You Can Have the Grand Canyon All To Yourself
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The crowds at the Grand Canyon can scramble a person’s brain. There you are, wanting to take in nature’s big spectacle, having driven all those miles, stuck in traffic, gasping fumes, bus loads of foreign tourists getting their pictures taken, no places to park. Your bambinos just want to get out of the car. Your wife yells watch out for that deer. This is not the vacation you had in mind.
Four million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, most of those on the South rim, most of those between June and August. That’s a lot of people. The North Rim is quieter. And off season is an improvement. But what’s a person to do if your trips are planned around the school’s calendar?
Do you have an SUV or 4-wheel drive? If so, here’s an answer. The tourist side of the Canyon runs along Arizona 64, Desert View Drive, from the Desert View watchtower, past Grand Canyon Village and on to Hermit’s Rest (via the Shuttle Bus). But that’s not even half of the South Rim. The Canyon continues to the west for miles and miles without an inch of asphalt.
So how do you get there? There is one road, Forest Service 328. It’s dirt. It’s rutted. It’s bad. And for that reason, you can have it all to yourself. If you are accustomed to 4 wheel drive roads in the Snowies, there is nothing to it.
But what about the scenery? At the turn of the century, before Teddy Roosevelt got involved, there were three tourist camps. One at Grand View, one at the site of Grand Canyon Village, and one run by W.W. Bass at the Grand Scenic Divide. Bass’s site was considered by those who knew the scenic heart of the Grand Canyon.
The view at Havasupai Point faces a long ridge extending below, called the Grand Scenic Divide. To the right is the new Canyon with its fabled buttes, temples, towers and buttresses, incised by a succession of side canyons. To the left is the old Canyon, simpler, broader, with an expansion of space, long walls across the river. It appears brighter, the colors more vivid. With a slow turn of the head you can take it in. Alone. In silence.
When the railroad was built and the roads constructed this once busy tourist hub was passed by. All that remains are the low rubble of foundations, a couple of abandoned cisterns, piles of cans. And the view.
There are no t-shirt shops, no ice-cream for sale. There are no privies, no water. No guard rails. Just a couple of picnic tables.
Is this your kind of place? If so it will take 90 minutes of driving to cover 30 miles of dirt road, first across Coconino National Forest, then a wedge of the Havasupai Reservation, and on into the National Park.
If you come in from the south, from Flagstaff or Williams, go through Tusayan, get gas and any supplies you might need. About a mile north of Tusayan look for Forest Service 328 and a sign for Apache Stables. (If you reach the south entrance station, you went too far). Turn left, to the West. Soon the road will cross the railroad tracks.
Just stay on 328, following signs to “Pasture Wash”. The road goes from good to bad and from bad to worse and from worse to terrible. Reasonably high clearance is needed. It takes you through miles of “pygmy forest”, juniper and pinon with occasional expanses of sage brush meadow.
You will reach a gate as you enter the land of the Havasupai. Most likely someone will come out of a simple cabin and require a trespass fee of $25. Have cash in hand. If not, just let yourself through. They may catch you on the way out.
After you cross into the park you’ll notice the deserted Pasture Wash ranger station. You are getting close.
Then you are there, at Bass Camp. The yawning earth spread in all its majesty. There may be a few cars. This is the trailhead for the South Bass trail, a gateway into the inner canyon backcountry.
Deep below is the red sandstone Esplanade, supporting the “White Mountain”, Mount Heuthawali, before dropping off to the abyss. Sit a spell. Nobody will bother you here.
To reach the Great Scenic Divide, drive back up the road about a half a mile and turn to the east. In a few miles you’ll again come to the rim, following the road north coming to Havasupai Point. On the far side of canyon is “Camelot”, King Arthur’s Castle and Guinevere’s , towering over Mordred’s abyss.
If you wish to spend the day no permits are required. You can walk along the rim, sit in the silence and watch the sun set, drinking in the changing colors and rising shadows amongst the layers. Condors may circle over head.
You may want to hike down the South Bass Trail to the Esplande. On the hike, it will get hotter and as you go down. Carry plenty of water. There is none below. The trail is quite good. In the Toroweap layer there are a few Anasazi graneries along the way and many fossil brachiopods in the rocks. The Esplanade is a magical terrace, with the abyss below and the rims high above. Going down to it and back is at least a four hour walk.
Camping at your vehicle is allowed at three sites, two near Havasuapi Point (use areas SE1 and 2) and one at Bass Camp (SE3), but permits are required and must be obtained in advance so that your place and privacy is reserved. To get them contact the Backcountry Information Center at (928) 638-7875 or at www.nps.gov/grca. The cost is $10 per permit plus $5 per person per night.
Jul 7, 2010
Missed the turn after the gate and encountered an unfriendly group of men who asked what I was doing there on the res. Backtracked and found the turn to Shangrila. Thanks for the tip.
Oct 9, 2012
Thanks for this great post. It was our guide to a wonderful visit last weekend and we shared the site with just two other people. Much appreciated Ryan.
Oct 9, 2012
Terrific. Glad you enjoyed it!
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Sep 5, 2016
Read, “The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher”. Its about hiking the Grand Canyon. I read it as an undergrad at CSU and subsequently did a few days down below by the river.