FLAGSTAFF (AP) — With less snowfall lately at the Grand Canyon's North Rim, tourism officials see an opportunity to stretch the visiting season and bring more revenue to the region.
The less popular North Rim is fully open for less than half the year. It's only lodge wasn't built to handle harsh winters, and most employees are hired on a seasonal basis. The water system, with pipes buried just inches below the ground, is susceptible to freezing.
But tourism officials say climate change is on their side as they advocate for a way to extend the North Rim season.
Kane County, Utah, tourism director Camille Johnson has been leading the discussion. She said it's frustrating when the only paved road between Jacob Lake, Arizona, and the North Rim closes Dec. 1 without significant snowfall.
"The end game for us is to get it open year-round or most of the year so we can promote ourselves as a four-season destination," she said.
Overnight lodging at the North Rim shuts down Oct. 15, as do ranger-led programs and most concessionaire services. The rim is open for day use until the highway closes. Everything reopens May 15.
For now, the park said it can do a better job of focusing on the day-use, rather than the months-long closure.
"That's a low-lying fruit we can tackle this year," said park spokeswoman Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski. "Longer-term stuff is going to be understanding what is the true capacity of the North Rim."
Another meeting is planned next month. Johnson said she wouldn't expect any major changes for five to 10 years.
The North Rim gets about 10 percent of the Grand Canyon's 6.25 million visitors. It sits at more than 8,000 feet (2,440 meters) in elevation and is bordered by national forest land where a herd of bison roam. It has few amenities — a lodge rebuilt in 1936 that's been designated a national historic landmark, a gas station and a developed campground.
Dirk Clayson, chairman of the Kane County Board of Commissioners in southern Utah, said nearly half of visitors to southern Utah are drawn in by the Grand Canyon but cannot get there in the wintry season, even with scant or no snowfall.
The 30-year average for snowfall at the North Rim is more than 11 feet, but the average over the past decade has shrunk by more than 3 feet (0.91 meters), according to the National Weather Service.
"The problem is solvable," Clayson said. "Whatever we can do to influence, raise funds or lobby back in D.C. for additional staffing, we're willing to do."
Those who visit the North Rim typically aren't seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, Shedlowski said. They're looking for a quieter experience. Some make the trip as part of the Grand Circle — a collection of national park sites in the Southwest region that include Zion in Utah, Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Great Basin in Nevada and Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico.
One remote and rugged part of the North Rim that has no services and requires a high-clearance vehicle stays open year-round.
Will James, the owner of Dreamland Safari Tours in Kanab, Utah, guides visitors to the Toroweap outlook that's lower in elevation and doesn't get much snow. He wonders if extending hours at the rest of the North Rim is necessary and if the economics would play out.
"Part of me feels like, do we have to year-round, over-commercialize everything?" he said.