Playing on the Plateau
February 1, 2011
Filed under Destinations
Wild and remote, Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau is paradise for lovers of the great outdoors. Whether you like to participate in outdoor sports or just marvel at the spectacular scenery, this unique corner of the world is sure to capture your heart. Stretching from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the red rock country on the border between Arizona and Utah, it offers more than a million and a half acres of quiet, wilderness playground. A portion of the Plateau lies within the Kaibab National Forest and a portion within the North Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park. And while somewhere around 5 million people a year crowd the South Rim of the Grand Canyon fewer than 10 percent ever make their way to the North Rim, and those who do rarely venture far from the canyon rim around Bright Angel Point, leaving the entire region of the Kaibab Plateau to the adventuresome few who choose to explore it.
Spring through fall, miles of back roads and trails, from short handicapped-accessible paths to more strenuous overnight trips, beckon hikers. Auto, horseback, mule, bicycle and ATV are also popular means of exploring the Plateau. Down on the canyon rim the beautiful old Grand Canyon Lodge offers nature programs, fine dining as well as quick snacks, a gift shop and a bookstore. If you’d like to take a mule ride down into the canyon or perhaps a river-rafting trip down the Colorado you can make arrangements there.
When winter arrives with heavy snow and fiercely cold weather, almost everything closes — including the roads — but then a whole new spectrum of outdoor activities unfolds as a quiet winter wonderland attracts cross-country skiers from around the world.
The winter snows had since melted upon our last arrival at Kaibab — a Paiute Indian word meaning “mountain lying down” to describe this vast tilted shelf of ancient seafloor that rises to an elevation a bit over 9,000 feet at its highest point.
Temperatures were in the high 90s as we reached the junction of Arizona Highways 89 and 89A. Turning west on Highway 89A, we drove along the southern edge of the brilliant Vermilion Cliffs just as the afternoon sun was striking the rock, intensifying vivid hues to even deeper shades of red.
Passing the old Cliff Dweller’s Lodge — built into the massive boulders lying along the edge of the cliffs — we stopped to explore the curious old structure that resembles something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Early settlers to the region were certainly creative when it came to concocting shelter from materials at hand. Beside the sagging front porch, where visitors of the early 19th century to Grand Canyon’s North Rim once found a shady spot to rest, Navajo women were selling colorful handmade jewelry.
Continuing west through the historic House Rock Valley, where recent attempts have been made to release and establish the California condor, we eventually reached the tiny village of Jacob Lake, at the junction of Highways 89A and 67. Built to serve Kaibab Plateau visitors, this is where you’ll find a small lodge, store, gas, meals and the visitor center.
We picked up information and, most importantly, a forest service map of the Kaibab National Forest at the visitor center and then set up camp at the nearby Kaibab Camper RV Village (928-643-7804, www.kaibabcampervillage.com; open May 14-October 15). This was a nice central location for exploring the canyon rim as well as the plateau, and is the only campground in the area with hookups. Camping is pretty limited on the Kaibab, so be sure you have a spot reserved before arriving. And, although dispersed camping is allowed throughout the national forest, it is really only suitable for smaller RVs.
Tall ponderosa pines cast long shadows as we drove our tow vehicle the 44 miles along Highway 67 to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Traveling first through a portion of the Kaibab National Forest, we passed miles of burned trees standing like gray ghosts along the road before entering a deep ponderosa forest interspersed with aspen. This eventually gave way to lush alpine meadows filled with wildflowers and deer. Entering Grand Canyon National Park 30 miles south of Jacob Lake we then drove another 14 miles to the North Rim. Designated a National Forest Scenic Byway and also a State Scenic Byway, this stretch of road is frequently described as “the most pleasant 44 miles in America.”
Highway 67 ends at Grand Canyon Lodge, which is built into the cliff at Bright Angel Point. Originally built in 1928 for the Union Pacific Railroad, it burned in 1932. The building you see now was built in 1937 using the same footprint and floorplan as the original lodge and, with its massive ponderosa beams and limestone facade, offers a warm welcome. As we entered through the large front doors, our eyes were immediately drawn across the sunroom to its enormous wall of windows looking right into the canyon. This view is every bit as beautiful if not more so than anything you will see along the crowded South Rim. A few steps below the lodge entrance an elegant dining room is always filled to capacity.
On the front porch of the lodge, people with binoculars filled comfortable chairs watching as the sun dropped closer and closer to the canyon rim, while astronomers were busy setting up telescopes for an evening star party. At this altitude the stars seem close enough to touch and, with the absence of big-city lighting, there is probably no better place on Earth for viewing them. We overheard excited voices discussing star clusters, super novas, Venus and Cassiopeia. You will find a variety of programs offered nightly at the lodge, so check the schedule for those that interest you.
Outside, descending a few stairs from the lodge, we took the half-mile, paved hike out to Bright Angel Point to see its incredible views of the canyon. Mesmerized, we watched as the setting sun brought dark shadows to canyon crevasses and soft pinks, mauves and grays tinged the sky, echoing their colors on the canyon walls. Driving back to camp at Jacob Lake, we kept our eyes glued to the road, watching for deer that would suddenly appear in our headlights.
Early the next morning we plotted out a course to follow a series of gravel forest service roads snaking through the thick ponderosa pine covering the plateau and eventually leading to remote lookout points along the canyon rim. Your campground hosts at Kaibab Camper RV Village will be happy to help you plan this drive. They can also tell you the condition of the road, as it can become deeply rutted and only passable with high-clearance vehicles during wet weather.
The roads are well-signed in most places, but be sure to have a map with you or you can quickly get lost in the maze. We had the road all to ourselves as we traveled west on Forest Service roads 461 and 462, just outside the campground, and wound our way down Forest Service roads 22 and 425 to Crazy Jug Point, with its dazzling views of Crazy Jug Canyon and Tapeats Amphitheater. Wildflowers and lavender clusters of desert willow lined miles of roadside, and we encountered an occasional old corral or cabin from days of long ago.
We continued to wind through a series of other forest service roads visiting more lookout points along the canyon rim that are seldom seen by most tourists. Parissawampitts Point, Timp Point and Fire Point. Each offered its own unique view of the Grand Canyon. Eventually we emerged from the forest onto Highway 67 just north of the Grand Canyon National Park entrance, and once again we dodged the deer on Highway 67 as we returned to camp.
For our next day’s adventure, we took the paved Cape Royal Road over the Walhalla Plateau, just east of Bright Angel Point, stopping at each of the lookout points and taking the short walks out to the canyon’s rim. Point Imperial, Vista Encantadora, Roosevelt Point, Walhalla Overlook, Angel’s Window and Cape Royal are some of the North Rim’s most beautiful views. At the Walhalla Overlook be sure you find the Walhalla Ruins across the road, a site used sometime before A.D. 1150 by an ancient Pueblo people.
If you have a high-clearance tow vehicle, take the bumpy, 17-mile dirt road out to Point Sublime. Extending far into the canyon, it offers spectacular views along the North and South Rims, and you will even catch a glimpse of the Colorado River far below. The road leaves Highway 67 about 2.7 miles north of the Grand Canyon Lodge. Look for it on your forest service map. The road isn’t always passable, so check at the North Rim Visitor Center before starting out.
The Kaibab Plateau is definitely one of the more beautiful places we’ve discovered, and we have no doubt you will enjoy it too.
Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, (928) 643-7298, www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab