Bikepacking to the North Rim, Grand Canyon

posted in: Arizona | 6

While in the Kaibab National Forest, Eric and I decided to embark on an unfamiliar journey of bikepacking to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. While we had both visited the South Rim, the North Rim was a complete mystery. Once we found out that Hwy 67 was closed during the winter, it was like a light bulb went off inside our brains followed by a massive explosion of possibilities.

A closed road? An opportunity to ride nearly 100 miles free of pesky vehicles and humans? Could this be true? Is this even possible with a dog in tow? Where are we going to get water in an area with NO water supplies? Buffalo in winter? There were so many questions! After contacting the forest ranger station and getting a, “Well, there’s no rules against it” and a “make sure to pack all of your own water” from the lady that answered the phone, we set our sights on the North Rim!

Gear Preparation

After some research on weather conditions, and the Ranger’s warning, “No access to water”, we took extra precautions to pack accordingly. Unfortunately, this meant a heavy load! I alone carried 11 liters of water which weights approximately 24 pounds. That doesn’t even count the 7 liters plus a 45 pound dog that Eric was responsible for! Then, well, there’s the gear: Shelter, 5 days of food for 3, warm weather items (hat, gloves, puffy), etc. Let’s just say the bikes were—HEAVY.

North Rim Bound (Day 1)

Jacob Lake

Around 9am, we heaved our bikes into position and swung one leg over, mounting our trusty steads. With excitement in our hearts and adventure on our brains we began pushing those pedals with all of our might until our legs, lungs and hearts synced and we fell into a solid rhythm.

The first few miles were gravel travel until hitting Hwy 89A. The plan was to bypass the busy road using a connection of dirt roads Eric researched via Google Maps and OSMand. Unfortunately, these roads were now gated off and appeared private so we were forced to travel a solid 3 miles up to the Hwy 67 turnoff at Jacob Lake.

Initially, we were a little nervous about Grizz on the road, but he did an AMAZING job following the white line (on leash) as we protected him from traffic. We wanted to get more bucket training in before trying it on a “live” road. We made it safely to 67 and our smiles grew wide as we gracefully slipped those two-wheeled barges under the gate. ROAD CLOSED—music to our ears.

Just around the bend, we were hit with our first big climb. It took a few rest breaks to get up, but eventually we made it. With our hearts pounding in our chest, we found the perfect place to take a short break in the shade—Jacob Lake Lookout Tower.

Of course, I had to climb up for the views! And, as you could imagine, it was grand. A sea of trees in every direction! Oh how I would love to catch a sunset up here someday.

View to the North
The southern portion of the Kaibab NF
Grizz was NOT happy to be left out on this one, Eric on the other hand was perfectly ok with it.

Riding Through the Sea of Trees

Grizz naturally took to trotting the white line as he leads us towards the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

After a quick rest (for Eric and Grizz) and a light climb and photo opp (for me), we set our sights back on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. After all, the day had just begun! It was such a beautiful ride on a twisty road full of dazzling pine trees, their scent lingering in the fresh air drawing us further and further into the forest.

The first day, Grizz ran so much. We attempted the bucket several times, but he was eager to be running wild and free and he didn’t last long in his chariot. Eventually we all found our pace and Grizz trotted happily along.

Because the road was closed, we let him go off leash for several hours. He ran, ran ran and every time we hit a small dab of snow along our route, he would race towards it with a big smile and lick, roll, eat, and play until we passed him by. Then of course, he would follow until eventually taking back his role of leader.

We continuously checked his paws throughout the day and everything checked out A-OK.

I love this picture of Grizz and Eric. My handsome duo. It’s hard to tell in this photo, but Grizz actually has a lot more room when he lays down properly. As we practiced more, he got the hang of tail and head placement and I think he was a lot more comfortable. Eric is also thinking about extending the tub out just a bit more to give Grizz even more room to ride.

Feel the Burn

A view of the Arizona Trail (AZT)
Eric holds steady to his rig to keep from blowing away, his shirt puffed out from the wind.

Roughly 14 miles into our adventure the highway wound up and around part of the forest devastated by multiple, more recent wildfires (2020). The terrain was barren but offered grand views of the distant mountains, valleys, and canyon. Beyond fires past, we felt the burn in a completely different way.

