Day Hikes on the Widforss and Rim Trails
For those people who are unprepared, unwilling, or unable to tackle inner-canyon, multi-day treks, both the Widforss Trail on the North Rim and the Rim Trail on the South Rim provide a level of natural solitude, decent hiking, and tremendous Canyon views. My wife and I walked both trails during our recent Grand Canyon vacation and highly recommend them for quality Grand Canyon experiences.
The Widforss Trail
We spent the first four days of our vacation at the North Rim after a day of driving up from Phoenix (via Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments - both worth the effort.) On Day Three we decided to tackle the Widforss Trail, described as a "pleasant hike with a few little ups and downs" on Bob Ribokas' comprehensive Grand Canyon website. Being more walkers than hikers (hiking to me involves changes in elevation, something we don't have much of in Florida), we decided the Widforss would be the best nature walk for us during our stay at the North Rim.
With our lunch and plenty of water in our pack, we set out about 10 a.m. on a glorious North Rim morning - lower 60s, not a cloud in the sky. The trail starts immediately up, though at not much of an incline. I was immediately impressed with the trees - the aspen, birch, and ponderosa pine are beautiful and add a quiet air to the entire North Rim. We walked along easily, but were surprised at how quickly we became winded. The effects from the elevation made the "few little ups and downs" cause us to breathe heavier as we ascended each hill. Before long we came to our first view of Transept Canyon.
The views of Transept Canyon along the Widforss Trail are spectacular. A view of the entire Canyon from Bright Angel Point or any of the popular overlooks on the South Rim is an incredible sight, literally mind blowing and perspective changing. Often the scope is bit much to take in, even if it's not your first view. The views of Transept Canyon are easier to wrap your mind around. The trees that populate the canyon add some scale to the view, and as you grasp the scale you become more in awe of the canyon as a whole. The arboreal air about the trail and Transept Canyon set it apart somewhat from the more populated, wide-open viewpoints also.
The Widforss Trail winds along through the forest for the better part of three miles, occasionally branching out to an overview of Transept Canyon. We meandered along, taking out time to check out the forest as well as the various viewpoints. I was watching particularly carefully for wild turkey and sort of hoped I could see a cougar, although I knew that was highly unlikely. Along this part of the trail the ups and downs are actually fairly constant; head down a drainage at an angle, turn and head up. Feeling great at the top, great down to the bottom, out of breath at the top. Along the way we took the time to enjoy the views across Transept Canyon, including various dwellings I assume are used by Park personnel, and admire the trees. I never had a ton of respect for pines, since those are the trees planted after all the good oaks and other hardwoods have been harvested, but the ponderosa pines along the Widforss Trail are pretty amazing. A couple are as big around as any tree I've ever seen.
After a couple miles we reached the best overlook along the first half of the trail, Sculpted Rocks. As you approach its hard to tell an overlook is even there, but the trailguide points it out as the last numbered feature of the trail. So we snuck off down along the rocks and out to a magnificent view from the head of Transept Canyon. This spot is great for an extended break, offering a view along the length of Transept Canyon and of the Widforss Trail as it heads up out of one of the larger drainages we hadn't yet tackled. As we sat some other day-hikers stood at the bend in the trail and had no idea we were out there. I think we may have startled them as we emerged from the rocks.
After crossing through this last drainage and heading back up the trail moves away from the canyon and deeper into the forest. We actually enjoyed this part of walk just as much. The terrain levels out to a point and the forest envelops you. We had only seen maybe three or four groups of hikers up until the sculpted rocks and we didn't see anymore until we reached Widforss Point. Along this part of the trail we saw the distinctive Kaibab Squirrel, which didn't sound like much in the guidebooks but was actually interesting in person - a completely black squirrel, but with white in the tail. We also got a good picture of a horned toad that almost seemed to be posing for us. We also enjoyed the various wildflowers, especially the purple ones (a botanist, I'm not). After two miles of moseying through the forest we passed by the picnic table and emerged at Widforss Point.
Since the spot was occupied, we decided to have lunch at the table and wait to get the point to ourselves. It's amazing how otherwise unremarkable food tastes great in the woods when you've been walking for awhile. After the other people left, we went out and really soaked up the view. We had the spot to ourselves for a quite awhile. Words, of course, always fail when describing canyon views, but this one was as Grand as any and wonderfully unique. I noticed the trail kept going past the point and apparently down, but we did not explore any further. I am wondering what becomes of this trail, however, since nothing I've read mentions the continuation.
