The Other Grand Canyon

In Adventure, Arizona, Guides, RV, Stories from the road, Travel
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While we enjoy focusing our trips on places that not everyone knows about, we also travel to known destinations as well.  This month’s major trip combines the well known with unknown, and that may sound confusing to you at first, but you’ll quickly understand what I’m talking about.

The Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most well known icons of the National Park System.  It is a massive and beautiful area, full of the multi-colored rocks that Arizona is known for.  Each year millions of people visit the Grand Canyon, and each year so many of them check off another item on their bucket lists.

Sadly, they’ve still missed out on something.  You see, in my mind there are two Grand Canyons.  The first is the most well known.  It’s the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  The lesser known, and lesser visited Canyon is the North Rim.

Grand Canyon Monsoon
Monsoon season in Arizona is extremely unpredictable. Days after this photo a serious flood occurred in the canyon.

The South Rim Makes Me Cringe

In 2008 I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time.  I was awe struck by the beauty of what I saw.  And within the first hour of my visit there I found myself cringing as well.  No, not due to fear of heights or the crazy drop offs.  What made me cringe were the hoards of crazed tourists that I found at the South Rim.

At one of the overlooks there were so many people crowding for a photo or two that I found myself being pushed into a guard rail by a grouchy visitor from France.  She really shoved me right into the rail hard, and I guess I should count myself lucky there was a railing!

My first visit to the canyon lasted a few hours.  We drove along from view point to view point.  And I made sure that folks weren’t behind me trying to launch me into the canyon after my first incident.  Still, every point was crowded, and everyone was snapping away with their cameras at the same exact scene.

I started thinking hard about hiking into the canyon.  Take a multi day backpacking trip into the canyon.  Surely there would be fewer folks down in there.  Alas, I never found (or made) the time to do it.  But I did do something else in 2010.  I took a trip with my Airstream up to the North Rim for a few days, and I discovered a whole other Grand Canyon!

Off roading on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Off roading on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

The North Rim Is Something Else!

August of 2010 the Airstream was treated to its first trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Not knowing what to expect out of the extra long drive, the hope was that the northern side offered more in the way of views, hiking, off road adventures, and a little bit of privacy.  Incredibly enough, the North Rim offered everything I was looking for, including much cooler temperatures!

Very few visitors to the Grand Canyon ever make their way over to the North Rim.  It is a quick trip from Flagstaff to the South Rim, and it’s a pretty long haul to the North Rim.  There’s no direct route from places many visitors stop at.  In under 2 hours visitors in the Flagstaff area can find themselves at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  And for many visitors, that’s good enough!

Getting to the North Rim from Flagstaff is a 4 hour journey minimum.  And many visitors to Arizona don’t have the time or interest to check out “the other side.”  Plus they can see the North Rim from the South Rim, it’s a short distance as the crow flies.  While those tourists are missing out, it opens up a lot more opportunities for more intrepid visitors to the Grand Canyon.  They can actually enjoy light traffic, lonely hikes, and sometimes even get to spend an entire day alone at their favorite point!

If you need pavement…..

Amazing View From the North Rim
Amazing View From the North Rim. Cape Royal

Cape Royal Road makes for a nice short trip to a few more view points.  It’s a paved access road, and it splits off to Point Imperial as well.  The main road leads to Angels Window, and to Cape Royal.  Amazing views, and the most interesting part has to be the lack of crowds.

Along the trip into Cape Royal visitors are treated to Roosevelt Point, Wallhalla Overlook, the Wallhalla Ruins, and plenty of pull offs to enjoy unobstructed views of the canyon.  It really is like night and day between the two parts of the park.

Off Road Opportunities – The real Deal

Driving into the North Rim from Jacob Lake you’ll notice some big differences between the North and South Rims.  Wide open fields, Aspen forests, and a much higher elevation.  Along the route on my first trip to the North Rim I found myself thinking the area was much more like Colorado than Arizona.  It is a totally different feel.

There’s only one road into the official North Rim Visitor area.  One road in, one road out.  And that road is closed from October to May due to snow.  So the trip can only be made during the warmer months.

Saddle Mountain Widerness
Saddle Mountain Widerness

While the main road into the park has limitations, there are so many forest service roads branching off this way and that way, you realize quickly that taking the dirt roads will lead you to amazing point after point.  So you need to bring along a high clearance vehicle if you want to see some of the amazing hidden gems.  On one venture from the Airstream over an hour of driving through Aspens and fields set the tone for the point we were approaching.  And what a point it was.  An entire day was spent watching the clouds form and change over the canyon, and not a single other soul was seen for the day!  That’s a far cry from the South Rim.

