THE NORTH RIM — Evening was beginning to settle on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park as visitors armed with cellphones and cameras strolled along paved pathways just outside the historic stone-and-log lodge.
They chatted, laughed and snapped photos of the craggy abyss below.
But even at this popular outlook during such a photogenic hour, there were no throngs of crowds, no need to jostle for space to take selfies, no constant background of chatter, all elements that have come to define the park's south rim entrance.
“This is a totally different experience than the South Rim,” said Jayson Brown, who was visiting the North Rim for the first time from Western Australia.
“The hiking trails there, it’s like walking on a sidewalk in New York,” he said before venturing out to one viewpoint completely alone.
While the North Rim has seen the same upward trend that pushed total park visitation to a record 5.96 million visitors last year, this side of the canyon still manages to embody an air of being undiscovered and off the beaten track. Even at the height of the summer tourism season there is ample opportunity to experience solitude.
NORTH RIM EXPERIENCE
The North Rim sees just a fraction of the visitors that come to the South Rim — one tenth is the oft-cited figure. In the month of July 2016, for example, the North Rim saw 26,500 cars while the "South District" recorded 168,600.
The imbalance can be partially attributed to the fact that the North Rim is a six-hour drive from Phoenix, versus a more reasonable three and a half hours to the South Rim. Accommodations are also harder to find north of the canyon, with just a few spots to get a room either in or remotely near the park. On the South Rim, the town of Tusayan offers hundreds of hotel rooms available just a few minutes' drive away.
This reporter’s trip to the North Rim in mid-July included a hike down the North Kaibab Trail, a drive out to the popular Cape Royal and Point Imperial viewpoints, a hike along the forested Widforss Trail and a jaunt along the Bright Angel Point Trail just off the North Rim lodge.
Hitting the North Kaibab Trail on a Sunday afternoon yielded only a brief encounter with two mule trips coming back up from Supai Tunnel two miles down the trail. Besides kicking up some dust and leaving the occasional pile of dung to step over, the animals’ impact on the hiking experience was fairly minor.
Winding down the canyon’s steep pitch, the contrast between dark green conifers and gray, black and rose-colored layers of sandstone and limestone made for a vibrant view compared to the more muted tones along the South Rim. Ava Lambert, who was hiking up the trail as rain clouds swept through the canyon, said the area was just about the same as she remembered it from a visit 25 years ago, except maybe quieter.
Crowds were few for a summer weekend. Jason Duke said he ran into only 20 other people along the nine miles that he had hiked that Sunday — a far cry from the crowded Bright Angel Trail across the canyon.
Another morning spent driving along the winding roads to Cape Royal and Point Imperial offered several chances for a solo viewing experience at the viewpoints strung out along both routes. Even at 10 a.m., the parking lot at Point Imperial was barely half full and just a trickle of people made their way down to the small viewing balcony.
The other experiences as well — hiking along the nearly deserted Widforss Trail and sinking into one of the leather arm chairs to take in the canyon views at the North Rim's lodge — were unexpectedly accessible surprises in one of America’s most popular national parks.
As Brussels residents Alain and Laurence Notte said as they left the Angels Window viewpoint near Cape Royal, the sense of space and the magnitude of quiet at the North Rim is a world apart from daily life.
Though still a much quieter side of the canyon, the North Rim has seen a steady rise in visitors that tracks the increase in South Rim entries. Between 2010 and 2016 annual visitation for the season increased from 105,000 to 127,000.
In the backcountry, the number of hikers coming to the North Rim as a part of rim-to-rim trips is also growing, with those transcanyon hikes forming more than half of all backcountry requests the park receives, said Steve Bridgehouse, the North Rim backcountry office manager.
Increasing popularity of the Arizona Trail, which was completed through the Grand Canyon in 2012, is also bringing more hikers through the North Rim, Bridgehouse said. He said this spring, the canyon’s portion of the trail was busier than he has ever seen it.
Generally, because it's farther away and can take a bit more research to access, people headed to the North Rim stay longer than those on the South Rim, said Mandi Toy, supervisory park ranger for interpretation on the North Rim and Canyon districts.
For those seeking a less crowded hiking experience, Toy suggested the Widforss and Cape Final trails. Those trails are popular but there are still times of day when there won’t be too many other people on the trail, she said.
While this part of the park does see the same resource strains and diverse visitor demographics as the South Rim, the North Rim also sets itself apart, Toy said.
"We're kind of a unique part of Grand Canyon," she said.
This article has been edited from its original version.
Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org