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Cliffhanger

ARIZONA

You seek out the Grand Canyon's remote North Rim for a view like no other. But courage is vital. Here, Mother Nature thrills -- and chills you to the marrow.

October 28, 2007|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

GRAND CANYON NORTH RIM, ARIZ. — My brother, John, loves deserts, slot canyons, mesas, buttes and treacherous dirt roads. At home, he pores over U.S. Geological Survey maps, dog-ears pages in hiking books, studies dry treatises on the archaeology and geology of the Southwest.

Sometimes, he spreads out his camping gear on the patio -- camp stove, check; sleeping bag, check; headlamp, compass, TP, check, check, check. He has a special way of setting up a tent and you'd better get it right if you want to go with him.

And I do because he always takes me someplace remarkable -- Fish and Owl canyons in southeastern Utah; Haleakala Volcano on Maui; the old Mojave Road in eastern California; Picacho del Diablo in Baja.

When he said recently that he wanted to spend a few nights on the remote Powell Plateau, overlooking some of the finest vistas in the Grand Canyon, I immediately applied for a backcountry permit from the national park. I'd never been to the North Rim or heard of the Powell Plateau, but if John wanted to go there, that was all I needed to know.

Thinking we deserved a reward after the two-night camping trip, I tried to book a cabin at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, which was about to close for the season. I called for reservations and could hardly believe it when I learned it was full. Turns out, people make reservations months -- even years -- in advance for the fall, so I called every day for a week and finally got a place, thanks to a cancellation. But I wouldn't count on luck getting you in. I'd start planning now.

Eons before my brother and I were born, seismic activity in what is now northern Arizona chopped a chunk about half the size of Catalina Island off the North Rim.

It came to rest between the rims of the chasm on the northern side of the Colorado River, which makes a big loop around it, 5,300 feet below. The top of the plateau is flat, and its flanks are steeply terraced, falling away from points along the edge that overlook a canyon land unknown to most tourists.

That's partly because the Powell Plateau is reached by driving rough roads and hiking from the North Rim, which is far less visited than its southern counterpart: Of the 4.3 million people who went to the canyon last year, only 5% ventured to the North Rim.

Then, too, while the warmer, dryer, easily accessed South Rim stays open all year, the more remote North Rim closes when snow blocks the road -- around the beginning of November -- and doesn't re-open until May.

A few tough canyoneers have circled its terraces and found plentiful evidence that the mysterious Anasazi people once lived here.

Theodore Roosevelt, cowboy fiction writer Zane Grey and Uncle Jimmy Owens, the old canyon codger immortalized in the 1953 children's classic "Brighty of the Grand Canyon," hunted cougars on the plateau. Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell brought artist Thomas Moran here to paint the view from Dutton Point.

Around 1900, William Wallace Bass, an Easterner who had come to the arid Southwest for his health (upon first seeing the Grand Canyon, he said, "It nearly scared me to death."), put his money on attracting tourists to the region around Powell Plateau.

He built a camp across from the plateau on the South Rim; cobbled together old Indian and prospector paths into the first cross-canyon route passable by horses, now the national park's tough North and South Bass trails; and put a ferry boat in the river to take visitors across the Colorado to another camp underneath the plateau.

He knew in his gut that this was the heart of the canyon. But in 1901, the Grand Canyon Railway reached the head of Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim, 30 miles east, putting Bass out of business.

HUMMER HAPPY

I flew, and John drove his old Toyota 4Runner loaded with gear, from L.A. to Las Vegas, a good staging point for trips into the canyon lands of Utah and Arizona. He has logged 245,000 chassis-battering miles in that vehicle, and I don't trust it. So I rented an SUV at the airport, where John met me.

When the woman at the rental check-in counter said we could upgrade to a Hummer for $10 a day more, John's ears got as big as a mule deer's. Driving a Hummer on an abominable dirt road is the stuff of his fantasies, and the price was unbeatable.

So we began our Powell Plateau adventure like a pair of rap stars, cruising down the Vegas Strip in an H3.

Early the next morning, we were on our way to St. George, Utah, where we would turn east toward the North Rim, with the Vermilion Cliffs at one shoulder and the Arizona Strip (the part of the state north of the canyon) at the other.

John kept telling me to drive faster or we would never make it to the plateau by dark. The rest of the time, he played with the H3's accessories -- heated seats, satellite radio and a GPS unit that didn't include the town of Jacob Lake, Ariz., where North Rim visitors turn south to Grand Canyon National Park.

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