North Rim offers rustic experience and a glimpse into the park's past

Grand Canyon North Rim

The depth of Grand Canyon's North Rim provides awesome views.<br>
Photo/Carl Wells

The depth of Grand Canyon's North Rim provides awesome views.<br> Photo/Carl Wells

Though a mere 10 to 15 miles separate the South Rim from the North, in terms of atmosphere and lifestyle, the distance is more like 50 years.

The North Rim is what national parks were when our parents were kids," said Ranger Jennie Albrinck, who now works on the South Rim but spent many years on the other side.

North Rim District Ranger Mark McCutcheon agrees.

"This is a traditional setting," he said. "It's like walking into a national park of the 1940s."

Some of the park's rustic nature can be attributed to its remoteness. Though it's not nearly so out of the way as Tuweep/Toroweap, the farthest manned outpost on the North Rim, residents and visitors must still travel some distance for more than basic services.

To the north, the park is bordered by the 656,000-acre North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest and is more than 40 miles from the nearest population center, the tiny Jacob Lake at the junction of 89A and 67. For the nearest full grocery store or medical care, the next stop is Fredonia, about 70 miles away, or 10 miles further to the larger Kanab, Utah. Services on the order of those available in Flagstaff can be found in St. George, Utah, about 150 miles away. Flagstaff itself is a little over 200 miles away, about the same distance as the drive to the South Rim via the sparsely populated Arizona Strip. According to Albrinck, even for Park Service personnel, driving is the main means of getting from rim to rim. Helicopter rides are only for emergencies.

Within the park, services are fewer than those on the South Rim as well. There is no clinic; medical services are provided by ranger-EMTs. There are no televisions in the guest rooms and cell phone service is nearly nonexistent, with a signal available only at the very edge of the Canyon, the closest point toward more bustling civilization.

Still, North Rim visitors stay longer, on average, than those who visit the South Rim. Albrinck said that while the South Rim average is six hours, on the North Rim, it is three days and two nights.

Services are available on the Park's North Rim during the summer season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October. Hotel rooms are actually cabins. There is also a dining room at Grand Canyon Lodge as well as a deli, saloon and coffee shop, gas station and general store. Grand Canyon Trail Rides offers mule trips into the Canyon and on the rim. The Grand Canyon Association also operates a bookstore in the park, within a building that doubles as the visitor center.

The only other services closer than Jacob Lake are seven miles north of the park entrance. These are the Kaibab Lodge, a small general store and the Forest Service's DeMotte Campground, which reopened last season after being closed for extensive rehabilitation.

Activities include nightly ranger programs and some 50 to 60 miles of trail, much of it into the National Forest. Wildlife and landscape provide different scenery. At 8,000-plus feet elevation, the forest is a mixture of ponderosa pine, and pinion pine, juniper, Douglas fir and aspen, interspersed with large meadows. Elk are in short supply due to limited water, but deer abound along with wild turkey and the Kaibab squirrel which only exists on the plateau.

The Canyon's North Rim is also part of Grand Canyon National Park. Though anyone standing on one rim can see the lights on the other across an expanse of 10 miles, to get there requires a drive of about five hours.

While location does play a role in how the North Rim has evolved differently from the south, it's not the only reason. Starting early in the century, the North Rim, like the South, was accessible by train and concessioners have been operating there since 1917. The North Rim's first visitor services - a tent camp - were in Harvey's Meadow, located at what is now the Widforss Trailhead. The Union Pacific Railroad built Grand Canyon Lodge in the 1928. The Lodge burned down in 1932 and was rebuilt in 1937.

An ongoing philosophy to maintain a simpler experience can be found in the North Rim Development Plan. One of its stated objectives is to preserve the existing character.

"It's always been remote here, by design," McCutcheon said. "We don't plan on growing any more. We don't plan on adding any more employees."

Albrinck said that the small, closeknit community draws between 60 and 65 percent of its NPS population back each year.

"A lot of people apply to be on this side," she said. "It's a long season but many people don't mind the remoteness. I find a lot of people say this is the area in the park where they feel most at home. It's quieter and more laid back."

McCutcheon is also on the North Rim by choice. He said that while his specialty is law enforcement, he is able to operate in a less specialized way than would be the case on the South Rim.

"Here we get to do what rangers did historically," he said. "We get to do a little bit of everything. We do search and rescue, EMS, resourcebased law enforcement, interpretation and protection of natural resources."

North Rim rangers serve about 10 percent of the park's overall visitation - around 350,000 to 400,000 people a year. Most visit between May and October when services are available. During that time, the North Rim's residential population includes about 200 concessions employees and between 60 and 70 NPS personnel.

About a dozen NPS and Xanterra representatives stay through the winter to oversee property and assist the some 60 to 80 visitors who ski or snowmobile across the North Kaibab Forest once snow closes Route 67 into the park or hike in via the Kaibab Trail- often unprepared for snow that can be as high as chest deep.

The average snowfall on the North Rim is 120 inches. Generally, the North Rim receives twice as much snowfall as on the South Rim. Snow notwithstanding, the North Rim is open year-round, although a backcountry permit is required for winter camping.

While both the North and the South rims are part of the same park, McCutcheon said they operate in some ways like separate parks. The North Rim has its own interpretive, maintenance and protection divisions.

It has its own budget. And, when it comes to attracting visitors, the greatest share comes not from the South Rim but from those touring the Grand Circle, which includes Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches and Zion national parks.


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