I had already spend five days rafting on the Colorado River and three days exploring the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Was I ready to move on? Hell no! Grand Canyon is one of the most unique and incredible places in the world. I don’t understand the people that just drive up, snap a couple pictures, and drive away. I wanted to spend enough time here to fully explore it.
I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the South Rim. I had hiked up the Bright Angel Trail from the bottom, walked most of the rim trail, and hiked down the crazy Hermit’s Trail, almost getting lost in the wilderness in the process. But as wonderful as the scenery was, the South Rim is an overdeveloped, overcrowded mess that I was getting tired of. If only I could enjoy the wonders of Grand Canyon, without all the buildings, parking lots, strip malls, and crowds.
It turns out there is a magical place exactly like that: The remote and little-visited North Rim. Even though it’s directly across from the South Rim, and only 22 miles away as the condor flies, it’s hours away by car. You can’t exactly drive down the Bright Angel Trail and up the North Kaibab Trail. It takes about five hours to drive between the two rims.
Due to the large amount of travel time, most people don’t bother. I wasn’t planning to. But I started to consider the possibility while dodging the crowds on the rim trail. I was booked on the Trans Canyon Shuttle back to Lee’s Ferry, where I would pick up my car. I had plenty of time until my next scheduled activity of backpacking in Zion National Park. It would be possible to fit in a few days on the North Rim if I cut Antelope Canyon from my trip.
The beautiful Antelope Canyon is one of the most photographed natural features in the Southwest, but I think my itinerary change proved to be a good decision. I could tell the North Rim was going to be special once I got to the lake-less “town” of Jacob Lake. There were only some cabins and a restaurant. It was cold, as I had gained a lot of elevation. It really felt remote and out of the way, like I was having to make an effort to get to my destination.
A Better Rim
The best destinations require effort, and the North Rim is no exception. It felt even more remote as I drove through the stark and striking Kaibab National Forest. Wide meadows sprinkled with lakes and ringed with pine trees. And completely deserted! This would have been a wonderful place to explore. But I was on a mission to explore national parks, so I drove to the end of the road, which took a long time. I was really in the middle of nowhere.
At the end of the road I arrived at the North Rim. I was back in Grand Canyon National Park, but it was totally different from the South Rim. At about 1,000 ft higher, it was a lot cooler. Instead of pygmy forests, the trees here were tall evergreens. Best of all, instead of the mess on the South Rim, there was very little development. There’s a small visitor center and some cabins, which would be incredible to stay in. The dominating building is the charming and historic Grand Canyon Lodge. When you walk in you’re treated to spectacular views of the canyon through the big windows. I loved relaxing on the patio outside the lodge, and by the fireplace inside once it got cold at night. Grand Canyon Lodge was a highlight of the canyon.
Outside the lodge was really special. There’s a short, accessible trail to an overlook right that goes by otherworldly juniper trees. It looked quite surreal in the sunset. There were only a few people on the narrow path.
The North Kaibab Trail
For my full day on this rim, I decided to walk down the North Kaibab Trail. This trail connects to the Bright Angel Trail, so it’s possible to walk rim to rim. It was a nice hike, starting up in the tall pine trees and cool temperatures, going down through the red rock, watching the trees become smaller, and the temperature rise. It was fun to pass through the different rock layers I learned about on my rafting trip. I knew I had to walk back up, so I only went as far as Roaring Spring, which was five miles and 3,000 ft down. Climbing back up was hard. It never gets easier. Maybe part of the reason it was so hard was it didn’t take me much longer to go up than it did to go down. I was climbing fast!
I encountered a couple crazy people on the North Kaibab Trail. On the way down I passed three folks running up. That in itself is crazy, but later when I was huffing and puffing back up, they came running down. They said they were running rim-to-rim-to-rim. Insane. Around noon on my climb up a young guy with a huge pack was coming down. I asked him where he was camping and he said the South Rim. I told him it took me six hours to climb up from Phantom Ranch, so he better have a flashlight, and he seemed surprised. Hiking into Grand Canyon without researching it is not smart.
A Relaxing Rim
I had a great time during my two days on the North Rim. There are more viewpoints on the South Rim, so that’s the place to go if you only have a couple days. But if you have time, a trip to the relaxing North Rim is worth the effort.