JACOB LAKE, Ariz. — In summer, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River can be a slice of hell. Not because of the heat, although it's plenty hot in the high desert. The canyon takes on a hellish aspect thanks to grinding tour-bus transmissions, honking horns, low-flying aircraft and the oohs and ahs and say cheeses of about 5 million tourists jamming into northern Arizona for a glimpse of eternity.
But in the wintertime, when piercing cold settles in the high country, the Grand Canyon takes on a different aspect. The leaves change and the tourists begin to disappear. By the first snowfall the place is still. The snow keeps coming and coming until it nearly seals off the canyon--especially the 8,000-foot-high North Rim--from the rest of the world. Only then does the Big Ditch, as locals call it, get a break from the crowds.
All that snow means plenty of cross-country skiing on the Kaibab Plateau that borders the North Rim. The rugged Kaibab, crisscrossed by steep escarpments, deep-cut valleys and dense stands of tall ponderosa pines, is covered by a powdery snowpack that exceeds 100 inches most winters. The plateau is more than a mile above the sinuous Colorado River, and Kaibab means, fittingly, in the language of the Paiute, "mountain lying down."
The plateau has but a single winter destination: the North Rim Nordic Center, eight miles from the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, and 26 miles south of Jacob Lake (which is about 36 miles south of the Utah border). Stuffed to the rafters with guests from May to October, when the park's North Rim is open for business, the center's year-round lodge can accommodate only 60 winter guests at a time.
Those 60 guests may seem a crowd inside the alpine-style lodge, but not when they're spread over the Nordic Center's 50 miles of groomed trails and 21.7 miles of marked back country trails, let alone the 1.5-million-acre Kaibab National Forest that envelops it.
Cross-country enthusiasts, tired of dodging snowboarders and hot doggers on the nation's crammed slopes, will find this just the place for solitude.
The North Rim Nordic Center boasts the largest groomed-trail wilderness skiing system in the United States. The key word here is wilderness, which by federal definition means a roadless area. All roads to the center are closed in the wintertime. The only way in is by SnoVan, a Rube Goldberg contraption made up of the battered shell of a Dodge van perched atop an ungainly halftrack fitted with skis where the front tires should be.
The center's trails offer plenty of challenges. To name just two, the 8.7-mile Tater Ridge Trail and the appropriately named Adrenaline Alley, a mile-long screamer that gauges one's talent for dodging trees. Another test is the Point Imperial guided tour, which leads for several miles across unmarked open country and over steep hills to the very edge of the Grand Canyon.
Veteran cross-country skiers are not the North Rim's sole clientele, however. The intensive, individualized instruction for beginners is the best I've seen for any outdoor sport. Judging by my experience as a coordination-challenged outdoorsman, Nordic director Ken Walters can teach just about anyone to ski. In fact, he's licensed to teach other cross-country skiing instructors their craft.
If you go through your paces with him, you'll understand at the end of a bone-weary day why cross-country skiing is widely held to be the most comprehensive form of full-body aerobic exercise there is.
The dense ponderosa thickets swallow up landmarks the minute you enter them, but well-marked trails make it nearly impossible to get lost. The length of those trails, which range from one to 10.8 miles, is more challenging for beginners than their steepness. Even the shorter trails are plenty rigorous, and good warm-up for some of the more grueling ones. "Killers," Walters calls the latter.
If, like me, you take time to acquire snow legs, the center's glide clinic can help. It focuses on techniques for letting your skis get you around with minimal exertion. You may feel a little silly practicing the hip-wagging sashay technique (Walters called it the "hi, sailor" walk until last season, when a champion of political correctness protested), but even veterans say it considerably improves your cross-country skills.
More daring skiers may want to take the center's courses in telemark, a weird amalgam of downhill and cross-country skiing with some improbable spine-twisting. The point, as I understand it, is to stop on a dime while hurtling downhill and then change direction in an instant--useful knowledge, I suppose, should you ever tear down the Grand Canyon's brink while being chased by a black bear (of which the Kaibab Plateau boasts a small but attentive population).