Just beyond the northern boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park, the Kaibab National Forest covers the rest of the heavily forested, higher elevation Kaibab Plateau. Though the Forest Service has a harder time determining specific visitor numbers than the National Park Service, the agency has tracked growing visitor use in at least one place: the Rainbow Rim Trail.
Located west of Highway 67, the remote, 18-mile dirt singletrack trail winds through forests, meadows and rocky outcroppings along the rim of the Grand Canyon. It has caught the eye of mountain bike outfitters, horseback riders and organizers of trail running events.
Because companies or other organized entities need permits to run trips or hold events on the national forest, the agency can track use trends. Its data show that between 2013 and 2016, the number of user days that were permitted for the Rainbow Rim area more than doubled from 750 to over 1,600, said Dan Gunn, natural resource specialist on the North Kaibab Ranger District. In 2016 alone, the district received requests from five new businesses or other entities for special use permits on the Rainbow Rim Trail on top of nine already issued, Gunn said.
And while those numbers don’t encompass all individual use of the trail, it provides a good way to gauge growth in interest, he said.
The Rainbow Rim Trail has likely been getting more attention in part because it’s close to southern Utah, which has been heavily marketed as a hub for mountain biking in recent years, Gunn said. Federal land managers have constructed new trails in the area while commercialized events have sprung up as well, he said.
“As those areas see more people, people are going to continue to move eastward and we are continuing to see that,” Gunn said. Especially in the summer, the cooler temperatures of the Kaibab Plateau make it an attractive alternative to the Utah desert, he said.
There’s also traditional news media and social media to thank for increasing knowledge of and attention on more remote areas like the North Kaibab, he said.
Recently, growth in Rainbow Rim Trail use has spurred the Forest Service to begin a needs assessment and capacity analysis for the area. Those processes help determine both the need for authorized outfitter and guide services as well as the estimated number of visitors, both guided and non-guided, that an area can handle during a defined time period based on resource and setting capability.
That information will then help the Forest Service prepare a "user-day allocation" that determines a percentage of total visitor capacity available to outfitter-guides.
Similar analyses are happening on other focus areas on the Kaibab National Forest as well, said Gunn and Forest Service Recreation Staff Officer Missy Robinson.
Zooming out from the Rainbow Rim Trail, the Arizona Trail also has been getting more attention lately, Gunn said. A comprehensive management plan is underway to deal with increasing visitation on the 800-mile trail that stretches from the Utah state line to the Mexico border and through the North Kaibab Ranger District, Gunn said. He said public meetings should be coming up soon on that process.