At the Grand Canyon you can avoid crowds on the rim less traveled NORTHERN Exposure

November 07, 1993|By Jerry Flemmons | Jerry Flemmons,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Jacob Lake is a weathered pause at the corner of U.S. Alt. 89 and Arizona 67, just a motel and adjacent cabins, service station, restaurant and souvenir shop lost in Kaibab National Forest.

The forest -- mostly pinons and junipers thickly spread across Kaibab Plateau -- is a kind of upraised island in the desert of northern Arizona, and Jacob Lake is its only sign of life.

You turn south at the junction, onto Arizona 67, and 44 miles

later is the Grand Canyon few ever see -- the North Rim.

Little argument that the Grand Canyon is America's most formidable natural wonder. The "sublimest thing on earth," wrote an astounded visitor last century.

But almost all -- 90 percent -- of the millions of travelers who view it yearly come up from the interstate at Flagstaff or Williams to peer over the South Rim.

Along the South Rim is a little wilderness suburb of lodges and hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. Lots of souvenir shops. Lots of everything, including crowds.

In the thick of summer, tour buses are nose to tailpipe along the entry highways, people jam together at the lookout points; and hotels and campgrounds, even the mule-ride excursions, are booked far in advance.

But here on the North Rim, there is less, much less, of almost everything except canyon vistas. There are few tour buses, fewer individual travelers, many fewer overnight lodge rooms and camping spaces, fewer opportunities to buy souvenirs. There's just the canyon.

On clear days, the South Rim is visible nine miles away as the raven flies, 22 miles by foot or mule. Even clearer skies show off the San Francisco Peaks, outside Flagstaff, 70 straight-line miles off on the southwest horizon.

Go east by highway, though, and the distance is 226 miles. West, you circle through at least three states.

The North Rim is isolated by sweep and scope, breadth and depth, miles of desert, even weather -- heavy snows, up to 25 feet annually, cause closure of the park each late October. Reopening usually is mid-May, depending on the vagaries of sun and temperature on melting snow.

This day at noon -- before last fall's closing -- there is a spirited thunder and lightning storm over the forest, a noisy dark rain, little traffic, a certain dank majesty.

Not a tour bus in sight, but hardly a fit day for sightseer or Scicrus kaibahenis, which is a kind of squirrel found only on the North Rim plateau, and no place else on Earth.

The 44 miles (from the junction) are, generally, downhill, almost coastable through the corridor of trees, and, midway, the storm ends, sunlight returns, and before the lodge, I turned off to drive 23 miles on a winding side road leading to the North Rim's easternmost vehicular point, Cape Royal.

Lookout sites

Along the way there are lookout sites, and the views into northeastern Arizona are long, all the way to the giant pink-tinted Vermillion Cliffs leading to the beginning of the canyon.

What we see of the Grand Canyon at either the South or North Rim is but a small chunk of this "great chasm."

Cut by the Colorado River, the canyon is 227 miles long, marked in the east by Black Canyon, where rafters put in to run the 70 major rapids, to the beginnings of Lake Mead, reachable by four-wheel-drive vehicles or hardy hikers.

In the far west are the remote Havasupai and Hualapai Indian reservations, requiring fees and permits to visit. It's an eight-mile hike from the nearest driveable road, but rewards include almost 200-foot-high waterfalls and absolute solitude.

The Cape Royal road ends at a graveled parking lot beside a meadow of wild yellow daisies and pink larkspur. A marked walk leads to the canyon's edge at Angel's Window, a massive stone arch that juts out over the cliff edge as a natural viewing platform.

A first view of the Grand Canyon always is intimidating -- "grand" will forever be an understatement.

From the Angel's Window perch, the river's about 6,000 feet down (always a reminder that, on average, somewhere along the canyon's edges, three people yearly fall over the side).

The far canyon walls expose the geology, its dozen layers of rock estimated at 2 billion years old, and colored all varieties of red, from lightest blush to florid scarlet.

The Cliff Spring trail begins beside the arch and winds down, said to extend for more than a mile past Indian ruins to the cold-water spring beside a butte.

From the platform, dozens of buttes are visible, many with curious names like Freya Castle and Vishnu Temple -- these two, as many more, named by geographer Clarence Dutton for an 1880 survey.

I left the platform and Cape Royal and drove back to the main road, and south again to the lodge and central headquarters for the North Rim at Bright Angel Point.

The lodge, a rebuilt 1930s concoction (the first one burned) sits on the canyon's edge and is properly massive and wooden, high-ceilinged, with glass walls on the south looking out, as Dutton wrote a century ago, on the "sylvan scenery."

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