It was already 5:45pm (Utah time) on Thursday, September 15 by the time we drove away from Zion National Park en route to the final National Park in our descent of the Grand Staircase.
Grand Canyon National Park was the first National Park I’d visited, twenty-four years earlier when I was thirteen years old. Back before that trip with my aunt and uncle and cousins, I’d read everything I could about the canyon in my Catholic grade school’s small library. I had become enchanted with photos of black Kaibab Squirrels with their tufted ears and white tails. But the squirrels are only found on the North Rim, and on that long-ago trip we’d visited the South Rim. This would be my chance to see a Kaibab Squirrel.
This return to Grand Canyon National Park completed Sean’s side of catching up and calibrating the National Parks we’d been to. Once we entered Grand Canyon National Park, Sean would have been to one more Park than I. It would not be until two months later at Dry Tortugas that we would have been to the same number of Parks.
We stopped in Kanab, Utah for additional supplies and gas before crossing into Arizona. The 11,000 square mile section of northwestern Arizona known as the Arizona Strip is one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas in the lower forty-eight. It is here, after the long descent of the plateaus of the Grand Staircase that the land rises again to over 8,000 feet on the Kaibab Plateau, which forms the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, some 1,000 feet higher than the Coconino Plateau, which forms the South Rim.
As we drove through the sagebrush sea of the Arizona Strip, occasionally spotting Pronghorn, we headed inexorably toward the smoke of the Fuller Fire, which we had spotted from East Mesa Trail earlier in the day. The smoke from the fire, which had been burning since June 29, hung like low, dark clouds on the horizon above the obvious bulge of the Kaibab Plateau. The fire had been caused by a lightning strike near Point Imperial in Grand Canyon National Park. Ultimately, it would burn 14,541 acres of Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest. In mid-September, as we approached the Park, most of the closures had reopened, although Saddle Mountain Wilderness in Kaibab National Forest was closed.
Having stopped to take some photos just as the sun was setting, we spotted the nearly full moon rising above the plateau.
The Vermillion Cliffs were off in the distance to the east. The Sagebrush Sea that surrounded us was a low point between the cliffs of the Grand Staircase and the Kaibab Plateau.
We continued on. As we drove, we listened to Rachel Bloom, creator of Crazy Ex Girlfriend, being interviewed on the My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast. Often on our trips we amused ourselves with the incongruity between our surroundings and what we happened to be listening to on the drive.
The road climbed up onto the plateau, and we passed through the town of Jacob Lake, where we turned south on Highway 67 to head in earnest toward the North Rim Entrance.
Twilight deepened and became cast in otherworldly mauve and purple as we passed through unburned parts of the forest that were filled with smoke. The smell of smoke filled the Jeep. We stopped at a turnout to snap some photos of the mist-like smoke seeping through the forest.
Farther along, the road rose higher onto the plateau and into a moonscape of recently burned forest. The effect was deeply creepy. It felt like we were driving into the end of the world. To the west, the sky still glowed in the end of magic hour. To the east, the moon presided over a deepening, smoky night.
Then came the deer. Mule Deer began to appear along the highway, their eyes glowing in our headlights. They darted across the highway, walked along it, or stopped and stared as we slowly passed by. There were dozens and dozens of them in small bands. I drove slowly as the darkness increased. I didn’t need a deer darting out in front of the Jeep.
Further on, we exited the burned portion of the forest. The smoke smell vanished, and the deer became fewer and fewer. Even though it was dark we could tell we were rolling through alternating meadows and forest, with the moon as our constant companion.
And then we reached the North Rim Entrance Station. I pulled over at the sign, and Sean hopped out for our traditional photo of the sign, thus far our only nighttime entrance.
We weren’t sure what time it was because some parts of Arizona go onto Daylight Savings Time while most of the state doesn’t. Nevertheless, the entrance station was unmanned because of the lateness of the hour.
The primary developed section of the North Rim is a narrow peninsula of land between Roaring Springs Canyon on the east and The Transept on the west. As we approached, the speed limit slowed and we passed the trailhead for the legendary North Kaibab Trail, the primary, maintained route to the Colorado River from the North Rim.
We entered the North Rim Campground and stopped at the General Store to pick up some firewood. We chatted with the clerk and finally asked her, “What time is it?” She laughed and explained that they were not on Daylight Savings Time. So they were an hour behind Utah. Ok, now we knew.
North Rim Campground is situated near the rim of The Transept with the tent-only section right on the edge. Six sites in particular are arranged long the Transept, and we had one of them. It was a bit hard to find the tent-only section in the dark. And it was even harder to figure out which parking space was connected to our site. We made a best guest and walked out to check our our site, which was some fifty feet from the parking, quite near the rim.
The site was great, but we got genuinely excited when we saw the view of moonlight reflected off The Transept. It was a truly magical campsite! Grabbing it as soon as they became available online had certainly paid off!
However, up here at 8,000 feet it was cold. I was still in shorts and a t-shirt from our hike. And I quickly put on more layers. We lit a campfire, though, to warm up while we set up camp.
It was quiet in the other campsites. A couple sites over, a couple was sitting by a campfire, but otherwise everyone seemed to be asleep already.
That night, it was certainly cold enough (likely hovering around 40 degrees, if not a big colder) to warrant hot water bottles in our sleeping bags.
Next morning, Friday, September 16, we discovered why the campers in the closest site had been asleep so early. They were up before dawn, clearly getting ready for an early start down North Kaibab Trail into the canyon. They were pretty loud and woke Sean up well before quiet time had ended in the campground.
We got up and stretched, and I walked over to take in the morning view of The Transept. It was just wonderful.
We were absolutely in love with our campsite.
I walked over the the campground registration booth to check-in, since it had been closed when we arrived the night before, but it was still too early, apparently.
When I got back, I suggested to Sean that instead of making breakfast in camp, why not go eat at the lodge. He was excited at the prospect of pancakes, so we hopped in the Jeep and drove the mile and a half to Grand Canyon Lodge, perched on the rim of the canyon near Bright Angel Point.
The current lodge was build in 1937 after the original lodge, which had been completed in 1928, burned to the ground in 1932.
Since it was still early (only 8am), we easily found a parking spot near the visitor center and lodge complex. We walked into the main entrance and inquired at the dining room immediately to the right. We were seated at a table near a window and had our first good view of the expanse of the Grand Canyon.
We opted for the buffet.
After breakfast, we explored the lodge a bit.
In the sun room, there was a statue commemorating Brighty, a real life burro from the early years of visitation to the North Rim. Brighty was immortalized in Marguerite Henry’s 1953 novel, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, which I had loved as a kid. I had taken a model of Brighty with me to the Grand Canyon in 1992, so I was thrilled to see the statue. I took a photo of him and texted it to my Mother.
Soft leather sofas in the lodge’s sunroom allowed for relaxing contemplation of the canyon while sheltered from the elements. We took advantage of them for a few minutes.
Out on one of the terraces, we gazed across the Grand Canyon. In the distance, the San Francisco peaks near Flagstaff were blue on the horizon.
By the time we were done with breakfast and taking in our first grand views, it was already 9:30am. We had to check in at the campground by 10am, so we bypassed the visitor center and headed back up the highway.
Just as the speed limit picked up past the parking areas, Sean spotted a Kaibab Squirrel on the right hand side of the road bounding along in the same direction we were going. His white tail flashed in the sun. There was no shoulder and a car behind us, so I couldn’t stop or pull over. So no photo. But at least we had seen one! I had finally, after a quarter century, seen a Kaibab Squirrel!!!
Now to photograph one…
Back in camp, I had apparently left my baseball cap on our tent. It looked like it was wearing it.
We were only back in camp a short while to pack and prep our daypacks for a day of adventure exploring the Walhalla Plateau.