Dubbed the “Greatest Earth on Show,” and labeled one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon is, without a doubt, a must-see stop on your tour of the American west. Designated a national park in 1919, and receiving nearly 5 million visitors each year, it is Arizona’s most popular tourist attraction and is the second most popular national park in the country. There’s no doubt about it, no tour of the American West is complete without a stop at the Grand Canyon.
Located in northern Arizona, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon sits atop the Kaibab Plateau (Kaibab is a Paiute Indian word meaning, “mountain lying down”). The plateau, which reaches heights of 9,241 feet, is divided between the Kaibab National Forest on the north and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park on the south. Heavily forested with aspen, spruce-fir, ponderosa pine, and Pinyon-Juniper woodland, the plateau sits in stark contrast with the red rock of the arid lowlands of the surrounding area. Snow can usually be found on the Kaibab Plateau eight months out of the year.
As you’d expect Grand Canyon National Park is enormous. The 1,904-square-mile-park is divided into two equally impressive halves from where the canyon can be viewed: the South Rim and North Rim. Of the two locations, 90 percent of the park’s nearly 5 million visitors visit the South Rim, which, at 6,900 feet, is easier to access and is open year round. The North Rim, due its ruggedness and higher elevation, is closed from October 15 to May 15, but offers a more diverse viewing experience due to the higher elevation and numerous canyon viewpoints. The distance by car between the South Rim and North Rim is 215 miles or five hours.
Getting to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon isn’t too difficult. From Phoenix, take the I-17 north for 140 miles to Flagstaff, then take the I-40 east about 5.5 miles to Exit 201 for the US-89. Drive north on the US-89 for 105 miles until you reach the US-89A. Turn west on the US-89A and drive for 55 miles until you reach the tiny town of Jacob Lake. The entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park is located 30 miles south of Jacob Lake on the AZ-67; the actual north rim of the canyon is an additional 14 miles south. The entire drive from Phoenix to the North Rim takes about seven hours.
The 44-mile drive between Jacob Lake and the North Rim is beautiful and has been described as the “the most pleasant 44 miles in America”. The AZ-67 is a designated US National Forest Scenic Byway and a State Scenic Parkway, the Kaibab Plateau–North Rim Parkway. Unfortunately, recent forest fires have marred the beauty of portions of the Kaibab Plateau. You’ll see evidence of this on your drive to the Grand Canyon as well as the drive to the eastern viewpoints.
The Grand Canyon is immense. The massive fizzure measures 1 mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide. Geologists know the Grand Canyon was formed through a combination of weathering and erosion, the latter taking part about 17 million years ago, but they aren’t sure exactly how the erosion took place. What they do know is that the erosion took place rapidly and not over a long period of time. Nearly 40 colorful layers of strata can be found in the canyon with the age of the layers ranging from 200 million to 2 billion years. The Grand Canyon is neither the deepest nor the widest canyon in the world, but it is significant because of the beautifully preserved geologic history contained within it. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best when he wrote, “In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world….Leave it as is, You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
The entrance fee to the Grand Canyon National Park is the standard $25 per car or $12 for persons entering the park on foot, bicycle or motorcycle. The admission is good up to seven days and includes admission to both the North and South Rims. Entrance free days for all national parks include Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, National Park Week (April 21-29); Get Outdoors Day (June 9), Public Lands Day (September 29), and Veterans Day weekend.
The Grand Canyon is beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. Use common sense when visiting and respect its size and height. While railings and walls are in place at most viewpoints, not all viewing areas and trails have them. The canyon is simply too large to address all areas where there is danger. Heed all warning signs and if you’re hiking stay on the trails at all times. Do not venture out on rock outcroppings, these have been known to give way unexpectedly. And if you have children with you, keep an eye on them at all times. Bring plenty of water with you, especially when hiking, and stay hydrated. An average of 10 people die per year from falls and heat related illnesses. Don’t add to that statistic.
Another thing to keep in mind while visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is the elevation. With elevations topping out at 8,800 feet at some viewpoints you may need to acclimate yourself to the thinner air before going on any lengthy walks or hikes. We live in the Sonoran Desert, so we weren’t used to the thinner, cooler air of the higher elevations. On a few occasions during our visit we had to stop and catch our breath. It may not be an issue for you, but it is something of which you need to be aware.
The main North Rim viewpoint is perched atop a small 8,255 foot high narrow peninsula where you can find the visitor center, a lodge and restaurant, a large campground, a general store, and emergency services. Breathtaking views can be experienced anywhere on the edge of this peninsula but the best are found at Bright Angel Point at the southern tip. A dirt footpath with a few lookout points can be found along the rim’s edge where you can take in the spectacular and majestic views.
Aside from the main viewpoint on the North Rim, there are additional viewpoints further east on the Walhalla Plateau that are definitely worth seeing. These include Point Imperial (the highest viewpoint in the entire park at 8,803 feet), Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point, Walhalla Overlook, and Cape Royal. It takes an additional hour to get to Cape Royal, the furthest viewpoint from the North Rim. The road to these eastern viewpoints, however, is narrow and winding. Due to this a sign at the entrance to this road states that vehicles over 30 feet are not recommended and I wholeheartedly agree. If you have an RV, this route is best handled by short, two-axle RVs like truck campers or small motorhomes. I wouldn’t recommend towing a trailer of any length on this route.
