I needed to pull out a map to find out what he was talking about. Once the map was unfolded, he pointed to Highway 67, a spur off 89A and Jacob Lake and the only road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The gentleman made a smudge on the map with his finger, connecting Highway 64 on the South Rim in an imaginary line with Highway 67 on the North Rim.
“Where do I find the bridge?”
Most of us know it is not that easy. It took some explaining for the visitor to understand that there was no bridge, and there was nothing connecting the highway on the South Rim with the highway on the North Rim. As close as it may seem through the 10 miles of air space between rims, the North Rim is a long, 215 mile drive away from Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
A rim away and a world away, the North Rim is higher, cooler, quieter and exquisitely beautiful. And, as I find with all my road trips, half the fun is getting there. There are dozens of guidebooks available that explain the trails and hikes available on the North Rim.
This article is intended to explain what you see out your window on the way there.
When you leave Grand Canyon Village in the early morning, grab yourself a cup of coffee big enough to get you out of the park through the east entrance at Desert View. About the time the coffee has worn out its welcome, you should arrive at the junction of Highways 64 and 89. A left turn and one mile north will take you to Cameron Trading Post. Stop here for restrooms and a great breakfast.
What started in 1916 as a traditional trading post on the Navajo Reservation has expanded to a gift shop, general store, restaurant and lodging facility. Keep an eye on your watch; you can spend several hours here admiring the Native American crafts and never make it to the North Rim.
Before you leave, stop at the general store and stock up on road food and drinks for the drive ahead.
Highway 89 traverses the northwestern edge of the Navajo Reservation for 52 miles before it forks into 89 and 89A at Bitter Springs. As you drive north beyond the turnoff for Highway 160, look to your right along the Echo Cliffs for patches of green and occasional tall, dark Lombardy poplar trees jutting out from the red rocks.
Springs seeping between rock formations have formed green oases and have attracted habitation since ancestral times. To the east the towns of Tuba City, Moenave and Moenkopi sit on top of these springs.
At Bitter Springs, take Highway 89A towards Marble Canyon and Jacob Lake. If you need to stretch your legs, stop at Navajo Bridge, which is the only vehicular bridge spanning the Colorado River for over 600 miles. The original bridge, now a pedestrian bridge, was built in 1929.
After you cross, three lodging facilities over the next 11 miles offer restrooms and restaurants. They are also hangouts for river rafters preparing to depart from Lees Ferry for the epic raft trip down the Colorado River. If you want to hear their war stories, take in the local color at any of the three restaurants.
Beyond you lies House Rock Valley, a long, windy, sagebrush covered valley stretching from the eastern edge of the North Rim up to the Vermilion Cliffs.
As the road climbs out of the valley, the vegetation changes from sagebrush to pinion and juniper, then to ponderosa pine, then to Douglas fir and aspen. A left turn at Jacob Lake Lodge puts you on the elusive Highway 87 to the North Rim.
Think you’re there yet? Not quite. In fact you still have 30 miles to get to the National Park boundary, and another 17 miles to the North Rim. So stop at the lodge for a bite to eat if you’re hungry, or grab a few snacks at their little store, admire the rustic log work inside the lodge, hop back in your car and keep driving.
A stop at the Kaibab National Forest visitor center near the Jacob Lake Lodge will explain the diverse habitat found on the Kaibab Plateau. Your approach to the rim takes you through the aspen-spruce life zone, filled with blue-green Colorado blue spruce, Englemann spruce, aspens, and an occasional white fir enjoying the cooler climate and abundance of winter snows. The meadows are splashed with summer wildflowers, and deer frequent the ponds dotting the meadows.
In stark contrast to the South Rim’s main entrance station, with four lanes, blinking lights and perpetual lines, the North Rim’s entrance station consists of a modest cabin and a ranger who actually walks out to greet you.
Another 17 miles of driving through lush forests and wildflower-infused meadows, and you’re at the North Rim. Here, at the end of Highway 67, lies the North Rim’s village. Expect a fraction of the facilities and a fraction of the people. The awesome Grand Canyon Lodge, originally built in 1928, should be your first stop. Head through the front doors for the sunroom to savor the North Rim’s incredible views, stretch your legs and plan your hiking treks.
However, once you walk the short trail in front of the Lodge, sit on the back porch and watch the cloud shadows, or sink into the overstuffed chairs of the sunroom, hiking may have to wait. The journey in itself was an adventure; hiking is another, perhaps for tomorrow.