The North Rim of the Grand Canyon doesn’t get nearly the traffic as its more touristy neighbor to the south. For one thing, it is a lot more remote. The North Kaibab Trail is the most difficult of the three trails that dissect the canyon, but it also holds the most varied ecosystem. Somewhat surprisingly, it is forested. With fir and aspen and scrub oak, along with ferns and assorted wildflowers, the North Rim enjoys the color of the seasons. The trail descends through redwall limestone, then the Supai Formation, consisting of mostly bright red slate. You can go all the way to the Colorado River, or even beyond to the other rim. But if you’re looking for a delightful day hike, drop down off the North Rim about 2,000 feet or so, then return. My brother and I hiked the North Kaibab Trail on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 beginning at 11:00AM and ending about 3:45PM. Our plan was to descend the North Kaibab Trail approximately 2,000 feet or three hours, whichever came first… then return the same way.
Hike Length: 7.3 miles roundtrip Hike Duration: 4.75 hours
Hike Configuration: Down and back. Blaze: None needed.
Hike Rating: Difficult. Strenuous return climbing. Dry and dusty.
Elevation Gain: 2,220 feet return climb from first Roaring Springs Creek bridge.
Elevation Start: 8,230 feet.
Trail Condition: Good. Sandy and dusty. Beware mule train droppings.
Starting Point: North Kaibab trailhead on Hwy 67 (North Rim Road).
Trail Traffic: Despite the North Rim being less busy than the South Rim, we encountered roughly 60 other hikers and one mule train.
How to Get There: From Jacob Lake, Arizona take Hwy 67 south through Kaibab National Forest and into Grand Canyon National Park. The North Kaibab Trail is 41 miles from Jacob Lake. If you reach the Grand Canyon Lodge, you have gone too far. The trailhead is 1.5 miles north of the lodge.
My brother (the other Internet Brother) and I started our day at the local BLM office in Kanab, Utah. We got ourselves in the lottery for The Wave, hoping to gain two of the ten daily permits given to hike this iconic wilderness. Unfortunately, it was not our lucky day, so off to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon we went.
We headed south on Hwy 89A into Arizona, past the Pink Cliffs, and on to Jacob Lake where we got on Hwy 67, a national scenic byway. The Kaibab Plateau-North Rim Parkway traverses beautiful land even before it reaches the spectacular North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Kaibab is a Paiute Indian word meaning “mountain lying down.” The Kaibab Plateau is part of a 65-million-year-old folding of the Earth’s crust that pushed the level land upward 3,000 feet – indeed a mountain lying down.
When you think of Arizona, you usually think of dry, dusty desert. You think of brown… not the beautiful green of the ponderosa and lodgepole pines that fill this northwestern corner of the state. Unfortunately though, the long-term drought that has plagued the American West has also affected this scenic plateau. Major forest fires in the North Kaibab Ranger District have devastated mile upon mile of the stunning pine forest along the parkway. It’s in stark contrast to the still healthy portions of the forest. It is truly sad that such beauty has been wiped away.
The Grand Canyon National Park entry station is approximately 15 miles north of the tourist area of the North Rim, including Bright Angel Point, the Grand Canyon Lodge and campground, and our destination, the North Kaibab trailhead. Soon after we passed through the gate, we encountered a surprise bison herd in the large meadows alongside the parkway. Brought to the North Kaibab area in the early 1900s, the herd migrated south into Grand Canyon National Park in the 1990s. Surprised me.
We arrived at the trailhead about 11:00, a lot later than we usually start hiking, but we killed two hours of our morning at The Wave Lottery. This meant we would be hiking down in the canyon during the warmest part of the day. Better make sure we have plenty of water and sunscreen. By this time, the trailhead parking lot was completely full, so we joined the dozens of other vehicles that were parked along the side of the road.
Within the first 10 minutes on the trail, we met the first mule train coming up out of the canyon. Continuing down the trail where the mules had been, we hoped there wouldn’t be many more because of the piles that were left behind. The last rider in line even apologized as he passed for what we would be encountering. It was our good fortune that we saw no other mules the rest of the day.
The North Kaibab Trail actually descends Roaring Springs Canyon, not “The Grand Canyon.” Several miles down, at the Colorado River, it meets the Grand, but it’s really just a matter of semantics. It is still wonderful… but also not what I expected. I’ve been to the South Rim before, many decades ago when I was still a teen. The views there are spectacular, but it’s barren. The North Rim is forested, like the Kaibab Plateau. It is filled with fir and aspen, with scrub oak and other deciduous trees that were displaying their full Autumn regalia on this mid-October day. Another delightful surprise.
We learned as we continued descending into the canyon of the many layers of rock that form the canyon walls. Along the rim is what they call redwall limestone. Mostly white, it is also laced with seams of yellow, orange, and red. About 45 minutes down, we reached Coconino Overlook, a large limestone outcrop that enables views deep into Roaring Springs Canyon, as well as far distant to the San Francisco Peaks scores of miles away.
