The North Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon is 1,000 feet higher and worlds apart from the more popular South Rim. I’ve been to both rims many times, and while I always enjoy the South Rim and its free shuttles from one trailhead to another, I will forever thrill to the beauty and feel of the less crowded North Rim.
It’s only 10 miles as the California condor flies from one rim to the other, but if you drive from the South Rim to the North it’ll take you all day. The drive is more than 200 miles, and they are not always fast miles. Rather hike? You can do that, but it’ll take you a few days and about two-dozen miles of strenuous foot travel.
I enjoy both methods for getting from one rim to the other. Twice I have hiked rim-to-rim. But I had spent only one night on the North Rim until my husband, Mike, and I decided to spend several days exploring this fascinating place. We arrived on a chilly summer day and were excited by the sight of fresh snow along the roadway. It was raining as we pulled into the North Rim Campground, but the rain soon diminished and we had plenty of sunshine to enjoy hiking the trails and exploring the area’s beauty.
The North Rim and the South Rim are very different. The North Rim rests on the edge of the Kaibab Plateau, a place blessed with lush, green meadows, wonderful forests of spruce, fir, pine and aspen, and the rare and endemic Kaibab squirrel. The Kaibab squirrel is a gorgeous, furry mammal with a dark body, a long, white tail, and tufts on its ears. It’s found only on the Kaibab Plateau, while its close relative, another tassel-eared squirrel, the Abert’s squirrel, resides on the South Rim and other areas of the Southwest.
In addition to squirrels and chipmunks, visitors may see deer, mountain lions, coyotes, turkeys and birds ranging in size from tiny hummingbirds to giant California condors. Rare and endangered condors are a wonder to watch as they soar on nine-foot-plus wings. More than 70 condors live in or around the park.
While at the North Rim, be sure to admire the Grand Canyon Lodge. It was built in 1937, and replaced the original lodge, which burned down. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Grand Canyon Lodge is a special place, with enormous ponderosa pine beams and massive limestone facade. When you visit, walk through the front entrance and keep right on moving down the stairs to the Sun Room for a gorgeous view of the canyon. While you’re at the lodge, you’ll want to eat at least one meal in the dining room. Breakfast and lunch are served daily (and both include a buffet) and dinner is awesome. Be sure to make reservations well ahead of time; they are required, and the dining room books up quickly.
Near the lodge, travelers will find a visitor center, gift shop, deli, saloon/coffee shop, lodging facilities and a number of short walks leading to more views of the Grand Canyon.
There are several trails that offer wonderful views. One begins at the Grand Canyon Lodge and leads to Bright Angel Point, a terrific place to enjoy sunrise and sunset. The trail has a couple of steep areas, but it’s just half-a-mile round trip, and there’s plenty to see along the knife-edge ridge, including a couple of old, twisted and gnarly trees. Look for a 600-year-old juniper, and an equally ancient-looking pinon pine.
While the view from Bright Angel Point is extraordinary, there are more views to be had. Paved roads lead to two not-to-be-missed viewpoints. The road to Point Imperial and Cape Royal north of the campground is not recommended for vehicles over 30 feet. It’s a narrow, winding road, better left to smaller motorhomes and dinghy vehicles. To get there, drive north from the campground on the main road that you came in on, but turn right or northeast at the junction. A sign points the way. From here it is three miles to Point Imperial and 15 miles to Cape Royal. Along the way, you’ll pass meadows and a forest of aspens and evergreens
At 8,803 feet, Point Imperial is the highest canyon overlook on the North Rim. It’s a short walk to the viewpoint at Point Imperial and a magnificent view of Mount Hayden and a distant view to the Painted Desert. If it’s a very clear day, you might see the Henry Mountains in Utah.
The road to Cape Royal is interesting because you can park and walk to a number of viewpoints. En route we stopped at Greenland Lake, a sinkhole that sometimes holds water, although it was dry the day we were there. A sign pointed the way to Salt Cabin, so off we went to investigate. One visitor we encountered said that the cabin looked like a Lincoln Log cabin to him.
One of our favorite hikes was the two-mile trail to Cape Final, where we saw five Kaibab squirrels. Seeing the squirrels, and managing to get a picture of one, made our day. The views of the canyon are magnificent from Cape Final. We even found a treasure growing on the edge of the rim—a fern bush called tansy bush or desert sweet.
En route to the end of the road at Cape Royal, we walked up an unmaintained trail for a view of Angels Window, a “window” eroded into the Kaibab limestone. We also explored and learned about the amazing ruins and prehistoric life at Walhalla Glades.
Walhalla Plateau is a “peninsula” bounded on three sides by the Grand Canyon. Nine hundred years ago, prehistoric Indians—the Kayenta Ancestral Puebloans—lived on the plateau in the summer months, growing beans, corn and squash. They hunted in the forests, but spent winters below the rim on Unkar Delta along the Colorado River. They also farmed on the delta, which you can see from the viewpoint and parking area for Walhalla Glades. Fifty-two Ancestral Puebloan sites have been discovered on the delta; 10 were completely excavated. Findings included tools for hunting, woodworking and agriculture. The ruins seen on the plateau today are only a fraction of the more than 100 farm sites that Archaeologists have discovered here. The sites were occupied in the 100 years between 1050 and 1150. Researchers believe the Ancestral Puebloans left the area in about 1150, possibly due to a decline in rain that reduced crop yields.
We grilled some burgers at the picnic area at Cape Royal and marveled at the quiet spot where couples often marry. On the short walk to Cape Royal we took a side trail to a point above Angels Window. The area was fenced in, perfectly safe and allowed for magnificent views. We continued our walk on the flat, paved trail, to the edge of the Walhalla Plateau. From trail’s end we watched the sunset, along with a turkey vulture that was soaring over the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
IF YOU GO:
While the South Rim is open year-round, the North Rim has a short season. Lodging and food services are open from May 15 to October 15. The park is open for day use through December 1 or until snow closes Highway 67. The website address is nps.gov/grca.
The North Rim Campground has 83 sites, potable water, showers, restrooms and a dump station, but no hookups. Campsites are $18 to $25 a night. Reservations for May 15 to Oct. 15 can be made at (877) 444-6777 or at recreation.gov. The campground is open on a first-come, first served basis October 16-31.
If the North Rim Campground is full, another option is the U.S. Forest Service’s Demotte Campground, which is 16 miles north. It has 38 campsites for tents, trailers and small motorhomes, but no utility hookups. Half the campground is first-come, first-served; half is reserved (recreation.gov). Site are $18 per night. If you want a full hookup site, you’ll have to travel 45 miles north to the private Kaibab Camper Village (Kaibabcampervillage.com).Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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