North Rim of the Grand Canyon: An Entirely Different Experience

At over five million visitors a year, the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States despite its remoteness, and why wouldn’t it be? It is on one hand tremendously beautiful and on the other, it inspires awe and causes one to wonder why such a thing even exists at all.

Chances are if you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, you’ve visited the much more accessible and popular south rim of the park. Think of all the stereotypical things you associate with the Grand Canyon: mule rides, shuttle buses, gift shops, crowds, and a multitude of astounding viewpoints, and that’s the south rim. But the park is so large in size there is literally another side to it, the north rim, which we visited it this summer.

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A view from the north rim lodge.

Only 10% of people who visit the Grand Canyon go to the north rim of the park, which simply means there are far fewer people. There is only one lodge, one campground, one ranger shack at the park entrance station, and only one way you’ll get cell coverage; by standing near the edge of the canyon and catching a signal from the south rim. In other words, it’s secluded, and it’s meant to be that way. As the crow flies, it’s only 21 miles from the south rim to the north rim, but it will take you four and a half hours to drive from one side to the other.
No surprise, this all creates a different vibe. There are no throngs of people waiting to get on shuttle buses, no lines at the restaurants, no cars congesting roads. It’s laid back and easy going, a place to relax, enjoy and rejuvenate. The altitude also aides in the difference of atmosphere (literally). The south rim averages 6800 ft, the north rim 8300. That means trees. The north rim is mountain country with towering ponderosa pines, firs, spruces, groves of aspens, and other heavy foliage. It might be dry, but it’s no desert. There’s shade, lots of it, which makes the north rim cooler and for more attractive for hiking in the summer months. In fact, it’s so much cooler, the north rim is only open between May 15th to October 15th because the snow makes the roads impassable otherwise. South rim, though it receives snow, is open year round.

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Outside of the park, there is also only one lodge and one campground. We stayed at the Kaibab Lodge just north of the park entrance by about 10 minutes. It boasted no internet, no wi-fi, no television, no phones, lots of trees, quiet, and a restaurant. Just across the street was the only filling station and convenience store which next to sat a food truck serving coffee, pastries, and had just expanded their menu to include some lunch items. All this nestled in the meadow boarded by reaching pines and aspen through which the only road ran.

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The view from our lodge patio.

Rather than going through the entire itinerary, I’ll give you the one full day we spent in the park.
We asked some of the locals what the best vantage point for a sunrise was and was told Point Imperial, the highest point in the park at 8803 feet with a fantastic view of the east. The day started with my brother at 3:30 AM; it was 39 degrees. To see the sunrise in this way was a complete joy and worth the early alarm.
Most of us are aware of the sunrise, but we generally don’t see it. We know the sky is growing brighter, but we’re surrounded by trees, or houses, or buildings, or whatever. Here at the Grand Canyon, out on Point Imperial, there was nothing to impede our view. This is the beauty of a plateau, the flattest geographical feature you can find, and as the sky went from black to deep blue, and the horizon to the east slowly orange then yellow, the sun emerged, and that first light as it broke the horizon – there are few experiences like it. It was also incredible to watch the canyon take on new colors as the light became brighter and the shadows deeper. If you ever get to a canyon, any canyon, sunrise and sunset are always the best times to experience it for this reason.

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Sunrise from Point Imperial.

After the sunrise, it was off to the North Rim Lodge for some breakfast, and then back to the Kaibab Lodge where we found Mom and Kirsten awake and refreshed eating breakfast in the restaurant. We hung around for a little bit (my brother took a nap), and near lunch, we headed back into the park for the entirety of the day. As we explored the area and trails around the North Rim Lodge the previous day, we took the only other road in the park, Cape Royal Road, determined to drive to the terminus for sunset while checking out all the lookout points along the way.
Through switchbacks and seeming endless curves, climbing our way through the pines, we arrived at Point Imperial where we had watched the sunrise earlier. We then went along the route and hit all the overlooks moving towards Cape Royal. It was a leisurely drive with very few cars, each point only having three to six cars in their parking lot.

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Sunrise at Point Imperial,
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Mid-day at Point Imperial. Notice the difference between morning light and mid-day light.

We arrived at the Point Royal parking lot an hour and a half before sunset. We had a quick dinner out of the cooler and then walked along the Point Royal Trail (0.4 miles, one way) which had a number of overlooks, including Angel’s Window through which you can see the Colorado River. Point Royal was the highlight, however, and as we sat and waited for the sunset, it was peaceful and quiet. There were others there, a few families, a few couples, a few others seeking out a solitary rock or ledge, but all were quietly taking in the view.

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Angel’s Window. You can see the thin line of the Colorado River through it.

I sat with my mom on a bench that overlooked the impressive Vishnu Temple and Wotans Throne, taking a picture from the same spot every five minutes as the different light transformed the rock, cool evening breeze, the light in the sky slowly growing darker yet more colorful. As the sun began to slip behind the horizon, a young man who said he was on a “musical pilgrimage” played a short song on a saxophone as he stood on the edge of the canyon. To be honest, I was worried it would ruin the moment, but it was somehow entirely appropriate; slow but not mournful, contemplative and fitting for the end of something beautiful, this particular day.

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Vishnu Temple
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Wotans Throne

Our visit to the north rim of the Grand Canyon was a wonderful experience I’ll not soon forget. To begin the day and end the day with the rising and falling of the sun was truly special. To experience it with my family, sitting on the bench with my mom, made it memorable.

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The end of the day at Grand Canyon North Rim.

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