I slept in the back of my car last night, listening to huge raindrops slapping the sunroof, and I still had a fantastic time on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Visiting the Grand Canyon, one of 23 UNESCO sights in the U.S., is all about seeing fantastic views and witnessing the incredible force of nature at work. Only 10% percent of the people who visit the Grand Canyon come to the north rim. So being here is about having hiking trails to myself; about being in nature with the only sounds heard being the wind, birds, squirrels and some scurrying unknowns through the underbrush. Except for perhaps 100 visitors around the North Rim’s Visitor Center, being here is like having the entire Grand Canyon to myself. It’s a marvelous feeling. It’s about nature’s shapes, colors and sizes on a Grand scale. It definitely is not for the acrophobic.
I arrived at site #44 at Jacob Lake Campgrounds, set up my little tent, put out my chair, lit a fire and opened a beer within minutes of arrival. I’m under tall pines and a gentle breeze pushes the treetops as the sun slips down the horizon and bats come out to feed. My one-burner Coleman is set up for my morning coffee pot – just unzip the tent, reach out to light the Coleman, heat the water and enjoy coffee in bed. My only missing desire is the password to my neighbor’s Wifi. For that I am jealous.
The stars are incredible. The Milky Way passes directly overhead, the only obstruction being the pines. Using my iPad’s Skyview App, I trace the constellations and planets. Alas, not all is perfect. There is traffic on the nearby street and even though I can see a sign for 35mph, only in my dreams do those huge trucks drive that slowly.
For my first day, I strikeout like the most intrepid of modern explorette. My backpack is stocked with nuts ‘n berries, an apple, an unhealthy sandwich, plenty of water, my iPad and iPhone. Always a camera. Lots of sunscreen. I grab a pine walking stick, left by some previous great explorer, and locate my trail.
I choose the Widforss Trail – a 10-mile round-trip that’s considered “moderate.” For me who constantly walks but at sea level, parts of the trail are a challenge. The altitude along the north rim ranges from 7800 to 8800 feet. The up-and-down aspect of the sometimes rocky trail tests my legs and fortitude. The trail winds for over 5 miles through a blend of forest and canyons along the rim. Beautiful strolls through meadows, pines and wildflowers eventually lead to a 7800′ promontory with incredible views of the Bright Angel Canyon and The Transept. The weather is warm with a slight breeze, the sun is bright and little haze mars the view.
I return the way I came, through the meadows, up-and-down the same rocky canyons and under the giant Ponderosa Pines. I see no other person on the trail and am happy to not have seen any grumpy rattlesnakes or Blue Grouse. I listen to the sounds of nature and the plodding of my feet, the calls of birds are practically drowned out by the screaming of my muscles and panting of breath. This intrepid explorette is “dragging her wagon.” And my “hat hair” would fell a California Condor.
Being a glutton for punishment and not listening to my aching body, I drive to the North Rim Visitor Center, inundated with people – at least 100, including two from San Luis Obispo. I see cars from at least 20 states. I push myself to walk the short half-mile to Bright Angel Point. The walk is paved, the views of the South Rim and across the Transept to Widforss Point are exceptional. I climb and gasp back up the path, grab some free ice from the machine and head home with visions of a cold beer dancing in my head.
The herd of about 100 bison, feeding and fighting in the meadow this morning, now stroll across the road for the proverbial greener grass on the other side, prolonging the quenching of my thirst. The bison were introduced to the Grand Canyon by Buffalo Jones who brought them from Yellowstone National Park in 1906 but not with the idea of making the park any better – his idea was to crossbreed bison with cows to produce lean and tender meat. His venture failed and the surviving offspring are a picturesque addition to the meadows. During the 40-mile drive to Jacob Lake, I enjoy the fall colors of yellow and orange just beginning to appear.
I take a short detour to the De Motte Campgrounds, a few miles from the park entrance. If I camp here again, this is where I would choose to stay. The campground within the park may be more convenient but it is also more crowded. De Motte is near a huge meadow, a good general store with the cheapest gas in the area, and, best of all, much quieter than Jacob Lake. All three campgrounds are part of the federal park system, cost $9 a night for senior pass holders, and can be booked online.
In the evening, it cools, the breezes are warm and soft. The altitude at Jacob Lake is over 7900′ so I prepare my sleeping bag and morning coffee, take a couple of Ibuprofen, and snuggle in for a star-filled night. Morning temperatures will drop to 48°.
After breakfast, I drive the 20-mile Cape Royal Road stopping at each Vista turnout. Most of this drive is above 8000 feet, allowing for magnificent views of the canyon and vistas toward the north and southeast. Every opportunity, I hike the trails, including the short but awesome Roosevelt Point where I am sure Teddy stood in 1903 when he indicated his intention to preserve this as one of America’s most unique natural sites.
The one-mile Cliff Springs Trail meanders down a small forested ravine to a cliff of overhanging rock. The only sound is that of dripping water while moss and flowers grow from the cliff face. I scramble beneath the overhang and enjoy the rock formations, colorations of reds, and solitude.
Cape Royal is an easy walk offering beautiful views. Angels Window, another exposed rocky outcropping, allows clear views of the Southern rim with the Colorado River far below. Picnic tables nearby allow for a peaceful lunch with nothing but the sound of the birds and wind in the pines.
After lunch, I drive to Cape Final Trail, a five-mile relatively easy hike that passes through the forest and along a dirt trail up to 7900′ Cape Final. If brave enough to climb the rocky promontory, exposed and jutting over a mile of thin air, one is rewarded with incredible views of the canyon. Miles to the north are the Vermilion Cliff, endless vistas of sculptured rocks, interesting erosional landscapes, and the magnificent colors of what is referred to as the Painted Desert.
Of course, I am standing exposed on top of a huge barren rock with nothing between me and nature many thousands of feet straight down to the canyon floor. It is the stuff of nightmares as I note there are no safety rails; these are sloping surfaces, lots of loose pebbles and shale exist – all reasons for the acrophobic never to climb to the top of any trail on the North Rim.
A thunder storm approaches and I see rain toward the south and hear the thunder rolling through the canyon – the sign for visitors to get off the rim. The tall trees along the rim are a favorite target of the some 26,000 strikes per year around the canyon. People are also a favorite target. I hustle to return to my car before the storm arrives.
The drive to 8800′ Port Imperial is in intermittent rain, some lightening is seen. Thunder seems to rumble and echo about the canyon walls. Far across the canyon, toward the Vermilion Cliffs, I can see the northern route I will drive tomorrow. I wish I could admire the view longer but rain and the approaching storm threatens to toast tourists.
Lightening flashes across the sky and rain pelts my windshield. I acknowledge the error of my camping naïveté remembering I didn’t put the top on my tent and I know that if it’s raining like this at Jacob Lake, my tent may be a pool when I get home.
Which brings me to sleeping on the back seat of my car. The pitty-pat of raindrops were not a problem as I snuggled down for a dry and cozy night, visions of canyon views and Vermilion Cliffs dancing in my head.