Grand Canyon 2010

June 17th, 2010

  • This is only a mediocre view by Grand Canyon standards.
The Grand Canyon.   The name says it all.  There may be no more iconic natural wonder.  Google says that there is a  “Grand Canyon of..”  Yellowstone, Yosemite, Texas, and even Pennsylvania.  While these are fine gorges, I’m sure; there really can be Only One.  For years we have talked about going there to ride mountain bikes.  The National Park Service generally has a “no bikes on trails” rule.  The Forest Service (FS) does not and some of the land north of the Canyon is FS land.  So while you can’t ride in the Canyon (which is NPS land), you can ride the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is FS land.  The Rainbow Rim Trail (RRT) was created especially for mountain bikers and it is spectacular.
This trip was our first big off pavement trip after discovering all the tools that can make for comfortable camping. We have a 3 gallon shower – not a solar shower, a pressurized one that will make the water as hot as you like. We have a new tent, with room to stand up. We replaced our light weight sleeping bags with a double wide  bag rated for 15 degrees F – dubbed “The Cocoon of Warmth.”  We have a refrigerator and a solar power system.  There’s even a nifty toilet setup.  All this barely fits into the LX470, with two mountain bikes, 30 gallons of water, clothes, etc. With enough gear to hide out from the zombie apocalypse in comfort, we headed for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

  • Somehow, all of this went into that little space.

  • The hotel we stayed at in Barstow was not fancy, but the decor was cute.

The Grand Canyon is too far for us to drive to in a day, so we stopped in Barstow, CA.  At the I-HOP for breakfast, we chatted with some motorcycle tourists who were headed out the same way.  We compared weather forecasts and agreed that a 30 percent chance of thunder showers didn’t sound too bad.  We were wrong, or rather, the forecast was wrong.  We live in an area where the 5 day weather forecast is usually reliable.  We also live close to sea level.  As a result, we do not think of weather the same way other parts of the country do.  A rapid change in weather for us is anything that happens in less than 24 hours.  So, when around 1PM, traveling east about 3 hours from our destination, we drove through a band of rain and sleet, we were a bit surprised.  Nobody said “sleet” in the forecast and it took us a while to figure out what was piling up on the side of the road.   We could see this weather band as we drove toward it and it looked like an isolated event.  The temperature dropped from 60 to 45 in 5 minutes and then gradually rose back up after we passed through the band. We could see that the weather carried south,  close to our destination, but we could not guess how close it was.    We eventually turned south and around 2 PM the cell caught up to us.  It was much stronger this time.  The outside thermometer reported 36F.  The brief rain quickly became sleet, then hail, then snow, back to sleet and finally settled into snow.  The temperature settled in at 32F.

As we turned on to Highway 67, the road that only goes to the North Rim, we passed by a gas station and hotel, where the scene had an air of panic.  The snow was starting to accumulate and nobody could predict how bad it would get or how long it would last.  It was clear that everyone staying in the campground across street was streaming over to the (fully booked) hotel to find a room or just get out of dodge.  Cars were milling around the gas station, jockeying for position.  One poor soul picked this day to hitchhike his way out.  Not very many cars were heading south, toward the Canyon, but that was where we wanted to be.  Coming up the highway from the North Rim a steady flow of motorcyclists searched for better weather or a place to hide from it.   As we headed south, the spitting snow became a solid storm of fat, heavy flakes.  Our camping destination was 20 miles down dirt and gravel Forest Service roads, so this was worrisome.  We did not want to deal with off pavement driving in the snow and maybe ice, so we decided that we would look at other options.  By the time we got to our turn there were about 2 inches on the ground.  Two clear tire tracks on the pavement from passing cars made the on road driving pretty easy, but we could not expect any cleared paths on the FS roads.  At the turn from pavement to FS road, there are two choices – a campground and a lodge.  We decided that we would test our luck and try the lodge.  If that didn’t work, we would stay the night in the campground.  Depending on the weather, maybe we would pitch the tent – maybe we would just sleep in the truck.  By 3PM, the languid flakes were covering everything in sight.  The lodge did not have a “vacancy/no vacancy” sign, so we headed in and crossed our fingers.  Because they had just had a cancellation, we scored a room for one night.  The guy behind us did not get a room.

  • The veiw from our room after we decided not to pitch a tent.

  • We were supposed to be driving out to our campsite and pitching the tent during this storm.

  • Ah, the romance of motorbike touring.

We scored a simple room in a multi-unit cabin and reminded ourselves that it didn’t matter if the whole cabin shook as the neighbors came in to their units; we were warm and dry and not pitching a tent in 2 inches of wet snow.  With a couple of hours to kill until dinner after we settled into the room we decided to drive the 20+ miles down to the North Rim.  Around 3:30, we set out in the storm to see what we could see. The answer was “nothing”.  The ice and snow caked the windshield wipers, the vehicle tracks were covered over and this was looking like a bad idea.  In less than 2 miles, we had to run around because the visibility was too bad to drive.  We planted ourselves in the lodge common room to enjoy the fire and watched a group of ice covered motor bikers come in from the North Rim.  Just like us, their day had started bright and sunny and ended with snow and sleet and ice.  Some of the riders discovered that open face helmets can mean you get a face full of sleet when you pass a car.  One rider mentioned that her rear brake lever was iced over.  They were not having any fun out there and were relieved to be safely back at the lodge.  Any interest we might have had in motorbike touring blew away in the blizzard like conditions.  By 5 PM, the storm was over and the sun was out.  The temperature went back up to around 50 F.  Most of the snow melted before the sun set.

