Up to The Grand Canyon
I read recently that only 5% of Arizonans have ever been to The Grand Canyon, and that the majority of its visitors are from outside the U.S. That was a little bit of a shocker for me — quite an indictment of taking one’s resources for granted.
Though I’d been to the Canyon at least four times in my childhood, it had been nagging on me that my kids hadn’t yet been. My oldest is nearly 10! Surely I can find time in ten years to go there! So, when some out-of-state relatives came to visit, and had plans to go to the North Rim, I really wanted to accompany them. That would kill two birds with one stone, both spending time with them and visiting the Canyon. (Plus, I hate crowds, and the more-isolated North Rim sees only 1/5 of the Grand Canyon’s annual visitors. From Phoenix, it’s an extra 150+ miles to the North Rim.)
But… my hubby didn’t want to use more vacation time for the planned midweek trip, and I didn’t really feel up to making the trip w/o help. Then, my mom said that she would be willing to drive up with me and split the cost of lodging. Ah ha! Problems solved.
Well, sort of. I had to find a place to stay. Two adults and four kids can’t just tuck themselves in a corner somewhere. There was no more room at any of the cabins or motel at the North Rim. I found Kaibab Lodge on my map, which is in the Kaibab National Forest, and about 20 miles north of the Grand Canyon National Park. They don’t have reservations online (!), so after literally three days of phone tag, I finally secured a reservation for the one cabin they had left for the night, which, thankfully, could house all six of us. The plan was to check in person when we were up there to snag — hopefully — reservations for a second night from someone’s — anyone’s — cancellation, either at Kaibab Lodge, or at the North Rim.
The trip from Phoenix to Flagstaff is, as always, beautiful, but unremarkable, since I’m fairly familiar with that trip; we made it only three days previous to see my BIL graduate from NAU. From Flagstaff, we took the 89 north towards the Canyon. After we passed the US 160, which is the turnoff for Tuba City and further on to SW Colorado, I was in unexplored-for-the-last-15+-years territory. The section of the 89 from Flag to the 160 is stark in beauty, being the Navajo reservation and the western edge of the Painted Desert. But just after the turnoff for the 160, things really start getting beautiful. It’s hard to describe the desolate loveliness of the drive from that point up to the North Rim, and hard to believe that it seemed brand-new to me, like I had never seen it before. How could I have forgotten? The rugged red cliffs start low with Hamblin Ridge on the right-hand side, increasing in size as we passed through the beautiful, high desert landscape. At the reservation town of Cedar Ridge, the cliffs grew dramatically higher, forming the Echo Cliffs. At Bitter Springs, we took the US89A west. That route takes one across the Colorado River and the northern edge of Marble Canyon on what is called the Navajo Bridge. There’s both a bridge for cars and one for pedestrians. On the western edge of both bridges is a visitor center which is technically part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is a beautiful structure, low, built of native stone, and staffed, as with virtually all federal park facilities, with kind, interesting, helpful folk.
Here’s the view from the bridge:
The next part of the trip, which was my favorite part of the drive, is so difficult to describe. Words are paltry, and even the pictures completely inadequate. Travelling west on 89A, Arizona just seemed immense, beautiful, colorful, and desolate. The Vermilion Cliffs stretched endlessly on the right-hand (north) side, true in color to their name. The view to the south and back to the east included House Rock Valley flat, with blue-green desert grass and scrub, punctuated with orange globe mallow, yellow prince’s plume, and rusty-colored blanketflower. House Rock Valley swept down gently towards the south and east, terminating at Marble Canyon, with views further past the canyon to the Navajo reservation. To the west loomed the Kaibab Plateau, which we must climb to reach the Grand Canyon.
Imagine driving along, with cliffs like this stretching out literally 100 miles, looming 2000′ above the road in a continual, impenetrable, beautiful, craggy, dry, imposing wall:
According to my Arizona Atlas, county road 8910 stretched south to Saddle Mountain Wilderness, which joined up with county roads 220 and 213, which would terminate at state route 67 just north of Kaibab Lodge, our destination. On the map, it seemed pretty clearly delineated. We found 8910 all right, with a large sign that said it was 22 miles to House Rock Wildlife Area, which was not on the map. And, sure enough, we found our way easily to the entrance of the Wildlife Area (where, btw, is a hard-to-find herd of American bison, for which one can get a hunting permit!! Whoa.). The drive there just blew my mind. Those 22 miles were fairly well-maintained dirt road, and absolutely the definition of desolate. We did pass the remnants of one old sign, and one sand pit of some sort about two miles in… and we drove by Kane Ranch with a few lonely cows, but no people in sight. Other than that, there was *nothing* there — no sign of any civilization truly as far as the eye could see, in a 360* rotation — no fences, no trash, no buildings. Nothing. Included in that “nothing” was the road which we were supposed to take. We could not find it anywhere. Finally, we did reach the Wildlife Area entrance, which did have a fence. 🙂 Right by the entrance were also three “roads” — barely tracks, largely overgrown, poorly marked. They did have small numbered signs, which did not correspond to any road marked on my atlas. Of course. The roads marked on my map, I couldn’t find. The roads I could find — not on my map. So. In my old 4WD Suburban were my mom, my four kids, and me. Also to consider were the waning day (it was about 3:30), mysterious, lonely country, and an unreliable gas guage. It was *extremely* frustrating, because, as the crow flies, we were literally less than 10 miles from our destination. But, with circumstances being what they were, I was unwilling to set off on a barely-marked track to try to find our way through the wilderness. That meant, we had to turn around the way we had come, and travel literally 80+ miles the long way around to get to Kaibab Lodge. Ugh.
One reward made it worthwhile, though. Ethan said, as we were bumping dejectedly down the road, north again to the 89A, “Look! A deer! …. Wait a minute. Is that a deer?” My mom scanned the terrain, finding where Ethan was pointing. Excitedly, she said, “That’s not a deer! It’s an antelope!!!” Pronghorn antelope do live in Arizona, but the sighting of them is very, very rare. I’ve never seen one in the wild, and neither has my mom. This pic isn’t very good, but it’s the best I could get, with my low-powered zoom:
After the antelope excitement died down, I drove off as fast as possible, eager to join back up to the 89A and the “normal” route to Kaibab Lodge. We continued west on 89A, turning south at Jacob Lake onto State Route 69, south to our evening’s destination.
While we were gassing up in Jacob Lake, several emergency vehicles screamed their way down the road, incongruous with the peaceful mountain surroundings. About 20 miles down the road, we saw why: A motorcyclist couldn’t negotiate a sharp curve in the road. My boys knew, without me saying anything, what the shape on the ground, covered with a yellow tarp was. “That’s very sad,” remarked 5yo Wesley. We drove silently the rest of the way, very mindful of the road’s twists and turns.
Another sadness was seeing the extensive damage done to last June’s Warm Fire, which swept through 40,000 acres of Kaibab National Forest. Some parts of the forest were decimated, though new, green life was already showing through. Other parts weren’t even touched. Fires are odd.
Another odd thing about this stretch of the forest was that it, as well, was completely lonely. Most national forests to which I’ve been (and there have been many, and in many states) have the occasional private cabin tucked here and there along the way… or a teeny hamlet with a few buildings and a gas station. But not here. Between Jacob Lake and Kaibab Lodge, I saw one cabin. And it was more of a shack. The forest (other than the damage sustained by the fire) was absolutely pristine, and the mountain meadows free of any kind of development (other than signs cautioning against motorized use)… rather what forests should be like, IMO.
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