As the dust settled from a long week off of work, we began to realize a harsh reality… That it was mid June and we were in southern Utah. With temperatures soaring, we needed to find some refuge at higher elevation. We had to look no further than just across the border in Arizona, where sat the Kaibab Plateau. Once the land of the plateau breaks about 7,000 feet, juniper deserts transform into stoic stands of Ponderosa Pine. Atop the plateau in the mid 8,000 foot range the forest is mixed conifer perfection, broken up by huge groves of Quaking Aspen. We had found our home for the next two weeks.
On our way up to Jacob Lake we didn’t have a specific camping spot in mind, as there was little information that we could find ahead of time. Luckily, the U.S. Forest Service is a truly fantastic agency. We walked into the Jacob Lake Ranger Station and were met by very kind volunteers and some great displays of the Forest’s native fauna. The volunteers gave us free maps of the all the forest roads and some pointers on where to look for the best boondocking. We also learned a lot about who would be our new best friend for the week, the elusive Kaibab Squirrel. Their map and advice proved worthwhile at about 2 miles down the first forest road that we tried. We found a beautiful place to set up camp at the edge of a meadow with sunlight for power and trees for hammock hanging, surrounded by freshly trimmed Ponderosa Pine forest (to lower fire risk), and enough cell signal to work for the week. Knowing that we would camp in a place of such bliss for the whole week and not pay a dime was a great feeling. Knowing that we were staying about 25 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert was even better.
There is a funny thing about dispersed camping on public lands like this that I know I’ve mentioned before… the more perfect your spot is, the faster time goes by. So after giggling our faces off about how perfect this place was, we blinked, and then the week was over. Needless to say, it was easy to decide to just go to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim for the weekend and then return to this same forest for another week of working and exploring. So off we went.
The Grand Canyon’s South Rim was an awe inspiring place, which was tastefully built up and commercialized to accommodate millions of visitors in an extremely remote part of Arizona. We had an amazing time there in March with my sister and her fiancé, and we definitely plan on returning there again. That said, the North Rim is a different experience entirely. It’s the same breathtaking canyon views and the same sense of wonderment, but with less than 10% of the amount of visitors as the South Rim it is definitely a different experience. During our drive further up the plateau to the rim of the canyon, we encountered the much debated bison herd that lives on the plateau. This herd is the descendants of a mixed bison/cattle herd owned by Buffalo Bill Jones in the late 1880’s. After he went bankrupt and abandoned them, the state of Arizona maintained the herd within Jones’ ranch in the deserts north of the plateau. In the 1980’s, when the state stopped managing the herd as closely, they walked uphill until they found a forest full of food with no natural predators. Over time the herd has even learned that, by staying near the southern end of the forest within the National Park boundaries, they are safe from hunters. The problem today is that this delicate ecosystem, which has had a long history of being messed with (Kaibab Deer History), is being destroyed by the presence of a growing, and very hungry, bison population.
We enjoyed views from Bright Angel Point where we could make out smoke from forest fires burning across the canyon to the south. Next, we hiked around some of the other viewpoints, including the Uncle Jim Trail. The thing about the Grand Canyon is simply that it’s hard to grasp it all. The Colorado River spent 6 million years cutting through nearly 2 billion years of sedimentary rock that makes up the Colorado Plateau. If that boggling sense of pressure and time isn’t hard enough to grasp, consider that every time you look at the canyon from a different angle you are only looking at a fraction of the entire thing. After a very long day of hiking and quietly contemplating the size of the formation before us, we drove back out the park road towards the northern side of the plateau and the Kaibab National Forest.
Rather than go all the way back to our boondocking near Jacob Lake, we stopped shortly outside of the park boundary and drove down a road that promised rim side campsites. The road was heavily washboarded, which meant a 10mph trip for 7 miles… which gets awfully dull. Once we got to the sites we found the best of them taken but luckily there was one site open right near the edge of the plateau. Since there was no cell signal we enjoyed a relaxing Saturday night drinking local beer and cooking dinner, something with polenta cakes, sausage, spinach, and mushrooms if I do remember correctly. The next day we decided that the spot was so pretty that we’d stay for the day and just drive out to a spot closer to the cell tower early Monday morning before work. It was definitely the right call.
After a great weekend exploring this wonderful place, we drove about 15 miles north on the plateau, back near our original boondocking spot in Jacob Lake. As it happened, our spot from the previous week was taken, but the Kaibab’s bounty is more than enough to share. We found an even nicer spot about a half mile down from the first one. Our second week in the Kaibab went by just as fast as the first, but this time we managed to make it over to the Jacob Lake Inn a few times for milkshakes and cookies, as well as for a ranger program about trees (a favorite learning topic of ours). Like they say, all good things must come to an end, and it was time to move on and keep exploring new places. Out of all the wonderment and peacefulness that we had found on the Kaibab Plateau, as we drove down the winding US-89A and the temperatures rose to over 105, I knew that the climate up there was what we’d miss the most.