Last Updated on January 24, 2020 by Janet Frost
Happy Birthday Grand Canyon National Park!! February 26, 1919 the United States Congress added the Grand Canyon to the fledgling National Park System. The Grand Canyon stretches for 277 river miles along the Colorado River. At its widest spot the Grand Canyon is 18 miles across and a full mile deep. The majority of the 6 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon NP remain on the rims of the chasm. There are three main rim access points. The most popular and oldest South Rim, the second most popular but youngest West Rim and the quiet and rustic North Rim. We decided to celebrate the Grand Canyon Centennial birthday on the North Rim.
Let’s Go Learn Things about the Grand Canyon North Rim…
Grand Canyon History
Native American Dwellers
As with all of the Americas, the first dwellers in the Grand Canyon region were indigenous. These tribes lived here centuries before any European American explorers arrived. In the later centuries, it was the Pai people that European Americans encountered as they entered the Canyon. The Pai were split into smaller subgroups and clans throughout the Kaibab Plateau. They all moved between the upper flat plateau during the winter months and deep into the canyons for the warm growing season.
As the European Americans started pushing their way into the region in mid-19th century, the Havasupai and the Hualapai recognized them as invaders. A war of raiding and retaliation, similar to what was happening all across the plains, ensued. At the time of the Grand Canyon National Park designation, the two tribes were “controlled” and restricted to reservations. While these areas were still within their original homelands, they were certainly a fraction of the land mass the tribes considered home. Today the Havasupai reservation covers 188,000 acres of the plateau and a few deep spectacular canyons and waterfalls in the southwest region of the Havasu Canyon. The Hualapai reservation, further southwest, covers a million acres along 110 miles of the Colorado River.
European American Pioneers
Adventurous and hearty pioneers first started to venture into the Grand Canyon in the mid-19th century. Explorer, Major John Wesley Powell, surveying for the U.S. Army, took on the challenge of riding the length of the Colorado River in 1868. After this record breaking exploration a few couragous souls started to trickle onto the rim and into the canyon. Prospectors hoping to hit the mother lode scrabbled through the canyons. Mormon settlers moving south from Salt Lake City set up small communities and a few forward thinking entrepeneurs recognized the future of toursim in the awe-inspiring region. Eventally the railroads joined the fray with their transcontinental tracks running through nearby towns such as Winslow, Williams and Flagstaff.
Over time, tourism proved to be the most promising enterprise in the rugged, unforgiving canyon. The small entrepeneurs were slowly replaced by larger corporate interests. Fortunately, there was an early environmentalist faction growing in the country at the turn of the century. The extensive Kaibab Plateau and the Grand Canyon within, were set aside as protected National Forest Land in 1893. In 1916 U.S. Congress created the National Park Service and in 1919 the Grand Canyon was placed under the auspices of the new National Park Service. At the time there were several existing buildings and facilities on the South Rim, a handful of trail guide businesses, and a remote lodge on the North Rim.
Learn More: You can visit the Grand Canyon from three main areas.
From the South Rim Grand Canyon Village
From the West Rim Havasupai Reservation gives access to Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls and Navajo Falls. These are spectacular waterfalls in the backcountry that require rigorous hikes to reach.
Hualapai Reservation owns the modern and very popular Skywalk, a glass platform that extends out over the rim. **Note** The West Rim does not honor your NPS pass.
Geology of the Grand Canyon
Seventy million years ago the Rocky Mountain Range started to form. The North American Plate pushed up over the Pacific Plate. A section of what is now Northern Arizona, Eastern Utah and Western Colorado formed the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau moved from sea level to thousands of feet of elevation. Eventully the powerful Colorado River and its tributaries eroded the softer layers into deep canyons. This process left the entire Grand Canyon supporting five different climate zones. These zones are:
- Riparian climate at the deep base where the Colorado River and its tributaries teem with plant and animal life nourished by the precious water.
- Desert climate at the lower elevations actually exhibit life found in three of the four desert climate zones of North America. With mesquite trees of the Sonoran, black-brush of the Great Basin and joshua tress of the Mojave.
- Dwarf Forest climate covers most of the mid-elevations. You will find scrubby pinyon and juniper pines that are experts at conserving water.
- Ponderosa Pine Forest climate supports a more diverse plant and animal life with its deeper soil and more rainfall. This climate zone is found at the highest elevation of the South Rim and on some of the table-top plateuas of the North Rim.
- Mixed Conifer Forest climate zone is unique to the North Rim. This wettest zone is lush with fir, spruce, and aspen. It flourishes with mule deer, wild turkeys, bison and their very own version of Kaibab squirrels.
