GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #7

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

 

February 8, 2012

“How long does it take to see the Grand Canyon?’

“From a moment to a lifetime.”

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  277 miles long, 10 miles wide, one mile deep.  It has been known for well over a century as the greatest scenic wonder in the world.  One of its earliest visitors, John Muir, was so awe-struck by it that he wrote of it,

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.

John Wesley Powell, in 1869, pronounced it

The most sublime spectacle on earth.

Yet, even though it was generally acknowledged as such a global treasure, those who tried to save it for posterity faced fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, settlers, and others who were determined to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do with it.  It should have been the nation’s second national park; indeed bills were introduced to that effect in 1882, 1883, and 1886—all failed.  In 1893 President Harrison did what he could, inadequate though it was: he used his administrative power to designate it as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.  Twenty-six long years later, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1908, used his newly passed Antiquities Act to elevate it to national monument status.  Not until 1919 was it finally made a national park.  But even then, full federal protection was anything but a given: grazing was still permitted; as a result cattle herds roamed freely on both rims, the park was honeycombed with still active mining claims, and newly elected Arizona senator, Ralph Henry Cameron continued to act as though he—not the American people—owned the canyon.

Today, however, the Grand Canyon is loved to death by almost 5,000,000 tourists a year, over 4,000,000 of them congesting the South Rim, helping to make it one of the most photographed places on earth.

The Grand Canyon is really three distinctly different parks: The overcrowded South Rim, the forested North Rim’s Kaibab Plateau; and the Colorado River and its Phantom Ranch.

THE NORTH RIM’S GRAND CANYON LODGE

           

The Grand Canyon Lodge (the only lodging facility on the North Rim, is open only five months a year (mid-May to mid-October), and not always then, for snow can keep it closed later in the spring, and close it earlier in the fall.  Only one-tenth (400,000 plus) of the millions that mob the South Rim make it here, for though it is only a ten-mile glide across to the South Rim, it’s 215 miles by nearest road.  So it is actually closer to Zion National Park than to its own park headquarters.  To hike across is a daunting 23 miles.  Given that the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, hikers descend almost 6,000 feet on the famed Bright Angel Trail  from the North Rim and ascend almost 5,000 feet to the South Rim.  Climate-wise, hikers experience the equivalent of going from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Mexico and back up.  In Bruce Aiken’s words: “The Canyon is a nude of the earth.  It shows the layers, the bones beneath the skin—what’s beneath the vegetation that covers the rest of the world” (Jaffe, 116).

Matthew Jaffe, in his splendid paean to the North Canyon, maintains that you don’t really know the Grand Canyon until you explore the uncrowded North Rim.  It is truly a different world.  Serene.  Quiet.  The travelers who make it here are the connoisseurs of the world travel, and are almost afraid to speak out, or write about its glories, for fear the rest of the world will discover it and wreck their Shangri-la..

As for the lodge itself, as always, Christine Barnes is the ultimate authority for its story.  The Utah Parks Company (UPC) and National Park Service (NPS) were so pleased with architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Bryce and Zion lodges that they contracted with him to create a great lodge on the North Rim, as soon as he completed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.  The result, according to Barnes, is that “Grand Canyon Lodge is architecturally and geographically linked to Bryce and Zion Park lodges, but its elegance and panache seem to have sprung from the same inspiration that created the hotel in Yosemite.  While the Ahwahnee’s success had been the elegant incorporation of the hotel with the towering walls of granite, on the North Rim the architect would look down for his inspiration” (Barnes, 137).

Underwood magically created a lodge that prevented visitors arriving from the north from any view of the Canyon until they’d first encountered a huge front of stone that was crowned by a watchtower.  As guests walked into the lodge, they’d initially see only timber and stone-work, but then they’d see the light which would draw them to the stairway, into the sunroom and into the lobby—then “BOOM! There’s the Grand Canyon” (Barnes, 137).  Outdoor terraces and stairways cascaded down from the lodge.

Flanking the lodge on both sides were one hundred Standard Cabins and twenty Deluxe Cabins; in 1931, less expensive Housekeeping Cabins were constructed near the campground away from the rim.  Since the site didn’t have water, they had to pipe it up from Roaring Springs, 3,400 feet below the rim.  On June 1, 1928, the lodge and cabins opened with accommodations for 250 guests.  Tourists were bussed in from the railroad terminal in Cedar City, Utah.