A picinic day on the North Rim
A picinic day on the North Rim

From the main road there are several forest service road off shoots.  You can go east, you can go west.  And you should bring a map along.  No trusting to the GPS alone on this one, there are several amazing points to visit on the North Rim, and you’re going to need a vehicle or a Mountain Bike to reach them and make it back to camp in the same day.  One of my personal favorites?  The Saddle Mountain area.

Saddle Mountain

Traveling from DeMotte Campground (where we stayed) you can take Forest Service Road 611 to 610.  Follow 610 to it’s terminus and you will find yourself near Saddle Mountain.  The drive in is stunning and forested, and when you arrive at the “parking area” you will find yourself with an incredible scene and hike if you like.

While in this area I noted one other vehicle and a tent.  Nobody was home, so we had the view spot to ourselves for the better part of the day.  And the intro photo to this article was taken there.

Forest Service Road 610 also offers several hiking opportunities.  The Ken Patrick Trail to Point Imperial (a short hike, but great if you make a day of it), the Nankoweap Trail, The South Canyon Trail, The North Canyon Trail, and if you’d like you can spend a little time on part of the Arizona Trail!

So Many Directions to go in

No crowding along the railings on the North Rim
No crowding along the railings on the North Rim

Talking about the Saddle Mountain area off of FS 610 is one thing.  But you haven’t even scratched the surface regarding the opportunities on the North Rim.  Another great but challenging trip on the first visit to the North Rim had to be the road to Point Sublime!  Mud at some points, difficult road conditions, and a narrow road as well, it made for a pretty cool day of off roading.  A Forest Service crew was found along the way cutting and clearing.  But the final view was worth the trip.

There are many Forest Service roads that head West from the Demotte Campground area.  And each of the roads leads to different points along the North Rim.  Rainbow Rim, Fence Point, North Timp Point, and Timp Point are all realistic stops to see a different side of the Canyon.  Keep in mind, this is all “off roading.”  Narrow dirt roads at some points, thick forest cover here and there, and possible road hazards!  If you’re going to go, be sure to have provisions along for 2 days, just in case you get stuck.

Camping at the North Rim

Ah, so here we go.  Now we’re talking!  There are in fact a few great places to camp at the North Rim.  The North Rim Campground, Demotte Campground, Jacob Lake, and of course boondocking opportunities!  Take a look at Campendium’s listing by clicking here.

Personally on each trip to the North Rim I’ve stayed at DeMotte Campground.  It’s dry camping outside of the main park area.  There are several first come, first served sites there.  You just have to time it right.  Get there at 11:00 a.m. on a weekday, you will find a spot.

There are also several opportunities along Forest Service Road 611.  Campendium found an amazing spot, but if you’re going to stay there make sure the weather forecast is on your side.  On our most recent trip to the North Rim we intended on staying at this amazing boondocking location, however severe thunderstorms made a mess of the roads.  Pulling the Airstream in and out wasn’t a smart option, so DeMotte Campground was selected instead.

The official North Rim Park is also available, putting you near the visitor center and some amazing views.  It’s also a dry camping location as well, so matter where you go be prepared to go without hookups!  Fortunately you shouldn’t be milling about the old RV, you should be off exploring on hikes, off road adventures, or finding your own private point to spend the day at!

Final Thoughts

On the edge
On the edge

The North Rim is an amazing experience.  After visiting it the South Rim  lost its appeal for me.  Dry camping, private views, day long off roading adventures….Does it get any better than that?  For me it doesn’t.

While we’re an all digital shop here at Living In Tin, I’m going to give you one more zany piece of advice.  Go to your local outfitter shop, or go online, and buy yourself National Geographic’s map #262.  It’s the Grand Canyon East map, and if will help you plan your day trips to some amazing points.  While we love our GPS unit in the Titan, this is one of those places where only a real map will do!  And if you’re planning a longer visit and looking to explore even more, grab map #263 as well (Grand Canyon West).

Make sure to budget some time for your trip.  Many locations take a while to get to, so plan day trips.  Personally I have a feeling late September will see us at the North Rim once more, you know, before the snow flies!


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