GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZ.: Most trails in this colorful and iconic national park are tough up-and-down trails. You hike down into the canyon and then hike back up out of the canyon.
But the Widforss Trail on the North Rim is different: It’s a plateau trail that stays above the rim. In fact, the trail is generally considered the best plateau trail in the oversized park in northern Arizona.
The trail’s elevation changes only 600 feet over the 4.8-mile one-way length of the trail.
It is a half-day hike on a well-marked trail. The National Park Service even provides a 14-stop trail guide for the Widforss Trail.
Its big attraction is solitude, even in a park like Grand Canyon National Park. You won’t see many people along the route.
It offers rim views and a Ponderosa pine forest that is mixed with aspens that turn golden in the fall. That’s when the trail is at its colorful best. The forest offers a bit of shade to hikers, and the plateau temperatures are cooler than the oven-like conditions in the canyon.
The trail provides glimpses of Bright Angel Point, the biggest tourist spot on the North Rim. The rocky point sits at 8,148 feet between two side canyons and close to the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim.
The first 2½ miles of the Widforrs Trail skirt the canyon rim and Harvey Meadow. The meadow was once used as a tourist camp and a staging ground for cross-canyon mule trips. It is now grassy.
Nearby is a cave once used by U.S. Forest Service game warden “Uncle Jim” Owens, who killed 500 mountain lions in the area in the early 1900s.
The first 2½ miles are the most picturesque section of the trail. It offers views of the San Francisco Peaks that are 70 miles away to the south across the canyon.
A pair of rocky switchbacks lead to the edge of the Transept, a 4,000-foot-deep gorge. The trail takes you two miles along the head of the Transept, a tributary of Bright Angel Creek. It is a deep and sheer-walled ravine. It provides vistas to the south and east as the canyon deepens below.
Topographer Francois Matthes in the early 1900s declared that the Transept was grander than California’s Yosemite Valley.
The trail bends in and out of seven draws.
It winds into forests of old-growth Ponderosa pines with its thick bark that protects trees from forest fires.
The trail goes past a giant Ponderosa pine that is nearly 13 feet in diameter. It is likely 300 to 500 years old. There are also scrubby oaks and maples. In moister and cooler areas, white fir, Engelmann and blue spruce and aspen thrive on the North Rim.
The trail emerges from the woods after five miles at narrow and wooded Widforss Point that sits above Haunted Canyon.
At the trail’s end, Widforss Point offers stellar views of five rocky temples in the inner canyon. You will also be able to view Yaki and Mather points 10 miles away on the South Rim.
The point is at elevation 7,811 feet.
The biggest drawback is that the trail, at times, winds away from the canyon edge. It is also used by mule trains.
Named after painter
The trail is named after artist Gunnar Widforss, who painted watercolors of the Grand Canyon. He lived and painted in the canyon in the 1930s.
He is known as the painter of the national parks. The Grand Canyon was his favorite park. In his paintings, Widforrs captured the Grand Canyon environment as he saw it in the 1930s. He produced a large number of watercolors known for their geologic accuracy.
It is an easy to moderate hike.
The trailhead at 8,080 feet is off U.S. Route 67, the main park road that leads north from the park to Jacob Lake, Ariz. The turnoff is 2.7 miles north of the lodge. You follow a dirt road about a mile to the trailhead.
There is no water along the trail. Carry what you will need.
A backcountry permit is required if you want to camp along the trail.
You may see deer, bobcats, porcupines, mountain lions, wild turkey, coyotes, snakes and lizards. You might even get to see a large, dark-colored squirrel with tufted ears and a bushy white tail. It is the Kaibab squirrel, native only on the Kaibab Plateau on the north side of the Colorado River.
About the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon park covers 1,900 square miles and gets 4.6 million visitors a year.
It is big: 277 miles long and up to 10 miles wide. It can be 5,000 to 6,000 feet deep with 20 layers of rock. It is a giant canyon of smaller canyons. It is marked by steep slopes and cliffs. It is hot and dry.
The most striking thing about the Grand Canyon are the colors.
It’s the rusty reds, the shades of brown and tan, the dusty pinks, the golds and yellows. The cliffs, rock walls and gorges give the canyon an ever-changing hue. The multicolored rocks are mixed with sagebrush and cedar trees.
Park visitors gaze into the canyon and then dash off to the next overlook. The views shift from place to place and as the light and weather change daily.
The North Rim is open from mid-May to mid-October. It gets lots of snow. It is more remote and less developed than the South Rim that is open year-round. The two rims may be 10 miles apart but it is a five-hour drive between them.
The North Rim is a thousand feet taller than the South Rim.
As a result, the North Rim gets twice the precipitation of the South Rim and feeds twice as much water into the Colorado River than the South Rim canyons. The tributary canyons on the North Rim carry more water. They tend to be more deeply cut into the plateau.
The intricate system of deeply cut side canyons sets the North Rim back farther from the river, giving the North Rim its characteristic look.
Other hiking options
There are other North Rim hiking options. The North Kaibab Trail is the only North Rim Trail that leads to the Colorado River. It is a 14-mile trek to the Colorado River. It is another 7.1 miles to the South Rim.
The park itself covers 1.2 million acres, much of which is inaccessible even to hikers and backpackers.
The crowds are thicker on the South Rim, and more tourist facilities are on that side of the canyon.
The North Rim has a wild and remote feeling. It has fewer trails that drop into the canyon and fewer overlooks.
The North Rim has higher cliff faces and offers up-high views of rock formations within the canyon.
Its three major overlooks are Bright Angel, Cape Royal and Point Imperial.
The North Rim offers one spot to see the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. That’s at Cape Royal.
But the South Rim provides more opportunities to look into the heart of the canyon.
It offers better lighting and offers a wider, deeper canyon than the North Rim does.
The North Rim is also home to the historic lodge that was built in the 1920s by the Union Pacific Railroad. It sits on the rim and lodgers gather on its patio at sunset to watch the sun sink into the canyon.
Bright Angel Point Trail runs a half mile from the lodge to a narrow rock that extends into the canyon above Roaring Springs and the Transept.
The North Rim also offers two other very cool plateau trails: the Transept and Ken Patrick trails.
Be aware: About 250 people are rescued annually from the canyon, the park service reports.
The key to visiting Grand Canyon is to plan in advance. In-park lodging and activities book months in advance.
Mule rides, river raft trips, hikes, lodging and camping spots book far in advance.
Admission is $20 per vehicle and the pass is good for up to seven days.
For park information, write to National Park Service, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 928-638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca.
For lodging, contact Xanterra South Rim, P.O. Box 699, 10 Albright St., Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 888-297-2757, www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@the beaconjournal.com.