North Rim Campground in the heart of Grand Canyon National Park
And there we have it: Grand Staircase Bingo! This place was a great score because we had reservations at De Motte Forest Service campground, well outside the park, before we got these as a cancellation. The forest service campgrounds all closed, along with all of the Kaibab National Forest, due to fire risks. We can understand because we witnessed the massive devastation caused by the Mangum Fire in June of 2020. Acres and acres of dead, burned trees still fill the hillsides as you approach the turnoff from Highway 89A to Highway 67. That entire area was closed for a long time and the scars will remain for decades. A rather sombre approach to such a beautiful national park, but then, one must acknowledge that the beauty of these special places is born from natural upheaval and ecological disaster. It’s hard to equate that with things that are human caused, but it helps me to think: this old Earth has been through a lot and she’s still a smoking hot babe.
Highway 67 is a very nice drive
The very first thing that happened after I cleaned Dory’s windows was it rained. So now they’re all dirty again. Oh well. We arrived after the clouds had passed us by and got really excited about the fact that there is a general store, plus laundry and a gas station, inside the park. No cell service really, and only a bit of wifi at the store, but that was expected. Our site was a nice pull through on the outside of the loop, so we had lots of room and privacy. Also lots of shade, but again, the solar panels seem to be eking out whatever amps they can get when there are moments when the sun pokes through the trees. Still happy battery so still saying ‘yay’ and not worrying about it.
We went over to the Visitor Center, which is very small, and then to the Lodge, which has a huge room with floor to ceiling windows where you can take in the view. There is a short trail out to Bright Angel Point for an even better vantage point. That is one big canyon there. We decided to go back and catch the sunset on the Transept Trail, right by the campground. The show is all about the end of day light cast on the many peaks and folds in the rock faces. It is just beautiful to watch.
The next day was spent driving up the viewpoint roads. This is a long and windy road, so if you are going to do this, allow plenty of time there and back again. You can catch glimpses of the vast drop-offs sometimes on the corners, but beyond that, you’d think you were just driving up any old forest road. We did the little viewpoint hikes at Point Imperial, Vista Encantada, Roosevelt, and then went up to Cape Royal. There you can go out an easy paved trail to the lookout and get the supreme experience. You pass by Angel’s Window, a triangular opening in one of the rocky outcroppings, and can walk across it even.
Cliff Springs Trail
We then went on the Cliff Spring Trail, which is about a half mile downhill until you get to a spectacular little oasis, hanging off the side of the rock wall. The spring water continually drips through, creating an ideal environment for ferns and flowering plants that could not otherwise survive. That was a beautiful hike where I was pleased with how well I handled the uphill return without dying. We celebrated the day by taking an anniversary selfie on one of the overlook trails and tried not to become tragic selfie statistics by backing off a cliff.
Instead, we decided to kill me the next day by doing an honest to goodness Grand Canyon hike. We always refer to trails that go steeply down at the onset as “Grand Canyon hikes” and that is a reminder to be careful. In this park, they color code your likelihood of becoming a cautionary tale. People die doing these trails fairly regularly because of the heat combined with how easy it is to overextend yourself on the downhill. They try their best to give parameters to how far is reasonable to do down and still make it back up. I set a tentative goal of Coconino Overlook, with an evaluation at that point about whether to try for the Supai Tunnel. Richard put the Supai Tunnel in his mind with a decision point about whether to go on to the Redwall Bridge. We had lots of water and salty snacks and the weather forecast said a high of 77. All systems go.
Color coded to help you know how far you should go
We are not the kind of people who hit the trail at 4am, or 6am, or even 8am. We didn’t dawdle, but we also didn’t get to the trailhead until about 10am. The parking lot at that point was full. So Richard left me there, drove the half mile or so back to our campsite, and walked back. It’s really handy to be married to a fitness maniac sometimes.
Pictures can’t capture the rapid rate of descent, but we were both wary. I knew every step down would require several steps up in return. It got a little hotter as we went down, but nothing like the reported 107º on the canyon floor, a good five thousand feet below. Now and again, we were passed by mule trains, carrying people down the same path. I was told that for those who find themselves too low and really can’t get back up, the rangers will rescue you with a mule trip, costing $800. That could be false, but it sounded like a good deal and a believable story.