After enjoying the view, and the solitude, for over an hour, we packed up and headed back. The first two miles were very pleasant and peaceful, but I must admit the ups and downs through the drainanges got tiring over the last half of the trail. We began to dread the downs because of the inevitable ups that followed. The hike is not so strenuous that your limbs become tired. In fact, I'm sure it's not the least bit strenuous in any way to those with many canyon miles on their boots, but my wind got short very easily along the way back and the "pleasant little hike" turned out to be tougher than I thought.
Overall, the Widforss Trail is great because it combines the two great features of North Rim country: the cool peaceful alpine forest and the majesty of the Grand Canyon. Even in the middle of the day the hike was never overly warm (of course, as a Floridian I have built up a good tolerance for heat), and the quiet and solitude were well worth the effort, with the Canyon views a great bonus. We saw maybe six other groups of hikers, which was a good thing for people like us that get somewhat misanthropic when in nature. The whole trip, including lunch and lengthy sightseeing breaks, took less than six hours and while we became quite tired along the way, we attributed that to the elevation since the walk had no lasting effect on our bodies.
The Rim Trail
We spent the last two days of our Grand Canyon vacation at the South Rim and spent a good part of one of those days hiking the Rim Trail from the Bright Angel Lodge out to Hermit's Rest. I had been wanting to do this hike for 14 years since walking a small section of it during a family vacation as a teenager. After walking the whole trail, I've decided this hike is underrated. No guides or website accounts have much to say about it at all, but the Rim Trail offers everything a Grand Canyon hike should - tremendous Canyon views from a variety of perspectives, escape from the tourist hordes of the South Rim, and while the hike is not exactly strenuous since there's not much change in elevation, it sure felt like exercise to us.
In an attempt to view the sunset away from the crowds on our first night at the South Rim, we actually hiked the first leg of the Rim Trail out to Maricopa Point in the evening. This section of trail is paved and easy to follow, even in the rapidly fading light. The walk was well worth it, as simply walking along the rim in the twilight was one of the more beautiful Canyon experiences I've had in my three trips out there. We saw several animals out foraging along the trail, including a deer, and didn't encounter that many people. When we got to Maricopa Point, a little over a mile from our room, we had it all to ourselves. We also stopped at both Trailview Overlooks, which provided great views of the village and especially the El Tovar and the Kolb Studio. Seeing the village from that perspective gave the immensity of the canyon greater weight and was worth the short walk.
The next morning we hopped the shuttle out to Maricopa Point and resumed our walk where the paved trail ends. Between Maricopa Point and Hopi Point, two stops further west, we did share the trail with several other people, but not so many that we were tripping over each other. We were visiting during the middle of prime tourist season, and the shuttle buses were all packed. The views from Powell Point and Hopi Point are all, of course, spectacular, but basically the same. I actually found the mine near Hopi Pont interesting. The logistics of mining in the Canyon must have been quite challenging, and I am glad the practice has stopped. Also along this stretch just past the mine we walked past what looked like totally random land completely fenced off. I have since learned that the fence protects the last known habitat for a certain species of milkweed. I wish we had appreciated its significance at the time.
After Hopi Point we didn't see too many other walkers and the couple we did see seemed to be walking back and forth trying to figure out where the shuttle bus would actually stop and pick them up. This scenario made for some strange walking. We'd walk along the rim with the view all to ourselves and nothing but the sounds of nature (and the occasional shuttle bus) and then emerge at one of the shuttle stops and tons of people scrambling to see the river. I wasn't surprised that the vast majority of people take the shuttle rather than walk, but I was surprised by how few people walk. We were happy about it, but a lot of people are missing out on a great Canyon experience that doesn't even require much effort.
Mohave Point was one of our favorites, because of the great view it provided of Granite Rapids. (I think it was Granite - correct me if I'm wrong). We could actually see a raft run the rapid with our unaided eyes, which showed better than any explanation I could give how far down the rapids were and just how big the water was down there. Having run those rapids seven years ago, I was instantly jealous of the rafters, despite the glorious time we were having. By raft is the best way to see the Canyon I think.
After Mohave the trail really emptied. Between Mohave and Hermit's Rest I think we saw maybe seven people total in three different groups. The trail continues to hug the rim, which made for some exhilarating walking. While it's not really precipitous, at some points we found ourselves concentrating on every step, because the Canyon was right there, and if we looked up and out at the space then our closeness to edge really hit. This part of the trail (actually the whole trail) has a good view of the Tonto Platform and what I guess is the Tonto trail. After reading on the web so much about this mid-canyon route, seeing it and picturing hiking it was cool. Would not want to do it in the summer. To wide open and hot!
