The Grand Canyon has a split personality.
Your experience at one of America’s most iconic sights may well depend on which Grand Canyon you choose.
The popular South Rim bustles with activity, with 45 million visitors a year vying for parking spots, rooms at lodges, tables in restaurants and even a place in line at the gift shop check-out.
There’s a town, Tusayan, just outside the park, with still more lodging and dining options. The South Rim is accessible most of the year.
Then there’s the North Rim.
It’s roughly 10 miles from rim to rim – as the eagle flies. And it’s about 220 miles by car. But it’s a world apart in many other ways.
For one thing, the closest town on the north is tiny Jacob Lake, Ariz., 43 miles away. Not exactly a bustling burg.
So be sure your car is in good working order and have an extra set of car keys before you head to the rim -- there’s no mechanic here and AAA is hours away.
Also be sure to carry water with you, particularly during summer months. Bring your own water bottle – individual bottled water is no longer sold in the park for environmental reasons. There are lots of places to fill your own bottle, though.
Remember that the North Rim is only open a few months each year, from mid-May till mid-October, depending on the weather. A significant snow closes the road for the season.
The Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim has dining facilities, but no guest rooms; guests stay in one of 214 cabins or motel units, so the number of visitors on any given day is limited. This rim only gets about 320,000 visitors annually -- a fraction of the South Rim’s numbers.
The atmosphere here is more laid back. This is the calmer, slower, more thoughtful Grand Canyon experience.
It’s the kind of place where you park at a scenic pull-out and yours is the only car there, where you hike a rim trail and the only other living creature you see is a browsing mule deer or a curious scrub jay.
“This is the place people come when they want peace and solitude,” says one ranger who has worked in the park for nearly 30 years. “This is the quiet side.”
There are no shuttles on the North Rim. Explore on your own, at your own pace, the same way you got here – by car, by bike or on foot.
On the South Rim, the canyon walls are so steep, you rarely glimpse the mighty Colorado River rushing through the bottom. Though the North Rim is 1,000 feet higher, it’s more eroded and its sloping walls allow great views of many rock formations and the river below.
If driving, start your day’s tour at Point Imperial, 11 miles from the lodge and, at 8,800 feet, the highest point on the North Rim. From here, you’ll see a panorama of mountain peaks in the distance and the eastern end of the canyon, where it slopes and then flattens out into the Painted Desert beyond.
Visit Cape Royal, which juts out over the canyon for stunning views. And be sure to take the self-guided trail that leads to Angel’s Window Overlook.
Stop to watch the sky.
That thing you thought was a small plane or glider? It’s a California condor. These giant prehistoric-looking birds have been successfully reintroduced into the canyon and can be seen soaring lazily on the updrafts, perhaps looking for lunch or just enjoying the views.
Do NOT miss the sunset as seen from the Bright Angel Point (a half-mile hike from the lodge). Take the easy but frighteningly narrow path out to the point. This was the only “crowd” we encountered during our stay. There must have been at least 20 of us huddled on the point, donning jackets as the air turned crisp.
And as the sun melted into the rim, its red-gold glow bathing the rocky walls, it seemed a fitting end to a perfect day.
IF YOU GO
General information: Call 928-638-7888. Or visit http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
Tips for Visiting the North Rim
Remember, the North Rim is relatively remote, so:
-- Keep your gas tank full. The next gas station may be quite a few miles distant. There is a gas station near the campground that also offers diesel fuel.
-- There is no automobile mechanic on the North Rim.
-- Bring an extra set of car keys; it could be a long wait for a locksmith.
-- Some camera supplies and commonly used batteries are available at the North Rim gift shop, but the closest camera repair is a day’s drive away.
-- It’s a good idea to make reservations in the lodge dining room for meals prior to your visit, or you may end up eating at a fast-food bar.
-- It’s also a good idea to make camping reservations in advance; campgrounds can fill up in the summer.
Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).
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