Sunday, May 31, 2009

North, Part 4 Highway 89A - North Rim Gateway

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Few visitors make the trek to see the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and that's a good thing. It is a longer drive, but you pass through some very scenic country. However the North Rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October, so make your plans accordingly. 42 miles north of the junction of 89 and 160. Highway 89A enters from the northwest. Turning left here. you begin contouring around the base of the Echo Cliffs, traveling towards one of only two vehicle crossings of the Grand Canyon in its nearly 300 mile traverse of the region.

As the highway makes it way to the head of House Rock Valley, you drop in elevation until you reach Navajo Bridge. The original structure was built in 1929, and it literally changed travel in the region in a way few of us living in the modern world of easy automobile access can understand. It finally linked communities in Arizona and Utah together, and it eliminated the often hazardous river crossing at Lee's Ferry. An almost identical new bridge was completed in the 1990s to accommodate the increased traffic in the region.

Lee's Ferry

Sent by the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) in 1871 to construct a crossing on the Colorado, John D. Lee chose a location near the confluence of the Paria and Colorado rivers. Today Lee's Ferry serves as the launching point for Grand Canyon river trips, and the 17 mile stretch of river upstream is considered a blue ribbon trout fishery. Part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lee's Ferry is managed by the Park Service.

After leaving the area of Navajo Bridge and Lee's Ferry, Highway 89a continues westward along the base of the majestic Vermilion Cliffs across House Rock Valley. The eastern edge of the Kaibab plateau looms in the distance, offering a climb up out of the often searing summertime heat of the valley. House Rock Valley has the distinction of being home to one of North America's few free roaming buffalo herds - but the chance of spotting one is very small. The area is vast, the buffalo few, and being intelligent creatures they too seek relief from the heat by ascending to the high country.

Vermilion Cliffs

28 miles west of Lee's Ferry and just before 89a begins its steady climb onto the Kaibab, a great backway intersects the highway at the base. Called House Rock Valley Road, it is part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. It travels north along the edge of the plateau, and is the southern access point for the Paria Canyon area. The other end of the road emerges at U.S. 89 in Utah, and is a "shortcut" for the explorer. While in the area, keep your eyes on the sky - the endangered California condor is released near here after being raised in a captive breeding program - if you're really lucky you'll get to see one wheeling around in a thermal updraft with ease courtesy of its 9 foot wingspan.

Once we begin the ascent up the switchbacks of Highway89A, the barren landscape of the valley below gives way to trees - first the pinyon pine and juniper, then ponderosa. 14 miles after leaving House Rock Valley, you've reached Jacob Lake, where U.S. 89A meets State Route 67, the road to the North Rim. This forested plateau is an island of aspen and mixed conifer in the midst of the high desert around it, and it forms the northern edge of the great chasm. At an average elevation of 8000 feet and higher, it receives more snow in winter than the lower South Rim, which is why the North Rim side of the Park is closed for 6 months.

The actual Park entrance is still 31 miles south on Highway 67, but the drive is a pleasant one through dense forests and large open meadows.

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