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Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, AZ  10/19-24/08 (Day 737-742)
Out On a Whim

It’s just the other side of a massive hole in the ground, but the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park might as well be the other side of the planet from the more-visited South Rim. Fewer visitors mean you never have to wait in traffic or transfer to a people-moving bus or elbow your way to a rim view. And the canyon—which shows itself so freely from the South Rim—is largely hidden from the North Rim except to those who are willing to walk and/or drive a bit to a vantage point, which makes the canyon feel even more mysterious and awesome.

An additional 1,400 feet in elevation above the South Rim also means cooler temperatures and different flora, including Aspens. The North Rim even has its own squirrel that’s not found on the other side of the canyon. The Kaibab Squirrel sports a distinctive charcoal-colored body and a silver tail which makes it look like two different squirrels got their halves mixed up.

Though the Kaibab Squirrel can literally see the South Rim from most of its terrain, it appears to have decided that the hike down into the canyon then back up to the other side is just too much effort—and you can forget about the 220 mile road route between the two rims of the park—so the squirrel remains local.

Bright Angel Overlook Grand Canyon
Sunset over Bright Angel Canyon with the Grand Canyon in the distance.

Despite our late fall arrival, we find the lone North Rim campground is still open for business—though without water services which reduces the nightly rate to just $12, down from the normal $17 rate. Even the coveted rim-front sites, which normally go for a jacked-up $25 a night, are available for just $12 and we happily snag site #14 which rubs right up against the lip of a dramatic side canyon.

As we’re filling out our site registration form Bob, the campground host, comes by on his bicycle and asks if he can take a picture of our Safari SE. We’re used to this kind of Airstreamania by now and we’re happy to oblige. Then Bob, who camps in a 1970s Argosy, explains that he’s been documenting all of the Airstreams that have spent the night in his campground since he started hosting back in May.

Bob says that 10 Airstreams have been in the campground on his watch, ranging from a 1963 which the owners had dubbed The Frog (rivet, rivet—get it?) to a bunch of 2008s like ours and he’s diligently logged most of them with photos and details about length, model and owners.

Angels Window grand Canyon
The peek-a-boo view through Angels Window
which we later walk over via a narrow trail.

We’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back from the South Rim during an earlier visit to the park, so we know full well that getting down there and back is a serious walk. Unlike the Kaibab Squirrel, however, we are so enchanted by the canyon that we decide we have to do it from the North Rim as well.

We don’t begin to seriously plan a canyon hike until after we miraculously get dorm room reservations at Phantom Ranch, the historic lodge down at the bottom of the canyon—something akin to winning the lottery. That’s when we head to the North Rim’s backcountry permit office where Dave sets us up with camping permits for Cottonwood Campground, mid way between Phantom Ranch and the North Rim.

With permits and reservations in hand the only thing left is the walking. And more walking.

Coconino Overlook North Kaibab trail
At Coconino Overlook, near the beginning of the North Kaibab trail, on our way down into the Grand Canyon. It's still a long way down to Roaring Springs Canyon then Bright Angel Canyon and finally the Colorado River some 5,600 feet below us.

As compared to the hike from the South Rim, the North Rim route to the bottom of the canyon and back is steeper (descending and ascending 5,600 feet vs. 4,400 feet to and from the South Rim) and longer (28 miles round trip to Phantom Ranch and back, vs. 17 miles round trip from the South Rim). But we’re not complaining. The walk is gorgeous from the first steps as the North Kaibab Trail drops and winds steeply through the rim forest then through the distinct rock layers of the canyon.

North Kaibab trail below Supai Tunnel
Karen heads down the trail just below the Supai Tunnel.

We hike, virtually alone, until we reach Cottonwood Campground which has a handful of clean, flat sites near a stream—which is a good thing since the piped in water all along the North Kaibab Trail has just been turned off for the season to avoid freezing pipes. We relax on the bank of the stream in the last of the evening sun and use our SteriPEN to purify enough water to re-fill our Camelbak backpack bladders and get us through the night before scarfing down a delicious (seriously) freeze-dried Mountain House meal and climbing into our sleeping bags.

North Kaibab trail - The Box
Karen in The Box, a dramatic, narrow, high-walled canyon
on the lower section of the North Kaibab Trail.

The next day’s walk down to Phantom Ranch is even more breathtaking, mainly because it’s so varied. Gone are the layers upon layers of rock that we descended through the previous day, replaced with surprisingly wet and green stretches along the canyon bottom. Then we reach a section called The Box—four miles through an increasingly narrow and high-walled canyon crossing and re-crossing the stream.

The water thunders off the rock walls and the trail gentles-out to a leisurely stroll almost inperceptably downhill. We could walk like this all day!

Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

And then we’re at Phantom Ranch which appears very much like the oasis that it is. Trees, grass, clear water, nearly-tame deer plus a warm bed in the dorm and a hot shower followed by a hot meal in the ranch’s dining hall where the truly delicious beef stew dinner with crispy salad, fresh-baked cornbread and chocolate cake fuels us up for the hard part—tomorrow’s return hike back UP the way we just came down.

After dinner we sit in on a ranger talk in the dark outdoor amphitheater near the canteen. As the ranger wraps up, she casually asks if anyone is interested in going scorpion hunting. As feared, scorpion hunting is really, really easy since they’re all around us.

Scorpions glow in the dark, so the rangers at Phantom Ranch use flashlights fitted with black light bulbs to almost instantly reveal a disconcerting number of 2” long scorpions covering the rocks near where we’d just been sitting. One of the rangers specializes in scorpions and has been stung many times and her stories of pain, suffering, sorrow, agony and grief make us suddenly wish we still had our boots on instead of the open-toed sandals we wore to dinner…

Colorado River Grand Canyon
A group of lucky rafters takes a break on the banks of the Colorado River.

We’re not the only ones taking advantage of the natural and gastronomic wonders of Phantom Ranch and of all the interesting folks we meet and see down there, two stand out.

The first is a white-bearded, big-bellied, crinkly-eyed smiler who calls himself Meadow Ed (google him) who easily holds court with his stories from a lifetime lived on the trail—from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific Crest Trail where he is, no exaggeration, a legend. Like we said, google him.

The second stand out is a guy we only exchange about 10 words with. The first time we see him he’s running (yes, running) past us on the trail up to the North Rim side as we’re beginning to re-pack our Mountainsmith packs for our own return hike.

Grand Canyon Mule
Almost everything gets down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule, including
food, mail, cases of beer and many tourists.

Later that day, as we approach the half-way mark on the North Kaibob Trail, the same runner passes us again--this time on his way back down toward Phantom Ranch before continuing back up to the South Rim from whence he came. Still running, this guy has enough breath to inform us that he’s on track to make the entire 42 mile trip from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again, descending and climbing more than 11,300 long hard feet, in EIGHT HOURS. That’s like running up and down a 1,150 story building spread out over 42 miles. Incredible.

(See our short video of our hike up the North Kaibab trail here.)

We spend the next few hours on the trail simply trying to wrap our heads around what that guy is doing. At the same time, we’re also getting sucked into the addictive nature of the Grand Canyon. Incredibly, we finish our own trip into the canyon and back without even getting sore (possibly due to residual fitness left over from our recent Half Dome hike). This makes us consider upping the ante ourselves with a hike from the North Rim to the South Rim in one day the next time we’re lucky enough to visit Grand Canyon National Park. Stay tuned.


** This isn't a normal photo gallery with a slideshow because this post originally appeared on our Airstream blog. **

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