By Jim Chamberlain
I have visited almost every viewpoint on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon over the years. I have stared across the ten-mile-wide abyss trying to find the lodge on the opposite side. Why would you travel over 200 road miles to get to the other side? What could be there that you could not see just as well from Desert View, Lipan Point, or Yavapai Point? I have seen a variety of wildlife like Rocky Mountain Elk, California Condors, and Mule Deer at the South Rim. Could the other side offer different wildlife than that? The colorful shades of the canyon walls against the Colorado River could not be any better on the other side either, right? I made a Fall trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to find out.
The View of Desert View Tower toward the North Rim
The only road into the North Rim closes for the winter usually in December but I had a few weeks left before that would happen. The 42 miles from Jacob Lake intersection with Highway 89 to the North Rim is a scenic drive that takes you up onto the Kaibab Plateau and through the National Forest. This roadway has been called one of the most pleasant drives in the United States. The Ponderosa pines and other conifers begin to be mixed with Aspens, maples, and other high alpine trees with grassy meadows dotting the landscape as the elevation rises to 8,000 feet. The Quaking Aspens were turning a brilliant yellow as I entered the park entrance, and this was something you would not see at the South Rim.
I arrived at the North Rim Lodge which is really a small lodge surrounded by dozens of quaint wooden cabins that serves as your only accommodations unless you are camping. I could just glimpse the rim of the canyon from my rocking chair on my cabin’s small porch. One thing was noticeable. It was quieter here, much quieter. The North Rim only gets 10% of the visitors the other rim gets. Nice.
A short quarter mile hike from the Lodge leads you to the Bright Angel Trail Viewpoint. I stared directly at the Brahma and Zoroaster formations. Their limestone caprocks stand 7500 feet high over Bright Angel creek which leads to Phantom Ranch on the Canyon floor. They are so close you feel you can reach out and touch them. Reflections off windows at the south rim gave me my bearings. I could even see the San Francisco Peaks dotting the far horizon. I set up my camera and waited for sunset hoping to capture a decent image of these rocky temples. The thin air made my uphill trek back to the lodge a little longer than normal. The cooler temperatures are pleasant, but the higher elevation can dehydrate you quickly. I needed to take my time and drink more water. The North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South.
Bright Angel Point
I could hear a squirrel chattering away as I walked to the lodge the next morning to get a cup of coffee before I began my day of exploring. I wondered if it was one of the rare Kaibab Squirrels that can only be found on the Kaibab Plateau among the Ponderosa Pines. I could not see if my loud companion had the grey body and long white tail of this shy tree dweller. Over 90 species of mammals call Grand Canyon National Park home which is more than Yellowstone.
I drove up the Cape Royal Road toward Point Imperial to capture sunrise over this viewpoint. Most of the viewpoints are many miles from the lodge. Point Imperial is 11 miles away and Cape Royal is 23. I used a small flashlight to light up the paved walkway from the parking area out onto a fenced viewpoint. I fumbled to set up my tripod and camera in the darkness before the sun poked its rays above the rim. The highest point in the park is here at 8800 feet. I was lucky this morning as the sun burst perfectly over the horizon to illuminate the sloping walls of the canyon. Mount Hayden jutted its pointy top above the other eroded red and black rock formations. I watched the sun rise over the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon. In the distance, the Painted Desert glowed in the morning light. This part of the Grand Canyon is not visible at the South Rim.
The drive back toward the lodge led me past several groves of Aspen and some Maples. All were decorated in their bright fall foliage. I stopped at several places along the road toward Saddle Mountain to photograph this glowing ritual of seasonal change. The fall colors at the North Rim rivalled those found in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Another visual wonder that you will not see at the south rim.
The North Rim was not done surprising me this day. As I turned from Cape Royal Road onto the main road, I saw a herd of Bison grazing in a meadow alongside the pavement. There were at least 30 animals in two groups lounging in the sunshine. A calf nursed from its mother as the big bulls seemed to nap nearby. These hoofed beasts were noticeable smaller than their Yellowstone cousins.
I learned these animals are descended from bison introduced to the area in the early 1900s to be raised instead of cattle. I stood by the rear of my car and used a long telephoto lens to capture portraits of these shaggy icons. The herd is not native to the area and causes problems for the park service with the damage they do to meadows and streams. It may not be much longer that these huge symbols of America will be allowed to remain. Another unique sight for the North Rim.
I spent a lazy afternoon, lounging on the huge flagstone patio of the main lodge. The view is one of the best of any lodge in the Park Service. As a bonus you do not have to hike and can have a cool beverage as you breathe the alpine air and watch birds float over the canyon on the thermal air currents. Unfortunately, the huge fireplace was not in use, but I could imagine a warm cup in front of a raging blaze to take the edge off an early morning chill.
I spent my last evening at Cape Royal. The near hour-long drive to go the twenty-three miles caused me to leave a good two hours before sunset. I wanted to take advantage of the evening light to grab images of Angel’s Window before setting up early to get one of the prime tripod locations to photograph Wotan’s Throne as the sun drops below the western rim. Angels Window is about halfway along the half mile path towards the Cape Royal Viewpoint. It provides a nice perspective of the canyon thru its eroded opening toward the Colorado river while you watch others walking along the ridge top above it. The best viewpoint on the North Rim must be Cape Royal. While the formations are visible from the South Rim at Yavapai Point, the view from Cape Royal is more dramatic. Wotan’s Throne points like a rocky finger toward the West while Vishnu Temple guards its flank. The setting sun brings out the red in the rocks and makes them glow. The San Francisco peaks were silhouetted against the sky on the southern horizon as the sun made another burst as it settled below the canyon rim.
The North Rim is worth visiting. This part of the park is both unique in its vistas as well as its wildlife compared to its southern companion. It is like visiting two different canyons.
Arizona Highways PhotoScapes make several trips a year to this geological wonder of the Southwest. In October of 2023, the Autumn at the North Rim Photoscape would be an excellent time to capture many of the images you see in this story, It is worth the trip to the other side of the canyon.
Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes