Sunday, November 2, 2008

Grand Canyon North Rim & Monument Valley

Something is wrong with the pictures in this post. I'm going to blame Blogger for now, until I figure out what it is.

In mid-October I made yet another trip to the Grand Canyon, having a few days off before needing to be at a trade show in Las Vegas. I didn't have enough time to plan a backpacking trip this time, so I planned to spend 4 days on the North Rim just dayhiking around. The full photo gallery for this trip is here

I started waaaay too early in the morning in NJ, driving into NY to get to a JetBlue flight from JFK. I was due in Vegas before 11 am, but given the time to pick up a car then find a gas cannister for my stove I was afraid that it might be dark by the time I got to the canyon, and I didn't really want to deal with setting up my tent in the dark. I made a reservation at Jacob Lake Inn, about 50 miles north of the park. It's a fine place, with small but decent cabins and plenty of heat. I did make it faster than I thought, arriving around 4pm. I dropped my stuff and went to the park, getting a nice sunset.

The next morning I left early (still on Eastern time) and made it to the park for sunrise. I'd planned on going out to Cape Royal, but the sun was a little ahead of me so I stopped along the road, I think at Vista Encantata.

I spent a few hours that morning along the Cape Royal road, at the cape itself then on the Cape Final Trail. That's about a 2 mile walk, mostly level, through the woods out to an isolated viewpoint- much like Shoshone Point on the South Rim. It's a pleasant walk to a quiet viewpoint.
From Cape Final

Later that day I hiked part of the Widforss Trail, another wooded rim trail. It's got a fair amount of up & down to it, nothing like the strain of hiking into the canyon, but given that I'd done no exercise prep for this trip my sea-level lungs had trouble.

A note about the North Rim- guest services end on October 15, a couple of days before I arrived. In the past, this meant that the park was technically closed, though it was open for anyone who wanted to make the trek and deal with the possibility of bad weather. This year, probably trying to get a little more money, the park was still open, charging the full $25 entrance fee and charging $12/night (the normal is about $18, I think) for the campground. Given the almost total lack of services, this seems a little unfair to me. $12 for a place to put the tent and an overflowing portapottie is a little much. On top of that, I was there for some of the close out of the Lodge. This meant that the bar was open for employees, but not to the public, which is almost like adding insult to injury.

The next day I started at Point Imperial, hiking the Saddle Mountain Trail out to Saddle Mountain, and the Nankoweap area. At the time, I thought I'd hiked to an area between Saddle Mountain and Tilted Mesa; further review of the GPS says that what I thought was Tilted Mesa was Saddle Mountain, so I didn't cover the ground I thought I did. Hey, it looks tilted. At least I got a nice view of Kolb Arch, a natural arch near Point Imperial that somehow remained uncharted until 1953, when it was "discovered" by Barry Goldwater.

Me at Kolb Arch

The trail out toward Saddle Mountain from Point Imperial is one of the ugliest places I've been in the canyon. It travels through a dead forest, and the trail is lined with heavy thorns. It didn't look burned, at least not recently, just dead. It'd be a great location for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The trail is also accessible from a Forest Service road that didn't look too bad- the road starts north of the park boundry, near the Kaibab Lodge and North Rim Country Store.
Another road leads in from the east, apparently used regularly by backpackers heading to the Nankoweap Trail. As remote as it is, I still saw two other groups on the trail that day. The full trip down into Nankoweap is on my list; maybe another year or two down the road.

During a later hike on the Uncle Jim Trail, yet another pretty rim trail in the forest, I decided that I was a little bored with the plan for another full day at the canyon. Given the north rim view related to a sun in the south, and a little smoke/haze in the canyon, I wasn't that thrilled with the photography conditions. That, combined with my continuing exhaustion from altitude (being overweight and inactive had nothing to do with it) I decided to take a long drive the next day to Monument Valley.

About 4 1/2 hours from the canyon, Monument Valley lies on the Utah/Arizona border and the Navaho reservation. It's instantly recognizable from the films of John Ford & John Wayne and more recent films like Forrest Gump. A short road leads from the main highway to a visitor center (under heavy renovation right now. Leave it to me to travel to a construction site.) It's $5 to get into the park, which gives you the right to take your car on a 17 mile dirt road winding through the park.

The road isn't great, but it's acceptable for small cars. Better than what I'd take the next day, at any rate. It's a fantastic drive down among the giant buttes, well worth it. There are other options, including tribal-led tours that go off road and get you up close, but for me this trip around was enough.

Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a place that looks in person exactly like it does in pictures and movies, and yet feels nothing like the photographic versions. The scale and the breadth of the view is stunning. For a touch of the flavor, John Ford's The Searchers gets close, his first widescreen film in the valley, but it's still not like the reality.
Monument Valley

After the trip back to the canyon and another night on the rim, day 4 dawned. I was due in Las Vegas that night, so I looked for sightseeing opportunities along the way. I've spent much more time on the south side of the canyon, so I don't know the north nearly as well. I came across a description of Tuweep (also called Toroweap) on the Park Service web site, and it was featured in the North Rim Guide newspaper. It's a 61 mile trip on a dirt road off the main road, leading to a viewpoint 3000' directly over the river. It's mentioned as a rough dirt road, but caled ok for passenger cars. (The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map calls it an "improved road", which is way off.) In reality, this is a scary road for an Easterner like me. About 55 miles of dirt, stone, sand, and blind hills to get to the Park boundry. Then it gets bad. Right around this point there's a road grader parked off the road. It looks like it died there.

From the park entrance to the viewpoint the road goes to one lane and gets much rougher. It's slow going all the way, past a campground and some trailheads, but the view doesn't disappoint. It's straight down to the river, with expansive views off to the east. You can see as far as Sinyala Mesa, near Supai, which I saw from the south on my trip to Havasu Falls in March 2007.

Tuweep Overlook

After the long drive out, and with the return trip high in my mind, I couldn't really enjoy the time out here. I only spent about 15 minutes out there (after 2 1/2 hours of travel) before I gave up and went my way. The car survived, which was good since it was probably a violation of my rental agreement to take it there, though it did take a washing and thorough cleaning of places like the inside of the doors before I felt ok returning it.

Up next for the canyon- the Escalante Route, probably in April '09.

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