Sure, there was the burn of our muscles as we continued our 2000+ ft climb to the summit, but the REAL BURN was from the unrelenting headwind. No trees equals no protection. Climbing is hard enough with a gentle breeze, add 30-40 mph winds and we were forced to push our bodies to the max as we made our way up the long, grueling accents with our fully loaded bikes.

Luckily, there were several educational boards along the route to help take our minds off the wind. We learned about the Kaibab Squirrels, Bats, Fires, and one of my personal favorites, Sinkholes.

The Summit

Eventually, we made it! Eager to get back to the trees and out of the wind, we didn’t waste much time on many photos But, here’s a few.

Elevation 8840

Easy Street

I’d like to claim it was all downhill from there but it wasn’t. No Easy Street for us. The winds continued as did the climbing. After a short(ish) downhill, we entered a small valley and were amazed at the large amounts of snow!

Grizz, of course, was ecstatic so we let him loose to play in the snow for a bit.

We were all a bit tired and beat up from the wind so we decided to start looking for a dry enough place to camp with enough wind-block to survive the night. After seeing all this snow, we had our fingers crossed that that type of place existed somewhere out here.

About 5 miles down (or should I say up? It was definitely up) the road we found a beautiful patch of forest with enough sunlight to have melted some of the snow pack, but it was right off the road (which we came to learn was somewhat busy…more on that later) and extremely soggy. Needless to say I was tired, cold and ready to stop for the day, but moving on just made sense. No point in having a rough day AND a rough night. So with somewhat heavy hearts, on we went.

I’m so glad we did! We found the perfect place to camp for the night that was off the road, fairly easy to get to, and absolutely beautiful.

Bonus: We had plenty of sunlight to soak up some rays, set up camp and have dinner before nightfall.

Grizz made himself right at home.
Eric made himself at home as well.
Our home for the night!

Nestled in the trees and overlooking a snow covered valley, you couldn’t beat this home for a night. It felt so good to lay our heads on our pillows, and just as we did, the wind stopped for the night. No complaints here. It was so quiet, so wonderful, so….zzzzzzzzzz

Day 1 Stats

Miles: 27, Elevation Gain: 2,182 ft, Elevation Loss: 1,204 ft, Average Speed: 5.4 mph, Time: 8 hours 13 minutes (~5 hrs moving, ~3 hrs snacks/rest), Effort: Somewhat Difficult

North Rim Bound (Day 2)

Morning Routines

Cat hole diggers have multiple purposes!

After a moderately comfortable night (except for my cold feet), we woke to sunshine and plenty of snow for water!

Eric and I took turns shoveling ice pellets into the dromedary bag. Maybe I didn’t need to huff 24 lbs of water up all those hills after all. But, better safe than sorry. We really wanted to make it to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon without water being the reason we failed!

After chores, we made coffee, packed up, and stoked ourselves up for our ride to the rim today. Grizz seemed to be doing great. He was full of energy and ready to hit the road a lot sooner than us. If it wasn’t for him corralling Eric and I all of the time, we might not ever get anything done. Grizz isn’t the most patient dog we’ve ever had. Wait, come to think of it, he’s so eerily smart that he feels more like a colleague than a friend, family member or pet.

Grizz waits….

Oh and yes, don’t forget the chapstick!

I have NO idea why it was white all of a sudden.

Flatlands

Comparatively, this section was relatively flat and easy going. If it wouldn’t have been for that damn wind, it would have been an oh-so-easy ride. This adventure was a real eye opener on how weather can impact travels. Despite the cold combo of crosswinds/headwinds, we held our heads high with our vision being realized one pedal stroke at a time.

Luckily, we didn’t see any bison on this trip (a worry of mine due to Grizz). We did however meet 4 brave thru-hikers on this section (2 smiling at Grizz, 1 friendly chatter, and 1 not smiling at all) who were bundled from head to toe to protect themselves from the wind. Ah, the price of adventure! Eric and I gathered that the AZT was probably packed with many feet of snow and the hikers opted to walk the road versus post-hole their way through the trail.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon

About 3 miles in the distance, we spotted a little brown spec in the distance. It slowly grew bigger and bigger as the miles ticked by, until we were certain, yes, the entrance station! We now knew that there was only 16 miles standing between us and the official North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We were ALMOST there.

A semi zoomed past us about a 1/2 mile out and we sped up hoping to get through before he locked the gate to avoid crawling under (as we did at the last gate at Jacob Lake). As we got closer to the trucker, we could see him working rather quickly to get through the gate. Seemingly odd at the time, we watched intently as we peddled closer…closer….closer—we’re going to make it!