North Rim Elevation
The North Rim is 8000 ft elevation, 1000 ft higher than the South Rim. Because of this difference, the North Rim is more forested and cooler by 10-20 degrees in the summer. During the late fall and winter the North Rim receives significant snow. Therefore the North Rim has a shortened tourist season, only open from mid-May to mid-October.
Getting to the North Rim
It is pretty tough to visit the South Rim and the North Rim in the same day. Unless, you are planning to hike the 23 miles down into the canyon and up the other side. This rigorous adventure will require an overnight at the bottom in Phantom Ranch and/or at each rim. Remember that much of this trail is desert with blistering heat in the summer months. AND of course it is steep both directions!!
For us reasonable tourists it is a 4 hour drive from the South Rim to the North Rim. The route requires that you travel east and north to find a passage around the Canyon. You will traverse some amazing terrain and some desolate vistas.
If you are planning the popular Grand Circle Road Trip (Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Capitol Reef NP, Arches NP and Grand Canyon) you will likely arrive from Kanab, UT to the north. Kanab calls itself “The heart of the parks”. It is centrally located between the parks of the Grand Circle and a convenient base camp for all the spectacular outdoor adventures that the region offers. The Kanab Visitor Center is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is packed with information about the parks, hiking, scenic drives and much more.
**Note: If you plan to hike The Wave, a popular hike within the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, you must enter a daily lottery for the hiking permit. This permit lottery takes place at the Kanab Visitor Center.**
Learn More: Grand Circle Road Trip
What to See Along the Way
Whether you plan to reach the North Rim from Kanab, Flagstaff or the South Rim, you will travel portions of the Historic Us Route 89 and 89A.
Tour seven National Parks, fourteen National Monuments and three Heritage Areas all on one road—US Route 89. From Canada to Mexico through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arizona you will behold the West’s most spectacular scenery.James Cowlin of the US Route 89 Appreciation Society
Cameron Trading Post
At the crossroads of US Route 89 and County 64 is Cameron, AZ. This small town on the Navajo Nation is an odd mix of modern tourist trap and historic traditional Native American Trading Post. The official Cameron Trading Post has served this pathway to the Grand Canyon since 1916. It is difficult to discern with these trading posts across the Navajo lands, whether they are supporting the Navajo Nation or exploiting it. A philosophical question for another time. For our discussion, the Cameron Trading Post offers dining, nice lodging, a post office and a large selection of Native American arts.
Cameron sits in the far southwest corner of the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo Nation covers about 17,544,500 acres, occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico in the United States. This is the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe, with a population of roughly 350,000. US 89 continues north along the eastern edge of the Nation. It is extraordinary and devastatingly beautiful in its desolation. Vast deep blue skies tower over miles of sparse landscape, broken up by lunar-like boulders and bluffs of grey, bronze, vermillion and jet colors.
As you zip along this highway keep an eye out for these poignant works by Dr. Chip Thomas. He is a physician serving in the Indian Health Service who is also a photographer and muralist. His work can be found across the Navajo Nation, often on the sides of abandoned out-buildings and roadside stands.
Learn More: Dr. Chip Thomas’ work can be explored on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/jetsonorama
Just outside of Bitter Springs, US 89 splits and heads northeast towards the larger town of Page, AZ or northwest towards Marble Canyon and the North Rim. The topography, climate, transportation and settlement of this region is completely dictated by the Colorado River and the deep channel it courses through. Therefore the roads don’t run straight and no route is direct. Everything must find a way to cross the river and canyon. From Moab, Utah to Laughlin, Nevada, the Colorado River cuts through limestone and sandstone eroding vertical cliffs and gorges, thus making it impossible to ford.
In the 1860’s Brigham Young of the Mormon Settlement in Utah decided it was their destiny to expand into northern Arizona. He sent out a group of missionaries who found a break between Glen, Marble and Paria canyons, a natural corridor between Utah and Arizona. John D. Lee was sent (actually banished) to establish a working ferry and outpost for the Mormon settlers’ migration south. Lee set up the tiny isolated spot and named it Lee’s Ferry. Lee’s Ferry benefited from a circumstance of geology. Due to the shale deposits which sloped gently to the river, it was the only place to cross the Colorado River for 260 miles until 1929. Today this historic crossing is a popular kick-off point for fishing, kayaking and rafting along the almost inaccessible Colorado River.
In 1929, after years of precarious crossings at Lee’s Ferry, the Navajo Bridge was built just five miles downstream. When you are driving along US Route 89A you will cross over the second Navajo Bridge that was built in 1995. The original bridge is now an impressive pedestrian walkway 467 feet above the deepening canyon.
Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona
As you leave the Navajo Bridge, Lee’s Ferry and the meandering Colorado River, US Route 89A, also known as the Vermillion Cliffs Scenic Highway, starts to slowly climb towards the Kaibab Plateau. The walls of these plateaus swirl with the colors and diversity of the geologic minerals found in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. If you travel north into the Vermillion Cliffs Monument area on a 30 mile dirt road, you will find the iconic Wave, a hiking destination recognized for its swoops of sherbet colored slickrock.
