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Try the Grand Canyon’s cooler, quieter North Rim to escape the crowds

LEFT: A view from the North Rim. RIGHT: People gather at Mather Point on the South Rim. (LEFT: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images; RIGHT: George Rose/Getty Images)
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The South Rim is busy, hot and packed with visitors

The majority of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year head to the larger, busier South Rim. It’s no surprise: The South Rim is open year-round; it’s closer to big cities such as Phoenix and Flagstaff, Ariz.; and it has more lodging and food options than its northern counterpart. The South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village is also the gateway to the popular Bright Angel Trail, a strenuous bucket-list hike that descends along a massive fault to the Colorado River. The village also has its own post office and railroad depot, and morning-to-night shuttle buses run between key viewpoints and trailheads. There are also bicycle rentals, guided walking tours, a geology museum and other activities devoted to showcasing the legendary mile-deep gorge that ranks among the world’s most beautiful geological wonders.

Location: Grand Canyon visitors may fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which is about 230 miles from the South Rim, or the smaller Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, about 90 miles away.

The North Rim has the same spectacular views with fewer distractions

Although the North Rim is only about 10 miles as the crow flies from the South Rim, it’s about a 220-mile drive and a world apart in terms of terrain, temperature and vibe. In summer, when the temperature at the South Rim can reach 100 degrees in the shade, the North Rim is a cooler, quieter option that offers the same spectacular canyon views, along with good hiking opportunities and scenic drives.

At an elevation of 8,297 feet (about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim), the North Rim features a unique “high subalpine” terrain with meadows, grasslands and dense white-fir and aspen forests, notes Joelle Baird, a public affairs specialist at Grand Canyon National Park. Bison sightings are common across the Kaibab Plateau on the drive south into the park along Arizona’s Route 67.

“It feels like a different park,” Baird says. “It’s more remote, cellphone service is limited. You can truly check out.” On average, only about 10 percent of Grand Canyon National Park visitors venture to the North Rim, according to National Park Service statistics. In 2021, an estimated 221,000 visitors came through the North Rim entrance when it was open May through mid-October, compared with approximately 2.2 million visitors who entered the park via the South Rim’s Desert View and South entrances during that period.

North Rim visitors are still privy to the breathtaking canyon views that define one of the most popular U.S. national parks. It’s only about a quarter-mile walk along a paved path from the Grand Canyon Lodge to Bright Angel Point, which offers up-close views of the Deva, Brahma and Zoroaster temples. (The Adirondack chairs on the lodge patio provide similar photo ops.) Mule rides are available, although they don’t reach the canyon bottom like the overnight rides originating from the South Rim. Other highlights: The sunset view from Point Imperial, near the park’s northern boundary (at 8,803 feet, it’s the highest point in the park), and Cape Final Trail, a moderate 4.2-mile hike featuring a striking mix of ponderosa pines, meadows and sweeping canyon views.

Things to keep in mind before visiting the North Rim: All amenities are typically closed from December through mid-May because of winter weather. (Hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the park are allowed year-round but require a backcountry permit.) Seasonal park lodging is also limited to one lodge and one campground, and they book up far in advance. Food options include a casual deli and the lodge’s stately dining room, known for regional dishes such as local trout and venison meatloaf. (Reservations are strongly recommended.)

Planning ahead is a must, Baird says. “It’s not a place where you can just show up and expect to find overnight accommodations.” Many North Rim visitors are day-trippers coming from southern Utah as part of the “Grand Circle” tour of national parks that includes Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — “all more or less within a day’s drive of one another,” she adds.

Travelers in the know stop at Jacob Lake Inn for homespun meals and fresh-baked cookies on their way to or from the North Rim. The property sits 31 miles from the North Rim’s entrance, but it’s the closest brush with civilization for miles. With its folksy hospitality and rustic decor, it makes a complementary waypoint to any North Rim visit.

Location: Flagstaff Pulliam is the closest airport to the North Rim, about 212 miles away. Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas is about 270 miles away.

Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her website is authorlaurarandall.com. Find her on Instagram: @socaltravelwriter.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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