North Rim: Cape Royal Drive
Start: Grand Canyon Lodge.
Finish: Point Imperial, at the park's northeastern end.
Time: About 4 hours -- more if you do any hiking.
Highlights: Sparse crowds and lovely views of the eastern canyon. If you start early, you can enjoy a picnic lunch at Vista Encantada.
Drawbacks: Has only one viewpoint (Cape Royal) from which to see the central canyon. The Colorado River is not visible from as many points on this drive as on the South Rim drives.
1. Cape Royal Trail
Lined by cliff rose and piñon pine, this gentle, paved .3-mile (each way) trail looks out onto stunning views. It first approaches a natural bridge, Angels Window, carved into a rock peninsula along the rim. Through the square opening under the bridge, part of the lower canyon, including a slice of the Colorado River, can be seen from the trail. This opening in the Kaibab Limestone layer formed when water seeped down through cracks, then across planes between rock beds, eventually eroding the rock from underneath.
The trail's left fork travels about 150 yards, ending at the tip of the peninsula above Angels Window, which, with sheer drops on three sides, is a thrilling place to stand.
The trail's right fork goes to Cape Royal's tip. From here, Wotans Throne, a broad mesa visible in the distance from many South Rim overlooks, looms only 1 1/2 miles to the south. Also to the south, and nearly as close, is Vishnu Temple. Closer still is Freya Castle, a pinnacle shaped like a breaking wave. Across the canyon, the tiny nub on the rim is the 70-foot-high Watchtower at Desert View.
Cape Royal offers a spectacular view of the canyon at dawn and dusk; it's a popular wedding and picnic spot. Note: From Grand Canyon Lodge, drive 23 miles on the Walhalla Plateau directly to Cape Royal Trail. Make stops only on your way back to the lodge. That way, you can do the short hikes near Cape Royal while your legs are fresh, and stop at picnic areas, closer to the lodge, on your way back.
The Cliff Springs Trail (3 miles north of Cape Royal, at a small pullout). This half-mile walk ends at a small spring in a side canyon, and is terrific for bird-watching.
2. Walhalla Overlook
Ancestral Puebloans no doubt enjoyed the views from here. You'll see Unkar Creek, which, from here, looks like a tan line, snaking down toward Unkar Delta. Enriched by deposits from the creek, the delta's soil and abundant water made for excellent farming. Many Ancestral Puebloans lived there, growing corn, beans, and squash on terraces that caught runoff and left deposits of rich soil.
When the canyon heated up, the natives also spent time on the North Rim, at dwellings such as the ones across the street from this overlook. A flat dirt path leads to Walhalla Ruins, which includes the foundations of two small pueblos. In this area, too, the Ancestral Puebloans farmed, taking advantage of the extra moisture and a growing season lengthened by the warm breezes blowing out of the canyon. In addition to farming, the Puebloans also gathered food and hunted the abundant game on the rim.
Cape Final Trail (about 5 miles south of Roosevelt Point). This gentle, 1.5-mile-long (one-way) hike follows an old jeep trail to an overlook at Cape Final.
3. Roosevelt Point
This is one of the best places from which to see the Little Colorado River's gorge converge into the Grand Canyon. They meet at nearly a right angle, unusual in that most tributaries merge at close to the same direction as the larger rivers. Some geologists have used this observation to buttress arguments that the ancestral Colorado River exited the canyon via the Little Colorado River gorge, but little evidence supports that theory. The cliffs south of this junction, which form the canyon's southeast wall, are the Palisades of the Desert. Those north of the confluence are called the Desert Facade.
4. Vista Encantada
By starting your driving tour of the Walhalla Plateau early in the day, you can reach Vista Encantada in time for a late picnic lunch. You'll find several tables near the rim. While you picnic, you can look down an upper drainage of Nankoweap Creek and at the rock pinnacle known as Brady Peak.
5. Point Imperial
A 3-mile spur road leads from Cape Royal Road to Point Imperial, which, at 8,803 feet, is the North Rim's highest point -- and the best place on either rim from which to view the park's northeastern end. To the northeast, 3,000 feet below the overlook, you'll see the brownish-green plain known as the Marble Platform. The Colorado River cleaves this platform between Lees Ferry and where the Grand Canyon yawns open just east of here. Because the Marble Platform has the same rock layers as the Grand Canyon, geologists consider Marble Canyon to be the Grand Canyon's uppermost section.
Bordering the Marble Platform on the north are the Vermilion Cliffs, which run southwest to northeast. Located along the Utah-Arizona border, these cliffs are the next steps up in the Grand Staircase, a geological formation in which progressively younger rock formations rise like steps from Marble Canyon to southern Utah's Bryce Canyon. Where this formation turns southward (near Lees Ferry) is the unrelated edge of a fold called Echo Cliffs.
Looking southeast, you can see where the Little Colorado River's gorge intersects the Grand Canyon. Past that juncture, the Painted Desert‘s landforms stain the horizon a rich red. This desert, made up of badlands and other erosional features carved from the Chinle Formation's soft clays, surrounds the Little Colorado River and one of its tributaries, the Puerco River. Like the Vermilion Cliffs, the Painted Desert is made up of "younger" rocks than are found in the Grand Canyon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.