If only 10 percent of tourists visit the main North Rim viewpoint, you can be sure than even fewer visit the eastern viewpoints on the Walhalla Plateau. Indeed, with the exception of Cape Royal, the crowds at these eastern viewpoints numbered less than a dozen, a far cry from the numbers found at the main North Rim viewpoint. In many respects, the views at the eastern viewpoints are better and more expansive and some even provide a view of the Colorado River. The main North Rim viewpoint doesn’t provide a view of the river, so if you have the time, I highly recommend you take a few hours to enjoy these vistas.
The Grand Canyon has been photographed countless times, and you’ll, no doubt, want to add to those numbers. As is so often the case, we took so many pictures when we visited the park that it was difficult to choose which ones to include in this article. Photo opportunities are limitless, so you’ll want to have your camera ready. Ensure your camera storage cards are empty and make sure your camera battery is fully charged before setting out for the day. I also recommend taking along a good pair of binoculars in order to take in all that the Grand Canyon has to offer. And don’t forget about the wildlife in the park. Excellent photo opportunities exist to capture the park’s wildlife in their native habitat.
If you enjoy hiking while at the same time taking in spectacular views, then the Grand Canyon is made for you. The North Rim offers 13 hiking trails of varying difficulty. Trail lengths vary from .2 miles to 28 miles. Of these, the North Kaibab Trail is the most difficult. This trail dips down into the canyon and can be taken to several points of varying length. Roaring Springs lies, 3,050 ft below the canyon rim and is about 9.5 miles round trip. The park recommends dividing the Roaring Springs hike over a period of two days. One should be in good physical condition before attempting this hike–numerous injuries and even deaths have resulted when attempting this hike over a single day. For expert hikers, the North Kaibab trail can be taken to the Colorado River, a round trip distance of 28 miles. For the less adventurous and those with a tight schedule, I recommend one of the short distance hikes at the North Rim: The Bright Angel Point Trail, Transept Trail, or the Bridle Trail. The Cape Royal trail is also highly recommended.
Mule-rides into the Grand Canyon have been a feature of the park since the 1920s. One hour and half-day trips are offered on a daily basis with costs ranging from $40 a person for the one hour trip to $75 for either one of the half-day trips. There are weight limits of 220 pounds to ride the mules. Register in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge at the Grand Canyon Trail Rides desk from 7:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m. daily. North Rim mule trips do not go to the Colorado River. The shuttle bus to the trailhead leaves the lodge one half hour before trip departure times. For reservations, call Grand Canyon Trail Rides at (435) 679-8665 or click here to visit their website.The accommodations at the North Rim are pretty decent. The lodge offers not only hotel rooms at $116 a night, but also cabins of various sizes with prices ranging between $121 and $182 a night. If you prefer a cabin with a view of the rim that will cost you an additional $10 a night.
For those visiting the park with a tent or an RV, the National Park Service operates a campground with 82 sites, but as you’d expect this campground is often booked on weekends. The North Rim campground offers no hookups, but it does provide a dump station free of charge. Each site at the campground comes with a picnic table and a fire pit. Services at the campground include restrooms, coin operated showers, and a laundry. Reservations are recommended and are made through the National Recreation Reservation Service at 1-877-444-6777. Fees are $18 a night for tents and $25 a night for RVs.
Even though getting a site at the North Rim campground can be difficult, there are excellent alternatives nearby. The Kaibab National Forest operates two campgrounds with no hookups: Jacob Lake and De Motte, consisting of 50 and 38 sites, respectively. Of the two, De Motte, which is where we stayed, is much closer to the park entrance (six miles opposed to 30 miles for Jacob Lake). Both campgrounds are $17 a night and offer pit toilets and un-threaded water spigots where you can obtain potable water. Sites are open and sunny (perfect for those with solar panels) with each site equipped with a picnic table and fire pit. Unfortunately, neither campground offers a dump station. Dumping services can be found at the aforementioned North Rim campground and at several locations in nearby Fredonia, AZ.
If you prefer to boondock during your visit to the Grand Canyon, then you’re in luck. The Kaibab National Forest is lined with numerous forest roads off the US-89A and the AZ-67 where you can can set up camp for the night. One of the most popular forest roads, FDR-22, is just two miles south of De Motte Campground on the AZ-67. If you follow this well-graveled road west you’ll come across several areas where you can boondock. FDR-22 intersects with other forest roads that not only offer additional areas where you can boondock, but also areas where you can enjoy spectacular views of the Grand Canyon. Two popular areas are Crazy Jug Point and Locust Point. FDR-425 via FDR-206 will get you to Crazy Jug Point, while FDR-294 via FDR-206 will place you at Locust Point. Just a reminder that boondocking is not allowed within the borders of the national park.
If you plan on boondocking in the Kaibab National Forest in either May or October, some caution is warranted. Weather during these months can be unpredictable, with wide swings in temperature often taking place. It’s advisable to keep a close eye on the weather reports, especially if any precipitation is in the forecast. The Kaibab is beautiful, but the last thing you want to have happen is get snowed in and have to call for help. One last bit of advice for boondockers for all seasons: bring along a chain saw or saw-zaw in the event that a tree falls over and blocks your way out of the forest.
If you’re planning a week-long trip to the four-corners area, I recommend seeing the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as well as stops at Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. Both attractions are found within the Navajo Nation and are relatively close by. I also recommend that you take time out to see equally impressive national parks at Zion and Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. Both parks are less than 2.5 hours away from the North Rim and are well worth your time.
An essential stop in your tour of the American West, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a “must see” location to be placed on your bucket list. Yes, the Grand Canyon is “touristy,” but you’ll find it far less so on the North Rim compared to the South Rim. Whether you visit for just a few hours, or a full week, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a magical place that will be sure to awe and inspire.