After the 40 mile climb to the Kaibab Plateau you will reach Jacob Lake and the Grand Canyon Hwy 67. Jacob Lake is literally a widespot in the road, but it is also the last bastion of civilization on the road to the North Rim. I suggest you gas up here and grab any assorted sundries. The Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center also sits at this turn-off and is worth a stop. Hwy 67 is the only road in to the North Rim. It is this road that closes in Mid-October and does not reopen until May. When you step out of the car, you will recognize that you are in an all-together different climates zone. The air is cool, crisp and deliciously aromatic from the pine forests and meadows. The North Rim is at the end of this 45-mile beautifully scenic road.
North Rim Details
The Grand Canyon North Rim is a favored destination for hearty visitors. It has a distinct focus on hiking, remote camping and rugged beauty. Because it is more difficult to access, the typical crowds of tourists are far less on the North Rim than the South Rim. But, the views are just as endless and the experience just as exhilarating.
Grand Canyon Lodge
The Grand Canyon Lodge was built in 1928 and rebuilt in 1936 after a devasating fire. Grand Canyon Lodge is flanked by 120 cabins and two motel room buildings. The timbered historic lodge is perched right on the rim of the Canyon and has one of the most amazing vistas of any hotel I have ever visited.
There are no rooms actually in the lodge. Rather, it houses the Registration Office, a cavernous dining room and a gathering room, all with a wall of windows looking into the canyon. The past glory of this historic structure was apparant. But the operative word is “past”.
Unfortuneately, we found the lodge, dining facilities, cabins and motel rooms dingy and tired. Two years ago we greatly enoyed our stay in the historic facilities of Zion NP. Therefore, we were really looking forward to our visit at the North Rim. Each national park’s lodging is managed by different concessionaires. Zion NP is managed by the Xanterra group and the North Rim is managed by Forever Resorts. There is a distinct difference in the quality and attention to details between these two concessionaires. I have since learned that the North Rim is looking for a new group to manage their facility. I sincerely hope that this will improve conditions at this amazing park.
Hiking Trails on the North Rim
As I mentioned before, the North Rim is more popular with the hiking crowd. Ten differnt hiking trails navigate along the many twists and turns of the rim edges. The three major trails that reach down into the depths of the Grand Canyon are the South North Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim and the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rime.
These trails are not for the faint of heart or unprepared hiker. They are steep, hot and rigorous. All of the North Rim literature warns against hiking rim-to-rim or down and back up in one day during the summer months. A rim-to-rim hike would amount to 24-28 miles. But, nothing says you can’t hike a shorter out-and-back hike along the North Kaibab Trail.
**Note: the North Kaibab Trail is shared by the mule riders and hikers must defer to the mules. AND watch for the excrement.**
Luckily, not all of the hikes along the North Rim are so strenuousun. We loved the Transept Trail which starts at the lodge and follows along a portion of the rim. It is mostly forested and not especially steep, but it has plenty of amazing vista points with no crowds.
Throughout the trip I was excited to find segments of the thru-hiking trail, Arizona Trail. The Arizona Trail starts at the Arizona-Mexico border and works it way north the entire length of the state. This 800 mile trail crosses desert floors, over several mountain ranges and down and through the Grand Canyon.
Learn More: Grand Canyon National Park North Rim Trails
Most of the North Rim hovers over the Bright Angel Canyon. The scenic drives wind through meadows, deep forest and breathtaking vistas. Point Imperial and Cape Royal are several miles from the Lodge and well worth the drive.
Along the drive to Cape Royal you encounter Vista Encantada picnic area, Roosevelt Point and Wahalla Overlook. Finally, the end of the drive is Cape Royal and a short 1 mile paved path to Angels Window and the trails namesake, Cape Royal. Cape Royal is the southernmost viewpoint on the North Rim, and it has the widest panorama of any Grand Canyon overlook – the great gorge occupies about 270° of the horizon.
This is a shorter drive that ends at 8,803 feet viewpoint. Point Imperial is the highest of the North Rim overlooks, and the northernmost. This unique view makes it a perfect spot for sunsets.
Visit the North Rim
The North Rim is absolutely stunning and definitely more remote than the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. Because of the remoteness and limited lodging it is still essential to plan your North Rim visit well in advance. You don’t want to just drive the 40+ miles into the Visitor Center, gap down into the canyon, take a selfie and leave. This destination is best savored over several days. You want to take in a sunrise, and a sunset, you want to spend an hour sitting on the deck watching a storm work its way across the canyon, you want to absorb this beautiful natural wonder!