Subverted expectations

SA Guide: Grand Canyon National Park

For most of us, squirrels are, at best, a mundane and ubiquitous part of the outdoor landscape. At worst, they're disease carrying pests that are perhaps more tolerable than mice or rats but not so much that we look upon them as an enhancement of the natural experience. I will admit that this has been my attitude as well. Aside from the odd cool fact - e.g., I do think it's pretty neat that adult ground squirrels develop a significant immunity to rattlesnake venom, and along with that often a rather bold aggressiveness toward them - I have never given squirrels much thought, or credit for having any redeeming features.

If you share this approach, let me tell you about a furry, black, house-cat sized critter with a striking white tail and large, tasseled ears. This little guy has a habit of digging up truffles or grabbing pine cones on the forest floor, running through the leaf litter carrying them in his mouth, and then sitting up, bracing the morsels between its cute little paws, and chowing down. Ladies and gentlemen, look to the left and meet the Kaibab Squirrel. I know, right? That little fur ball actually is kind of adorable. Turns out I may have judged squirrels too quickly. 

Now take that lesson, expand it to monumental proportions, and you have our recent trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in a...(ahem)...nutshell.


Laura and I had visited the Grand Canyon previously. It was probably close to thirty years ago. We bought a tent, loaded up the car with our new gear and our two dogs, and with a complete (yet strangely confident) lack of camping experience we headed east to visit Grand Canyon National Park. We went to the South Rim, did very few of the things we should have done to get a feel for the place (partly because we had dogs), did not hike at all, and spent a miserable night sleeping in a tent that we managed to pitch - I tell the truth here - on the side of a hill. Yes, we somehow thought it was going to be possible to get a good night's sleep while on pads that were canted at the kind of angle that, when covered with snow, would make great sledding.

Our experience consisted of driving along the rim, taking the dogs for a walk here and there, and checking out a few of the exhibit areas. Then we returned and babbled the now-timeworn line, "Pictures just can't capture it" to show how much we appreciated the vast magnificence of the place. And we honestly did, or tried to, but in truth we never really got to know it. The best measure of our experience is the fact that it took us three decades to go back.

To our credit, though, it didn't take us three decades to want to go back. One cannot watch videos about national parks or hiking without eventually seeing grand accounts of the famous Colorado-carved canyon. And through several of those we became enamored of the idea of going to the North Rim. Surely part of this was due to our experience on the south side, but there were other factors. The North Rim Lodge is a famous old national park landmark. Plus, the north region is a thousand feet higher (over 8000'), and thus cooler - in fact this part of the park closes from October through May. It is also less accessible and sees far fewer visitors than the South Rim: only about 10% of the park's nearly six million (in 2016). But frankly the biggest impetus was simple opportunity. We were going to be in the area, so we booked a campsite.

Driving down from Kanab in Utah we could see the Kaibab plateau directly ahead to the south and were anxious to get in some good exploring, especially since our attempt at getting permits to hike The Wave in Arizona's Vermillion Cliffs area had been rebuffed (a sad story for another time). As we drove across the beautiful, forested plateau we stopped in at the Kaibab National Forest Visitor Center in the Jacob Lake area. At this excellent little building (with some good exhibits) we picked up trail advice, and also saw a plush Kaibab Squirrel. I had been aware that these squirrels were endemic to this area but didn't really know their size or coloration. I had also heard they were somewhat elusive, so we left thinking it would be cool to see one - but not necessarily expecting it.

Per our usual routine we found our campsite, clipped the permit, dropped off a couple of camp chairs to establish ownership, and then headed out to see what we could see. We drove straight to the North Rim Lodge at the tip of the Kaibab Plateau and immediately hit the Bright Angel Point trail. This is  a North Rim must-see. It's an easy, paved path. But there is some climbing, so it may catch unawares those not used to exertion at over eight thousand feet. We were immediately struck by how the amazing canyon rim all around is a vibrant mix of reds, oranges and greenery, the latter seemingly more so than at the South Rim. This observation held true for the entire three days of hiking, including our spectacularly scenic trip down part of the sandy north section of the Kaibab Trail: a famous path that over its full length crosses from rim to rim over twenty-some miles. We only hiked down as far as Supai Tunnel - blasted through solid rock by park service crews - because we planned to drive out to Cape Royal later on. But even that mere two miles down left us with a nearly fifteen hundred foot climb back up to the parking lot, as well as some sore feet.

We stopped at lots of interesting spots and viewpoints on the way out to Cape Royal, too many to mention here, and would recommend them all. Bring a picnic lunch and spend the afternoon checking out the sites on the Walhalla Plateau. The next day, looking for a more immersive experience, we hiked the ten mile out-and-back trail to Widforrs Point. This trek hugs the rim of Transept Canyon (a side canyon just west of the lodge area), and offers some incredible canyon-view hiking. It also includes a beautiful interlude where the trail winds down into a forested swale that runs between ridges which converge at the point. It didn't hurt that we were there during an excellent wildflower bloom.

On our last day we took a shorter hike (just over three miles) from the campground to the lodge, and then back along Transept Canyon again. In the middle we stopped and spent a last few minutes at the stately lodge - a beautiful and accommodating spot with wonderful terraces sporting big wooden chairs. We lingered around the shops and overlooks for a few more minutes before heading back. In the end I was thrilled to reconsider my initial impression of the Grand Canyon, and very motivated to give the South Rim another chance.

Oh, and we saw several Kaibab Squirrels too. They really are pretty darn cute.


Info: Bright Angel Point: Distance - 1 mile, Elevation range - 100', Rating - Easy

Supai Tunnel (N. Kaibab Trail): Distance - 4.1 miles, Elevation range - 1429', Rating - Moderate-Difficult

Widforrs Trail: Distance - 10.1 miles, Elevation range - 343', Rating - Moderate-Difficult

(For all of this trip's guides, see our Grand Canyon National Park page) 

More photos:

  • 01 Grand Staircase
  • 02 Kaibab forest
  • 03 Flowers
  • 04 Bright Angel Pt view
  • 05 View from lodge balcony room
  • 06 Double rainbow at Bright Angel Pt
  • 07 Kaibab Trail
  • 08 Coconino Overlook
  • 09 Transept Canyon
  • 10 Cape Royal view
  • 11 Butterfly
  • 12 Angels Window
  • 13 Canyon view
  • 14 Short horned lizard
  • 15 Widforrs Trail
  • 16 Widforrs Pt view
Even more photos: Kaibab NF/Bright Angel, N. Kaibab Trail/Cape Royal, Widforrs Trail



All photos and video by Laura or Bob Camp unless otherwise indicated. Use without permission is not cool.