Grand Canyon’s North Rim, ghosts of the past and Pipe Spring National Monument

The view from Grand Canyon's Point Imperial.

The Point Imperial Overlook draws a crowd to gaze into the canyon's awesome abyss!

The road to Cape Royal cuts through a Quaking Aspen forest that is growing over the site of the 2000 fire on the North Rim.

View from the Walhalla Overlook, distant, center, shows the Unkar Creek Delta where Anasazi farmed squash, corn and beans about 1,000 years ago.

The view from Bright Angel Point overlook, just below the Grand Canyon Lodge on the park's North Rim.

Bison in meadow, just outside the park's North Entrance, now number almost 500 head.

Pipe Spring National Monument's Windsor Castle, with Native American and Mormon pioneer gardens in the foreground.

Sunset over California's Mono Lake caps a wonderful three weeks exploring eight national parks!

One hundred forty six years ago, explorer John Wesley Powell and his rag-tag boatmen churned into the Grand Canyon and gazed in awe at the canyon with walls a mile high. With our first trip to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, it was hard not to feel the same amazement that Powell and his crew felt.

We had spent the previous weeks seeing Utah’s and Nevada’s six spectacular national parks.  After the amazing scenery of Great Basin, NV and Bryce, Arches and the other parks in Utah – how can we end this spectacular trip, we had wondered. Despite four previous visits to the Grand Canyon, we had never been to the North Rim; in planning for this trip, maps indicated the canyon just 150 miles south of our Utah destinations.

We were inspired, in part, by recent reading of the book ‘Down the Great Unknown’ by Edward Dolnick.  The book profiles the voyage into the American Southwest in 1869 (an area uncharted on US maps at the time) by John Wesley Powell and his novice crew of explorers. After two months narrowly avoiding drowning and near-starvation along the Green and Colorado Rivers, Powell and his crew entered the Grand Canyon in early August.

Powell, a geologist, waxed poetic, “in the Grand Canyon there are thousands of gorges like that below Niagara Falls and there are 1000 Yosemite’s. Pluck up Mt. Washington…and drop it headfirst into the Grand Canyon… Pluck up the Blue Ridge and hurl it into the Grand Canyon and it will not fill it,” labeling the canyon’s multi-hued cliffs, “the most sublime spectacle on earth.”

A six-hour drive from Utah’s Arches National Park took us southwest across the mighty Colorado, then up to Kaibob Plateau at 8800′.  We rolled into the DeMotte Campground (USFS), with 38 sites, just $9/night with our senior pass, had dinner and planned our visit to the Grand Canyon, just 18 miles away.

Entering the park early the next morning, we were surprised to see a herd of about 30 buffalo in a broad meadow. We later found that the initial bison were brought from Yellowstone Park in 1906 by a rancher hoping to breed bison with cows and produce an animal with lean, tender meat. His experiment failed and the animals went to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Over the last 15 years the herd, now approaching 500 head, stays mostly within park boundaries.

Next morning we had our choice of numerous campsites in the park’s North Rim Campground, as the name implies, right on the North Rim.  Then, off to the Grand Canyon Lodge for breakfast and the short hike to-Bright Angel Point just below the lodge for an incredible view of the abyss.  A longer hike along the Transept Trail took us 3 miles round-trip, from the lodge along the rim. Later the Bridle Trail took us to the intersection of the North Kaibab trail where we contemplated, fleetingly, the 7 mile, 5,000 foot elevation descent to Phantom Ranch and the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The next day we motored 8 miles to Point Imperial, highest point on the canyon rim at 8803′; the Colorado River is 7 miles away and almost 6,000 feet below. Here the trail offers a 4 mile easy round trip, passing along the rim and burned acreage of the 2000 Outlet Fire (resplendent in the changing yellow leaves of Quaking Aspen trees).

We then headed towards Cape Royal, about 18 miles south west.  From Walhalla Overlook, one can gaze at the Unkar Creek Delta, six miles below, which was excavated in the summers of 1967/68; numerous Anasazi sites were discovered, including one complex with 25 rooms. The ancient Puebloans lived here 1100 to 800 years ago, terracing the delta so they could cultivate corn, squash and beans with water from the creek and river.

During the hot summer months, the tribes would move to the rim and an area called Walhalla Glades; just across the road from the overlook are the stone foundations of their homes. It would take tribes two days of hiking to move from the river delta up to the rim.

We continued on to Cape Royal; a short trail offers trail markers which explain the areas natural history and offers expansive views of the canyon, Angels Window and the distant Colorado River.

On our final morning, after one last gaze into the sun rising over this awesome park, we headed north on Highway 67. Over 50 Mule deer and a dozen wild turkeys bid us farewell – the bison were absent.

We decided to take a meandering route home. From the Grand Canyon, we found Pipe Spring National Monument, outside the tiny town of Moccasin, AZ.

Pipe Spring is one of those unique places in nature were a spring bubbles water to the surface in wet and dry years. It was discovered by ancestral Puebloans about 1300 years ago and the Paiutes made it a regular rallying point more recently. Settled by Mormon pioneers in the late 1850s, they brought sheep and cattle, building a dugout, corrals and planting orchards and vineyards.

Today the complex features Windsor Castle, a fort-like structure to defend against marauding Navajo tribes, a unique garden highlighting plants grown by both Mormon settlers and native Americans and animals such as Longhorn cattle. It’s a worthy stop for a unique early-American learning experience.

Our return trip took us through Nevada on Hwy. 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. It was officially so designated in 1996 after years of driver’s reports of UFOs and other alien incidents. The 98 mile stretch skirts the edge of Nellis Air Force Base and past top-secret Area 51 – likely prompting many of these reports. A lonely road, we saw nothing but dry territory and five wild horses.

We eventually connected with CA 120; as luck would have it, this road borders the south end of Mono Lake and we hit it at sunset – beautiful if accidental timing.  After a final night of camping on the edge of Yosemite – dreaming of future US travel explorations – we headed home – a magical trip!

For more information: Grand Canyon National Park, nps.gov/grca; (928) 638-7888. Lodging options in the park include Grand Canyon Lodge, overlooking jaw-dropping canyon views (grandcanyonforever.com, (877) 386–4383) with lodge rooms and cabins. The North Rim Campground, with campsites from $18-$25 per night, recreation.gov, or call (877) 444–6777. With a federal senior America the Beautiful pass, receive half-price on campgrounds, as well as free entrance into all national parks). For Pipe Spring National Monument, nps.gov/pisp; (928) 643-7105.

Happy travels in the west! Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog.

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