The Grand Canyon’s other side
The Grand Canyon's North Rim is full of lush forests and isolated day hikes. (Cory Haugen)
The Grand Canyon is mentioned on just about every list that highlights the United States’ natural features. The fissure, carved into the northern part of Arizona, is an impressive 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and one mile deep. In the light, the canyon comes alive in a brilliant, multi-hued display of reds, magentas and golds. And in the winter, the rocks sparkle and shine beneath a covering of snow.
One canyon, two rims
Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon National Park each year, and the vast majority of them visit the South Rim, which is open all year and is the most easily accessible side of the park. But 21 miles away by hike — or 220 miles away by drive — is the North Rim, and that distance makes all the difference.
There is no direct road from the South Rim to the North Rim, requiring a five hour loop around the east side along Highway 89 near Page, Arizona. The hiking trail does lead from one rim to the other, but is too arduous to be hiked in a day. To camp at the bottom of the canyon or stay at Phantom Ranch, a backcountry permit must be applied for in advance.
At 8,000 to 9,000ft above sea level, the North Rim is 1,000ft higher in elevation than the South Rim, which means it is cooler in the summer and so snowy in the winter that it has to be closed (the park reopens each May 15). The elevation also produces vast expanses of forests teeming with quaking aspen and Rocky Mountain maple trees, complete with a sea of colourful wildflowers that threaten to grow over the hiking paths.
While the South Rim is thick with tour buses, there are no operators that service the North Rim. On the South Rim, Grand Canyon Village offers a wide variety of facilities, including cafeterias and restaurants, shops with souvenirs and camping supplies, a medical clinic, a pet kennel and a full-service shuttle route that ferries visitors around the South Rim’s most popular sites. On the North Rim, for the most part, you are on your own. There is a visitor centre (928-638-7888), bookstore and general store, and there is limited food service. But what they give up in convenience, visitors more than make up in serenity, silence and a new appreciation for this national park.
A trail to call your own
Though there are some hiking opportunities on the South Rim, you will find more to please the feet on the North Rim. Thirteen day hikes dip deep into the forest and often take wanderers away from the rim for hours at a time. The desert climate is much more pronounced on the South Rim, and many people are surprised by how lush the environment is on the North Rim. In fact, whereas the canyon itself seems to be the sole purpose for a visit on the South Rim, many hikes on the North Rim meander through the woods only to end with minimal gusto at an unusual overlook of the Grand Canyon. The Widforss Trail (10 miles round trip), is one such hike that blends forest and canyon scenery before ending on a large rock balanced on the edge of the canyon. The Uncle Jim Trail (five miles round trip) finishes at a vista overlooking the canyon and the North Kaibab Trail switchbacks. Some, like the Cape Royal Trail (0.6 miles round trip), have more pronounced views of the canyon.
On most of the longer hikes, it is possible to walk for hours without meeting another person. Many times, it is hard to believe you are even at the Grand Canyon.
A room with a view
Built originally in 1928, destroyed by a fire in 1932 and reopened in 1937, the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim is worthy of admiration. Perched on the edge of the canyon, the lodge blends into the natural surroundings with huge ponderosa beams and an exterior made of stone. But it is the massive windows and back deck that offer what is perhaps the best view of the Grand Canyon on the North Rim. Best of all, it is easily enjoyed with a cocktail or coffee in hand as you sit with only a few others overlooking this famous natural landmark. It is truly an experience to leave the traffic, crowds and tour buses behind and enjoy the kaleidoscope of colours bouncing across the canyon without having to fight anyone for the space to see it.
Despite the fact that it receives far fewer visitors than the South Rim, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is still popular, and those who want to stay at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim should make reservations far in advance. The same is true for camping, though it is not unheard of to find vacant spots just days before a supposedly busy holiday weekend.