First stop – still in the Green Zone
We made it to the “green zone” Coconino Lookout quite soon, and it felt way too early for me to turn around. So I decided to keep going, perhaps all the way to the tunnel. I had counted the switchbacks on the map but soon realized they do not depict each and every one. So I had a harder time approximating how much was left. Sometimes we passed people coming back up and we tried to get information on the trail ahead. About the point where I was starting to become concerned, we met a couple who had been to the tunnel. When asked how much further, they both groaned a little and said “You have a ways to go.” They estimated another three quarters of a mile. Straight down. They also said there was a ranger down there who was very familiar with the trail and she was turning people back, like if they didn’t have snacks or enough water. I figured that was my cue to call it a day and start slowly slowly climbing back up. Richard felt fine, of course, and wanted to keep going. I told him he would pass me on the way back up. In fact, he could probably go rim to rim and still pass me on the way back up. I was totally fine with him going on.
Supai Tunnel – Yellow Zone
I just went super slow, one step at a time. I rested in all the shady spots. The ranger eventually came up the trail and checked in to make sure I was ok. She seemed particularly focused on salty snacks, which I had. I counted down the switchbacks on the way up, because even if they weren’t accurate on the map, I knew how many I’d done before turning around. There had been six or seven rangers working on trail maintenance near the Coconino Overlook when we went down, so when I heard them, I knew I was going to be ok. I stopped for a long while there and ate, chatted with other hikers, and took in the view. Then it was just .7 miles to the top, and it was getting cooler and shadier. No problem. Really, the worst part of the ascent was meeting another three mule trains on their way down. Sometimes they decide to all pee in the same spot and the odor just about knocks you out.
If you squint and look waaaaay down below, you can see the bridge
Finally, I made it to the top and was not gasping for air. I was happy to stop for a while, but I did not feel spent, nor was I wondering where the nearest AED might be. Ok, I actually wonder that more than you’d think, so that might be a lie, but I was not specifically wondering at that moment due to wondering if I might need one. I had not only survived a real for real Grand Canyon hike, but I had gotten out of there before Richard did twice as much. Celebrations all around and I was ever so chipper welcoming him when he climbed up to the top.
The Redwall Bridge
Richard reported that I was actually really close to the tunnel and that it only took him another ten to fifteen minutes to reach it after I’d turned back. Maybe a quarter mile. I have no regrets mind you. I was making a rational decision based on the information I had at the time. He also said there were several rangers down there checking on people and turning some back before Redwall Bridge. They had enormous metal trunks full of medical supplies and there were potable water spigots and a vault toilet down there. It is meant to be a respite for weary hikers as well as a water station for anyone who misplanned. So if that place is a 1400 foot drop at 4 miles round trip, then I probably did at least 1200 and three and half. He talked to the rangers and they took his name and let him go on. I thought that was interesting. They were clearly trying to track the traffic up and down the trail. They waved him on saying, “Ok Richard, see you in an hour.” I wonder if they go down and up the Grand Canyon every day. What a job that must be.
View from the bridge (he did not look while taking the picture)
As for the scenery down there, he took pictures of the tunnel and the bridge, both quite the feats in engineering given the terrain. HIs day clocked in at 2200 feet of climbing and 5.2 miles round trip. He felt the whole thing was pretty safe and well managed by the rangers. The one who was more negative was a volunteer and probably just had a more cautious point of view. Not a bad thing in a place where three people died in June alone. I’m sure they work really hard to try to keep people safe.
What the hell is this creature?
Since I was not totally spent, and in a pretty good mood about surviving the day, I was able to walk back to the campground rather than send Richard back for the car to come pick me up. That was my plan because I assumed I would be close to dead. Instead, I was amped up and excited about getting an ice cream sandwich at the general store. Man that was good.
Just spectacular. You can just make out the Colorado River far below
This was an exceptionally nice stay for us. We love the park and agree that it is probably a better vibe for us than the South Rim, though we’ve never been there. It is beautiful and woodsy and peaceful, with natural wonder of the world views in the background. I will admit that the views often looked fake, like CGI or mat paintings. The clouds looked like Pixar made them too. But as fake looking backdrops go, this place has the best.
Total miles: 165.9, 19.1 mpg (must have had a tail wind). Site 25. Very nice. Private, shaded. Not much cell service anywhere except on occasional lookouts. Better for Verizon than ATT even then. Wifi at General Store, and also supplies like milk, eggs, various foods, camping supplies, touristy things, and ice cream in the freezer. Dump was ok and had potable water. Gas station on your way out with Regular or Diesel. Laundromat on site but closed at the moment. All forest service roads were closed.