Biking the Grand Canyon
June 9-15, 2015
2014 was the year of the Grand Canyon. Having spent almost no time there in my 14 years in Arizona, we succumbed to its spell after a backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa. We stayed over an extra day and discovered so many other wonderful ways to visit the canyon, including the 14-mile mostly paved multi-use path that runs from Hermit's Rest to the South Kaibab trailhead. We made two trips to the canyon last year — a memorable train trip in honor of Dennis' father's 91st birthday in June, and a thrilling three-day backpacking trip to Powell Plateau in August.
Now we're addicts, and return trips to both rims are now part of our annual seasonal circuit. We had planned another trip to bike the South Rim trail when I ran across some references to a bike path on the North Rim, so I rolled out the giant park map and ... there? Really? Way out there?
The hook was set, so we loaded up the truck and headed for the far western edge of the canyon, where the 18-mile-long Rainbow Rim Trail stretches its fingers to the tips of Timp, Locust, Fence and Parissawampitts Points.
Biking the North Rim
We drove in a steady drizzle all the way from Tucson and pulled it about 10 pm at Locust Point. It rained all night and was still coming down in buckets at dawn. We had a lot of fun sliding out the back end of the truck, crawling over the bikes, and trying to make breakfast under a tarp. Dawn revealed at least a dozen other tents, since despite its remote location, Locust Point is apparently heavily used by local outfitters. We knew we were right on the rim, but there was no canyon to be seen, just a bathtub full of clouds.
Biking was out of the question, so we put on our rain ponchos and headed up the trail toward Fence Point. Despite the wet conditions, the forest was enchanting, with raindrops clinging to every pine needle and spider's web, and a fragrant carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot. As we walked, the clouds began to swirl and lift, providing brief glimpses of the red-walled abyss. After a rather satisfying six-mile hike, we decided to pull up stakes and look for less crowded camping, clawing our way through the dense forest via a little-used 4WD track to Parissawampitts Point. Other than one lonely Forest Service surveyor, we had the place to ourselves. There were great views of close-in canyons and we hiked out to an isolated overlook for a spectacular sunset.
The next day we finally got to do some biking, exploring part of the trail from Parissawampitts Point to Fence Point. All of the descriptions of the Rainbow Rim Trail say it's perfect for beginners. We're not hard-core mountain bikers and are still using our 20-year-old hardtails, but we found the trail fairly challenging because there's a lot of up and down on a narrow, stony track. It's still a great ride and I'd love to come back and ride the full 18 miles.
After another deliciously cool, breezy, pine-scented night, we were off for two nights of relative luxury at the Grand Canyon Lodge. The long drive back Uacross the Kaibab Plateau was like a meditation -- mile after mile of robust 100-foot-tall Ponderosa pines, dense stands of dazzling white aspens, their emerald leaves shimmying in the breeze and meadows carpeted with knee-high grass and summer wildflowers. We don't have forests like this in southern Arizona. After a decade of catastrophic wildfires, all of our forests contain the blackened skeletons of the tallest trees and hillsides shorn of all but stunted juniper and pinon.
It's a magical, mysterious place, especially since despite the vigorous health of this forest, there is no water here. No ponds, no streams, no washes running, even after several days of heavy rain. Is all the water that falls on the Kaibab Plateau immediately siphoned off by that giant bathtub to the South?
For the next two days we enjoyed playing tourist, sleeping in a dry bed in one of the cute but cramped log cabins, hanging out on the veranda at the Grand Canyon Lodge and hiking over to the campground to take advantage of the only wifi hotspot on the North Rim, the barest trickle of a signal behind the stacks of Coleman stoves and camping chairs in the alcove of the General Store.
On Friday we hiked down the North Kaibab trail to Supai Tunnel and back to the Lodge, five miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain/loss and came back up in the pouring rain. It was a pleasant hike with some thrilling views into Cottonwood Canyon, but we soon tired of dodging mountains of mule exhaust and pools of urine. Xanterra needs to reduce the number of mule trips on this trail if they want to maintain its appeal to visitors at the North Rim.
The weather went from bad to worse that afternoon, and at sunset we joined the throng of tourists in the Great Hall at the Lodge to watch pellets of hail bouncing off the deck chairs and tables on the veranda while horizontal lightning strobed across the canyon below us.
We squeezed in one more hike along the Transept Trail before big back clouds boiling up on the northern horizon drove us back into the TacoMa. Near Jacob Lake the raindrops began congealing into icy pellets, and in any instant we were in a full-scale ice storm, with several inched of hail already piling up on the road and coming down so hard and so fast that we couldn't see to get off the road. Temperature: 42 degrees. June 13, 2015. Toto, I don't think we're in Arizona anymore.