Since we were still on the main road, instead of somewhere in the woods, the next day we drove to the Forest Service visitor center and the North Rim village.  We were at the North Rim less than 5 minutes before we found the stereotypical American family – 2 poorly behaved kids, a pocket sized dog, blocking the path as they argued over something one of the kids did wrong. The Lodge is cool, but the cabins are practically on top of each other. If we wanted crowds, we would go to the mall. We admired the view and headed down the road to our destination at Locust Point.

To be clear, this was an off-pavement trip, not an off-road trip. The FS network of dirt and gravel roads is pretty good.   The main gravel road is 2 lanes wide and generally very smooth. We even saw 2 bus sized RVs within the first mile off pavement.  They would be limited to the main FS road and we had no idea where they were going.  We did get a little thrill to see an Earth Roamer – a rare luxury truly off-road capable RV.  We had a FS map and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the GPS had the FS roads in there.  We decided to let the GPS do the driving for a while but the GPS had some FS roads that were lost to the dim reaches of time so there were a couple of cases of “turn here now” where “here” was an aspen grove or a ponderosa pine.  We let the GPS prattle on while we used the paper map.

  • They do get around.

The FS allows dispersed camping. This means that anyplace that isn’t near a built up area or water source is a viable place to call home for a few days.  Even so, there are places where people tend to camp repeatedly, so although there is no formal “campground”, Locust Point has several places that are obvious camp sites with room to maneuver and fire rings.  We picked a spot that was so close to the Rainbow Rim Trail, we had to move the tent because our first location would have put the guy lines in the trail. Our outhouse was actually on the other side of the trail.  Most of our camp site was between the trail and the canyon rim – we could not ask for a better location. We were on a ridge that extends into the Canyon, facing the canyon at an angle, so although the view was maybe not the best Canyon view, it wasn’t bad at all.   We hoped that we might be the only people out there, but it wasn’t to be.  There were 3 other small groups out there the first night and a tour company arrived on the 3rd day.  This was not as bad as it might sound.  You could not see the other campers, with more than 200 feet between sites, but you could occasionally hear them.  Most of the time though, all we heard were the birds and the wind in the pines.   Locust Point is in the middle of the RRT, so mountain bikers usually camp here and ride each direction as an out-and-back ride.  All but one group of people we saw over 3 days were mountain bikers.   In the second half of the week, we figure that a commercial group comes through almost every day.  There is plenty of space, but it does mean that you cannot expect to have the area to yourself.

  • Ride or look at the view, not both.

For 18 miles, the RRT winds along the North Rim, following fingers that reach out into the Canyon.  Much of the trail is a few hundred feet from the North Rim, meandering through the ponderosa pine forests, but in a few spots, the RRT is the North Rim. At those points, the mantra “You will go where you look” means that you have to stop to take in the view.  Admiring the view while riding, is not recommended.  The trail is the widest (4 feet) when it runs along the North Rim, but in the forest the trail is usually 6-12 inches wide, smooth and flowing.  The only rocky parts are the occasional climbs, where gravel keeps the erosion to a minimum.  If there is anything “bad” about the trail, it is the elevation.  At nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, the air is a bit thin for those of us who live at sea level.  The trail is only technically advanced in a few very short sections, but the lack of O2 had us gasping for breath on a couple of the climbs.  Over two days, we rode most of the trail (skipping a few miles at one end) and a bit of the FS roads. The rest of the time we sat around and drank in the views or read a book. I was reading Edward Abbey, which seemed appropriate even if we were not in the desert.

  • Relaxing after the ride.

Locust Point is in the middle of the RRT, so it is where most commercial groups stay.  We have nothing against the commercial tours, and highly recommend them to anyone who doesn’t want to deal with the logistics of a trip like this.  For us, we’ve done some commercial tours and are ready to spend more time away from groups.  When we go back, we’ll camp at North Timp Point, which has better views and, we expect, fewer people.  It is easy to drive to the other end of the trail for a ride if we want to.

Most of the comfort gear we took worked out nicely.  The refrigerator kept things cold; the outhouse did its job; the new tent was roomy; the shower was a luxury.  We did find a few things that need refining and our 2 year old hot water-on-demand unit died, but our biggest issue was space.  The truck is not small, but we were packed to the limit.  This meant that after tearing down camp (almost an hour), loading the truck took another 45 minutes.  It was like a game of Tetris. Because of this hassle, when we were ready to leave the North Rim, we decided to just head home instead of moving to another location. We find just being at home relaxing in its own way, so it isn’t like we cut the vacation short.

In the past, we had decided that 500 miles was the limit for a day’s drive. After that it is too hard to focus on the driving.  The Subaru is a great car, but there is a lot of wind noise and it isn’t very comfortable on long drives. Not surprisingly, the Lexus is in another class of comfort.  When we broke camp, we headed a few hours down the road to St. George, UT.  On the second day coming home we logged more than 650 miles and weren’t very tired when we got home. The truck really does set the gold standard for comfort.

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