Condor Country: Thunder rumbled across the Grand Canyon and lightning forked down over the South Rim, where a blue cloud pelted the high country with cold rain.
But on the North Rim, just 10 miles away as the condor flies, we were bathed in sunshine. The Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim is the South Rim’s less popular but more relaxed sister.
The South Rim is visited annually by millions who throng to the congested, car-jammed park. Trains hoot in every day. But the North Rim is a place of relative peace and serenity, attracting perhaps 10 percent as many visitors. Why so few? For one thing, it’s hard to get to. For another, it’s closed from mid-October to mid-May every year due to snow blocking the single access road, Arizona 67. You’re at 8,000-plus feet here, 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim.
The dark September sky grumbled all afternoon, but from our viewpoint at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a flamboyant sun turned the chameleon canyon into rich, ever-changing shades of red, purple, and sandy cream. Out there somewhere, torrents of water poured down from above, the same force that helped shaped the gorge. Six thousand feet below us, out of sight, rolled the mighty Colorado River.
Just a week earlier, I’d waded my horse across the same river, same in name that is, but a clear, cool stream I could have thrown a rock across, some 35 miles from its source in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here at the South Rim it was wide and brown, “too thin to plow, too thick to drink,” as the old saying goes.
As the storm blew past us to the east, a giant bird floated past our perch at the lodge’s stone deck. It was one of the Grand Canyon’s 76 condors, with unmistakable white markings, a prehistoric remnant back from near extinction. We all held our breath at the sight. Sue snatched up her Nikon and clicked as the condor disappeared behind an outcropping of canyon to the west.
It was my first condor in the wild. While backpacking with naturalist-author-Renaissance man Dick Smith in the early 1960s, I’d scoured the skies for a condor but never spotted one. Once, American skies were full of condors, and back when I was camping with Dick, there were perhaps 20 or so left. Now, thanks to a major effort to save the species, there are hundreds, including four youngsters at the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new Condor Country exhibit, in a huge mesh enclosure. In a few years they’ll be moving on to mate.
At the North Rim we stayed in a 1920s Western cabin with two queen-size beds, a gas fireplace, phone, and wifi but no TV, clean bathroom, and a porch equipped with two rocking chairs. Price: $158 a night, but motel rooms go for about $112. You eat in the massive lodge dining room (bison steak dinners for $28) or buy pizza at the deli and bring it over to the Roughrider Saloon and wash it down with local North Rim Amber beer.
There’s not a lot doing at the North Rim. Just contemplating the vast, magnificent panorama spread out before you, Mother Nature’s feast. The best view is from nearby Bright Angel Point, a 15-minute walk from the lodge. You can take a one-hour mule ride along the rim for $40, or a half-day ride 2,300 feet down into the canyon on mule back for $75.
The hardy can trek 14 miles down to the river on the North Kaibab Trail, something not to be attempted without careful preparation and plenty of water. The Park Service warns: “Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day.” We met a few young Park Service employees who told of their rim-to-rim hikes. Permits are needed for overnight hiking.
Contrary to some published reports, gas is available at the park. Otherwise, it’s at Jacob Lake, 44 miles north on Arizona 67. There’s a small motel and restaurant there, too. The drive between Jacob Lake and the North Rim goes through lovely pine and aspen forests and meadows.
It’s a long haul from Santa Barbara, and we stopped for the first night at our new favorite, the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas. It offers low rates this time of year, and there’s a man-made lake and pleasant pseudo-Italian village with restaurants and a casino. The North Rim is about a five-hour drive from Lake Las Vegas. We took the time to drive through Zion National Park on the way and I highly recommend it.
North Rim info at nps.gov/grca.