Grand Canyon’s North Rim: A stunning surprise

  • Buffalo, including calves, graze on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We have viewed the Grand Canyon from the South Rim, rafted through it on the Colorado River, but never seen it from the North Rim. What a stunning mistake.

Nearly twice as much water flows to the Colorado from the North Rim than the South, mostly during heavy rains and flash floods, and the enormous amounts of intermittent water have carved out gorgeous crevices.

From Point Imperial, which boasts the highest viewpoint at 8,803 feet and the deepest view, the multiple mesas and canyons create a canvas of hazy blues, reds and greens stretching as far as you can see.

At the Point, we met a couple of Nichols from eastern Washington, who we figured were long-lost cousins, a young New York couple working in sports video and television writing who were fascinated by mobile life in the The Epic Van, and Elke, a free-spirited documentary maker who sold her house and lives out of her car. She loved our return to the nomadic life, the way humans started, because she said, she believes the desire to possess land, structures and animals is the root of most of the world’s problems.

I contemplated her words as we hiked the Ken Patrick Trail, named for a National Park Ranger killed on duty, shot three times in August 1973 by deer poachers at Point Reyes National Seashore and buried in the Canyon, where he once served.

It was a weekend of record heat, with temperatures on the Canyon floor rising up to 117, but along the trail, cool updrafts ruffled your hair and dried the dampness on the back of your shirt.

The trail hugs the Bright Angel Canyon, with amazing views of Nankoweap Mesa and canyons descending to the hidden Colorado River seven miles away as the crow flies and a mile below.

Sitting on the rock wall, staring into the depths, it was hard to fathom the frigid water and rapids rushing so far below, waters we had ridden the summer our son Nate turned 16, nearly six years ago.

On that trip, we left from Lee’s Ferry, floated down through the rising walls of the Canyon, laughed as we were soaked by waves on the rapids, hiked side canyons to see amazing waterfalls, floated on our lifejackets down the warm, turquoise waters of the Little Colorado where it empties into the Canyon, and slept on sand beaches under the stars.

On this trip, we camped on a spot along a U.S. Forest Service road near DeMotte campground, sheltered by the Ponderosa pines, spruce and aspen and awoke to bird calls and rustling leaves.

The previous day, we hiked 2½ miles, or half of the Widforss Trail, which wanders along the North Rim, mostly shaded with towering pines, but peaking out for amazing canyon views. You can see across the miles-deep crevices of the canyon to the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, 70 miles away, and the snow-covered Mount Humphreys, at 12,670 feet the tallest peak in Arizona.

The trail is named for Gunner Widforss, an artist who lived and painted at the Grand Canyon in the 1930s, creating geologically detailed watercolors. It follows a canyon tributary to Bright Angel.

On both trails, you walk on Kaibab limestone deposited some 250 million years ago by a warm, shallow sea, which left a layer of limestone 250 feet deep. Another layer, Coconino Sandstone, several hundred feet below the rim, is made of windblown sand from dunes that were home to ancient reptiles long before the dinosaurs existed.

Much of the Widforss path is lined with scrub oak and maple and shaded by aspen, white fir, and Ponderosa Pine, including a Ponderosa nearly 13 feet in circumference, estimated to be 300 to 500 years old. Tom gave it a hug, his long arms reaching less than two-thirds around it.

The trail passed Harvey Meadow, where “Uncle Jim” Owens, a game warden for the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1900s lived in a cave and boasted of killing 500 mountain lions to protect deer, which later starved to death by the thousands because of overpopulation.

A brochure said you may see wildlife, deer, bobcat, mountain lion, wild turkey, coyote, porcupine, snakes, lizards, or the Kaibab squirrel, with tufted ears and bushy, white tail, native only to the Kaibab Plateau on the north side of the Colorado River. We saw none of the above, except a non-Kaibab squirrel, but we did see some lovely yellow butterflies and a few birds we could not identify. We also followed the rerouted trail around a cranky blue grouse protecting her nest.

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