As we neared, the man, with his plump jiggly belly, scurried along. Before we knew it, he’d closed the gate right in our faces. We were 10 ft away (or less). Not a word was uttered from his calloused face as we heard the lock click and helplessly watched as he swiftly turned his back to us. Still processing what just happened, we watched his little legs chug as fast as they could back to his truck until he disappeared inside the cab. It was then, after looking down, we received a bit of a shock.

What? Wait? I guess there was something standing in our way after all.

Officially named: “The Gate We Hate”

Research fail?

Either way, apparently there is no entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via bike. We seriously contemplated paying the price of a ticket to go through (well around) because we worked so hard to get there. But, the area was crawling with people and we figured it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t like we’d have the whole place to ourselves. But, either way, no bikes? It made no sense.

Beautiful colors and mix of trees at the entrance to the North Rim.

Needless to say we were EXTREMELY disappointed. But, that’s life. It was a glorious ride and learning experience with Grizz aboard. Plus, we had another 40 miles to get back home. No sense in crying about it. So, we took a rest at the gate where we had the privileged of watching 8 cars go in/out (none of which even talked to us or even looked at us). Grizz and I walked up to the entrance station just to say that we actually did actually make it to the North Rim, and then we got on our bikes and rode away.

Moving On

After getting down the road a ways, we rolled into a pull-off and had some lunch. The sulking was over (mostly) and we made considerable efforts to not be negative about being denied the canyon views.

Grizz’s tub makes a fantastic table for a quick bite.

Where to Next?

On the positive note, we now knew the area well enough to have some best guesses on where we could stay for the night. So, we made our way back through the valley twisting our way onward and upwards. Oh yeah, at some point during our stay at the Gate We Hate and Lunch, the wind swapped directions and we had yet another headwind! Sometimes, you just have to laugh. At least the sun was high in the sky and warming our backsides.

A Ray-Kind-of-Day

When one door closes, another one opens—So they say. We decided to call this day early after finding a hidden gem of a spot. The sun was warm and glorious and the trees offered some protection from the wind. It was so nice that Grizz and I took a short nap in the sun while Dad pitched the tent.

Grizz enjoying some rest

Good spot Dad! PS: No, the tree is not actually going to fall on the tent as it appears in this photo. 🙂

After resting and enjoying the warmth, we strolled down to one of the many sinkholes we found on this trip and had a look around. Maybe we’ll spot some Elk while we’re here?

Well, no elk, but we did hear them bugle in the hills beyond.

Here are a few pictures of the area:

Eric strolls back to the meadow
Loving the Aspen trees
Grizz resting in the grass. His paws seemed irritated by the poky stalks so we practiced with the paw protectors.
Nothing beats sleeping in the forest

This area was a huge mood booster! Stunningly beautiful and it was so blissfully quiet. Eventually, the wind died down and I’m so thankful because it was one of the coldest nights ever!

Day 2 Stats

Miles: 22.38, Elevation Gain: 801 ft, Elevation Loss: 1,109 ft, Average Speed: 6.7 mph, Time: 5 hours 16 minutes (~3.25 hrs moving, ~1.75 hrs snacks/rest) Effort: Somewhat Challenging (mostly due to wind factor).

Homeward Bound (Day 3)

I survived a chilly, sleepless night (Eric and Grizz were toasty warm due to having proper circulation) and woke early to get moving and hopefully warm up. It didn’t take long for the sun to rise and I found myself a sliver of sunlight to basque in until the others woke. We knew the ride home would be mostly downhill, so we took our time breaking camp. Plus, we had so much condensation, we wanted to dry some of our gear before packing up.

It ended up being a gorgeous, royal-blue sky, sun burning bright, wispy cloud kind of day. It was superb in every sense and for once, only a slight wind. We were so grateful! Eager to get back to the van, we put Grizz, the worn out Border Collie, in the tub and sped down any and every hill we came to (which was a lot on the way back!)

Finally enjoying the free ride!

We went so fast, I didn’t really get many photos! Good thing I took some on the way up.

After a slightly more nerve racking ride on 89A (due to heavier traffic), we did a celebratory dance when we made it back to the dirt. As you can see in the photo below, Grizz look says it all. Like, “What the heck just happened?” We made it little man! We’re almost home.

Grizz was a trooper for riding nearly 19 miles in the back of the tub but the real winner of the day was Eric for carrying him all the way home! Go Dad!

