Each year, 5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park. Most of them see the World Heritage Site from its South Rim, which remains open all year. Far fewer visitors head to the North Rim, where winter snows prevent access for nearly six months.
After its long winter nap, the North Rim opened for its 2012 season last week. There might still be patches of snow, but facilities at the North Rim opened May 15, when the main road, Arizona Route 67, was cleared to carry vehicles.
About 300 road miles separate Las Vegas from both rims of the Grand Canyon, but the journey to the South Rim is more direct. Southern Nevadans headed for the North Rim should allow more time. Follow Interstate 15 north into Utah, exiting onto Utah Route 9 toward Hurricane. In Hurricane, turn on Utah Route 59, which becomes Arizona Route 389 at the Arizona border. Follow this road east to Fredonia and the junction with scenic U.S. Highway 89 Alternate. U.S. 89A climbs rapidly into the Kaibab National Forest. At Jacob Lake, turn onto Route 67 for the 45-mile drive south to the park entrance, where visitors pay a $35 entrance fee good for seven days at either rim or use a federal recreation pass. The entrance is nearly 13 miles from the visitor center, lodge and other facilities near the rim.
Grand Canyon's North Rim is on the northern edge of the chasm about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim. The elevation difference means that beautiful forests of pine and fir sweep up to the canyon on the North Rim. The highway to the North Rim cuts through wide meadows fringed by stands of white-trunked quaking aspen. Additional precipitation adds lushness to vegetation and variety to the forest lacking at the South Rim. Viewpoints at the North Rim lie on deeply cut edges of the Kaibab Plateau that hang above steeply eroded side canyons. From elevations of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, overviews include many of the 277 miles of the Colorado River contained within the Grand Canyon, as well as views of hundreds of miles.
Although within sight of each other across the Grand Canyon, the two rims are nearly 280 road miles apart. Only one arduous 28-mile trail connects the rims, running down into the mile-deep canyon, across the Colorado River on a footbridge and back up the cliffs on a steep route. When a small airstrip at the North Rim closed, connections by air between the rims ceased.
The visitor experience at the North Rim will probably be more relaxed than on the South Rim, where crowds throng every trail and viewpoint. However, because facilities are fewer and the season is shorter, advance arrangements are just as important.
There is just one hotel and one campground at the North Rim. The rustic Grand Canyon Lodge perches on the rim with superb views from its inviting sunroom. Built in 1928, the facility burned just four years after opening. Rebuilt with steeper rooflines in 1937 on the same footprint, the lodge contains a restaurant, a saloon, a deli, a coffee bar, a gift shop and a desk for mule-back trail rides. Guests stay in a variety of cabins or motel rooms, some on the rim, many with rim views, for nightly prices ranging from $116 to $192. Call Forever Resorts at (928) 638-2611 or visit www.grandcanyonforever.com online. Reserve sites in the North Rim Campground for $18 to $25 with no hookups at www.recreation.gov.
Start your experience at the park's visitor center for information, exhibits, maps and brochures. Check on ranger programs and walks that introduce park history, plants and animals and natural features.
Further explore the North Rim by car to outlying viewpoints such as Point Imperial, the highest overlook at 8,800 feet. Many visitors stroll or hike some of the 13 trails of varying difficulty along the rim to viewpoints or down into the canyon. Some tour by biking routes on park roads and a couple of trails. Popular mule rides along the rim or down the Kaibab Trail range from one-hour ambles to half-day treks. Make advance inquiries at (435) 679-8665 or at www.canyonrides.com.
Special events planned this season include a star party, art exhibits, a symphony and Native American Heritage Days. Free entry days include June 9, Sept. 29 and Nov. 10 to 12.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.