We walked to the next stop after Mohave, The Abyss. I had wanted to see this spot ever since my mother refused to get off the shuttle bus on that long-ago family vacation because she thought it would scare her too much. The viewpoint features a look down a precipitous wall. I was actually disappointed. Crawling up to the edge between Angel's Widow and Cape Royal on the North Rim features a more impressive (and scary) fall than the Abyss, and a better view too (the best rim view, in my opinion, but I've never been to Toroweap.) We sat down and had some grapes a little past the Abyss and came across two people looking for a shuttle stop. Apparently they'd been at Pima point two or three miles further on and were walking the three miles back to The Abyss rather than the one mile to Hermit's Rest and they were really not prepared for any walking at all. It pays to have a map, even if you're just riding the bus!
After the Abyss is the longest stretch of trail between stops, around three miles. I think we entered a time warp because it seemed more like six from a time perspective. The problem is you can see Pima Point from Mohave Point and it doesn't look that far, so we kept thinking we should be close when we weren't. The trail moves away from the rim about a mile after the Abyss and kind of overlaps a dirt road, making for something less that a straight-line walk. Plus, on this section we encountered the only hills of the whole trail since the walk from the village to Maricopa Point. The trail is easy to find in this part, but sometimes there's more than one option including the road. I have a feeling all are about the same, and only stay on the road when you don't see a trail. The road will get you there too, but is not the scenic route. Most of the trail choices involve choosing to be real close to the rim, or a little further back.
We did stop to have another great trail lunch on this section, just before the trail left the rim. We just sat right on the edge, watching hummingbirds and staring at the canyon, with no manmade disturbance or sight of any kind.
Finally, after our imagined six miles, we saw Pima Point, a welcome sight. As the trail approaches Pima Point it goes right along the rim and a good spastic moment could turn deadly here. We were stepping very carefully. I suppose the trail has to make up for being out of sight of the canyon for a couple of miles. We enjoyed this part of the trail, but anyone with any fear of heights may want to avoid this section, because it is most literally right on the rim.
Pima Point, of course, is another great overlook with a view of Hermit Canyon and Hermit Rapids. We lingered here among the crowds longer than usual before starting the final leg to Hermit's Rest. The final leg of the walk was great, even though the trail once again spent a lot of time right on the edge. As a result we spent a lot of time concentrating on our feet rather than the view, but we paused often to take in the surroundings. Through this section we again were faced with a choice of trails, all very clear and all ending up in the same place. Once again the choice seemed to be right on the edge or a little further back, but since we kept choosing to walk right on the edge, we had to backtrack a couple of times since the more adventurous path ended at a ledge. At one point a little before Hermit's Rest we actually had to do some scrambling along rocks, probably because we'd lost the official trail, and then proceeded to lose any trail. I think as the trail turns left for the final approach to Hermit's Rest we should have stayed further back from the edge because once we got past the rocks we saw two trails we missed - one on the high ground and one just above the rock outcropping. How we missed them both I have no idea. After this interesting section the trail moves back a few feet from the edge and is a straight shot to Hermit's Rest.
Hermit's Rest was totally crowded and overwhelming after that last, mostly deserted four-mile stretch of trail. The line for the snack bar was long and the lemonade was little more than lemony water with some sugar, but I sucked two of them back anyway. I can't imagine how desperate people get for a tasty cold beverage after multiple days in the backcountry. We were mentally tempted to explore some of the Hermit Trail just to continue our nature experience but the heat and common sense advised against it. Maybe next time. So we boarded the shuttle bus and looked over proudly at the wonderful hike we had just taken as we headed back to the village.
Both the Rim Trail and the Widforss Trail were among the highlights of one of the best vacations of our lives. While both sound easy as described by hiker extraordinaire Bob Ribokas, they did prove tiring for a couple of sea-level dwelling forest walkers like ourselves. But both were definitely doable and well worth the effort, plus neither had any lasting effect at all on our muscles and joints, which leads me to believe that most anyone could handle these hikes provided they're in halfway decent shape and bring along plenty of water and snacks.
The minimal effort required to get away from the tourist hordes and enjoy the majesty of the canyon is a small price to pay and we were both surprised to find so few people taking advantage of these trails. I suppose that's good since both would lose part of their allure if people were stepping all over each other out there. Both were like Canyon Hiking 101 and now I'm ready for a more advanced course, because by walking these trails I have an even better idea of how much there is to explore. For experiencing the Canyon, you can't beat getting away from the popular, populated overlooks and out in the wilderness, even if it is just a little ways.
Jay & Ginjer Clarke