As you descend below the limestone layer, you enter the Supai Formation, a thicker layer of mostly very bright red slate. The photo at the top of this post was taken of my brother while we were hiking this Supai layer. Deposited millions of years ago when the plateau was covered by a great sea, they say there are many amphibian fossils in this layer, so keep your eyes peeled. The trail itself is dusty and sandy, unlike the more rocky, solid base of the limestone layer.
The next landmark is Supai Tunnel, a kind of way-station for the mule trains and weary hikers. Believe it or not, there is a water fountain here, pumped up from Roaring Springs, a major feature of the North Kaibab Trail that also serves as the water source for the North Rim. Amazingly enough, there is also a pit toilet. This rest area is 1.7 miles below the trailhead. This is a nice place to pause for a snack and refill your water supply, if needed.
The tunnel itself is about 25 feet long, carved through the red slate. A remnant of the original trail, it keeps you from having to drop off a 20 foot ledge. Once you get on the down side of the tunnel, you catch the first glimpse of a bridge across Bright Angel Creek nearly two miles below. My brother and I took inventory of how long we had been hiking (about 90 minutes) and how far down we had gone (1,500 feet). That bridge looked like a reasonable goal for the turnaround point.
It took a little over a half hour to get there. It was easy, fast going as the trail between the tunnel and the bridge is a series of long switchbacks down a major ledge in the Supai layer. Everything is really red here… the rocks of the canyon walls and the dirt of the trail tread. We saw unusual vegetation like Kaibab agave, a very tall yellow-green plant with bulbous yellow flowers. The plant was used for food and fiber by local Native American peoples such as the Havasupai, and to make blankets by the Navajo.
The bridge across Bright Angel Creek provides a nice platform for looking down canyon toward the Roaring Springs area. From this point, the North Kaibab Trail climbs up above the canyon floor and follows a ridge another mile, and another 800 feet down, to the springs. For us, is was a nice place to rest, drink some water, and eat a snack to prepare for the long, 2,200 foot climb back up. We resolved to take it slow, but steady. It was just past 1:00 in the afternoon.
For the next 90 minutes we climbed back through the Supai layer 1,400 feet to the ledge at the tunnel. There were fewer and fewer people coming down now, both for the distance from the trailhead, and for the lateness of the day. You certainly don’t want to get too far down in the canyon with only day hiking provisions and nothing to sleep in. It will get cold overnight in October, and dark by 6:30.
The sun was at its peak now. We were down to shorts and t-shirts as it felt to be about 80
°. I was making sure to drink lots of water to stay hydrated in the dry high desert air. When we reached the tunnel and the water fountain, I checked the water level in my pack and topped off just to be safe.
We joined a cadre of hikers hanging out there taking inventory of who was where. There were several questions asked and answered about who we had seen where and when, including the unmistakable character we had first met at Observation Point in Zion a couple days earlier. While we energized with food, it was also refreshing to hear the care and concern by other hikers for those still out on the trail.
We had roughly 800 feet and 1.7 miles to go back to the rim. The sun was beginning to set behind the tall canyon walls of the limestone rim. The shade provided by the rim, and by the forest we were now re-entering was a nice relief from the afternoon heat. Our plan of slow, but steady was working really well. We were making the climb at almost the same pace we descended. I had estimated at least a three and a half hour ascent, but we were doing a lot better than that.
We paused one last time at Coconino Overlook for another snack. While looking around I saw a critter that is common to this area. Known as the Kaibab squirrel, it has an all black body and a white tail. It’s no wonder it seemed unusual to me. The Kaibab Plateau is the only place in the world where it is found. Another surprise. We saw another one later in the evening out near Grand Canyon Lodge.
In the late afternoon sun, the scrub oak was really beginning to glow. The final half hour through the colorful fall foliage was delightful. It was a treat I hadn’t expected within the walls of the Grand Canyon, so this had been a day full of surprises.
I had done really well on the climb, but finally started to tire about the last ten minutes. The timing of the completion was ideal. If we had another mile, I would have been very fatigued. Otherwise, I felt great. We even had our own cheer squad at the trailhead, offering a “good job” as we popped back onto the North Rim. It had only taken us two hours, forty five minutes to get back up from the bridge over the creek. Not bad. Not bad at all. Our plan now was to go explore the lodge area and Bright Angel Point.
To summarize this day hike of the North Kaibab Trail, it is entirely different from the South Rim of Grand Canyon. I think it’s prettier. Sure, you don’t have the same massive vistas that you do on the south side, but you also don’t have the lovely forest over there either. If you want to go farther, you can, all the way 14 miles to the Colorado River. But if you’re searching for a nice five hour day hike within the Grand Canyon, then just go as far as your comfort zone. Maybe it’s only to Supai Tunnel, or maybe you go even farther than we did by continuing to Roaring Springs.
The drive through Kaibab National Forest, past the large meadows that flank the scenic byway, and into the national park is also quite memorable. There are other roads that delve deep into the canyon country within the Kaibab with miles and miles of trails. We already have those marked on our to do list for future adventures. Do this some time. You’ll enjoy it. We sure did.