to the edge and watch asa pair of ravens do a crazy diving dance just beyond the rim, theair whistling through their feathers. Far below, the Coloradorushes through Lava Falls with a whisper instead of a roar.
Long ago, I gave up any serious attempt at photographing eitherthe North Rim or Toroweap. You can try, but as Theodore Rooseveltdescribed the view from the North Rim, “Every tremendous detailleaped in glory to the sight; yet in hue and shape the change wasunceasing from moment to moment.” Who knew that hundreds of milesof rock could be a moving target?
The Canyonhead finally finds me and, exercising the driver’sprerogative, declares, “Time to move.” But that’s not so easy todo. “Give me a second. I just want to take one more look.”