The North Rim

Ninety percent of visitors to the Grand Canyon go to its South Rim. We were headed to the remote North Rim near the end of the season, and snow was already in the forecast for that night and the following day. Hwy 89A was mostly empty as we crossed the Utah/Arizona border, drove past the shabby yards and storefronts of Fredonia and the turn-off onto Rte 389. That’s the road to Colorado City, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints outpost where Warren Jeffs used to call the shots before he was locked up for life. The next day, on the way back from the North Rim, we stopped at a scenic overlook on 89A. Among the few tourists tromping over the wet red soil to the lookout point was a young family, the mother and young girls dressed in Little House on the Prairie dresses and bonnets with braids down their backs, and the father in a flannel shirt and jeans. I looked at them sideways with embarrassed fascination — the same kind that, say, an Amish family might elicit. These women and girls looked like they’d donned costumes for some kind of community pageant; it just happens that the pageant involves real-life polygamy. FLDS members’ houses can be seen far off the road up to Panguitch, UT. From a distance they look like gussied-up office park buildings, too large to be residences and strangely out of place in the general desolation.

After several miles of road bordered by the ashy-black skeleton remains of a forest fire, the road to the North Rim levels out atop the Kaibab Plateau. In October the meadows on either side of the highway were ringed by stands of blue spruce, ponderosa pine and yellow and copper-colored aspens.

Aspen on the Kaibab Plateau

Beyond Jacob Lake the approach to the Canyon, still 40-odd miles south, grows more mysterious, and on this cloudy and increasingly raw afternoon, even a little forbidding. The pines of the Kaibab National Forest close in. And when you finally arrive at the North Rim, you’re at the Canyon’s wild, ragged edge, so far from normal life that even one’s sense of being a tourist fades. You can’t drive up to the Lodge or close to the spartan little cabins scattered to either side, so the approach feels more like entering a large outpost from another era. And unlike what you often see at the South Rim, the visitors here are a dedicated crowd hunched in down parkas, hiking boots and caps.

In the parking lot we get another glimpse of the North Rim’s remoteness: some people are crouching to take photos of a Kaibab squirrel. Kaibab squirrels live only here at the North Rim and around Jacob Lake; they’re a subspecies of the more widespread Abert’s squirrel, but their isolation has guaranteed their distinct, elegant appearance: gray-black fur, white bushy tails and large tufted ears. In 2009 the National Park Service dedicated 200,000 acres of the Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest – the Kaibab squirrel’s habitat – as a National Natural Landmark, and January 21 as Squirrel Appreciation Day.

But I was so cold and numbed by several hours in the car that I didn’t have the presence of mind to pull out my iPhone and snap a picture. The photograph is pulled from the Internet.