But then, on September 1, 1932, disaster!  Fire broke out in the lodge in the middle of the night.  Employees and workers battled the blaze for but a short time when the water pressure gave out, dooming the lodge and two Deluxe Cabins.  All that remained were stone walls, foundations, terraces, stairways, and fireplaces.  Horace Albright, NPS director, was devastated at the loss.  Two years later, the UPC began rebuilding the lodge on the same footprint, but Underwood was not involved.  The first floor plan remained as before, and the lodge we know today is still a wonderful place, but Christine Barnes laments, “But the marvelous sense of the building in perfect harmony with the rim was partially lost.  From the canyon wall the original lodge still rises, but the asymmetrical stairstep quality of the walls and rooflines with their rich texture are mostly gone.  Instead, the design was simplified and capped with a traditional green gable roof” (Barnes, 141).  The eighteen surviving Deluxe Cabins and the reconstructed lodge reopened on June 1, 1937.  They’re still there.

OUR OWN JOURNEY

We awoke at 6:30, and ate breakfast at Zion Lodge at 8:00; then drove out of Zion National Park via Carmel Junction, and headed south across the Arizona border onto the Kaibab Plateau.  I’ve always felt the Kaibab ought to have been part of Utah rather than Arizona, for it seems a world away from the rest of Arizona.  Alas, the Warm Fire of 2006 burned over 58,000 acres of the once lush forest.  But how grateful we were to discover that the fire had spared the rim area and the lodge.  Also grateful that we’d reserved our Deluxe Cabin over a year before.  And imagine how we felt when we discovered that the lodge had only been open one day!  Whenever we were tempted to complain about anything, we asked ourselves if we’d been able to do any better when everything had been snowed in for seven long months!  Actually, there were very few glitches, even so.  Just as was true with Bryce, the North Rim concessions were run by FOREVER Resorts.  And true to their word, they’d saved us Deluxe Cabins to die for, right on the rim next to the lodge; and sitting in rockers on our porch, we could look down, down, and down the almost 6,000 foot-drop to the Colorado River.

But before our rooms were cleaned, we first had to experience once again Underwood’s staggering surprise.  I submit that in all of America’s wondrous national park lodges, there are only two that literally take your breath away: walking up the stairs of Jackson lake Lodge, and suddenly, on the other side of the wall of glass are Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons soaring above Jackson Lake; and, second, stepping down into the Sun Room or into the Dining Room of Grand Canyon Lodge and suddenly, one of the most stunning views the world has to offer: the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado!  Guests are too awestruck to say much: they just stand there by the great windows–transfixed as time seems to stand still.

At 4:00 p.m., we brought our luggage in from the car and unpacked for two whole days.  Glory be!  In the evening, as the sun began to die in the West, we gazed out from our table near a window, and were too overwhelmed to say much.  Not until the shadows closed in.  Afterwards, we returned to that eighty-three-year-old cabin, mercifully spared from burning down with the lodge, even though it was the closest self-standing structure on that side.  Eighty-three years of blizzards, rainstorms, and fierce winds.  We lit the fire in the fireplace, crawled in bed, and listened to the wind and cabin walls complain!

          

Next morning, outside our window—that view!  A view so stupendous it will remain limned in memory as long as we live. Same next door in Bob and Lucy Earp’s cabin.  Bob had been up with camera since before sunrise.  The day passed all too quickly, beginning with breakfast in that iconic dining room; sharing the experience were tourists from all over the world, as cosmopolitan a group as you’d ever get into one room.  Europeans confessed that they’d never seen anything to compare with it! Later, Connie and Lucy washed and dried our laundry in the campground washateria.  Then Bob and I went shutterbugging down the rim to Point Imperial and Point Roosevelt, managing to get thirty miles lost in the process.  Afterwards, thanked Sonya Michaels, the lodge manager, for all she and her staff had done to make our stay so special—everyone so eager to please.  In midafternoon, we listened to a riveting lecture on condors.

After dinner, we played Phase Ten, and I, for once, beat Robert.  That night the wind really blew!  But snuggled together in the Cabin of our Dreams, we felt it would be hard to conceptualize a greater experience than this.  We fell asleep wondering if it would really snow the next day as some had predicted.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Jaffe, Matthew, “The Secret Canyon” (Sunset Magazine, May 2007).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).