Home Sweet Home

Day 3 Stats

Miles: 21.87, Elevation Gain: 745 ft, Elevation Loss: 1,621 ft, Average Speed: 8 mph, Time: 4 hours 12 minutes (~2.75 hrs moving, ~1.25 hrs snacks/rest), Effort: Moderately Easy

Reflection

Eric, Grizz and I thoroughly enjoyed our adventure to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon Entrance Station (lol). While we were thoroughly disappointed that we couldn’t go the entire distance, though no fault of our own, we learned a lot on this trip.

First, despite being a “closed road” there was a surprising amount of traffic. We encountered about 4-5 semis, a dozen or more vehicles, and several work trucks almost all of which did not wave or even give a look our way. There was a lady who we met at the Hate Gate who claimed she was lost due to a “wrong turn” on “several back roads”. It was hard to believe because her car was spic-n-span clean, but we helped her to figure a way out. Another very nice woman from Pennsylvania stopped to check on us and chat. She was an RV lifer who worked at the North Rim and was curious about our trip and Grizz (of course).

Second, we now have a better idea of Grizz’s needs, what we need to pack more of/less off, what we are physically capable of and more! So this absolutely was not a wasted trip!

I have to say though, after a wind-battered three days on the open road, all three of us were glad to be back in the comforts of home. Especially Grizz!

If anyone ever asks, YES! It is completely possible to wear out a Border Collie. Grizz has been in this spot for nearly 24 hours. Even as I write this he lays in bed—comatose. Grizz is officially pooped.

Thanks for reading friends! I hope you enjoyed the journey.

If you missed the last blog post, Utah to Train click here to check it out. Until next time….

6 Responses

  1. Debbie DeVonce

    Oh my gosh! How fun! I’m sorry you weren’t able to bike to the north rim itself. It’s phenomenal! I’m not sure if I ever told you, but I hiked from the south rim to the north rim all in one day! It was one of the best hikes of my life! But, your trip looks SO fun! How did Grizz do with the traffic right beside him? I’m surprised he didn’t totally freak out!

    • Jenni

      It was super fun! I do remember you telling me about your rim to rim hike and how much you loved it! I can only imagine how beautiful and unforgettable it was! I bet you could probably do it again right now, but even faster since you’re a hiking beast and fit as a fiddle! 🙂 Grizz actually handled the traffic surprisingly well, but just to ensure his safety, Eric had a gentle hand on him to reassure him everything was A-OK. I rode in the back with bright colors and to yell out in case we needed to make an emergency stop if Grizz got to nervous or tried to jump. But, nope. He actually seemed relaxed but we didn’t have any semi’s pass on that road or anyone do anything jerky like honk as they drove by (which probably really helped out!) People were very courteous and gave 3+ feet while passing. It wasn’t too busy, just busier than what we ever want to do. BUT we have to practice because there is a little bit of road riding on our big trip so we have to tackle it sometime or another!

  2. Aunt Louise

    Omg….. what an adventure. Grizz is a trooper or vice versa. I think he needs a body heart warmer cushion on the bike and you guys too. So when you lay down your body heat comes back to you. Do you wish you did this years ago? I am a chicken so I would never do what the both of you do, but
    I sure love reading about your adventure. You are perfectly matched. Have to say I was with Eric on the ground while you climed that tower. GEEEZZZZ. Glad you are having fun. Love to all three if you, yes Eric love to you ….kisses, aunt louise

    • Jenni

      Oh Aunt Louise it was AMAZING! We had such a wonderful time except perhaps the freezing part (which was really just me) and the Hate Gate at the end. You are not a chicken! You’ve done so many cool, wonderful things. Yes, we completely wish we would have done this so much sooner, but at the same time we’re glad we started while we still could. I for sure wish I would have skipped college altogether and my silly focus to have the “American Dream” and have lived the nomadic lifestyle so much sooner. Experiences are where it’s at. Things are just not important at all any more! I just hope we can figure out how to do this for the rest of our lives! We love you too…Me especially! 😉 I wish we lived closer! <3 Thanks for following our adventures! There will hopefully be many more to come!

  3. Barbara McNeil

    We LOVE the North Rim!!! I am bummed you weren’t able to see it, but what an adventure you are having!! 😃😃

    • Jenni

      Yes, I’ve heard it’s a great place. Perhaps we’ll get there some day soon 🙂

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